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March 8, 2012

Preseason Value Picks

Starting Pitchers for 3/8/12

by Mike Petriello

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Welcome to spring training, that wonderful time of the year when baseball fans in a far-too-connected world put a ridiculous amount of importance in the results of miniscule sample sizes against wildly varying levels of competition.

Speaking of which, let’s dive right into…

Michael Pineda | SP | New York Yankees
Mixed: $3 | AL-only: $10 |
PECOTA SP Rank: 59 | SP ADP: 26

IP

W

ERA

WHIP

K

SV

148

11

3.80

1.28

138

0

“The sky is falling! Pineda is too fat to win! He can’t handle New York! He might not even be in the rotation! Jesus Montero is going to hit like a billion homers and retroactively get the 2009 World Series transferred to the Mariners!”

…and so on, at least if you believe the hysterical hit piece aimed at Pineda by George King of the New York Post before the new Yankee even had a chance to throw his first spring training pitch. That, along with reports that Pineda’s velocity was only in the 89-91 range in his Monday debut despite allowing just one hit over two scoreless innings, set off a brief firestorm about whether Brian Cashman and company had made a terrible mistake in finally cashing in their Montero chip to acquire Pineda from Seattle.

This is, of course, New York (and Post especially) journalism at its finest and something Pineda will need to get used to, ludicrous as it may be. (You’d think that the last few years of C.C. Sabathia would at least get them to lay off the “too big to succeed” notion, anyway.) Pineda is coming off of one of the finest rookie seasons by a pitcher in some time, and though some surface-level regression should be expected as he moves from Seattle’s spacious park to the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, nothing we’ve learned so far has changed the outlook on one of the brightest young pitchers in the game.

The key, of course, is “so far”. If we’re several Pineda starts deep into the spring and he’s still having difficulty getting his fastball up to the 94-mph range it was at last season, then that’s a legitimate cause for concern. But it’s hardly fair to expect any pitcher to be at full strength in his first outing of the spring, particularly when Pineda made it clear after the game that his main focus was on improving his developing changeup to become an effective third pitch.

None of this appears to have affected Pineda’s ADP all that much, as he’s still ranking in the top 30 (I’m guessing the discrepancy between this and PECOTA’s #59 rank is that drafters are putting more stock in the dynamic Yankee offense getting him more than the nine wins the terrible Seattle bats were able to help him to last year). If you happen to be in a league where you see Pineda falling because of this early situation, then by all means, jump on him.

Ubaldo Jimenez | SP | Cleveland Indians
Mixed: $7 | AL-only: $14 |
PECOTA SP Rank: 33 | SP ADP: 44

IP

W

ERA

WHIP

K

SV

180

11

3.48

1.30

164

0

Jimenez had a troublesome first appearance of his own, giving up five runs in just one inning against the Reds on Monday, but this one goes beyond the usual “spring training stat lines rarely matter” caveat; in this case, that line is exceptionally deceiving. Jimenez was helped by neither the two errors behind him or by two well-placed infield singles; according to this Cleveland Plain Dealer story, only Willie Harris’s two-run single qualified as a hard-hit ball.

Besides, even if Jimenez did get hit around, that’s not important right now. What is important is that on March 4, he was consistently clocked at 94-96 miles per hour. Since much of the concern over Jimenez last season was regarding the fact that his velocity was down around two miles per hour from his previous averages, that news is exceptionally welcome. Coming off a 10-13, 4.68 season, Jimenez’s stock is down somewhat from when he was tearing through the National League in 2010, but that perception only makes him more appealing because his strikeout and walk rates were nearly identical to what they were the year before. Despite the ERA jump from 2.88 to 4.68, Jimenez’s FIP only increased from 3.10 to 3.67.

As you can guess, PECOTA isn’t fooled, expecting him to reduce his ERA while keeping his strikeout rate north of eight per nine innings. While the experts are aware of that—Jason Collette paid $16 for Jimenez in the LABR AL-only draft, the highest amount for any of his starters and very near the $14 our PFM projects him for—the general public hasn’t quite caught on, valuing Jimenez in the Ervin Santana/Wandy Rodriguez range in drafts. By comparison, the PFM has Santana at $12 in AL-only leagues and Rodriguez at just $5 in NL-only leagues. Neither seems to have the upside that Jimenez does, and with the early reports on his velocity being very encouraging, he could potentially be a nice value on draft day.

Chad Billingsley | SP | Los Angeles Dodgers
Mixed: $4 | NL-only: $8 |
PECOTA SP Rank: 51 | SP ADP: 76

IP

W

ERA

WHIP

K

SV

174

9

3.68

1.29

140

0

Billingsley has always been one of those guys who receives far more attention for what he isn’t rather than what he is. He was a first-round pick who made his big league debut at 21, and of the 33 pitchers who have tossed at least 750 innings between 2008-11, his solid 3.52 FIP is bested only by 10 pitchers in baseball, pitchers who constitute a “who’s who of pitching”—guys like Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, and Felix Hernandez. There’s unquestionable value in that, yet Billingsley is often seen as a disappointment; mediocre records (double-digit losses in each of the last four seasons), a declining strikeout rate, a second-half breakdown in 2009, and the obvious comparisons to his younger yet far more successful teammate Clayton Kershaw have all hurt Billingsley’s public perception.

While anyone would suffer standing next to Kershaw, some of that negativity is fair, as Baseball Prospectus 2012 summed up regarding Billingley’s disappointing 2011:

While Clayton Kershaw was busy winning a Cy Young award, the Dodgers' former future ace took a step backwards with his worst season to date. As his swing-and-miss percentage declined for the second-straight year, his strikeout and walk rates were by far his worst since his rookie season, a problem compounded by a BABIP 17 points above league average. Batters teed off on him with men on base. What stands out in looking at his PITCHf/x data is the increased use of his changeup at the expense of his slider, despite batters swinging and missing at a lot more of the latter. He'll have to reverse his downward trend or risk becoming expensive rotation filler.

If this is all Billingsley is, there’s still utility there, making him a guy you throw a few bucks at near the end of a draft to fill out your innings needs. Entering only his age-27 season, however, one would hope there’s still more left to him. For his part, Billingsley spent most of the offseason attempting to incorporate minor changes into his mechanics in order to gain more consistency in his motion:

“I don't know if it's major,” Billingsley said. “I’m just working hard at smoothing out my leg kick. When my foot gets out away from my body like that, my timing has to be just right. If it's not, then I start drifting toward the third-base side and stepping across my body when I deliver the pitch.”

And that results in the pitch being off line, maybe no more than an inch or so, but in the big leagues, that can be the difference in a game. Billingsley is hoping this adjustment will allow him to stay on line more often, giving him a little more margin for error with the rest of his delivery because his timing will be right and his momentum won't cause him to fall off to one side of the mound.

“Working on mechanics” is only a whisker behind “I’m in the best shape of my life” when it comes to spring training clichés, so take that with the requisite grain of salt. Still, Billingsley’s initial spring training outing was encouraging, retiring six of seven Chicago hitters while needing only 21 pitches to do so, and that’s what makes Billingsley interesting. If improvement doesn’t come, then you still have a usable and likely cheap roster filler. If it does, then you may have tapped into some impressive potential at a below-market price.

Johan Santana | SP | New York Mets
Mixed: $6 | NL-only: $10 |
PECOTA SP Rank: 37 | SP ADP: 63

IP

W

ERA

WHIP

K

SV

138

8

3.24

1.14

109

0

Let me first start by saying that yes, I do believe PECOTA is just a bit optimistic about Santana, who hasn’t pitched in a game that counts since September of 2010. Even before the injury, Santana had shown signs of decline, particularly in a K/9 rate that had fallen from 10.5 in 2004 to 6.5 in 2010. So no, I wouldn’t count on Santana, nor would I spend more than a few dollars on him as a late-round flier.

All those caveats out of the way, there is promising news coming out of Mets camp regarding Santana, and that’s that he was able to get to 90-92 mph in his spring debut while tossing two scoreless innings against the Cardinals on Tuesday. Even better, he was reportedly pain-free the next day and is on track to throw a scheduled bullpen session today. In the same sense that a poor initial impression shouldn’t be held against Pineda or Jimenez, Santana shouldn’t get too much credit for this positive first start until we see that he can actually make it out there a few times and hold (or increase) that velocity without breaking down again. At this point, though, any news that isn’t bad is a step in the right direction.

If he can hold up, well, there’s the possibility that Santana will once again be an intriguing fantasy prospect. He’ll almost certainly never be the monster that he was several years ago, but he’s only turning 33 next week, and even as his strikeouts were declining with the Mets, he was still an effective starter. Clearly, this is one of those situations where the timing of your draft date is paramount, because this is only going to be clarified through further data as Santana continues to pitch.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Chad Billingsley

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