Rotation Roulette

By Nathan Petrashek

Wily Peralta, Michael Fiers, Marco Estrada, and Mark Rogers have all thrown quality innings as starters for the Brewers this season, but there projects to be a need for a veteran starter in Milwaukee next year.  In August, Ron Roenicke had this to say about adding an experienced arm:

“I don’t want to say we need to,” he said. “I think you’d always like to. But who’s out there and for what number? It gets to the point where some of these salaries are getting a little ridiculous. We’ve got to be really smart in what we do, and who’s out there as far a quality veteran you really want.

“If you can have young starters, then maybe spend your money in the bullpen to make sure the bullpen is really good and you can close out games when you have leads. If a guy has a 4.50 ERA, which is up there, if he can go six innings, that’s three runs. If you have a good bullpen, you can win a lot of games. I think you can do it, if you have a really good bullpen.

“If you don’t have the money to go out and get $20-million-a-year pitchers, why not do it with a 4.50 ERA. What does that cost you? I think you can do that.”

The economics of pitching certainly have changed, especially this year.  The Brewers made overtures to resign Zack Greinke, only to be priced out of the market by Matt Cain’s monster deal.  The best arms now project to make at least $20M per year, with many expecting Greinke to push his free agent salary up to $22 or $23M annually.

With that, it’s time for a blind taste test.  Here are the 2012 stats of three players projected to be free agents in 2013:

Innings ERA WHIP HR/9 K/9 BB/9 ERA+
Player A 212 3.48 1.196 .08 8.5 2.3 115
Player B 170 4.32 1.295 1.4 7.1 2 87
Player C 118 3.74 1.246 1.1 8.2 2.8 110

If you were a general manager, and basing your decision solely 2012 stats, it’s obvious which you would choose.  Player A is Zack Greinke, the premier pitching free agent.  Despite faltering after his trade to the Los Angeles Angels, Greinke is still likely to command a mountain of money.  Expectations for the former Cy Young winner are high; just look at what the Angels were willing to pay the Brewers in terms of players for just a few months of his service.  Greinke puts up some remarkable numbers and will be compensated accordingly.  The financial risk will be a long-term one, too; any team making a serious run at Greinke will likely have to put a 6- or 7-year deal on the table.  That would lock the pitcher up through at least his age 34 season, a point at which many pitchers have begun to decline.

Player B is likely to be the second-most desired pitcher should the Angels decline their $15.5M 2013 option.  Dan Haren has had a rough go of it in 2012.  At age 32, it is entirely possible that Haren is losing his edge; this season, for example, Haren has dealt with lingering back issues and dip in velocity on virtually all of his pitches.  Still, he has history on his side; just last year, Haren was a Cy Young candidate after pitching 238 innings of 3.17 era ball.  For that reason, Haren is likely to command at least a three-year deal, and I can’t imagine him getting less than $13M per year.  I mean, Randy Wolf got just under $10M a year for 3 years from the Brewers, and he was an All-Star just once … in 2003.

Player C is the much-maligned Shaun Marcum.  It seems all Brewers fans will remember of him is his postseason blowup in 2011.  And it was a blowup, to be sure; a 14.90 ERA in 3 clutch games isn’t exactly what you want out of a key player in your rotation.  But those three games mask Marcum’s solid 2011 and 2012 campaigns.  Other than a slight uptick in WHIP and K rate, Marcum’s 2012 looks a lot like his 2011 – at least when he was on the field.  The major knock on Marcum has always been his health. A tommy john surgery sidelined him in 2009, and his throwing mechanics have been the subject of much criticism.  Marcum managed 195 innings in 2010 and 200 in 2011, but has struggled in September and October in both years.  Thus, an entire healthy year for Marcum probably consists of 170 innings.

Of course, a GM doesn’t have just statistics to worry about.  There’s money, too.  And if I’m the Brewers shopping around for one of these guys, Marcum’s my man.

I’d love Greinke, but not his price tag.  Few teams can shoulder a $23M annual contract, and the Brewers aren’t one of them.  Dan Haren’s age and struggles worries me more when accompanied by a minimum $40M price tag.  At age 31 next year, Shaun Marcum isn’t exactly young, but he also isn’t going to cost much.  Marcum is making just under $8M this year, which is probably where the free market – once it factors in the injury risk – will price him, too.  I can easily see Marcum signing for 3/$20M.  In terms of value for dollars, that’s a no brainer.

Now, Marcum is not going to be a fit for every team.  If he’s only going to pitch 170-180 innings there are going to be some valuable innings that someone else is going to have to pick up.  But the Brewers are ideally situated to deal with that issue.

The Brewers currently have about $52M committed for next season, not counting arbitration salaries.  With a young back end to the rotation and most position players already accounted for, there projects to be some substantial money available for the bullpen.

To cover the additional innings a Marcum signing would require, the Brewers could add a very good long relief arm.  Or they could use Marcum out of the bullpen to provide 130+ innings of quality relief during the year, as suggested by @simplekindoffan  on Twitter.  Alternatively, the Brewers could keep Marcum as a starter and give him every eighth or ninth start off.  One of the nice things about this team is its starting pitching depth; with Rogers, Fiers, Peralta, Estrada, and Narveson not all going to make the rotation, there will be some arms available for a spot start.  The point is that the Brewers have ways to deal with Marcum’s innning cap in ways that many other teams may not.

Marcum isn’t the only free agent starter the Brewers should think about pursuing.  But he – and players like him – certainly offer value in a way that guys like Zack Greinke and Dan Haren will not.