The Upside And Risk Guys
So, I’ve laid out my case for why I think the M’s need to pursue a different kind of undervalued player this winter if they want to contend in 2010. They need to be on the right side of a few coin flips, but what coins should they be choosing? Here’s some guys they should kick the tires on.
Rich Harden, SP
His health problems are well known. In the six full seasons he’s spent in the majors, he’s thrown 675 innings, or about 112 per season. He’s thrown more than 150 innings once, and that came in 2004. After numerous arm problems, he got rid of his split-finger, which was a dominant pitch for him early in his career. His command is lousy, and it takes him so many pitches to get outs that he rarely can pitch past the sixth inning. And, to top it off, he just posted the worst results of his career.
That laundry list of drawbacks is why he’s not going to demand a long term, big money deal, despite still being one of the better pitchers in baseball. A significant part of his problem in 2009 was a 15.1% HR/FB rate that isn’t going to continue. And, despite his arm problems, he’s made 51 starts over the last two seasons. He may not be a workhorse, but he’s also not currently broken. So, a few of things that will discount his cost in the market aren’t as big a deal as they may seem. And the upside is certainly there.
Harden has averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings over the last two years. Part of that was moving to the National League, but still, he was striking out hitters at a rate that Tim Lincecum would be jealous of. Even without the splitter (replaced by a change-up that has similar movement), he’s still capable of dominating opposing hitters on any given night. Over the last two years, he’s been worth a total +6.2 wins, even with his DL stints and control problems. A +4 or +5 win season is well within his range of possible outcomes. So is a +0 season, of course, but that downside risk is why the M’s will have a shot at a guy who has Cy Young stuff.
On top of all that, he’s a local kid from B.C., so the geography factor that comes into play with some free agents would be a reduced issue, if it not an outright benefit. There are more than enough positives to offset the obvious negatives. He’s certainly a risk, but he’s one that comes with significant upside.
Ben Sheets, SP
What I said above, only replace the local factor with a drafted-by-Zduriencik factor, so the management team is extremely familiar with Sheets’ health problems and will theoretically have better knowledge of the situation than any team besides Milwaukee. Okay, so Sheets and Harden aren’t exactly the same, as he sacrifices some strikeouts to pound the strikezone more and hasn’t pitched since 2008, but it’s the same basic story. Sheets should come a bit cheaper because of the questions about his present health, but he’s also less likely to be interested in the Mariners than Harden is.
Carl Pavano, SP
What I said above, only replace the incentives to sign here with a reduced value due to the market’s over-valuation of ERA. Pavano had a very good season, running a 4.00 FIP over 200 innings for the Indians and Twins, but a .335 batting average on balls in play pushed his ERA over 5.00. Combined with his long injury history, and Pavano simply isn’t going to be able to cash in this winter despite coming off a very impressive season. He’s a lower upside guy than either Harden or Sheets, but he’ll probably cost less than both and will project to throw more innings than either. He’s not an ace, but he’s a mid-rotation starter who won’t get paid like one.
Randy Johnson, SP
The old version of the first two guys above, with basically the same strengths and weaknesses, just everything reduced by a couple of degrees. Johnson’s at the very end of his career, but even without his legendary fastball, he’s still got the nasty slider and the ability to put hitters away. As an LHP, he’d benefit more from Safeco than either of the two younger guys. Oh, and he’s Randy Johnson, the best pitcher in the history of the franchise. If he’s going to give his career a final farewell, there’s no better spot to do it than Seattle.
Erik Bedard, SP
The left-handed version of Sheets, just with a pushed back time-frame of recovery. He probably won’t be ready to pitch effectively in the majors until around the all-star break, so he’s going to have to take some kind of incentive based one year deal that pays him based on how many innings he throws. Whether he wants to remain in Seattle is anyone’s guess, really. I’d bet on no, but it’s at least worth kicking the tires to find out. The reward is reduced due to the fact that he’ll probably only be potentially available for half the season, so he falls behind the rest of the group in terms of interest. But if the rest of the pitchers fall through, he’s worth exploring.
Nick Johnson, 1B
The hitting version of Rich Harden. At this point, explaining the risk and reward seems a bit redundant. Johnson’s really good when he’s healthy, but there’s always the chance that he’ll spend the whole year on the DL. A left-handed on base machine who could split time at 1B and DH is a great fit for what the M’s need, though. He’s very similar to a late career Edgar Martinez, just with the benefit of hitting from the side of the plate that Safeco favors.
Carlos Delgado, 1B
Rumors of Delgado’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. After a terrible beginning to the 2008 season, he spent the next year playing at a +4 win level. At 38, he’s more of a DH than a 1B, but he can still fill in on the field when necessary. As you’ve surely noticed, the idea I’m pitching is to go after talent that comes with reduced price tags due to injury concerns, so naturally, Delgado’s coming off a season where he spent the last five months on the DL. Hip issues aren’t the end of of the world, though – both Chase Utley and Alex Rodriguez had surgeries on their hips last winter and are doing just fine. Delgado is basically Russ Branyan with a few less strikeouts – the M’s could certainly use him in the line-up, and given his age and injuries, he won’t command more than a one year deal.
Of those six guys, I’d like to see the M’s sign two. My plan suggested Johnson and Sheets, but Harden and Delgado would work just fine as well. You probably can’t get both Harden and Johnson, as they’ll be the two most expensive players from the injury prone guys to sign, but some combination of one of the pitchers and either of the 1B/DH types should be worth exploring.
It’s a risky strategy, no doubt. Sinking $15 to $20 million of the payroll into two players with legitimate health concerns has a real chance of not paying off. However, it’s the M’s best path to contention in 2010. By doing a good job of picking up decent, cheap talent over the last year, the M’s have mitigated some of the risk that comes along with relying on injury prone players. They’ve already invested in raising the floor by picking up guys like Hannahan, Langerhans, Vargas, and Carp. Those guys represent something of a stoploss for the organization, and with a reduced cost in a worst case scenario, the value of guys like Harden and Johnson is higher for the M’s than it would be for some other organizations.
In some ways, this is the perfect free agent class for the Mariners. With the significant depth of talented-but-fragile players on the market, this winter is the baseball version of Ebay, where judicious buyers can accept some increased risk for a dramatic reduction from full retail cost. Those are exactly the kinds of players the M’s need to be pursuing given their roster, and that player type is the most commonly found this winter. There’s going to be a pretty decent supply of what the M’s should be demanding, and that will drive prices down and allow the M’s to value shop at a higher tier of player.
For teams that want to add certainty this winter, adding a couple of extra wins to help put themselves over the top, this free agent class is a massive disappointment. For a team like the M’s, however, this free agent class is perfect. We couldn’t have asked for a better year to go shopping. For once, it actually will make sense to throw some money around in free agency.