Scouting the Free Agent Market: Pitchers on Minor League Deals

Gonna have to shave that beard, Hanson. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Gonna have to shave that beard, Hanson. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Yankees seem set with the top four in the rotation and their closer, but they could still use some help filling the other seven slots on the pitching staff. Particularly, adding a couple of pitchers to the fifth starter competition could help them.

Going with an internal candidate might seem ideal. If Michael Pineda steps up, clearly the Yankees should go with him in the fifth spot. But if he doesn’t they face a dilemma. David Phelps and Adam Warren might be better suited in relief roles, and the Yankees can use some bullpen reinforcements right now.

By picking up one or two free agents on minor league deals, the Yankees can offer new auditions for the fifth starter spot, perhaps making it easier to use Phelps and Warren in the bullpen if Pineda still needs time in the minors.

The list is thin, of course, and each pitcher is significantly flawed. That’s always the case when looking for players on minor league deals. But each of these three pitchers has at least some upside.

Tommy Hanson

If a 27-year-old former top prospect appears in line for a minor league deal, something must have gone horribly wrong. Hanson hasn’t been the same since a shoulder impingement and rotator cuff injury cut short his 2011 season. Since then he’s gotten progressively worse.

The shoulder injury seems to have taken all the life out of Hanson’s fastball, leaving his two breaking pitches less effective. While it’s possible for a pitcher to live right around 90 mph, where Hanson has been for the past two seasons, something else seems to be missing from that heater.

At just 27 years old, Hanson still has some promise. He did recover some of his velocity late last season, after moving to the pen at the end of September. If that helps him rediscover the pitch, he could become effective again. Even if he can’t break 90 when stretched out over 100 pitches, he could become a viable option in the pen. The Yankees need some help there as well.

The big upside in signing Hanson is that if he does bounce back, he won’t become a free agent until after the 2015 season. That’s a nice little bonus for taking a chance on someone.

Joe Saunders

Under normal circumstances, a 33-year-old lefty with a history of mostly average numbers would find a team willing to offer a MLB deal. But after his 2013 performance, Joe Saunders probably isn’t getting that from a non-desperate team. It’s hard to see how last season could have gone any more wrong for him.

After decent showings in 2012, including a fine run during Baltimore’s playoff push, Saunders moved to Seattle and one of the league’s most favorable pitching environments. The result: the highest home run to fly ball ratio in the majors despite pitching in one of the least favorable HR parks. His 5.26 ERA ranked second-worst among qualified pitchers.

Why even consider Saunders after that debacle? For starters, that performance probably makes him a minor league deal guy. Second, from 2007 through 2012 he produced a 104 ERA+. Third, it’s possible that the spikes in his HR/RB ratio and his BABIP could regress to his career norms. Saunders is still no great shakes, but he’s probably worth a look on a minor league deal.

Jair Jurrjens

The Yankees have been connected to Jurrjens in the past. After the 2011 season the Braves started shopping him around. And why not? He had undergone knee surgery after the 2010 season and saw those problems persist into 2011. Despite that, Jurrjens pitched reasonably well, a 2.96 ERA in 152 innings. It seemed like a great time to sell high.

The Braves found no takers, or at least no takers willing to meet their asking price. What followed was a two-year barrage of home runs and otherwise putrid performances, amounting to a 6.63 ERA in just 55.2 MLB innings. His stints in the minors weren’t particularly impressive, either. It would appear that Jurrjens is finished.

Every pitcher willing to take a minor league deal has to be flawed in some significant way. Jurrjens might be worth the flier because he’s succeeded in the past despite his so-so control that goes along with sub-par stuff. Chances are he’s done, but at 28 years old he’s worth one last look before closing the book on him.

Lightning Round

The MLBTR free agent list has a number of household names who could sign minor league deals this winter. Are any of them in any way appealing?

Roy Oswalt: We wrote about Oswalt earlier this off-season, though mainly as a reliever. Maybe he could bounce back as a starter if given a full spring training. Worth a look, but an aging starter with back problems probably won’t pan out.

Johan Santana: We also wrote about Santana, but it appears he won’t be back until the summer, so we can back off that idea for a while.

Barry Zito: I wanted to find something to like about Zito, I really did. Unfortunately, there’s just nothing.

Jeff Karstens: He essentially had a good year, maybe year and a half, but has been hurt and ineffective otherwise. It’d be nice to bring back an old friend (acquaintance maybe?), but Karstens isn’t going to help even in the best case scenario.

Aaron Harang: Like Saunders, he got thrashed in Seattle last year. Unlike Saunders, he throws right handed and is 36 years old. Harang had a nice peak just as he entered his prime years, but outside of three pretty good seasons, he’s been mediocre to horrible.

Jake Westbrook: The former Yankee looks pretty toast.

Bruce Chen: He actually had a decent season last year, split between the rotation and the pen. But Chen is super homer happy. It’s tough to see that working at all with the Yankees.

ALDS Pitching Preview: Joe Saunders

The Orioles started left-hander Joe Saunders in an elimination game last Friday, and they’ll do the same tonight in Game Four of the ALDS. The 31-year-old southpaw was acquired from the Diamondbacks in late-August, and he went on to allow just one run in 5.2 innings against the Rangers in the AL wildcard play-in game last week. As bad as Texas had been swinging the bats, that was an unexpected;y strong performance.

The Yankees have seen plenty of Saunders over the years thanks to his time with the Angels, and in fact he made two playoff starts against the Bombers in the 2009 ALCS. He held them to two runs in seven innings in Game Two before getting hammered for three runs in 3.1 innings in the decisive Game Six. Saunders walked five and struck out zero in that game. He’s been in the NL the last few years though, so recent experience against the Yankees is limited.

2012 Performance vs. Yankees

Date Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA BF Pit Str
Sep 8 BAL NYY W,5-4 W(8-11) 5.1 5 2 2 2 2 0 0 4.22 23 101 65
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/11/2012.

Saunders’ second start following the trade to Baltimore came against the Yankees in Camden Yards, and he pitched admirably despite allowing a run in the first (Alex Rodriguez sacrifice fly) and a run in the second (Ichiro Suzuki double). Saunders retired ten straight after the double and 12 of the final 15 hitters he faced overall. That was the Jerry Meals game, when the first base umpire called Mark Teixeira out to end the game even though he obviously beat the throw on what would have been the game-tying fielder’s choice.

Pitch Selection (via Brooks Baseball)

Saunders is a ground ball guy who won’t miss many bats, so it’s not a surprise that he throws a ton of upper-80s sinkers. His comfort zone is down-and-away to righties, as he’ll pound that corner of the zone with fastballs, low-80s changeups, and upper-70s curveballs. I’m not kidding, he’ll live down there all game and rarely come inside to batters of the opposite hand. Lefties get just the sinker and curveball and Saunders absolutely dominates his fellow left-handers. He’ll bust them inside with the fastball and go out of the zone with the curve for swings and misses.

Performance & Results

vs. RHB 573 0.359 4.80 12.9% 6.1% 38.8% 39.2% 22.0% 11.8%
vs. LHB 172 0.201 2.65 22.1% 2.3% 58.9% 22.6% 18.5% 0.0%

Like I said, he dominates left-handers. In fact, Saunders has the biggest wOBA split among qualified starters this season, turning all righties into Nick Swisher and all lefties into Marlon Byrd. Seriously, those strikeout, walk, and ground ball numbers against lefties are top notch.

So, obviously, the Yankees have to stack their lineup with righties tonight. As bad as he’s been swinging the bat, Alex Rodriguez should start and hit right in the middle of the order. He hit lefties far better than righties this year (151 vs. 94 wRC+), and Saunders is exactly the type of pitcher he needs to face right now — a finesse left-hander who won’t come inside. If A-Rod is going to have some impact this series, Saunders is the guy you would expect him to do it against.

Derek Jeter‘s new bone bruise might relegate him to DH, which I assume means Jayson Nix at shortstop. Joe Girardi will also have the option of playing Nix in left and Eduardo Nunez at short for a few innings, at least while Saunders is in the game. He could lift Nunez for defense and a pinch-hitter (Raul Ibanez?) as soon as a right-handed reliever is called upon. The Yankees didn’t do very much against Wei-Yin Chen in Game Two, but he went after them with low-to-mid-90s fastballs on both sides of the plate. Saunders won’t do that.

Mailbag: Joe Saunders

(Doug Pensinger/Getty)

Shaun asks: I see on MLBTR that Arizona might non-tender Joe Saunders. Do you guys like him? Would you trade anything to get him before they let him go to keep him off the market? This is all hypothetical of course! Thanks!

To answer the second question first, no I would not trade something for Saunders to keep him from hitting the market. MLBTR projects his 2012 salary at close to $9M his third time through arbitration, and that’s just not happening. Saunders isn’t good enough to give up something of value for the right to pay him that much. I’d wait until Arizona non-tenders him before even considering him for a spot on the Yankees.

Saunders had a nice year in 2008, but he’s been consistently below-average ever since. He did manage a 4.57 FIP in 203.1 IP in 2010, but that stands out compared to a 5.17 FIP in 2009 and a 4.78 FIP this season. Like Jon Garland, Saunders has managed to get the reputation of being a ground ball guy even though he doesn’t actually get a ton of ground balls (44.5% in 2011, 45.5% career). He does have the “doesn’t miss bats” part down pat though (4.58 K/9 and 6.2% swings and misses in 2011, 5.02 and 6.7% career, respectively). His walk rate is probably his best attribute (2.84 BB/9 in 2011, 2.87 career).

I think we have enough info here to say Saunders is back-end starter at best, we’re talking more than 600 IP in the generally weak AL West and NL West since he was last league average (in terms of FIP) in 2008. I worry about the inability to miss bats and the general lack of ground balls, especially moving into the AL East. I’m sure the Yankees would love to add a southpaw to the rotation to help counteract Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch, but I don’t think Saunders is a guy they can count on to consistently do that.

There is another angle worth considering here, and that’s a relief role. Saunders completely shut down lefties this season, holding them to a .212/.240/.341 batting line with 40 strikeouts and six walks in 181 plate appearances this season. His career split isn’t nearly as good, so I could just be a one-year fluke. It is worth noting that Saunders did throw his curveball less frequently in 2011 while beefing up the usage of his slider, which could certainly explain the improvement against lefties. It’s something to keep in mind, but I’d prefer to wait until he’s actually on the market before digging deeper into his validity as a reliever.

I wouldn’t have any interest in Saunders as a starting pitcher, unless he was willing to come absolutely dirt cheap (like, a million bucks or so), but he’s somewhat interesting as a lefty reliever. If there’s one thing we know about the Yankees, it’s that they place a high value on left-handed bullpen arms. I suspect that Saunders won’t have any trouble finding work as a starter this winter, maybe not at $8-9M, but I’m sure some team like the Pirates, Marlins, or Padres would be willing to guarantee him a rotation spot. I’m just not sure I see a fit for him in New York at a reasonable price.

Pitching Options, Part 23094.5

It’s seems like we’ve been doing this forever, looking at vaguely mediocre (sometimes downright bad) pitchers and trying to come up with legit reasons that these guys actually deserve a spot on the team. I don’t know about all of you, but I’m really, really getting tired of this. If Cashman (or anyone else on the Yankees) could just pull a fifth starter out of his closet right about now, I think we’d all really appreciate it. Personally, I wouldn’t even be mad at him for holding out this long. He was just waiting until he was sure he needed to break the emergency glass. So that’s what he meant about preaching patience.

Sadly, this doesn’t look like the case, so it’s back to the depressing reality that if you’re still on the market right now, you’re not very good at all. Rosenthal reported the Yankees are tossing around names of some possible lefties. Stephen’s already covered the Padres, so I thought I’d look beyond of the pitcher-friendly walls of Petco Park and see what else is out there. Luckily, I don’t have to move away from the west to find other possibilities.

Perhaps Joe Saunders? Saunders was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round in 1999 but didn’t sign, and the Angels nabbed him in 2002 as 12th overall pick. He did well in the minors, although he missed all of 2003 with a shoulder injury between his low A and high A stints. By 2005, he was pitching in AAA, and spent three years bouncing between AAA and the big club, making 13 starts for the Angels in 2006 and 18 in 2007. In 2008, he finally broke into the Opening Day Angels rotation and rewarded the Angels by throwing nearly 200 IP with a 3.41 ERA and a 4.36 FIP, along with a career-low 1.212 WHIP. His 2009, sadly, was not half as impressive, seeing an increase in his ERA, FIP, and BB/9, with a drop in strikeouts. When he performed at his 2009 and not 2008 levels in 2010, the Angels traded him to Arizona for Dan Haren. Saunders’ short stint in Arizona helped his numbers (especially his K/BB, which went from 1.45 to 2.63), but it’s hard to say how much of that was from a whole new crop of batters unfamiliar with him and how much was actual improvement on his part.

Even with Saunders’ All-Star 2008, his numbers have remained fairly consistent. He’s picked up between four and five strikeouts and two to three walks per nine IP each year. What concerns me is the 43.7% of groundballs he got in 2010, a huge decrease from his earlier numbers. Also, Saunders has been moving to progressively more and more hitter-friendly parks, so we’d be looking at an even bigger growth of his HR/FB% if the man was pitching in the bandboxes that the Yankees play most of their games in. The only thing Saunders gives us for sure besides these average-to-mediocre numbers is innings – since his shoulder injury in 2003, the lowest IP he’s thrown so far is 186.

Maybe there’s someone better floating around on the west coast?  Gio Gonzalez, for one, is perfectly accustomed to being moved around. He was drafted by the White Sox in the first round (38th overall), but was traded to the Phillies as a player to be named later when the ChiSox picked up Jim Thome. The Phillies than traded him back to the White Sox for Freddy Garcia, and the Sox sent him away again, this time to the A’s with Ryan Sweeney for Nick Swisher.

As a Bay Area resident, I saw this guy throw a couple of games, and to my non-statistical eyes, he looked good. 2010 was Gonzo’s first full season, and he didn’t disappoint, starting over thirty games with an ERA of 3.23 and a FIP of 3.78. His problem is and has always been his walks: his career-low BB/9 is 4.1, which certainly isn’t anything to be happy about, and it came with his career-low K/9 of 7.7, a huge decrease from his 2009 total of 10 k/9. There’s also the problem of the cost: the A’s could conceivably ask for plenty for Gonzales, who has potential and many years of team control left even if he’s still trying to get a handle on throwing strikes at a major league level.

These guys both line up as solid ‘mehs,’ for the coveted position of fifth starter of the Yankees. They’re coming from weak divisions into the AL East, which is always a cause for concern. Not only that, but even assuming that both pitchers find their best stuff, there’s no denying the obvious: their stuff is just not that good. Baseball, please come back so we can stop writing about all these mediocre possibilities we don’t really want. Thank you.

Yankees discussing left-handed starters, mostly mediocre ones

Via Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees have “kicked around” the idea of pursuing a left-handed starter in the wake of Andy Pettitte‘s retirement. On the supposed list of targets: Scott Kazmir, Joe Saunders, Wake LeBlanc, Clayton Richard, and Gio Gonzalez. My quick analysis is no, no, no, okay, and meh. Joe already looked at Kazmir, but a few of the other guys will be covered over the weekend.

You know who’s a half-decent left-handed starter? Jeff Francis. Too bad he signed with the Royals for half of what the Yankees are playing Pedro Feliciano in 2011. In fairness, Francis did say he chose Kansas City because of the opportunity they provide, but the back of New York’s rotation isn’t exactly tough to crack these days.