Position Analysis: Starting Pitcher

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(Photos courtesy of Fire Brand and Rantsports respectively)

The Padres have a unique ability that not many in Major League baseball realize.  They have the ability to turn mediocre pitchers into above average pitcher.  For reference, please see Jon Garland and Aaron Harang.  It’s no secret Petco Park is one of the biggest pitcher’s parks out there, and the Padres often use that to lure pitchers to sign with them.  In return, they offer these pitchers something no one else can; A chance to rebuild their careers.  When operating on such a low budget, the Padres have this option as well as farming home-grown talent.  Both can provide huge returns.  For now though, we’re going to focus on the Free Agent market.

Between the seven pitchers who started 10 or more games for the Padres, the club spent slightly over $7.5 million.  That averages out to about $1.07 million.  However, five of the seven actually made less than $1 million.  Most hovered around league minimum.  The beauty of this is the Padres still have multiple years of control over their younger pitchers meaning the team can get the most from the minimal salary it spends on these guys.  With the additional funds, they can go out and seek a Free Agent arm.  Here’s how the 2011 starting pitching staff broke down in terms of salary:

Mat Latos – $416,000
Tim Stauffer – $1,080,000
Aaron Harang – $3,800,000
Dustin Moseley – $900,000
Clayton Richard – $469,000
Wade LeBlanc – $416,000
Cory Luebke – $416,000

They combined for 9.2 Wins Above Replacement meaning the Padres spent approximately $815,000 per Win.  With Aaron Harang gone, the Padres have at least $3.8 million to spend on a starter.  However, based on the slightly increased payroll from last year (presumably about $55 million in 2012 verse about $45 million in 2011), the Padres can either spend somewhere around $5 million a year for one pitcher or an average of $2.5 million for two.

Let’s focus on the one starter option giving the Padres a little more flexibility in who they pursue.  The criteria I’m following is simple: Under 30, Free Agent, with a high upside when pitching in a pitcher’s park like Petco.

Rich Harden

James Richard Harden made $1.5 million last year with the A’s, a large drop-off from his 2010 salary of $6.5 million.  Harden is injury-prone leading to concerns about his durability.  He likely won’t command much more than the $1.5 million he made last year, especially considering he only accounted for 0.7 WAR.

Harden, though, has a huge upside.  He was once one of the A’s prized possessions.  In 9 Major League seasons, Harden has compiled a 59-38 record with a 3.76 ERA, good for an ERA+ of 117.  However, he has pitched in 100 or more innings only 4 times in those 9 seasons.

Harden is certainly a risk, but based on the difference in Park Factor between Oakland and San Diego (Petco is 12.8% more pitcher friendly based on runs), he could thrive with the Padres.  As analyzed here by Swingin’ A’s, Harden is not likely to return to Oakland.  His performance there did not impress many of the Oakland faithful.

Harden can still strike ’em out with the best of them, though he seems to have turned his focus from fastball/slider/curve to fastball/slider/change.  In fact Harden has hardly – if ever – thrown his curveball in the last 5 or 6 years.  Harden’s HR/9 rate of 1.9 would likely come down drastically in Petco Park, and his 0.49 groundball-to-flyball should play well with the deep outfield of the Padres’ home park.

At 29 years old 9soon to be 30 though), Harden fits the criteria of a pitcher the Padres should make a run at.  However, unlike some of the more recent moves, the club needs to make Harden a multi-year offer.  This could allow them to sign him for a per-year salary of about the same or less than last year.  I’m thinking an offer of three-years, $4 million.  I’d suggest the Padres include an incentive clause based on performance, but they seem hesitant to do so with most contracts. An offer like this would allow the club to pursue yet another low-price starter if they so choose.

Edwin Jackson

Jackson’s biggest problem is his agent, Scott Boras.  Boras is very good at what he does.  He gets his clients paid.  Unfortunately for a player like Jackson, that generally means shorter deals because teams aren’t willing to pay him Scott Boras-type money for the long-term.  However, Jackson would be a nice fit for the Padres if they could scrape the cash together to pay him.

Jackson is young and has room to improve in a place like Petco, but he hasn’t fared too terribly in his career to date.  His wins and losses aren’t a good measure of his talent, but his career ERA+ and his HR/9 ratio are.  Jackson’s ERA+ sits at 102.  While this is not much over league average, he has put together six seasons in which his ERA+ was above-average.  Jackson’s HR/9 ratio of 1.0 is very encouraging.  A stint in San Diego could lower that even further.

Jackson’s last deal, 2-years for $12.55 million, is probably too rich for the Padres blood.  However, Boras, always searching for multi-year deals for his clients, may be inclined to sign a 3 or 4-year deal worth an average yearly salary slightly less than Jackson made over his previous two years.

Jackson’s biggest problem is his control.  He walks an average of 3.7 batters per 9 innings.  He averages one wild pitch every 19.5 innings.  He throws hard, but gets himself in trouble with his command.  His saving grace may be his 95-mph fastball and the fact that he averages 20 doubles plays a season behind him.  The double plays are a product of his lack of control and his ground-ball ratio.

He has averaged just 1.18 WAR per season, and his shine as a moldable young fireballer is starting to wear off.  This makes him a nice target for the Padres.  I would be comfortable with a 4-year $20 million deal.  That’s $5 million a season with the knowledge that the club will be spending more in the coming years.  This move is a bit more risky than Harden’s but the upside is much higher.

By and large, there is not much talent on the Free Agent market in the form of pitching.  At least not in the Padres’ spending bracket.  These two pitchers, Rich Harden and Edwin Jackson, are viable options for the team and could provide a much needed lift.  These are the types of moves that could put the Padres starting pitching back in line to be best in the Majors.  It’s all about risk verse reward, and the reward can be pretty significant considering the benefit these pitchers would get in pitching at Petco Park.

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