Verlander, Nathan among veteran pitchers trying to rebound in 2015
Coming off his worst season since 2008, Justin Verlander had been generating positive reports this spring, but after leaving Friday's Grapefruit League start with a cramp in his right triceps muscle, he will begin the season on the disabled list. Remarkably, it's the first time that the 32-year-old righty—who has thrown more innings than any other pitcher since the start of the '07 season if you count the playoffs—has hit the DL, and while his stay isn't expected to be a long one, it serves to remind that his rebound from a rough season is hardly automatic.
Verlander—whose situation I'll expand upon below—is hardly alone, either. What follows here is a look at five other hurlers whose performances plummeted from 2013 to '14 and who are being counted on in key roles for contending teams in '15. Injuries may have been factors in some of those declines, but this list is steering clear of those coming back from multiple down years or significant season-ending surgeries, such as Matt Cain and CC Sabathia.
Much has been made, in this space and elsewhere, of the current state of the Red Sox rotation, which features only two holdovers from last season—Buchholz and Joe Kelly—and a projected starting five that pitched to a combined 4.55 ERA and 1.7 WAR in 2014, numbers that look even worse if you exclude the performance of off-season acquisition Rick Porcello (3.43 ERA, 4.0 WAR).
Buchholz pitched brilliantly over the course of 16 starts in 2013, posting a 1.74 ERA in 108 1/3 innings, but he missed three months due to bursitis in his shoulder. His 28 starts last season were one off his career high, but he was rocked for a 5.34 ERA in 170 1/3 innings, and his WAR fell from 4.3 to a dismal -1.6. Some of his troubles related to defensive support (a BABIP spike from .255 to .317), and his 4.04 FIP was nothing to write home about. But even with a subpar strikeout rate (17.9% of all batters faced, compared to 19.3% for all AL starters), his 2.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio was still the second-best of his career, just a bit below the previous season. Knee problems were probably a factor as well; he missed nearly all of June after hyperextending his left knee, then underwent offseason surgery on the meniscus of his right knee.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, the 30-year-old righty's spring performance has been strong, and after topping out at 94 miles per hour in his most recent turn, Buchholz told the Boston Globe that he he's feeling particularly good: "Right now, whenever I feel like I need to reach back and get a little extra, it’s not in a max-effort level where I’m not staying within the delivery… I feel like I make the adjustment quicker than I did a year ago. It feels pretty similar to the spring training in 2013." Particularly with the likelihood of a Cole Hamels trade plummeting with the loss of Christian Vazquez for the season—renewing the emphasis of the importance of trade target Blake Swihart—that's good news for the Red Sox.
Masterson's situation is less clear. The 30-year-old sinkerballer, who at this time last year appeared to be on track for a significant payday in the vicinity of $17 million per year, pitched his way out of the rotations of two contenders (Cleveland and St. Louis) via a 5.88 ERA in 128 2/3 innings. His already-high walk rate—3.5 per nine in 2013, when he pitched to a 3.45 ERA, 3.35 FIP, and 3.4 WAR while earning All-Star honors—shot up to 4.8 per nine, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio slid to a career-worst 1.7. Inflammation in his right knee was a contributing factor, as Masterson spent 25 days on the DL in July, and his average fastball velocity dipped from 91.6 mph in '13 to 88.9 in '14, according to FanGraphs.
Perhaps mindful of the Josh Beckett-like seesaw of Masterson's career—ERAs of 4.70, 4.93 and 5.88 in even-numbered years, .3.21 and 3.45 in odds — the Red Sox bet $9.5 million that Masterson could bounce back. His spring has been uneven, as he's struggled to regain his lost velocity and to find his arm slot; he's alternated good and bad outings, with a four-run first inning against an Orioles' A ball squad followed by Monday's strong effort against the Twins. Still, it's anybody's guess as to what the Sox will get here.
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Ubaldo Jimenez, Orioles
The 31-year-old righty has ridden quite the rollercoaster ever since posting a 2.88 ERA, 7.5 WAR season with the Rockies in 2010, a showing that helped him place third in that that year's NL Cy Young voting. Since then, he's pitched to a combined 4.50 ERA and 4.17 FIP with 2.3 WAR, losing his hold on spots in the Rockies', Indians' and Orioles' rotations and shedding over five miles per hour of fastball velocity along the way (from 96.1 mph in '10 to 90.5 last year).
Jimenez's lone good season, a 3.30 ERA/2.7 WAR showing with the Indians in 2013, helped him net a four-year, $50 million deal last February, but he was as mercurial as ever as he struggled with his mechanics and walked 5.5 per nine en route to a 4.81 ERA and 4.67 FIP. He missed five weeks in midseason after spraining his right ankle in a parking lot misstep that conveniently opened up space for Kevin Gausman in the rotation, and from there he was an afterthought, making just five more starts and three relief appearances the rest of the way.
Still due $38.75 million through 2017, Jimenez appears to be on track for a rotation spot thanks to an offseason overhaul of his delivery as well as a recent hot streak. Given the way general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter have shuttled pitchers in and out of the rotation using the DL and the minors in recent years, nothing should be regarded as permanent, particularly with the team likely to keep an eye on Gausman's innings total, and with Jimenez notorious for falling out of whack. Stay tuned.
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Verlander isn't manager Brad Ausmus's only cause for concern. Signed to a two-year, $20 million deal to paper over Detroit's longstanding late-inning woes, Nathan instead exacerbated them. While he saved 35 games last year, his seven blown saves tied Glen Perkins and Rafael Soriano for the major league lead among closers, and his 4.81 ERA was higher than any pitcher with more than 12 saves. That mark was also more than triple his microscopic 1.39 ERA from the year before with the Rangers. Nathan's walk rate jumped from 3.1 to 4.5 per nine and his strikeout rate fell from 10.2 to 8.4; his resulting 1.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio was his worst since 2000, when he was bouncing in and out of the Giants' rotation. Only a late-season injury to pre-deadline acquisition Joakim Soria prevented him from losing his job.
The now–40-year-old Nathan didn't lose a whole lot in the way of velocity from 2013 to '14—from 92.3 mph to 91.7 mph via FanGraphs—but his zone contact rate jumped from 82% to 89.5, and his BABIP from .228 to .325, the latter 64 points above his career average. After adjusting his off-season regime to focus on agility and flexibility, he's still in place as the team's closer, with a hangnail his only physical issue thus far this spring (yes, really), but his fastball velocity has lagged, and he's been roughed up a few times. It seems like only a matter of time before a healthy Soria overtakes him on the Tigers' depth chart unless Nathan suddenly returns to form; particularly given his increasingly strained relationship with the Tigers' media and fans, his first blown save will have the vultures circling.
Justin Verlander, Tigers
You know the story. Though he threw 32 starts and 206 innings, Verlander was cuffed for a 4.54 ERA in 2014 as his velocity fell for the fifth straight season (to 93.1 mph, down from 95.6 in '09), and his 17.8% strikeout rate was miles below the 23.5% from the year before; on a per-nine basis, he lost two full whiffs, from 8.9 to 6.9. Optimism reigned in January, when Verlander revealed that the core muscle surgery he underwent a year ago was a factor. "I don't want to make excuses," he told reporters, "I definitely didn't talk about it last year, but after talking with the therapist this year, it definitely did have an effect, and I'm sure it had a pretty big one."
Verlander reportedly added 20 pounds of muscle this past offseason, and reports of his performance and velocity had been encouraging, but after sitting 94–95 mph and touching 96 during the first two innings of his March 27 start, he left due to a cramp in his triceps. Having already decided that his run of seven straight Opening Day starts would end, the Tigers have opted to proceed with caution and send him to the DL, though they apparently haven't ordered an MRI. Assuming it's only a cramp and not a strain, and if his bullpen session this weekend goes as planned, he could return on April 12, the Tigers' sixth game of the season. If that's the case, Verlander's chances of rebounding would appear to be as strong as any pitcher here, but if the problem worsens, he could be in for another frustrating season.
Since signing a five-year, $77.5 million deal with the Angels in December 2011, Wilson has put up about 1 1/2 good seasons out of three, earning All-Star honors in '12 before a second-half fizzle and then posting a 3.39 ERA and 3.3 WAR in 212 1/3 innings in '13. He had stretches of solid performances last year, including 10 quality starts out of 14 and a 2.54 ERA from April 7 through June 19. But from June 24 onward, was torched for a 6.04 ERA with just five quality starts out of 16, a span that included a 23-day absence in late July/early August due to a right ankle sprain. He finished with a 4.51 ERA, 4.31 FIP, 4.4 walks per nine and 0.0 WAR, his worst season since returning to the rotation in '10—and those numbers don't even include his first-inning exit in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Royals.
In February, Wilson told reporters that the ankle hurt the whole time after he came back from the injury, and that it was a mistake to pitch through both that and a June bout of flu-like symptoms. Unfortunately for him and the Angels, he's had a rough spring that included missing two starts in a row, one after tweaking his right knee during fielding drills, the other with illness. He was then roughed up for a pair of homers and four walks in 4 1/3 innings by the Giants upon returning. Still, manager Mike Scioscia believes he's throwing the ball "as well as I've seen him throw it," which is either cause for optimism or merely an attempt to boost the morale of the 34-year-old lefty. Either way, the Angels need him to step up if they're to defend their AL West flag, and it's unclear what they can expect.