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.