The Scott Kazmir signing was nice and all, but it’s not going to be it for the Cleveland Indians in the starting pitching market. All offseason, the Tribe’s front office has expressed its desire to sign one more free agent starter: a veteran that could provide some more depth to the rotation.
Entering 2013, the starters for the Tribe are Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, then likely Zach McAllister and Trevor Bauer. As I broke down last week following the Bauer-Shin Soo Choo trade, there are no other immediate options in Columbus or elsewhere. Indians fans would simply see the usual revolving door at No. 5 should no other pitcher join the fold: a la Jeanmar Gomez, Carlos Carrasco, et al.
So what’s left on the market for the Indians? Reportedly, Cleveland was on the short list of suitors for RHP Edwin Jackson, who signed a 4-year, $52 million deal with the Cubs earlier this week. But with the New Year approaching, the list is shrinking quickly.
Three obvious names appear when looking at the list of current unrestricted free agents that are still unsigned: RHP Kyle Lohse, RHP Shaun Marcum and LHP Joe Saunders. These three all rank in the top 25 of MLBTradeRumors’ list of top 50 free agents this offseason. Here’s the group of only starting pitchers from that list and the folks that have signed already:
|16||Ryan Dempster||35||Red Sox||2||26.5|
The average deal for all of these players has averaged between $11-13 million. Obviously, free agency is one of the more risky places to go out and try to bring in a reliable arm in the rotation. The cheapest source of players are those youngsters that are still on their initial deals with teams before they reach arbitration. That’s what the Indians have taken advantage of mostly, ever since the ’90s.
Before I go in depth to discuss these three players in comparison to each other and the potential deals they might be looking for, I also wanted to bring up the trade market. According to a report last week from Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, the Dodgers have been looking for suitors for starters Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. Both are now expendable after their signings of Greinke and Ryu Hyun-Jin. So I’d be remiss not to introduce that as a possibility too.
So first, let’s go head-to-head-to-head with the three free agents:
The recently turned 34-year-old Lohse had a career season in 2012 with the Cardinals. He’s been incredibly successful over the last two years in the National League, after a very mediocre start to his career with Minnesota until 2006. Notably, however, this success is least likely to persist in his case.
He set a new career high in several categories in 2012.He’s also likely to be the most expensive player among this trio because of his recent durability and success. That’s also partially because he didn’t accept the Cards qualifying offer of one-year, $13.3 million, which means the team that signs him will have to forfeit a Draft pick — it would be the second-rounder for the Indians, since they pick in the top 10.
Here’s my favorite analysis of why Lohse won’t be successful on a long-term deal, courtesy of Beyond The Box Score: “I’d be shocked if Lohse can keep throwing 200+ innings over the next three to five years, he simply does not have the track record. … In conclusion, don’t give big money and years to a pitcher on the wrong side of 30, who is coming off of a career year, and thus is due for regression. Seriously, it won’t end pretty, trust me.”
An intriguing arm that several teams seem to be interested in this offseason. He just turned 31 last week and has logged only 916.2 innings pitched in his MLB career because of several injuries (by comparison, Lohse has 1,973.0 career innings). He was limited to just 21 starts in 2012 because of nagging shoulder, elbow and calf injuries.
But, when healthy, he’s always been successful at the big league level. Since 2010 with Toronto, he’s 33-19 with a 3.62 ERA, 7.5 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. That’s certainly not typical ace material — although he was once the Opening Day starter for the Jays — but certainly would be considered a vast improvement over what the Indians have now.
There’s certainly risk in a Marcum signing. This line and all the research from Brewers blog Disciples of Uecker certainly scares me: “If you believe the Brewers’ research — and at this point, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt — Marcum is a ticking timebomb, and a risk they’ve been unwilling to take.
Saunders was the lead topic of Buster Olney’s recent article on “The next tier of free agents”: I got a text in the middle of the winter meetings from a veteran player. ‘Why isn’t there more talk about Joe Saunders?’ he wrote. ‘He’s really good.’ He is unspectacular but solid, for sure, consistently taking the ball and posting ERAs in the range of 3.60 to 4.60 in his career; he had a 4.07 ERA for the Diamondbacks and Orioles last year. ”
A soft-tossing lefty that will turn 32 next summer, he hasn’t had a great season since 2008 with the Angels, but certainly has been productive enough to register some big money on the free agent market. If an older Jeremy Guthrie can get 3 years and $25 million, there’s no reason why Saunders can’t too.
For his MLB career, he’s averaged just 5.1 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9, along with a 4.15 ERA. Slightly Derek Lowe-esque in terms of the low number of strikeouts, but he walks more guys. He did well in the postseason for Baltimore last season, so early indications are that he could eventually reach a deal with the O’s.
According to FanGraphs‘ successful and unique crowdsourcing results for possible free agent deals, here is what these three pitchers are likely to command on the open market:
Lohse — 4 years, $52 million
Marcum — 2 years, $20 million
Saunders — 2 years, $16 million
For obvious reasons then, I think most folks would understand why I would prefer the latter two guys. Fewer years, less risky and less money. They’re also younger, which is again why I can’t get over the fact that Lohse will be getting over $50 million on the open market after being so mediocre (at best) for the Twins earlier last decade.
For some extra baseball insight, I also reached out to WFNY baseball gurus Jon and TD for their thoughts on these three guys. Here’s what Jon, an admitted St. Louis fan initially, said about Lohse: “Lohse is not remotely elite, though he’s going to command #2 money. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets more than E Jax, but less than Anibal. And that’d likely be too much, IMO.” TD added that he doesn’t buy Lohse as an AL pitcher one bit.
So where does that leave the Indians? Certainly Marcum or Saunders could be possibly interesting additions to the rotation. Marcum has been more successful in the big leagues, but is a clear injury risk. Saunders has been more consistent and durable, but is yet another soft-tossing lefty who doesn’t really intimidate a lot of batters. But that’s where the trade conversations with the Dodgers return to my mind.
Here are the stats on Harang and Capuano over the last three years, who both turned 34 last season:
Again, overall, the lefty Capuano has been more successful recently, when healthy, than the righty Harang. Capuano missed all of 2008 and almost all of 2009 following his second Tommy John surgery. He pitched his most innings in 2012 since 2006.
Harang, on the other hand, has pitched 160+ innings in eight of the last nine seasons (only exception: his awful 2010). His prime certainly was 2005-2007 when he posted a 4.3, 5.0 and 5.8, respectively, in the WAR categories. Those are borderline All-Star numbers.
Both pitchers had signed with the Dodgers in December 2011. Capuano’s deal was 2 years and $10 million with a mutual option for 2014. Harang’s deal was 2 years and $12 million with a mutual option for 2014.
Overall, I’m now more intrigued by the less-risky perspective of reaching a deal with LA for one of these two guys. Harang has nearly been exactly what the Indians are looking for — an innings eater with a solid pedigree. His walk ratio in 2012 does scare me a bit. Meanwhile, Capuano — also of the Brewers mold initially — kind of resembles the injury history of Shaun Marcum, but that’s why his deal is at a much lower rate.
A mid-level prospect and a relief arm would seem to be a decent deal for one of these two guys, at best. I think that’s a better overall risk-reward assessment for a one-year and possibly two-year rental of an arm, rather than spending more precious money on guys that are relatively at the same profile in terms of Marcum and Saunders.
Certainly, I think the Indians do need more help in the rotation than in the lineup. I broke down recently how poor the Indians’ starting pitching prospects are, outside of Bauer. But I’d rather not make a big splash and fall, when the Harang-Capuano stop-gaps also are options too. I’m confident we’ll hear plenty about all five of these pitchers in the coming week.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar