If the Orioles choose to go this route, there are several intriguing buy-low options in the free agent market comprised of starting pitchers attempting to bounce back from injury-riddled seasons. I take a look at some of the candidates below and examine who might be the best fit for the Orioles.
- Gavin Floyd – We already know that Floyd is on the Orioles’ radar, as he perennially seems to be. Before the obstacle was working out a trade with the Annapolis native, but now standing in the way is the questionable health of Floyd. The 30 year old right-hander missed most of 2013 after undergoing Tommy John and ligament surgery on his pitching elbow. Originally, the recovery time was listed at 14 – 19 months because of the dual nature of the surgery, but according to his agent Mike Moye, Floyd will be ready to begin a two to three month mound throwing program by December 7th. That puts the former White Sox on track to pitch in game action before the start of the regular season.
In his prime years from 2008 through 2011, Floyd was a reliable 4.00 ERA, 180+ IP starter with a slightly above average SO rate and a slightly better than average BB rate. The Orioles have long been interested in him due to his local ties and dependability. Of course, the latter pro is now a bit of a question mark as nobody is quite show when Floyd will be ready to pitch in the Majors in 2014 and how good he will be when he does. At the same time, that also makes him a possibly low-risk buy for a team like the O’s.
Barring any setbacks, Floyd is almost guaranteed to net a Major League deal. He earned $9.5 million in 2013 and will no doubt have to take a big pay cut this season. If Floyd proves healthy in December, I could see a one year $3 – $4 million base deal with escalating incentives pushing the total contract closer to his 2013 total.
If Floyd is truly healthy, I would almost be surprised if the O’s did not land him as there should be enough mutual interest. We can also rest assured that Baltimore will not sign Floyd unless the organization is confident he will be healthy and able to contribute next season. Even if Floyd begins 2013 on the disabled list, he still might interest the Orioles who could use the first month or so of the season to see what they have before finding a spot for Floyd.
Jeff Niemann – The 6’9 right-hander has never quite lived up to his lofty advanced billing he received by virtue of being selected 4th overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2004 amateur draft. Nonetheless, he has developed into a dependable back-of-the-rotation starter. From 2010 – 2012, Niemann pitched to a 4.12 ERA while averaging 27 starts per season. He also did so in the AL East which is a very positive sign. His 2012 season was cut short when he was struck in the leg by a come backer and was subsequently shut down with shoulder soreness upon his return. That soreness did not go away and Niemann opted to have surgery on the shoulder in April, effectively ending his 2013 season before it began.
Niemann was reportedly already throwing from 90 feet by the time Tampa took on Texas in the AL Wildcard tiebreaker game this past September. When the Rays designated him for assignment this past week, word out of Tampa was that his timetable for a return was still up in the air – he could be ready for opening day or closer to mid-season. If Niemann was indeed throwing from 90 feet in late September, I would think that Opening Day would be a more accurate estimate assuming he has not had any setbacks, but the truth is we don’t know much about his current health.
Like Floyd, if Niemann is able to prove to teams he is healthy he will almost certainly command a Major League deal. Jeff earned $3 million last season and that would seem to be his ceiling for a one year contract in 2014. Of all the injured pitcher options, Niemann perhaps strikes the best balance between upside and affordability. At his best he has been a better pitcher than Floyd and is as or more affordable than any other option that will require a Major League deal. Camden Yards is not necessarily an ideal place to rebuild value, but Niemann has proven he can be effective pitching in the AL East so that might not be much of a factor.
All things being equal (read: health), Jeff Niemann appears to be the best option for starting pitchers coming back from an injury.
Shaun Marcum – Marcum threw 195 and 200 innings, respectively, in 2010 and 2011 before being limited to just 124 innings in 2012 and 78 innings last season due to injuries. In addition, the soon-to-be 32 year old was ineffective last season for the Mets before undergoing season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in July. He posted a below career average SO rate and a 5.23 ERA before going under the knife.
Marcum carries more negatives with him than some of the other options. He is a year+ older than Niemann and Floyd. He has also struggled staying healthy relative to some of the other options, including underdoing Tommy John surgery that cost him all of the 2009 season. He is also coming off a legitimately poor season of which injuries may or may not be to blame for. Lastly is the fact that he is a fly ball pitcher and somewhat homerun prone is potentially a negative for pitching in Camden Yards.
On the plus side, Marcum’s SO and BB numbers were not terribly off the pace of his career numbers, while his .331 BABIP in 2013 was significantly higher than his career BABIP perhaps suggesting he was a bit unlucky. There is also the possibility that his neck and nerve injury was contributing to his poor performance and that the surgery solved the problem.
Marcum appears to carry a bit more uncertainty and more downside then some of the other candidates while not carrying an offsetting higher upside. There is a chance that Marcum will have to accept a minor league deal – although I would bet he would find a major league deal somewhere – and if that’s the case, he might be worth a shot. His inability to stay healthy is a significant concern on a major league deal.
Roy Halladay – It will be interesting to see what kind of deal the 2-time Cy Young Award winner can land this winter. Halladay will turn 37 in May and is coming off a season where his command was nowhere to be found on occasion. His impeccable control and command of the strike zone had long been his trademark which led to an eight year run of walk rates below 6.0%. In 2013, his walk rate jumped all the way up to 12.8%. The obvious concern is that Halladay may be finished as an effective starting pitcher given his age, his alarmingly poor 2013 performance, and his sub-par 2012 performance.
Halladay had mid-season surgery to remove bone spurs from his pitching elbow but was not much more effective upon his return. Walks continued to plague him and his SO rate dropped as well.
The plus side for Halladay is that of all the options, he has had the most success and has had it relatively recently. One only has to go back to 2011 to find Halladay delivering a Cy Young caliber performance. Those days are almost certainly gone but his fall has been so quick and so sharp that it does make me wonder if he is not due for some sort of regression back to a more “normal” aging curve starting this season. The trying-start to Roy’s major league career has been well documented so he is no stranger to adversity and making adjustments. I cannot help but wonder if the Orioles could not squeeze one more sub-3.50 ERA season out of Doc’s arm.
The market for Halladay is unclear as are his own contract demands. The Phillies turned down a $20 million team option and he won’t sniff close to that amount in free agency. Will a team take a Josh Johnson-like $8 m+ gamble on Halladay or will he have to settle for something less than that? I would shy away from a deal that guarantees $8 million next season. Halladay is carrying too many different types of risk – age, performance, injury – to give that sort of guarantee. A $4 - $5 million base deal heavy in incentives to push it over $10 million is a lot more palatable, although certainly not without its risk. I imagine that something at least in that vicinity will be needed to secure his services.
Halladay would likely appeal to the Orioles because he is a veteran who has a lot to of valuable experiences to share with the Birds’ younger pitchers. He also was a work horse for most of his career and it is tempting to think that he has one more 200-inning season left in his right-arm. I think the risks though might be too much for the Orioles to overcome, however.
Jeff Karstens – Karstens is the lowest-risk option of the pitchers discussed in this post. He missed all of 2013 after having surgery on his rotator cuff and labrum. This came off the heels of being non-tendered following the 2012 season. That winter, Karstens struggled to find a suitor and wound up returning to the Pirates at a reduced rate. In all likelihood, he will have to accept a minor league offer this winter.
The Orioles were not interested in Karstens in 2012 so I am not sure they will be now. The caveat is that before they were uninterested in him on a major league contract and this winter he could be had on a minor league deal. A minor league deal carries virtually no significant risk so if the Orioles believe he is healthy, they might be willing to take a look. He is not going to be the innings eater the team would ideally like to have, but you cannot look for perfection in a minor league deal.
Karstens is a long shot and his chances of being a significant contributor are slim, but Dan Duquette has shown a willingness to take a look at a player when there is little to no risk involved.
Ranking the above players in terms of potential value, I’d have them shake out like this:
1. Jeff Niemann
2. Roy Halladay
3. Gavin Floyd
4. Shaun Marcum
5. Jeff Karstans
Niemman has the best combination of age profile, injury history, and performance of all the options. Halladay has by far the best historical performance of the candidates, although he also carries performance, injury, and age issues. Floyd is attempting to come back from the most serious injury of the group but is a dependable performer when healthy. Marcum is trending downwards, is getting up in age, and has the most injury-filled past. Karstans has little upside and is an injury concern but might be the cheapest/lowest risk of the three.
It would not be the worst situation in the world to gamble on two of the top four pitchers on that list. If the Orioles hit on one, their rotation is set. if they hit on two, even better. Even if both miss the risk is relatively low and the team still has enough Major League quality starters to assemble a solid rotation.