Scouting the Market: Starting Pitching

Let’s start with the reality check you’re already no doubt aware of: the Dodgers aren’t going to get an “ace pitcher”. There’s just too many hurdles; between the immense amount of competition for the few decent arms available, the lack of upper-level minor league talent in the Dodger system, and the never-ending impact of McDivorce Court on the payroll, it’s just not going to happen.

They obviously didn’t get Cliff Lee, and they’re also not going to get Roy Oswalt, who’s still got north of $30m (probably, assuming he requires his 2012 option to be picked up upon being traded) coming to him. Even if the Dodgers could afford that kind of outlay – guess what, they can’t – the Astros’ talent demands are apparently, well, astronomical. (Sorry.) The same goes for Dan Haren, who also has upwards of $30m coming his way, without even considering what kind of price the D-Backs would extract for dealing within the division.

Those are the top pitchers on the market, and the Dodgers aren’t going to get any of them. This isn’t a revelation; you knew that already, so no use dreaming on what a Kershaw/Oswalt/Kuroda/Billingsley playoff rotation could be like. But what you can count on is that the Dodgers are going to get someone. Though the rotation has stabilized somewhat, depth is non-existent. All it takes is one absence from older, more injury-prone pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla for the Dodgers to be sent back into the James McDonald/Carlos Monasterios/Charlie Haeger wormhole – and that’s without considering John Ely‘s growing inconsistency and devastating rookieness (I’m channeling Joe Torre here.)

Now you can argue whether or not you think it’s worthwhile to trade prospects for another starter, but you can’t really disagree with the fact that it’s going to happen. So we’re not talking about getting anyone who’s going to be teaming up with Clayton Kershaw to form a killer 1-2 October punch, unfortunately. I’m talking about exactly the kind of deals we saw in 2009, for relatively reliable veterans like Padilla and Jon Garland.

But remember, there’s a bigger need here as well; only Billingsley, Kershaw, and Ely are under contract for next season, and while Ely’s got an inside track to claiming a job, I wouldn’t call it a certainty just yet. The Dodgers are going to need to get at least two - and possibly three - starters before next year, and with Bill Shaikin already forecasting an offseason of “payroll limbo”, cost is going to be a huge issue. So some consideration must be paid to pitchers who under control for 2011 and beyond as well.

So let’s spitball some names, and yes: some of them are kind of depressing. It’s just the situation we find ourselves in. Before I begin, some other names that were suggested to me and why I didn’t include them: Brett Myers (no indication he’s on the market), Ricky Nolasco (talent cost would be too high), Rick Porcello (lousy year or not, the Tigers would be crazy to give up on him at 21), Pedro Martinez (would need several weeks to be ready to help, which the Dodgers probably wouldn’t be willing to wait for) & Fausto Carmona (incredibly team-friendly deal means he wouldn’t come cheap, and as a groundballer he needs a better defense than the Dodgers can provide).

Brian Bannister (7-7, 5.56)
Contract status: ~$1m remaining in 2010. Team control for ’11 and ’12.

Bannister, the hero of stat dorks everywhere and owner of bizarre day/night splits, has hardly been a world-beater in Kansas City. Don’t let the ERA fool you, though, because his xFIP is a more realistic 4.70. He’s been a little unlucky on home run balls, but otherwise his peripherals are more or less the same as they ever were.

Rany Jazayerli imagines the KC pitch:

Let’s face it: with his upper-80s fastball, there’s simply a limit to how good Bannister can be in the superior league. He’s the quintessential National League pitcher; against inferior hitters, without having to face the DH, and in a big ballpark – hello, NL West! – he could be a revelation. Plus, he’s an excellent hitter for a pitcher. At least, this is the pitch the Royals should be making.

Bannister’s reasonable contract is both a blessing and a curse; it would fit into the Dodgers’ payroll, but it also means that KC doesn’t need to dump him for peanuts. From the Royals’ point of view, their stacked farm system is so close that Bannister may be out of a job by this time next year anyway, so it may behoove them to move him now while they can. Additional terrifying bonus: Kyle Farnsworth is rumored to be available too, for possible packaging! I’m not sure how I’d feel about acquiring one of my favorite baseball players alongside one of my least favorite.

Shaun Marcum (7-4, 3.44)
Contract status: ~400k remaining in 2010. Team control for ’11 and ’12.

Marcum’s a pretty interesting case. When he’s healthy, he’s quite good, with a career 113 ERA+ pitching in the brutal AL East. Of course, he’s rarely healthy; he missed 2009 with Tommy John surgery and is currently on the DL with elbow inflammation, though an MRI showed no structural damage and he’s expected back soon. His cost is sort of hard to pin down; talented and affordable pitchers don’t come cheap, but his injury history may hold the cost down, and he is rumored to be popping up in trade discussions. Additional bonus: could be paired with relievers Jason Frasor, Kevin Gregg, or Scott Downs, all of whom are rumored to be on the market.

Ben Sheets (4-8, 4.63)
Contract status: ~$5m remaining in 2010.

I consider Sheets pretty unlikely, since he’s expensive, a free agent at the end of the year, and not really having a fantastic season. That said, he’s certainly going to be a name that pops up a lot, so I’ll briefly mention him. Unlike Bannister, his FIP and xFIP are basically the same as his ERA, so there’s not a whole lot of luck going on here, and his K rate is lower than it’s been since 2003. Now, part of his stat line is fueled by back-t0-back disaster starts (8 and 9 ER) in the early part of the season; in 13 starts since then, he’s been much better, allowing a 3.72 ERA.

The one thing Sheets does have going for him is that he’s seemingly healthy again, as his 112.2 IP would top Clayton Kershaw by one out to lead the Dodger staff. Oakland’s 8.5 games out of first, and Texas only looks to pull further away now that they have Lee, so Sheets is probably available. I still don’t expect to see him in LA, but he’s older and was once an ace, so that’s the kind of thing that would play with the local media.

Ted Lilly (3-8, 4.08)
Contract status: ~$6m remaining in 2010.

Like Sheets, the former Dodger farmhand is on a losing team and in the last year of his contract. Also like Sheets, he isn’t pitching his best and he’s probably going to be too expensive for the Dodgers.

Still, he’s in his mid-30s and he once pitched for Joe Torre, so you’d have to think he’s exactly the type of pitcher the club is looking for. Lilly’s striking out fewer than he ever has, but he’s also displaying his excellent control (2.23 BB/9), though his declining fastball velocity (85.9 MPH, down from his peak of 89 and last year’s mark of 87.1) is worrisome. He’s become somewhat of a hot name on the market as probably the top lefty remaining now that Lee is gone, but his price tag and performance scare me off a bit.

Jake Westbrook (5-5, 4.75)
Contract status: ~$5m remaining in 2010.

Westbrook’s much the same as Sheets and Lilly, as a veteran free agent to be who’s having a mediocre year. He’s actually been an Indian since 2001, though much of that time has been injury-riddled. This might be one of those cases where his value is likely highest to his current team than it would be to anyone else, due to his status as a long-time veteran leader on what is a very young team. For the Dodgers, he’s a 5th starter at best, and that’s not really worth the outlay in money or prospects.

Besides, I’m absolutely terrified of trading with Cleveland.

Jeremy Guthrie (3-10, 4.77)
Contract status: ~$1m remaining in 2010. Team control for ’11 and ’12.

Here’s what scares me about Jeremy Guthrie, and ignore the W/L record, because the Orioles are horrible. This is his fourth full season in the bigs, and his K/9 rate has decreased every year, from 6.3 in 2007 to 4.6 this year. It’s not a good sign. That said, he has excellent control (2.8 career BB/9), and his 4.85 career FIP is more or less in line with what he’s doing this year.

That also doesn’t take into account that he’s been in the AL East, and remember, that means something more for an Oriole. When you say that about a Yankee pitcher, for example, they never have to face the Yankee lineup. Guthrie gets to face them all, and doesn’t even get the luxury of ever facing the impotent Baltimore crew – so you’d expect somewhat of a boost simply by moving to the big parks of the NL West. Plus, he’s under team control for the next two seasons at what would likely be a reasonable cost (he makes $3m this season).

Carlos Zambrano (3-6, 5.66)
Contract status: ~$45m through 2012, plus 2013 option based on contingencies Zambrano will never achieve.

I know. I know. You could come up with a thousand reasons why this would be a terrible idea, and you wouldn’t be wrong about any of them. But you’ve seen the other less-than-appealing names which are available, you know how thin the rotation looks for next year, and sometimes you have to look for different alternatives.

Obviously, this could only work under a very specific set of circumstances, namely that the Cubs pick up an enormous amount of his remaining salary -  say, $30m-$35m, meaning he costs the Dodgers under $5m per year. That’s probably not all that likely, but it’s also possible that his relationship with the Cubs has become so irreparably damaged that they’ll do anything to get rid of him – and his reputation is so bad that they couldn’t really expect a ton back.

The funny thing is, for all of the bad publicity around him, Zambrano’s really not having that bad of a year, or at least as bad as everyone thinks. His BB and HR rates are in line with his career numbers, and his K rate is actually the 2nd highest of his career. That ugly 5.66 ERA is largely inflated by a .374 BABIP, so his FIP is a more palatable 4.12 – or just about exactly what it was in 2006, when he went 16-7. This, despite being kicked to the bullpen and back.

I’m not saying it’s the best idea I’ve ever had, and I’m not saying I’m dying for it to happen. But the situation the Dodgers are in, they might need to take a leap of faith or two – if the conditions are right. It’s not like they haven’t found success with another supposed malcontent, Vicente Padilla.

Livan Hernandez (6-5, 3.37)
Contract status: ~400k remaining for 2010

Oh, if you hated Zambrano, you’re going to looooove this. Again, I’m not really advocating for him, but if the idea of acquiring a pitcher is not so much to get an ace, but to get someone more-or-less reliable for the back end to soak up innings without imploding or making you rely on Haeger or Monasterios, hear me out on this.

Hernandez may be kind of a joke, and the FIP doesn’t quite match the ERA. But he’s also put up at least 180 innings in every season since 1997, and his FIP has been below 5 in each of those years except for his 2007 stint in Arizona. People will look at his ugly ERA in 2008 and 2009, but just as he’s not as good as his ERA this year, he wasn’t as bad as that stat implied he was the last two years. (They just so happened to coincide with two unusually high BABIP numbers.)

He makes barely more than the minimum, and the Nationals couldn’t possibly ask for all that much in return. Besides, we’ve seen previous deals with Washington work out pretty well, right?

*******

No, I’m not enthused about all of these names. Do you really think I want to see Jeremy Guthrie, or that I’m happy I even have to consider Livan Hernandez? Of course not. We all just need to remember that the Dodgers are trapped within a lot of limits here. I don’t need to remind you of the payroll issues, but all of their top minor league chips are at least two years away, and there isn’t really anything they can move from the big club without creating a new hole to fill.

The top three starters for the playoffs, should they get there, are almost certainly going to be Kershaw, Kuroda, and Billingsley (unless Padilla continues his recent run, I suppose), and the way Kershaw’s been going, that’s not half bad. What they really need is someone to help them get there; someone who can provide depth in the back end and protection from injury. It’s not sexy, but it’s necessary.

Now tear me apart, you jackals.

This Isn’t Even Fair

Hey, don’t get me wrong – I’m enjoying watching the Dodgers beat up on the hapless Nats right now as much as the next guy. As I write this, the Dodgers have just put up a seven-spot in the third to take a 8-2 lead against Livan “Cheeseburger Cheeseburger” Hernandez. With the struggles we’ve seen from the offense lately, it’s a fantastic sign going into the final stretch of the season and October.

livansucks.jpgThe thing is… look, I’m not trying to be a downer here. But it’s Livan Hernandez. This is a guy who was outright cut by the Mets last month, and considering the Mets’ rotation right now consists, I believe, of Mike Pelfrey, Nelson Figueroa, Sid Fernandez, Omar Minaya’s nephew, and one of the Olsen twins, it’s saying a lot to think they told him, “thanks… but no thanks.”

Seriously, look at the recent track record of this guy – a 5.47 ERA for the Mets this year. 8.03 in 8 games for Colorado last year, and 5.48 in 23 games for the Twins to start 2008. He hasn’t even been a league-average pitcher since scraping by with a 3.98 ERA for these same Nationals in 2005, yet somehow he keeps getting work. And he’s not even a lefty! Even just take his history against the Dodger lineup – a .311/.357/.432 career line against, and since it’s over 466 plate appearances, that’s no small sample size. (Though somehow Juan Pierre still checks in with just .629 OPS and a 9/3 K/BB ratio).

Or look at his pitch stats for tonight’s game, because all he was throwing was 86-87 MPH fastballs. Because somehow that’s going to be good enough to get by. And surprise, surprise, the overweight guy who got cut by the Mets, and who’s listed at 34 but is probably much older, and who hasn’t been effective in years got crushed against a team he’s had no success against. Shocking!

So yeah, it’s an enjoyable night. Let’s just keep in mind who it came against. And good lord, look at his gut in that picture above.

***
Oh no, Ronnie Belliard started at second base again tonight and is 2-3 with a walk and an RBI! Sure is making the team worse, isn’t he?

Jon Heyman States the Obvious

From his article today…

The Dodgers briefly tried to lock up Chad Billingsley this winter, and probably wish they had.

billingsleyvsmets.jpgThis is a topic that we’ve touched on a few times (most notably here) and it’s not going to get any better. I could understand the club having a slight hesitation after Billingsley’s offseason broken leg and subsequent surgery, but he’s clearly proven that’s not an issue. Even last night, when he was absolutely not at his best (5 walks, one sort-of intentional, and an RBI single to the opposing pitcher) he managed to keep the Dodgers in the game, and was rewarded with his NL-leading 6th win.

Look, the kid has done nothing but succeed since he first stepped foot in the majors in 2006, and he’s now becoming a bonafide ace. He’s 8th in the bigs in ERA, 7th in strikeouts - and he’s 18-4 in his last 22 decisions. He’s just 24 years old, and he’s already accomplished all that. Is there really doubt remaining that this is the type of player we’d like to see in Dodger blue for the next 10 years?

Heyman’s assertion that the Dodgers did “briefly” try to sign Billingsley this offseason is the first I’ve heard about possible discussion, and I’d love to know what transpired there. But know this: each time Billingsley goes out and gives the Dodgers a quality start (by which I mean, a “quality start”, not a Quality Start), that price is just going to go up and up.

So I’m just going to go out on a limb and say, let’s sign him. As soon as possible. 

In other news…

Hey Raffy… tonight’s a good night to get going. The Mets are throwing out the bloated corpse of Livan “Cheeseburger” Hernandez, and Furcal’s killed him over their careers. In 75 PA, Furcal’s hitting .333/.400/.591, with 4 HR and an 8/9 BB/K ratio. Raffy’s been brutal this year overall (his hitting problems are starting to affect his fielding as well), so if there’s ever a time for him to get some confidence back, I’d say tonight’s it.  

Joe Torre thinks Scott Proctor is stupid. From Newsday:

“There’s playing hurt, and then there’s playing stupid,” Torre said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with someone’s intelligence. If you can endure pain and still are able to do what you do, that’s one thing.”

“He doesn’t know what hurt is. The dumbest question I could ask him was: ‘Are you OK?’ Because I knew what the answer was going to be.”

Joe’s not wrong – it wouldn’t be the first time we’d been unhappy that a player didn’t disclose pain – but I have a feeling we’re all going to wish he’d said nothing at all here.

It’s time to give Andre Ethier a rest. Did you know that Ethier’s now grounded into 11 double plays, equaling his career high… and it’s not even June yet? No, I’m not off the Ethier train, nor am I ready to pronounce him only effective when Manny’s in the lineup (though it’s hard to ignore that Ethier had an OPS of .995 that day and has done just .319 since).

The fact is, he’s been brutal lately, regardless of why, and he’s known to be the type of guy who can’t let a bad game go easily. You’ve got Xavier Paul on the bench, who’s been very impressive in his short time up, and he’s even a lefty hitter too. Why not give Ethier tonight off, combined with tomorrow’s off day, and give him a chance to step back from this for a bit?

Or at the very least, can we please stop hitting him cleanup?

Finally, the obligatory Delwyn Young update. Hey, I know that the Dodgers have nothing if not talented outfielders right now, but it’s worth noting that he’s hitting .351/.415/.432 for the Pirates, and in starting three games in a row over the weekend, he collected 6 hits and 5 RBIs. Plus, there’s this from an anonymous scout (via Baseball Prospectus):

Pirates outfielder Delwyn Young: “He has his shortcomings defensively, but he can really rake with the bat, and I’d love to see Pittsburgh give him regular playing time to see exactly what he would do with it.”

Exactly what I’ve been saying for years…

 

Still Three Outs in an Inning, Mark

Brace yourselves: may contain actual baseball content.sweeney1.jpg

As many of us expected, ESPN.com is reporting that the Dodgers are close to re-signing 1B/OF/PH Mark Sweeney to a one-year deal. He’ll “pinch hit and log some at-bats as a reserve at first base and the outfield.” I realize this is a team that carried Big Sexy Saenz as an exclusive pinch-hitter the last few years (and he couldn’t even play the outfield) but is this not the height of redundancy? According to that quote, Sweeney will:

1. Pinch hit.
2. Be a reserve at first base.
3. Be a reserve in the outfield (corners only, certainly.)

Which is all well and good, but I know I’m hoping for Nomar to be the guy who fulfils roles #1 and 2, because that means Andy LaRoche has won the third base job. (More on the third base scenarios later in this post). As for outfield reserves, we’ve already got 4 starters for 3 spots, and that’s not even considering Delwyn Young and Jason Repko. Sure, Sweeney’s a lefty and Nomar’s not, but our bench likely includes at least one lefty (whichever of Ethier & Pierre isn’t playing that day) and one switch-hitter, Tony Abreu – two, if Young makes the squad.

Hey, this isn’t really a big enough deal to make a stink about it, obviously Torre wanted a veteran stick off the bench, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially for what will likely be a pretty low salary. Just doesn’t seem like Sweeney adds all that much that we didn’t already have. But make sure someone teaches him how many outs are in an inning, though, can we?

In other news, why can’t the Joe Blanton rumors just die already? Troy Renck of the Denver Post:

Oakland’s asking price for pitcher Joe Blanton is steep. From the Dodgers, the A’s want Andre Ethier, Andy LaRoche and a prospect. Cincinnati also is pushing hard for the right-hander. Don’t rule out the Dodgers making a play for Livan Hernandez, either. . . .

I don’t even know if I could comprehend the idea of Cheeseburger in Dodger blue, so we’re going to skip that and get back to Blanton. To which I say: why? I know, I know, there’s two sides to the Dodger starting rotation coin: the side that says we’ve got 6 guys for 5 spots, without even counting James McDonald, Clayton Kershaw, etc.; and the side that points out all the questions about age, health, and the unknown (i.e., Kuroda).

Personally, I’m on the side that says, the Dodgers have a lot more pitching depth than most teams, and if you want to throw a bit of money at a middling veteran starter for depth, well, fine, but there is absolutely no need to start throwing away highly-rated prospects to do so. Andy LaRoche is a consensus top-20 prospect in all of baseball; whereas Joe Blanton would probably be the Dodgers’ 4th starter. And what then? Nomar as the starting 3B? I can’t imagine Colletti lets that happen. So now we need a third baseman. Does that mean including the deal to get Chavez from the A’s too? If so, what else would have to be thrown in to the deal? Chavez is an All-Star; but he’s also had 3 surgeries this winter alone, has $37 million left on his deal, and, oh yeah – gets a full no-trade clause at the end of 2008. No thanks.

If not Chavez, the only other third baseman thought to be available is Joe Crede of the White Sox, who just missed a huge chunk of 2007 with back surgery. So.. thanks, but no thanks. Even the one benefit of a Crede deal with the Sox – the thought that Chicago is the most likely place to dump Juan Pierre – wouldn’t apply, because if Ethier was dealt to Oakland, then there’s no way that Pierre could be traded as well.

As always, don’t put too much stock into newspaper rumors with no sources behind them, but it seems pretty obvious to me: let’s pass on Joe Blanton.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg