Thursday, January 13, 2011

Project Pitcher

Brad Penny (left) signed a $3 million contract with the Tigers this offseason possibly making Armando Gallaraga (right) the odd man out in the Tigers 2011 rotation.  Is that the right move?

This time of the MLB off season is usually slow going.  A slew of minor league deals for utility players and late signing relievers come to terms with new teams each year.  This is also the part of the off season when teams in need of starting pitch, which let's face it, is pretty much every team, start to look hard at the so-called "reclamation projects."  This off season is no different, other than there seems to be an abundance of these pitchers available this off season.  Pitchers such as Jeff Francis, Chris Young, Justin Duchscherer and a handful of others will be coming off of injuries or down years and looking to parlay a team friendly, one year contract into a long term deal in the future. 

We have already seen several of these "bargain bin" starters sign new contracts.  Chien-Ming Wang (Nationals), Brad Penny (Tigers), Rich Harden (A's), Chris Capuano (Mets), Brandon Webb (Rangers) all have had successful seasons in the major leagues and are all trying to reinvigorate their careers with new teams in the upcoming season.  Each off season teams tend to shell out these contracts at a rapid pace but do these signings work out helping or hurting the team more often than not?  Are these "project pitchers" taking a rotation spot from a younger player who the team may benefit from giving a chance to pitch instead?  Let's take a look at a couple of these contracts from last off season and see how they turned out.

My examples for this will be Rich Harden, Ben Sheets, Chien-Ming Wang and Brad Penny, all of whom are/were once again a part of the free agent market this off season.  This group consists of four pitchers who were either coming off of major injuries or lackluster performances the previous season.  They combined to make a total of $27 million and pitched in a total of 49 games and 267 innings with mixed results.  That is an awful large chunk of payroll for the 4 teams (A's, Cardinals, Nationals and Rangers) that went out on a limb to sign them.  Was the potential for that all so elusive "upside" was large with these pitchers worth the investment?  Not according to  Fangraphs WAR (Wins Above Replacement) ratings and contract values for each player shows that none of these players lived up to their contracts.

Player                            Contract              WAR              Value

Rich Harden  -                     $7.5m                -0.7              -$2.8m
Brad Penny   -                     $7.5m                  1.1               $4.3m
Ben Sheets    -                   $10.0m                  0.6               $2.5m
Chien-Ming Wang  -          $2.0m                  0.0               $0.0m

Based off of the numbers above the teams "lost" a combined total of roughly $23 million on these signings.  For teams like the A's and Rangers with payrolls lower than $70 million Harden and Sheets ate up a significant portion of their budget last season and proved to be very cost prohibitive.  While Chien-Ming Wang didn't pitch a single inning last season his deal was more incentive based and didn't hurt the Nationals as bad as the Sheets and Harden deals affected the A's and Rangers.  The Cardinals have a much larger payroll than the 3 aforementioned teams and going out on a limb to sign Penny to a deal for rotation depth made more sense for them.  Penny also was not coming off a significant injury and had finished the season strongly for the Giants the season before.  He pitched very well up until multiple injuries sidelined him for the majority of the season.

This season teams have seemed to take notice of these high risk signings.  While they have not steered clear they have significantly lowered the amount of guarenteed money on this type of signing.  In a market where teams are throwing around huge contracts to middle relievers, starting pitchers coming off of injuries have earned significantly less this off season.  Brad Penny took a $4.5 million pay cut from last season when he signed a $3 million contract with the Tigers.  Wang resigned with the Nationals but for only $1 million this season.  The A's are taking a chance on Harden but are only paying him $1.5 million.  The most interesting case is Brandon Webb, a former Cy Young award winner, who only secured $3 million guaranteed from the Rangers, which is a huge difference from the contract they gave Harden last season.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.

While the teams have gotten smarter about the contract numbers there is still a lingering question about these signings.  These pitchers are taking away innings from younger, less established hurlers.  Brad Penny will be pitching instead of either Phil Coke or Armando Gallaraga.  Wang would be taking innings from either Ross Detwiler or Yunesky Maya.  The story is the same for other teams making these type of acquisitions.  Is spending a few million dollars better than exploring your in house options?  Is Brad Penny really that much better of a pitcher than the younger, cheaper Aramando Gallaraga?  Lets compare their numbers over their past 3 season.

Player                            Innings            K/9           BB/9           WHIP

Aramando Gallaraga  -      467.2             5.67            3.44              1.36      
Brad Penny  -                     323.1             5.43            2.84              1.44

Based off of those peripheral stats you can see that there is not a significant difference in the two pitchers.  Gallaraga is roughly 4 years younger and will be cheaper this season even after going through arbitration.  Sadly though, Gallaraga now appears to be on the outside looking in and is a strong possibility to be cut or traded.  Of course this is only one scenario but the story is the same every year.  A team signs a pitching project to replace an option they already have in house, even if the former isn't much different than the ladder.  The history of these transactions is not one with a greatly positive track record but every year in mid January they will continue to pop up.

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