Perusing baseball's used car lot for quality free-agent pitchers

Tuesday November 12th, 2013

Roy Halladay is coming off a dreadful season interrupted by shoulder surgery and is 36 years old.
Chris Szagola/AP

There is an adage among general managers that there is no such thing as a bad one-year contract. Limiting your exposure while remaining financially nimble is prudent, even if there isn't much return on that short-term investment. So flush is the game with money that perhaps the aphorism needs to be updated to include two-year contracts as well.

Nowhere is the need to limit exposure more important than it is in the market for veteran starting pitchers. It's the very used car lot of baseball.

The Red Sox, for instance, won the winter last year with an entire philosophy -- dole out more money on an annual basis to stay away from contracts beyond three years -- based on limiting exposure on all deals. Among Boston's many signings was forking over $26.5 million to pitcher Ryan Dempster, then 35, for two years.

Was Dempster worth it? His stuff diminished as the season wore on (5.16 ERA in the second half), he was a non-factor in the postseason and today he is their sixth starter. But he did chew up 171⅓ innings and Boston did go 17-12 in his starts (though that was thanks in large measure to the best offense in baseball), meaning he had a useful role on a championship club. He wasn't a bargain on a dollar-for-dollar basis, but that was hardly rare among last year's crop of veteran free-agent starters.

Fifteen starting pitchers who were at least 30 years old signed free agent contracts of one or two years last winter. Only three of them qualified for the ERA title with an adjusted ERA above average, and none of them changed teams: Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees and Bartolo Colon of the Athletics.

Of course, each of the signings last winter was met with best-case scenario optimism. Recall what Indians GM Chris Antonetti said about Brett Myers ($7 million for one year): "He'll go into our rotation and log a lot of innings. He's a big, strong physical guy who when he's started has shown he'll take the ball and throw strikes." Myers threw 21⅓ innings before he broke down.

This is what Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said about Dan Haren ($13 million for one year): "To get a pitcher of Dan Haren's caliber, we feel fortunate that we could land him." They may feel fortunate to see him go. Haren went 10-14 with a 4.67 ERA.

Twins GM Terry Ryan at least tried to contain his enthusiasm for Kevin Correia ($10 million, two years): "He's won in double figures the last four years in a row, and he's certainly a competitive guy. He throws the ball over and does a lot of the little things right, like control a running game, and he handles lefthanded hitters OK. He's been durable." Ryan might have gushed a wee bit more about the new copy machine in the Twins' offices. Correia did give Minnesota 31 starts and 185⅓ innings. Alas, he fell just short of the magical "double-digit wins" threshold, finishing 9-13 with a 4.18 ERA.

And then there were the noticeably strained words of Angels GM Jerry DiPoto upon the signing of Joe Blanton: "What Joe represents to us is stability and a winning player. We need it." Well, this "winning player" did have a winning career record (83-75), but such a distinction is virtually worthless for a guy with a career 4.37 ERA who had been getting clocked regularly the previous two years in the National League. As for stability, European satellites provide more of it than Blanton. He became the first MLB pitcher in five years and the second in franchise history to lose 14 games (2-14) with an ERA worse than 6.00 (6.04), joining Jim Abbott in 1996 (2-18, 7.48).

Among the other veteran free agent lowlight signings were Shaun Marcum by the Mets, Jeff Francis by the Rockies, Scott Baker by the Cubs, Roberto Hernandez by the Rays and Jason Marquis by the Padres.

What kind of impact will last year's market have on this one? None. Look around your town: are used car lots going out of business? It's buyer beware, but when teams can limit their exposure to one or two years, they can justify the risk. (Of course, the way teams drop $7 million on pitchers like Brett Myers while shortchanging their research and development staffs by not paying the best coaches and instructors well is a lousy way of prioritizing a business.)

REITER: Ranking the top 50 free-agents of the offseason

The market this year just so happens to be loaded with the baseball versions of a '61 Corvette -- only in poor condition. The pool of 30-plus starters includes four former Cy Young Award winners (Colon, Roy Halladay, Johan Santana and Barry Zito). Let's remove veteran pitchers who are in line for contracts of three or more years, including Bronson Arroyo, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana and Jason Vargas. That leaves 33 veteran starters who could be had for one-or two-year deals. I asked a veteran talent evaluator with one NL team to rank the five best risks among those 33. Here are his rankings with my comments, and then my picks and comments for the next five:

1. Tim Hudson, 38: Hudson was throwing the ball well in July (4-0, 3.10 ERA) when his season ended with an ankle injury. Scouts admire his competitiveness, his clubhouse presence, the sound health of his arm and his late-career transition to a pitcher with effective breaking stuff and changes of speed. Hudson might find such a strong market that he could price himself out of Atlanta, but at this stage of his career he should remain in the NL. Case in point: Last season he posted a 5.89 ERA in three starts against AL teams and a 3.66 ERA in 18 starts against NL teams.

Best fit: If not a return to the Braves, he would fit well with the Giants.

2. Bartolo Colon, 40: He looked like he was finished in April 2010, but that's when he underwent a surgery in the Dominican Republic in which doctors injected fat and bone marrow stem cells in Colon's elbow and shoulder. One of the doctors was known to have used human growth hormone in such procedures, though, he said, not in this one. Colon has since tested positive for synthetic testosterone in 2012.

There is no disputing that Colon has revived his career since the surgery and in the timeframe of his PED use. In the three seasons before that operation he was 13-16 with a 5.20 ERA in only 38 games. He is 36-25 with a 3.32 ERA in 80 games in three seasons since. Colon has become one of the game's premier two-seam fastball specialists, with uncanny movement and command.

Best fit: The Athletics have interest in keeping Colon in that big ballpark, but his stuff would play well in Pittsburgh, with the Pirates' emphasis on throwing and fielding groundballs.

3. Roy Halladay, 36: It was painful to watch Halladay tossing in the low 80s and pitching to a 4.55 ERA after he came back in August from shoulder surgery. But he was hurt by uncharacteristic wildness. In the six games after his return, he walked 19 and struck out 16 -- but batters hit .222 against him.

Shoulder surgeries remain the most ominous of procedures for a pitcher. Halladay's prospective value depends largely on a review of his medical records, perhaps an avenue best explored late in the winter after he has had a chance to continue his rehab. In any case, Halladay's pitching smarts and work ethic make him an attractive bet.

Best fit: The New York Mets. Assistant GM J.P. Ricciardi and Halladay share a history in Toronto and mutual admiration. Halladay may be worth the investment just to have him around New York's young pitchers in spring training.

4. Dan Haren, 33: All the innings and all the cutters have caught up with Haren. One of the most durable strike-throwers in baseball is no longer a 200-inning machine. But Haren, once the Nationals gave him a midseason 15-day break last year, proved he still can be a useful option in the back end of an NL rotation if handled with care. Haren had a 6.15 ERA on June 22, but after the re-boot, he went 6-5 with a 3.29 ERA in his last 16 games.

Best fit: The California native would be more comfortable nearer his SoCal home. San Diego or San Francisco make sense.

5. Ryan Vogelsong, 36: The Giants, after doling out industry-rattling bucks to keep Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum, oddly declined the $6.5 million option on Vogelsong after an injury-shortened season. But like Hudson, Vogelsong suffered a non-throwing injury: he broke bones in his hand while swinging a bat May 20. Upon his return, with his velocity down a tick or two after missing two months, he went 2-2 with a 4.55 ERA in 10 starts.

Best fit: Vogelsong has strong ties to San Francisco, where he revived his career, and mutual interest remains. But it is curious why the Giants would not pay Vogelsong less than what the Indians paid Myers last year, a decision that might open the door for the Phillies, his hometown team, to make a call.

The Next 5

Hiroki Kuroda, 38, hit a wall at the end of last season, pitching to a 6.56 ERA in his final eight starts for the Yankees. He would be in the top five but for the thought he will consider a return to Japan to close out his career.

A.J. Burnett, 36, still features strikeout stuff, especially with his oft-used breaking ball, but whether he returns to MLB is in question. Burnett will decide whether he wants to retire or keep pitching if the money is right.

Jason Hammel, 31, has been limited by knee and forearm injuries since the second half of 2012. He might be better served to settle for a one-year deal to re-establish his health and value.

Scott Baker, 32, threw just 15 innings for Chicago and essentially was paid $5.5 million by the Cubs to rehab his elbow. Now another club can reap the benefits of his comeback.

Scott Feldman, 30, made 30 starts with a WHIP of 1.183 last year. Do you know how many pitchers in all of baseball did that? Just 25 -- and Feldman was one of only 11 who pitched in the AL. (He split his 30 starts equally between the Cubs and Orioles.) Hey, now that I think about it, and considering his age, maybe Feldman should get more than two guaranteed years.

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