Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Numbers tell surprising free-agent story
By Jayson Stark
You don't need Rumblings and Grumblings to tell you that Cliff Lee, Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano are the three most ballyhooed free-agent arms that money can buy this winter.
But who ELSE belongs on your free-agent shopping list? Rumblings has been breaking down the numbers of this year's pitching crop. And you might be stunned at some of the names that popped to the top of those statistical rankings. So let's take a look:
If we asked you which starting pitchers in this market have the best stuff, we're not sure how long it would take you to recite the names "Vicente Padilla" and "Jorge De La Rosa." But those two are, against all odds, the correct answers. For pure swing-and-miss stuff, those two probably even rank, on their good days, above Lee.
Lowest opponent batting average in 2010 against any free-agent starter? That would be Padilla's .226. He also had the second-best strikeout rate (7.96). And only Lee had a better WHIP than Padilla's 1.08.
The No. 1 strikeout rate on the entire free-agent list? De La Rosa's 8.36 whiffs per nine innings beat all the free-agent starters in the field. And his .235 opponent average was second only to Padilla.
So does that mean it's time to go out and give these guys A.J. Burnett money? Noooooo. Not according to the people we surveyed.
With De La Rosa, said one NL executive, "what you're getting is top-of-the-rotation stuff, but the consistency doesn't warrant top-of-the-rotation dollars. He just doesn't get you deep enough into the game consistently."
Padilla, meanwhile, has health issues (elbow, neck) that add an extra tier of terror to the usual level of trepidation that teams have long had about his ability to match up his performance -- and, just as important, his off-the-field professionalism -- with his talent.
"He has really good stuff on certain days," said the same exec. "But there are other days where, even though he takes the ball, he doesn't really [show up]. The only place I'd feel comfortable with Padilla is an incentive-laden contract, where you'd pay him to pitch the way a bona fide third starter gets paid, but the only way he'd get that money is you'd backload it with incentives. Then if he meets the incentives, he gets the money. But you can't guarantee it. He's too hard to trust."
Hold Your Horses
Guess who led all free-agent starters in wins and innings this season. If you guessed Cliff Lee, it's time to re-examine your stat sheets. The answer: That would be Carl Pavano, ladies and gentlemen, with 17 wins and 221 innings.
But does that mean it's time for somebody to wipe Pavano's debacle in the Bronx off his slate and pay him like a legit, dependable, difference-making horse? Uh, let's not get carried away.
"He's all about comfort," said one exec who has a history with Pavano. "When he's pitching for a contract or pitching in that comfort zone, he gives you starts, he gives you innings, he's a horse. But take him out of that comfort zone, and put a lot of emphasis on him winning and being productive and it's not a contract year, and I think you'll always see a dip in performance.
"Now maybe, after last year, he may be beyond that a little. He's made his money. He's more mature than he's been. But he needs that mid-market environment. You still can't trust him in a place like New York or Boston. & In general, I think if you get him as a fourth starter, an inning-eater, someone to take the ball, that's a good [role]. But if you're looking for more out of him, if you think you're going to be able to really rely on him to produce and win, I'd be wary about that."
Perception and reality often diverge this time of year. The perception of Brian Fuentes is that he was never quite what the Angels signed him to be. Yet if you look at your handy-dandy free-agent bullpen stats, here's what you find:
Left-handed hitters hit .128 against Fuentes this season -- the best rate of any left-hander on the market. All hitters -- left and right -- batted .181, which places him at No. 3 on the free-agent charts (ahead of even Mariano Rivera). And Fuentes' strikeout rate -- 8.81 K's per nine innings -- ranked second among all free-agent left-handers.
So he might be a better buy than many people are giving him credit for.
"You know what? He's deceptive," said one scout. "He's got that swing-and-miss changeup, and it's still a good pitch. I've been shaking my head on him since I saw him in the Eastern League. But he can still get you out. You've just got to be numb to the side effects of deep-count pitching."
Take The Second Left
So how many years would you guess Randy Choate has hung around the big leagues now? Five? Six? Nope. How about 10?
Yes, it's as great as ever to be left-handed and breathing, all right. And while Choate's 4.39 career ERA, and his 4.23 ERA this season, may not make him Billy Wagner, he has his niche.
Left-handed hitters batted just .202 against him -- the third-best opponent average of all the free-agent left-handers. His ground-ball rate (1.55 for every one fly ball) was No. 1 among all free-agent left-handers and No. 2 among all free-agent relievers -- period. And he's one of only six free-agent left-handers who struck out more than eight hitters per nine innings (8.06, to be precise).
So while Scott Downs and Pedro Feliciano may march at the front of the situational-left-hander parade, good old Randy Choate is right behind them.
"A pure matchup guy," said one NL scout. "In his role, those numbers don't surprise me. He just needs a good manager. A good manager matches those kinds of guys up with hitters he knows he's going to get out. Put Randy Choate in that role, and he'll do a good job."
Around The Ben
There isn't even a question who the most unhittable relief pitcher in baseball was in 2010. And it wasn't Rafael Soriano, Mariano Rivera or Brian Wilson. The actual answer: Joaquin Benoit. If you haven't checked out his insane numbers, here goes:
Benoit's ERA was 1.34 -- No. 1 among all free-agent relievers. His opponent batting average was .147, also No. 1. His opponent on-base percentage: .189 (No. 1, of course). And his opponent OPS was .454 (likewise No. 1).
So that explains why a guy who could get himself only a minor-league deal (from Tampa Bay) last winter just agreed to a three-year, $16.5-million deal with Detroit, according to ESPN Deportes' Enrique Rojas.
"I love Benoit," said the NL exec quoted earlier. "I'd be one of the nuts who'd take a chance on him to close. I know he's never closed successfully anywhere. I know he doesn't like to close, and he's said that.
But he was as good as any eighth-inning guy has ever been. His numbers were off-the-charts ridiculous. And he proved he can handle the wear and tear of getting up and down.
"I know we get hung up on the ninth inning, but in some ways pitching the eighth is even more difficult, because it's not all laid out for you. You don't always get that clean inning. And he handled it great. His stuff was electric.
"The thing with him before this year was, he was a guy you always said goes as his split [fingered fastball] goes. And his split never left him this year. And his change was also an out pitch. That pitch disappeared on him in Texas, but it came back this year. So he was out there throwing 93-94 [miles per hour] with a plus change and a plus split. Before, he didn't have the secondary out pitch to handle right-handers and left-handers. But now he does. So I'm sold."
Mad About U
For two years, the Orioles employed one-time Yomiuri Giants great Koji Uehara and never seemed too sure what the heck he was. He started. He set up. He spent a thousand nights in the trainer's room. And then, when Buck Showalter showed up, he became the emergency closer.
Well, if you stack up Uehara's numbers against the rest of the free-agent bullpen crop, you could understand why.
Who had the No. 1 strikeout rate of all free-agent relievers who pitched 40 innings or more? That would be Koji Uehara (at 11.25 per nine innings).
And once you got past the Benoit-Soriano-Mariano Big Three, who led all right-handed free-agent relievers in opponent OPS and on-base percentage? That would also be Koji Uehara (at .594 and .243, respectively).
"What exactly is Koji Uehara?" mused one scout. "I'm really not sure. But I know he was awesome for two months."
But Uehara's other eye-popping number was 103 -- as in the number of days he rolled up on the disabled list the past two years. And we're finding that's the number teams shopping for him can't get out of their heads.
"This guy logged a lot of innings in Japan," said one exec. "And that's what I'd have to think long and hard about, plus his injury history in Baltimore. Everyone thinks that if you get what he was in August and September, you'd get a high-impact guy. And you would. He's got plus command and a plus split, and he can pitch. But the health history and the innings are exorbitant. So he's your classic high-risk, high-potential-reward guy."
Then again, that's a great description of free-agent bullpen shopping in general: You've got to take the risk. And you pray you get rewarded.
But you can't go shopping without doing your homework first. And sometimes, when you do that homework, it's shocking what you can find. Randy Choate? Koji Uehara? Vicente Padilla? Just remember, when your favorite team signs those men, you heard it here first.
Ready To Rumble
• Yo Adrian: Even if Adrian Gonzalez had no health questions, it was probably only about a 50-50 shot that the Padres were going to trade him this winter. But Gonzalez's recent surgery to "clean up" the labrum area in his right shoulder downgrades those odds considerably -- at least for now.
Gonzalez told the San Diego media corps this week that he should be ready to play by the end of spring training. But other clubs are hearing talk that he won't even swing a bat until March. So that's not what you'd call a great incentive for teams to charge in there in the next few weeks and trade three big-time prospects for this man.
"I think that complicates this for them [the Padres]," said one front-office man. "And it's got to be a concern for any team. They can always keep him and trade him at the deadline if they're out of it. But suppose he starts slow. & Then it gets even harder for them to get a real return."
But if the clubs floating this talk think it means they have a shot to get Gonzalez on a discount, uh, good luck. You can expect the Padres to argue that this wasn't a serious injury or a serious surgery, that Gonzalez was healthy enough to start every game after July 3 and that, given the kind of dollars he'll be chasing next winter, it's a stretch to question either his health or his motivation as heads into the biggest season of his life.
Nevertheless, we'd bet this won't be the last time you hear about Adrian Gonzalez's labrum between now and his first multi-homer game.
• Cut bait: It will be fascinating to see where Dan Uggla's contract negotiations go now that it's the Braves he's negotiating with.
The Marlins clearly concluded that, despite all his talk about wanting to stay, he wasn't going to sign no matter what they offered. And in this case, they might be right -- because the question we kept hearing from other teams on Uggla was this:
How could he not have taken the four years and $48 million the Marlins threw at him?
Good question. Only one second baseman in baseball has a contract that will guarantee him more, in ANY future season, than the $12 million a year Uggla turned down. And that's Chase Utley, who will get $15 million from the Phillies in each of the next four seasons.
Elsewhere, Robinson Cano has club options at $14 million and $15 million in 2012 and 2013. But Brandon Phillips' deal tops out at $11 million. Brian Roberts' deal pays him $10 million a year. Dustin Pedroia's contract peaks at a $10 million guarantee, with an $11 million club option in 2015. Ian Kinsler has a $10 million club option in 2013. And Chone Figgins, who signed as a multi-position bat, won't earn more than $9 million a year.
"So he might find," one NL exec said of Uggla, "that teams just don't want to pay the kind of money he's asking at that position."
How, then, could Uggla's agents, Gregg Clifton and Terry Bross, justify asking for five years and $71 million? Here's their selling point: Uggla is one of only four right-handed hitters who has hit at least 30 homers in each of the past four years. The others: A-Rod, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. And yep, they're all earning well above $12 million a year.
• Northern Exposure: All of a sudden, the Cubs seem a lot less inclined to deal players like Kosuke Fukudome and Carlos Zambrano than they were a few months ago. And for that, you can credit the Mike Quade Effect.
How much difference did Quade make? Well, the Cubs went 24-16 in the 40 games he managed -- after going 24-42 over the final 66 games Lou Piniella managed. And the changes didn't just show up in the standings.
Scouts who followed the Cubs said they saw young players and the bullpen crew, in particular, relax and perform without the high-strung Piniella around. And Fukudome was also a different guy, hitting .277/.390/.482 (with more walks than strikeouts) from Aug. 20 on -- after hitting .258/.365/.425 before that.
"He needed a change of scenery," said one executive. "And he got it -- without going anywhere."
Meanwhile, we're hearing the Cubs have gotten some "feelers" on Zambrano's availability. But his big finish (8-0, 1.58 ERA after his suspension) has eliminated any sense of urgency the Cubs might have had to move him and eat a bunch of money to do it.
Other teams report the Cubs would still talk about Zambrano. But he has a full no-trade clause, and has salaries of $17.875 million and $18 million coming the next two years, plus a vesting $19.25 million option for 2013.
So for the Cubs, said an official of one team, "this is not like last year, when moving Milton Bradley was a had-to-be-done kind of move."
• Off The Matt: We keep reading and hearing those Matt Kemp trade rumors. But an official of one team that kicked those tires reports: "They ain't trading Matt Kemp." One reason, obviously, is that Kemp's talent is irreplaceable. But another is that Kemp had a great relationship with his new manager, Don Mattingly, and the Dodgers are betting he'll have a big year.
One guy the Dodgers would talk about if they could fill a big pitching or left-field hole is first baseman James Loney. But they'd need to save money and they'd want to move Loney fast, so they could replace him with one of the free-agent first basemen out there.
• Philling Up: Since the Phillies felt such a strong need to refute last week's Rumblings report that there's "zero" chance they can re-sign Jayson Werth, let's clarify that.
That note was never intended to imply that the Phillies weren't trying to keep Werth. But "zero" was simply a realistic assessment by one Phillies official of what he believed the chances were, based on the three-year deal the Phillies have been willing to talk about -- compared with the 5-7 years agent Scott Boras is kicking around.
All you need to know is that they continue to explore numerous options for replacing Werth. They've done what one source described as "extensive" groundwork on a potential deal for the White Sox's Carlos Quentin. They remain interested in Jeff Francoeur to play against left-handers. And while they have mild interest in Jermaine Dye, that appears to be on just a back-burner, spring-training-invite level.
Despite rumors floating around Philadelphia that the Phillies would be willing to trade Shane Victorino to clear dollars (and center field) for Werth, teams that have spoken with the Phillies report there's no evidence they're actively moving down that road.
• What's He Werth: One more Jayson Werth note: The Red Sox have been widely portrayed as the favorites to land Werth, and they're clearly interested. But an official of one club who spoke with Boston says, flatly, that if Boras is determined to get $100 million for this guy, "he will NOT be a Red Sox. I'll tell you that."
• Not A Dunn Deal: Here's another popular free-agent theory that keeps getting shot down: Adam Dunn heading for the Cubs. One NL exec who spoke with the Cubs' brass reports they're finding it "hard to get excited" about Dunn, much as they like his bat. With a 21-year-old (Starlin Castro) at short and uncertainty at second next year, the Cubs have told people they want an above-average defender at first. And much as we love Adam Dunn, "above-average defender" isn't how anyone would describe him.
• Eye Of The Tigers: Beyond Werth and Carl Crawford, Victor Martinez might be the most attractive bat on the market. But one AL exec offered this prediction:
"I'd bet on the Tigers signing Victor Martinez. They're motivated. They really like him. He fits their team. He can catch some with [Alex] Avila and DH some. They saw a ton of him in their division all those years when he was in Cleveland. They like his makeup. I just think they value him more than the other teams he's been connected with."
• A New DL.: One item on the agenda at the GM meetings this week was potentially adding a seven-day disabled list for players who suffer concussions and, conceivably, other injuries that wouldn't keep them out for 15 days. Excellent idea. But don't expect to see it implemented until 2012.
• The Average Bear Market: Finally, Scott Boras is out there marketing Kevin Millwood -- who is coming off a horrendous year (4-16, 5.10) -- as a great buy for teams that play in a big pitchers' park. But when Rumblings asked one scout which park would be a good fit for Millwood, his immediate quip was: "Jellystone."
Stat Of The Week
Joe Mauer just became the second catcher ever, and also only the second active player, to have at least three consecutive seasons in which he won a Gold Glove AND Silver Slugger award. Then again, only 10 other players have done it at any position in the three decades since the invention of the Silver Slugger. Here's that distinguished list:
Pudge Rodriguez 1994-99 C
Ken Griffey Jr. 1996-99 OF
Barry Bonds 1990-94 OF
Ryne Sandberg 1988-91 2B
Kirby Puckett 1986-89 OF
Don Mattingly 1985-87 1B
Dale Murphy 1982-85 OF
Dave Winfield 1982-85 OF
Lou Whitaker 1983-85 2B
Mike Schmidt 1980-84 3B
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
Let's check in again with America's sharpest scouting minds, on what they saw in the Arizona Fall League:
• On Giants 1B Brandon Belt: "You can have Brett Harper. Give me that kid. He's got a chance to be Larry Walker. Athletic. Powerful. Good defender. And he hits the ball line-to-line with thunder."
• On Cubs pitching prospect Chris Carpenter: "Easy power stuff. Great life. This guy has a chance to be a front-of-the-rotation starter."
Headliner Of The Week
Finally, this just in from the always-entertaining witticists at realfakesports.com:
MLB HOLDING OFF ON EXPANDED REPLAY IN CASE TECHNOLOGY THING FIZZLES OUT
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.