11 July 2014

Expanded Roster: Starting Pitching Rentals

 Article was written as part of our Expanded Roster series.  If you wish to contribute, write to us at Camden Depot.

Starting Pitching Rentals
by Ryan Solonche

All of the players featured in the table below have contracts set to expire at the end of the year. While the Orioles could certainly target players like Bud Norris in 2013 who offered multiple years of team control, I’m working with the rental assumption. While I was very tempted to just throw in David Price and Max Scherzer to this table, they would likely command Gausman and Bundy + mid-tier prospect/PTBNL. While those pitchers would likely have the greatest impact down the stretch; it is extremely unlikely this club would part ways with both prospects for a 3 month rental.

Click to enlarge and consult while reading.

Before we analyze the players, I want to briefly explain why I chose the given stats and what they mean for analyzing players specifically for the Orioles.

FIP is an excellent way of measuring how well a pitcher is executing that which is in their control. It takes away BABIP while emphasizing a pitchers ability to minimize HR’s, BB/HBP, and adds weight to K’s. This is especially useful for analyzing the current year a pitcher is having.

I included K/BB because I believe the Orioles should put a premium on good K/BB guys as they are currently second to last in the AL with only the White Sox (who have allowed the most walks) sporting a worse ratio. Getting outs and limiting base-runners is a simple concept, so it should be unsurprising that the AL teams that are above average in K/BB are also above average in FIP.

GB% rate – while not as powerful as FIP or ERA+ -- is important for this team specifically. If you have one of the best infields in the majors, you should be maximizing it’s effectiveness through GB%. See: the dominance that is a Zach Britton sinker.

ERA+ is a better indicator than simply ERA, in my opinion, as it adjusts to ballpark factor and no two parks are the same. 100 is considered average.

In analyzing the given 2015 FA class, I saw 2 distinct routes I think the Orioles can go for SP’s that are actually attainable (sorry for dashing dreams of Price). Also a quick note on Hochevar: while I understand he is done for the year and doesn’t factor into the rental model, he is a player the Orioles have scouted in the past and will have a strange evaluation after he took a huge step forward in the KC bullpen, only to go down for the year in his final contract year. Hochevar is someone in this upcoming free agent class that I think this club will keep an eye on.

Mid/High-tier Starters (with some projectability) – Johnny Cueto – Justin Masterson

Low/Mid-tier Veterans (at or exceeding contract value) – Ryan Vogelsong – Dan Haren – Jorge De La Rosa

With Cincinnati currently sitting 7.5 GB of Milwaukee, there is every reason to think they will field calls for Cueto; who in my opinion, offers the Orioles the highest reward. Don’t let his 7-5 record fool you, he is in the midst of a special year at age 28 and this may just be his prime. In addition to having the best current FIP, ERA+, and WHIP of any player on the list, he also has 3 CG’s and 2 SO’s in 16 starts. He instantly becomes the best pitcher on your staff and represents the kind of high-end impact you need to get out of a starter who will only (likely) be with you for 3 months. It’s also very important to note that the Reds just shelled out over 100 million for Homer Bailey; and it’s fair to speculate that they would prefer signing the younger Mat Latos long term as opposed to Cueto. The Reds might be forced to salvage what they can for Cueto this year, knowing that their future payroll lies in Bailey and Latos. Even with that being said, he will also have the biggest price tag of any of the players on the list; and if a bidding war ensues or the Reds try to aggressively shop him: the corps four of Gausman, Bundy, Harvey, and Rodriguez will certainly be broken up. The question is: how do other club’s evaluate the O’s top SP prospects? If the Reds covet a young LHP with Rodriguez’ upside or place a high ceiling on Harvey, it’s not unreasonable to think you can add Cueto without leveraging Bundy or Gausman. The Reds are also currently averaging – as of publication – 3.95Runs/G. That would be their worst mark since 1989. If the O’s view players like Pearce, Delmon, Clevenger (or even prospects with hitting upside like Chance Sisco or Christian Walker), as being available in part of a package, then it’s possible a deal could take shape without sending Gausman or Bundy to the NL Central.

Justin Masterson is just the kind of SP that you would think the Orioles would be happy to send out in Camden Yards with his very impressive career GB% of 56.6 – tops in next years free agent class. However, he has been dealing with knee soreness all year and actually has a worse K/BB average than the O’s current total. To date, the Indians are sitting 8 games back of the Tigers in the loss column and are losing ground to a young and talented Royals team. The Indians will probably be reluctant sellers at the deadline. It is also worth mentioning that Masterson’s splits vary quite a bit from Progessive Field to away games. He has allowed 57 more runs on the road in about 200 less ABs. In addition he holds an unfriendly .301 BA in Camden Yards, but with a .370 BABIP against a powerful lineup. One reason I would target Masterson is because of Cleveland’s impressively atrocious defense. They’re not just dead last in the AL, there’s no other team close to their level of incompetence. They have the worst team fielding % at .976 and the worst defensive runs saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions, at -51 runs compared to league average. For perspective, the Orioles are 3rd in the AL at +16. If you can steer the negotiations away from Bundy and Gausman and towards improving the middle of their defense, perhaps Masterson can be acquired at a reasonable cost.

Apart from the two aforementioned players, both under 30 years of age, the 2015 free agent crop has a decidedly more veteran feel, and a few of them are having pretty productive campaigns below the radar.

Ryan Vogelsong would be a solid addition in the middle/back of our rotation. He is a veteran pitcher with pretty good numbers down the stretch and especially in the post-season. He is quietly putting together an impressive first half after a down 2013. He is currently exceeding career averages in key categories like WHIP and K/BB. Yet, the complication that arises with trying to trade with teams like San Francisco is that they’re not broke, and may see nothing to fix. However, Tyler Colvin has not been the answer in LF and they’re thin at 1B behind Morse (unless of course they’re sticking to that all year to intentionally give Posey some days off behind the plate). Steve Pearce instantly comes to mind as an ideal player for the Giants to covet headed towards the stretch. He has exceeded any and all expectations this year with the bat and can fill multiple defensive needs for the Giants; and even looking further ahead, could have added value for an NL club with interleague and potentially playoff games versus the AL still to come. Taken a step further, if we look at WAR calculated into contract value – per fangraphs.com – we get a $4.1m evaluation for Vogelsong this year and a $10.9m evaluation for Pearce. The Orioles could potentially upgrade their back-end with a veteran presence and Championship rings added to a young staff, and maybe even add a mid-tier prospect.

Jorge De La Rosa is a tougher candidate to assess. Colorado rewarded his 34-24 record through 2008-10 with a 4yr/$42.5m contract. We know the Orioles looked at him during this negotiation period, so it’s fair to assume he’s a player that could be on their radar. After a good start in 2011 – where he pitched his only career CG – he tore his UCL in his elbow and was shut down for Tommy John surgery. 2012 was a complete wash for De La Rosa and in the first 2 years of his contract: he pitched a total of 69.2 innings. He came back and answered skeptics in a big way in 2013 by throwing 167.2 innings – the second most in his career – and exceeded career numbers in WHIP, BB/9, HR/9, FIP, and ERA+. Simply put, last year was the second best season in his eleven year career. Despite having the highest current FIP of any guy on the list, De La Rosa is not pitching too dissimilarly from last year. That is except for one huge area: HR’s. After a career best 7.7% HR/FB ratio in 2013, the numbers immediately regressed back to the mean as he is currently pitching to a 14.9% HR/FB ratio and his career average is somewhere in the middle at %11.3 HR/FB. He also is suffering from very drastic splits in terms of RH batters and LH batters. If we use FIP and xFIP (which places the average HR/FB ratio at 10.5%) we can get a sense of what we’d get with his current rates and with the adjusted average. Versus LH his FIP is 2.61 – xFIP is 2.96 – and against RH his FIP is 5.53 – xFIP is 4.64. If De La Rosa’s HR/FB rates stay consistent, he is a huge liability against RH-heavy lineups. If they come down, De La Rosa could be a savvy acquisition. With his age and contract value serving as a limitation for Colorado’s bargaining leverage, he can probably be attained without putting any of the top SP prospects on the block.

And rounding out the analysis is Dan Haren. At first glance he appears to be making amends for maybe his worst ever season in Washington in 2013. His 4.67 ERA that year is down to 3.83 so far for the Dodgers and he is second on the list in terms of K/BB. However, there are a few things that concern me with Haren. Of particular importance is his HR/9 rate going back the last 3 seasons. Before 2012 he had never pitched worse than 1.25 HR/9. He pitched 7 consecutive seasons of 216 IP or more with 3 of those seasons having under 1 HR/9. That’s very impressive considering the workload. In the last 3 seasons that HR/9 rate has climbed to 1.43, 1.49, and 1.49 respectively. That’s over 400 innings of sample size that suggests: this is who he is now. I think it’s also important to note that 6 of his 16 starts have come against Arizona and San Diego, the two bottom teams in the NL West. In those 6 starts he is 4-1. Against everyone else he is 3-3. In his 4 interleague starts he was right around average with an sOPS+ of 104 with 100 considered average. sOPS+ makes a pitcher’s performance relative to the league they are facing and how hitters in that league normally perform: useful for analyzing how NL pitchers may fair in the AL or vice versa. However, he also has a pretty low .242 BABIP against the AL, and while we cannot forecast “luck”, that number implies that a negative pop may occur if he saw extended time in the AL East as the number would likely normalize with more IP. Haren may actually have the best total pedigree of anyone on this list, but there’s a reason he has been on 3 teams in 3 years: his velocity has dropped and he’s had to rely more on his cutter and off-speed offerings, something that plays better in the NL West than AL East, in my opinion. However, he’s probably pretty expendable on a staff that includes two Cy Young winners in Kershaw and Greinke, a guy who has pitched a no hitter this year in Beckett, and the 9-3 Hyu-Jin Ryu. Similar to a potential deal for Vogelsong, I think the Orioles could improve the back end of their staff, add proven veteran experience on and off the mound for a young staff; and likely be able to pull it off without sending any of your top SP prospects to L.A.

In the end, all this analysis hangs in the balance of the standings come late July. As the standings become more clear teams will start to get a picture of how much leverage they have, who is really available, and what is the cost of doing business. One thing is for sure though, every GM remembers those 3 months Sabathia wore a Brewer’s jersey.

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