Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Trevor Time?

Many apologies to any esteemed readers who may have stopped by in search of an update in the last two months. I haven’t made a blog post for quite some time due to my new job and subsequent change of residence. Fortunately (or not, depending on what you think of the blog), I have a working internet connection again, but it seems I have some catching up to do on the state of the Tribe and the Hot Stove League. I’ll try not to repeat too much of what’s already been covered by other writers lately, but I do have a few topics I’d like to cover regardless.

Cleveland’s shopping list this offseason has two big items right at the top, in bold letters, underlined, and highlighted: a closer and either a second or third baseman. Despite a strong showing by Jensen Lewis in the final month of 2008 and Kerry Wood impersonator Adam Miller waiting in the wings, the Tribe has placed a priority on bringing in an experienced reliever to man the ninth. I went into detail in a previous post how the bullpen had some cracks in it heading into 2008 and still feel strongly that a lack of a solid contingency plan for when Borowski would inevitably fall off the cliff cost the team a pretty sizable chunk of wins.

I do think Betancourt will bounce back, with positive contributions from Perez, Lewis, and a couple fresh arms (Miller, Sipp, Meloan?), but I wouldn’t feel comfortable handing the closer gig to anything less than a proven commodity in 2009. The fact that Cleveland has three potential closers in Lewis, Perez, and Miller is great, but their services are needed elsewhere. Its one thing to draw on the bullpen depth in a pinch (injuries, etc.), but I think it would be a mistake to not take advantage of a deep free agent class. The team dug itself a steep hole last season while they were scrambling to find a replacement closer in-house; that can’t happen again.

GM Mark Shapiro made it clear that he would not make the same mistake twice and is determined to acquire a legit anchor for the bullpen who won’t end up sinking the ship (although Borowski was more like a torpedo…).

So who has Cleveland been talking to? Apparently, everyone:

"If there's a back-end bullpen alternative out there, then we're going to explore it," general manager Mark Shapiro told

Shapiro has reportedly been talking to agents for several relief pitchers, but the only two that have been confirmed by the GM as targets are Trevor Hoffman and Jose Valverde (via trade). After that, a whole slew of whispered names pop up in connection with Cleveland.

I’ve compiled a list of the top six relievers I would like Cleveland to pursue via free agency or trade, loosely ranked by how likely their acquisition is. I’m running a little short on time heading into my Turkey Day road trip, so the rest of the list will show up in my next post. Today I’d like to focus on the pitcher who I think is most likely to sign with Cleveland.

1.) Trevor Hoffman

2008 Team: San Diego
Age: 41
Previous Contract: 2 yr / $13.5 mil (2006-07), plus $7.5 mil option (2008)

There were two closers that I didn’t think would hit the market this off-season: one was Kerry Wood, the other was Trevor Hoffman. After the turbulent San Diego front office bungled negotiations by low-balling their longest tenured player, Hoffman opted to take his 554 career saves elsewhere.

Cleveland has shown early interest in Hoffman and has had experience dealing with him before. Hoffman nearly came to Cleveland three years ago before re-signing with San Diego (the fact that he had spent 13 years with SD and was still on good terms with their GM back then makes that near-miss very significant in rumored negotiations now). In a recent interview, Hoffman showed no preference in his next destination:

"I'm absolutely open to anything," said Hoffman. "National League, American League, just something that's a good fit in a number of arenas. A lot of it is going to depend on what teams come into play."

I think Cleveland could easily sign Hoffman if that’s the direction they want to go in. Hoffman appears to be the best fit in terms of a proven track record, length of contract, and salary. A 1-2 year deal for around $7-8 million annually seems like a reasonable estimate based on his previous contract. There’s a possibility that a chunk of that could be incentives based, but since Hoffman did not miss significant time due to injury in 2008 that seems less likely.

Hoffman only threw 45.1 innings in 2008 after posting at least 50 in 15 of his 17 seasons (the last time he failed to reach this mark was 2003, where he only had 9 IP due to injury). This is due to a lack of save opportunities on a bad team and the fact that San Diego was trying to pace Hoffman’s innings. While reliable, Hoffman would have to be treated somewhat cautiously over the course of a season and would probably have to take the occasional save opportunity off depending on how his arm feels. Given the team's projected bullpen depth, I don't see this being much of an issue. Hoffman did not miss any significant time due to injury last season. He was day-to-day in May with arm soreness and had arthroscopic surgery after the season to remove a few bone chips from his throwing elbow.

The Tribe has several young arms in the pipeline and having Hoffman there for a couple seasons to hold down the fort and mentor his heir apparent would be an ideal development timeline. Three seasons ago, I would have been absolutely stoked to have Trevor Hoffman suit up with the Tribe. Based on his 2008 performance though, I can’t help but be wary of relying on Hoffman to captain the bullpen in 2009.

Hoffman didn’t have a particularly bad season, but there was clearly some regression occurring. It’s hard to critique a guy who hadn’t blown back-to-back save opportunities for 11 years before last season. There were a few interesting trends in 2008 though.

The first thing that jumped out at me was how many homeruns Hoffman gave up last year. Hoffman saw his HR/FB ratio jump to 13.8%, a 7.6% increase from his career total. Considering Hoffman logged 65.7% of his innings at a home field with the most pitcher friendly park rating in the Majors last year (.796, where 1.000 is neutral), this was a surprise. In fact, Hoffman gave up all but one of his eight homeruns at home, where he posted a 4.25 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 29.2 IP. His performance on the road seems better at first glance (2.87 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 15.2 IP), but his K/BB rates (5.40 home to 4.75 road) are similar while his WHIP and BAA increase by 0.27 and .047 respectively. Hoffman got hit harder at home, but he allowed fewer baserunners as well.

I’m not sure what to make of Hoffman’s longball numbers, but they seem a little flukey to me. While Hoffman’s K/BB ratio of 5.11 was better than his career average of 3.85, his hits per 9 IP were not especially high compared to previous seasons either, so no Byrd Effect here. He did get hit harder than in previous years though. Hoffman has a career SLGA (slugging against) of .340, a number that has increased over the past three seasons at .316, .358, and .394 from 2006 to 2008.

Normally, a pitcher who starts to get smacked around more will see a drop in velocity or control, but Hoffman’s average velocity has held steady the past four seasons (85.2 mph FB, 80.9 mph SL, 74.1 mph CB, 73.9 mph CH). Hoffman has had great success working with these pitch velocities in the past and I don't see any reason for his approach to suddenly hit the fan. As I mentioned earlier, Hoffman's K/BB and H/9 ratios are strong compared to previous seasons, so he does not appear to be suffering from control issues on the surface.

Hoffman’s overall numbers in 2008 are heavily weighted towards a poor first half, particularly in April (6.52 ERA, 9.2 IP) and June (6.48 ERA, 8.1 IP). Before the All Star break, Hoffman posted a 5.08 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 17 saves in 28.1 IP, while after the break he had a 1.59 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, and 13 saves in 18 IP. This isn’t to excuse the two crappy months earlier in the season, but I would have expected a (*ahem*) more experienced arm like Hoffman’s to wear down in the second half, not get stronger. Of course, the opposite happened in 2007 when he posted a 1.91 ERA before and a 4.44 ERA after the break. I was going to make a nifty point about how Hoffman still displays durability late in the season, even at age 41, but the two seasons contradict themselves. So yeah, never mind….

I’m not sure what to make of Hoffman for 2009. I’m not particularly worried about his occasional bad months translating into more consistent, um, inconsistency. Every pitcher hits a few rough patches, which tend to get amplified due to the small sample sizes available for relievers. I'm not too worried about his homerun totals either, since he has given up 6+ in a season a few times before. Also, five of the eight against him came in his two ugly months (May and June), but gave up no more than one homer in any other month. The homerun trend did not dog him throughout the season, which is a good sign.

What I am worried about is how his SLGA has been steadily increasing in an extremely pitcher friendly park. Even if I'm misinterpreting some of the other stats, I think the rising SLGA is a valid concern. I’m also slightly concerned about how he’s never pitched in the American League before, but I’m not sure relievers see their numbers inflate as much as starters making the move since they only have to face a handful of batters as opposed to an entire AL lineup three to four times.

Hoffman is far from fragile and has been very durable even after his rotator cuff surgery back in 2003. Is relying on the 41 year old Hoffman significantly less risky than the 37 year old Borowski was last season? Will he have more success than a player like Jensen Lewis? That’s something the Tribe will have to answer this off-season. Hoffman’s 554 saves and healthy track record set him far from the uncertainty that was associated with Borowski, in my opinion. I think regardless of how confident the team is in Lewis, Miller or who ever, they still have to sign a closer to mitigate the risk associated with using an unproven pitcher at closer.

The main reason I'm hesitant to totally endorse Hoffman is the mess with Borowski last year. I think if you were to remove that experience I might have a different view. It almost seems insulting to compare Hoffman to Borowski, but the risk of injury or fatigue is (was) there for both of them. Both were nearing the end of their careers, although Hoffman obviously has more of a reputation (that's an understatement). Both entered free agency after having a good year, where Borowski posted a 3.75 ERA and 36 saves with Florida. Plus there's the whole speech I made about not taking such a big risk at closer. I'm just not sure how to properly represent the degree of risk (if it were strictly financial this would be easy) associated with Hoffman right now.

Several of the top free agent closers have their own baggage as well. Kerry Wood’s injury history is well known. Fuentes may end up not being much better than Hoffman, but will probably cost a lot more for longer. Even Rodriguez has questions regarding his velocity and endurance at this stage of his career.

The bottom line for any closer is earning the save and Hoffman did that as well or better than any of the other free agents I just mentioned. Hoffman’s 86.7 save percentage matches up well with Rodriguez (89.8%), Fuentes (88.2%), and Wood (85.0%) in 2008 (a down year for Hoffman and a career year for everyone else, what does that tell you?). In that regard, Hoffman may end up as the best value on the relief market this year (seriously, K-Rod is going to end up with a fat, long term contract somewhere and he was only slightly more efficient at doing his job than Hoffman last year).

I have no idea how high Hoffman is on Shapiro’s white board. Based on what I know about Hoffman's health and effectiveness compared to other top closers last season, I would feel comfortable signing him. I know Cleveland wants to move quickly on locking up a closer if possible, so they can allocate funds towards settling the infield. If the price for Fuentes or Wood becomes too steep, Hoffman will quickly become the most appealing free agent for the Tribe.