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January 17, 2013

Rumor Roundup

Thursday, January 17

by Daniel Rathman

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The widely anticipated Michael Morse trade came on Wednesday afternoon, when the Nationals sent the 30-year-old back to the Mariners, in exchange for three prospects from the Athletics, who received John Jaso from Seattle. For more on that deal, see R.J. Anderson’s Transaction Analysis post. Today’s Roundup includes three stories that broke earlier in the day, featuring a starter and two erstwhile closers that are still seeking work.

Joe Saunders a rotation option for the Twins
The Twins set out this offseason to revamp their rotation, and general manager Terry Ryan has thus far brought in Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, and Mike Pelfrey, along with a high-ceiling prospect in Alex Meyer. Unfortunately, that makes Correia the number-one pitcher on Minnesota’s depth chart, and with the free-agent stock of starters now nearly depleted, Ryan is left searching for whatever help he can still get.

According to FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi, one of the candidates on Ryan’s list is Joe Saunders, who split the 2012 season between Arizona and Baltimore and logged a career-best 4.08 FIP along the way. The 31-year-old Saunders pared his walk rate down to 5.2 percent (lowest of his career) and hiked his strikeout rate up to 15.0 percent (highest since 2006), perhaps as a result of tinkering with his pitch mix. 

There are a couple of notable takeaways from the three tables above, from Saunders’ Brooks Baseball card. First, notice the variation in Saunders’ slider usage—very rare in 2010, more common in 2011, and completely abandoned (in favor of more curveballs) in 2012. Notice also the shift in Saunders’ hard stuff from 2011 to 2012, as he began to rely more heavily on his sinker, possibly because of the steady decline in his velocity. (By the way, the increase in sinkers did not help Saunders to induce more grounders; his ground-ball rate actually decreased to 43.1 percent in 2012 from 44.5 percent the previous year.) In addition to mitigating the consequences of his waning heater, Saunders likely was trying to address his persistent woes against right-handed batters, who have teed-off to the tune of a .290 TAv over the course of his career, while his fellow lefties have managed only a .197 mark.

If that was Saunders’ primary motive, then his most recent adjustment seems to have failed. The southpaw’s bump in sinker usage (43 percent vs. RHH in 2012) brought on a 17-point increase in right-handed hitters’ TAv, to .297 in 2012 from .280 in 2011, when their diet was chock full of changeups (23 percent). Of course, the recipe isn’t quite that simple: A similar mix in 2010 produced a .298 TAv for right-handed opponents, putting Saunders behind the eight ball when it comes to narrowing his platoon splits.

At this stage of his career, Saunders should not be expected to suddenly crack the code, so interested teams ought to view him as a back-of-the-rotation starter with little upside. Saunders fits well with the Twins, who offer a friendlier ballpark than either Chase Field or Camden Yards, and he should help to stabilize manager Ron Gardenhire’s rotation if he can stay healthy and continue to limit free passes. The Virginia Tech product has a history of shoulder trouble, dating back to his surgery to repair a fraying labrum in 2003, but the strain that cost him four weeks of action last year marked his first stint on the disabled list since 2009.

Besides the Twins, a few other starter-needy teams have recently been connected to Saunders, who is represented by Greg Genske. A few weeks ago, Newsday beat writer Marc Carig reported that the Mets were considering Saunders to round out their starting five. Our own John Perrotto heard last week that the Pirates were “kicking the tires,” on the lefty, though it’s unclear if Pittsburgh’s one-year deal with Jeff Karstens has changed general manager Neal Huntington’s outlook. And the Orioles, who have been almost completely silent in free agency this winter, have not closed the door on bringing back the man who pitched them past Yu Darvish and the Rangers in the wild-card playoff.

Rays among those actively pursuing Kyle Farnsworth
With Rafael Soriano off the board, teams searching for late-inning relief help are running low on options, and the dearth of supply has apparently fueled a bidding war for Farnsworth, who missed more than half of the 2012 season with an elbow ailment. FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal tweeted on Tuesday that Farnsworth’s agent, Barry Meister, had cut a list of six suitors down to three, and yesterday, Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Topkin identified the Rays, the 36-year-old’s most recent employer, as one of the finalists.

Almost exactly two years ago, Farnsworth agreed to a one-year, $2.6 million contract with a $3.3 million club option for the 2012 season, which the Rays exercised in late-October 2011. The hard-throwing northpaw performed very well in his first season in Tampa Bay, converting 25 of his 31 save opportunities, and amassing a 51-to-12 K:BB over 57 2/3 innings. His control was significantly less impressive last year, when he issued 14 walks in just 27 innings of middle-relief work, but four of those free passes came in one disastrous inning against the Yankees on July 4. The key to a renaissance—and Farnsworth’s ability to handle ninth-inning duties—will be finding an answer for left-handed hitters, who posted a .318 TAv over 51 plate appearances last year.

Fortunately for Farnsworth, beggars can’t be choosers, and his main lingering rival, Brian Wilson, is still rehabbing after his second Tommy John surgery. The New York Post’s Mike Puma spoke with sources on Wednesday who told him that the Mets—who continue to search for late-inning support for Frank Francisco and Bobby Parnell—were “unimpressed” by Wilson’s private audition last weekend, deeming him uncertain for Opening Day.

If that’s the case, then Farnsworth may be the shrewder gamble. Topkin believes that he’ll choose his next team (or return to his previous team) before the end of the week, and given the abundant demand for Farnsworth’s services, he might not be forced to swallow much of a pay cut.

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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