Yesterday, I took a look at the Yankees in-house options for the 2011 starting rotation. Today, I'll take a look at the remaining free-agent options. MLB Trade Rumors' Free Agent Tracker lists 22 remaining starting pitchers. Among that lot are Andy Pettitte, who doesn't appear to becoming back, Carl Pavano, who is not welcome back and is reportedly close to returning to the Twins, and Jamie Moyer, who will miss all of the 2011 season following Tommy John surgery (but, thrillingly, is planning to return at age 49 in 2012).
Of the remaining 19, three didn't pitch in 2010: Pedro Martinez, Jarrod Washburn, and Braden Looper.
Looper looks finished at 36. He posted a 5.22 ERA for the Brewers in 2009 and wasn't offered a major league contract that winter. He threw for the Cubs in April, but wasn't signed and there's been no news on him since. In his three years as a starter in the National League Central from 2007 to 2009, he posted a 4.78 ERA (89 ERA+), 1.38 WHIP, and 1.84 K/BB due to a weak 4.7 K/9.
Washburn, also 36, had knee surgery in late October 2009, but despite expecting to be recovered in time for Spring Training, he failed to land a contract over the winter and ultimately opted to sit the season out. He's recently drawn interest from the Brewers and was a pitcher the Yankees often expressed interest in trading for but never actually did. If he can return to his old form, he'll be a league-average starter with a weak strikeout rate who is likely to miss a few starts due to a random injury, but that's probably his best-case scenario.
Martinez is now 39, and the last two games he pitched were World Series losses at Yankee Stadium in 2009. He made just nine regular season starts in 2009 and just five in 2007 and hasn't qualified for the ERA title since 2005. Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes recently put the chances of another Pedro comeback at 30 percent. The best-case scenario for Pedro is likely another late-season comeback with a contender rather than an attempt to hold up over 30-plus starts. More likely, we'll next hear from him when he's inducted into the Hall of Fame with Randy Johnson in 2015.
Of the other 16 free agent starting pitchers who actually did pitch in the major leagues in 2010, two have been rumored to have drawn the Yankees' interest of late:
Jeremy Bonderman: Taking the list alphabetically, with Brian Bannister a newly-minted member of the Tokyo Giants, Bonderman comes first. I understand why the Yankees are interested. Bonderman was a first-round pick out of high school in 2001 (famouslycausing Billy Beane to sacrifice a chair when his head scout made such an unscientific pick). Traded to the Tigers in the deal that brought Jeff Weaver to the Yankees, Bonderman lost 19 games for the 119-loss 2003 Tigers at the age of 20, but three years later, at the age of 23, he posted a 112 ERA+ and 3.16 K/BB for the pennant-winning Tigers. Bonderman looked ready to make the leap into the company of the league's elite pitchers heading into 2007, but elbow troubles crept up in the second half of that season and shoulder problems in 2008 turned out to be thoracic outlet compression syndrome, which required season-ending surgery, the recovery from which limited him to one start and a handful of September relief appearances in 2009.
Last year was his first fully-healthy season since 2006, but he in no way resembled the pitcher he was at 23. His player comment from the 2010 Baseball Prospectus annual explains things pretty clearly:
Looking back to 2006-07, Bonderman lived and died by his slider. It was his best pitch, and he threw it something like a third of the time. That's a lot—there are quite literally no pitchers who throw sliders more often than that. Some pitches are inherently harder on the arm than others—curves, screwballs, sliders, split-fingers, even spitballs from the Deadball Era—and pitchers who rely on them too heavily tend to have just a couple of years of dominance before the damage catches up to them. It isn't clear from Bonderman's struggles [prior to 2010] whether he's still injured but fixable, or healthy and permanently damaged, but the strong likelihood is that he'll never be able to throw the slider that well or that often ever again. That seems likely to make him just another pitcher, and not a particularly good one.
Indeed, Bonderman struck out just 5.9 men per nine innings in 2010, gave up 25 home runs in 171 innings, and posted a 5.53 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. That wasn't rust. He was significantly worse in the second half, and most of his balls in play are now in the air, which suggests that poor home run rate would only get worse in the new Yankee Stadium. The problem was only partly due to the reduced effectiveness of his slider, which he still threw 30 percent of the time with decent results, even if it isn't the pitch it once was. He has also lost more than three miles per hour off his fastball, the average speed of which dipped below 90 miles per hour. If that sounds too much like the 2010 version of Javier Vazquez for your liking, you're not alone. The Yankees have a low requirement for outside help. They just need a pitcher who will be better than Sergio Mitre. At this point in his career, I don't think Bonderman can even clear that bar.
Jeff Francis: The ninth-overall pick in the 2002 draft out of the University of British Columbia, this Canadian lefty looked like one of the more compelling young pitchers in the game when he emerged as the ace of the surprising, pennant-winning Rockies in 2007. That year, the 26-year-old combined a strong groundball rate with a career-high 6.9 K/9 to post a 114 ERA+ and 2.62 K/BB. He wasn't a potential Cy Young award winner (though he did get a misplaced vote that year), but he looked like a solid number-two in the making, and Baseball Prospectus called him one of the top 15 starters in the National League. Then, in 2008, his shoulder began to ache, and in February 2009 he went under the knife for season-erasing labrum surgery.
Francis staged a solid comeback last year, returning in mid-May and posting a 2.91 K/BB and a career-best groundball rate despite missing some time down the stretch with tendonitis in his post-surgery shoulder. Those were encouraging signs that would make the 30-year-old southpaw worth a gamble for a pitching-strapped team like the Yankees, particularly one looking to keep the ball on the ground in a homer-happy home ballpark. Of course, per Jon Heyman, the Yankees are just one of several teams interested in Francis, which means he might actually be able to demand a respectable major league contract, but as an alternative to Mitre, he might be worth a few million on a one-year deal, perhaps with an option thrown in.
I'll take a look at the other 14 men on the market in my next post . . .