Most Likely Pitching Targets

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Bruce Levine’s weekly chat gave an interesting jumping off point for discussion. The Cubs are in the market for starting pitching. The Cubs should be acquiring anywhere from one to three starting pitchers. The list has a number of characteristics in common. The pitchers are between the age of 29 and 32, and they are either coming off of a poor season or injury. The Cubs offseason strategy could be summed up with the word value, and Levine’s list provides a good starting point for where the Cubs might be looking for value (which means a fantasy like Zack Greinke is probably out of the question). Here are the pitchers Levine listed in order of attractiveness for 2013 starting with the least attractive.

Jeff Francis (5.58 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 113 IP, 6.05 K/9, 1.75 BB/9, 1.19 HR/9), Age 31

  • Francis appeared on the national radar in 2007 by posting two solid 200 innings in Coors. He has yet to post a season under 4.16 ERA and injury have caused him to be a buy low candidate in 2013. The primary reason the Cubs might be interested in Francis is the arm he pitches with, but there might be some upside as well. His ERA was a full run higher than his peripherals suggest.
  • Francis though might be what he is at this point. His velocity has been declining since 2007 when pitchf/x data first became available. He was clocked at an average fastball velocity over 88 mph at that time, but it has fallen to 85.1 in 2012. His HR/FB%, BABIP, and LOB% were not that out of line to suggest he is prime candidate for a bounce back year.
  • That said there is reason advanced stats pointing to improvement. On the one hand, despite declining velocity Francis increased his swinging strike percentage from 7% to 8%. His SIERA was a sterling 3.99, and he used the curveball, a pitch notorious for being difficult at Coors, at the highest rate he has ever used. There are some positive indicators and the front office has shown a preference for southpaws, but beyond a split contract I don’t see the value in Francis.

Daisuke Matsuzaka (8.28 ERA, 5.94 ERA, 45.2 IP, 8.08 K/9, 3.94 BB/9, 2.17 HR/9), Age 32

  • Dice-K is the first in the long list of free agent mistakes that people trot out as Theo mistakes. So I understand the incentive for the front office to take a chance on a low risk deal for the former NBP ace. He has not put up a SIERA under 4 since 2007, but at the same time he has been above 4.60 only once in his career.
  • His velocity was up a tick in the limited innings he pitched this offseason. His velocity is still down from the period he from when he was particularly effective, and even the best year he posted was perhaps overachieving since the peripherals suggested a weaker season.
  • Matsuzaka was an elite level pitcher four years ago. His swinging strike percentage went up last season and his HR/FB% was ridiculously high. He also pitched in the toughest division for pitchers in his entire Major League career. A move to the NL Central and some better luck could see him return to an average or even slightly above average pitcher.

Francisco Liriano (5.34, 4.34, 156.2 IP, 9.59 K/9, 5.00 BB/9, 1.09 HR/9), Age 28

  • Liriano is the biggest lottery ticket on Levine’s list. He has the capability of being an ace, and a left handed one at that, but at the same time he is as maddening as Marmol with his walks. His stuff is incredible and injuries derailed a once promising career. His best season dwarfs that of his nearest competitor with a 12-3 record and 2.16 ERA in 121 IP.
  • He has spent time with one of the best pitching coaches in baseball in Don Cooper and is still maddeningly inconsistent. I would love to tell that Chris Bosio is amazing, but he has nothing near the body of work that Cooper does. On top of that his SIERA has been above 4 in all but two of his seasons.
  • Liriano’s velocity experienced a huge jump in 2012. It went from 91.8 to 93.0 mph. He has the most upside of any of the pitchers with 13.2% swinging strike percentage, but his walk rate is over double of any of the other options Levine listed. Liriano is the high risk/high reward candidate on the list. He has shown the capability of being an ace, but more often than not he has driven managers and fans crazy.

Joe Blanton (4.71 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 191 IP, 7.82 K/9, 1.60 BB/9, 1.37 HR/9), Age 31

  • Blanton is a consistent starter. That is probably the biggest virtue of the unheralded starter. He has thrown 190 innings or more in 6 of the past 8 seasons. His FIP has been consistently under 4.50 in the past three seasons. Early in his career he showed the upside of perhaps being more than a 3, but he has settled into the role of one of the better 4/5 starters in baseball. As an innings eating middle of the rotation starter he is a very solid option.
  • Blanton has had very poor years in terms of results in the past two seasons. His ERA hasn’t been below 4.7 since 2007, and his actual ERA has been higher than his FIP in the vast majority of his career. Blanton has never struck out many batters and that has always limited his upside. As the oldest of the options listed by Levine he offers the lowest chance for surprise.
  • Blanton’s velocity had jumped to the highest point of his career since 2004. His swinging strike percentage has been above 9 for the past three seasons, and his SIERA has been below 4 since 2009. Blanton is a strike throwing, inning eating middle of the rotation starter. He shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg given his actual production, but offers a fair bit of upside for the Cubs.

Shaun Marcum (3.70 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 124.0 IP, 7.91 K/9, 2.98 BB/9, 1.16 HR/9), Age 30

  • Marcum is one of the closest comparable to Paul Maholm. Marcum is coming off an excellent but shortened season. Marcum has put above average numbers for the previous four seasons, but his injuries has cost him a full season in 2009 and limited in his innings in 2012. This makes Marcum a perfect target for the Cubs.
  • His walk rate has increase in the past couple of seasons going from 1.98 to 2.56 to 2.98 in the past three seasons. His BABIP is at a pretty low rate as career rate of .270 and .280 last season. His groundball rate has decreased since 2008. His SIERA has been increasing since 2008, and his velocity has been decreasing over that same time period.
  • Marcum is one of the safest bets for 2012. He has consistently outperformed his FIP, and so that suggests that is going typical for his career. His FB/HR% spiked in 2012, and so that suggests a regression to mean in 2013. His swinging strike % has increased the past season, and if he stays healthy he is a solid bet to remain below a 4 ERA next season.

Brandon McCarthy (3.24 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 111 IP, 5.92 K/9, 1.95 BB/9, 0.81 HR/9), Age 29

  • Brandon McCarthy has had the best track record in the past two seasons of any pitcher on Levine’s list and Rice wrote about him the other day. He has put up a sub 3.50 ERA the past two seasons. He was a top pitching prospect for the White Sox and he was traded for one of the DVD boys, which represented the best of the Rangers pitching prospects at the time.
  • McCarthy’s years of success have come at one of the most friendly pitcher friendly parks in the AL. He also has the benefit of facing one of the most offensively challenged teams in the AL. His walk rate was the highest point since 2009.
  • McCarthy limits walks which is a great skill to have for a pitcher. Move him to the NL where he gets to face a pitcher every ninth at bat then his numbers ought to go up. The question with McCarthy is not the success he is likely to have in 2013, but rather what the price to acquire those services will be. The A’s will likely be involved, but McCarthy’s career high in IP is 170.2. The Cubs hope is that fact depresses McCarthy’s price to lead to a huge value signing.

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