Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bait Shop – Part II…with an Emptier Hook

With the next shot fired in the Indians’ move beyond 2009, Rafael Betancourt finds himself a mile above sea level as a member of the Colorado Rockies, dealt for a high-A pitcher in Connor Graham. While the move certainly wasn’t unexpected given the $5.4M club option held on Betancourt for 2010, it certainly shows that the Indians are ready to make some moves with an eye past 2009 (thank goodness) and the idea of moving arms to get arms is one that they’re not going to shy away from.

Betancourt offered up an interesting dilemma for the Tribe as he stood out as the most consistently effective reliever in the marshland of ineffectiveness that is the Indians’ 2009 bullpen; but the $5.4M club option (and remember this is a club option as the Indians had NO financial responsibility for Betancourt past this year and characterizing this move as related to anything related to the 2010 payroll is to be misinformed) that the team held on him for 2010 was one that would have made him the 7th highest paid Indian at the age of 35. Certainly, Betancourt’s track record spoke for itself as he posted an ERA+ of 111 or higher in 6 of his 7 years as an Indian, with the lone downtick coming in 2008, a year after he posted a career high number in innings in his phenomenal 2007 season.

However, as is true with all positions (but even more so with relievers), the idea of paying for future performance versus rewarding past achievements is where the Indians ultimately made their decision on Senor Slo-Mo. The issue at hand really was whether the Indians wanted to pick up that option on Betancourt with the idea that he could avoid the DL (which he hasn’t done in the last 2 years) and still continue to provide some consistency in a bullpen badly in need of it at the age of 35 in 2010.

At the end of the day, the Indians decided that $5.4M is too large of a dollar amount to commit to a 35-year-old reliever who has spent time on the DL in 2008 and 2009 with no guarantee that he won’t fall off a cliff as a reliever in 2010. With the Indians likely having no intention of picking up his option, Betancourt was moved for…wait for it…a young, hard-throwing arm that likely will be transitioned to the bullpen.

That young, hard-throwing arm, Connor Graham, is a big (6-6, 235 lbs.) RHP who was the Rockies’ 5th round pick in 2007 was ranked the #8 prospect in the Colorado system prior to the season with Kevin Goldstein putting forth the following prior to the season:
The Good: Graham is a massive and intimidating presence on the mound, with a pure power arsenal that begins with a fastball that sits at 92-95 mph and touches 97. He supplements that with a plus slider and a modified changeup which he also throws hard, one that has more of a splitter-type action.
The Bad: Graham is a big guy with long levers, and he has problems staying within his delivery, leading to highly inconsistent release points and considerable command and control problems. He has a tendency to overthrow any and all of his offerings leading to less movement.

With that “power arsenal” and “considerable command and control problems”, Graham has suffered some (here it comes) issues with BB to the point that his career BB/9 is a whopping 4.7. Countering that however, is the fact that Graham does miss bats as his 8.9 K/9 total in MiLB shows. Certainly that two-pitch mix of a mid-to-upper-90’s fastball and slider seem to point that Graham’s future would be in the bullpen, particularly as his control as a starter has continued into this season.

Graham is an intriguing arm as he’s started all but 2 of the 48 games he’s pitched in as a Rockie farmhand and the Indians could either continue to pitch him as a starter (likely in Akron as he’s earned a promotion to AA from his performance in high-A this year) and make the transition for him next year into the bullpen or move him immediately into the bullpen, not delaying the inevitable. He provides yet another option in terms of adding potential power arms in the bullpen arms at the MLB level and just below via trade for an organization that was sorely lacking them, particularly at the upper levels of the minors when the season began.

With sell-off season officially now under way (yes, I know about DeRosa…but this is Trading Dedline stuff), beyond Betancourt the pickings in terms of arms that can be moved for other arms get pretty slim and realistically consist of one player:
Carl Pavano
Starting with the starter that quite obviously does not have a future with the Indians past 2009 (unless you want to tempt fate for one more year), the most desirable chip the Indians may have among pitchers is Hot Carl Pavano. Despite what Yankees’ lackeys say regarding acquiring Pavano - “we’ve already seen that movie…” - the idea that Pavano would represent a rotational upgrade for any number of contenders (without costing as much as a front-line starter) is apparent when you simply look at what Pavano has accomplished this season and how it compares to AL Starters.

Looking past ERA and WHIP (which no doubt have their uses) and instead using the criteria of FIP (a calculation of ERA that attempts to remove defense from the equation and concentrates only on what a pitcher can control), K/9, BB/9, and K/BB ratio to rank Carl in the categories that he personally controls from the mound, here’s how Pavano stacks up in the AL…even after Wednesday’s clunker:
4.01 FIP – 15th among AL Starters
6.53 K/9 – 21st among AL Starters
1.77 BB/9 – 3rd among AL Starters
3.68 K/BB – 5th among AL Starters

But…wait, you say, he’s wildly inconsistent in terms of either having great starts or having downright awful starts, anybody can see that, right?

Maybe, but if we’re looking at the whole body of work in the season, look to see how another arm pitching in new laundry this year compares in the same categories:
CC Sabathia – 2009
3.70 FIP – 10th among AL Starters
6.58 K/9 – 20th among AL Starters
2.73 BB/9 – 17th among AL Starters
2.41 K/BB – 16th among AL Starters

This is not to suggest that Pavano is a better pitcher than Sabathia, only to point out that Pavano’s season, viewed in a vacuum of just this season, has been one of the revelations throughout MLB in 2009 to the point that it could be argued that he’s capable of being a #3 starter on a playoff contender if you’re looking at what he’s done in an Indians’ uniform this season.

For teams (not in the Bronx or managed by Joe Torre) looking for pitching down the stretch, Pavano’s performance this year could entice them to bite, particularly when you look at the construction of what remains on Pavano’s contract for the rest of the year, outlined by Fangraph’s R.J. Anderson:
A base salary of 1.5 million can see 5.3 million tacked onto it based on starts and innings pitched. To date he’s made 18 starts and pitched 107 innings. Cots outlines his performance bonuses as:

• starts: $0.1M each for 18, 20, 22; $0.2M each for 24, 26, 28; $0.25M for 30; $0.3M for 32; $0.35M each for 33, 34; $0.4M for 35
• innings: $0.1M each for 130, 140, 150; $0.15M each for 160, 170; $0.2M for 180; $0.25M each for 190, 200, 210; $0.3M for 215; $0.4M for 225; $0.5M for 235

Let’s call the 210+ innings clauses unlikely. That takes 1.2 million off the potential books. 35 starts won’t occur, so there’s another 0.4 million. 33-34? Probably not, so goes another 0.8 million. Just like that, 2.4 million rolls off, leaving his new team with – at most – 2.9 million in performance bonuses and whatever is left from his base salary.

Using Anderson’s math of 32 starts and 200 innings is attainable for Pavano, a team would be paying less than $4M (let’s say there’s $750K remaining on his salary and he hits those performance bonuses that trigger the $2.9M that Anderson mentions), but that would be for 13 starts and about 90 innings with the built-in insurance that if Pavano gets injured or becomes ineffective, the bonuses simply aren’t met or owed.

That then is the beauty of Pavano to a team, in that at this point they’re really only going to have to pay him if he’s healthy enough to consistently start and contribute a good amount of innings in those starts. If he gets hurt or he pitches his way out of the rotation, the financial commitments end and the team is only on the hook for what remains on his salary and whatever performance bonuses he hits.

If, however, he does go for 13 more starts and averages the nearly 7 innings he would have to in those 13 starts to reach 200 IP, the team will pay him those bonuses which would surely be worth it considering the performance assumed to be associated with it.

Granted, the acquisition of a Carl Pavano is not on par with netting one of the higher-profile arms this trading season, but if the price is deemed to be too high to pry away an “ace” for a playoff push, an augmentation of a contender’s rotation of Carl Pavano (with the built-in financial insurances against him falling flat on his face) certainly will appeal to a team looking for a middle-of-the-rotation arm, which Pavano has proven to be in his brief time with the Indians.

How long will he remain that middle-of-the-rotation arm remains to be seen, but let’s hope that question gets answered while he’s wearing another uniform with the idea that netting some arms for the organization (at any level) and clearing Pavano’s spot in the rotation for Westbrook and Carmona (two guys who, fingers crossed, figure into the 2010 plans) happens sometime in the next 8 days.

With Betancourt taking the plane to join the Rockies in Denver instead of accompanying the rest of the Indians to Seattle and with Pavano hopefully not too far behind in terms of pitchers who can be moved for…well, pitchers, it would seem that the Indians are halfway through their viable trade candidates among pitchers. I suppose a case could be made that the Indians could attempt to move Kerry Wood, but remember that Wood is guaranteed about $5M for the rest of this season and $10.5M for 2010. Given that his numbers thus far aren’t that different than what “earned” Jensen Lewis a trip to Columbus, I can’t see a team looking to foot that bill given his performance this year, regardless of the talent he may possess.

At this point with Wood, let’s make sure that 2009 is not the year that triggers that option in 2011 (worth $11M) to be guaranteed, which takes place if he finishes 55 games for the Indians in either 2009 or 2010. Right now, he’s on pace to finish 53 games and for the Indians to allow that option to be guaranteed in a lost year is nothing short of irresponsibility.

In the end, one of the worms has been taken off the hook in terms of pitchers that were assumed to be bait with more (whether it be Pavano or a few of the position players) almost certain to find their way off the hook at some point in the next week or so.

As for those two big worms still sitting there…well, that’s a whole other fish tale.
It all depends who you believe.

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