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November 5, 2010

So You Need

Starting Pitchers

by Marc Normandin

Like any free-agent pitching market, this one is full of risks. Youth is almost nowhere to be found—just six of the 37 starters available are under 30 years old, and many of those seem much older. The free-agent starters are risky for different reasons, though, be they for health, poor 2010 performance, or age, but if teams sort through the options, they are sure to find a few pitchers worth adding to their roster.

The Compensation Crew

Cliff Lee is so superior to the rest of the free-agent starting pitching class that we can ascribe god-like qualities to him, but deities come at a price. Lee may end up as the most expensive member of the 2010-11 group, which limits the suitors, but if his past three seasons are any indication, he will be worth the price. Lee has averaged over 222 innings with a 2.98 cumulative and has fewer than 100 walks over 667 1/3 innings. In the postseason, he has pitched 76 innings with a 2.13 ERA and an amazing K/BB ratio of 10.0. His back was a concern in 2010, but it's not considered a long-term issue, and he should succeed regardless of his setting thanks to some of the best command in the game.

Carl Pavano's ERA was 3.75 this year with the Twins, but his SIERA was a much more average 4.15. Given he's a Type-A free agent that requires draft-pick compensation, he loses some value if the Twins offer him arbitration and he hits the market anyway—a league-average starter can be had, and one under the age of 35, without giving up a first-rounder in 2011. He has nudged up against or surpassed 200 innings the past two years, but he will need to maintain his fantastic command to continue that trend. Striking out just 4.8 per nine innings will not play if he begins walking more hitters. Pavano could be a quality signing if he doesn't cost his new team a draft pick or break the bank.

Andy Pettitte will return to the Yankees or retire, as has been the case seemingly forever. If he can stay healthy—which is more of a question with each passing season—he can contribute. Pettitte's SIERA was 4.00 even with the occasional groin-induced poor start, and chances are good New York will be able to sign him to a below-market one-year deal. There is no reason a healthy Pettitte can't repeat his 2010 campaign, which is something the Yankees will bet on if he decides to play another season.

The last of the Type-A free agents is Jorge De La Rosa. While the Rockies would like to have him back, the Mexican brazo siniestro will test the market. There is no reason he shouldn't, either, as his 3.75 SIERA was equal to CC Sabathia's and a little better than Chris Carpenter's, meaning he will be able to pull in dollars, and no run-scoring environment he heads to will be as harsh as the one he's leaving behind. The one issue is that De La Rosa's newfound ground-ball tendencies made his season possible, tendencies he hadn’t displayed since 2005—his ground-out rate jumped by over six percentage points between 2009 and 2010. With a solid infield defense in behind him and more than 50 percent of balls in play as grounders, De La Rosa could easily be worth the big money he will likely be offered. Given he will be just 30 years old in 2011, he is worth giving up a compensation pick.

Everybody Wins, Nobody Loses

While teams that lose Type-B free agents do get a compensation pick, these guys won't cost the team that signs them a pick.

Jon Garland is a Type-B free agent, but unless the Padres offer him arbitration—which is more than likely not in their low-budget 2011 plans for fear he might accept it—he will not cost his new team a pick. Garland was in the perfect situation in 2010—Petco Park was helpful in cutting down the homers and the infield defense behind him was one of the best in the majors. This resulted in an ERA of 3.47, almost a full run better than his 4.45 SIERA. Garland's SIERA was higher for a reason, though—he intentionally pitched in a way that would generate ground balls in order to take advantage of the infield defense and his home park. That resulted in extra walks, far more than a full point above his previous three-year average. He managed to set a career high in strikeouts and strikeout rate with this strategy, so as long as his 2011 club presents him with an opportunity for ground-ball outs, he may be able to beat out his SIERA again, tough not to the extreme rate that San Diego allowed.

Garland's 2010 teammate Kevin Correia looks like an unlikely candidate for a list such as this when you see his 5.40 ERA, but he's a bargain when you consider his SIERA of 4.27. Correia is no better than an average starter—he strikes out more than the average but walks more than it too, and homers can occasionally be a problem—but San Diego will not run the risk of having him accept arbitration, especially since it already has a pitcher who took his rotation spot in 2010 on board at a lower cost. This makes him likely to be compensation-free despite Type-B status, and with that ERA smudging his recent work, gives him a low payday expectation relative to the production a club will get from the right-hander.

Javier Vazquez was a disaster with the Yankees, which is why he is a Type B rather than a Type-A. The right-hander has nearly 2,700 innings on his resume, and it started to show as he averaged just below 89 mph on his heater this year, the first time his fastball has registered under 90 consistently. His punchout rate dropped by almost three full whiffs per nine innings, and he handed out two full walks per nine more than in 2009, which resulted in a career-worst K/BB. Even with all of that, though, there is reason to invest in Vazquez one more time—assuming the price is right. Most of his success has come in the National League, and there are plenty of teams who could use a starter that should give them 200 innings. With 2010's numbers now staining his resume, his price will drop. He's the perfect candidate for an incentive-laden deal—if whoever signs him ends up with the 2009 version of Vazquez then it will work out for everyone. If he turns out to be a bust like in 2010, then at least the signing club will not have risked much money. A suggestion for the team that signs him: push the fences back.

Compensation, Schmompensation

Hiroki Kuroda is one of the older players to choose from, as he will be 36 years old in the first season of his new deal, but he has improved each of the last two years following his major-league debut in 2008. Though his three-year average is a 3.60 ERA and 6.6 whiffs per nine, Kuroda posted a career-best 7.3 K/9 and an excellent 2.2 BB/9 in 2010. His 3.57 SIERA was the 21st-best in the majors (minimum of 100 innings pitched) thanks to staying healthy all year, something he did not do in 2009, though getting hit in the head by a line drive and sustaining a concussion isn't something you can blame on being frail. His age will make him less costly than his production merits, and on a two- or three-year deal, Kuroda is possibly the smartest buy of any starter—especially since signing him won't require a compensation pick.

Jake Westbrook was forgotten about by everyone except those signing his checks while he recovered from reconstructive elbow surgery performed in 2008 that cost him the 2009 season. His command was a bit iffy to start this year with Cleveland, but he looked sharper with the Cardinals after a July 31 trade and increased his punchout rates to around the league average. That's a more than acceptable figure for a hurler inducing grounders consistently well over a 50 percent rate, and the combination of control and grounders helped him reach the 200-inning plateau despite 2010 being his first season back from the Tommy John procedure. He won't get a contract in line with his last one (which paid him $11 million in 2010), but he perfectly encompasses the kind of pitcher teams should be going after rather than Pavano.

Jeff Francis would be more appealing had he compiled more than 248 innings over the past three years—arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder knocked him out for all of 2009 and the start of 2010, and he had another DL stint late this year. It doesn't help that his ERA over that span is 5.01—yes it's partially Coors Field, but a lefty with 5.8 strikeouts per nine who gives up fly balls isn't a hot commodity, either. The Rockies declined his $7 million option for 2011—given how many similar pitchers in terms of value are on the market this winter, Francis is the kind of get a smart and patient shopper can scoop up for a low price late in the winter. Anything approaching more excitement may result in buyer's remorse.

Vicente Padilla has not pitched a whole lot in the National League over the last two seasons, but when he has, he has been dominant. With the Dodgers, Padilla whiffed 8.2 per nine with just 2.4 walks per nine thanks to a jump in velocity (average fastball of 93 mph over that stretch, with a sinker over 91 mph as well)—the problem in 2010 was health, as Padilla tossed just 95 frames. Amongst pitchers with as many innings as Padilla, though, he ranked 21st in SIERA, in front of Kuroda and right behind Colby Lewis. Padilla, relative to many of the other options, should come cheap, and he is worth grabbing considering the production he can bring. Keeping him in the National League and in a park that deflates homer rates may be the smart move, though.

Quick Takes

Hisanori Takahashi would also work in a relief role, but he can be a quality starter—the Mets paid the 35-year-old just $1 million in 2010, and with just 122 major-league innings under his belt, that price shouldn't jump much. The Japanese left-hander misses bats and has above-average control, and could provide value at the back end of the rotation of a cost-conscious team.

Brandon Webb threw four innings in 2009 before being shut down because of shoulder problems then missed all of 2010.  It may require incentives given his Cy-caliber past, but picking the ground baller up on a one-year deal with a team option for 2012 would be a smart business decision for many clubs looking for depth in the rotation.

Chris Young's velocity isn't what it used to be, and that's saying something given the tall lefty never could crack 90 mph consistently. The natural downward plane on his pitches stemming from his 6-foot-10 frame helps most of his fly balls remain harmless, but the last two years Petco Park (and this year, Will Venable) were even more responsible for that particular saving grace. He is unlikely to return to San Diego, but whoever signs him better hope their fences are far enough away to keep those fly balls from becoming souvenirs. 

Rich Harden's velocity was down this year, and he never did put together a string of good starts. Given his past performances when rarely healthy, though, someone will take a shot. The good news is that the risk won't cost $6.5 million like it did for the Rangers in 2010. Harden's 2007-9 campaigns totaled 314 2/3 innings, a 10.8 K/9 and a 2.7 K/BB, which makes him ideal for a low-cost, high-reward contract offer. Just know going in there is no way he will throw 200 innings, unless you're talking about over the life of a multi-year deal.

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