Saturday, October 18, 2008

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: Starting Pitchers

Continuing my series looking at the Nationals' current personnel organization-wide and the opportunities to upgrade this off-season, next up is the starting pitching. If you missed it and are interested, click to check out my looks at the catchers, first base, second base, shortstop, third base, and outfield.

As always, I have two key questions in mind, the first far more important than the second: 1. what can we do to speed the arrival of The First Great Nationals Team (FJB target date: 2011), and 2. what can we do to move towards respectability in 2009? The first step is to evaluate accurately and honestly where we stand now, and the next step is to look at opportunities to upgrade.

The Present
  • Starting pitchers: John Lannan, Tim Redding, Collin Balester, and two of the following: Jason Bergmann, Jordan Zimmermann, Shairon Martis, Garrett Mock, Shawn Hill
Last season, Washington Nationals starting pitchers threw 880 2/3 innings with an ERA of 4.97. That's the NL's fourth worst starters' ERA, 'trailing' Pittsburgh (5.36 in 887.1), Colorado (5.14 in 910.1), and Cincinnati (4.97 in 917.1). Adjusting for park factor, only Pittsburgh's starters were worse. Moreover, no team's starters threw fewer innings (although had we played the 162nd game we would have had a chance to pass the 886 and 887 1/3 innings thrown by the Atlanta and Pittsburgh starters, respectively). With Manny asking so little of his starters in terms of innings, it's all the more disappointing that they performed so poorly while out there.

The National League average starting pitcher ERA was 4.41 with a hair under 932 innings pitched per rotation. If we had gotten just league-average ERA, even without increasing the innings load, that would have saved the team 54 runs and improved our Pythagorean record (projected record based on runs allowed and scored) from 62-99 to 67-99. Adding to our problems, our second-best starter, Odalis Perez, is a free agent.

Let's look at individual performances. First, John Lannan. The 23-year-old threw 182 innings of 3.91 ERA ball and earned my Nationals Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards. That post presented a little bit of a rosy view of his season (hey, I was giving awards!), but the reality is that we're probably a little foolish to expect him to be quite this effective next year. His strengths were his 54.2% groundball rate, which, paired with average-ish walk rate (9.2%) and strikeout rate (15.0%), should allow him to continue to succeed. But his .273 BABIP will almost certainly rise, maybe by as much as 40 or 50 points, even if Lannan pitches just as well in '09 as he did in '08. A typical BABIP is usually around .295-.300, and groundball pitchers tend to be even higher than that, because flyballs are more frequently converted into outs than grounders. All that said, his HR/FB rate was 15.2, which will come down, but still I wouldn't count on better than a 4.30 or so ERA from Lannan next year unless he can improve his already pretty good command still further. But he's still very young, so it's not unreasonable to think he can do that.

Tim Redding last year threw 182 innings with a 4.95 ERA, and there's really no reason to expect much better or worse. His command is ok, but he produces a 40% flyball rate, which, unless it's offset by a big strikeout rate, is problematic, and his 15.2% strikeout rate is just middling. Last year's 3.62 ERA was floating on an unsustainably lucky 81.3% strand rate, .280 BABIP, and 9.5% HR/FB rate. Expect 180 innings and an ERA maybe a shade under 5--good enough to be a fifth starter on a good team, but he'll be the NL's worst #2 starter if that's the plan. Update: I should have noted here that Redding is arbitration-eligible and could be a non-tender candidate; an argument can be made that you don't go to arbitration with middling journeymen like this, but given how little the Nationals have behind him, they'd be hard-pressed to just let him walk without a commitment from 1-2 other minimally adequate free agent replacements.

After 14 starts, Collin Balester had a solid-for-a-rookie 4.83 ERA that ballooned to 5.51 in his final disastrous start, a 1 1/3-inning, 7-ER outing in Philly. That start happened, so we can't just throw it out, but you're tempted to discount it as perhaps a mental let-down or something. In any event, Balester pitched better than his ugly ERA would have you believe. Just 66.9% of his runners were stranded, a rate that will rise as good and bad luck (and defense) even out. But that's not going to allow him to pitch better than the mid-4s, and his 13.9% strikeout rate, while not awful, definitely limits his high-end. If he's going to be better than a mid-4 ERA innings-eater, he needs to be more consistent with his change and curve. But the change-up in particular is pitch that often develops late, so at age 23, improvement should come.

Bergmann is simple: his 46.4% flyball rate leads to too many homers, and he gets killed by lefties. He needs to improve his strikeout rate to live with a flyball rate like that. And it wouldn't hurt to lower his fine-but-not-great 7.7% walk rate.

Don't be fooled by Shawn Hill's sample size-skewed 5.83 ERA (and .373 BABIP). His sinker will allow him to be a solid mid-rotation starter as long as he's healthy. Sadly, you have to assume he's not going to be available given his chronic arm problems. Some guys just can't hold up to the unnatural act of pitching, and Hill seems to be one of those guys.

Garrett Mock's good year got somewhat lost in the sauce this year for most fans. He threw 41 big-league innings and posted a 25.5% strikeout rate that led all Nationals pitchers who started at least one game. His velocity, which had been down for a couple years after knee surgery in 2005, was back up to about 91 mph. His solid 4.17 ERA was very real, and I really wonder in retrospect why it was Martis to get the audition at season's end and not Mock. His biggest problem this season was command (
5.05 BB/9), but command was fine throughout his time in the minors, including a 2.15/9 walk rate this year at Columbus.

Shairon Martis showed plenty of reasons why we should be excited about him long term, and even more reasons not to expect him in the rotation in 2009. He posted a fantastic 25% strikeout rate in 20 2/3 innings, while walking way too many (13%). His 45.6% flyball rate is consistent with his minor league tendencies, and although his 19.2% HR/FB rate will come down, his .269 BABIP will rise. Overall, he needs seasoning and better command, and I still think he may be better suited as a bullpen arm than as a starter.

Finally, Jordan Zimmermann, originally acquired as one of two compensation picks for Alfonso Soriano, comes up here instead of in the "in the minors" section because he was so excellent in 134 innings in AA and high-A that it seems that it'll take a major regression early in 2009 to keep him out of the rotation at some point next year. I think it's unlikely that we see him before June because the team should be looking to ease his year-to-year innings jump, and because the team can delay arbitration and free agency for another year by waiting till late May or June for the call-up. He gets a ton of grounders off his sinking fastball, and his plus-curve and change allowed him to post a dominating 2.85:1 K:BB ratio. As a Midwesterner from Wisconsin-Stevens Point, he pitched less than guys from warmer climates, and he had a ways to go in learning "how to pitch" when he was drafted. It looks like he's closed that gap and then some. He'll turn 23 in May and has a chance to be the Nationals' best pitcher by season's end.

In the Minors

Since pitching prospects are so hard to project, take all this with a bit of a grain of salt.

  • Ross Detwiler
The number six overall pick in the '07 draft, the 6'4" lefty regressed a bit in 2008, posting a 4.86 ERA in 124 innings at high-A Potomac. Although that's a disappointment by any measure for a guy whose mid-90s fastball and plus curve were supposed to make him a candidate for the major-league rotation by the end of last season, there's reason to think that the sturm and drang over the 'fall of Detwiler' is more than a bit overstated. His 8.27 K/9 was up from 7.56 last year. His command was not as good as it needs to be at 4.14 BB/9, but in part because of a .359 BABIP and 68.5% strand rate his fielding independent ERA was 3.75. Of course, you'd want a future ace, as Detwiler was hoped to be, to dominate high-A ball at age 22, so it's a bit of a disappointment regardless.
  • Josh Smoker
An athletic 19-year-old lefty drafted just one pick out of the first round in '07 with the other Soriano compensation pick, Smoker's a raw power arm who can reach 95. This year he put up lots of Ks and lots of walks. He had a sterling 1.37 ERA in the rookie league, but a grotesque 11.50 ERA in A-ball. All that said, the most operative stats were his age and sample size (just 44 1/3 IP).
  • Adrian Alaniz
A 24-year-old somewhat fringey prospect, the '07 sixth-round pick pitched very well at high-A Potomac (2.62 ERA, 7.71 K/9) but slipped after being promoted to AA Harrisburg (3.93 ERA, 6.38 K/9). He still has a chance to contribute at the big league level.
  • Jack McGeary
Another very young, talented lefty, McGeary has a great curve but just average velocity. He finished with a 4.09 ERA and K-ed 9.75 and walked just 2.26 per 9 while mostly pitching in the rookie league with just a taste of low-A. Nothing about those numbers should reduce anyone's excitement about him, though an ugly early-season ERA left some with the impression that McGeary had a disappointing year when he really didn't. His commitment to Stanford will slow his development, but he's part of a deep pool of pitching talent.
  • Colton Willems
The first-round compensation pick for Esteban Loiaza in 2006, Willems gets lots of grounders, few walks, but not very many strikeouts, which raises doubts about his ability to ever do it in the bigs. But he can touch the mid-90s when he dials it up, and he'll still be just 20 next year. If he can develop his off-speed stuff, there could be an order-of-magnitude breakthrough.
  • Tyler Clippard
Clippard doesn't have great stuff and just can't find the strike zone consistently enough to overcome that. And I'm no pitching coach, but he has the wackiest mechanics I've ever seen from a major-league pitcher. Like John McCain in a town hall meeting, he always seems on the verge of totally losing control of himself.
  • Graham Hicks
Our fourth round pick out of high school this year, Hicks is a tall, skinny 6'4" lefty with three good pitches and low-90s velocity.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here are the free agent starting pitchers available this off-season:
Kris Benson (33)
A.J. Burnett (32) - can opt out after '08 season
Paul Byrd (38)
Roger Clemens (46)
Matt Clement (33)
Bartolo Colon (36)
Ryan Dempster (32)
Shawn Estes (36)
Josh Fogg (32)
Freddy Garcia (33)
Jon Garland (29)
Tom Glavine (43)
Mike Hampton (36)
Mark Hendrickson (35)
Livan Hernandez (34)
Orlando Hernandez (43)
Jason Jennings (30)
Randy Johnson (45)
John Lackey (30) - $9MM club option for '09 with a $0.5MM buyout
Jon Lieber (39)
Braden Looper (34)
Rodrigo Lopez (33) - club option for '09
Derek Lowe (36)
Greg Maddux (43)
Pedro Martinez (37)
Sergio Mitre (28)
Jamie Moyer (46)
Mark Mulder (31) - $11MM club option for '09 with a $1.5MM buyout
Mike Mussina (40)
Carl Pavano (33) - $13MM club option for '09 with a $1.95MM buyout
Brad Penny (31) - $8.75MM club option for '09 with a $2MM buyout
Odalis Perez (32)
Oliver Perez (27)
Andy Pettitte (37)
Sidney Ponson (32)
Mark Prior (27)
Kenny Rogers (44)
Glendon Rusch (34)
C.C. Sabathia (28)
Curt Schilling (42)
Ben Sheets (30)
John Smoltz (42)
Tim Wakefield (42) - perpetual $4MM club option
Kip Wells (32)
Randy Wolf (32)
Note: Kenshin Kawakami, a 33-year-old Japanese righty, is likely to be available this off-season and is projected as a mid-rotation MLB starter. Also, Koji Uehara, another 33-year-old right-hander, may come state-side. He's been a closer for two years, and wants to return to starting. He's considered a riskier option than Kawakami but has more upside.

FJB's Take
Looking ahead to that First Great Nationals Team circa 2011, Lannan and Balester look like solid bets to fill maybe the 3rd and 5th spots in the rotation. Zimmermann has done enough to think it's not unreasonable to pencil him into that rotation, at least as a 4. Then there are a whole slew of guys who project as 4s. But to contend, you really need two aces. Zimmermann could be one, as could Detwiler still or even Smoker. But every pitching prospect is a crap shoot, so if even one of them pans out as an all-star, it'll be a success.

Realistically, to get to that 2011 contender, we'll very likely have to go out and pay for a blockbuster ace at some point. This year's crop of true aces is CC Sabathia and--if healthy--Ben Sheets. Because every pitcher is a major health risk, I wouldn't counsel the Nationals or any team that's 3-4 years minimum from contending to blow its wad on a pitcher at this point. Given Sheets's well-documented injury risk and Sabathia's usage (in 2008, he was #2 in MLB in pitcher abuse points, a Baseball Prospectus stat that attempts to measure the degree of injury risk a pitcher is exposed to), I would much rather make a play for a guy like this two or three years from now as the rest of our young talent is getting ripe rather than marrying them now, and potentially watching them pitch great for one or two more years on bad teams and then break down just as the team is ready to contend.

The problem is that guys like this don't come around every year. In fact, there hasn't been a true #1 starter available in free agency in years. Guys like Zito, Burnett, Matsuzaka, and Jason Schmidt were all supposed to be aces, but none have performed that way. Looking ahead, Brandon Webb, Josh Beckett and Roy Halladay are all due to become free agents after the 2010 season, and slightly lesser lights like John Lackey, Erik Bedard, and Rich Harden are due to hit the market between now and then as well. But in recent years more and more teams lock up guys like this before they ever hit the market, so the pickings will likely be much slimmer than this.

Therefore one could argue that if the Nationals want to make a move anytime in the next 4-5 years, they should make a play for Sabathia now, because it might be their last chance to get a #1 via free agency for a long while. Still, given the injury risk, I don't think it's unreasonable for the team to pass on Sabathia now.

Nonetheless, the starting pitcher free agent class of 2008-09 is one of the deepest in years, and I would love to see the team sign one of the second-tier guys to a multi-year deal. We obviously have a major need in the short-term, and I also think that it would facilitate the development of our young pitchers to have a good veteran who will give the team 200 innings of above-average pitching. I'm not talking about 'innings eaters' who are really just bad, durable pitchers. I'm looking for a good pitcher who will consistently pitch well enough to win and keep the 'pen rested.

This second tier, as I would rate it, is made up of (in order of declining value) A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe, Ryan Dempster,
Jon Garland, and Oliver Perez. These guys should all get around 4-5 years and $12-15 million a year. Given the Nationals' commitment to infield defense, Lowe and Garland--both groundball artists--would make sense. Garland will be 29 next year, and although his ERA ballooned to a career-worst 4.90 this year, the peripherals will tell you that he was the same guy as always, and pitching in the NL he could easily pitch in the high-3s / low-4s for years to come. Lowe is a better pitcher but a bigger age-risk at 36. Given his reputation as a big-game pitcher, some contender will probably pay a premium for him. I would pass on both Perez and Dempster, and Burnett seems likely to go to a contender, though I'd love to see him in red.

Should the team look to fill out their rotation with a third-tier option, they're best option might well be to simply re-sign Odalis Perez. He'll cost probably 5-6 times as much as he did this year, but what he did in '08 was worth at least that much. It seems likely that he'd regress in a non-walk year, but compared to guys like Braden Looper, Randy Wolf, or Paul Byrd or fossils like Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer, or Pedro Martinez (damn, that's a lot of HOFs in one FA class), I'd just as soon take my chances on Odalis.

I was going to say that the Nationals should try to trade Redding for a prospect, but the window of opportunity on that may have closed given how badly he pitched in the second half. We probably can't afford to go into 2009 with a third big question mark in the rotation, so I'd probably hold onto him.

The other option that the team will have to consider at some point is to ship off some of their stockpile of young pitchers, perhaps for a bat or a veteran arm. Clearly, they don't have room for all these guys if they all pan out. Clearly they won't all pan out, and the whole strategy of developing young pitchers should be to stockpile, but if we happen to do better than most or if our self-scouting leads us to believe that one of them is over-rated, we could certainly make a move. For now, I want to see them stand pat until at least one of these guys emerges as a front-end starter, though if I had more confidence in the GM I'd be more open to trying to make another Gibson-for-Dukes type move.


Wil Nieves said...

Even though I'm still sulking from you passing me over in the catcher outlook, I'm really enjoying the series. I'm interested to see at the end which positions and free agents you rank as the nats highest priorities overall.

Jim said...

Good stuff Steven, but halfway thru the post on pitchers, the font shrunk. I really couldn't deal with the eye strain. Please double check.

Steven said...

Thanks, Wil. And although I argued that we'd be better off with a younger, left-handed or switch-hitting catcher, I'll be rooting for you to continue the MLB success you began this year, here or elsewhere.

My top priorities for a free agent would be 1. starting pitcher, 2. outfielder, 3. back-up 1B, ideally one who can be effective as a 4-corners utility man or get us by if needed as a starter. In the end I think we'll need to add a bullpen arm or 2, but generally big-money RPs are a mistake. You can get plenty of value from cheaper options and even the costly guys are too unpredictable.

That said, my top top priority would be to re-sign Ryan Zimmerman long-term.

I would also make it a priority to move Belliard. Not because I don't like him, but because he should be of more value to a contender than he does to us, given his age.

Steven said...

@jim--weird blogger thing. Should be fixed now. Also, you can always click 'control +' to zoom on any webpage.

Steven said...

I should also say, Wil, that'd I'd take you over Paul Lo Duca or Johnny Estrada a million times over! ;-)

traderkirk said...

if I had more confidence in the GM I'd be more open to trying to make another Gibson-for-Dukes type move

And who did the Gibson/Dukes deal????? How's Glenn doing for the Rays?

Overall, you are right on point with the SP options. Although God Forbid the Nats get involved with Jon Garland. Please, no. Look at his numbers again . . . awful and he won't be cheap.

The only way to get that #1 starter (if you can't grow your own) is to have major-league ready prospects ready when the small market teams develop one and can't pay them. Two years from now, will the Rays be able to pay Kazmir, Shields, Garza and Price? Not likely. Will the Marlins be able to pay Nolasco and Volstad? The Twins have a rotation full of young starters whom thay won't be able to afford soon.

Need to have the pieces in place to make those kinds of deals and need the ownership to pony up the dough . . . and even I will admit that there is no reason to believe that ownership will do so. I hope I am wrong on that point.

Steven said...

trader--Yeah, and who lost Trevor Hoffman in the rule 5 draft and who traded Paul O'Neill for Roberto Kelly and who decided Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns where 'pieces of the puzzle' and who signed Paul Lo Duca...

I've heard your argument that "Bowden got Dukes therefore he is GOOD!" and it's not compelling to me. You're cherry-picking one move, and there are far too many data points on the other side of the ledger. You're going to have to agree to disagree with me here.

I give Bowden credit for the good things he's done, but just cuz he's done some good things doesn't mean that he's overall been successful. That would require winning more often over the course of a 15 year track record that has way more bad than good. If and when Bowden ever builds a winner, I'll tip my hat. Until the pro-Bowden arguments, which are a combination of lame excuses and cherry-picked moves that worked out, ring hollow.

Wil Nieves said...

I'm shocked you haven't reported the most recent news on Jim Bowden, from the WP. Sounds like he was at least *trying* to make the Nats better...

Steve Shoup said...

Great post Steven I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. I have supported going after Garland for awhile now. No he isn't an ace but he is a solid innings eater and wins games (also he won't cost any compensation picks). I think he can be a good number 3 in the NL and like you said help our younger pitchers. Also i feel because he didn't have a big 'walk year' he actually will be pretty reasonable. I think 3 years at $10 million a year could get it done. Also I think resigning Odalis is a must, something like a 2 year deal at 4-5 million per year could prob. get it done. Thats prob 375 innings + next year for only $14 million dollars, not a bad deal at all. As for the rest of the rotation I think Lannan is a lock and Redding will be there as well (maybe he can start strong again and get moved at the deadline). I would then sign another injury risk guy someone like Pavano, Prior, Mulder to a one year incentive deal. If they pitch great then trade them at the deadline if not then it was worth the shot.

Now i realize i have left out Zimmermann and Balester and i haven't forgotten about them. As for Zimmermann I think he would have to be pretty lights out in the minors to get a call-up before sept. He would need to be putting up Linecum numbers to get the call earlier, and its not just about service time though I think that is a viable reason. I think Steven you were right on when you mentioned that due to his small school he doesn't have the same pitching resume that other prospects due, given that and his lack of innings I wouldn't want to rush him and hinder his development (see Homer Bailey). As for Balester I would look to trade him for a young bat, perferably 1B or OF. I think a package built around Balester and Colton Willems could be inticing to many teams that have an abundance of young 1B or OF talent. The Padres have Kyle Blanks sitting in the minors b/c they are set for some time at 1B. Teams like the Royals and Rangers have multiple 1B prospects and are always looking for young pitching.