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Best and worst starting pitching gambles of the offseason

Making a big starting pitching acquisition is always a risky proposition. Starting pitchers are tough to predict. Oftentimes they get hurt, they break down, they lose their stuff, or they just plain stink. At other times they'll surprise you with a great year or a great performance. Given the unpredictable nature of hurlers, especially a few years down the road, making a big splash to acquire a pitcher is a risk. For every successful Greg Maddux or Andy Pettitte signing, there are several Mike Hamptons, Jason Schmidts, Chan Ho Parks, or Barry Zitos that have the potential to hamper a franchise long-term. The impossible trick is figuring out which will be which. Here I'll attempt to present the best and worst starting pitching gambles in the 2010 offseason.

1. Cliff Lee, Mariners

Age: 31Projected WAR (Wins Above Replacement): 4.3 Wins Contract: 1 year, $9 million

The Mariners got a steal in picking up Cliff Lee at a bargain price. The 2008 Cy Young winner only solidified his reputation by turning in an outstanding 2009 for both the Indians and Phillies, including an extremely impressive postseason (though I wouldn't go overboard in using postseason performance as a predictor of future success). Not only is he a great pitcher, but he comes at a great price, at less than half of what he would be worth on the open market. Sean Smith's CHONE projection system, one of the more accurate systems around, puts Lee's value at 4.3 Wins Above Replacement, easily worth his $8 million price tag. In order to get Lee, the Mariners did give up a couple of good prospects, but it didn't leave their farm system dry. Having Lee at that price for one season is extremely valuable, but even if the Mariners fail to contend they could likely ship him to a contender and recoup the prospects they gave up. Alternately, if Seattle can't resign him, they'll likely stand to gain a couple of high draft picks as compensation.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has done an impressive job this offseason, picking up Milton Bradley for Carlos Silva, as well as signing Chone Figgins to a reasonable deal. With the Lee trade, Seattle has indicated that they are ready to make a run in 2010 and should vastly improve on their 85-win performance in 2009. Adding an elite starting pitcher without breaking the bank or farm is another great move for Seattle.

2. Javier Vazquez, Yankees

Age: 33 Projected WAR: 4.8 WinsContract: 1 year $11.5 million

Vazquez has pitched for the Yankees before, and his last stay didn't end well, giving up two home runs in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. That said, Vazquez is coming off of a career year, in which he posted a career-low 2.87 ERA for Atlanta. Critics will point out that he wasn't so hot the year before, going 12-16 with a 4.67 ERA. However, he was likely the victim of some bad luck, as he still struck out 200 men while walking just 61. Vazquez's peripheral statistics were even better in 2009, when he posted his best strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career -- something that indicates that his improvement was more than just a mere fluke.

While Vazquez likely won't match that his '09 ERA this season, he's projected to have a 2010 ERA in the high 3.00's and should be one of the more valuable pitchers around -- easily worth his $11.5 million salary. Though he'll be 33 years old, that's not a major factor considering he's signed for just one year, plus he's durable as can be, pitching at least 198 innings in each of the last ten seasons. The move is particularly key for the Yankees, because their 2009 starting rotation was their lone weakness. Sergio Mitre and Chien-Ming Wang combined for 18 starts and an 8.07 ERA and the Yankees still won 103 games. Now with a starting rotation of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Vazquez, Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain, there's not a weak pitcher among them. It could be a long season for the rest of the AL East.

To get Vazquez, the Yankees had to give up centerfielder Melky Cabrera as well as a couple of pitching prospects. While Cabrera is a loss, the lesser known, but younger and better fielding Brett Gardner should be able to take over just fine.

3. Jon Garland, Padres

Age: 30Projected WAR: 2.3 Wins Contract: 1 year, $5.3 million

While San Diego doesn't look to be a contender in 2010, the Garland contract is a real steal. Garland posted a 4.01 ERA in 200 innings in 2009, a figure that was slightly better, but not totally out of line with the rest of his career numbers. The Bill James, CHONE, and Marcel projection systems put his likely 2010 ERA in the mid-to-low 4.00's -- a very respectable figure. Besides that, Garland is durable (at least 190 IP in each of the last 8 seasons), and he's young (just 30 years old). All of that sounds like a guy who would be in the market for a big multi-year deal, especially considering the crop of starting pitchers wasn't particularly strong this off-season. After all, he was pretty much the same pitcher in 2006 when he signed a three-year $29 million contract -- a contract on which he largely paid dividends.

How then, did new Padres GM Jed Hoyer manage to sign Garland for a one-year $5.3 million contract? That's probably what a host of other teams would like to know as well. Last year, Garland had the misfortune of going to an extremely deep Dodgers team that didn't really have space for him, which probably affected his perceived value. Garland's not a Cy Young candidate, but he would provide significant value as a middle of the rotation starter to most teams. On the Padres, he probably provides even more value, as they're not exactly teeming with quality starting pitchers. Critics may point out that the Padres aren't likely to go anywhere with or without Garland, so why make the move (some of these critics may or may not be the same ones criticizing the Padres for not spending any money)? The fact is that even if the Padres aren't going to the World Series, respectability matters to the fans and at the box office and these types of smart signings that can slowly improve the club are a path to a better future.

1. Randy Wolf, Brewers

Age: 33Projected WAR: 2.2 Wins Contract: 3 years, $29.8 million

I like the fact that the Brewers tried to make a move in acquiring pitching talent on the free agent market. Although the Brewers don't currently look like a sure playoff contender, they have a core of young players in Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, etc, that is only getting older. A major pitching free agent signing can help the club become competitive, and with luck, make it back to the playoffs. What I don't like is who the Brewers chose to acquire and the price they paid. Wolf is coming off a fine season to be sure, having posted a 3.23 ERA for the playoff-bound Dodgers. Indeed, if he pitches like he did for the Dodgers the Brewers will be pleased with their pickup. However, Wolf's massive improvement in ERA was mostly due to an extremely low Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) by his opponents. Unfortunately for Wolf and the Brewers, a pitcher has little control over his opponents' BABIP, which means that he probably was just lucky. When that luck runs out, and his opponents' BABIP reverts from last year's extremely low .257 to his more typical career .294, he'll go back to being the solid, yet not spectacular pitcher he was in prior years.

This wouldn't be terrible news except for the fact that Wolf will be 33 and has had injury problems in the past. Add in the fact that the deal is for three years, and the Brewers may come to regret this move. Wolf is probably going to be a decent pitcher for them, but there were other options which would probably have been just as good, but cheaper (see Garland, Jon).

As shaky as this deal was for Milwaukee, Wolf's former team made an even bigger mistake. As a Type A free agent, the Dodgers could have gained two high draft picks when he walked away. All Los Angeles had to do was offer Wolf arbitration, which in all likelihood he would have declined in order to sign a multi-year deal elsewhere. But inexplicably, the Dodgers failed to offer Wolf arbitration and under the rules, a team doesn't get compensation picks if they don't offer arbitration. Instead of getting two valuable draft picks for losing Wolf, the Dodgers got nothing.

2. Roy Halladay, Phillies

Age: 33Projected WAR: 5.7 WinsContract: 4 years, $75.5 million

It's hard to say that picking up the game's best available pitchers is a bad move. Roy Halladay is good. Really good. Halladay is coming off two seasons in which he posted a 2.79 and 2.78 ERA respectively, he strikes out 200 men per year, walks few, and pitches a ton of innings. And he's done it all against the AL East. The only negative is that Halladay will be 33 years old in May, although he doesn't exactly show signs of slowing down.

So why might this backfire? First, the Phillies had to give up a pretty good set of prospects to get him, including Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, and Travis D'Arnaud. Second, the Phillies only gained one-year of below market value for Halladay's services (he's owed $15.75 million in 2010, which is a great deal). After that Halladay would have been a free agent in line for a big payday -- something of no benefit to Philadelphia. In anticipation, Philly pre-empted the market by signing an extension for an additional three years and $60 million. If the deal started immediately, it would be a steal, but the extension doesn't start until 2011, and by that point, Halladay's value could potentially plummet due to injury, ineffectiveness, etc. In essence, Philadelphia will be paying Halladay slightly less than he would get on the open market, but they take on the added risk that something could happen to Halladay before the deal kicks in.

The overall effect of the Halladay trade is that Philadelphia has him under contract for four years at an average of $19 million per season. Were he on the open market, he might make a bit more than that, but probably not much more, given the uncertainty surrounding even the best of pitchers, particularly when they are 33 years old. Will Halladay still be worth $20 million at age 36? Time will tell.

The other negative surrounding this deal was the fact that it forced Philadelphia to trade Cliff Lee, a pitcher who is not quite the equal of Halladay, but very good in his own right. As mentioned above, Lee was a bargain at just $9 million. Had Lee been retained, the Phillies would be the prohibitive favorites in the National League going into 2010, and it's hard to understand why they would unload a reasonably priced ace when their team is clearly hitting its stride. As it stands, Philadelphia unloaded a bargain ace, while at the same time obtaining a long term contract for an ace who is only a little better than the one they had. As a result, the Phillies will be slightly improved, but will carry far more financial risk. Whether the risk will be worth it depends on whether Roy Halladay can produce the next four years the way he has in the past.

3. Tim Hudson, Braves

Age: 34 Projected WAR: 2.0 WinsContract: 3 years, $28 million

With an already deep starting rotation, the Braves had a choice to make between keeping Javier Vazquez and re-signing Tim Hudson. The Braves went with Hudson, and I think it was the wrong move. I sung the praises of Vazquez above, and while Hudson is a fine pitcher when he's healthy, he hasn't been healthy recently and is 34 years old. And giving a 34-year-old player coming off injury $28 million is always a gamble. In fairness, he pitched well in seven starts at the end of 2009, posting a 3.61 ERA and seeming to have his stuff back. If Hudson reverts to the form he was in during his last full season in 2007, he will be a bargain indeed, but at his age, that's far from a guarantee, especially considering he'll be with the team until he's 37. To minimize risk, the Braves probably would have been better off agreeing to a $12 million mutual option in 2010, although Hudson really wanted a long term deal. Given his age and the fact that he is coming off of injury, I can see why, despite the fact that he says he feels better than he has in years.

The Braves currently have a very talented young nucleus of pitchers with Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson and are poised to make a playoff run in the near future. Come 2012, they may well wish that they had more flexibility in augmenting that nucleus, rather than giving money to a 37-year old Hudson. That said, the Hudson contract is a high-risk, high-reward proposition which could turn out either way.

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