Best and worst starting pitching gambles of the offseason
Acquiring a starting pitcher is always risky because they are tough to predict
Cliff Lee, Javier Vazquez and Jon Garland look like smart additions
Randy Wolf, Roy Halladay and Tim Hudson are risky acquisitions partly due to age
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
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
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
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.
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