Phillies Rotation: Tanaka is Gone, Now What?

Dubee out, Jimenez in? Probably not. - Lisa Blumenfeld

With Tanaka signing with the Yankees for an epoch and a billionty dollars, will the Phillies make a play on one of the remaining "elite" free agent starting pitchers?

So the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka for 7 years and $155 million dollars, in addition to paying a $20 million dollar posting fee. That amounts to $25 million a year for 7 years for a guy who has not pitched a single inning in Major League Baseball.

That's Cliff Lee money. That's Cole Hamels money. According to the linked article above, among starting pitchers, only Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia, and Felix Hernandez have bigger contracts. Unless this guy turns out to be a pure top-of-the-rotation ace, it looks like the contract will be a dog. Probably not a catastrophe, unless there's an injury, but it is kind of a head scratcher. TANAKA FEVER! They caught it.

Anyway, look elsewhere for Tanalysis on Tanaka. He's not a Phillies issue anymore, if he ever was. Now that the biggest starting pitching domino has fallen, it is expected that some of the others may begin to fall, too. Among Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, and Ubaldo Jimenez, who might the Phillies pursue, if anyone? Perhaps a minor league contract dumpster dive?

The Phillies would give up a second round pick in the draft by signing one of the "top shelf" free agents. This is reportedly a pretty deep draft, so a second round pick is not nothing. In an average draft, can we agree that the expected value of a player at the top-ish of Round 2 is maybe 2 - 3 WAR? So any contract has to be adjusted for that value, which is $10 million to maybe $14 million bucks.

Ubaldo Jimenez has good numbers, except for a rough 2012. He turns 30 today. He is a right-handed pitcher, which would play well off of Lee and Hamels. As a #3 starter, it would be hard to find fault with him compared to, say, Kyle Kendrick or Jonathan Pettibone. His fWAR projections range from 1.8 to 2.5, and he is on the wrong side of 30, so decline can be expected over a multiyear contract. He walks lots of dudes, and when he is not striking them out at a high rate or inducing groundballs effectively, 2012 happens.

The things that jumped out at me about Jimenez were how low his groundball rate was in 2012 and how high it was before. In 2013, the groundball rate rebounded. Combining that with the highest K/9 of his career at 9.56, and it was a good year for Jimenez, but in not that many innings (182.2, and he has not exceeded 200 during any of the last three seasons).

He is making starts, averaging about 32 per year consistently, but he is not going deep into games, based on innings pitched. Given his high K rate and his relatively high walk rate, it is pretty clear that he takes a lot of pitches to deal with batters. He threw roughly 17.4 pitches per inning last year, with the league average being about 16.5 last year.

What kind of contract would Jimenez expect to receive? The pitching contracts have been expensive this year. An example of a fungible, meh starter on a multi-year deal is Jason Vargas. He got 4 years at $32 million. Vargas is about to be 31 in a week or so, and he's probably a 1 to 1.5 fWAR pitcher (4.5 over the last 3 years when he was younger). From that base, we need to work upward to consider what deals actually good starters like Jimenez may get.

Would $18 million a year do it for Jimenez? Maybe. If not, I'd bet it is in the ballpark. This is where the length of the deal is an issue, and this is out of my general comfort zone (caution: wild ass speculation lies beyond this point). If I were Jimenez, I would look for 4 years, though he is in that strange age where a 2 year deal would maybe give him one more biggish free agent go-round, but anything longer would probably not be helpful because he'd be too old for a shot at a long-term deal.

I like Jimenez as a player, and I would be happy to see him come to Philadelphia, but it is hard for me to see a rational argument for it. For the Phillies to drop $70 million on Jimenez for the next four years (and lose a pick), it would require them to project enough likely WAR in 2014 and beyond (on kind of a WAR "ladder") that would show that the marginal Jimenez fWAR contributions would materially boost them into playoff contention. I have not undertaken this exercise, but based on what has been discussed around here for just 2014, I have a hard time seeing that it helps immediately, and the trends are not turning around yet on decay of the Phillies' MLB roster.

So why pay for retail WAR that does not help get the team into the playoffs? The TV contract is in-hand at this point, so there seems to be little marginal benefit to papering over the warts on the team unless it is a real fix, or the start to a passel of real fixes. This all applies to Santana and Garza, too, and I view both of them as being inferior pitchers compared to Jimenez. But I'll look at them anyway.

Santana is someone I've liked for a while as an efficient starter for the middle of a rotation. He's 31 and he is generally a +4.00 xFIP-ish pitcher who usually tosses 200+ innings. His page at Fangraphs shows that he really kept his walks down in Kansas City last year and increased his GB% to the highest level of his career. As a result, he posted an fWAR of 3.0 last year, which was his best total ever. If he returns to "old" Santana, he's probably a 1 to 1.5 WAR player better than Vargas, but not as good as Jimenez.

All this suggests a slightly more robust Vargassian contract would be needed to cut a deal. Maybe 3/36 or 4/44? If a team pays much more than that, I don't think they'll see the value. This is not the player where I would feel happy about the Phillies spending forty million bucks on over 3 to 4 years, especially the next 3 to 4 years. I'd just as soon throw Biddle into the fire and wait for Adam Morgan or Shane Watson to give it a whirl and try to harvest 1 - 2 fWAR from them for next to nothing and while keeping the second round pick. For a contender looking for rotation insurance for a couple of years or for the Yankees, for whom the cupboard is bare, Santana makes sense, but not for the Phillies right now.

Matt Garza just turned 30. He has a face licking tic that would make him unbearable to watch in the field, and he's not exactly a stable clubhouse presence. He hasn't pitched 200 innings of MLB ball in the last 3 seasons, and as we know, the older you get, the more injury risk increases, so it seems unlikely that he magically becomes a durable workhorse. His xFIP is nice, consistently coming in under 4.00 over the last three years. If he can pitch 180 innings, I would be willing to wager that he puts up an fWAR of 2.25. He's a good pitcher. Not elite, like the 2011 year he pulled out of his hat by halving his home run rate, but definitely and undeniably "good."

Given the injury history, I would be averse to giving him more than 3 years, but I would expect him to create 6 fWAR over the life of the contract, meaning he should get something like $12 to $15 million a year. As with the other pitchers, unless the Phillies are committed to revamping the roster significantly, signing Garza does not make sense in isolation.

Will the Phillies bite on one of the upper tier remaining pitchers? I am guessing the answer is "no" because it just does not help that much now or in the future. That draft pick may be a better thing to have, especially this year.

The Phillies have fallen down not as a result of buying bad contracts (except for Howard and Papelbon) but instead by failing to keep the cupboard full of young, productive players who contributed WAR at rates far below market value. As "retail" buyers of WAR, the Phillies have generally been pretty good on the big deals. Role players and late relievers? Yeah, I hear you.

The folks that called the Phillies the "new Yankees" in 2009 during the World Series or later, after the Le Roi trade and the Cliff Lee signing were not badly wrong, it seems. Not in the way most folks thought then, but they were technically correct about the similarities. Both teams are certainly paying the wages of very similar sins right now.

In terms of getting the shop back on track and having a sustainable wellhead of fresh talent and a relatively balanced roster (or "portfolio") of players on a sustainable ladder of ages and contracts, buying a 30+ middling starting pitcher at a market rate for a few WAR that will not really help them get over the playoff hump seems like a bad idea.

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