Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pavano Adds Cheap Depth to Tribe Rotation

I had a hunch Cleveland was going to make at least one more signing with whatever meager funds the front office could scrape together. Fortunately, the final signing was prefaced by the general manager stating “the lion's share of our resources have been committed,” so I knew not to get my hopes up. Still, Shapiro is one of the best around at identifying low risk, high reward players, stretching every available dollar, so something had to be up. Who will Shap’s rehab project be in 2009?

Cleveland fans, meet your new left fielder…..Sammy Sosa!

No, just kidding (sorry to anyone who just did a spit-take onto their monitor). Seriously though, Carl Pavano? I know the front office is basically broke at this point, but if we had a significant hole to fill couldn’t we have traded for someone? Please? Oh well, I guess Scott Boras doesn’t accept coupons.

Obviously, I’m not thrilled with this signing, partly because it’s such a crap shoot as to whether Pavano will be effective enough to justify even using him in the rotation. The last time King Carl (apparently this is the moniker Yankee fans bestowed upon him, very distinguished) made at least ten starts in the Major Leagues was when he managed to toss 100 innings over 17 starts with a 4.77 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 2005. That was by far the most productive season New York wrung out of Pavano during his four year, $38 million contract (your turn, Burnett). Here is Pavano’s body of work over four seasons with New York, not including his minor league rehab starts:

2005 17 100.0 4.77 1.47 3.11 1.53 1.59
2007 2 11.1 4.76 1.24 2.00 0.79 1.29
2008 7 34.1 5.77 1.49 1.50 1.31 0.96

I’m not sure why I bothered to add any extra peripherals to the table, since the sample size is either too small or nonexistent for the past three seasons. I’d say the lack of substantial innings from 2006 to 2008 sums up Pavano’s performance as well as anything. Despite enduring a stretch that would have ended the career of most pitchers, Pavano managed to get healthy enough to net a new contract. It seems like Pavano’s mini-comeback over seven starts from August 23 to September 25 played heavily into Shapiro’s decision to choose him over the likes of Mark Mulder, Bartolo Colon, and Freddy Garcia.

Mulder is still trying to get healthy (1.7 IP in 2008) and has struggled with his health just as much as Pavano lately. Colon gave Boston some solid emergency starts, but was back in the minors rehabbing by mid-June. I watched Garcia’s September start against Chicago and his pitches did not look Major League ready, even after rehab. In terms of cheap starting pitchers returning from injuries, Pavano really was the best bet.

Shapiro provided his take on Pavano’s recent activity in an interview on the team’s website:

"This is not a guy you're guessing is going to come back. He made seven starts [in August and September] last year, with no problems. He's in great shape right now. He's strong, fit and highly motivated."

I can understand the potential Shapiro saw based on those seven starts. Again, small sample size, but let’s take a closer look at those starts for lack of better information:

Team IP ER H BB HR K Strike % GB/FB
at BAL 5.0 3 7 1 0 5 59.3 2.25
TOR 6.0 1 3 1 0 1 58.3 0.3
at TBR 4.0 3 1 2 1 1 59.4 0.62
at LAA 5.1 5 6 1 2 2 62.1 0.87
TBR 5.1 3 5 2 1 3 61.0 1.42
BAL 5.0 2 6 1 0 2 64.3 1.28
at TOR 3.2 5 8 2 1 1 59.4 1.66

Pavano’s best and only quality start came against Toronto when he posted 1 ER, 3 H, 1 BB, and 1 K over 6 innings. He did manage to provide at least five innings of work in five of the seven starts, but with mixed results. Pavano’s numbers indicate a pretty bland performance, averaging 10.7 hits and 2.6 walks per nine innings with an ERA of 5.77. His other peripherals are much more interesting though.

Even though he averaged over a hit per inning, Pavano improved the percent of pitches he threw for strikes over his first six starts (59.3% to 64.3%). The fact that Pavano was not afraid to attack the zone and stuck to his game plan suggests he at least has some confidence back. Second, according to FanGraphs, Pavano’s O-Swing % of 27.0% (percent of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) and F-Strike % of 55.8% (percent of first pitches thrown for a strike) are stronger than they were in his 2005 season with New York.

Again, the F-Strike % suggests Pavano is willing to be aggressive and attack hitters; good news for a pitcher who tends to rely on location and control to get outs. Unfortunately there isn’t any Pitch f/x data available for Pavano (too few pitches), but if he’s causing batters to swing at his pitches outside the zone at a fair clip I think it’s safe to assume his pitches have some decent life. If Pavano has re-worked his stuff to the point that he can fool batters consistently again, his lack of velocity becomes less of a concern (for comparison, Pavano’s average fastball velocity of 87.9 MPH is over 2 mph faster than Paul Byrd’s).

The renewed life on Pavano’s pitches and his aggressive nature are probably what Shapiro was referring to when he cited those seven starts. Shapiro also has a point in citing Pavano’s motivation to succeed in 2009. If this guy has any pride at all (athletes at this level usually do), he’ll be working his butt off to prove everyone (especially New York) wrong. The tools to achieve modest success are there, but Pavano’s health is going to have the final say no matter what.

Performance aside, I really can’t argue with the way Pavano’s contract is structured. Pavano’s one year contract guarantees him $1.5 million with another $5.3 million locked up in performance incentives. His incentives package is broken down by starts and innings, as described by Cot’s:

Starts: $0.1M each for 18, 20, 22; $0.2M each for 26, 28; $0.25M for 30; $0.3M for 32; $0.35M each for 33, 34; $0.4M for 35

Innings: $0.1M each for 130, 140, 150; $0.15M each for 160, 170; $0.2M for 180; $0.25M each for 190, 200, 210; $0.3M for 215; $0.4M for 225; $0.5M for 235

An easier way of reading it is if Pavano starts 20 games and averages 6 innings per start, he will earn an extra $0.1 million. If he were to average 6.5 innings over the same 20 starts, he’d earn just $0.2 million. Thirty starts (!) at 5.5 innings per and he’d earn $1.2 million in incentives.

Even if Pavano exceeds all expectations and starts 20 games for Cleveland, they’ll only be paying him about $1.6 million for his services. There’s a remote chance Pavano makes even 10-15 starts this season, but if there’s any chance that Cleveland could get some quality innings out of Pavano then it’s worth betting the $1.5 mil to see what happens. Many fans are comparing Pavano’s deal to the one-year contract Kevin Millwood had in 2005, but I don’t see much similarity beyond the structure of their contracts.

Millwood was guaranteed $3 million with up to $4 million in incentives, most of which focused on his ability to stay healthy (he would have lost money for each day spent on the DL). Millwood more than earned his keep that year by posting a 2.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 2.80 K/BB ratio over 192 IP. In addition to mentoring Sabathia and Lee on the finer points of pitching, Millwood finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting and won the AL ERA title. Plus, Millwood had averaged 34.5 starts, 219.5 IP, and a 114 ERA+ from 2002-2003 before succumbing to injury in 2004 and had a more reliable track record than Pavano ever did.

Cleveland is taking a shot in the dark with Pavano, since no one can draw any kind of reasonable conclusion as to whether he’ll be effective or healthy enough to even hold down a spot in the rotation. Shapiro has gone on record saying if Pavano is healthy, he will be guaranteed a spot in the rotation on Opening Day. What type of pitcher will show up in April is anybody’s guess, but I’m hoping for at least $1 million worth of quality innings until Westbrook is 100% healthy again. I have a feeling the Indians aren’t hoping for much more than that either. I suppose if Pavano can’t make it until July (Westbrook’s projected return), Plan B would be to see if one of the plethora of rookies sticks as a temporary starter.

I still have an uneasy feeling about Cleveland’s rotation, not unlike how I felt when Borowski was designated closer at the beginning of last season. There are just too many “ifs” involved right now. Lee can’t be expected to carry the rotation on his back all season, even after an outstanding Cy Young campaign. If anything, Cleveland should be vigilant about Lee’s workload and pitch action after he threw a career high 223.3 innings (Lee is also aware of this issue, ensuring extra training/recovery time by skipping the WBC).

Meanwhile, the 24-year old Carmona spent most of 2008 trying to get back on track after enduring a hangover from the 215 innings he logged in his sophomore season. I feel that Carmona’s ability to return to form is the key to Cleveland’s rotation this season, even more so than Lee. There’s little reason to think Lee won’t live up to his ace status with another strong season (even with the typical regression), but there is a lot of pressure on Carmona to bounce back and be a legitimate number two starter.

I really like Anthony Reyes’ upside, but he started just six games with Cleveland after a couple of rough seasons in St. Louis. Six starts is not a lot to go on, so it seems Cleveland is banking on his potential to breakout at age 26 in his new surroundings.

Aaron Laffey (93.7 IP, 105 ERA+) and Jeremy Sowers (121 IP, 80 ERA+) both struggled in Cleveland last season, although Sowers did bounce back in Buffalo with a 2.08 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 2.52 K/BB ratio over 60.2 innings (when has he not bounced back in Buffalo though?). Scott Lewis (4 GS, 24 IP) and Zach Jackson (16 GS, 92 IP) have limited experience as ML starters. Twenty three year old David Huff rounds out the group of young southpaws with a strong 2008 season in AAA, but no ML experience. There are no signs of Cleveland deviating from their plan to convert Adam Miller into a full-time bullpen arm, so he won’t be available as a starter in 2009.

I realize the five pitchers I just named are mostly under consideration for one rotation spot, although I would consider Pavano’s spot wide open as well. My point is that no one behind Lee and Carmona can truly be counted on to a.) pitch effectively for most of the season b.) stay healthy or c.) not pitch like a rookie who is in way over his head. Maybe I’m just being paranoid about the Tribe’s pitching after having to suffer through the heinous nightmare that was the 2008 bullpen. In my pessimistic opinion though, the starting rotation could be this year’s Achilles heel.

Fun Fact:

After the C.C. Sabathia trade on July 7, Cleveland finished the season with a 44-30 record (.594 WP), including a 10 game winning streak from August 17-27. A .594 WP on the season would have qualified for the AL wild card.

No comments: