D-backs Trade Deadline Target: Hiroki Kuroda

My girlfriend is at work for a few hours, so I was glancing through a recent piece from SI's Jon Heyman detailing the trade market for pitching throughout baseball, and stumbled across a name that has piqued my interest - Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda.  I've always been a fan of Kuroda, who strikes out just enough batters to get by and does everything else exceptionally well.

Sure, pitching in Chavez Ravine has probably helped him throughout his career, but the peripheral rates suggest to me that he shouldn't have a terrible time thriving in Chase Field, and he's certainly familiar with pitching in the NL West.  After the jump, a deeper look into the success Kuroda has had throughout his career, his current contract details, why the Dodgers could be looking to move him (a bit of an obvious point), and what would be needed to acquire Kuroda.

Kuroda arrived in the US as a 32-year-old from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan in December of 2007 (thanks, Wikipedia!), signing a three-year, $35.3MM contract without having to go through the Japanese posting system due to a provision in the contract he had negotiated with the Carp the year before.  He immediately stepped into the Dodgers' rotation and paid instant dividends, posting a 3.73 ERA (3.59 FIP) in 183.1 innings of work - 31 starts - for L.A. in 2008.  Turned 33-years-old by the beginning of the season, Kuroda racked up 3.6 fWAR that year while making a paltry $7.43MM.  Kuroda turned out to be a bargain for the life of that three-year deal, accumulating an even 10 fWAR over those three years, an average of $3.53MM per WAR.

Strangely, though, Kuroda has always been much less appreciated by bWAR, though I haven't the slightest inclination as to why.  Yeah, he pitches in Chavez Ravine, but a career ERA+ of 111 is mighty impressive, and Kuroda's career ERA (3.52) is almost identical to his career FIP (3.51).  Yet, for whatever reason, Kuroda's bWAR for those first three seasons is a staggeringly-low 4.9.  Why one system would value a player almost twice as much as the other when he hasn't been particularly lucky or unlucky is beyond me, and a simple quick glance makes the fWAR numbers seem more reasonable, at least in my eyes.  Still, it was something I felt was worth noting.

Re-signed by the Dodgers to a one-year deal for this season, Kuroda has been even better than in the last three years with a 3.07 ERA in 96.2 innings of work thus far in 2011, though his FIP/xFIP numbers are 3.76/3.49 - about in line with his career numbers outside of the HR/FB rate.  Kuroda has a modest strikeout rate for a pitcher of his caliber, K'ing 6.98 batters per nine innings, but excelling due to a paltry 2.51 BB/9 and 44.7% GB-Rate that would play nicely in hitter-friendly Chase Field and with the D-backs' solid group of infield defenders.  For his career, Kuroda sports rates of 6.62 K/9, 2.14 BB/9, and 49.8% GB-Rate in 593.2 innings of work.

In spite of his age and the notoriety of Japanese workloads, Kuroda has been fairly durable (note: that link goes to one of the coolest websites in existence - a must-bookmark for baseball followers) in his tenure with the Dodgers.  Kuroda has only missed significant time in 2009, his worst big-league season, with a trio of injuries that landed him on the 15-day DL twice - a trunk strain (55 days missed, 15-Day DL), a concussion (21 days missed, 15-Day DL), and neck stiffness (19 days missed, no DL).  Kuroda didn't miss a day in 2010 and has been healthy again thus far in 2011, so there's minimal risk that he would miss time with an injury if acquired.

 

Now, for the contract details.  Kuroda was signed to a one-year, $12MM contract last off-season that Frank McCourt likely regrets allowing, even though the terms are very team-friendly.  Kuroda deferred $4MM in bonus money that will be paid in 2012 and 2013, earning a base salary of $8MM in 2011 with $500k in performance incentives.  With about half of the season in the books, Kuroda would only be owed a hair above $4MM for the rest of the season and the $500k in bonuses that I imagine he'll reach.  In other words, adding Kuroda's contract to the D-backs' $56.5MM player payroll shouldn't be a terrible stretch of the team's budget, particularly given the incredible value that Kuroda would provide down the stretch and in any postseason action.

By also agreeing to take on the deferred bonus money (if possible), Arizona could make a move appealing to the financially-strapped Dodgers, perhaps even agreeing to chip in some additional cash to help McCourt meet his deadline to retain ownership of the team or help MLB/the new ownership pay down some of the Dodgers' debts.  This could allow Arizona to acquire a pitcher of Kuroda's caliber while not having to pay out the ears in prospects from a loaded system that figures to play a prominent role in the team's future.

The biggest nuisance of Kuroda's deal is actually that it includes a full no-trade clause, which Kuroda obtained as a part of his contract with L.A. due to his desire to stay on the West Coast, as close as possible to Japan.  However, Arizona has been linked to Kuroda multiple times, as Arizona was one of the teams in the running to sign Kuroda out of Japan (also linked were Texas, Kansas City, and Seattle, according to Wikipedia) and was also linked to him in free agency last summer, supposedly being willing to offer a three-year $27MM contract to Kuroda.  If Kuroda is still willing to consider playing in Arizona, his no-trade clause may not be an issue.

 

In fact, if Kuroda is still willing to pitch for the D-backs, Arizona could actually be in an excellent position to acquire him should L.A. choose to sell.  Kuroda would only be willing to be dealt to a West Coast team, so that automatically limits the possibilities to two divisions - the AL West & NL West.

In the AL West, Texas has a solid 2.5-game lead on Seattle, and the Rangers are the only team in the division with a record above .500.  However, the Rangers have a full rotation with three starters sporting ERA's below 3.2 (C.J. Wilson, Alexi Ogando, and Matt Harrison), and two other starters whose peripherals suggest that they are better than their mid-4 ERA's suggest (Derek Holland and Colby Lewis).  Seattle is a contender, but starting pitching is hardly their biggest problem, as the worst starter in their rotation has an ERA+ of 99 (Jason Vargas).  Needless to say, the incredible emergence of Michael Pineda means that Seattle won't be targeting starting pitching if they decide to try to upgrade.

This leaves an in-division deal as Los Angeles' only real possibility.  Arizona is in first place in the division with some shaky starters in their rotation, so Kuroda-to-Arizona is a fit.  One of Josh Collmenter, Joe Saunders, and Zach Duke would be moved into a relief role, providing great rotation depth and reinforcing a shallow bullpen.  In second place are the Giants, and you don't need me to tell you that San Francisco doesn't need more starting pitching.  Heck, the Giants are keeping a completely-healthy Barry Zito stuck in Triple-A because they don't have a spot for him.  Kuroda isn't on their wish list.

Then we have the 37-37 Colorado Rockies, currently four games behind Arizona for the division lead and five games behind Atlanta for the NL Wild Card.  Colorado has a talented roster, no doubt about it, but has under-performed this year in spite of the emergence of Jhoulys Chacin as a potential legitimate ace.  However, believe-it-or-not, the worst ERA+ in the Rockies rotation is currently 96, belonging to both Ubaldo Jimenez and recently-promoted Juan Nicasio.  If Nicasio can hold down the fifth spot and Jimenez can help make up for some possible regression that Chacin could experience going forward, the Rockies look to have a shockingly-full rotation in spite of the loss of Jorge De La Rosa.

 

So, to put things shortly, Arizona looks like the only serious landing spot for Kuroda should L.A. put him on the market to try to re-stock their minor league system.  I think it's necessary first to look at what holes the Dodgers have in their farm system, as a way to identify what type of prospects Arizona could look to hand over to the Dodgers in exchange for their right-hander.

Perusing through John Sickels' pre-season top-20 prospects list for L.A., there are a few definite strengths that stand out.  For one, L.A. is solid in the middle infield, with Dee Gordon and Jake Lemmerman providing a pair of solid shortstop prospects.  Second, the Dodgers are stacked in the outfield.  It appears that Jerry Sands, who flunked out of his first trial in the majors, will be a left fielder rather than a first baseman, and Trayvon Robinson has been a revelation this year at Triple-A, particularly in his power development.  Third, the system is loaded with high-upside pitching, though most of it is either struggling in the upper levels (like Chris Withrow, Aaron Miller, and Ethan Martin) or still working in the lower levels (Zach Lee, Garret Gould).

The main exception to those qualifications among the team's starters is Rubby De La Rosa, who has already hit the Show.  However, it isn't a guarantee that he sticks as a starter, and the team's rotation has been shaky this year outside of Kuroda and Clayton Kershaw (though I do think that Chad Billingsley will be fine).  Ted Lilly's K-Rate has dipped dramatically, and Jon Garland is really bad at this point of his career, so more close-to-the-majors pitching could be used.

However, I see a much bigger hole in the Dodgers organization, both in the major leagues and throughout the farm system - corner infield bats.  Casey Blake won't last forever, Juan Uribe is really terrible at this point of his career, and James Loney has been really terrible throughout his career.  If the team puts Sands in the outfield - if he makes it back and sticks in the big leagues, of course - there is nobody waiting in the wings to man those corner infield spots and no money to sign everyday-caliber players to do so in the future.  If I'm running the Dodgers, those are the first positions I look to address in the minor leagues, and I look to do it sooner rather than later, as Loney looks to be a non-tender candidate this off-season and Blake is 37 years old.

This creates a near-perfect match with the D-backs.  As we all know, Arizona's farm system is absolutely loaded to the brim with corner infielders.  At the hot corner, the D-backs have Matt Davidson, Bobby Borchering, and Ryan Wheeler all among the organization's top-20 prospects.  Over at first base, there is Paul Goldschmidt and Brandon Allen in the upper levels, as well as any of those third base prospects who prove themselves unable to handle the position in the big-leagues long-term.  With how loaded Arizona is at the weakest positions in the Dodger organization, I can hardly imagine a more perfect match-up.

Before you get too concerned, rest assured that Arizona is not going to be giving up a top-10 prospect for half of a season of Kuroda.  The return going to L.A. will be greater than what Arizona received for Garland - utility infielder at-best Tony Abreu - but with the leverage that Kuroda's no-trade clause and limited market provide for Arizona, there's little reason to offer up a top talent.  That means you can cross Goldschmidt, Davidson, and Borchering off the list of possible trade pieces heading to Los Angeles - none of them are going anywhere at this year's trade deadline.  With Arizona eating the salary of Kuroda, just one of Wheeler or Allen - whoever the Dodgers prefer - would probably be a sufficient package given the limited leverage L.A. has.

However, there's also the issue of Los Angeles' rotation.  Garland hasn't pitched since June 1, with De La Rosa filling in that vacant rotation slot.  Garland doesn't appear to be seriously hurt, so he'll return at some point, but the Dodgers have truly terrible pitching depth at the moment.  Selling at the deadline is one thing, but the team will still need big-league starting pitching to fill five rotation slots, and the likes of John Ely and Dana Eveland at Triple-A Albuquerque aren't exactly appealing options.

With Arizona likely to banish one of their rotation members to the bullpen in the event of a Kuroda acquisition, it would make sense if the team decided to send one back to Los Angeles - on Arizona's dime - in order to sweeten the pot and reduce the prospect value needed.  If this happens, it isn't likely that the Dodgers could even get any of the five prospects listed above, so it would likely be a 20-30 guy in Arizona's system that has some upside worth taking a flier on, either at a thin position in the system or just another pitching prospect (can't ever have too many of them).

 

All things considered, here are the deals that I could see going down:

Trade 1: Arizona receives Hiroki Kuroda in exchange for 1B Brandon Allen or 3B Ryan Wheeler, and/or cash.

Trade 2: Arizona receives Hiroki Kuroda in exchange for one of LHP Joe Saunders and LHP Zach Duke, one of RHP Kevin Munson, 2B David Nick, RHP Chase Anderson, LHP Mike Belfiore, and INF Zach Walters, and cash (at least the remaining salary due to Saunders/Duke).

 

If those deals seem like low-balls, it's probably because they are.  However, if the Dodgers insist on trading a pitcher to shave off some salary, the only movable piece (that they'd ever consider moving) is Kuroda.  They won't move Kershaw or Billingsley, and they aren't likely to find takers for Lilly, due to his new three-year, $33MM contract and declining strikeout rate, or Garland, due to mediocrity and nagging injuries.  This is about saving money for the Dodgers, and this move saves them about $8.5MM over the next three years, while still providing them a nice talent in the upper minors or a big-league pitcher to fill in the hole lefty by Kuroda for free.

Also, for those concerned, Kuroda is likely to be a Type B free agent next year according to MLBTR's reverse-engineered Elias rankings, though Kuroda has shown a willingness to accept a one-year deal to stay with a team on the West Coast.  Kuroda would probably turn down arbitration, so that supplemental-round pick does require some consideration.  However, with the holes L.A. is likely to have in the big-leagues over the next few years and their lack of cash or minor-league depth to fill those holes, the cheap, big-league-ready talent that Arizona could offer would probably outweigh the value of that draft pick.

 

Of course, Mark Cuban could buy the Dodgers and this all wouldn't matter, because he'd pay out of pocket for a few years and wouldn't have any reason to deal Kuroda unless he got a sweet package.  Cuban as the Dodgers' owner probably costs Arizona another prospect in the return on either deal of about the caliber of, say, Bryan Shaw (complete speculation), if a Kuroda deal were to still go down.

 

So I'll end on this note: Please, please, please don't let Mark Cuban buy the Dodgers, Bud.  Make up a reason...

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