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the market for pitchers

annoying loss last night; the cards had four separate leads (2-0, 4-2, 6-5, and 7-6) and blew them all. that’s how it goes sometimes; the tigers are playing well, they were at home, and they have a lineup with no holes. tip your cap and move on. the good news: jess todd was dominant in the double A all-star game, striking out 5 of the 7 all-stars he faced. but his teammates, fernando salas and luke gregerson, coughed up 5 runs in the 9th and 10th innings to lose the game.

toward the bottom of joe strauss’s long chat yesterday, somebody asked who the cards might go after at the trade deadline. strauss responded:

Pitching is the priority. The possibilities for a starter include: Padilla, Bedard, Sabathia, Wolf, Washburn, Lowe and Batista.

note that he says "possibilities include" --- ie, it’s a partial list of targets, not a comprehensive one. but since strauss is naming them, we can safely assume the cards are at least mildly in pursuit of these guy. let’s take a look at them --- click on the pitcher's name for his career stats.

  • vicente padilla: making $11m this year, owed $12m next year, with a $12m option for 2010 ($1.75m buyout). having a very nice comeback year --- 10-3 record, 3.74 era. it’s his first sub-4.00 era since 2003 (when he pitched for the phillies), and only his second completely healthy season. last year he missed 10 starts with a triceps injury, the second time in 3 years that particular ailment landed him on the dl; this year he has a very sick daughter back home in nicaragua and might need to spend some time with her (he missed a start earlier this month for that reason). the cards were interested in him during the 2006 free-agent shop meet; he throws hard and would likely thrive in the st louis ballpark, which quashes home runs (padilla’s main vulnerability). his k rate is healthy at 6.2 this year, and fangraphs has his fastball holding steady at 92 mph. one other interesting note from the fangraphs pitch-type data: padilla has basically become a two-pitch pitcher, throwing fastball-slider 90 percent of the time this year and all but ditching the curveball; maybe the triceps thing has something to do with that. endurance is definitely an issue --- he has pitched into the 7th inning only 6 times in 16 starts. and padilla’s FIP is 5.15, which gives serious pause --- because (as readers of this blog surely know) FIP is a better predictor of future performance than ERA is. the high FIP is primarily an effect of padilla’s high home-run rate; with the change of ballparks and leagues, that should come down a tick. in addition to the high price and the injury history, padilla has been known to have a temper. risky, but there’s clear upside.
  • jarrod washburn: your average soft-tossing lefty, averages 87-88 mph w/ the fastball but only throws it about half the time, using an assortment of off-speed stuff to fool hitters --- or try to, anyway. like padilla, he’s under contract for one more guaranteed year, at $10.3m. he’s having a lousy year so far (2-7, 5.52), but that’s due almost entirely to a .344 batting average on balls in play; we can expect that figure to regress to the mean, ie to come down. on almost every other important indicator --- FIP, k rate, bb rate, hr rate, strand rate, gb/fb ratio --- washburn is right at his career norms; he has yielded a higher than usual line-drive rate this year, but that is probably a reflection more of bad luck than of declining skill. by all indications, he is still throwing it as well as he did the last few years, when he reliably posted league-averagish ERAs. he pitches in front of a poor defense, on the majors’ worst team; with the more capable st louis gloves behind him, he might get better results. he also has no injury issues to speak of, although he is at best a 6-inning starter (hasn’t thrown 200 innings since 2003). because of his contract, his bad numbers, and the mariners’ need to shed payroll, i would expect washburn to be available pretty cheap; if that proves true, he might be a good solution for the short run. but i don’t like the idea of having to pay him $10m next year. the cards might do just as well to call up jaime garcia or jess todd.
  • miguel batista: washburn’s teammate in seattle, and pitching even worse --- 3-9, 6.26 era. he has stopped throwing strikes --- walk rate is 6.5 bb per 9 innings, nearly twice his career average. he’s owed $9m next year; i don’t see how he’s better than boggs, thompson, or reyes, and he’s much more expensive. pass.
  • derek lowe: in his walk year; 35 years old, healthy, very durable, very steady. he’s not quite as good away from dodger stadium --- era on the road has been about 0.75 higher than at home over the last 3 years, in the aggregate --- but st louis has a pitcher’s park, too, so maybe that’s a wash. also has a longstanding platoon split, has trouble w/ lefties. his gb/fb is down significantly this year, although still very high; velocity looks steady, FIP is solid, k / bb / hr rates all look good. he’s the same pitcher as looper, only quite a bit better; i would not expect the dodgers to give him up for nothing --- probably would require us to part w/ bryan anderson or the equivalent. steep cost for a two-month rental, but of the pitchers we have looked at thus far lowe would be the surest stabilizer of the rotation.
  • randy wolf: on a one-year, $4.75m deal; is 5-6 with a 4.09 era. wolf hasn’t missed a start this year and is pitching very well at the moment (7 quality starts in last 8 outings, 3.10 era over that stretch), but his era away from petco park is 5.84, vs 2.52 at home. his k rate has actually increased since his return from tj surgery in 2006, although he did miss half of last year w/ a bad shoulder. like lowe he could be an impact acquisition, but also like lowe he won’t come cheap; we’ll have to give up an important prospect for 11 starts from this guy. and, unlike lowe, he probably won’t be a type A free agent after the season, so the cards wouldn’t even get an extra draft pick out of the deal to make up for the loss of whichever prospect they trade.

that brings us to sabathia and bedard. no need to look at the numbers; they’re both great pitchers, and either would turn the cards into title contenders. but i think they’re both going to be too costly for the cards to consider. both are pending free agents --- sabathia will probably get zito / santana money or close to it, and while bedard won’t be as pricey, somebody will still pay him crazy money. so if the cards acquired either one, he’d strictly be a rental. but because of their marquee value, these pitchers both would probably require more than one significant prospect --- a prohibitive price for a two-month rental. how can we be sure it would cost this much? i direct you to this post from last year, when the mark-buehrle-to-cardinals talk was at its height. i found, first of all, that pitchers of that stature almost never change teams midseason; in the rare cases where they do, the acquiring team inevitably has to give up 3 or 4 big-time prospects. it cost the mets 4 of their best prospects for one season of johan santana; for half a season of sabathia or bedard, the cards would have to give up at least 2 of their top guys. anybody want to deal garcia and mortensen, or todd and anderson, for 2 months of c.c.? not me.

i think the best option on this list (and, again, it's not an all-inclusive list) is derek lowe --- he’ll cost one big-time prospect, but the cardinal farm system has improved to the point where that’s an affordable expense. wolf would be a very good pickup too, and might not cost quite as much talent as lowe; padilla probably would cost less talent than either of the foregoing, but he carries more risk and a heavier financial cost. washburn is probably a better short-term fix than his numbers would suggest, but his 2009 salary is burdensome. batista should not be considered under any circumstances.