Friday, June 4, 2010
Starting Pitching Stock Market
By Jayson Stark
We probably should have hauled in Jim Cramer or Maria Bartiromo to guest-author this edition of Rumblings, because the subject this week is the stock market.
We're not talking about the kind of stock you'll find on the S&P 500, though. Nope, here on the floor of the Rumblings and Grumblings Exchange, we're buying stock in starting pitchers this week.
With perfect games and near-perfect games busting out every few days, and Stephen Strasburg about to become the ultimate IPO, we surveyed 22 GMs, executives and scouts this week on this burning question:
Which five starting pitchers, aside from Strasburg, would you buy stock in today -- for the next 10 years?
We had two stipulations as we composed this field: All these pitchers already had to be in the big leagues to qualify. And all had to be 26 or younger as of July 1.
Meanwhile, to make sure our clients had a diversified portfolio, we imposed two rules on them: They had to vote for at least two right-handers and two left-handers. And they couldn't vote for any pitchers on their own team (which made some members of our panel very unhappy).
So which stocks were they trading in? Our intention was to take the five who got the most votes -- except we had a tie for the final spot. So you'll get six for the price of five. Here goes:
1. RHP Felix Hernandez, Mariners (age 24)
You might have thought Ubaldo Jimenez would be our leading vote-getter. Nope. It was King Felix, with 15 votes.
One big reason: His age. If you were wondering who was the answer to the trivia question, "Which active pitcher under age 25 has the most career wins?" that would be Hernandez, with 60 already.
But the other obvious reason is this: In case you hadn't caught on to this before, this man is one huge, strong guy -- with spectacular stuff. One GM said Hernandez might have the "best four-pitch package" in baseball. That word "dominant" came up a lot. And there was also a sense that, as good as The King is already, he could explode into a whole 'nother dimension one of these years.
"Only he knows how good he can be," said one AL executive.
2. RHP Josh Johnson, Marlins (age 26)
Here's a shocker. The great Ubaldo didn't finish second in this race, either. Johnson actually outpolled him, 12 votes to 11, even though they're the same age.
So what's up with that? Well, the Josh Johnson Fan Club loves the chances of this 6-foot-7, 240-pound monster holding up to be "a horse for the next 10 years." Plus, quipped one panelist, "He's already had Tommy John [surgery], so he's got that out of the way."
But beyond the "absolutely overpowering weapons," our panelists kept extolling Johnson's "drive to be special" and his "great desire to be the best." He also has the aura of a star who's on the rise. Since this guy came back from his Tommy John surgery just before the 2008 All-Star break, he's 28-8 and has the best winning percentage (.778) among all big league starters not named Chris Carpenter (24-6, .800).
3. RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies (age 26)
OK, here's the man America can't stop talking about, even if half the people we polled did manage to stop themselves from voting for him. You've got us how anybody could not vote for a guy with a 0.78 ERA. But as one GM said, after leaving him off his list: "He's probably not going to throw 100 [miles per hour] for 10 years -- not that he needs to, to succeed."
Another concern is that Jimenez has had what the same GM called "some odd injuries," and that he has thrown more pitches the past two years (4,787) than any pitcher in his age bracket -- not to mention the third most in any age bracket. So as much as everyone loves Ubaldo Inc., some members of our panel were reluctant to buy this stock and hold it for a decade.
But the Ubaldo admirers didn't share any of those reservations. They see a "well-proportioned, coordinated man" with four unhittable pitches and "tremendous makeup." And for pure stuff, it doesn't get any more "ridiculous" than this.
"It's like facing a closer every inning," said one scout. And "you can just see guys saying, 'How am I supposed to hit this stuff?'" laughed another. So our clients can pass on this stock if they want to. But here at the Rumblings brokerage, we're buying -- in volume.
4. LHP David Price, Rays (age 24)
The left-handed portion of this competition turned into a mad three-way scrum among Price, Jon Lester and Brett Anderson. And it came down to the very last voter before we closed the polls -- an NL executive who said: "Price proved he can pitch in the big moment. Lester proved he can pitch in Boston. Anderson still has to prove to me he can pitch in a race."
So we wound up with a virtual three-way tie on our hands -- Price with 11 votes, Anderson and Lester with 10 apiece. And Dodgers stud Clayton Kershaw (six votes) wasn't far behind.
We heard one scout say he was concerned about Price's pitch-ability as he ages. We also heard a GM express concern about whether he would stay healthy. But there isn't much to pick apart in a power left-hander with this formidable a "combination of size, stuff, pitch angle, intelligence and makeup."
Said one AL exec: "It will be fun to watch him battle with Anderson for best left-handed starter in the game over the next decade." Assuming they're both not battling Lester, too, of course.
5. LHP Brett Anderson, Athletics (age 22)
Anderson might be the best-kept secret on this list. But that's changing fast. He was barely 21 when he first hit the big leagues last year, and it took him a while to settle in. But since June 29 (i.e., his past 22 starts), the only starting pitcher in the American League with a lower ERA than Anderson (2.73) is -- who else? -- Lester (2.60).
Anderson's issues this year with elbow inflammation scared off a couple of people we surveyed. But the rest of the panel thinks he's roaring toward greatness, assuming he can dodge his friendly neighborhood orthopedic surgeons.
He's "neck and neck with Lester for the best left-handed stuff in the game," said one exec. Another said he has always loved Anderson's "combination of touch, command and stuff." A third predicted: "This guy's going to be a perennial All-Star." Hey, that's good enough for this brokerage house.
6. LHP Jon Lester, Red Sox (age 26)
It's true that Lester is two years older than Price and four years older than Anderson. It's also true he's a cancer survivor, so there are always going to be worries about his health -- and not just the health of his left arm. But 26-year-old left-handers with stuff this radioactive seem as though they ought to be tough to leave off any list of stock picks to click.
After the first 102 starts of his career, Lester is an amazing 48-18 -- the third-best winning percentage (.727) after 102 starts, in the history of baseball, behind only Dwight Gooden and Ron Guidry. And in case you hadn't caught his act lately, this man is on a serious Cy Young kind of roll.
He has ripped off six wins in his past seven starts (with a blown save in the seventh). And he's the only starter in the American League who is holding all those poor hitters who have to face him to a sub-Mendoza batting average (.195).
"Dominant stuff, with a frame to match," said one AL exec. But what separates him, said another AL assistant GM, is that he "possesses three unique qualities: He is a dominant pitcher with elite ability. He is a tenacious winner. And he has proven to be extremely durable."
So it may be true that if you bid up this guy, you're buying stock in the only left-hander on this list who will be 36 in 10 years. But our advice to our clients would always be: Betting against Jon Lester to do anything is a dangerous idea.
Surprises: Zack Greinke (age 26) got "only" seven votes -- fourth most among all the right-handers on the ballot. We wonder where he'd be on this list if he hadn't joined the Royals' Witness/Winless Protection Program.
His fellow Cy Young incumbent, Tim Lincecum, stunned us by getting only three votes. But remember, we're buying stock for the next decade. And the same people who were once terrified of Lincecum's frame and delivery in the draft find the same issues "scary" now.
We also were surprised that Phil Hughes (age 24), Rick Porcello (age 21) and Matt Cain (age 25) got only one vote apiece, that Tommy Hanson (age 23) and Jaime Garcia (age 23) got just two votes each, and that Cole Hamels (age 26) and Clay Buchholz (age 25) got no votes at all. You think the vote totals for Hamels would have looked a little different if we'd taken this poll around Thanksgiving of 2008?
Rest of the vote: Zack Greinke (7 votes); Clayton Kershaw (6); Tim Lincecum, Ricky Romero and Brian Matusz (3), Tommy Hanson and Jaime Garcia (2); Matt Cain, Matt Garza, Phil Hughes, Francisco Liriano, Yovani Gallardo, John Danks and Rick Porcello (1).
Ready to Rumble
Early Birds: You may not be able to trade for Roy Oswalt in the next 15 minutes. But two clubs that spoke with the Orioles this week say they'd listen to offers on Kevin Millwood right now.
Doesn't appear they're overwhelmed with interest in a guy who hasn't won a game yet in 12 starts as an Oriole. ("He's out there, but he's just a back-end guy," said an official of one club. "He's a third or fourth starter. It's just not ace-type stuff.") But Millwood's availability is the clearest sign yet that the Orioles have essentially given up on 2010 and are retooling for the 13th consecutive year.
And the impending firing of Dave Trembley would fit right into that line of thought, since there's no longer anything left of this season for this manager to salvage.
Cliff dwellers: OK, so you can't trade for Roy Oswalt right this minute, but how about Cliff Lee? Clubs that have touched base with GM Jack Zduriencik continue to report that the Mariners "have to make sure their season isn't salvageable" before they begin seriously contemplating dealing Lee.
But an executive of one team says he thinks Zduriencik could be tempted to move Lee today if he could get a package fronted by an impact bat "he could have around for a while." But it's hard to envision any contender trading away that kind of bat for a half-year rent-a-starter.
O no: We sense increasing pessimism out there that the Astros will be able to find a team willing to take on all of Oswalt's money and give up three centerpiece players to get him next month. But keeping him could be trouble for this team, too. If he still finds himself in Houston after the deadline, scouts who have cringed at Oswalt's body language so far are beginning to wonder if he'll be able to keep his sanity.
"Every time he goes out there," said one scout, "he's basically telling you, 'I'm finished here.' He's frustrated, and he's making it very obvious to everyone."
Changing Sox: As the White Sox drift out of the AL Central race, it's hard not to wonder if GM Kenny Williams will listen to offers on any of his starting pitchers. But longtime Williams watchers would be shocked if he deals anyone other than replaceable bullpen parts and possibly Paul Konerko.
"The thing you have to remember about Kenny is, he always expects to have a good team," said one rival GM. "If he doesn't think he can win this year, he still expects to win next year. So why would he move his [top four] starters? I don't see him doing that. He'll move a free agent, or bullpen guys he thinks are overpriced, because those guys are replaceable. But he can't replace a Gavin Floyd or a [Mark] Buehrle or a [John] Danks. So I don't see that one."
Meanwhile, one scout reports that he thinks rumors of Bobby Jenks' demise as a useful closer have been seriously overblown.
"I still think Bobby Jenks, with the right team, could bring them a decent return," the scout said. "His velocity is down a little, and he's throwing more two-seam fastballs. But I don't think his stuff has declined that much to where I'd think he can't close."
Ring that bell? As the Padres keep rolling, teams seem increasingly resigned to the idea that Adrian Gonzalez isn't going to get traded this summer -- not that some clubs (i.e., Seattle) don't continue to try. But officials of two different teams told Rumblings this week they could see the Padres trading Heath Bell even if they stay in the race.
"Bell is a lot easier to move than Gonzalez," said one. "I don't see why [Mike] Adams can't close, and just move everyone else up one spot. They've got plenty of arms out there."
Odd Cub out: When Lou Piniella abruptly decided to put Carlos Zambrano back into the Cubs' rotation, he kicked off a chain of events that look as though it's going to propel Tom Gorzelanny on to the market in a couple of weeks.
Teams that have checked in report the Cubs aren't shopping Gorzelanny yet. But when John Grabow comes off the disabled list later this month, that's likely to change, because the Cubs would no longer need Gorzelanny to plug that left-handed hole in the bullpen.
Then again, if Zambrano goes back to pitching the way he did before he got booted to the 'pen in the first place (7.45 ERA in his first four starts), almost anything is possible with this staff.
Operation Shutdown: If people in Washington thought the wait for Stephen Strasburg to arrive was excruciating, we're just warning them now: Enjoy him while you can -- because don't be shocked if the Nationals shut Strasburg down for the year in September, whether they're two or 22 games out of first place.
Strasburg will probably have somewhere between 100 and 110 innings left on his unofficial innings quota when he arrives in Washington. And he'll be joining a staff that will have about 20 turns through left the rotation before the season ends.
So the club might be able to get him through the year by instituting a tight pitch count or skipping a start here and there. But it's unlikely that he'll still be going out there all the way through September, barring an outbreak of Joba-mania.
"I don't know that he'll make it to Oct. 1," team president Stan Kasten told Rumblings. "I do think he'll get into September. But let's see."
So wouldn't the Nationals have a tough time pulling the plug on a guy this talented if they're still in a race? Of course. Much like the rest of us, they've noticed this fellow has a chance to be a serious difference-maker.
"But if that's what we thought and we didn't think long-term, he'd have been up on Opening Day," Kasten said. "But we've been disciplined about it from the beginning, and we'll continue to be."
Open Mike night: Strasburg won't be America's only mega-phenom to hit the big leagues next week. Sources have indicated that the Marlins will call up the minor league home run leader, Mike Stanton, sometime during their series in Philadelphia next week, Tuesday through Thursday.
It's still unclear whether the Marlins will send down Cameron Maybin or the incumbent rookie of the year, Chris Coghlan, to make room. But it appears they've now ruled out any sort of platoon between the two.
Not coincidentally, teams have calculated that the call-up date for players to miss out on hitting the Super-2 arbitration lottery is also going to arrive sometime early next week -- the latest date in the 29-year history of Super-2 status. In the short term, that's going to mean a big week for the old transactions column. But in the long term, it's going to mean something else entirely.
"I can guarantee this will be an issue in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement," promised one baseball man. "We either have to eliminate [the Super-2 concept] entirely, or it needs to be a set date. The way we're doing it now just isn't working."
The way they're doing it now, for those who haven't studied their CBA small print lately, is by percentage. Players with between two and three years in the big leagues qualify for arbitration only if they're in the top 17 percent of most service time accumulated by that group.
So as more and more teams delay recalling their prospects to slow their arbitration clocks, the "safe" call-up date has gotten later and later. And if they're going to push that date toward mid-June, that's hurting teams, players and fans. So let the debate on the best solution begin.
Batting around: Baseball people who have spoken to the Angels' brass since they lost Kendry Morales are convinced they'll be out there bat-hunting at some point -- but not for a few weeks.
For now, the Angels will try to fill Morales' spikes from within, mostly by giving Mike Napoli a shot to play a lot of first base following the return of fellow catcher Jeff Mathis. But they're also assuming the bat market will open up in July. At that point, they'll no doubt be shopping.
With Morales under control through 2013, though, the Angels would have no interest in someone like Prince Fielder, who has a year and a half left before free agency, because they're "not going to tie up that position with somebody who's signed," said an official of one club.
What they're interested in, the same official said, is either "a rent-a-bat or a dual-position guy -- somebody who could play first in 2010 but could move somewhere else in 2011." An executive of one NL club has a suggestion for them: Ty Wigginton, who is currently leading the Orioles in home runs (13) and just about every other major offensive category. Wigginton's versatility could make him the Mark DeRosa of this year's deadline crop.
"Ty Wigginton would be a great fit out there," the exec said. "He's got that Mike Scioscia kind of attitude. What hurts him is that when you look at him and the way he's built, you think he'd hurt you defensively at second, third or left [field]. But he's a way better athlete than people give him credit for."
It's also possible the Angels won't deal for a masher at all. They haven't ruled out looking for a leadoff man or a burner in the Chone Figgins mold.
Short circuit: An executive of yet another team that has spoken with the Orioles say they're "sniffing around for a shortstop."
"Of course, they've been looking for two years," the exec said. "But what they'd love to do is something like what Tampa Bay did a couple of years ago when they got Jason Bartlett -- find a guy who hasn't quite made it where he is now but who they project just needs a change of scenery."
One shortstop prospect who is rumored to have piqued their interest: Minnesota's Trevor Plouffe.
Fresh Prince: Here's one GM, on the possibility that the Brewers could decide to put Prince Fielder on the market in July: "It would be interesting to have Prince for a year and a half. Looking at his body, I'm not sure it would be interesting to have Prince for six or seven years."
Battle of the aces: Scouts who witnessed the much-ballyhooed Ubaldo Jimenez-Tim Lincecum duel on Memorial Day gave us this review of those two aces, two months into their season:
First scout on Lincecum: "I don't see as much fastball. The velo [velocity] is not down a whole lot, but I don't see the finish on any of his pitches, except the changeup, that I'm used to seeing. The ball's not jumping. The curveball's not finishing the same way. The only pitch that appears to be the same is the change, and he's throwing so many of them, it's not as effective.
"He threw six changeups to right-handed hitters, which is normal. But to left-handers, he threw 21 changeups. So that's close to 30 changeups in six innings. And he's pitching completely different when he's behind in the count. He's using the changeup more than ever, which says to me he doesn't think his fastball is doing enough, either."
First scout on Jimenez: "He finally seems to have figured out the timing and the tempo of his delivery. So the arm gets up there where it needs to be to locate the fastball. And he's locating fastballs to both sides, with movement. Before, he was going to throw a strike with that fastball and see what happens. Now he's locating with power to both sides, and mixing in that offspeed stuff. And if he can do that consistently, he's going to make a lot of hitters look silly."
Second scout on Jimenez: "Some of the stuff he throws up there, you just shake your head. Like I'm watching him pitch to Andres Torres, and he starts him off with a comeback sinker at 99 [mph]. Then comes an 89 split that just bottoms out. Then he goes to the top of the zone at 100, and [Torres] somehow lays off it. Then he snaps an 84-mile-an-hour downer hook, and it's see you later. Who does that stuff? That just doesn't happen."
Running on empty: When the Marlins started selling unused tickets to a game that had already taken place (Roy Halladay's perfecto) this week, it reminded us of one of our favorite goofy stats -- the non-attendance leaders.
We compute it by figuring out the capacity of every park, then subtracting actual attendance from potential attendance. Then we translate all those unsold tickets into the non-attendance leaderboard.
This is a longtime Marlins specialty. And they lead the league in that category again this year. So if they can keep figuring out ways to get fans to pay real money not to go see their games, they might even be able to afford to keep Dan Uggla around another year.
On that note, we now present the non-attendance leaders for 2010 (through Wednesday):
1. Marlins 687,820 (31 dates)
2. Reds 611,491 (30 dates)
3. Padres 571,076 (30 dates)
1. Blue Jays 931,873 (28 dates)
2. Indians 660,080 (22 dates)
3. Mariners 645,673 (28 dates)
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
Once again this week, let's check in with some of America's most brilliant scouting minds:
• On Ryan Howard: "Early in the year, he was staying on the ball and hitting more balls to the middle of the field than I'd ever seen. Now he's reverted back to this mindset where he can't get beat inside. So he's really spinning off the ball. He's easy to get out now. You just show him a couple of fastballs in, then go back to offspeed stuff away, and he's an out."
• On Chase Utley: "He looks like he's not seeing the ball. He's shooting the bat out like he's just trying to make contact, instead of firing the bat out to try and drive it. It just looks like he's not seeing it out of the pitcher's hand, and that's what's always made him so good, why he hits left-handers so well. He just sees the ball so well. But not right now."
• On Trevor Hoffman: "To be honest, I think his body is quitting on him. He doesn't have the arm speed to make his change effective anymore. That was always the one thing he had. Even after he lost his fastball, he still had the arm speed. And now it's gone."
• On Jaime Garcia: "This guy really impresses me. His stuff is real good. He's got two breaking balls that are both above average. But what's jumped out at me is he's very competitive. He's a nasty competitor. He has this aura like, 'I'm gonna beat your rear end.' Like when he faces the Pirates, he doesn't just want to beat them. He wants to embarrass them."
Quotes of the Week
• From Astros masher/humorist Lance Berkman (to MLB.com's Alyson Footer), on why he smashed his bat into the ground Monday after a game-ending strikeout: "There was a centipede crawling across the ground right in front of me and I didn't want it to bite any of the fans that stuck around, so I had to take care of it."
• From Rays manager Joe Maddon, on his rhubarb with ump Bob Davidson while the two found themselves approximately 5/8 of an inch apart: "There was definitely some intimacy about the whole argument."
• From Phillies broadcast wit Scott Franzke to his trusty partner, Larry Andersen, after learning that the Marlins planned to sell unsold tickets to Roy Halladay's perfect game: "I'm thinking about buying a ticket to that game just to prove that you were there."
Tweets of the Week
From the hilarious parody tweetster @UmpJoeWest, authored by a mystery man who identifies himself only as Not Ump Joe West:
• First prize: "Just had the family over for a cookout. My cousin brought potato salad which we already had, so i tossed him."
• Second prize: "Ken Griffey Jr to announce his retirement. I regret I never got to throw him out of a game."
• Third prize: "If I was calling Galarraga's perfect game bid, I'd change the strike zone to force walks. Too many perfect games. Disgrace."
Headliner of the Week
Finally, this bulletin just in from the always-amusing goofballs at Sportspickle.com:
UBALDO JIMENEZ TOSSES BASEBALL'S
211,314TH IMPERFECT GAME
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.