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December 18, 2012

Rumor Roundup

Tuesday, December 18

by Daniel Rathman

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Teams still searching for shortstop upgrades will need to dig deeper, because the top two free agents at the position found new homes on Monday, with Stephen Drew leaving the Athletics for the Red Sox, and Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima jumping at the opportunity to fill his shoes in Oakland. Meanwhile, as the free-agent market for starting pitchers winds down, the trading block remains strong, and a couple of new names have entered the fray. They are the focus of today’s Roundup.

Bud Norris has Jeff Luhnow’s phone ringing
Since the 2011 trade deadline, whether under Luhnow or his predecessor Ed Wade, the Astros have exported just about every player that was not cost controlled or bolted down. But Luhnow, who yesterday inked Carlos Pena to a one-year deal, has been relatively quiet this offseason; the trade that shipped reliever Wilton Lopez to the Rockies represents his biggest move. If CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman’s sources are correct, however, that may soon change.

Norris, a 27-year-old who will is arbitration eligible for the first time, is a logical trade candidate for the rebuilding Astros, who aren’t keen on paying a seven-figure salary to a pitcher with middling results and a checkered injury history. Four winters ago, Norris was a hard thrower who ranked fourth in Houston’s farm system, but he was hindered by high-effort mechanics, and—despite a major-league fastball and slider—was difficult to project. What is he now? The table below and other factoids from his Brooks Baseball card offer some insight:

A 1.4-1.7 WARP pitcher in each of his first three full years in majors, Norris still relies heavily on his heater, but the pitch averaged just a hair over 92 mph last season, and saw a 1.6 percentage point drop in whiffs compared to 2010 (7.6 percent), when it came in at around 94 mph. The slider remains his primary off-speed offering, and its sharp bite makes it a weapon, but Norris’ changeup is as fringy as it was when he debuted in 2009, leaving him vulnerable to left-handed batters. Norris has shown a significant improvement in control, bringing his walk rate down by more than two percentage points (11.3 percent in 2010, 9.0 percent in 2012). On the other hand, the evaluators who told Kevin Goldstein that his delivery would fit better in the bullpen have been vindicated, as his medicals are littered with shoulder and upper-arm ailments, as well as a knee sprain that cost him 16 days last season.

All of that is to say that the teams bidding on Norris—a list that, per Heyman, includes the Cardinals and Rangers—should view the righty as a league-average starter, a notch below Edwin Jackson, who is still in talks with the Padres, according to Heyman’s colleague, Scott Miller. Both St. Louis and Texas are replete with bullpen arms, so it’s unlikely that either would transition Norris to set-up work, in hopes that his fastball-slider tandem would play up in a relief role. Nonetheless, considering that Norris is essentially the same pitcher that he was four years ago, there isn’t much reason to expect a sudden breakthrough.

Thus, interested teams should weigh Norris’ cost in prospects against the difference between his projected arbitration salaries and Jackson’s three-year-contract demands. The former National is more durable than Norris and has more demonstrated upside, but he is 18 months older and has averaged 1.85 WARP over the past four years. From an overall value standpoint, Jackson could be a useful number-three starter, while Norris tops out in the fourth spot of a contender’s rotation.

In addition to the Cardinals and Rangers, Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers mentioned the Cubs as a possible landing spot for Norris several days ago, and a couple of other teams have openings that he could fill. The Brewers—who have ditched the free-agent market because of the inflated spending environment, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel beat writer Tom Haudricourt—are one logical destination, and the Padres might reach out if they fail to sign Jackson. Of course, all of those teams have alternatives…

After shopping Rick Porcello, Tigers now surveying interest in Drew Smyly
…two of which rest in the hands of Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski. Porcello has been the subject of rumors dating back to the Winter Meetings, but Dombrowski was unwilling to pull the trigger on a move until he had a replacement lined up. Bringing Anibal Sanchez back on a five-year, $80 million deal secured that replacement, enabling the Tigers to listen to offers for their back-end starters.

Smyly, the team’s seventh-ranked prospect entering last season, held his own over 23 appearances (18 starts), amassing a 3.78 FIP and 1.4 WARP. That’s a better output than Porcello has managed in any of his first four seasons, though the sinker-balling right-hander has been hindered by Detroit’s shaky infield defense, and he was once thought to have a frontline ceiling. Smyly is only five months younger than Porcello, but he also has three fewer years of major-league service time, a factor that could make him considerably more valuable in trade talks.

The teams mentioned with regard to Norris could all phone the Tigers about either Porcello or Smyly, and many of them probably already have, based on this tweet from CBS’ Sports Danny Knobler. A more intriguing scenario would have one of the pitchers moving to the Pirates, in exchange for closer Joel Hanrahan, who would supplant free agent Jose Valverde in the ninth inning. Our own John Perrotto heard last week that outfielder Brennan Boesch would be the centerpiece of any deal for Hanrahan, but the Sanchez signing may have altered the Tigers plans. ESPN’s Buster Olney floated the idea on Friday, in the wake of the reunion with Sanchez, though he cautioned that it was “total speculation.”

Marlins would move Ricky Nolasco for Peter Bourjos
After the November payroll-purge blockbuster with the Blue Jays, followed by the signing of Juan Pierre, Nolasco, who is set to earn $11.5 million in 2013, is the highest-paid player currently on the Marlins’ books—by a factor of 6.57. He would be an obvious trade candidate for a rebuilding team with no interest in shelling out eight-figure paychecks, but Miami’s brass insisted that Nolasco could prove useful, perhaps as a mentor to the team’s younger pitchers, or perhaps for keeping the Players’ Association off of their backs about spending.

Team president David Samson told Dan LeBatard on Nov. 15 that Nolasco “will be with the Marlins in 2013.” Nolasco requested a trade two-and-a-half weeks later, but the next day, ESPN’s Jayson Stark was told that he wasn’t going anywhere.

In case you haven’t already learned not to take the Marlins at their word, well, ESPN’s Jim Bowden says that you shouldn’t take the Marlins at their word. The general manager-turned-analyst tweeted on Tuesday that Larry Beinfest would move Nolasco to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, if his counterpart in Anaheim, Jerry Dipoto, expresses interest in such a swap. I wrote about the red flags on Nolasco’s résumé in the Nov. 16 Roundup, and for many of those reasons—as well as the disparity in service time—the Marlins would likely be asked to add to the Angels’ side of the haul.

The salient point, though, is that Nolasco appears to be available. Most of the teams that are in the market for Norris, Porcello, and Smyly could enter the picture here, although the $11.5 million price tag may be prohibitive for some of them. The Brewers and Padres, for example, would almost certainly ask the Marlins to carry a portion of his salary. Specific rumors involving the 30-year-old northpaw have been scant so far, but if Beinfest begins actively shopping him, then the buzz should pick up in the coming days.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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