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This is just a thought experiment more than anything else, but it might give us some clues towards answering the key question which faces AZ over the off-season. Who is our #2 starter? We have our ace, in Brandon Webb. Livan Hernandez looks like a solid #3; and we have no shortage of contenders for the back-end of the rotation, regardless of whether Miguel Batista stays or not. It's the gulf between Webb and the rest which concerns me, you, every other fan...and hopefully, Diamondbacks management.

Josh Byrnes has made it pretty clear that we will probably not be going after any big-ticket free agents. And this makes sense: it's a sellers' market, with demand out-stripping supply, which will lead to deals being struck that are too long and too much for what's being received. Besides that, Arizona is on a fairly-tight budget, and with our wealth of prospects, we should be looking to convert some of them into assets we can use. In particular, that #2 starter.

So, for a bit of fun, I took a look at the 2006 stats, to find the #2 starters who might be available. A couple of restrictions. First, they had to pitch enough innings to qualify for the ERA title (162), because it seems wise to go for an arm which has proven itself capable of going through an entire season. I also drew the cutoff mark for ERA at 4.58: that sounds arbitrary, but it's actually the ERA of Miguel Batista. We definitely want someone better than that, otherwise what's the point, really? Ony half a dozen teams had more than two starters better than Batista (Detroit had four with an ERA of 4.08 or better!), so this does suggest the list below filters out back-end of the rotation guys pretty well.

I also removed those who'll be free-agents, for reasons discussed above. That eliminated the following names: Ted Lilly, Andy Pettitte, Brad Radke, Jeff Suppan. And obviously, they had to be the second-best ERA on the team. Nice though it would be to get an ace, the price for someone like Santana or Oswalt would likely be too high. I should also mention that judging purely by ERA is not necessarily the most accurate way to determine who is the #2. For example, I doubt many people would argue that Jake Peavy is not San Diego's ace, but he actually ranked third in ERA, behind both Clay Hensley and Chris Young. Overall, though, this seems a credible list. Here are the names which popped out of the above number-crunching, divided by league and sorted by ERA. The age given is how old they will be on April 1st, 2007.

NATIONAL LEAGUE
Team Name           Age   ERA  WHIP   BAA
SDP  Clay Hensley    27  3.71  1.34  .250  
CIN  Aaron Harang    28  3.76  1.27  .269 
FLA  Scott Olsen     23  4.04  1.30  .239 
SFG  Matt Cain       22  4.15  1.28  .222 
COL  Jeff Francis    26  4.16  1.29  .250 
LAD  Brad Penny      28  4.33  1.38  .279  
MIL  Dave Bush       27  4.41  1.14  .252
PIT  Zach Duke       23  4.47  1.50  .302 

AMERICAN LEAGUE
LAA  Kelvim Escobar  30  3.61  1.28  .264 
NYY  Chien-Ming Wang 27  3.63  1.31  .277 
DET  Nate Robertson  29  3.84  1.31  .259  
OAK  Dan Haren       26  4.12  1.21  .258
CLE  Jake Westbrook  29  4.17  1.43  .296 
CWS  Jon Garland     27  4.51  1.36  .294  
TEX  Kevin Millwood  32  4.52  1.31  .272 
SEA  Felix Hernandez 20  4.52  1.34  .262  

Some very interesting names, with a wealth of good, young pitchers. The two names that leap out are probably Olsen and Wang. The Marlins have no shortage of arms - as we found out when Anibal Sanchez no-hit the Diamondbacks! - so they might be prepared to trade one in exchange for position prospects. Wang's sinker is widely regarded as Webb-like. He would likely have been untouchable, before the Yankees' implosion in the ALDS; he may still be, but the pressure will certainly be on Cashman to adopt a different approach. The high-priced superstars tactic has failed to bring a World Series in six years, despite almost a billion dollars in payroll. Given their skeletal farm system, might they bite on a Wang-for-prospects deal? Probably not, but no harm in asking...

Harang is another one worth a look, not least because Cincinnati's ballpark was the most hitter-friendly in the majors last year - even more so than Chase. That should be taken into account when looking at the above statistics, making his 3.76 ERA even more impressive. On that basis, Jeff Francis and Brad Penny also move up the list, though the rule generally against trading within your own division works against those two. Jon Garland is the only other candidate who spent 2006 in stadia that ranked in the top third for Park Factor.

Jake Westbrook is a name often floated as being of interest, but I'm a little leery: that's a high batting average against him, especially in a pitcher-friendly place like Jacobs Field, ranked 22nd in park factor. However, Cleveland were bad with the glove, and the defense-independent stats suggest he was better than the raw figures - suggesting he could be undervalued. Beyond Robertson, another of the Detroit pitchers could be a target: Jeremy Bonderman, their #4 by ERA (third was Kenny Rogers). His line, as in the above tables was 24, 4.08, 1.30, .259; there's rumblings he will be on the market, and the Tigers could certainly use some hitting.

And what would we trade? Whatever it takes. Of the established players, we all know Estrada is gone. I think Byrnes could certainly be let go without him being missed, and it could be argued, we might do well to sell Hudson after his career year with the bat. Tony Clark is also fodder, but we'd be lucky to get anything for a broken-down first baseman who missed most of the year and didn't reach the Mendoza line when playing. Chad Tracy is probably not currently a contender; his trade value is too low, and we should see how he does in 2007. I'm hoping for a bounce-back year, and we can then decide what to do with him.

Prospects? Chris Carter would be great in the AL as a designated hitter. Callaspo and Hairston don't seem to have anywhere to play at the current time, and Robby Hammock doesn't look to be getting much time either. And then, there's the fistful of ubermensch: Drew, Jackson, Quentin, Upton and Young. It's quite possible that we might need to pull the trigger and hand one over, in order to close a deal for a #2 pitcher. Which one?

That's a question which cropped up over at Diamondbacks Bullpen and led to an interesting discussion. Jackson came out as the most popular choice, just ahead of Upton, though "I wouldn't trade any of them" also got significant support. Personally, I'd lean towards Jackson too; his position is easily replaced, which would probably improve our defense, and his production there is likely to remain below par for first-base. The others are likely to be average or better in their spots, and that's where you should hang on to players: an .800 OPS from a 1B is not the same as the same figure from a SS. Of course, any GM worth his salt knows that...

Finally, our sympathies go to the friends and team-mates of Cory Lidle, reported killed in a plane-crash this afternoon in New York. His four-seat aircraft hit a 50-story condo on Manhattan's Upper East Side, leaving at least four people dead. Hatred of the Yankees aside, this is a tragedy.