One thing that became evident after the trade of Freddy Garcia was that the Mariners were going to have to spend some money to replace the 200 innings he gave them every year. During the second half of the season, the rotation was the weakest link in the sea of weak links, and if the Mariners are going to contend, they must add a pitcher capable of providing consistent, reliable work late in to ballgames.
Of all the free agent starters on the market, my choice would be Matt Clement. Clement isn’t viewed as the top option for most clubs, in part due to his 9-13 W-L record with the Cubs this year and a reputation as a bit of an underachiever. He was a top prospect coming up through the Padres system, ranking #16 on Baseball America’s Top 100 list in 1998. After several disappointing seasons with San Diego, he was dealt to Florida, and then moved on to Chicago after just one year. His raw career numbers don’t look inspiring; 69 wins, 75 losses, and 4.34 ERA. With his stuff, people have always expected more from him, and the view of him as someone who has not lived up to expectations will likely keep his price down.
However, Clement has been a valuable pitcher the past three seasons, if not the dominating ace everyone expected. He posted a VORP of 36.9 this year, which isn’t spectacular, but is higher than Freddy Garcia’s 35.1, and just barely behind Mark Mulder’s 37.2. He posted a VORP of 27.6 in 2003 and 41.3 in 2002. The past three years, Clement has established a level of performance that puts him solidly in the class of #2/#3 starters, showing both quality and consistency. If he was able to maintain the level of performance that he had in Chicago the past three seasons, he’d be a solid signing for $6 million per year.
However, there are many reasons to believe that Clement is actually on the verge of improving. He posted the 6th best strikeout rate in baseball this year (9.45 K/9). He still had command issues (3.8 BB/9), but did a fair job at keeping the ball in the park (1.1 HR/9) thanks to his groundball tendancies (1.55 Groundball/Flyball rate). In fact, his skillset is fairly reminiscent of the last free agent pitcher the Mariners pursued, Jason Schmidt. Here is a side by side comparison of the 2004 Clement and 2001 Schmidt:
Schmidt: 8.28 H/9, 3.66 BB/9, 8.52 K/9, .78 HR/9, 4.07 ERA
Clement: 7.71 H/9, 3.81 BB/9, 9.45 K/9, 1.10 HR/9, 3.68 ERA
2001 Schmidt was actually slightly worse than 2004 Clement and was coming off his first full season of pitching in three years. Clement has a stronger profile, establishing good stuff, solid performance, reasonable expectation of improvement, and a clean bill of health.
I’m not implying that, like Schmidt did, Clement is going to evolve into one of the three or four best pitchers in the game. However, the potential is certainly there, and Clement is the rare free agent pitcher who can actually be projected to pitch above the value of his contract. If he doesn’t improve at all, he’s a solid addition to the staff, a pitcher in the class of Freddy Garcia and a step ahead of Joel Pineiro. If he does follow historical trends and adds better command to his repertoire, he’s a potential #1 starter, a front-line ace that could be the steal of the offseason.
Like any free agent pitcher, Clement is a risk, especially with a contract of more than 3 years. However, fewer pitchers have been commanding long term contracts as teams recognize this risk, and with Pedro Martinez and Carl Pavano drawing a lot of eyes this winter, Clement will not be at the top of many shopping lists for owners looking to overspend on a pitcher.
If the Mariners decide to attempt to contend in 2005, they need to add at least one starting pitcher to the rotation. As long as the bidding stays within a 3 year, $24-$27 million range, Matt Clement should be that guy.