29 October 2013

Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014: Starting Pitchers - Part 2

This post is part of the Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014 Series.  Below you will find links to the other articles.  We will do our best to make sure the links go live with each new update.
C | 1B | 2B (12) | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RFDH | Bench | SP (1, 2) | RHRP | LHRP | Conclusion

Chris Tillman (photo via Keith Allison)
Two weeks ago we took a look at how the 2013 Orioles starting rotation performed.  This week, we’ll take a look at what they can do to improve in 2014.

Returning Starters
While Part 1 seemed rather bleak, it doesn’t necessarily mean 2014 will be more of the same.  Based on their production from last year (which can be viewed here) and each player’s contract status in 2014, it’s a pretty safe bet that these four will have their names penciled into the 2014 starting rotation.  The key will be to get more innings out of this group, limiting the starts made by AAA roster filler.

There is no real ace in this group, and though Tillman is still young enough to substantially improve, many talent evaluators see his ceiling is that of a #2 or #3 starter. What the Orioles have with this group is an extremely cost effective (and cost controlled) group of approximately average starting pitchers, which should provide a lot of value.  As a group, these 4 will likely cost the Orioles around $10 million total in 2014, allowing them to use their resources to improve other areas of the roster.  Additionally, if you include Chen’s club option, each of these pitchers will be under team control through the 2015 season.

So that leaves us with one rotation spot to fill.  Since we already have a group of #3 or #4 starters, we’re ideally looking to fill that last rotation spot with an ace (easier said than done).  Let’s take a look at some options.

Internal Options
With Dylan Bundy recovering from Tommy John surgery, Zach Britton and Kevin Gausman are currently the best internal candidates to fill that 5th spot in the rotation.  However, I don’t think it would be wise for the Orioles to commit a starting rotation spot to either of them, as neither has consistently been productive as a major league starting pitcher, as noted in Part 1.

Depending on how the roster shakes out, these two should be given a chance to compete for that 5th rotation spot in spring training, but they’re likely best suited as starting pitching depth, at least to start the season.  One important thing to consider, Britton is out of options (as Jon noted in the 40 man roster update earlier this month), so once he’s put on the 25-man roster, he won’t be able to be sent back down to the minors without passing through waivers.

Free Agent Options

Top of the Class

Since the 2014 free agent market for starting pitchers is relatively weak, it’s probably best for the Orioles to stay away from any starter that will cost them their 2015 draft pick. This should rule out both Jimenez and Santana, who are expected to both receive and decline qualifying offers from their current teams.  Additionally, both Santana and Jimenez were terrible pitchers as recently as 2012, where they combined for -1.1 fWAR, making them 2 of the 3 least valuable qualified starting pitchers in all of baseball.

Garza and Nolasco are a different story.  Since both were traded mid-season, they’re ineligible to receive a qualifying offer.  The general consensus this offseason is that Garza is the best free agent pitcher available, but it’s not as obvious as you may think.  Can you guess which career line belongs to each pitcher?


Player A is Garza and Player B is Nolasco.  Doesn’t it SEEM like Garza has been better?  Over their careers, they’ve virtually been the same pitcher, with the only difference being that Nolasco is a year older.

Either of these pitchers would likely be the best starter on the staff if the Orioles were to sign one.  However, there is a good chance that both Garza and Nolasco will price themselves out of the Baltimore market as teams look to sign an effective starter without giving up a draft pick.  I would advise against a bidding war for either starter, leaving the Orioles to look at other options.

*Jimenez is not technically a free agent as of this posting, but according to reports, he will decline his player option with the Indians and test the market.

Short-Term Contract Candidates
You could also theoretically include Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, and Hiroki Kuroda, but they’re likely returning to their respective teams or retiring.  A.J. Burnett could also be put in this group, though Dave Cameron at Fangraphs expects him toreceive a qualifying offer from the Pirates (and I agree with him), so that rules him out as well.

That doesn’t leave much left here.  In the last 2 years Colon has been the best of this bunch, but he’ll be 41 years old in May, and you never know when his age will finally catch up to him.  Bringing Feldman or Hammel back is an option, but either pitcher gives Baltimore more of what they already have.  Plus, I would expect Feldman to get a Jeremy Guthrie type deal (3 years/$25 million) this offseason from someone, and that “someone” probably shouldn’t be Baltimore.  Having Feldman for a full year would improve the rotation, but I think they can do better.  Arroyo, Chen, Hughes, and Zito are either extreme fly ball pitchers and/or terrible, so…no.  Let’s move on.

Potentially Effective Question Marks
Originally I included “Big Time Timmy Jim” on this list, but the Giants recently re-signed him for 2 years and $35 million (and at that price, they can have him).  So let’s start with Halladay.  Unfortunately, the old Roy Halladay isn’t likely to return and personally, his last two years have been difficult to watch.  He’d be an interesting option on a minor league deal, but I think someone offers him a roster spot with a low base salary and a ton of incentives, provided he wants to continue his career.

Haren is an intriguing option, but there is some uncertainty without much upside.  The speed of his fastball has been declining and it has sat between 88 and 89 mph the last two years.  He’s also become less of a groundball pitcher during that time (ground ball rate of 39.6% and 36% in 2012 and 2013 respectively), making him a bad fit for Camden Yards.  Add that to his age (33 on opening day), and his history of lower back injuries and you’re looking at someone who can probably give you 2.0 fWAR or (slightly) more per 200 innings.  The only problem is he probably won’t pitch 200 innings.

Finally, there is Josh Johnson, who is coming off an injury filled, 81 inning, 6.20 ERA debacle of a season, yet still managed to produce 0.5 fWAR on the limited strength of his peripheral statistics.  Compare his 2013 season to the rest of his career numbers, and you’ll see how out of line it was.


As you can tell, his “luck” stats really stick out, and out of all the available free agent options, Johnson easily has the most upside based on his productive past and his relative youth (he’ll play the entire 2014 season at the age of 30).  Johnson’s fastball velocity has been slightly declining, but his average fastball in 2013 (93.41 mph) was only 0.12 mph slower than 2012, when he was worth 3.5 fWAR.  If Johnson can stay healthy, I think there’s a good chance he’ll be able to return to his previous levels of success…

…but that’s a big if.  The only year he threw over 200 innings was 2009 and his injury page on Baseball Prospectus includes his right elbow (including Tommy John surgery in 2007), forearm, fingers, upper arm, shoulder, back, and left knee.  It took me 10 minutes just to read through it.  Still, the ace potential is there, and it should come at the lowest cost in terms of money and years than anyone else on the market for a pitcher of his caliber.

Trade Options
During the offseason, it will be difficult to find a starting pitcher on the trade market who will be a true difference maker in the 2014 Baltimore rotation.  Most teams view themselves as potential contenders during the offseason, while the teams that don’t would prefer not to have their fans assume that they’re giving up on the 2014 season before it begins.

Having said that, two potential players to target include Trevor Cahill and Rick Porcello.  While neither pitcher would be considered the “ace” that the Orioles need, they are both groundball pitchers (Cahill has a career ground ball rate of 55.3% while Porcello’s is at 52.8%) who would improve the Baltimore rotation at minimal cost, and greatly reduce Baltimore’s issue of allowing home runs.  Both pitchers would be under team control through the 2015 season, as Cahill is guaranteed about $20 million over the next 2 years (with club options for the 2016 and 2017 seasons) and Porcello is entering his second year of arbitration.  Additionally, Baltimore’s outstanding infield defense should increase the value of either pitcher, helping turn all those groundballs into outs.  Neither player should cost a lot in terms of prospects, though I’m not sure if there is a fit with either team.

International Options
I’m not too familiar with starting pitching options on the international market, but a number of news outlets have reported that 24 year old Masahiro Tanaka of the Rakuten Eagles of Japan’s Nippon Professional baseball league will likely be posted by his club this offseason.  I don’t know much about Tanaka, but Jon wrote an excellent piece on him 3 weeks ago here on the Depot.  It has a lot of good information on Tanaka, so I suggest that you read it, if you haven’t already.

Between the posting fee and the contract, acquiring Tanaka could get expensive, especially with the large number of teams that are reported to be involved (Jon suggests the Orioles make an offer of $120 million total).  Signing Tanaka comes with a lot of risk, as Japanese starters have not always made a smooth transition to the states, but Tanaka may be worth the money, as at least one scout has claimed that he’s better than Yu Darvish.  However, due to the financial commitment of the posting fee and the salary, it’s highly unlikely the Orioles become major players for Tanaka.

One Crazy Idea

Empty the farm system for Cliff Lee.  Depending on how much of Lee’s salary the Phillies would agree to pay, it would likely take at least one or more prospects in the Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Jonathan Schoop, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Mike Wright group to convince the Phillies to let Lee go.  While that’s a hefty price, Lee is one of the most consistently productive starting pitchers in all of baseball, averaging almost 6.2 fWAR per season over the last 6 years.  Including his buyout, Lee is guaranteed $62.5 million over the next 2 seasons (his vesting option for 2016 is worth $27.5 million).  There would be some risk considering his age, but with no signs of slowing down and only 2 years left on his contract, the risk would be somewhat minimized.

As mentioned previously, trading for an impact starting pitcher in the offseason presents a considerable challenge.  So even if the Orioles would target Lee, the Phillies probably wouldn’t want to trade him.  It would be a better bet to revisit this proposition in July, when both teams have a better idea of where they stand in the playoff race.

Conclusion

Heading into 2014, there is no doubt that the Orioles need to improve one of the 2013’s worst starting rotations.  We’ve looked at a number of available options above, and since Baltimore is only on the hook for roughly $10 million total for their 4 returning starters, they would ideally spend some money to fill the last spot in the rotation.

Assuming that he doesn’t receive a qualifying offer, the Orioles should aggressively target Josh Johnson to fill the final rotation spot.  Due to his poor showing in 2013, Johnson should be available on a 1 year deal, likely for anywhere in between $5 and $10 million, which is an amount the Orioles should be able to handle.  While it’s a risk due to Johnson’s lengthy list of injuries, there is no such thing as a bad 1 year deal, especially when it comes to adding a potential #1 starter to your rotation.

Baltimore’s minor league system contains several high upside pitching prospects, that for reasons of age, inexperience, or injury aren’t quite ready to contribute to the major league team.  Signing Josh Johnson would allow the team to add an impact starter to their rotation for a run at the World Series in 2014, without the long-term payroll or roster commitments, allowing their young pitchers additional time to progress into productive major leaguers.  A healthy Josh Johnson will strike out hitters more than 20% of the time and induce more ground balls than the average pitcher, two excellent traits for someone who will be pitching half of his games at Camden Yards.

Of course, should the Orioles follow my advice, they need to make sure they take a REALLY good look at the results of his physical exam before signing that dotted line…

2 comments:

Liam said...

Despite Colon's age, I think the Orioles would be silly not to try to sign him. Somehow he's been getting vastly overpaid the past few years on a series of one year deals and keeps producing. He's somehow found a way to reinvent himself and get results despite being one of the most "unsexy" pitchers in the league.

On another note, what do you anticipate happening to Britton this year assuming he doesn't earn a spot in the rotation out of spring training?

Nate Delong said...

I don't think Colon would be a terrible sign as long as it was on a one year deal. He's been very productive the last couple of years in Oakland and New York, especially for his age. I'm not sure though if counting on a 41 year old in the rotation is the best idea (and I'm fully aware that at this point he may be a better bet than Josh Johnson when it comes to being healthy/productive). For me, despite the risk, Johnson's upside compared to cost was a big factor in my decision, whereas I thought it would be tough to get anything additional out of Colon.

As for Britton, I'm not sure what happens to be honest. He didn't look good this year, even in the minors and command remains a major issue. I suppose they could try to find a spot for him in the bullpen if he doesn't crack the rotation, but they already have 3 left handed options there. It's difficult, because trading him wouldn't get them much, but I don't see him staying in Baltimore if he's put on waivers. Either way, I think they just have to hope he can restore some value, either as trade bait or a productive member of the 25 man roster.