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January 15, 2013

Rumor Roundup

Tuesday, January 15

by Daniel Rathman

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The free-agent list of starting pitchers got a little thinner on Monday afternoon, when, as first reported by Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pirates ponied up a one-year deal to retain right-hander Jeff Karstens. Today’s Roundup includes notes on two other northpaws who are presently searching for new homes.

Shaun Marcum drawing calls from at least three teams
General managers whose squads still need a reliable starting pitcher, but who are unwilling to surrender a high draft pick for Kyle Lohse, are running low on options these days. Besides Lohse, only one starter who ranked among R.J. Anderson’s top 30 free agents remains available. That starter is Marcum, and if FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi’s sources are prescient, he might not be available for long.

Morosi tweeted in the wee hours of Monday morning that the Padres, Pirates, and Rangers have recently placed calls to Marcum’s agent, Rex Gary, and it is possible that the 31-year-old’s market will expand further as he nears a decision. The Indians were previously interested, but the impact of the Brett Myers signing on their pursuit of Marcum is unclear. Newsday’s Marc Carig reported a few weeks ago that the Mets—who, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, have plenty of dough to throw around in the last few weeks before spring training—were considering Marcum to supplant the departed R.A. Dickey in their rotation. Finally, a return to the Brewers cannot be ruled out, as Marcum himself told ESPN’s Jim Bowden a month ago, though the frugal Doug Melvin might be content with his in-house options.

Marcum might have been a hot commodity this offseason, had he not missed 61 games with tightness in his throwing elbow, on which he underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2008. The former Blue Jay, who came to Milwaukee for then-top prospect Brett Lawrie before the 2011 season, was worth 3.2 wins in 2010 and 2.5 wins in 2011, before dropping off to 0.8 WARP last year. Marcum pocketed $7.725 million in 2012, after avoiding arbitration, and though his medicals are a concern, it seems reasonable to think that he could at least match that salary in the coming year.

Unfortunately, after years of being considered one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball because of his unique, soft-tossing style, Marcum exhibited warning signs in 2012 that may now be tempering teams’ willingness to enter a long-term commitment. The righty employs a full menu of off-speed pitches to mask his Reagan-era fastball, feeding a heavy dose of cutters and sliders to like-handed hitters, while using curveballs and changeups to keep lefties on their heels. And that’s where the caution flag comes in.

The strike-zone plot above, from Marcum’s pitcher profile, illustrates the extent to which his changeup baffled left-handed hitters in 2010, the best year of his major-league career. No pitcher who faced at least 200 lefties that year—and yes, that includes southpaws—fared better than Marcum, who held them to a .194 TAv. Marcum, then a Blue Jay, was so fearsome to opposite-handed batters that Rays manager Joe Maddon ordered his switch-hitters to bat righty against him, and even placed lefty-masher Kelly Shoppach in the cleanup spot in a Tampa Bay rout on June 9, 2010.

As the above Pitch Outcomes table from Marcum’s Brooks Baseball card shows, lefties were unable to resist swinging at his changeup, and when they swung, they often hit nothing but air. That was not the case in 2012…

… when they offered considerably less often and missed on a significantly smaller percentage of their swings. As a result, their aggregate performance improved to a .280 TAv, and reverse-platoon lineup arrangements were an afterthought for opposing skippers (a list that, with his move to the senior circuit, admittedly did not include Maddon).

Marcum can be a useful major-league contributor even if that decline persists, but if his vaunted changeup is beginning to lose its magic, then he is more of a fourth starter than a mid-rotation stud. In part because of his difficulty missing left-handed bats, Marcum’s walk rate rose to 7.8 percent last year, up from 6.9 percent in 2011 and 5.4 percent in 2010, when he ranked fifth among qualifying starters in that department. That led to a corresponding hike in Marcum’s FIP, which climbed to 4.21 last season from 3.71 two years earlier, even though his strikeout and home-run rates largely held steady.

One of the league’s most extreme fly-ball pitchers, Marcum induced grounders on only 35.4 percent of the balls put in play against him last year, the 12th-lowest rate among starters who threw a minimum of 100 innings and the lowest mark of his career. Regardless of the effectiveness of his changeup, Marcum fits best with a team that plays in a vast yard and covers its pastures with a strong defensive outfield.

From that standpoint, the Pirates, who offer the cushy confines of PNC Park and were sixth in the league with a .228 BABIP allowed on fly balls last year, could be an ideal landing spot, either on a multi-year hitch or a one-year pact to rebuild his stock. Petco Park gives the Padres (.237 BABIP, 14th) a strong selling point, and the Rangers should see an improvement in their outfield defense (.238 BABIP, 15th) with Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin supplanting Josh Hamilton in center, but the Bucs meet both criteria better than their active competitors. If Marcum values setting over salary, then he may well be headed to Pittsburgh.

Dodgers kicking the tires on Rafael Soriano
Scott Boras, referring to his unsigned free agents, told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick last week, “It doesn’t really matter what time dinner is when you’re the steak.” Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, and Soriano have all seen their off-season dreams dashed by the draft-pick albatross that came when they rejected their previous employers’ qualifying offers. Boras saw a hint of desperation slip eight days ago, when FOX Sports’ Bob Klapisch reported that he has asked the Yankees if they would take Soriano back on a one-year deal, and the steak metaphor may have been the agent’s attempt to mask his growing concerns.

As of Jan. 4, Lohse—per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold—did not have a single offer on the table, and Soriano’s market has been similarly dormant. But ESPN’s Buster Olney brought a dose of good news on Monday: The Dodgers are at least exploring the idea of adding the 33-year-old closer to their already-loaded bullpen.

Olney put the odds of Boras and general manager Ned Colletti striking a deal at around 20 percent and gave no indication of the terms that might be discussed. Despite their seemingly bottomless coffers, it’s unlikely that the Dodgers would overpay for Soriano, because they have already added Brandon League and J.P. Howell to a relief corps led by Kenley Jansen. Some of Los Angeles’ excess arms—a lengthy list that also includes starters like Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang—could be used to restock the farm system, but the first-round draft pick that would disappear if Soriano were brought to Chavez Ravine could just as easily be used toward that end.

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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