December 31, 2015
Natsy Drew and the Missing Batting Average
Signed LHP Scott Kazmir to a one-year deal worth $16 million, with a two-year player option worth an additional $32 million. [12/30]
“You gotta love it when a plan happens to you” - Jeff “Cannonball” Smythe, Leader of the D-Team.
That may a bit unfair, but one can’t help but see this Dodgers offseason as something of an unplanned pregnancy: It could lead to good things, perhaps even great things, but this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
If Zack Greinke was Plan A and Hisashi Iwakuma was Plan B, then Kazmir is the third free-agent pitcher (that we know of) that the Dodgers have attempted to slot in behind Clayton Kershaw in their rotation. The Dodgers were in a tricky spot once they failed to sign Greinke and opted to not go after other “big ticket” arms, as Stan Kasten alluded to, because their rotation—after Kershaw, anyway—is a smorgasbord of upside laced with injury risk (you’re welcome to flip the order of those two qualities). With Brett Anderson, Hyun-Jin Ryu (who will supposedly be ready for spring training), Alex Wood, and Brandon McCarthy in tow, does adding another volatile starter help things, or merely muddle them further?
In the short-term, it’s difficult to see an issue. There’s a strong likelihood that Ryu’s debut will be delayed, and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to throw 200 innings coming off shoulder surgery in any event; McCarthy won’t be ready til mid-season; and Kazmir is a significant upgrade over the likes of Mike Bolsinger, Carlos Frias, Zach Lee, Joe Wieland, or whatever other detritus is available come non-roster invite time.
The inevitable question is what happens when everyone is healthy, which is easily hand-waved away with the classic “it’s a good problem to have” or the well-worn “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” That’s all well and good until that problem comes to be. The last time this happened, the Dodgers paid Colorado to take Aaron Harang off their hands in April of 2013, then required the acquisition of Ricky Nolasco by mid-season to fill out their rotation.
Paying Kazmir doesn’t have to be a bad decision, but it’s difficult understand the appeal of offering three years to a pitcher who has thrown 200 innings once in his career (back in 2007, before he washed out of the majors). Of course that’s cherry-picking data to make a point because Kazmir has topped the 180-inning plateau in each of the past two seasons. So if he’s a decent bet to throw 180 innings, why the consternation? There’s some anchoring going on, in that Dodgers fans expected and hoped for an elite starter; settling for something less—even if it’s still good—is going to result in complaints. But there are legitimate concerns, because though he’s thrown mostly full seasons in each of the last two years, he’s also faded more than I do walking up a flight of stairs:
Oh sure, ERA is passe, but Kazmir has seen significant deterioration in his peripheral stats, including dips in his strikeout rate in each of the last two seasons, lending credence to reservations about his arm health.
Kazmir is a good pitcher, landing at 32nd in DRA (min. 100 IP) in 2014 and 46th in 2015 per DRA. But paying him to be your second starter is a risk-laden endeavor, that is mitigated slightly by the quality throughout the rotation as a whole. Still, $16 million per year (including deferred money, should he decline his option) for a player who maxes out under 200 innings and has health concerns is no bargain, and that’s before giving him the option to walk away from the deal after year one. While this is no time for a sub-plot, it’s worth noting that the Dodgers inclusion of deferred money, along with their absence at the top-end of the free agent market could be seen as a sign of being cash-poor, despite their reputation as being anything but. Of course it could also be a way to save a few bucks.
There are of course factors affecting the odds of whether he’ll do so, including the soft starting pitching market after the 2016 season. Still, it seems easier to envision a scenario that leads to Kazmir remaining with the Dodgers through 2018 than one in which a team willingly gives up a pick and beats the $32 million over two years that remain on his deal.
One could contend the Dodgers are focusing on depth and plan to give Kazmir (and others) significant amounts of rest while working in their depth options—including Jose De Leon, Julio Urias and Jharel Cotton, in addition to those names mentioned above—which allows the starts that he will make to be on more rest, and for him to be more effective. It’s a fun plan in theory, but relying on a first-year manager to execute the delicate task of managing egos and arms in this fashion seems a tall order to say the least. It also alternates the definition of “depth.” If the plan is to throw Clayton Kershaw 215-plus innings and then fill in the rest over 8-10 pitchers, then having 10+ viable starters isn’t “depth” so much as a requirement. Farhan Zaidi’s comments that they’re not ruling out adding another starter only serve to support this notion.
What the Dodgers wanted when this offseason began was a surefire, high-quality arm to slot into the no. 2 spot in their rotation. Kazmir, as it goes, might not be either. Then again, Plan C, D or E usually doesn’t get you what you hoped for with Plan A. As with unplanned pregnancies, none of this means that things can’t work out, it just means that things are going to be a lot different. Either way, we’ll find out in nine months. —Craig Goldstein
Realistically, this was probably the best landing spot for Kazmir in free agency, as he'll get to pitch in the National League and in a division/park that shouldn't crimp his style much. The last two seasons, he's struggled to maintain strong first half performances and another strong start may leave fantasy owners attempting to spin him before the ride ends again. With the risk, Kazmir a borderline top-50 starter at best, but is a good bet to look the part of an SP2 at some point during the season.
When Brandon McCarthy comes back, this rotation is going to look pretty full—and it may just be Wood on the outside looking in. Of course, the odds of all of the Dodgers' pitchers staying healthy long enough for this to matter are about as long as a thousand football fields. —Bret Sayre
Signed INF-L Stephen Drew to a one-year deal worth $3 million plus incentives. [12/29]
The last few days have revealed that Mike Rizzo really doesn't want to enter the season with Trea Turner at shortstop. Nor, evidently, does Rizzo want Danny Espinosa playing everyday. Hence Drew, a seemingly unsatisfactory fulfillment of those desires who answers the question: what kind of shortstop can a team get if they're unwilling to part with money or prospects?
Drew will celebrate his 33rd birthday in March following consecutive poor offensive efforts. To get to the root of his troubles, you just have to look at his .198 average on balls in play. How bad is that mark? It's by far the lowest over the past two seasons among hitters with more than 600 plate appearances. No other hitter finished below .200, or .205, or. 215, or .226, or .230; Drew's old running mates, Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira, were the only other hitters to finish shy of .240. You might wonder if there's a Yankee-specific issue here—perhaps the mindset to take advantage of those comfy right-field dimensions?—but there are other explanations at play, too. Like, say, teams employing the overshift to combat his pull-happy ways, and his inability to consistently hit the ball hard.
Still, there has to be room for improvement, right? Drew can't possibly be that bad at hitting for average relative to the rest of the league, can he? You'd think so, and no. Supporting those answers are his secondary skills. Drew has maintained a discerning eye at the plate (he is J.D.'s brother, after all) and last season he cut down on his strikeouts and in-zone whiffs. That he did so while posting a .180 ISO—a figure more than 10 points better than his career mark entering the season—also suggests Drew retained some of his hitting talent, even if Father Time has repossessed much of his bat speed.
As a result, the Nationals are probably banking on a mini bounce-back from Drew—or, at minimum, enough of one to keep this table relevant (Daniel Murphy included for perspective):
For as bad as Drew has been since turning down the qualifying offer, he's nonetheless outhit Espinosa against right-handed pitchers. Not by a margin that would be clear if you watched all their at-bats, but by enough that a platoon arrangement makes sense if you employ both players. Besides, Drew doubles as in insurance policy on Espinosa—if Espinosa repeats his 2015, Drew can be benched without issue; if Espinosa doesn't, Drew provides a veteran alternative.
The catch here is the Nationals don't have to roll with either of these two at shortstop. Rizzo can, at any moment, bring up Turner or Wilmer Difo and plug them in. So why is Rizzo wasting his time with a Drew-Espinosa concoction? Presumably because he wants Turner to have more developmental time. The cynic in the crowd might wonder if Rizzo is more concerned with limiting Turner's service time (he accrued 45 days last season), and it's hard to rule that out in this day and age.
We'll find out how committed Rizzo is his motives—whatever they may be—if Drew and Espinosa open the season as their worst selves. —R.J. Anderson
For those planning to gamble on cheap speed with Turner, here is another impediment to value. Of course, it's only Stephen Drew, but this slightly lowers his already depressed value after the Daniel Murphy acquisition last week. —Bret Sayre
Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @cdgoldstein