Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Free Agent Options - Starting Pitchers

Today, we'll discuss free agent options for the starting rotation. Before we get into that, however, let me point out a few things from a St. Louis Post Dispatch article from yesterday. I have plucked out the highlights - quoted word for word - and placed them below.

1. The Cardinals project a 2005 payroll of approximately $87 million but already have $60 million committed to players under contract. Jocketty said a trade is possible to free additional money.

Comment - My projection of $21 million to spend looks to be about right, if not slightly conservative even considering raises to players like King and Marquis.

2. "Is there a No. 1 guy out there from a free-agent standpoint? I don't think so. Is there a guy out there from a trade standpoint? Yeah, I'd say so," pitching coach Dave Duncan said.

Comment - I find this comment interesting. This leads me to believe that Duncan is 100% sold on Johnson, since he's ignoring players like Pedro Martinez, Matt Clement, and Carl Pavano.

3. Jocketty recently trashed print reports that the club had offered pitchers Dan Haren, Rick Ankiel and Kiko Calero for Johnson. La Russa said Tuesday that the report "shouldn't be taken with a grain of salt but with a package of salt."

Comment - this is good news.

4. Retaining Renteria is an organizational priority and the club is crafting a heavily back-loaded offer believed to be for at least four years and worth about $8 million per season.

Comment - This appears to be a realistic contract, and tells me the Cardinals are willing to pay a little more for Renteria than might make sense, but aren't going to bet the farm on him.

5. A lot depends on how much Edgar wants to stay here and how he wants to structure," La Russa said. "Whatever we do for pitching is going to be expensive. If you bring in a veteran, he's not going to pitch as long as Edgar plays. There has to be cooperation from the pitcher and from Edgar."

Comment - This is very, very interesting. The Cardinals appear to be ready and willing to do something for pitching that is going to be expensive.

With those comments out of the way, let's talk a little about some free agent starting pitchers. Obviously, Dave Duncan doesn't feel like there is anyone out there as good as Johnson - which, of course, is true. However, I do think that there are several players available that could be picked up that would improve the rotation should they not be able to land the Big Unit.

Pedro Martinez

Pedro was not himself this year. After posting ERA's of 2.89 or less for 7 years in a row, he posted a 3.90 ERA in 2004, giving him an ERA+ of 125. Martinez, 33, had 17 win shares, 5 WSAA, and pitched 217 innings - and made $17.5 million!

Even with an off year, Pedro would have been the best starter on the Cardinals staff last season. Will he revert to pre-2004 form next year? I would say last year was probably a bit of a fluke, although it's hard to imagine him reverting all the way back to his 200 ERA+ range. Whatever the case, the Red Sox have supposedly offered him a 2 year, $25.5 million contract. Would the Cardinals be offering Pedro enough extra dollars or years to bring him to St. Louis? It's hard to imagine.

Carl Pavano

Somewhat out of nowhere came Mr. Pavano this season. The soon to be 29 year old posted a 137 ERA+ last year, giving him the 9th best mark in the NL on the season. He also posted 20 Win Shares, 9 WSAA - both marks putting him on par with Roger Clemens this season. His 2004 salary was $3.8 million. Side Note - in 1998, Pavano gave up Mark McGwire's 70th home run.

My biggest concern about Pavano is - I'm not certain that this season wasn't a fluke. Over 7 major league seasons, it was just the 2nd time he was above average. His career ERA+ is 100, suggesting that thus far in his career he's been exactly league average. And if you look at his strikeout rate, walk rate, and hits allowed in 2004 vs. 2003, there is not much difference, leading me to wonder how in fact he improved his performance so much.

My suspicion is that the price tag on Pavano is going to be somewhat high, although not as high as that of Pedro Martinez. Personally, I don't think he's going to be worth the gamble that last year was the "real Carl Pavano."

Matt Clement

Matt Clement put together a career year in 2004, posting a 123 ERA+ with 11 Win Shares, 2 WSAA. Last year he made $6 million, and this year he'll turn 30 in August. Clement was the victim of poor run support in 2004, as he posted a 9-13 record despite his 3.68 ERA. He also struck out more batters (190) than he had innings pitched (181). And while this was Clements best season, he has posted an ERA+ of over 100 for the last 3 years in a row.

In my mind, Clement could be a great pick-up for the Cardinals, although no one should expect him to come in and be the staff ace. Compare his numbers to those of Chris Carpenter (121 ERA+, 11 WS, 3 WSAA), and you'll see that they had very similar seasons, with the obvious difference being that Carpenter had more wins (thanks to the team he was on), Clement more strikeouts.

If the Cardinals truly think they need to bring in a pitcher who can strike batters out, Clement might be a nice Plan B if the Randy Johnson/Mark Mulder trades don't work out. In fact, if they could afford it he would be a nice addition to the rotation with Johnson or Mulder.

Odalis Perez

For some reason, I haven't heard much talk about Perez this off-season. Here's a guy who throws left handed and will not turn 28 until June. Last season, he posted a 127 ERA+ with 12 WS, 3 WSAA. Much like Clement, Perez was the victim of poor run support as he only had a 7-6 record to go with his 3.25 ERA over 196.1 innings. Last season he made $5 million.

Perez does not fit the mold of what the Cardinals are looking for, which is supposedly a power pitcher. However, here is another guy that was about as good as Carpenter last season. And there would be an advantage to adding a left handed starter to the rotation, if the Cardinals don't think Ankiel is ready or Johnson will be coming over. Other than the obvious fact that it forces the other team to think about left handed pitching, it also provides more balls hit in play to the left side of the infield. Any time you have a glove like Rolen playing the hot corner, you want to see as many balls as possible hit his way.

Brad Radke

Radke, 32, posted a 136 ERA+ with 19 WS, 6 WSAA. He was the 3rd best pitcher in the AL last year, but just the 2nd best on his own team. Just goes to show you - pitching wins championships. (Oh, wait...) He is beyond durable, as he's thrown 212 or more innings in 8 of the last 9 seasons. Radke made $10.75 million last year.

Most likely, 2004 was a season in which he will not be able to repeat in 2005. However, he does have a career ERA+ of 114. That, combined with his durability, will make him a valuable pitcher to a team next season. Considering that he is not a strikeout pitcher, however, it's hard to imagine the Cardinals going after him.

Eric Milton

I only included him on this list because according to Jayson Stark the Cardinals are "going after him hard." I guess my question is - why? In 2004, the 29 year old lefty posted a 92 OPS+ with 8 win shares and -1 WSAA. All that for $9 million - what a bargain.

Milton has a couple of things going for him in that he's young and left handed. Of course, he's older than Odalis Perez and he stunk last year. What's more, he threw 201 innings. Why is that a problem? Well, he only threw 17 innings the season before, making me leery of him from an injury standpoint in 2005.

If they could sign him at a reasonable cost, he could be a nice Duncan project. Bringing in Milton to "right the ship" of the rotation, however, is not a good idea.

Kevin Millwood

Millwood, unlike some on this list, actually had a career worst season. For the first time in his career, Millwood posted a sub-100 ERA+ as he had a 90. He also battled some injury problems, only posting 141 innings (a career low), and thus holding his WS to 5, WSAA at -2. He made $11 million last season. (Let's see, the Phillies paid $20 million to Millwood and Milton last year - why were they so bad again?)

Over the last 5 years, Millwood has had one very good season (2002), 3 average seasons, and 1 below average season. He is, relatively speaking, a decent strikeout pitcher. Furthermore, he does fit into the Chris Carpenter project mold. Once again, however - he is not the kind of pitcher that is going to come in and instantly improve the staff without a doubt.

Conclusions

There are a few other starters out there that I could have mentioned. Russ Ortiz, Jon Lieber, Derek Lowe, Esteban Loaiza, Paul Wilson, Paul Byrd. Heck, even Matt Morris. But all of these guys, along with many on the list above, have something in common - none of them are head and shoulders better than Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan. I guess Dave Duncan's comment early in this article make a bit more sense in hind sight.

Personally, I think the Cardinals should be on the market for a starting pitcher regardless as to if they are interested in making a trade or not. This would provide two things. One, it would put them in a position so that they would not have to make a trade if the prices got out of hand. Two, it would provide them will a little extra trade bait to actually pull off a trade if they have an "extra" pitcher.

My choice of the above pitchers would be Matt Clement. Here is a strikeout pitcher who has been solid for 3 years in a row, yet is still young. What's more, it would be great to use him to stick it to the Cubs. Disclaimer - any Cardinal fan wearing one of those ignorant tape-on-goatees during a Clement start should be removed from the stadium. With Clement, the Cardinals rotation would look something like this.

Carpenter
Clement
Suppan
Marquis
Ankiel/Haren

Between Ankiel and Haren, the one not starting could be in the pen and available for emergency relief. In the case of Haren, he could additionally be in AAA getting extra work.

Should the Cardinals sign Clement, they could further use Jason Marquis as trade bait without jeopardizing the depth of their team. Since we're in a theoretical world here, let's assume that the Cardinals could in fact land Randy Johnson or Mark Mulder with Marquis involved in the trade. That would provide a 2005 rotation looking like this.

Johnson/Mulder
Carpenter
Clement
Suppan
Ankiel/Haren

That, my friends, would be a deep rotation. Could the Cardinals afford it? It's hard to imagine this happening along with Renteria being brought back. However, if the Cardinals were to sign Polanco and Walker for $7 million as I suggested yesterday, the above scenario could in fact happen. Matt Clement would have to take a deal that only paid him $4 million next year. That could work, since the following year the Cardinals would free up the salary owed to Jeff Suppan. Randy Johnson is already due to make around $10 million next year, as $6 million of his salary is deferred.

Overall, it would take some creative accounting. However, with all of the young pitching the Cardinals have coming up through the system it does not appear to be an impossible dream.



2 Comments:

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Socnorb11 said...

VERY good analysis (as always), Robb.

I also read the PD article this morning. Could the Cardinals brass be making it anymore obvious that they want Randy Johnson, short of hanging a Cardinal jersey from Stan Musial's statue, with Johnson's name and number on it? As you pointed out, Cardinal fans should be feeling REALLY good about the progression............ with the Cardinals clearly willing to spend money on a frontline starter, and clearly not willing to mortgage the future to get it done. I really like what I'm hearing, thus far.

 
At 12:12 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Sadly, Clement shaved his goatee. Supposedly while on the DL towards the end of last season, he decided he was tired of it. But maybe he'll bring it back as a Cardinal. Frankly, I don't care as long as he pitches well for us. But that DL stint at the end of the season worried me a little, I don't remember exactly what it was -- shoulder fatigue or irritation or something?

 

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