July 23, 2014

Indians take a flier on injury-prone starter Shaun Marcum

shaun marcum mets brewersShaun Marcum alone is not a game-changer. But with relatively little possible cost and minimal team risk, the Cleveland Indians just added a bit more upside to their 2014 roster.

Yesterday, the 32-year-old former Milwaukee Brewer and Toronto Blue Jay reached agreement with the Tribe to compete for the open No. 5 rotation spot. Marcum has struggled to stay on the mound for years, but if he can stay healthy, he could beat out some of the other competitors in spring training.

With the move, suddenly, the Indians now have become the posterboys of the offseason minor-league deal. Scott Kazmir’s storybook 2013 season is the ultimate best-case example of a former-ace-turned-reclamation-project. Again, there’s no knowing whether Shaun Marcum could be the next such comeback player. But as a fan, but you’d hate for it to be with a different team and there’s no way to truly find out unless your squad is the one making these low-risk moves.

[Related: Hit Or Miss: The Indians and the One-Year Deal]

Speaking of the move, it’s reportedly worth $1 million at the MLB level with up to $3 million additionally in incentives, per MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. That’s not terrible, when considering the prices for free agents this winter. At worst, it is $4 million. At worst, about half of Brett Myers – which only happens if Marcum’s pitching like he once did years ago.

Looking at those career stats, you can clearly see why he’s a worthwhile flier. Outside of perhaps just one season, he’s usually been a very good major league starting pitcher: From 2008-2012, he had a 115 ERA+, which ranked 24th-best in baseball among pitchers with at least 500 innings. He was a de facto ace, just like Justin Masterson is a de facto ace.

He posted a 3.7 jWAR in 2010 and a 3.1 mark the next year. He wasn’t over-powering, but he didn’t allow high rates of line drives. He had some of the lowest walk rates in the National League. He just got the job done.

But then there is that big health issue. He missed all of 2009 with Tommy John surgery. Now, he’s pitched in only 35 games and 202.1 innings over the past two seasons. At 32 years old, will that suddenly change? The expectations certainly have been altered significantly.

Last December, I encouraged the Indians to look into Shaun Marcum among others as possible veteran free-agent starter options. Instead, Cleveland added Brett Myers for $7 million and the New York Mets nabbed Marcum for $4 million guaranteed. Both had disastrous seasons.

[Related: Cleveland Indians miss big on deals for Myers and Reynolds]

In 14 games (12 starts) last year, Marcum was 1-10 with a 5.29 ERA. He had two dominant June starts against Miami and the White Sox, pitching eight efficient innings. Outside of those games? He was dreadful, posting a 6.50 ERA and only three other quality starts. Overall, he was one of just 16 pitchers to hurl 70 innings last season and finish with a bWAR of -1.0 or worse. But his 61.9% left-on-base percentage appeared woefully unlucky.

Marcum’s season-from-hell ended abruptly in early July just before the All-Star Break. He was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a rare disorder that affects the space between the collarbone and first rib and required season-ending surgery. It was the only the latest in his long list of health hurdles.

That’s not to say that health is his only negative. Marcum’s name came up in a myriad of perhaps unsubstantiated off-the-field issues in Toronto. He was demoted randomly to Triple-A in late 2008 with the Jays after already establishing himself as a major league starter. He likely was involved in a late 2009 coup of then-manager Cito Gaston.

So yeah, Dec. 17, 2013 could go down in history as the day that Cleveland fans talk about Shaun Marcum the most. He certainly has flame-out potential, as his career could nearly be over.

But if the next 4.5 months go well? He could end up as an OK innings-eater. He could regain his near-All-Star form. And in one not-so-unlikely reality, he could shore up the Indians’ depleted bullpen. Yes, the rotation obviously needs help with the departures of Scott Kazmir and (likely) Ubaldo Jimenez. That’s a given – they combined 37% of Cleveland’s starter innings last year. But the ‘pen also is in deep trouble.

Chris Perez, released. Joe Smith, off to $15 million in Los Angeles. Matt Albers, off to only $2.45 million in Houston. Rich Hill, eventually gone to some unfortunately desperate team. Those four alone – not including other departed souls – combined for 42% of the team’s reliever innings and 45% of the relief appearances.

[Related: John Axford – A Calculated Risk]

Former Brewers teammate John Axford is officially in the mix as the new closer. Veterans Matt Capps and Mike Zagurski both signed similar minor-league deals. Will that be enough? Marcum could actually profile quite well into a middle-reliever role, if he doesn’t take advantage of his presumed non-roster opt-out as of Opening Day.

Over the past three seasons, Marcum has allowed a .617 OPS against right-handed batters and .779 against lefties. His K/BB ratio is 4.21 against right, 1.89 against left. Those are very polarizing numbers for a hopeful starter, even worse than the ones Masterson has battled against for years. He could be handled ideally as a righty-focused situational- and middle-reliever.

Early on in his career, these violent platoon splits were not the case at all for Marcum, including a shocking reverse breakdown in 2010. But he’s in a tough reality entering 2014 as a now-32-year-old perhaps needing to reinvent himself in order to keep playing.

Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter never fully recovered from his issues with his thoracic outlet syndrome. After being diagnosed in the middle of 2012, he appeared in only six more MLB games and retired last month at 38.

Shaun Marcum could easily fizzle out before ever pitching for the Wahoos at Progressive Field. He also could stink just like he did this past year. But in the non-zero possibility that he pitches and pitches well, then kudos to the Indians and wizard-like pitching coach Mickey Callaway for finding another diamond in the rough. It could just save the 2014 season. And it won’t cost much to see if it could work.

Photos: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images and AP Photo

  • Ed Carroll

    Blake Wood will basically be an addition to the pen as well. Over a year removed from Tommy John.

  • WFNYJacob

    Same with fliers on Matt Capps and Mike Zagurski.

  • Ed Carroll

    Yep. I just think Wood has a better chance of being used in high-leverage situations. Plus I’ve been singing the praises of that signing for over a year now so I gotta see some results and keep up my street cred.

  • mgbode

    yep, a $1mil wet spaghetti noodle thrown on the wall to see if it’ll stick. just the types of gambles we need to take to try to find some useful IP this upcoming season.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    C’mon man!!!

  • DCTribeFan

    I’m not so worried about the pen. Axford is the closer, along with Shaw, Allen, and presumably Pestano in the 7-8-9. I think Tomlin is out of options, so he’s the probable long man ( or Marcum as above). CC Lee looks ready, Hagadone is due to figure out the strike zone, and yes, Blake Wood. Not even considering Capps and Zagurski.
    I guess you HAVE to consider Marcum “injury-prone”, although it seems every pitcher has their obligatory TJ year, and thoracic whatever seems like more of a freak event. I wouldn’t hold last year’s numbers against him, either; If he was diagnosed in July, he presumably was “off” most of the season. Bad luck.

  • Steve

    Carrasco is the one out of options, Tomlin has yet to use one. He’s going to be on the I-71 shuttle quite a bit this year.

    Also, as I mentioned in the other thread, Marcum can opt out after Spring Training if he chooses, so he’s far from a guarantee even if he comes back healthy.

  • mgbode

    ??

  • mgbode

    are you sure it isn’t an option ‘IF’ the Indians elect to not put him on the MLB roster? that is usually how those contracts are done.

  • Steve

    Right, if he’s not on the 25. But I don’t see why he would opt out in that situation. He’s almost certainly just looking for whoever can offer the easiest route back to the majors.

  • mgbode

    definitely. just like what happened with Dice-K last year. if someone wants to give him a rotation spot, then we’ll gladly cut him and let him move on even if it wasn’t an option. that’s how you operate to make sure that you get more of these types of pitchers in the future.

  • Daniel Carroll

    Do you think Wood would benefit from a few extra runs created by bunting? Thoughts on playing a little more “small ball” this year?