Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A.J. Burnett, John Lackey, C.J. Wilson

After the 2008 season, A.J. Burnett, a good but not great pitcher, was the second best free agent starting pitcher available after CC Sabathia. The Yankees gave him five years and $82 million. After the 2009 season, John Lackey was the best of a lackluster group of free agent starting pitchers. He got five years and $82 million.

We know both the Yankees and especially the Red Sox would love a second chance at those decisions.

Fast forward to today. There again aren't any elite starting pitchers in the free agent class (though Sabathia is likely to opt out of his deal in New York, he surely isn't going anywhere). Available are guys like Mark Buerhle, Edwin Jackson, and, the guy who is showing up at the top of a lot of teams' lists, C.J. Wilson.

Wilson has emerged over the last two seasons as a very good starting pitcher. In 427.1 innings since Texas converted him to the rotation, he's given them 427+ innings in two seasons and a shiny 3.14 ERA while pitching in arguably the AL's worst ballpark for pitchers.

Wilson's peripherals indicate that he's been a bit lucky, with xFIPs of 4.06 and 3.41. But he's got excellent ground ball rates (49%) and this year he improved both his K rate and BB rate and put up a K:BB ratio just a hair under 3. That's fantastic. Plus, he's 30 years old and doesn't have ton of mileage on his arm given his history as a reliever. And he's left-handed.

All this is to say that especially with so few options available, some team will again convince themselves to massively overpay for a good, not great, starting pitcher.

Let's hope it's not the Nationals. They should let the Red Sox or Yankees make this mistake again. Pitchers are incredibly volatile commodities, and it's almost always a bad gamble to commit the kind of money that Burnett and Lackey got, unless you're talking about a truly elite pitcher like Sabathia (or last season's top free agent Cliff Lee).

Fans in Washington suffered through so many years of skinflint ownership that it's almost impossible to imagine worrying about overspending. But it's really easy to end up in a box like the Cubs are in now--old, bad teams, locked into huge contracts that are impossible to move, and a bad farm system undercut by years of lost free agent compensation picks.

Jayson Werth is essentially the Nationals' version of Alfonso Soriano. Wilson could easily become their Carlos Zambrano.

To make the playoffs next year, the Nationals need to add a starting pitcher or two in free agency, but they'd be much better off throwing two-year deals at guys like Buerhle or Jackson or a one-year deal for Hiroki Kuroda or even Jason Marquis.

Even if they have to overpay on a per-year basis to get one of those guys, they'd be better off than getting into a bidding war for the best pitcher available who isn't really that good.

12 comments:

Positively Half St. said...

It's funny that the idea of overpaying for a year or two of Jason Marquis seems like a fine idea, when it was totally ripped apart two years ago. Marquis barely made himself worth it, of course, depending on what kind of player Zach Walters turns out to be.

As for Jayson Werth being Alfonso Soriano, I guess we will see. Even if early indications are bad, at least Werth is a valued teammate while Soriano is a selfish crybaby. Let's hope Werth pulls himself up next year; it's not like he was Adam Dunn.

All-in-all, I agree with your call for prudence. Wang might actually be the Marquis you are talking about. Beyond that, there are enough promising arms in the system now that the Nats should either attempt a trade, or avoid a bottleneck that will keep one or two of them from joining the rotation once they have earned it.

+1/2St.

Steven said...

Marquis was a good value signing, even with his injury. That's just what FA pitching costs. They can get him even cheaper this time.

Kevin Rusch said...

The nats likely have the following rotation candidates for next year:

Strasburg
Zimmermann
Lannan
Wang
Peacock
Milone
Detwiler
Livo
Gorzelanny
Stammen

Sure, those last 3 don't sound like "October!" but that's an awful lot of credible arms. I know the Sox and Yankees felt flush with pitching last year, but I think "rotation" is finally off the Nats' "gaping holes" list. What am I missing?

Jon said...

Sometimes free agent pitchers do work out: CC Sabathia comes to mind. CJ Wilson has done it for two consecutive years in a terrible pitcher's park. I'm not saying I'd give him 5 years or 80 mill, but I'd pay for him. He's not any bigger risk that Strasburg, Zimmermann, Wang, Detwiler, etc. All pitchers are risks.

Steven said...

@Kevin--Livo and Wang are FAs, fwiw.

@Jon--my point is that if you have a truly elite pitcher like CC or Cliff Lee, then by all means pay. It's the class of good not great pitchers who DO typically cost 5/$80 that are the worst investments. That's who CJ Wilson is, I believe.

Jon said...

I agree at some point you don't overpay CJ Wilson. That being said, he was in the top ten for pitchers' WAR this year, and was nearly a 5 win pitcher last year. Two full seasons of ace/#2 pitching looks like he's legit. No?

Kevin Rusch said...

Oh, I know that Livo and Wang are FA's, but while talk is cheap, it sure appears that they're willing to sign with the Nats for pretty cheap, either because they "like it here" or "they owe us.".

Now, if you're talking about "another middle-of-the-road" pitcher that's available for just a paycheck (no draft compensation) I guess I'd consider Marquis in there too, but...

Peyton Dowdy said...

I'd be quite happy with Mark Buehrle or maybe even Roy Oswalt (if his option is declined) on a contract ala Chris Carpenter's new deal. A 2 year $18 to 20 million contract for a solid veteran #3 starter with playoff experience would be good.

I'm guessing Edwin Jackson ends up being a 3 year $30m guy which wouldn't be terrible or even try to trade for Wandy Rodriguez if Houston will eat about $5 or 6m of his contract.

The Nats don't exactly need an ace. They just need an above average arm with a proven track record.

Sec 3, My Sofa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sec 3, My Sofa said...

I think Bill Veeck wrote something to the effect of "It's not the high price of stars that's expensive--it's the high price of mediocrity."

Athan said...

What do you think about a trade of Crawford for our underachiever Werth? Vote at http://t.co/w2CdutO

Athan said...

What do you think about a trade of Crawford for our underachiever Werth? Vote at http://t.co/w2CdutO