Fishing At the Bottom of the Starting Pitching Market

As the days go by, we’re hearing little about Hiroki Kuroda’s plan for 2012, and the longer we go, the less likely it seems that he’ll return to the Dodgers. By comparison, last year his one-year deal to return was all but finalized by November 13. Of course, what we’ve been hearing lately is that the delay this time around is less about whether Kuroda wants to come back than it is about whether the Dodgers can even afford to pay him, as Bill Shaikin painfully pointed out yesterday:

#Dodgers parent company reports $9.9 million in “bankruptcy-related expenses” thru Oct 31. Dodgers might not have $ to bring Kuroda back.

Consider that another fun parting gift from Frank McCourt, though it’s hard to argue that the millions foolishly committed to Juan Rivera and others couldn’t have been better allocated by Ned Colletti as well.

If Kuroda doesn’t return, the Dodgers simply can’t go into the season with Dana Eveland and Nathan Eovaldi as their 4th and 5th starters (I’d prefer that neither of them be in the rotation, though that may be unavoidable), and that means that they’ll need to dip into the shallow end of the veteran free agent pool, where they’ve already been linked to Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, and Jeff Francis.

A word of warning: this isn’t going to be pretty. It never is when you’re trying to buy low on the open market.

RHP Aaron Harang, 34

Harang was once a solid workhorse for the Reds, tossing at least 211 innings for three seasons in a row until his career was derailed in 2008 in large part due to Dusty Baker forcing him into a relief appearance and making him throw 239 pitches in an eight-day span. After a feeble end to his Cincinnati career, he entered the starting pitcher equivalent of the Betty Ford Clinic – Petco Park – and voila! A superficially pretty 14-7, 3.64 record for the Padres… despite having basically identical K/9 and BB/9 rates as he did in his final season with the Reds, where he went 6-7, 5.32. Amazing what pitching in San Diego will do for a flyball-prone pitcher, isn’t it? (Shockingly, his home/road splits are large.)

Harang declined his half of a $5m player option to return to his hometown Padres in 2012, so it seems clear he’s not looking for a minimum-salary deal. (Because, you know, wins!) That said, watch him go to the Giants and go 16-8, 3.78 pitching in that ballpark.

LHP Chris Capuano, 33

You want to win a bar bet this offseason? Ask people which starting pitcher had the single most effective start of 2011, according to “Game Score”. It’s not Justin Verlander, and it’s not Clayton Kershaw; it was Capuano, who struck out 13 Braves without a walk in tossing a two-hit shutout on August 26. The two-time Tommy John survivor came back from missing all of 2008 and 2009 (and half of 2010) to throw 186 decent innings for the Mets, as the advanced stats (3.67 SIERA, 4.04 FIP) belied his 4.55 ERA. For the $1.5m contract he signed (which ended up being about $3.9m with the incentives he reached), he provided a solid and unexpected value for New York, striking out three times as many as he walked – even briefly becoming a target of a bizarre trade rumor in late September as the Red Sox desperately tried to stave off their collapse.

But there’s some warning signs here. In addition to obvious concerns about his durability – and don’t ignore that whenever he went beyond five innings last year, his ERA was north of 8 – Capuano has had a career-long issue with keeping the ball in the yard, topping out at a Lilly-esque 1.31 HR/9 last year. And when I say “Lilly-esque”, I mean, his 1.31 is exactly the same as Ted Lilly allowed, and we laughed at Lilly all year long. The cozy dimensions of CitiField helped him hide that somewhat, as he allowed seven fewer dingers at home despite pitching 17 more innings there, fueling some brutal home/road splits.

Capuano reportedly wants a two-year deal, which the Mets are seemingly unwilling to do; in a world where a similar soft-tossing lefty like Bruce Chen can pick up a two-year deal for at least $9m, it’s probably not out of the question that he’ll get it.

LHP Jeff Francis, 31

Francis has had an interesting career in the sense that while he was once massively overrated due to his 17-9 record with Colorado in 2007, he’s now somewhat underrated due to going 6-16 for the Royals in 2011. (Fun fact #1: when he won 17 games, his FIP was 4.19. When he lost 16, it was 4.10. Yay, wins!) Francis missed all of 2009 and part of 2010 due to injury, and while he was once routinely in the 86-88 MPH range, he averaged only 84.7 MPH on his fastball last year.

Predictably, he doesn’t strike anyone out – just 91 in 183 IP – and if you’re going to survive like that, you need to be sure you’re limiting the longball and keeping walks to a minimum. That’s exactly how he succeeded, allowing just 1.9 BB/9 and 0.9 HR/9 with the Royals in 2011. In theory, the Dodgers have built a solid defensive infield, which could benefit Francis since he’s not generating a lot of outs on his own. Of course, Francis operates with such little room for error that if he loses even a little of his control the results could be disastrous. Or he could be Jamie Moyer, pitching for another 20 years. Soft-tossing lefties are always so fun to try to predict. (Fun fact #2: on Baseball Reference’s Similarity Score list, Francis’ #3 comparable is Capuano. #8 is old friend Mark Hendrickson.)

LHP Paul Maholm, 30

The Dodgers haven’t been linked to Maholm, but he’s worth throwing out there now that he’s a free agent since the Pirates declined his $9.75m 2012 option. Like most of these other guys, he’s a soft-tossing lefty who doesn’t strike out very many and has decent control, but he’s been more successful because he’s great at keeping the ball in the park, averaging just 0.8 HR/9 over his career. As a groundballer, he’d do well in front of a good infield defense, though as a relatively durable starter in a winter devoid of pitching depth, he’s probably in line for a somewhat overpriced multiple-year deal. If the Dodgers can’t afford Kuroda, they’re probably not going to be paying Maholm either, since he’s going to be attractive to whomever loses out on the C.J. Wilson sweepstakes.

RHP Aaron Cook, 33

Cook, like Maholm, has not been mentioned in any reports linking him to the Dodgers that I’ve seen, and he’s now on the market after Colorado declined his $11m option. Cook is Colorado’s all-time wins leader, though in recent years he’s been sidetracked by a litany of injuries, including “a sprained toe, displaced right fibula fracture, a broken ring finger, and shoulder inflammation,” bottoming out by going 3-10 with a 6.03 ERA for the Rockies last year.

Or so it would seem, anyway. Cook’s 4.54 FIP last year isn’t all that far off from what it was during his productive years, as he was hurt by a BABIP of .345 that was far above what he’s ever seen before. When he’s right, he’s even more of an extreme groundball type that Maholm, though it remains to be seen if all of the injuries have robbed him of the ability to be even average.

******

There are, of course, plenty of other guys out there, from guys the Dodgers won’t be in on (Mark Buehrle, Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson, Javier Vazquez), to injury-riddled former stars (Erik Bedard, Rich Harden) to even more fungible back-end types (Zach Duke, Doug Davis, Jason Marquis, Bartolo Colon, Joel Pineiro, who somehow struck out only 3.8/9 last year).

If Kuroda doesn’t return, it seems certain that the Dodgers end up with at least one of these retreads. (Personally, I’d prefer Kuroda and one, allowing Eveland/Eovaldi to be backups, but that doesn’t sound likely.) So which? In terms of talent in the five that we looked at, I’d probably go Maholm / Capuano / Francis / Harang / Cook. Yet the Dodgers likely aren’t going to be able to afford Maholm, and the thought of guaranteeing Capuano two years to give up dingers terrifies me. So while I can’t believe I’m actually typing these words, if this is the best the Dodgers can do… I might have to go with Jeff Francis. He’s probably undervalued, coming off a 6-16 record, he made only $2m last year so he can’t be expecting a huge raise, and I love pitchers who don’t walk anyone. (I’d also take Cook on an NRI or minimum-salary lottery ticket.)

Now watch Colletti go out and get Francis, but for $18m guaranteed.