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November 24, 2009

Prospectus Today

Starting Pitcher Free Agents Review

by Joe Sheehan

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There are very few good buys among the available starting pitchers. As with the first two pieces in this series, these pitchers are sorted by the chance that they'll return value on the contract they can be expected to sign.

Starting Pitchers

John Lackey: The best starting pitcher in this year's field, Lackey gets dinged for minor injuries that cost him starts in both of the last two seasons and combine to create unimpressive counting stat lines and concerns about his durability. He's never been a top-tier starter, occupying instead that level right below the best ones, showing good peripherals and run prevention without ever being a threat to dominate. Lackey bounced back in each of the past two years to pitch effectively and took all his starts once opening his campaign. He's a reasonable bet to continue to be above-average, just not a star, and he fits better as a second starter behind a stud. The Mets have to be in on him, and the Dodgers should be if they can focus. Sixteen months ago, I was in Arlington for the Jamey Newberg ballpark event and they were already thinking about the native Texan. I think the Mets end up with him.

Andy Pettitte: One of last year's best free-agent signings, Pettitte hits the market again coming off a slightly worse season, and once again seems to be choosing between one team-the Yankees-and retirement. It would be interesting if a league-average starter walked away from the team for the second straight offseason. Pettitte retains 85 percent of his peak skill set and would be worth a two-year deal if that's what was necessary to sign him. Older pitchers have been something of a value pool in the last decade, available at relative discount to those in their early thirties.

Brett Myers: A full complement of injuries (hip, shoulder, eye) limited Myers to 702/3 innings in his walk year. He's willing to start or relieve-a lost season makes players much more pliable, don't you think?-and it's not clear which role makes him the most valuable. In any case, he's worth a guaranteed contract pending a physical, and has plenty of career left.

Doug Davis: He was once my pick to become Jamie Moyer, but the command hasn't quite come around. Instead, he's a comp for Barry Zito, someone who works backwards with average to slightly below-average stuff, and takes his turn almost all the time. I wouldn't recommend he move to the AL, but there are plenty of NL teams, such as the Mets, Padres, and Nationals, that he can help. I'd kind of like to see what he could do if he turned his career over to Dave Duncan. In any case, two years, $16 million is the range.

Jose Contreras: Contreras has been better than his ERAs for two years running, and was victimized by an awful strand rate last season. He still has velocity and two good secondary pitches; the bigger concern is whether his aging body can take a full season's worth of work. Signing him with a realistic expectation of 24 starts could produce a gain of a couple wins, a pretty good pickup in the back end of a rotation.

Justin Duchscherer: Perhaps the new market inefficiency is guys who miss a year; there sure are a lot out of them out there this winter. Duchscherer was rehabbing from an elbow injury when he began struggling with depression, and never took the mound for the A's in 2009. Set aside the depression: he's missed most of the last three years with one injury or another, and at 32, is Erik Bedard without all those pesky innings pitched. Like Bedard, he'll be tempting because of how good he's been when healthy, and he's much more likely than Bedard is to have some impact in '10.

John Smoltz: The beatings he took in Boston showed that he wasn't ready to pitch at the major-league level yet, which explains the very high BABIP and slugging on balls in play he allowed. He can still miss bats and pound the strike zone, and a year further removed from surgery, he'll be a reasonable mid-rotation option. In other words, he's a potential bargain coming off of a lost year, well worth signing. The Cardinals appear to have the inside track to retain him.

Rich Harden: He hits the market having qualified for the ERA title once in his career, all the way back in 2004. He's been nominally healthy in back-to-back seasons, making a total of just 51 starts and not even reaching 300 innings total. There is no bigger risk in this year's market; on talent and per-inning performance, he's the best starter available and worthy of A.J. Burnett money. On availability, he's Kelvim Escobar or Mark Prior. I'd try and get him to agree to an incentive-laden deal with massive upside, because any multi-year guaranteed contract is too much risk at his likely price point-$12 million a year-none but the most flush teams can take the chance that he'll go back into a pumpkin.

Erik Bedard: Bedard's power stuff rates with that of some of the best lefties in the game. If only he got to use it more often-he made 30 starts in two years in Seattle, and his 2009 season ended with surgery to repair a torn left labrum. He's in nearly the same situation Ben Sheets was in a year ago, and might be better off taking Sheets' path-not signing until he can actually pitch-than reaching the one-plus-option offers that will be dangled.

Pedro Martinez: Martinez pitched well enough down the stretch to warrant a guaranteed deal in 2010. His problems against left-handed batters are real, the result of his reliance on that sweeping breaking ball. His feel for pitching (I'm not using that word, Kevin) allows him to get by with much less stuff than he had at his peak. As long as the medicals are OK, a one-year deal with a vesting option seems reasonable.

Ben Sheets: The one pitcher on this list who did not file for free agency this month, Sheets actually filed a year ago and remains unemployed. Demand is expected to be high for Sheets, even though he hasn't pitched competitively since 2008 and is coming back from elbow surgery. He benefits from a weaker market for starting pitching and from the large number of pitchers in it who also missed most or all of 2009. It seems ridiculous that he could get a multi-year guaranteed deal from this position, and his inability to do so last year supports that notion. What he gets paid depends on how he performs in workouts and how his medicals look, and the range of possible options is too wide for me to narrow down a prediction.

Jon Garland: An innings guy who relies on his defense to make plays. Garland isn't wild, but he does walk more batters than is usually recommended by a pitcher of this type. There's not much reason to think he can't keep on as a fourth starter for a while. His value is in bulk innings, not in any mythical upside or what he might do with those innings. Worth guaranteed money for a team breaking in a lot of young pitchers, like the Nationals.

Randy Johnson: He seems to want one more chance at a championship, but it's not at all clear he can contribute to the effort. Johnson has struck out fewer than a man an inning in four of the last five seasons and all three of the ones in which he made at least a dozen starts. Last year's injury to his shoulder came when he was at the plate, but he came back to make some relief appearances in September. If he wants to keep pitching, a relief role may be the best spot for him. He would make a scary lefty specialist.

Mike Hampton: In the time it takes you to read this paragraph, Hampton will hurt himself twice. His 112 innings last season were his high since 2004, as were his 46 walks. The one argument for rostering him is that he hits enough (.246/.294/.356 career) to extend the roster, serving as an extra pinch-hitter and long man who bats for himself. The Astros, breaking in a lot of arms, have a use for that. I'd NRI him if he'd agree to that role.

Joel Pineiro: The object lesson here is Jeff Suppan, who left St. Louis to join the Brewers on what will be the last big contract he signs. Pineiro may prefer to cash in on his big year, but the long-term play is to take a bit less on this deal to continue working with Dave Duncan in the hopes that he can sign another healthy contract a few years down the road. Pineiro was such a different pitcher this season that it's hard to know what he'll be away from the guru, and I wouldn't want to invest much to find out. The downside for a pitcher with this strikeout rate is ugly.

Mark Hendrickson: Hendrickson may be the last true swingman in the game, making at least 11 starts and 11 relief appearances in each of the past three seasons for three different teams. That flexibility is his greatest asset, and makes him worthy of a guaranteed deal from a bad team breaking in young pitchers. The Padres and Nationals could use him if the Orioles don't want him back.

Miguel Batista: He's cycled back to being the utility pitcher he was back when his career got going in the late '90s. Batista's flexibility has value, and he throws enough ground balls to survive his command problems. I'm a broken record on the lack of true swingmen in the game, but if you let Batista be that guy, he could be a valuable pitcher who allows a team to max out at 11, even 10 hurlers.

Brad Penny: The lesson is that if you're trying to come back from an injury, you shouldn't do so in the AL East. Penny wasn't even that effective in his six starts with the Giants, posting an ERA well below his peripherals. Just 32, he's a small notch above the next group of names on this list, but may get two guaranteed years for that reason. I'd rather be able to make the second year a vesting option.

Randy Wolf: Wolf was surprisingly effective in 2009, essentially reverting to the pitcher he was back with the Phillies six seasons prior. He tries to work up and in to right-handed batters, a style that historically yielded a high homer rate, but which is 2007 led to just 24 long balls despite an uptick in fly balls allowed. It looks like a dangerous game for a 33-year-old, one that turns ugly with even a little bit lost on the fastball, or a little bit of bad luck (Wolf allowed a .257 BABIP in '09) coming his way. I said this after 2008 and I'll say it now: I would not want to sign Wolf. He's set up to be one of the more overpaid players in this market.

Jarrod Washburn: Lost in the shape of his season was that Washburn was, in the end, the same guy's he's always been, a mid-rotation lefty who puts the ball in the air. The trade to Detroit may have cost him tens of millions of dollars this winter, because his eight starts for the Tigers made clear, if dramatically so, that he isn't nearly as good as his first 20 for the Mariners indicated. In an awful market, he'll get three years and maybe $30 million, less depending on how his knee looks to the doctors. The deal won't look bad if the right team-big park, lots of legs in the outfield-makes it.

Carl Pavano: In his first full season since 2004, he pitched about how you would have projected him to off that year, pounding the strike zone, posting an acceptable strikeout rate, and being hit hard when he was hit. He showed enough to warrant guaranteed money, though like many pitchers on this list, he's more a back-end innings guy than someone with upside.

Braden Looper: In three years as a starter he's yet to strike out five men per nine innings. Left-handed batters crush him. He led the NL in homers and earned runs allowed. You know what the press release will say? "Looper has won at least 12 games in every year as a starter, with a career high of 14 (against just seven losses) in 2009." He's replacement-level in the NL, and unwatchable if he should land in the AL.

Livan Hernandez: His inability to get batters out keeps him from being the innings guy he has the reputation of being. Hernandez has averaged six innings per start the last three seasons, mostly because he gets knocked out of many games by being hittable. He'll take the ball, which isn't such a good trait when you allow 970 hits in four years. Someone will sign him to a guaranteed deal because they know he'll make 32 starts if asked, and again… that's not a good trait at this level of pitching. It's weird that he has 156 wins and, at 34, a small chance at 200. Does anyone think of him that way?

Kelvim Escobar: Escobar made one appearance since 2007, so there's no real way to evaluate him as a free agent, or to know what role will be best for keeping him healthy. His surgically repaired shoulder wasn't fit enough to allow him to pitch after June 6. He's basically a lottery ticket, and where he lands may be just as random as the lottery process. NRI, clearly.

Jason Marquis: That he made the All-Star team and got credited with 15 wins is unfortunate, because those things will make him overpaid. As a back-end starter with low expectations, Marquis' ground-ball tendencies and non-pitching talents would have made him a nice investment for two years and $12 million. Now, he may reprise the three-year, $21 million deal that just ended, and there's just too much downside risk for that to be a good idea. He needs a good infield defense, but the teams with the best ones aren't shopping for pitchers, so it's just all downside.

Vicente Padilla: The case for there being a large gap between the leagues was strengthened by Padilla, who went from unclaimed AL waiver bait to the Dodgers' number-two starter in the Division Series. The case for their being a large gap between Padilla and normalcy was strengthened by his taking a bullet to the leg in Nicaragua in November in a shotgun accident. He's a back-end starter who will get guaranteed money, maybe even a two-year deal. Padilla is one of the few players for whom the soft factors make me question having him around. I would not sign him.

Brett Tomko: He pitched well for the A's before a nerve problem in his arm shut him down for the year. His next new team would be his 10th, and whoever signs him gets a homer-prone righty who's lost a lot of his stuff over the past few seasons. Not a strong investment.

Jason Schmidt: He made 10 starts at $4.7 million a start for the Dodgers on a deal that I really liked. Whoops. He didn't look like he had anything last year, and at best he'll sign a minor-league deal with an NRI.

Todd Wellemeyer: As quickly as he'd found the strike zone, buying into the Dave Duncan Way in 2007, that's how quickly he lost it last season, looking more like the guy who washed out of three organizations in three years. Given that St. Louis is the only place he's succeeded, he should think about staying here. His career ERA for the Cards is 4.31; for everyone else, 5.65.

Eric Milton: Milton was making a mild comeback when he suffered a herniated disk that ended his season, and perhaps his career. Following July surgery, it's not certain he'll ever get back to the majors. There are many better options, even among the infirm.

Paul Byrd: He has nothing left and should not be given a roster spot, money, or innings in spring training.

Tomokazu Ohka: He has nothing left to offer a major-league team.

Bruce Chen: He's allowed 43 homers in 171 MLB innings since his last good year. He's what you use to catch NRI bait.

Yesterday, I lied. Given the sheer size of the list, the relievers will have to be pushed back a day.

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

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