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Zach Britton Still Injured, O’s Revamping Pitching Philosophy

Nobody was expecting the Baltimore Orioles to instantly become playoff contenders in 2012, but today’s news out of Birdland is still depressing. According to Jim Duquette, Zach Britton’s shoulder injury from late last season is “still lingering” and will limit his workload during spring training. Britton was rated as the Orioles’ top pitching prospect coming into the 2011 season, and he was arguably the O’s best pitcher for the first half of the season before slumping badly down the stretch.

Britton is hardly the first Orioles’ pitcher to have injury troubles. Heck, at this point, Orioles fans probably expect the team’s best pitching prospects to either get injured or flop at the major-league level. Brian Matusz looked like he was off to a spectacular young career, before getting injured and failing to regain his velocity or control. Jake Arrietta and Chris Tillman used to be considered the future of the franchise, but neither has been able to successfully transition to the majors. Also, while not a highly rated prospect, Brad Bergesen flashed some promise in 2009, but has since had injury issues and trouble striking out major-league hitters.

So while this news about Britton shouldn’t be too surprising, it makes me wonder: how much of the Orioles’ struggles to develop good, young pitchers is a result of organization philosophy and management, and how much is just plain bad luck?

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Oakland Signs Yoenis Cespedes, Creates Outfield Surplus

In a bit of a stunner, the Oakland Athletics have become the latest #MysteryTeam to end up with a top free agent.

The Miami Marlins also made a run at Cespedes, but it appears they were only willing to offer him $36 million over the course of 6 seasons. This sort of scenario is obviously preferable for Cespedes; not only will he be paid $9 million per season over the next four years, he will then become a free agent instead of having to go through the standard six years of team control.

Many people assumed that Cespedes would receive more guaranteed money than this — some estimates had him approaching $60 million — so on the face of things, this looks like a good deal for the A’s. It’s obviously a risk, since it’s difficult to tell how Cuban players will translate to the majors, but the A’s only need him to be an average major-league player (2.0 WAR/year) for this to be a market-value deal. And if he doesn’t pan out, the A’s only have him under contract for four seasons and can move on easily enough.

Cespedes will likely be given a chance to contribute to the A’s right away, so what should we expect from him?

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Why Do The Pirates Want A.J. Burnett?

First of all, yes, I’ll admit it: I’m eating my words right now. After writing my aggressively-headlined “Good Luck Shopping A.J. Burnett, Yanks” piece on Wednesday, it turns out the Yankees have found at least one potential suitor for Burnett in the Pirates. The two sides are still haggling over how much money the Yankees should eat, but considering the Yankees’ incentive to get rid of Burnett, it seems likely that a deal will happen eventually.

Trading Burnett is a no-brainer for the Yankees; they would be freeing up payroll space while simultaneously opening up a spot in their rotation for Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia. But why would the Pirates be interested in adding Burnett?

As it turns out, the Pirates are in a unique predicament that makes them one of the few teams in the majors in a position to add Burnett. They have a weak rotation, headlined by the enigmatic Charlie Morton (who had off-season surgery and is doubtful for the beginning of the season) and the injury-prone Erik Bedard, and they have been rebuffed by numerous free agent pitchers this offseason. They offered Edwin Jackson a three-year deal, but he turned it down in favor of taking a one-year deal with the Nationals; they also attempted to woo Roy Oswalt, but he has limited his search to a handful of contending teams.

Burnett is no Oswalt or Jackson. He has upside in Pittsburgh’s park — which is considerably less home-run-prone than Yankee Stadium — but he’s still only a +2 to +3 win pitcher who is under contract for two more seasons. He’s not the final piece that will allow them to put together a competitive team, and he’s not going to be able to compensate for the other holes in the Pirates’ rotation. He’s an improvement and will likely come at a good value — although the Yankees had better be ready to pony up more dough — but why are the Pirates spending their resources on a mediocre upgrade?

Teams that have struggled for a long period of time have a vicious cycle holding them down, making it difficult for them to become contenders. Losing teams generally have weaker revenue streams than successful teams, and they face the added challenge of the top free agents typically don’t want to go to a perpetually losing team, even if they are offering boatloads of money.

Based on this offseason’s progression, it seems like the Pirates are stuck in that position. They have some exciting young position players, but they desperately need to add pitching depth if they want to take their club to the next level. And even if A.J. Burnett doesn’t solve all their problems, he’s got three things going for him: he’s a step in the right direction, he’ll come at a fair value, and he isn’t going to say no. Even an incremental upgrade might make it more likely that the next player the Pirates pursue will say yes.

Solving The Rays’ Rotation Crunch

Alternate post title: Wade Davis, The Reliever

I’ll admit it: when Andrew Friedman said at the beginning of the off-season that the Rays didn’t need to trade a starter, I called bull. It’s no secret that the Rays have a glut of major-league-ready starting pitching, with seven starters who could theoretically be in the opening day rotation*, so I wrote off Friedman’s comments as positioning. You don’t want to announce to the world that you desperately need to trade a starter, thereby jettisoning your leverage. Friedman was playing his hand, but there’s no chance the Rays would actually enter the 2012 season without dealing a starter…right?

*In case you’re having a brain fart: David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Alex Cobb.

As it turns out, wrong. The market ended up being flooded with starters, and there was never a surplus of demand that would have pushed up offers for either Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis. Who saw Gio Gonzalez and Jeremy Guthrie being traded? Or Roy Oswalt staying on the market this late? It was a poor off-season to be stuck trying to deal a mediocre starter, so now the Rays are faced with the task of making all their pitchers fit their roster without decreasing anyone’s trade value.

But the solution to this glut of pitching is simpler than it seems: keep Alex Cobb in Triple-A, and move Wade Davis to the bullpen. That may not seem ideal, but based on his pitch repertoire and success, Davis may be destined to move to the bullpen anyway.

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Good Luck Shopping A.J. Burnett, Yanks

As pointed out by MLB Trade Rumors, Joel Sherman mentioned in an article this morning that the Yankees are attempting to trade A.J. Burnett in order to free up some roster flexibility. As he spells out:

They know no team will take all of Burnett’s remaining two years at $33 million. But if they could save, say, $4 million this year and next year, it would provide some wiggle room to finish off their roster heading into spring training. (Sherman, NY Post)

The Yankees would like to sign two more players in order to round out their bench, but according to Sherman, only have about $2 million in wiggle room at the moment. Ignoring the whole “The Yankees actually have a budget?” thing, what are the odds the Yankees actually manage to deal Burnett? And should teams actually want him, even if it’s at a discount?

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Yankees Pursue Ibanez, But What About Damon?

In recent weeks, the Yankees have made it clear that they’re interested in adding one more bat to help them fill their DH spot. This hitter would ideally be a left-handed hitter who could platoon with Andruw Jones and provide the Yankees with a valuable bat off the bench.

It just so happens that there are a number of left-handed hitters still left on the market: Raul Ibanez, Johnny Damon, and Hideki Matsui. The Yankees have reportedly been considering all three, and as of last night, they appear to be leaning toward Ibanez:

Are the Yankees right to prefer Ibanez to Damon or Matsui? Judging from the their regressed splits, it’s a toss-up.

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Orioles Trade Jeremy Guthrie For…Huh?

This is a trade that just doesn’t make sense to me:

The Rockies and Orioles are nearing an agreement that would send starter Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado, most likely for pitchers Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom, reports Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun. (MLB Trade Rumors)

Let me preface this by saying that I like Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Hammel more than most people probably do. After watching Guthrie pitch in the AL East for the past five seasons, I’ll be glad to see him go. Despite his underwhelming strikeout numbers and flyball tendencies, there are some nights where he pumps his fastball up around 95 MPH (with good movement) and can shred through opposing lineups. My eyes are overly optimistic on Guthrie, though, as the reality is that he’s a 32-year-old starter that doesn’t generate many whiffs and is only around a +2 win pitcher. He’s no ace, but he’s still a valuable pitcher to have.

The same can be said about Jason Hammel. Since being traded to the Rockies prior to the ’09 season, he has racked up +9 wins over three seasons. He comes with his share of question marks — his strikeout rate plummeted in 2011, and his ERA has always outpaced his peripherals due to a high BABIP — but considering he will be 29 years old this season, he has the potential to be better than Guthrie. His 4.37 career SIERA is better than anything Guthrie has posted over the past five years, so you can argue that the Orioles are getting an excellent buy-low starter in this deal. Whether Hammel lives up to that potential…well, we’ll see.

But here’s what I don’t understand: what do the Orioles and Rockies get out of this trade?

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Todd Coffey Signs With Dodgers

This may seem odd, but Todd Coffey is one of my favorite relievers in baseball. I have this thing for middling, fringe-y relief pitcher — Casey Fossum has stolen my heart — and there’s just so much of Coffey to love. How can you not love a teddy bear like him, especially considering he’s an underrated asset?

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Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians Talking Extension

After remaining relatively quiet all off-season, the Cleveland Indians have been busy in recent days. They signed Casey Kotchman to a one-year contract yesterday, and it appears they’re working away at locking up their young shortstop:

Asdrubal Cabrera is a bit of an enigma. It’s not that he’s a dark and mysterious character — although this leaves some room for debate — but that his performance over the past few years makes him a difficult player to project. He had a down year in 2010 after breaking his arm early in the season, but he was a +3 win player in both 2011 and 2009. In both of those years, though, there were some questionable spikes in his stats; his 2009 performance was helped along by an unsustainable .360 BABIP, and his 2011 “breakout” was fueled by a  dramatic increase in his homerun rate (13.3% HR/FB).

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The Surprisingly Robust Starting Pitching Market

Much like fingerprints, no two off-seasons are exactly alike. Every year develops at its own pace and has its own quirks, and this year is certainly no exception. Multiple Scott Boras clients have signed one-year deals, hoping to get more interest next season. One of the top players on the market didn’t sign until late January. The Florida Marlins were one of the high-rollers at the Winter Meetings. And in the wake of Edwin Jackson signing with the Washington Nationals, we’re left with another oddity: an over-supply of starting pitchers in February.

At the moment, there are at least four pitchers available as a free agent or on the trade block:

Roy Oswalt (4.04 SIERA in 2011)
John Lannan (4.47 SIERA)
Jeff Niemann (3.79 SIERA) / Wade Davis (4.83 SIERA)
Kyle McClellan (4.36 SIERA)

Oswalt is easily the best free agent starter that has been available as late as February in a few years. John Maine was the best starter signed after February 1st last off-season, and Livan Hernandez and Chien-Ming Wang were the two hot February acquisitions back in 2010. And back in 2009, the list was just as paltry: Adam Eaton, Jorge Vazquez, Livan Hernandez, and Brett Tomko.

Come February, the trade market for starting pitchers is also normally bone dry. Dana Eveland was traded in early February of 2010, and the Rays traded away Jason Hammel in April of 2009. Outside of that, the only other significant starting pitchers to get traded this late in the off-season were Johan Santana and Erik Bedard back in 2008.

How many teams currently need starting pitching? The Red Sox certainly do, and it appears that the Orioles, Indians, Blue Jays, and Cardinals have all been searching to some degree. The Mets could also use to add a starter, right? But as we get down to the wire, it feels like there are fewer and fewer teams clamoring to add starting pitching, while the market for starters is (relatively speaking) flooded.

Of course, the market isn’t quite as straightforward as it looks. Oswalt doesn’t appear to want to sign with the Red Sox, and the Rays aren’t going to be willing to sell low or trade in-division with either Niemann or Davis. Meanwhile, Lannan and McClellan are both average-to-below-average pitchers that will be due a few million each this upcoming season.

Will this market end up being more favorable to teams interested in buying or selling starters? It’s difficult to say, but based on the recent past, this looks like an unusually strong buyers market.