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June 18, 2009
A Pitch for Pedro
For the seven of you who didn't get this news from Will Carroll yesterday, I've created a Twitter feed, @joe_sheehan. I have no real idea yet of how I'm going to use it, and in fact, I didn't expect to have this many "followers" so soon. Given all the time I'm spending at the park this year, I may send out messages from there. Or I might comment on games from home, or on something I read. Heck, I might just tell you where I stand in a Borgata Summer Open event. It's all new to me. For those of you who have asked... no, this doesn't mean I'm bending and getting a Facebook page. You can't make me.
On KZNE this morning, I was asked about Pedro Martinez, who remains a free agent without a home. ESPN.com's baseball page indicates that the Rays and Cubs are among the teams kicking the tires on the free-agent righty, who pitched effectively in the World Baseball Classic. Martinez might well be on a roster but for his insistence on better terms than those usually given to a pitcher of his recent track record; while the specifics are debatable, it's clear that he's been unwilling to sign a minimum-salary make-good deal, instead holding out for guaranteed money. Considering the money paid to low-end pitchers in MLB who don't have Martinez's upside, and the number of teams for whom he might be a two-win upgrade-perhaps the difference between making the playoffs and not-I'm a little surprised that no team has pulled the trigger.
Certainly the Rays and Cubs would be interesting spots for Martinez. Rays' manager Joe Maddon is one of the more creative managers of a pitching staff. Would adding Martinez to a rotation with five-inning pitchers like David Price, Jeff Niemann, and Scott Kazmir tempt Maddon to do something radical, such as using tandem starters in a couple of rotation slots behind James Shields and Matt Garza? Keeping Andy Sonnanstine in his job and pairing the other four would be one way to work around the issues that Price and Kazmir have had being unable to work deep into games because of their inefficiency, while asking Martinez for less work than you would a normal starter. You could still have four or even five traditional relievers in this arrangement.
In Chicago, Lou Piniella would be less likely to find a radical use for Martinez, but would Pedro be a starter or a reliever for the Cubs? The team doesn't have a single hole in its rotation, as Randy Wells has replaced Sean Marshall effectively after serving as a stopgap for Carlos Zambrano. You always want to improve, but when you consider the number of health risks already populating the Cubs' rotation, putting Martinez into that mix seems like overkill.
What the Cubs could use, though, is a relief pitcher, especially one that misses bats and can go through a lineup one time. The inability of Carlos Marmol or Aaron Heilman to throw strikes consistently has been an Achilles' heel for the Cubs, who are already on shaky ground in the ninth inning with Kevin Gregg. Angel Guzman has been a revelation, though given his track record you wonder how far he will go before his arm fails. Carrying Rule 5 pick David Patton, a long-term play, isn't helping matters; he may be a luxury that a team with a rapidly closing window cannot afford. The Cubs are going to have to add a reliever to this mix, and Martinez would be an option costing only money, not talent. Heck, he wouldn't be the biggest injury risk (Rich Harden) nor the most hot-tempered pitcher (Zambrano) on the staff.
That Martinez hasn't relieved since 1999 (save for an ALCS appearance in 2004) is a concern, but once you start from the premise that he can't work deep into games, then you're just asking about how best to distribute his innings. With quantity not an option, you have to focus on leverage, and making Martinez a six-out or nine-out guy would change the Cubs' pen dramatically.
The thing is, I didn't mention either of these teams when asked about Martinez. No, the first team that came to mind for me was the Detroit Tigers.
No team in baseball has as big of a drop-off from their top three guys to the rest of the rotation. Jeremy Bonderman didn't solve the problem, coming off of the DL for about eight minutes of bad pitching before heading back to it. Dontrelle Willis isn't a major league pitcher at this point in his career. Armando Galarraga may need to be replaced-he has a 7.54 ERA and more walks than strikeouts since the beginning of May.
In their approach to the draft, the Tigers have shown a willingness to use money to make their organization better. When needed in free agency, they've spent-not always wisely-to put a championship team on the field. With their farm system a bit fallow, they won't have the chance that the Rays, or even the Cubs, will to improve in the trade market at the deadline. Writing a check to Pedro Martinez and slotting him in as their fourth starter, even as a 90-pitch hurler, is the best path they have to improving their rotation. They have the money, they have the motivation, and they have a manager, in Jim Leyland, who has all kinds of experience in finding creative solutions to pitching situations. Give him Pedro Martinez, and he'll make it work.
There's one other reason for the Tigers to get aggressive. Rick Porcello, as impressive as he's been at times, may need to be shut down at some point as part of his development. The Tigers certainly don't want to see him jump to 180 or more innings this season, and they have to think about not just the 162 games on the schedule, but the possibility that they'll want Porcello starting Game Three of the Division Series. The pitching problems that the Tigers face right now are actually going to get worse. Signing Pedro Martinez may be the best option they have for staving off a tough second half.
All of this discussion assumes that Pedro Martinez is capable of providing effective work to a major league team. That's not something everyone agrees upon, as Martinez's unattached status makes clear. He did show some good life back in March in the WBC, though he wasn't dominant. He's a pitcher at this point, someone who beats teams with his command, his selection, and his location, as opposed to someone who can blow heat by you. In his later years, Martinez has relied very little on his fastball, throwing it a bit more than half the time as he worked less in the low 90s and more in the high 80s. This change cost his changeup some effectiveness.
As I look at the breakdown of Martinez at Fangraphs, what strikes me is how much experimentation he seemed to be doing. With the caveat that data this odd could reflect a collection issue, what is shown is a pitcher who is constantly trying to find a way to get back his old effectiveness. Martinez threw more and more sliders each year from 2002 through 2006, then dumped the pitch in favor of a cut fastball that he threw more than any other breaking pitch in '07. In that season, he nearly abandoned his curve and threw more fastballs as well, seemingly looking for an arsenal that wouldn't strain his elbow or just-repaired rotator cuff. Last season, he went back to the curve and change, pitching more like he did toward the back end of his peak.
The aspect of Martinez's greatness that has never been fully appreciated is his mind. There's not nearly as much difference between Martinez and Greg Maddux as is thought, but because Martinez once threw in the high 90s and Maddux didn't, the perception of the one as a pitcher and the other as an artist developed. Martinez is just as much a master of his craft as Maddux is, and in his late-career struggles, you can see him applying his mind to his art, searching for ways to balance the need to be better than the hitters with the need to keep his body intact enough to just take the mound. Martinez has always been an intense competitor, and if he didn't always channel that trait well, he remains the kind of pitcher you can sign and know that he wants the next win just as much as you do.
That guy is worth taking a chance on. Whether the Tigers, the Cubs, the Rays, or a mystery guest, it's time for a team to sign a pitcher who will bring a mind at work to the mound, who will pitch with heart, and who will get whatever he has left from his arm.