The 5 hole

In news that should surprise absolutely nobody, the Cards may have interest in bringing Braden Looper back, depending on Carpenter’s health. It’s worthy of consideration, and I’ve made the point before that the Cards absolutely should offer Braden Looper arbitration this offseason. Looper’s no star, and he doesn’t make the rotation any younger, but bringing him back for 1 year would stabilize the rotation for a year and allow Boggs, Todd, Mortensen, et al the opportunity to get further along in their development and allow Jaime Garcia the opportunity to rehab from TJ surgery.

That said, Looper isn’t my first choice. I’d like to find a way to bring in a young pitcher. Jonathan Sanchez’s name has come up before. I, and others, have brought up the possibility of trading for Andy Sonnastine. Either are intriguing in their own right, as is the possibility of adding some other young pitcher, if possible. The problem, of course, is that it’s a lot easier said than done. These guys are solid young starters who earn less than half a million dollars per year. They’ll also be under their teams’ control for the next several years so these teams aren’t going to loosen their grips on these pitchers easily.

Mo has indicated that the team isn’t very likely to trade for a young starter this offseason. I’ll assume that that’s more a comment on the team’s need to save its chits in order to trade for a shortstop and not an insistence that we fill the rotation w/ vets, per Tony’s and Dunc’s liking. In any case, we’re more likely to see Looper in the rotation in ’09 than we are Sonnastine or Sanchez. So, if we are going to pursue a vet for the rotation – through free agency or trade – what should the parameters be?

The absolute last thing we want to get bogged down with is another long-term contract for a back of the rotation starter. We’ll have Carpenter under contract through 2011 and he may never pitch another meaningful inning for us again. We’ve got 4 more years of Kyle Lohse. We signed Pineiro last offseason to a 2 year contract when 1 would have been optimal. Now we’ll have a 5th starter we’re paying $7.5 M this year. If Carp’s medical news is as bad as it might be, the front office has to avoid panicking and ending up stuck w/ some contract we’ll regret over the long-term. A 1 year deal would be ideal – thus the allure of the possibility of Looper accepting our arbitration offer.

The problem, of course, is that most free agents aren’t eager to accept one year offers, and those that are tend to be coming off injury. Options would include Mark Mulder, Mark Prior, Matt Clement (who?), Jason Jennings, Carl Pavano and Freddy Garcia. With Garcia out for the year, and Boggs, Todd and Mortensen not yet ready, is this really the time for another reclamation project? Do we need a 200 inning workhorse in this spot? Probably not. It’s reasonable to think that we could get 10-12 starts and 60 innings out of Boggs, Todd, or Mortensen but neither can we depend on them to get 150 innings this season.

We should also avoid any Type-A free agents. We’re not going to sign Sabathia. We’re not going to sign Sheets, Mussina, or Lowe either. There just isn’t the money left in the budget to spend $12-15 M on another starter. So if we’re not going to get a top of the rotation guy, we absolutely should not squander our first round draft pick in order to fill the #4 or #5 spot in the rotation. Type-B free agents provide compensation to the team that lost the starter but do not cost the signing team any draft picks.

So what’s available? Looper…possibly. I still think there’s a really good chance that he signs a 3 year, $25-27 M contract w/ someone but, if not, he’d be a good fit. Here is the list of free agent starters. It’s not a terrible group, all in all, but there aren’t that many on the list who seem to fit the criteria. Brad Penny’s intriguing but he’ll likely get a long-term deal from someone…if he’s healthy. And therein lies the problem – if he’s healthy, he’ll get a long-term deal. If he’s not, we don’t want him anyway. His injury last year was no fluke. 30 year old pitchers w/ shoulder problems have a big, flashing, neon sign saying "Achtung! Caution! Caveat emptor!"

Back in July, LB made the case for pursuing a trade for the Mariners’ Jarrod Washburn. The argument was that the M’s would be looking to clear some salary and, if they would take a low-value prospect in return, it would be better than paying a lot of money for 3-4 years for a free agent. The M’s, w/ their GM turnover never were able to trade Washburn b/c they wanted the team to take Washburn, his salary, and give back something of value as well. Might new GM Jack Zduriencik be more flexible when attempting to deal Washburn? If so, he’s still an option – though, unfortunately, Mike Parisi no longer is due to his season-ending injury.

But I want to bring up another name as a possibility. He’s someone who fits all the available criteria – would likely accept a 1 year deal, not a type-A free agent, and not an injury reclamation project. I realize that Randy Johnson is 45 years old – but he’s no ordinary 45 year old pitcher. The man is, simply, a freak. He’s certainly not the pitcher he once was, but if he was, we couldn’t even consider him for this role. Last year, as a 44 year old pitching in one of the best hitters’ parks in the game, he threw 184 IP w/ an FIP of 3.76. He made 30 starts. Is it likely we’d get 30 starts and 180 innings from the guy? Maybe it’s not probable but it’s certainly plausible and I don’t think that 25 starts and 150 innings is out of the question.

Would a 1 year, $8.5 M contract be enough to lure Johnson to St. Louis? Who knows but I doubt that GMs will be knocking each other out of the way to fill out their rotations w/ a 45 year old starter. Unfortunately, ZIPS isn’t out yet w/ the D-backs’ projections so we don’t know what they have figured for Johnson, but Bill James has him down for 170 IP, 178 K, and a 3.40 ERA. I’m not buying it but it is encouraging to see that James seems to feel that signing Johnson would be a pretty good move.

THT has Johnson at 8 win shares above bench for last season – worth just less than $12 M. It’s not that hard to see that he might be worth at least $9 M or so for next season. Plus, he’s left-handed. It’s been since, and this is tough to believe, it’s been since 2005 since we had a viable southpaw in the rotation. The question, of course, is what happens in those 10-15 starts that Johnson isn’t able to make.

Let’s say that Johnson is able to start 25 games next season for the Cards w/ an ERA around 4. He averaged just more than 6 innings per start this year so, at 6 IP per start, that gives us 150 innings from him. We’ll need to fill about 9 starts from Boggs, Todd, and/or Mortensen then. Let’s assume that these guys average 5 innings per and are basically replacement-level pitchers. ZIPS projects Todd to have a 4.75 ERA, Boggs – 5.31 and Mortensen 5.61. Let’s assume a 5.20 ERA for the trio.

IP ERA ER
Johnson 150 4.02 67
Toggsensen 45 5.20 26
Totals 195 4.29 93

So our combination of Johnson, Todd, Boggs, and Mortensen out of the 5 hole would give us somewhere around 195 innings w/ a 4.29 ERA. It’s possible we only end up 20 starts or so out of Johnson and 13 or so starts from Toggsensen. Even in that circumstance, we end up w/ 185 innings and an ERA of 4.48. That’s about league-average and simply isn’t easy to find on the free agent market for 1 year and $8.5-9 M. Does anyone out there think we can get that from Paul Byrd or Greg Maddux? Anybody out there think we can get Jon Garland for a contract like that? I don’t.

If we, indeed, have to find somebody to fill out the last spot in our rotation b/c Carp simply can’t be counted on in ’09, we need to do what we can to give the team a chance to win every 5th day while still providing the opportunity for the young-uns to prepare to take the reins in 2010. Randy Johnson does that and I doubt that he’d cost the team $12M. He certainly won’t cost the team 3-4 years of mediocre productivity. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Johnson is done but he gave no indication last year that that’s the case.

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