If this year’s free-agent crop of starting pitchers were a graduating high school class, their prom theme would have to be “Risk and Reward.” Having passed the November 20th commencement ceremony, after which members of the class can be hired by prospective employers, one market aspect has become increasingly clear. Aside from valedictorian John Lackey, the student body consists of one of two types: either the troublemaker with the potential to achieve, or the consistent yet unnoticed pupil whose lack of flakiness tends to overrate his attributes in relation to the former archetype. Essentially, teams are going to dole out lucrative contracts to mid-pack starters, else they decide to diversify their risk amongst those voted “most likely to spend time on the disabled list,” signing a couple to incentive-laden contracts in the hopes that at least one will pan out and reach his potential.
While the market saw a glut in the corner outfield spots last season, teams with free-agent wish lists currently in the works will need to decide how much value should be placed on pitchers whose performance evaluations are preceded by everyone’s favorite “if he stays healthy” caveat. With a multitude of names, however, the risk is unlikely to come at as much of a premium as it would in a less congested year. The above characteristics render this an important offseason as certain deals, based on various combinations of risk and reward, may serve as precedents for future signings. The pitchers below basically fall into two sections-injury prone or not-and will be segregated as such, with the top five in each category ranked. Combining everyone would be less accurate given the necessity for homemade health probabilities and the sheer number of injury-prone pitchers.
The relatively healthy bunch:
1. John Lackey: Lackey stands alone as the best of the best, a relatively young righty who carries significantly less risk than the other high-upside hurlers, virtually meriting his own category heading in the process. His career thus far has been interesting, in that he has never posted one of those sparkling sub-3.00 ERAs, and playing in a league that a majority of fans fail to realize is significantly tougher than the senior circuit, he lacks that ace aura in spite of being very good for a long time. It may take an extended trip to the National League before he is taken more seriously as a legitimate award contender and top-tier tosser, but a hefty payday is coming his way with teams realizing exactly what he brings to the table. Because his medical history isn’t spotless and his stuff is not as capable of dominating the opposition as a Sabathia’s, it is hard to fathom Lackey receiving more than the contractual commitment and dollar amount inked by A.J. Burnett last season, but he will undoubtedly provide more bang for the buck.
2. Randy Wolf: Yes, Wolf had Tommy John Surgery a few years ago, but he appears to have recovered. His seasonal earned run averages since 2002 follow what appears to be a normal distribution, with the mark rising from solid to replacement level and descending back down to Solidville, ERA. By 2009 data alone, he rates as the best pitcher of this entire crop on both a rate and raw tally basis, with a 6.1 SNLVAR and 3.47 FRA to go along with a second-best .565 SNWP. Of course, he is not the best pitcher of this bunch and has benefited from spacious home parks over the last three seasons, which doesn’t make him a poor pitcher, but should garner skepticism at the idea that he might finally be fulfilling his potential as a perennial All-Star. A short-armed and deceptive delivery adds to his perceived velocity, which helps keep hitters off balance and goes a long way towards explaining how seemingly average movement with substandard velocity could have routinely retired hitters. It is reasonable to assume that Wolf could sustain a league-average performance at worst over the next few seasons, but his stellar 2009 is more than likely to lead to a few suitors offering more lucrative than merited deals, only to eventually receive decent, not overwhelming, results. Think Oliver Perez in terms of years and money, but add in actual pitching talent and utility.
3. Joel Pineiro: The question mark surrounding Pineiro involves the sustainability of that gaudy 60 percent ground-ball rate. Upturns as drastic as his are not unprecedented, and in fact Cliff Lee transformed himself similarly two years ago en route to his Cy Young Award. At the time, I found that severe increases in ground-ball rate are symptomatic of a change in approach and not a cruel joke from the fluke fairy. The complete inverse of a Three True Outcomes hitter with this approach-he doesn’t miss bats, issue walks, or serve up dingers-Pineiro will need to be flanked by solid defenders to consistently surpass the 4.5 SNLVAR threshold, and this is assuming he sustains the Webb-like worm-killer rate. If that falls by the wayside, Pineiro could get a general manager fired. At 30 years old, he is still fairly young, especially for a pitcher coming into his own, if that accurately depicts his prospects. While teams should have learned their lesson from deals doled out to the likes of Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse, Pineiro and Wolf are likely to receive similar deals worth more than they can realistically provide for the long haul, simply as a byproduct of their health and perceived consistency in relation to the higher upside injury risks.
4. Doug Davis: A league-average innings muncher in every sense of the term, Davis is durable and deceptive enough to make his below-average repertoire mystify hitters. Though it seems as if he has been around for eons, Davis is just 33 years old and has realistically shown no signs of slowing down. An SNWP above .500 and 4.34 FRA accrued in over 200 innings of work in a bandbox stadium is valuable to any rotation, especially when the pitcher in question has established a level of performance that won’t trick executives into overvaluing his contributions. His signing won’t be lauded, but this writer is willing to bet that Davis provides more value for his dollars than the two non-Lackeys above.
5. Jon Garland: The right-handed analog of Davis, it was fitting that both pitched for the same team last year in a rather good rotation that perfectly meshed with their skills and roles. Garland has not fallen below 32 starts and 191 frames since 2002, and while he is often mentioned for the poor aspects of his game, he does not issue many free passes and keeps the ball on the ground in addition to remaining eerily durable. It would be futile to suggest what he could improve upon because, at this point, he is what he is, an average pitcher better suited to eat up innings for a team than Livan Hernandez or Daniel Cabrera. That may be setting the bar rather low, but as long as expectations are tempered-a 4.01 ERA in 204 innings is quite good and could lead to improper assessments of value-and the price matches the talent, Garland is a safe choice to fill out a rotation, and a better option than Jason Marquis, Jose Contreras, or Braden Looper.
The risky pitchers with upsides greater than practically everyone listed above other than Lackey:
1. Rich Harden: Harden is the most frustrating pitcher of the decade, or at least tied with Mark Prior in the category in the sense that he can clearly dominate the opposition and reduce hitters to feeble contact when they do manage to connect, but he absolutely cannot stay healthy. Even over the last two years, when his injury exploits were not as high-impact, he didn’t manage more than 26 starts or 148 innings. Durability along those lines is considered a nice change of pace, and that astutely sums up the situation. Though the walks could stand to be reduced, striking out 11 batters per nine innings and limiting the opponent to a maximum batting average of .235 are two data points any pitcher would want on his resumé, unless of course it came with mandatory trips to the nurse’s office. Simply put, Harden has more talent and upside than any pitcher on this list and the vast majority of employed pitchers, but his inability to reliably put that talent in action is likely to lead to a string of one-year, incentive-laden deals from here on out. Expect him to sign a deal with an option for a second year, but any team acquiring his services should have a backup plan-either a Davis/Garland type or a pitching prospect-waiting in the wings. The worst possible scenario would involve paying Harden to rehab from an injury while his regularly scheduled starts are understudied by the likes of a Looper.
2. Ben Sheets: Sheets is very similar to Harden, save for a more established track record. Making 25 starts was a significant achievement for Harden, while it is generally the norm or a starting point for the burly ex-Brewer. He boasts precision control, an ability to keep the ball in the yard, and a career GB/FB ratio favoring the ground, as well as one of the most wicked curveballs in the sport. Elbow problems are always cause for concern, and missing the entire 2009 season certainly does not bode well, but perhaps our expectations need to be kept in line, realizing that Sheets will never be the consistent 30 GS/200 IP force we envisioned at the top of the decade, but rather an extremely talented individual whose body can hold up for two-thirds of a season with any surplus being considered a significant bonus. Being rested for a full year probably did the body good, and it would be shocking not to see him in uniform come Opening Day.
3. Erik Bedard: Unlikely to be recovered from shoulder surgery by Opening Day, Bedard is a tough cookie to cut given that the performance has been on display even in the face of injuries. Per SNWP, his .590 topped the entire crop of free-agent pitchers, and amongst those with at least 80 frames logged he outranked CC Sabathia, Dan Haren, Justin Verlander, and Josh Johnson. Add in the lowest FLAKE mark-our measure of game-to-game consistency, meaning he was consistently good-of any pitcher with the same innings constraint, and Bedard was in the midst of a legitimately great season before shoulder troubles effectively ended his brief Mariners tenure. If a team like the Dodgers fails to land Roy Halladay and loses the Lackey sweepstakes, expect them to take a flier on Bedard, who will have to reestablish his value but could be less prone to injury following the surgery, especially if he alters his mechanics.
4. Brett Myers: Terribly mishandled by the Phillies, whose constant shifting of his role may have played a part in his injuries, Myers’ abilities and health remain up in the air. Prior to 2007 he was, in the aggregate, a league-average pitcher capable of logging 200 frames, but a switch to closer and back to the rotation effectively ensured that he would never fulfill his potential throughout those peak years. Now, posting a 4.50 ERA in 200 innings is not awful, especially when it comes with an above-average strikeout rate and decent control, but Myers won’t get another deal akin to the three years and $25.75 million the Phillies offered after the 2006 season. Keep in mind that Myers is only 28 years old and has plenty of time to achieve some semblance of what the Phillies envisioned back in 2002-03. That won’t occur with his longtime employers, who made it clear they will not bring him back, but he should have a bevy of suitors interested in his services as either a mid-rotation starter or a set-up man. The obvious fit here is the Astros, given his relationship with Ed Wade, the latter’s fetish for acquiring players he had with the Phillies, and the fact that Myers represents a significant upgrade over most of their options.
5. Carl Pavano: Did you know that Pavano fell just shy of 200 innings this season, racking up 199⅓ frames in 33 starts as a Tribesman and a Twin? The 5.10 ERA and 5.36 FRA left much to be desired, but the peripheral run prevention metrics sincerely approved of his efforts. After all, it’s hard not to like a 6.6 K/9, 1.7 UBB/9, and a league-average home0run rate, all while keeping the ball on the ground. A .335 BABIP inflated his surface numbers, but surround him with decent defenders and-gasp-Carl Pavano could be pretty darn good for a team. If Davis and Garland are snatched up first, Pavano would make a more than serviceable contingency plan.
Hang Up Those Cleats: John Smoltz may have performed better after a mid-season switch to the Cardinals, but he provides so little utility to a team, especially with health risks that existed even in his prime, that it is hard to imagine anyone offering him a role aside from a bullpen position derived from sentimentality. Give Mike Hampton credit for refusing to walk away, but after a poor 2009 season compounded by his obligatory trip to the disabled list, the offers are unlikely to come in, especially given that the surplus of other injury-prone starters all offer more in the upside department.
Caveat Emptor: Jarrod Washburn benefited from playing in front of one of the top defensive outfields of all time last year in Seattle, which certainly worked to beautify the flyballer’s pitching line. He isn’t as good as he looked early on, nor is he as bad as he looked in Detroit, but he’ll require a solid defensive outfield and a spacious stadium to come anywhere near earning the amount of money he seemed poised to earn after the first two-thirds of the 2009 season. Unfortunately, teams fitting this bill might not have the need a starter of his ilk-here I’m thinking of the Giants-or might be too far away from impacting the standings that $7-8 million on Washburn is a waste-as it would be for the Padres.