We Don’t Want Your Braden Looper

A few days ago, I read an interesting article over at FanGraphs by R.J. Anderson, in regards to Ned Colletti’s assertation that the Dodgers may still look outside the organization for a #5 starter. Anderson, citing other research, noted that there’s really no such thing as a “#5 starter” except in the rarest of instances – due to injuries and ineffectiveness, nearly every team will go through several arms at the back end of their rotation. What this means is that you better have at least a few guys who you can count on to get you through the season. While the Dodgers may not have been able to acquire an “ace” this offseason, they do have quite a decent collection of options for that back-end - young guns like James McDonald & Scott Elbert, fringy young veterans like Eric Stults & Charlie Haeger, not to mention a collection of thousands of mediocre over-30 guys.

As Anderson says, and as I think many of us would agree, McDonald would seem to be the ideal first choice:

McDonald has made nearly 90 starts in the minors, including 42 between Triple- and Double-A. At both destinations McDonald struck out at least nine per nine and walked between three and four batters per nine. He turned 25 in October and started last season in the Dodgers’ rotation. He would only make four starts, as he walked 14 in 13.1 innings and struck out only six. Upon a move to the bullpen, McDonald looked like his minor league self, posting a SO/BB of 2.4 and striking out roughly one batter pr inning.

His stuff doesn’t seem to stink, either: a low-90s fastball, curve, and change. Each pitch was whiffed on at least 8% of the time. His fastball shows great “rise” which makes up for some lackadaisical run. Those whiff rates will likely decrease upon a move back to the rotation, but McDonald’s body of work makes him more appealing than the Ortizes of the world. Plus, who knows, maybe he turns into more than a bona fide number five.

If McDonald falters, you still have Elbert. Or Stults. Or Haeger. Or so on. McDonald & Elbert both have big upside potential, Stults has shown competence, and if you’ve read this blog at all you know what a big fan of Haeger I am. Look, a number five starter doesn’t need to be the guy you look to in October.  He just needs to be the guy(s) who can keep you in the game every fifth day, and even less so if you consider off-days. The Dodgers have the guys right now who can fulfill that need, and some with the potential to be more than that.

It’s with this in mind that today’s news from Ken Gurnick is a little disturbing:

The Dodgers remain in contact with the agent for unsigned pitcher Braden Looper, but chances of a deal are slim because they can’t offer the Major League roster spot or the kind of salary the right-hander wants.

So… why?

Obviously, as Gurnick states, it’s unlikely because Looper’s salaries demands are seemingly unreasonable – so I won’t lose much sleep over it. Just saying… the fact that Looper is even on the radar is a little disturbing. I mean, what does he offer, at 35 and coming off a lousy year, that the young guys can’t? Looper was the worst in 2009…

2009 MLB FIP:
Stults: 4.36
McDonald: 4.48
Elbert: 4.67
Haeger: 5.68
Looper: 5.74

…and is projected to be the worst in 2010 by all three FanGraphs measurements:

2010 MLB FIP (projected ranges):
Elbert: 3.76 – 4.67
McDonald: 3.97 – 4.32
Stults: 4.52 – 4.57
Haeger: 4.81 – 5.20
Looper: 4.82 – 5.21

So what does Looper have going for him? That’s he’s a “name”? That he threw 194 innings last year, as though it doesn’t matter that he was hurting the Brewers by being that bad that often? Or is it – and I shudder to think it – because he somehow went 14-7, as though wins actually matter? The Brewers supported him with nearly nine runs a game in his starts, second among NL pitchers with over 180 IP.

The fact is, Braden Looper isn’t very good, coming off what is in many ways the worst season of his career despite the win total. At 35, he’s not likely to start improving, and with the group of other arms the Dodgers have collected, he’d be almost guaranteed to be taking away valuable innings from pitchers with more upside than him – not to mention how much more money he’s looking for.

As Gurnick said, it’s not likely that Looper lands in LA. It’s just the thought that the Dodgers might be interested at any price that is disconcerting.

Time To Play Pin the Pitcher On the Dodgers

We all know that the Dodgers are going to sign a starting pitcher to help replace Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, and Greg Maddux. (No, monkeys – Claudio Vargas and Shawn Estes do not count.) Now, I’ve advocated here several times why Ben Sheets should be that man, especially with his price dropping so far. He’s the only pitcher available who has the chance to be great rather than average, and a team as close as the Dodgers are really ought to be taking a small-money chance on him, even with his injury history. But from everything we’ve heard, Sheets to the Dodgers just isn’t going to be happening. So let’s forget him for the moment and try to make a choice about the guys that have been linked to Los Angeles: Randy Wolf, Braden Looper, and Jon Garland.

garland.jpg
jongarland.jpgWe discussed Wolf and Garland in our look at the available free agent pitchers back in December, and I’m still not happy that Randy Johnson went to San Francisco rather than put on the Blue. But really, we always knew that judging whichever one was signed was going to be strongly influenced by the type of deal they’re given. It’s one thing to prefer Garland to Looper with no questions asked; it’s quite another if Garland was expecting four years while Looper only two. However, if you believe Peter Gammons, they’re all coming in on a level playing field:

Essentially Randy Wolf, Jon Garland and Braden Looper are getting similar offers in the range of $5 million per year (plus options and incentives). As of Friday, Wolf was not close to reaching a deal with any team.

So, it seems that the money will be the same, and there’s a 98% chance that one of these men will be wearing Blue next season. That being the case, let’s pick one, so that we can say “I told you so!” when the Dodgers inevitably end up with one of the others. Remember, none of these guys are ace-quality types.

2009 Age!
Looper: 34
Wolf: 32
Garland: 29
Advantage: Garland, by a surprising amount. I had no idea Looper was that old, but then again, he has been around since 1998.

Durability!
Looper: After eight years as a reliever, was converted to starting in 2007; has made 30+ starts in each of his two seasons in the rotation.
Wolf: Missed most of 2005 and 06 after undergoing major arm surgery; after a successful first half in LA in 2007 missed most of the second half with more arm pain. Did bounce back to throw 190 innings last season.
Garland: Seven consecutive years of 30+ starts and 191+ innings. Has never been on the DL.
Advantage: Garland, again. Wolf is less reliable than Sheets (it’s true, look it up) and while Looper hasn’t been hurt, he is the oldest and has a short track record starting.

Production!
Looper: ERA+ of 89 and 102, WHIP of about 1.32 as a starter.
Wolf: ERA+ of 100, 84, 97, 93 the last four seasons. However, he was awful in a great park in San Diego in 2008 (81 ERA+) and fantastic in a tough park in Houston (119 ERA+) after being moved. So, who the hell knows.
Garland: Steady, but boring. After three good years to finish off his White Sox career (128, 105, 112 ERA+) he was lousy in Anaheim last year (91 OPS+, 1.505 WHIP).
Advantage: None. All three of these guys are basically mediocre. Wolf gets it done with more strikeouts than Garland and Looper, but sometimes with less success. Choosing one on this point would be like choosing who’s hottest of Helen Hunt, Brooke Shields, and Katey Sagal: they all get a solid “meh.”

Upside!
Looper: is going to be 34, so there’s not much upside left here.
Wolf: It’s hard to say that a 32-year-old with an injury history has upside, but he was near the top of the NL in strikeouts before he got hurt in 2007. Again, last year’s bizarre performance really skews this – he was fantastic with the Astros, but how could he have been so bad in San Diego?
Garland: none, with the caveat that moving into the NL West from the AL would certainly help him. What you see is what you get: 200 innings of reliable, low-strikeout, roughly average performance.
Advantage: Wolf. I guess.

Bill James 2009 predictions from FanGraphs!
Looper: 11-10, 4.03 in 187 IP
Wolf: 10-12, 4.29 in 195 IP
Garland: 10-11, 4.38 in 186 IP
Advantage: Push. If this doesn’t show you how mediocrely average all of these guys are, nothing will. No wonder they’re all in the same financial ballpark.

Fun “hometown boy returns” angles for local papers!
Looper: Zero. Grew up in Oklahoma, went to Wichita State.
Wolf: Huge upside for Wolf here; we already lived through all the “he went to Pepperdine!” and “he grew up watching the Dodgers!” stories in 2007.
Garland: But a late contender in Garland, who’s from Southern Cal and apparently grew up a Dodger fan as well!
Advantage: Push, Wolf and Garland.

Verdict!
Well, Braden Looper didn’t win any of these categories, plus he’s the oldest and has the smallest track record. He’s out. Really, it comes down to the differences that Wolf and Garland can offer you. Wolf is probably the more talented pitcher, and if he’s healthy and on his game he’s a better option than Garland. But on the other hand, if these are the three guys you’re choosing from, you don’t need an ace. With the other questions in the rotation, you want a guy who you know can pick up innings. Between Billingsley’s leg and big innings increase, Kuroda’s shoulder, and Kershaw’s youth, there’s no one we can say will almost definitely give us 200 innings. Garland, by all accounts, can. They won’t be great innings, but league-average innings do carry value. So when one of those three hits the DL – and trust me, one will – I’d rather know we have a steady horse like Garland than a question mark like Wolf.

So, I guess I’m going to have to swallow hard and say, that assuming the money and length are about equal… I choose Jon Garland over Randy Wolf. Which of course means we’ll be welcoming Braden Looper to LA in a few days.

(Who are we kidding, though? Ben Sheets is still the only right answer. I know it sounds like that goes against what I just said in choosing the reliability of Garland over Wolf, but it’s not quite the same. Sheets is without question a more talented pitcher than Wolf and he’s more durable, as well. With how low his price has dropped, and how close this team is, it’s worth it to take a gamble on an ace-quality pitcher. Draft pick be damned.)