Free Agent Starting Pitchers
If Roger Clemens comes back, we won't be on the lookout for another starter. Clemens, Pettitte, Oswalt, Backe and Zeke or Wandy would make another tremendous rotation and be among the best in baseball. The problem, of course, is that Clemens would command a figure higher than the $18 million he made in 2005.
Now then, if he doesn't come back, we must make a move to fill in a replacement. I don't want both Wandy and Zeke to have spots in the rotation. Nor do I want another rookie like Fernando Nieve or Jason Hirsh rushed up to the majors too quickly. We should be on the lookout all winter for a serviceable third or fourth starter. We don't need a premier free agent pitcher, nor can we afford one. We need an innings-eater. Someone who can go out there, maybe give up three or four runs, but keep it close and consistently go at least six innings.
The top three guys I have in mind are Paul Byrd, Jason Johnson and Brett Tomko. I'd also hope we take a look at Vicente Padilla and Tony Armas Jr., but those guys come with huge injury risks. So here are my top three candidates:
Why he's good: He hasn't posted an ERA over 4.00 since 2001. He spent all of 2003 and half of 2004 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but showed no ill efects with the Braves and last year with the Angels. He has pinpoint command: He walked a mere 28 batters in 204.1 innings last year. He also cut down on the long balls, only giving up 22 last year.
Why he'd fit well with us: Byrd is a veteran who knows how to win. He was born in Louisville and went to LSU, so he'd probably enjoy Houston. He makes batters put the ball in play, and with our excellent defense at short and center, we'd record outs for him. And since he's controlled the homers he gives up, batters probably wouldn't take advantage of the short porches in the Juicebox. He goes deep into ballgames: only three times during the regular season did Byrd fail to go six full innings.
Downsides: He doesn't strike anyone out, which Jack will tell you is bad. He's not great against lefties (.811 OPS compared to .639 against righties). And with Edmonds, Dunn, Griffey, Overbay, and Jenkins in the division, he might get hit.
Let's talk money: He might actually be too expensive for us. After his marvelous season with Anaheim, I think some teams might offer him three years at $6 or $7 million apiece. That's more than I'd be willing to give him. If we did sign him, I wouldn't want to give him more than two years at five, maybe six million per year.
Why he's good: Like his 2004 campaign, Tomko turned it on down the stretch last year, with a 3.78 ERA after the break. He gave up much fewer homers (39 over two seasons in San Fran) than he has in previous years, but this is obviously a factor of playing in the spacious and soon-to-be-renamed SBC Park. None of his stats are particularly impressive or alarming, except for one: innings pitched. He's averaged 198 innings over the past four years. That's durability. He's never strayed too far from his 4.50 career ERA. So with Tomko -- unlike with Forrest Gump -- you know what you're gonna get.
Why he'd fit well with us: Hard to say exactly. He's been everywhere in his nine-year career: Cincinnati, Seattle, San Diego, St. Louis, San Fran. So maybe he's still looking for a place to call home. Or at least a team he feels comfortable with. Tomko seems like the kind of guy who could have a monster year if he just had the right combination of coaches, teammates and manager. With Nolan Ryan, Andy Pettitte, Jim Hickey and a guy named Clemens in the ballpark, who knows what he could do.
Downsides: He's never been been great and he'll be 33 in April, so there's no reason to expect a real breakout year. He also doesn't get too many strikeouts, and his walk rate is a tad high. He wasn't consistent throughout the year, sometimes going eight innings, sometimes not making it past the third.
Let's talk money: I doubt many teams are going to throw gobs of money at him. If we could get him for $6 million over two years, I'd do it.
Why he's good: See above. Johnson is mysteriously similar to Tomko: He's been a consistent starter, throwing over 190 innings in each of the last three seasons. Johnson's walk rate has dropped significantly: only 49 in 210 innings. He was money at home: batters had a .639 OPS against him there. Like Tomko, Johnson is somewhat inconsistent. But he's economical. In five straight starts from May 10 to June 3, he went eight innings. His number of pitches thrown in those starts: 90, 98, 108, 100, 101. That's good stuff.
Why he'd fit well with us: Obviously, his talents have been wasted in Detroit and Baltimore. He's had only one winning season, and his career record of (brace yourself) 52-86 is more a factor of those bad teams than his abilities. And this guy is a ground ball machine. He induced 375 ground balls last year, compared to only 216 fly balls. With our well-above-average infield, I think we'd convert more of those ground balls into outs.
Downsides: He's faded in the second half the past few years, which may have something to do with his diabetes. And he'll throw in a two-inning start every now and then, so we should be careful.
Let's talk money: I honestly don't think too many other teams would want him. Something in the vacinity of 2 years for $5 or $6 million would probably seem like we're overpaying.
So there you go. Byrd, Tomko, Johnson. In that order. It's hard to say it, but I'd take 200 innings of 4.50 ERA for $3 million over 200 innings of 2.00 ERA for $20 million. When you can spend that extra money on another hitter like Brian Giles, it's definitely worth the downgrade.
Speaking of which, I'll do a preview of the top free agent outfielders available. Giles, Jacque Jones, Jose Cruz Jr., maybe (but most definitely not) Nomar. Plus, why Todd Hollandsworth and Chris Burke would form an admirable platoon in left field...