Chicago Cubs Seeking Pitching This Winter: Five Guys Who Fit The Bill
Beginning at about the end of the Lou Piniella era on August 22, rumors began to swirl about the Chicago Cubs' intention to sign at least one free-agent starting pitcher this offseason. Despite rampant and persistent whispers that the team will try to trade starter Carlos Zambrano, a deal does not appear likely—and would be a colossal mistake, anyway.
Therefore, the team's hefty payroll obligations will prevent Chicago from bidding aggressively on on the market's lone superstar, Rangers ace left-hander Cliff Lee. Nor, it would appear, is the organization sufficiently stocked with young arms as to be able to afford to pursue Royals ace Zack Greinke in trade.
If the team is to add an impact starter, then, they will need to do so by making astute, decisive evaluations of the other free agents who will be available. In countdown fashion, here are the five best potential additions to the North Siders' starting staff:
5. Javier Vazquez
Not so fast, Javy haters.
Vazquez has been widely, in fact almost universally smeared by both local and national media. The consensus is that Vazquez, 34, is done, his arm all but dead after a decade (2000-09) in which he did not pitch fewer than 198 innings in any season.
This season, to be sure, has been a rocky one for Vazquez. His ERA is a shade over five, and he has the league's most severe case of gopheritis: 1.82 home runs allowed per nine innings, the worst mark among the 99 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the title.
Yet, this should look familiar to smart baseball fans. Vazquez's last bad season was also his last season in pinstripes. In 2004, his first stint with the Yankees, the right-handed hurler had a 4.91 ERA tinged by 6.82 strikeouts and 2.73 walks per nine innings. In each of the next five seasons, though, Vazquez would post strikeout rates above eight per nine frames, and would walk fewer than 2.65 batters per nine innings. Upon this return, however, Vazquez has again seen his strikeouts evaporate while his walk rate soars. Moreover, only Vazuqez's rookie year (1998) and this 2010 campaign have seen him give up more homers per nine innings than that 2004 season in New York.
A return to the National League would be good for Vazquez, and the Cubs could reap the benefits of one of the game's underrated star moundsmen. The only question may be whether other teams, losing out on the services of Lee, may bid up Vazquez's market value beyond what Chicago is able to match. Time will tell. Wherever he goes next season, though, Vazquez will be a bargain.
4. Kevin Correia
After a semi-breakout in 2009, Padres starter Kevin Correia has had a miserable fall back to Earth in 2010. Or so it seems.
Correia, 30, sports a hideous 5.52 ERA that only seems worse when one considers that his home stadium is San Diego's PETCO Park, the league's best pitcher's haven. It appears especially disappointing because Correia posted a tidy 3.91 ERA just a year ago, en route to 12 wins in 198 innings with a far less successful San Diego team.
Luck, however, is a fickle bedfellow, and Correia has learned the hard way in 2010. He got somewhat lucky in 2009, according to xFIP (which projects a pitcher's deserved ERA based upon strikeout, walk, and home run rates): his 3.91 ERA was roughly three-tenths of a run better than his 4.20 xFIP. He struck out only 6.45 batters per nine innings, but balanced that somewhat by walking fewer than three per nine frames.
In 2010, the reverse of it all has been true. Correia has been grossly unlucky: despite an increased ground ball rate, he has allowed two more home runs than he did all of last season, in some 57 2/3 fewer innings. His strikeouts have improved, rising above seven punch-outs per nine innings for the first time since he became starter with San Francisco in 2008. He has walked an untidy 3.98 batters per nine innings, though, and as a result, his xFIP has risen from 4.20 to...4.22.
That's right. Although there are subtle signs of more real trouble—a very slight drop-off in velocity, and a cutter that hasn't developed the way anyone might have hoped—Correia has been about as good this season as he was last year. The only difference is a streak of bad luck, mostly in the area of home runs allowed.
Because of his apparent difficulties, however, Cubs GM Jim Hendry could probably have Correia at bargain-basement prices. Almost any deal that guarantees a second year would merit Correia's attention. A one-year pact worth even $5 million could theoretically be enough. Correia won't be Hendry's first choice, but if it turns out to be his last, Cubs fans will not be disappointed in Correia.
3. Braonson Arroyo/Aaron Harang
The Cincinnati Reds have plenty of pitching, with two rookies (Mike Leake and Travis Wood) proving they deserve to pitch alongside three other young hurlers (Jonny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, and Homer Bailey) in significant roles with next year's team.
That leaves the futures of the team's two veteran starters in doubt. Both Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo can be retained after the season, but because Cincinnati can save millions by cutting the cord, it will surely let at least one of them go.
Without doubt, Harang is the more likely of the two to be released. Buying out Harang could save the Reds $10.75 million (or almost $2 million more than buying out Arroyo), and the organization has soured on its longest-tenured player.
In 2006 and 2007, Harang was among the league's best pitchers. He eclipsed 230 innings each year, striking out nearly a batter per inning and walking scarcely more than two per nine innings during that time. He won 16 games each season, completing an impressive eight games in the process.
Then everything fell apart. Since the start of 2008, Harang has gone 18-38. His durability came into question when he missed four starts that season, and in fact, he has started just 45 times in 2009 and 2010. He continued to hover near 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.4 walks per nine until 2010, a season in which he has struggled in almost every way. His strikeout rate is the lowest it has been since 2003; his walk rate is higher than in any year since 2004.
Still, Harang may have upside. He will turn just 32 next May, meaning that (if nagging injuries do not persist) he could still have peak years ahead. His strand rate and BAbip this season are also career worsts, meaning bad luck has intervened in some respects.
Harang will certainly find a home, but it may be a smart gamble on Hendry's part to see if the big right-handed hurler has any of the old magic left.
Arroyo is a long shot to reach free agency. One can never have too much pitching, after all, and the Reds could well choose to keep Arroyo for one more go-around. If he were to become available, though, Hendry would certainly take an interest. Arroyo will surpass 200 innings for the sixth straight time this year, and has so far matched last year's 3.84 ERA exactly.
Arroyo will be 34 by Opening Day next year, and is what Cubs commentator Bob Brenly delights in calling a "kitchen sink" guy at this stage of his career: That is, lacking the stuff to strike many batters out, Arroyo relies on invention and deception to squeak out consistent success.
He will probably make more than he deserves this winter, but given Arroyo's 3.09 career ERA in 11 games at Wrigley Field, Hendry could justify bidding on the long-time Cubs killer.
2. Ted Lilly
It is not even six weeks since Chicago traded Lilly to the Dodgers in a deadline deal. Already, though, multiple pundits have opined that Hendry—who signed Lilly from a hospital bed in Dec. 2006—will try to re-acquire his erstwhile ace.
Lilly won't come cheap—two consecutive seasons among the National League's five best pitchers in WHIP give him ample leverage. As arguably the second-best southpaw available, however, Lilly will earn his keep.
One potential sticking point remains, even if Hendry can fit Lilly into his budget. Long before he was dealt, Lilly had raised well-publicized objection to recent moves by Chicago's front office. Lilly called infielder Mark DeRosa the "heart and soul" of the Cubs—after hearing on New Year's Eve 2008 that Hendry had dealt DeRosa to Cleveland.
The following year, down the stretch of the 2009 season and into the offseason, Lilly repeatedly donned a T-shirt imploring management to "Bring Back Reed," a reference to Lilly's friend and then-Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson. Hendry did not oblige, but half a season later, Lilly and Johnson were re-united as Dodgers.
If Lilly can be coaxed into a return, he would be a welcome presence once again in Chicago, both on the mound and in the clubhouse.
1. Jorge De La Rosa
If Lee is the best overall pitcher in this free-agent class, de la Rosa is its best-kept secret. His 279 strikeouts in 273 1/3 innings since the start of 2009 demonstrate the potency of his stuff. de la Rosa complements a fastball that often exceeds 95 miles per hour with a good slider and a nasty change-up; that pitch mix allows him to get both left- and right-handed hitters out consistently.
This season, de la Rosa has also improved his ground-ball rate by throwing his change more often. The jump, from just under to 45 percent grounders in 2009 to almost 57 percent this year, is staggering. Almost 17 percent of the fly balls de la Rosa has given up this year have left the ball park, an untidy figure that would certainly sink back into his career range of roughly 11 percent if he were to escape Coors Field in Denver.
There is, however, one serious flaw in de la Rosa's game: He often loses the strike zone. He has walked at least four batters per nine innings in each of his three seasons in Colorado, which will somewhat mitigate his value. The good news is that de la Rosa has the right array of skills—a ground-ball lean and superior strikeout talent—to pitch around those free passes.
Because of his new-found ability to locate the ball down, de la Rosa fits perfectly in Colorado, and the Rockies will make every effort to keep him. If Hendry can pry him free, however, de la Rosa will be a very good second or third starter for years to come on the North Side.
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