Not all SP trade targets are upgrades

Posted on June 7, 2010 by

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Let’s pretend you are the GM of the New York Mets, your team is on the fringe of playoff contention, your job is on the line and you have decided to acquire a pitcher to help the team get to the post-season and save your hide. You have identified three pitchers who can be had in a trade. Here’s a look at the three contenders.

Player A is the oldest of the bunch, currently in his age 35 season. He is a two-time 18-game winner but is currently 0-6. He is on the last year of a multi-year deal that pays him $12 million this season.

Player B is in his age 28 season. He is noted for having a live arm but has yet to put it all together, although he did have 12 wins the previous year. He is making just over the minimum wage and will be arbitration-eligible next season.

Player C is in his age 29 season. Unlike the other two players, this one has spent all of his career in the National League. A former number-one pick, he has been considered a disappointment, but has also spent his entire career on losing teams. He is a free agent after the season.

Here are their ERA and FIP numbers for the past five seasons, with the most-recent season last:

Player A
ERA – 4.52, 5.16, 5.07, 3.67, 4.29
FIP – 3.87, 4.55, 4.02, 4.80, 4.71

Player B
ERA – XXX, 3.16, 5.53, 4.21, 4.43
FIP – XXX, 3.54, 5.29, 5.09, 5.29

Player C
ERA – 4.07, 3.85, 4.70, 4.97, 4.22
FIP – 4.14, 4.20, 4.77, 4.53, 3.62

If you were going to prioritize these pitchers on the information available, how would you do it? We know Player A has been a good pitcher in the past but he has not been impressive this year, his previous season was the result of some good luck and he has a sizeable contract. Player B may have a golden arm, but the results are just not there. Player C has been undervalued in the last two seasons but will not receive any “league bonus” by switching to the National League.

By now you have probably figured out that Player A is Kevin Millwood, Player B is Victor Zambrano and Player C is Kris Benson. We know how Zambrano and Benson played out and there is no reason to expect that Millwood will be significantly better than either of those two.

There is no doubt that Millwood is being hurt right now by the gopher ball. If we use xFIP (which I didn’t in the above comparisons because it was not available for all years for Benson and Zambrano) we see Millwood has a 4.03 mark this year. It really does not change much from his FIP the previous four seasons. Besides, Millwood’s HR troubles come at home, where he has allowed 9 of his 14 HR. In Camden Yards his ERA is 3.28, compared to 5.11 in road parks. So Millwood’s troubles this season are more than just the long ball.

His K/9 is up over last year, but Linear Weights shows Millwood’s fastball, slider and curve all as below-average pitches in 2010. He is striking out more batters and allowing fewer walks but when batters do hit the ball, they are doing damage. Millwood has a lifetime .306 BABIP and this year it is at .311, so it’s not that batters are being extremely lucky against him.

Despite the increase in K/9, Millwood is no longer a power pitcher. His average fastball velocity is 89.3 this year. The fireballing righty who came up with the Braves is gone. Even more troubling is that lefties are killing Millwood this year. LHB have a .319/.374/.488 slash line against him. Basically, any lefty batter in the league transforms into Joe Mauer when Millwood is on the mound. That production versus lefties means he is useless against the Phillies and might singlehandedly resuscitate the career of Chipper Jones.

But let’s give Millwood the benefit of the doubt and say that his xFIP is indicative of his talent level for this season. Who would he replace in the rotation? Hisanori Takahashi has a 3.93 xFIP while R.A. Dickey checks in with a 4.25 mark. Using the metric that is most favorable to Millwood leaves him no better than the team’s current options. And for that the Mets are supposed to pick up that contract AND trade something of value to get him?

I am all for addressing the rotation. But if the team is going to acquire a pitcher, it needs to represent a true upgrade from the current talent on hand and be someone that you want to start both a playoff game and a key division contest. Millwood fails on those accounts. Acquiring him would be the 2010 equivalent of trading for Benson and Zambrano. Instead, the Mets should focus on Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt if Omar Minaya is to buck tradition and make a key mid-season move.

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Posted in: Perspectives