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January 12, 2011

Free Agent Bargain Bin

Starting Pitchers

by Dan Wade

The big-ticket items made their way out the door before Christmas, but with just over a month before spring training camps open, this is the time of year for general managers to find the market’s forgotten gems. Jim Thome (4.3 WARP), Jon Garland (4.2 WARP), Colby Lewis (4.1 WARP), and Orlando Hudson (3.6 WARP) were all signed with a month or less of camps opening last year, and while these are the aberration more than the norm, it is clear that good value can be found even on the eve of spring training.

Garland and Lewis were the best of last year’s late-signing starting pitchers, though Joel Pineiro also had a strong showing with the Angels. The options this year aren't as strong, though anyone who lands in Minnesota, San Diego, or another pitcher's haven will obviously have a better chance of succeeding. Overall, it’s a very scratch-and-dent bunch, even at the top of list.

Carl Pavano is still technically available, but it’s unlikely that he’ll find his way anywhere other than the long and winding road back to Target Field—that’s I-94 for those of you unfamiliar with Minneapolis’ geography—so for the time being, he's considered off-limits despite lacking an official contract.

That said, here are five interesting options still searching for a home for 2011:

Bruce Chen (12-7, 140 IP, 4.17 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 3.1 WARP)

Chen will always go down as something of a disappointing prospect, highly thought of in the late '90s. His 2010 season won’t change that reputation much, but for Chen to have a career season at age 33 is impressive in its own right. His 3.1 WARP bested his 3.0 mark for the 2005 Orioles, which he followed up with a -0.9 WARP season on his way out of Baltimore.

Chen’s success in 2010 was largely based on his ability to keep his H/9 and his HR/FB below double digits. His 8.7 H/9 was his best effort since that 2005 season, and his 8.1 percent HR/FB rate was well below his career average of 13.3 percent. He is still a fairly fly-ball prone, so a move to a more homer-friendly park could be calamitous for the signing team as well as for Chen.

Even though he lacks the common markers for regression—an unsustainable BABIP, an uncommonly high ground-ball rate, etc.—he seems unlikely to repeat his strong year. Throughout his 13-year career, Chen has struggled to repeat even moderate success. The fact that he was healthy last year is a big part of his value right now, but if he can’t continue to keep the ball in the yard, it doesn’t really help that he can pitch 150 innings of blowout baseball.

Justin Duchscherer (2-1, 28.0 IP, 2.89 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 0.7 WARP)

Duchscherer could have fit in this piece or Thursday's on relievers, since he’s been effective in both roles. He told teams earlier in the offseason that he wanted to start, but at this late date, it’s hard to believe he would turn down an offer to pitch out of the bullpen. His started in his most recent full season, 2008, so that’s where he’ll stay for the purposes of this list.

Duchscherer has had stints on the 60-day DL three times in the last four years, but unlike the forthcoming Chris Young, they’ve been on different parts of the body each time. In 2007, he missed the season’s final four-plus months with a torn labrum in his right hip; in 2009, he missed the entire season recovering from surgery on his pitching elbow; and in 2010, he fought through an inflamed SI joint in spring training, only to have his season cut short after just five starts due to another hip injury, though this time it was his left hip.

When he’s been healthy, Duchscherer has been incredibly effective irrespective of role. He has yet to post a WARP under 1.5 in a season in which he has pitched at least 30 innings. His combination of secondary pitches makes up for the fact that he doesn’t bring much velocity and keeps hitters off balance. If his new team decides to use him out of the bullpen, he’s equally effective against lefties and righties, though he’s particularly tough against his fellow starboarders.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the only thing standing between Duchscherer and a great season for his new team, whoever that may be, is his health. It’s a formidable barrier, and one not mitigated by simply keeping his innings total low. However, if he can finally stay on the field in 2011, he’s as an effective arm out of the bullpen or rotation, and doesn’t have much negotiating leverage, making him a potential low-risk, high-reward signing.

Jeff Francis (4-6, 104 1/3 IP, 5.00 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 1.0 WARP)

At just 29 years of age, Francis has as much time left in baseball as anyone on this list, but after missing all of 2009 and half of 2010, he may need much of that time to regain the stock he once had. Francis’ recovery from the torn labrum that cost him all of 2009 was slowed by a left shoulder strain that delayed the start of his 2010 season until mid-May. His performance steadily improved until tendinitis landed him back on the DL in August. He was woeful upon his return, starting three games, but never making it out of the fourth inning.

His ill-fated return pushed his ERA up by nearly half a run and made his overall line for 2010 look worse for the wear. That said, Francis’ year wasn’t a total loss. In his 18 starts, he was generally league average, which seems a backhanded compliment if ever there was one, but given that this was his first season back from major surgery, league average isn’t that bad at all. Consider Francisco Liriano or Ben Sheets, who would have pined to be league average in the year they returned from major arm surgery.

This is not to say that I expect a five-win season out of Francis now that he has a year under his belt. That would be a grand overstatement. However, another one-win season would be a bigger surprise to me than a three-win season would, especially if Francis can move from Denver to a more pitcher-friendly environment. As many as seven teams have been connected to Francis, all of them have a lower park factor and most have a higher defensive efficiency than the Rockies did in 2010. 

Freddy Garcia (12-6, 157 IP, 4.64 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 2.2 WARP)

The 157 innings that Garcia threw in 2010 were not just his highest total since 2006, they were more than he threw in the entire intervening period. From 2007-09, Garcia pitched a combined 129 innings due in no small part to a torn rotator cuff and subsequent surgery.

While he averaged fewer than six innings per start in 2010, he wasn’t consistently throwing short outings so much as alternately pitching seven strong innings and getting yanked before the middle frames. Garcia had six starts last season in which he failed to even enter a fifth inning of work, allowing an average of 4.66 runs in those starts.

Those short, rough starts aside, the White Sox had to be pleased with his production as their fifth starter. He gave them 19 quality starts out of 28, and boasted a run of nine starts from the end of May until mid-July in which he went 6-0 with a 3.38 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP. Not stellar numbers, but the Sox went 8-1 in those games; most teams would love to get that kind of production at the back end of their rotation, especially in such a hitter-friendly park.

Going into his age-36 season, Garcia isn’t much of an upside play anymore, but he also isn’t as big a risk as some of the other available arms. Like Chen, Garcia was healthy last year, which separates him from a fairly large chunk of the remaining stock, and while he probably isn’t going to throw 200 innings the way he did earlier in his career, a healthy 150 isn’t too much of a stretch to expect.

Chris Young (2-0, 20 IP, 0.90 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 1.0 WARP)

Like Duchscherer, Young missed the vast majority of 2010, as he made just four starts for the Padres at the end of the season. Also like Duchscherer, missing most or all of a season isn’t that unusual for Young, who has been placed on the 60-day disabled list in each of the past three seasons. His innings have dropped steadily since he arrived in San Diego in 2006, when he pitched a career-high 179. It isn’t so very uncommon for a pitcher not to throw 200 innings, but Young hasn’t even thrown 200 innings in the last three years combined.

The lack of innings since Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election makes it somewhat difficult to project Young's performance in 2011, unless you think his ERA+ of 416 in 2010 is repeatable. His fastball velocity has dropped steadily since he came into the league in 2004, which is worrisome, though consistent injuries to his pitching shoulder and forearm are the likely culprits there. If he can stay healthy—a mighty big if given his history—some of it could return, though it’s unlikely that he’ll rebound all the way back into the low 90s.

The Mets showed some interest in Young, though they have apparently cooled on the right-hander after signing Chris Capuano. That is too bad for Young, as a place like Citi Field would be an ideal place for him to rebuild his value in 2011. His career fly-ball rate is over 50 percent, so if he lands in Toronto or Houston, he’s liable to see his home-run rate jump and his value drop. A strong 2011 could yield a multi-year offer for Young next offseason, as he’s just heading into his age-32 season, but another year lost to injury will almost certainly destroy whatever market existed for his services.

--- 

Garcia and Chen are low-risk, low-reward moves. Neither is going to shock the world with a great 2011, but it seems unlikely they'll post negative WARPs.

Young and Duchscherer are wild cards. A team with a great medical staff might be able to squeeze a few extra starts out of one of these arms, but it isn’t as though they’ve dealt with middling nicks and bruises. No doubt teams will do their due diligence regarding their injury history, but keeping them on the field will be job one. Any production they give is likely to be average or better, but there is simply no way to guarantee they’ll stay healthy enough to produce much at all.

Of all of these starters, Francis seems to be the most likely to post a Garland-like year, even if that would mean a career best. He showed good signs when he was healthy and will be moving away from the park that killed Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, and a few other pitchers. If Francis were to join the Mets or the Nationals, the change would be even more pronounced.

Dan Wade is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus

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