Waiting on Tanaka

Somebody forgot to throw fresh wood in the hot stove after the holidays. Even the rumor mill is relatively quiet aside from daily updates reminding us that as many as 20 teams could be in on the Masahiro Tanaka bidding. But Tanaka is holding up a number of free agent pitchers and possibly a pair of high quality trade targets. Let’s peek at who those players are and what we can expect once the bidding on Tanaka finally resolves.

Up-market free agents

It’s generally reckoned that three free agent starters who stand out from the pack, namely Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, and Ubaldo Jimenez. They have some common traits.

For example, they will probably cost a similar amount—somewhere around $14 million annually for three to five seasons. All are coming off good seasons, but also have poor performance in their recent track record. For Garza, injuries have hurt his ability to stay on the field in recent seasons. Jimenez and Santana simply pitched badly in 2012—why is up for debate. They’re even similar ages. Santana is entering his age 31 season while Jimenez and Garza will be 30.

For teams looking into acquiring Garza, the story is health. In terms of on-field performance, he’s been the most reliable of the three, posting ERAs between 3.32 and 3.95 in recent seasons. His combination of mid-90s fastball, strong whiff rate, and stingy walk rate should allow him to produce good results when on the field. How often he’ll be on the field is the issue.

FanGraphs’ resident injury guru Jeff Zimmerman projects a 50 percent chance that Garza will spend at least some time on the disabled list. That is one of the highest rates in baseball. Understandably, teams are reluctant to make a pricey investment while other options remain on the market.

Santana doesn’t have the health issues, but his record is considerably shakier than Garza’s. He also rejected a qualifying offer, which means that his signing team will lose a draft pick. Since 2007, Santana has had four seasons with an ERA under 4.00 and three seasons with an ERA over 5.00. Examining his peripherals shows that those results aren’t very fluky—he was good some years and bad in the others. The only thing that stands out is a penchant to allow more than his share of home runs per fly ball (career 11 percent HR/FB).

Santana did appear to turn a corner in 2013 and he supposedly has whipped up a “nasty” new pitch. As with Garza, teams probably want to exhaust their options before settling for an uncertain asset. He also was seeking more than $100 million earlier this offseason.

Jimenez succeeded in Colorado with a 96 mph fastball, but that pitch appears to be ancient history. Instead, 2013 saw him finally adjust to life without elite heat. He threw fewer fastballs and more sliders, and punched out batters at the best rate of his career. Unfortunately, Jimenez is in line for several flavors of regression and not the happy kind. As such, we should probably expect his 3.30 ERA to increase to the neighborhood of 4.00. Major league front offices know all about regression, so it’s not surprising that nobody has jumped on his $14 million per season price tag.

The fall-back crowd

These players aren’t really affected by Tanaka, but they could have their negotiations held up by the above three. Bronson Arroyo appears to be the most affected by the slow-to-develop market. He’s set to enter his age 37 season and has posted a 3.77 ERA over the past two seasons. His results are similar to the up-market options, but he gets there by eating innings, staying healthy, and limiting walks.

He’s one of the slowest throwing right-handers in the league with a fastball that averages 87 mph. About half a dozen teams have expressed interest and he’s expected to take home around $36 million over three years. Teams may want to see what happens with Jimenez, Garza, and Santana since they are younger and possess higher upside.

The rest of this tier isn’t much to write home about. Chris Capuano is an interesting lefty who has some trouble staying healthy. He’s seeking a two-year contract for an unspecified amount of money and projects to post a low 4s ERA when healthy. Erik Bedard, Jerome Williams and Jason Hammel may also fall into this group, although they are probably far enough down-market that teams won’t look to them as low-cost substitutes.

Trade candidates

Based on the current rumors, this is a two-man party featuring David Price and Jeff Samardzija.

With Price, the Rays certainly must wait for the Tanaka bidding to resolve. Several teams that saved a lot of budget to acquire Tanaka will find themselves short a front-line pitcher. Price will be the next most logical target. The Rays will seek to outdo themselves once again, perhaps by acquiring another Wil Myers-quality prospect. In Price, teams can acquire two seasons of an elite young pitcher who is looking more and more like Cliff Lee.

Of course, those seasons won’t come cheaply and a potential extension will be even more costly. That probably eliminates teams like the Diamondbacks from the bidding, but the Dodgers, Mariners and Yankees could all be potential destinations.

Samardzija has long been a high-profile player who hasn’t quite lived up to the hype. He finally experienced success as a starting pitcher in 2012 and opened 2013 with a promising performance. He slipped in the latter half of last season, but aside from an ugly July he posted strong peripherals.

The Cubs are shopping Shark because an extension figures to be pricey. He also isn’t as young as he seems; 2014 is his age 29 season and he has just two seasons of arbitration remaining. The Cubs are reportedly asking a lot for Samardzija, despite ERAs that are merely good. He’s outperformed his ERA these past two seasons, but I’m sure opposing front offices would like to see him make good on his promise before they trade away their top prospects.

Parting thoughts

If the bidding for Tanaka runs to late January, we’ll be in store for a hectic early February. It appears as though at least six quality pitchers will remain on the market with several teams looking to improve their postseason odds. Some of these pitchers could end up winners if a desperate team opts to pay for its preferred free agent. Others may fall through the cracks a bit and be forced to accept a deal below their asking price.

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Comments

  1. Bill said...

    Can’t see the Yanks getting Price by trade with the farm they have. The Rays would want more than that especially if they are going to trade within division. Shark maybe a possibility.

  2. John C said...

    The Yankees would probably love to trade for Price, but they don’t have the quality prospects to make the Rays bite. They’ll probably get him in two years when he hits the market, but not now.

  3. Mike said...

    The fallout of the eventual Tanaka signing will have far-reaching remifications. Not only will the other pitching big dogs (Garza, Santana, etc.) get signed and Price gets traded, the Red Sox have some excess starting pitching that some teams may be interested in. Right now Boston has 7 potential starters: Lackey, Lester, Buchholz, Doubrount, Workman, Peavy and Dempster. Certainly some teams that miss out on the free agents would make a call to the World Champions. I believe Lester will sign an extension and Workman and Doubrount are likely to stay, but the others could be trade bait. We’ll see.

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