Bargains Remain in Unsigned Pitchers

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Left-handed pitcher Joe Saunders, a free agent, seen here in pitching for the Baltimore Orioles in the wildcard playoff game against the Texas Rangers. Source: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America

With just a little over a month until pitchers and catchers report to their respective Spring Training facilities, plenty of starting pitchers remain unsigned.  This includes Kyle Lohse, the free agent formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals who posted an underrated 2.86 ERA (134 ERA+) with a 16-3 record in 2012 with a WAR of  3.9.  The problem with Lohse, however, is the fact that teams aren’t willing to surrender their first round draft pick and pay top dollar for a pitcher whose career K/9 is 5.65 while his BB/9 is 2.58.  Today, we’ll examine pitchers who remain on the market and could provide a potential bargain for teams looking for depth in their respective rotations, such as both New York teams or the Texas Rangers.

Shaun Marcum, RHP:
With the Brewers declining the soft-tossing Marcum’s option for next year, the market has been pretty quiet for the 31-year old, save for some dialogue with the Indians.  In 2012, Marcum pitched 21 starts, before being shut down with an elbow injury, which was good for 124 innings, as well as a 3.70 ERA, a WHIP of 1.27, which is in line with his career ERA of 3.76 and WHIP of 1.22.  It’s also worth noting his 2009 season was wiped away due to Tommy John surgery.  In his 2011 campaign, in which he made 33 starts, Marcum had a WAR of 2.8.  Given this year’s market in which Joe Blanton got two years and $15 million, it’s safe to say Marcum could receive a two-year deal or perhaps a one-year deal with plenty of incentives.

Joe Saunders, LHP:
A 9-13 record with a 4.07 ERA seems pretty mediocre, but take a look at Saunders’ stats with the Baltimore Orioles this year: In seven starts, Saunders posted a 3.63 ERA (117 ERA+) with a 4.6 K/9 and a 1.6 BB/9, good for a WAR of 0.7.  If those numbers were to remain constant throughout the season, Saunders’ WAR would be around roughly 3.5 going by Baseball Reference’s projections.  In 11 1/3 postseason innings in 2012, Saunders kept two of 2012’s best American League offenses–the Yankees and Rangers in check to a 1.59 ERA.  Fangraphs pegs Saunders at a 2.5 WAR for the 2012 campaign.  For Saunders, it wouldn’t shock me if the 2009 Opening Day starter for the Los Angeles Angels re-signed in Baltimore for around two years and anywhere between $12-$15 million.

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Dallas Braden celebrating his perfect game with catcher Landon Powell. Source: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Dallas Braden, LHP:
The only year in which Braden was a beacon of health–2010–Braden accomplished some pretty extraordinary feats for the Oakland Athletics, pitching the 19th perfect game in MLB history, and co-leading the American League (along with the Twins’ Carl Pavano) in shutouts with two.  For the 2010 campaign, Fangraphs had Braden at a WAR of 3.1.  In his few starts in the 2011 season before undergoing shoulder surgery (which was followed by a torn left rotator cuff surgery in 2012), Braden posted a career high in K/9 at 7.50.

For his career, Braden has a K/BB of 2.16 and a WHIP of 1.32.  Since his debut in 2007, Braden has been worth a WAR of 7.7, and this past fall he elected free agency after refusing an assignment to Triple-A following removal from the 40 man roster.  Braden would certainly come cheap on a minor-league deal looking to rebuild value on a one-year deal.

Derek Lowe, RHP:

Traded to the Indians with the Braves picking up $10 million of the remaining $15 million of a 4-year $60 million contract early on in the 2011 offseason, Lowe got off to a hot start in 2012, going 6-1 with a 2.05 ERA but faded as the summer progressed, the final straw a start against Kansas City in which Lowe gave up seven runs on eight hits in 2 1/3 innings in early August.  Signed by the Yankees a few weeks later, Lowe rediscovered himself in the bullpen, pitching to a 3.04 ERA in 23 2/3 innings.  Versatility is not a problem for Lowe, who has made 377 starts and 86 saves in his career.  Lowe, who relies heavily on his sinker, pitched to a high ground ball rate (59.2%) in 2012 and is looking to start in 2013.   Given the market, which has seen the likes of Roberto Hernandez (-0.3 WAR ) sign a 1-year pact at $3.25 million and Jeff Francis of the Rockies (1.1 WAR with a FIP of 4.27 to Lowe’s 4.37) at $1.5 million, Lowe is probably looking at a one-year commitment anywhere between $2-4 million for 2013.

Javier Vazquez, RHP:
This is all dependent on whether or not Vazquez decides to pitch this year, but the former Expo has been clocked at 94 mph pitching in Puerto Rico, and is said to be deciding whether or not he wants to come back to the majors following the World Baseball Classic, in March.  Last in the majors in 2011, Vazquez had a tale of two seasons: the first half composed of a 5.23 ERA with a SO/BB ratio of 1.94 and a WHIP of 1.5 in 96.1 innings (18 starts).  In Vazquez’s next 96.1 innings pitched (14 starts), the former Expo pitched to an ERA of 2.15, a strong SO/BB ratio of 6.00 and a minuscule WHIP of 0.862.  Despite the low ground ball percentage of 34.2%, Vazquez had a K/9 of 7.57, good for a WAR of 3.2.  Certainly, Vazquez would have to come on a minor league deal, but whoever signs him would certainly have a cheap back-end rotation piece for the 2013 season.  With Dan Haren’s health a potential issue, Vazquez to the Nationals almost makes too much sense.  It would behoove Vazquez to stay away from the American League, where his ERA is 4.65 and SO/BB is 2.97.  Compare that to his National League numbers, which are comprised of an ERA of 3.99 and a SO/BB ratio of 3.54.  Vazquez is only the third pitcher to beat all 30 teams, along with Jamie Moyer and Barry Zito.  His 2536 strikeouts rank 29th all time, and in 2009 he came fourth in NL Cy Young award voting, with 238 strikeouts and a mere 44 walks.

Other mentions:
Freddy Garcia
, the veteran who pitched for the New York Yankees the last two years, would also come cheap on a minor league deal following a season in which he pitched to 17 starts in 107.1 innings.  His ground percentage of 40.2% was almost in line with his career of 41.9%, and considering the HR/FB ratio of 15.8%, it’d be in Garcia’s best interest to stay away from a park like Coors Field.  Spacious ballparks like Citi Field or Petco would probably benefit the 13-year veteran, whose fastball now sits in the mid-to-upper 80s.

Jair Jurrjens, formerly of the Atlanta Braves would also come cheap, but he exactly hasn’t been a beacon of health since mid-2011 in which he posted an ERA of 2.96 (ERA+ of 129) and a WAR of 1.6.  Mainly under the guise of deceptive stats– 3.54 K/9 and a 3.35 BB/9– with a FIP of 3.99, incentives would be a must for Jurrjens, who has had groin, knee, and leg injuries ever since being selected to the 2011 All-Star game.  In 48.1 innings pitched, Jurrjens posted an ERA of 6.89 in 2012, good for a -0.3 WAR.

While pitching remains at a premium (as seen in the Greinke, Edwin Jackson and Ryan Dempster contracts), teams always seem to find success in the pitching bargain bin, whether in be Freddy Garcia’s 2.2 WAR in 2011 on a $1.5 million minor-league contract or the $2 million commitment to Bartolo Colon’s eventual 2.4 WAR (in 24 starts) from the Oakland A’s this last year. With teams having to give up a first round draft pick for names like 34-year-old Kyle Lohse, more teams should start employing the bottom-feeding approach, given that there really isn’t much to lose.

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