Friday, December 29, 2006

Staff Infection

A few weeks back, I pointed to a discussion of what makes up a pitching staff. That is, what kind of numbers should we expect from each slot in the rotation?

In doing so, we discovered that the Nats had a historically bad starting rotation in 2006. As a team, starters put up an ERA+ of 82. Remember that ERA+ adjusts for park and league and normalizes the ERA on a scale of 100. An ERA+ of 82 is 18% worse than league average and an ERA+ of 118 would be 18% better. Nats starters hemorrhaged runs last year (as anyone who sat through a Pedro Astacio start could attest).

Another writer at Baseball Primer has done some of the heavy lifting, giving us a more comprehensive look at starters over the last two seasons. I'd encourage you to read the whole thing as there are lots of good nuggets in there.

You can read his methodology at the site, but basically he added up the results for each rotation slot. Ramon Ortiz hummed along all year, but O'Connor replaced Patterson (?), so his starts would count under Patterson's slot, etc.

To summarize some of his findings (and again, read the whole damn thing!):
Slot 1: 120 ERA+
Slot 2: 105 ERA+
Slot 3: 97 ERA+
Slot 4: 88 ERA+
Slot 5: 79 ERA+

It's important to note that the average starting pitcher has an ERA+ of 96, so a 3rd starter is basically average. Why, you ask? Because relievers have lower than average ERAs, in part, because Mike Stanton can relieve Patterson with the bases loaded, give up a bases-clearing triple, and not be charged any runs.

Keeping those numbers in mind, here's what he found the Nats starters to be:
Slot 1: 87
Slot 2: 83
Slot 3: 80
Slot 4: 79
Slot 5: 79

Ugh. As he puts it, that's a #4 and four #5s. It's a miracle we did as well as we did last year.

For comparison's sake, here's the '05 rotation:
Slot 1: 127
Slot 2: 106
Slot 3: 100
Slot 4: 86
Slot 5: 77

That's more like it. If we had 05's staff with 06's offense... Ah, what could've been!

So what's the point of all this and what does it mean for next year? I dunno. Probably not a whole helluva lot since we're not really in the market for anything much more than a 4th starter.

If Patterson's healthy (ha!), he's a #1. O'Connor (if he's healthy) can probably hold down the 4 spot. Although I'm not sold on him (too many walks, not enough Ks) or his long-term success, if he can do what he did last year, that's slightly better than a 4. Shawn Hill, if he's healthy could probably be a below-average three (94 ERA+ last year). Tim Redding, at worst, can be a fifth starter. He's a career 84 ERA+ guy and with his decent season in Triple-A last year, there's a chance he could be slightly better.

OK, so a 1, 3, 4 and a 5. That's not a bad start. Not as bad as it seemed, at least, right? Well, sorta. We're ignoring injury. And given the injury history of these players, there's no reason to believe that any of them will complete full seasons. And when one of them goes down, up comes Joel Hanrahan or some other scrub. Sure, maybe they'll break out. But it's just as likely that they'll be this year's Billy Traber or Jason Bergmann. There's not a lot of depth, and there's certainly no quality depth. It's not going to be too long before Matt Chico is getting the callup, exposing him before he's ready and (possibly) burning up an option year.

As I've said all along (and ad nauseum), we need a league-average inning-eater type guy -- a #2/3 type who can give us 30 starts, 180 innings and not cripple the team with 3-inning, 5-run outings. coughOrtizcough.

So this is where the rubber meets the road. Who's left? Here's the list of remaining free agent starters.

Clemens is a no-go. Jeff Weaver is likely to go to the Mets or somewhere that'll actually pay him. What's left is less-than exciting. But, because we're gluttons for pain, let's look anyway. I'll link to their fangraphs profile so you can delve through the stats, but I'll give a thumbnail sketch of these stiffs:

Bruce Chen: Flyball lefty who pitches as if it's home run derby, though his K numbers are decent. Supposedly tough to coach. He had a brutal year last year, but will turn just 30. Career 95 ERA+. Should come cheaply.

Shawn Estes: Slop-throwing lefty whom Bowden tried to acquire two seasons ago. Just had Tommy John surgery, so scratch him off the list!

Rick Helling: The former 20-game winner finished the year on the DL with knee problems after missing most of the year with an elbow strain. At age 36, he doesn't seem like he'd be a good fit thanks to little upside.

Jason Johnson: Tall, lanky right-hander who had the crap beaten out of him last year. He seemed to lose some command as his Ks went down and his walks went up -- never good signs for pitchers on the edge (he allowed a seemingly fluky 50 extra points of BABIP last year). He's been relatively durable throughout his career, which would be a plus, and he's sure to come cheaply.

Scuffy Moehler
: Slop-throwing righty who's toiled for the Marlins the last two years. 35, with not much durability, and declining stats? Ugh.

Mark Mulder: Could be this year's Loaiza reclamation project, but I have a nagging suspicion that someone better than us will snap him up. He had back problems last year, which caused him to alter his delivery, straining his shoulder. If healthy, he's got as good a chance as any to do what he did prior to last year. This would be one of the guys I'd target, even if meant more than just a one-year deal.

Tomo Ohka: We've supposedly offered him a contract, admittedly at below market. I suspect that some other team will snap him up as he's probably the best of a bad remaining lot. The Ohka we saw in 05 wasn't as good as he's typically been, especially in terms of control. If he'd come back, even on something like 3/$15, great. I'm just not holding my breath.

Ramon Ortiz
: Have you ever seen a worse fundamental baseball player? Sure, he pinch ran, but remember him trying to hit? or get a bunt down? or get the ball in front of a comebacker? He reminds me of what I'd look like out there. Sure, he can absorb innings, but I think I'd prefer someone with a bit of an upside.

Chan Ho Park: Last year was the first year he's had an ERA under 5 since 2001, and it took the most extreme pitcher's park in the league for it to happen. While he's not as bad as he looked in Texas, he's not much better than the chaff we've got.

Joel Pineiro: Over the last four years, his ERAs have started with the following digits: 3, 4, 5 and 6. Sensing a pattern? Like Jason Johnson, his Ks have steadily gone down while his walks have steadily gone up. The only advantage he has is his youth.

Mark Redman: An All-Star AND the Royals pitcher of the year. Doesn't get better than that! A lefty who's suffering from the K/BBitis that afflicted most of these other guys, he's probably worth a cheap chance on. He's relatively durable, and he's had a few years in the not-too distant past (like all of them!) that indicate that he could be a solid performer.

Aaron Sele: Admit it. You didn't think he was still in the league. Right-handed curveballer who pitched decently for the Dodgers last year as a swingman despite not having had a passable year since the Clinton Administration. He's always been fairly durable, but he's also 37. Meh. But he is a flyballer...

John Thomson: Supposedly was on his way to Seattle two months ago, but nothing happened. Injury-prone right-hander who seems like he could be a good bounceback candidate. He's had a number of solid seasons despite pitching in some tough parks. Career ERA+ of 103. Amazingly 'only' 33 years old. He's another one I'd strongly go after.

Steve Trashcan: Just like Ortiz. But worse.

Jerome Williams: I'm actually surprised nobody's signed the guy. Like everyone, he had a rough year for the Cubs, but has been excellent in previous seasons with a career ERA+ of 108. He's just 25 -- seems like a perfect fit for the plan, eh?

Jamey Wright: Not great, not terrible though he walks too many damn batters. He's another #4 for the fire.

Victor Zambrano: Like Stevie Traschan. But Worse. If signed, Chuck Slowes would likely quite. Actually to be fair, he might be the kind of low-risk signing that would make sense for the team. He's never been as completely terrible as he's been accused of being. It's not his fault he was traded for an uberprospect in a pointless deal. His walks are crazy, but he misses lots of bats. He'll probably be out with TJ surgery until at least the ASB, but the 30-year old would be more of a long-range signing.

Alright....

So there are some names. Some are clearly terrible. Some are meh. And some aren't half bad. None of these guys are likely to cost much more than the $3 million or so that they paid Ortiz last year, and with the Vidro trade, there's certainly a little extra money there. (and don't sell me the line of bull that they traded Vidro for a bigger TV). Are there any of these guys that you'd go hard after? Would you just let the team roll out Hanrahan in May?

[Nats fun fact o' th' day: The Nats spent a combined $10.85 million on Armas, Drese, Astacio, Lawrence and Ortiz]

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