The MSTI 2011 Plan, Part 2: Pitching

Lots of good comments on the Offense post yesterday – thanks. Of course, you can’t have a team without a pitching staff, and today we try to do some reconstructive surgery on the arms. I’ll be honest up front and say that it’s not going to be pretty. Filling three rotation spots isn’t easy even when you do have a ton of free cash, and the available starters are less than awe-inspiring. Other than Cliff Lee, the jewel of the market who’s never coming to the Dodgers, the best free agent starter is… Carl Pavano? Jorge de la Rosa? Ted Lilly, maybe? It’s not a great group, and the always-large demand plus that lack of supply means that some team is going to get silly and give those guys 3-4 years at big dollars. This is the one time that the payroll restrictions are actually a good thing, because Ned Colletti likely won’t have the chance to go out and be the one to make that mistake.

That said, you still have to put together a staff, and here’s one man’s crack at it.

1) Sign Clayton Kershaw to a 5 year, $30m contract…

…if you can even still get him that cheaply. I’d go into this in greater detail, except I already did just that in August. Basically, based on recent deals signed by comparable pitchers like Ricky Romero, Yovani Gallardo, and Jon Lester, this is about the going rate for a quality young starter with a pre-arbitration year left.

Sure, you could wait another year. You could enjoy the fact that he’s making just $500k or so in 2011, but that’s only going to cost you more down the road. He’s increased his WAR in each of his three years in the bigs, at the same time as he’s decreased his WHIP and K/BB. What happens when next year is the year he truly blows up? The cost is going to get astronomical. Better to do it now.

Fortunately, deals like these are rarely paid out evenly over the length of the contract, so we don’t have to worry about fitting in $6m into the 2011 budget. Doubling his 2011 salary ought to be enough to start, and the dollars increase over the remainder.

This is probably my highest priority of any move this entire winter.
$72.5m + $1m = $73.5m

2) Offer Ted Lilly arbitration, expecting he’ll decline.

As detailed here, I think it’s more likely that Lilly would decline rather than accept. If he does accept, you can make it work, of course. For this exercise, we’re assuming he signs a Randy Wolf-like three-year deal elsewhere.
$73.5m+ $0m = $73.5m (plus two draft picks)

3) Don’t offer Hiroki Kuroda arbitration, fearing he’ll accept.

As detailed here. I love Kuroda, and he could command a big free-agent contract, but the danger that he’ll want to commit to only one more year of American baseball and end up with a $16m+ arbitration judgement is far too risky, especially for an older pitcher with an injury history.
$73.5m+ $0m = $73.5m

4) Deal with the arbitration cases of Chad Billingsley and Hong-Chih Kuo.

Guessing arbitration prizes can be notoriously difficult, so I’ll go with Eric Stephen’s predictions on the TBLA payroll sheet for Chad Billingsley & Hong-Chih Kuo, which are $5.5m and $2.5m, respectively. I’d just as soon sign Billingsley to a long-term deal as well, but it’s probably pushing our luck to think that even Kershaw would get signed this winter, much less both.

As for the others… say “smell you later” for the moment to George Sherrill , Jeff Weaver and Vicente Padilla.
$73.5m + $8m = $81.5m

5) Trade James Loney to the Cubs for Tom Gorzelanny.

Loney’s an interesting case, because I think he’s one of those guys where there’s a massive divide between what regular fans and media types think of him as opposed to the impression the hardcore stat types have. We of course know that Loney’s a decent enough MLB hitter, yet subpar among his first base peers, especially in a league stacked with Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Aubrey Huff, and Adam Dunn (and that’s only the NL!). Sure, the RBI totals are somewhat shiny, but he finished 19th among 24 qualified MLB 1B in WAR. That was fine when he was an 0-3 player making $500k; it’s becoming a lot less fine as he ascends the arbitration scale without making a lot of progress on the field.

That doesn’t mean he’s without value, of course. I think a lot of other people see a guy who’s only 26, has a sweet swing and a smooth glove, and nearly drove in 90 runs for the third year in a row. It’s not enough to get you an ace starter, but it should be enough to get you a decent enough pitcher – and it just so happens the Dodgers have rotation holes to fill.

Meanwhile, the Cubs need a first baseman with Derrek Lee in Atlanta and Xavier Nady headed to free agency. Though it didn’t work that way in 2010, Loney’s always been more successful away from Dodger Stadium – more than 140 points of OPS better, in fact, with a career line of .309/.362/.495. That’s a lot more like it, and I worried back in the 2010 Maple Street Press Annual that he might need a change of scenery. The Cubs have most of their rotation set with Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Silva, Randy Wells, and Ryan Dempster, and could probably manage to fill the #5 spot elsewhere in order to take a chance on Loney.

As for Gorzelanny, he’s a 28-year-old lefty who’s been a bit up-and-down, but has FIP of 3.91 and 3.92 the last two years, good for 2.1 WAR this year (you can safely ignore the 5.55 ERA from 2009). Joe Pawlikowski of FanGraphs was pretty high on Gorzelanny back in July:

In fact, Gorzelanny has enough going for him that he can be expected to continue pitching well. I’m not even sure exactly why Pittsburgh, a team desperate for pitching, traded him in the first place. He was quite excellent in the high minors prior to his full-time MLB promotion, and even when the Pirates demoted him in 2008 and 2009 he pitched very well in the minors.

Like Perez, Gorzelanny’s resurgence could be a temporary thing. His control still isn’t where it needs to be, and that will be an important component of his game going forward. Yet Gorzelanny’s peripherals, both in the minors and the majors, make him look like a better case for permanent recovery. The Cubs, to their benefit, have three more years of team control, so they’ll get a long look at what Gorzelanny can do in the long run. Considering the state of the Pirates’ pitching, I’m sure Hungtington would love to get backsies on this one.

Gorzelanny’s probably not much more than a 4th starter, but he’s also going to make just about $1m next year in his first year of arbitration. Besides, Loney would probably make between $4-5m in arbitration, so moving that means you’re only paying an extra $3m or so for Dunn, assuming you backload his contract a bit.

I also considered trying to move Loney to Tampa for Matt Garza here, but the Rays are in serious cost-cutting mode and don’t seem like the type to pay $4-5m to a player like Loney who doesn’t get much love from the statistical community.

(Note: I’ve had this part written for nearly three weeks. I only just now realized that a few people in the TBLA comments suggested this deal as well on Friday, and then more than one person did so in my own comments yesterday. Great minds, right?)
$81.5m + $1m = $82.5m

6) Sign Vicente Padilla to a one year, $4m deal.

What a bizarre year for Padilla. After coming off the offseason shooting incident, he got a totally unexpected Opening Day start, which he turned into an underwhelming April and then nearly two months on the DL with a forearm injury. Yet when he came back, he was sublime, going eight consecutive starts without allowing more than two earned runs – before missing the last month with a bulging disc in his neck.

Padilla made $5.025m in 2010, and his summer stretch had him positioned for a possible multi-year deal. But the multiple injuries and his well-documented personal issues combine to make that unlikely, and he seems to have found a home in LA. You’re taking a risk on his health, but when he is healthy he’s quite good – and that’s worth the $4m to me.

Besides, I want another season of Vin Scully saying “soap bubble”.
$82.5m + $4m = $86.5m

7) Don’t rely on John Ely to be your 5th starter.

I was one of the few who supported Ely even after his season headed south, because the bar for 5th starters is so low. He had a FIP of 4.38; from a 5th starter, that’s fine with me.

The problem here is that teams almost never use only five starters, due to injury and poor performance. The Dodgers this year used ten starters, from Clayton Kershaw‘s 32 to James McDonald‘s 1. If Ely is your 6th or 7th best option, then you can still be reasonably confident that he’ll get a few shots to prove himself next year, but you won’t be totally dependent on “good Ely” to appear instead of “bad Ely”. If you do rely on him to win the 5th spot, then as soon as someone gets injured or faltered, you’re already relying on someone who’s worse than Ely. And that’s not a good situation to be in.

Of course, if Ely’s not rounding out the rotation, someone else needs to, and we’re going to handle that when we…
$86.5m + $0 = $86.5m

8) Trade Chin-lung Hu to Atlanta for Kenshin Kawakami.

In a vacuum, I’d prefer Hu to Kawakami. However, Hu’s out of options headed into 2011, and there’s no room for him on my Opening Day roster, so I need to turn him into something, and Kawakami’s my ultimate buy-low idea this winter. Just look at his stat line for the last two seasons..

2009: 6.04 K/9, 3.28 BB/9, 4.21 FIP, 4.61 xFIP
2010: 6.08 K/9, 3.30 BB/9, 4.35 FIP, 4.56 xFIP

Two basically identical seasons, right? Sure, except that in 2009 he was 7-12 with a 3.86 ERA, getting him at least a mention in NL ROY articles… and in 2010 he was 1-10 with a 5.15 ERA, getting him banished to the bench as insurance, as he pitched only 3 times after June and badly damaging his relationship with the team. He was more hittable than in 2009 for sure, but this definitely looks like another case of far too much stock being put in a pitcher’s W-L record and ERA (in addition to the Braves having plenty of quality starting options). It seems impossible that he’ll be back in Atlanta, and the Braves could use another shortstop option with Yunel Escobar in Toronto and Alex Gonzalez headed to free agency, even if Hu isn’t the starter – and his slick-fielding may appeal to a team that just saw their defense implode in the NLDS.

As for Kawakami, I’m not pretending he’s anywhere near as good as Hiroki Kuroda, because he’s not. I just can’t help pointing out that they each spent their final season in Japan in the Central League, and Kawakami (2008: 1.06 WHIP, 8.59 K/9, 1.92 BB/9) outpitched Kuroda (2007: 1.21 WHIP, 6.16 K/9, 2.10 BB/9).

It clearly hasn’t worked out as well in America for Kawakami, but it seems like a gamble worth taking. Kawakami is due $6.67m in the final year of a three-year deal. We’re going to say that the Braves will eat much of it in order to save $2m and get Hu in exchange for a pitcher they have no use for.

If it works out, great, you get a decent 5th starter. If not, all it cost you was $2m and a backup infielder who wasn’t going to make the roster anyway.
$86.5m + $2m = $88.5m

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Now that the starting rotation is set, it’s time to look at the bullpen. I’m sure a lot of people would love to keep Kuo and Kenley Jansen and blow up the rest, but it’s just not realistic, either from a financial or a talent standpoint. In the same way that it was hard to imagine that Jonathan Broxton and Ronald Belisario and Ramon Troncoso and George Sherrill would all have blown up together in 2010, it’s hard to imagine that not a single one is going to recapture that 2009 magic in 2011.

That’s not to say that we need to bring back the exact same crew, of course, but spending big money on relievers isn’t an option with the Dodger payroll, nor is it a good idea even if you did have that money. Big dollar investments in non-closer relievers rarely ever work out, as the Boston Herald does a good job of displaying here.

Kuo and Jansen ($88.5m + $0.4m = $88.9m) are no-brainers, and in this age of the seven-man bullpen, we have five more spots to fill. Here’s how we’re going to do it.

9) One of five: Give Jonathan Broxton a chance to rebound.

Broxton’s second-half nosedive really killed my plans, because I wanted to trade him. I wouldn’t want to pay any closer $7m, and that money can be put to better use elsewhere. If Broxton had just made it through another three months performing like he had for the previous three years, he could have been a great trade chip to bring back a bat or a starting pitcher.

Of course, his implosion changes all that, and as I detailed last month, I don’t see much of a trade market for him. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do a deal if the right offer were made, just that I wouldn’t give him away for nothing. Don Mattingly claims that Broxton goes into 2011 as his closer, which I don’t totally agree with, but that’s obviously the best possible outcome. If he can come back from whatever took him down, then you get back a top closer, take pressure off Kuo and Jansen, and have a great piece to trade in July if the Dodgers are out of it. Really, I just want to extract the most value from Broxton, whether that’s on-the-field performance or return via trade, and moving him now isn’t the way to do that.

Besides, all the people you hear saying he’s “mentally weak” were saying the same thing about Chad Billingsley last winter, and you saw how well that worked out. If Broxton’s late-season disaster proved anything, it’s that the 9th inning wasn’t the source of his problems. Whether it was bad mechanics, overuse by Joe Torre (don’t forget that he was asked to throw 99 pitches in five days, and that’s where his troubles began), or an unknown injury (Josh Suchon on DodgerTalk claimed he saw Broxton’s ankle heavily taped after a late-season game), there’s a lot of viable reasons for his downfall. The hope is that a winter of rest can help him come back and regain that value, and giving him that chance – even if he’s not the closer initially – is the right move.
$88.9m + $7m = $95.9m

10) Two of five: Sign Justin Duchsherer to a one year, $1m deal.

Sure, he’s pitched in just five MLB games over the last two seasons due to injury, but what fun would this be without a lottery ticket? Unlike other “pie in the sky” guys like Brandon Webb, Ben Sheets, and Rich Harden, Duchscherer likely won’t require a big base salary, as he made just $1.75m with Oakland in 2010.

Duchscherer missed most of the last two years with injuries to each hip, but he’s proven that he can be effective if healthy. It’s of course the “if healthy” part which is a problem, and here’s how we make that work. Unless he comes into camp and blows everyone away, you make him your 6th-starter/bullpen ace. Before Oakland converted him into a starter in 2008, he was a bullpen weapon, appearing in 53, 65, and 53 games in 2004-06. We’ll do that again here, leaving the option of him being a spot starter available – basically, it’s the Jeff Weaver role.

The idea here is that if you can get 25 or so basically-average starts combined from Kawakami and Duchscherer, along with some bullpen value out of JD, that’s a great return on $3m.
$95.9m + $1m = $96.9m

11) Three of five: Accept that Ronald Belisario is going to have a spot next year.

I don’t want to gloss over Belisario’s extreme unreliability, but assuming nothing else happens, he’s basically assured of a spot. Why? Because his value is low enough that it’s not worth trading him, but since he’s out of options, you can’t send him to the minors and you’re not just going to cut him loose for nothing.

It’s also worth nothing that his 2010 wasn’t just a giant pile of suck, as many would have you believe. After his late arrival to camp, Belisario was reasonably decent through July: .608 OPS, only 2 HR allowed in 35 games. Then he disappeared for a month, and in August and September he fell apart: .856 OPS against, 4 HR allowed in 24 games (though to be fair, he gave up 9 ER in his first three games back and was much better after that).

We still don’t really know what happened to cause his month away from the team, but it’s not hard to infer that it was some sort of personal problem which took his focus away from baseball. That, plus the two long absences, could easily have thrown his timing and conditioning off. If he’s able to avoid such issues in 2011 – which, I admit, is far from certain – he’s my best choice for a rebound.

This assumes he can make it to camp on time, of course. Third time’s the charm?
$96.9m + $0.4m = $97.3m

12) Four of five: One spot goes to one of the up-and-down righty relievers we saw this year.

That’d be Ramon Troncoso, Jon Link, and Travis Schlichting. Hell, even toss Josh Lindblom in there. I imagine all four will see time in LA in 2011, and the first three have all had their moments. Whichever one breaks camp with the team is largely irrelevant, but you know at least one will. For the moment, I’ll say… Link.
$97.3m + $0.4m = $97.7m

13) Five of five: Insert veteran non-roster invite here.

It happens every year, so while I’d love to go out and sign Koji Uehara, Joaquin Benoit, Hisanori Takahashi or someone similar, we all know that this is going to be filled by your obligatory Jeff Weaver or Chan Ho Park-type. Perhaps literally Jeff Weaver or Chan Ho Park, which is fine, just as long as it’s no one named Ortiz.

I’ll actually propose something pretty unpopular, and that’s to bring George Sherrill back for the minimum after he gets non-tendered. I know the fans would revolt if that happened, and Sherrill might not want to come back himself, but it’s worth noting that even in his horrendous 2010, he was still dominant against left-handers: .192/.286/.288. It’s going to be hard to find anyone else who can do that, and Sherrill at least comes with the slight chance that he finds the performance he brought with him to LA. You really think Weaver or Park has that upside?
$97.7m + $0.8m = $98.5m

14) Just turn Pedro Baez into a pitcher already.

This doesn’t really impact the 2011 team, and I realize that every light-hitting, strong-armed minor league hitter isn’t going to be the next Kenley Jansen. I also realize that Baez has absolutely no hope of making the big leagues as a third baseman. He’ll be 23 next spring, yet had just a .306 OBP and 6 HR despite playing against kids 3-4 years younger in the Inland Empire launching pad. The one thing he does have going for him is a rocket for an arm. Why not take that 0% chance of him being a 3B and turn it into a 5% chance he makes it as a reliever? I’d be shocked if DeJon Watson hasn’t already begun those conversations already.
$98.5m + $0 = $98.5m

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Here’s your 2011 pitching staff:

SP L Clayton Kershaw
SP R Chad Billingsley
SP R Vicente Padilla
SP L Tom Gorzelanny
SP R Kenshin Kawakami

RP R Justin Duchscherer
RP R Jon Link
RP L George Sherrill / NRI
RP R Ronald Belisario
RP L Hong-Chih Kuo
RP R Kenley Jansen
RP R Jonathan Broxton

Then you have John Ely, Carlos Monasterios, Travis Schlichting, Ramon Troncoso, Josh Lindblom, Brent Leach, and a cast of thousands in reserve behind them.

Unlike the offense, where I think I was able to clearly improve it, I guess I can’t say the same about the pitching – though I do think it has more depth. It’s just important to remember that having Kuroda and Lilly in your rotation was never more than a short-term solution, because having them both for next year is totally unrealistic – unless your offense was full of rookies making the minimum. So while this rotation may not seem as good as the one that ended 2010 (and I don’t argue otherwise), you’re not working from that rotation. You’re working from one that has only Kershaw and Billingsley right now.

What you hope for here is that Kershaw continues his ascent, giving you a solid 1-2 with Billingsley. You pray that Broxton figures it out and that Kuo holds together for one more season, and you realize that what your team looks like in April is never what it looks like in July. If the team is in contention, adding a 3rd top pitcher could really do wonders.

Either way, I was able to do all of this for about $98.5m and cashing in Scott Elbert, Xavier Paul, James Loney, Russell Martin, and Chin-lung Hu, while adding two draft picks for Lilly. I won’t say this team is suddenly a World Series contender, but I do think the offense and pitching I’ve presented the last two days are definitely superior to the team we saw fall apart in 2010.