Welcome to the Cleveland Indians Trading Post, a new weekly segment to help my fellow Tribe fans sort out which of the few familiar faces we have left might not be around much longer.
This week’s potential trade candidate is Jake Westbrook.
After throwing six no-hitters (including a perfect game) in high school, Westbrook was taken by the Rockies in the first round of the 1996 draft. A journeyman before even reaching the big leagues, he was part of the Indians’ return for trading David Justice in 2000.
A consistently above average groundball master, Westbrook hasn’t posted an ERA outside the 4.17-to-4.49 range in a full season since 2004.
Having pitched just five games in 2008-9 and coming off Tommy John surgery, Westbrook is the Indians’ de facto ace this season. Through eight starts, he has gone 2-2 with a 4.27 ERA, a 6.0 K/9 rate (a career best), and a 3.9 BB/9 rate (a career worst).
And I bet you didn’t know that his 60.5-percent groundball rate is the best in the American League.
Why he’s expendable
As with Austin Kearns , Westbrook is expendable primarily because his contract expires after the season. The Indians don’t look like contenders this year, meaning his contributions don’t much matter for the remainder of his time he’s under Cleveland’s control.
Even if the Indians have the cash to re-sign Westbrook this winter, such a deal seems unlikely. With Hector Rondon, Yohan Pino, Carlos Carrasco, Nick Hagadone, and Scott Lewis (just to name a few) waiting in the wings, clogging up a rotation spot with a good-not-great starter for the foreseeable future would be an inefficient use of the Tribe’s limited payroll.
Oh, and moving some of his $11 million salary would be nice.
Why he has value
No functional team would call Jake Westbrook its ace, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be an attractive target for a contender in search of an extra arm for the stretch run.
His strikeout rate seems a little low, especially when coupled with a career-worst walk rate. But that’s not a fatal flaw—he has mastered the art of contact pitching, like a poor man’s Chris Carpenter or Tim Hudson.
Even the sabermetric statistics agree. Based on the theory that their success is largely due to luck, Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP) and Expected Fielding-Independent Pitching are both designed to punish pitchers who let opposing batters make frequent contact. But Westbrook’s 4.18 career FIP and 4.01 career xFIP are actually both better than his 4.30 career ERA.
The secret to his success is his sinker. His groundball-inducing talent is a not a new trend; his 59.5-percent GB rate since 2002 ranks behind only Brandon Webb and Derek Lowe among pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched. Simply put, when batters hit the ball on the ground, it doesn’t go as far.
He’s never been great, and at 32, it’s unlikely that he will develop any new skills. But he’s been consistently good, and sometimes that’s more important.
He’s not a flashy ace who could change the balance of a pennant race. But you could do a lot worse than using Westbrook as a middle-of-the-rotation lieutenant.
Where he’d go
This really depends on whether the Indians are willing to eat some of Westbrook’s salary. They’d obviously prefer to send as much of the $11 million away as they can, but such a demand would limit the list of possible buyers.
After posting a 2.87 ERA with the Braves in 2009, Javier Vazquez has been a perfect illustration of the importance of consistency in 2010 because he doesn’t have any.
His 8.01 ERA has set off alarms in the Bronx; the Bombers could use a stable arm in the back of their rotation, and money is never an issue for George Steinbrenner. Plus, Westbrook’s worm-burning ability would be even more valuable in Yankee Stadium, where the allegedly unforeseen wind patterns make every fly ball a threat to leave the park.
The Yankees wouldn’t be the only Big Apple ballclub to be interested in Westbrook. As the flukiness of Mike Pelfrey’s early success is revealed, it is clear that the Mets’ rotation is in shambles behind a slowly declining Johan Santana.
If New York’s other team is serious about contending this year, Omar Minaya should be frantically searching for a way to stabilize the pitching staff. A consistent No. 2 starter would do wonders for the Mets’ rotation, and they’d surely be able to take on some of Westbrook’s salary.
Then there are the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose rotation consists of Hiroki Kuroda, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billinglsey, and…not much else. The Bums are clawing their way up in the NL West, but an already-uphill battle will be all the harder with question marks in the back of the rotation.
The McCourts’ divorce has thrown the team’s finances into flux, but don’t forget that Los Angeles is a big-market team. They’ll probably be able to come up with the cash if the situation is urgent enough.
Of course, if the Indians are willing to eat most of his salary, there aren’t many contenders who wouldn’t love the boost he’d provide to their pitching staffs.
What do you think? Will Westbrook be traded? Where will he go, and who will we get in return?
More Cleveland Indians Trading Posts
May 13: Austin Kearns