Lost amid a flurry of news and rumors yesterday were the pronouncements of two veteran pitchers who wish to return in 2014. Perhaps the news was lost because the pitchers just aren’t that good. Brad Penny last pitched in 2012 and hasn’t cracked 4 K/9 since 2010. Roy Oswalt has gotten knocked around in each of the last two seasons despite extended off-seasons. So what does either seemingly washed up pitcher have to do with the Yankees?
For Penny, there’s nothing. He looks as done as done can be. Oswalt, after a disastrous and injury-shortened performance in 2013, might also appear finished. But there is a glimmer of hope for Oswalt’s future. It might just coincide with one of the Yankees’ desires this off-season.
Late last week we learned that the Yankees want to add a late-inning reliever. Given that they just lost the best who ever lived, that’s an understandable item on the off-season shopping list. They’ve spoken to Joe Nathan, but like most other viable late-inning options on the free agent market, he’ll cost more than the Yankees can probably afford if they want to stay under the $189 million luxury tax threshold.
So if the best options — Nathan, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, and even Edward Mujica — are priced out, where can the Yankees turn? One place you can get creative in roster construction is the bullpen, and the Yanks might have an opportunity here. Roy Oswalt might be the kind of guy they seek.
Why would a guy with an 8.63 ERA last year — in the NL — and a 6.80 ERA in the last two years appeal to the Yankees? Because instead of starting, his primary role in his disastrous 2013 campaign, the Yankees could target him as a reliever. There are a few factors that could play in his favor if he were to transition from the rotation to the bullpen. Combine that with a likely manageable price tag, and it could be a deal that fits the Yankees’ needs and plans.
Starting with the most general, Oswalt still has quality peripherals. In Texas during the 2012 season he gave up a few too many homers, but he still struck out a batter per inning and walked fewer than two per nine. That walk rate jumped a bit in 2013, but his home run rate — while pitching at Coors Field no less — dropped back to normal levels. At the same time, he struck out more than a batter per inning. In both cases he ended up with an above-average FIP, despite a below-average ERA.
A decline in stuff has marked Oswalt’s recent seasons. His fastball has dropped from around 93 mph in 2009 and 2010 to about 91 mph in 2013. Yet that averages his starts and relief appearances. In two relief outings towards the end of last season he averaged over 93 mph with his fastball, topping out at around 94.5. That is to say, he can still reach back and get some gas on the ball. He also fared fairly well in Texas’s bullpen in 2012, further demonstrating that his 2014, if he has one, lies in the pen.
Oswalt has said that he’d like a return chance in Colorado, but that seems unlikely at this point. They just signed LaTroy Hawkins as their interim closer; he’ll hold the job for either Rex Brothers or Adam Ottavino. With those three in late-inning roles, it appears Oswalt will have to try elsewhere. A few teams are reportedly interested in him as a reliever, but even so the price likely won’t get too high. It’s hard to justify a raise over your ~$3 million salary coming off that kind of 2013 season.
The Yankees, who could use some late-inning bullpen help at a reasonable cost, could play this situation to their advantage. Oswalt would require only one year, while the other late-inning options could require multiple. Given his performances, he probably can’t ask for much in terms of salary. At the same time, there are indicators that he could perform in a late-inning role — if not as closer, than as setup man for David Robertson.
There are other relievers on the market who could perhaps more effectively fill the Yankees’ needs. At the same time, almost all relievers come with a large degree of risk. Given the ages of most available relievers, the Yanks will be gambling wherever they choose to spend their money. Why not go with a guy who could come at a relative bargain, and who has shown the potential to succeed as Oswalt has?