Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

The importance of Home grown Starting Pitching


Clay Buchholz provided the best Wins/salary in the majors last year. Photo

A few weeks back si’s Tom Verducci posted an article discussing the value of starters over closers.  One of the points that he made in the article related to the general fact that Ace Starters are more likely to be with the same team that developed them than being free agent acquisitions in the modern game.  In Verducci’s article, he analyzed the 20 best pitchers by ERA from last season and found that 13 of them are still with their original organization.  Furthermore, 10 of them were first round draft picks.

Modern baseball teams are being built more and more through the draft.  Last year’s World Series champions San Francisco featured 4 home grown starters, each of whom would slot in as the best or 2nd best pitcher on most every other rotation in the league.  Tampa Bay rode a slew of home-grown (and cheap!) starters to the 2nd best record in Baseball over the past 3 years.  And now we clearly see Mike Rizzo trying to build up his starting pitcher cache in the minors through mid-season trades and a focus on pitching in the past couple drafts.

I thought I’d take this point a bit further, as it relates to a topic that I have found more and more fascinating.  The New York Yankees and their $200M payroll struggled to find starting pitching in the off season and are now essentially conducting tryouts in spring training for the #4 and #5 starter spots in their rotation.  How did they find themselves in this predicament?  The answer is thus; it has been years since they developed a home-grown Ace starter.  Their best pitcher (CC Sabathia) was a (very) expensive Free Agent, their 2nd best a home grown rookie (Phil Hughes) and their third best (AJ Burnett) another pricey free agent.  Arguably it has been since either Chien-Ming Wang or possibly Andy Pettitte that the Yankees have developed a starter worthy of mention.  Now, the Yankees have certainly bought themselves a whole lot of offense that will mask their weaknesses in the rotation, but the fact remains that they could easily miss the playoffs in 2011 despite their payroll if the first three members of their rotation do not pitch well.

Lets look at the “Aces” in baseball, and take a look at their acquisition methods and their contract status.  Here, “Home Grown” means the team that developed the pitcher, not necessarily the team that drafted him.  When prospects get traded, I credit the acquiring team for developing and delivering the player to the majors.

  • Home Grown: Johnson, Hamels, Wainwright, Jimenez, Lincecum, Cain, Lester, Buchholz, Price, Verlander, Liriano, Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver.
  • Free Agent Acquisition: Halladay, Lee, Carpenter, Sabathia.
  • Trade Acquisition: Oswalt, Santana, Greinke.

Of these 20 “Aces,” 13 are still with their developing organization.  Four Free Agent acquisitions for big money, and three traded Aces that cost their teams plenty (though in retrospect the Johan Santana trade isn’t looking that bad for the Mets).

Another side-point was Verducci’s findings that 10 of the top 20 pitchers by ERA last year were first rounders.  I find that piece of information really amazing, given the notorious “crapshoot” mentality of baseball Drafts.  Here’s a quick followup analysis of the Initial Acquisition method of my 20 “Aces” and determining draft or international free agent. Here, we’ll put “supplemental first rounders) into the “1st round” category.

  • Draft: 1st Rounder: Hamels, Halladay, Carpenter, Wainwright, Greinke, Lincecum, Cain, Buchholz, Price, Sabathia, Verlander, Jered Weaver.
  • Draft: top 5 rounds: Johnson (4th), Lee (4th), Lester (2nd).
  • Draft: 6th round or later: Oswalt (23rd).
  • International Free Agents: Santana, Jimenez, Liriano, Felix Hernandez.

So by my analysis, 12 of the best 20 pitchers in the game were first round picks.  Only Oswalt looks like a complete diamond in the rough find.  For all the talk about how the draft is a crap shoot (hey, Albert Pujols was a 13th round pick), it really seems apparent that these first rounders paid off handsomely.

Here’s one more look; of the 13 “home grown” aces, lets look at their current contract status.  All data per Cot’s fantastic salary database site.

  • Johnson: 4 years/$39M (2010-13)
  • Hamels: 3 years/$20.5M (2009-11), but he has a 4th arbitration year in 2012.
  • Wainwright: 4 years/$15M (2008-11), plus 2012, 2013 club options (this contract is in complete peril though, since the club can terminate at the end of 2011 when Wainwright is on the DL.  That essentially kills $21M guaranteed to Wainwright in 2012 and 2013.  Tough, tough break for the player).
  • Jimenez: 4 years/$10M (2009-12), plus 2013-14 club options (the club options are very reasonable for an Ace)
  • Lincecum: 2 years/$23M (2010-11), but these are just his first two arbitration years.  Two more to go to take him through 2013.
  • Cain: 3 years/$27.25M (2010-12)
  • Lester: 5 years/$30M (2009-13), plus 2014 club option
  • Buchholz: 1yr/$480K (est): Still on a pre-arbitration contract, possibly the best value in baseball right now.  Controlled through 2014 by the Red Sox.
  • Price: 6 years/$8.5M (2007-12).  Wait, actually THIS may be the best deal in baseball, since Buchholz will probably garner a massive first-year arbitration award in 2012 just as Price’s 6 year deal ends.  However, Price can void the contract and file for arbitration as soon as he becomes eligible, presumably for the 2012 season.
  • Verlander: 5 years/$80M (2010-14)
  • Liriano: 1 year/$4.3M (2011).  Still in his arbitration years, under club control through 2012.
  • Felix Hernandez: 5 years/$78M (2010-14)
  • Jered Weaver: 1 year/$7.37M (2011).  He lost his arbitration hearing this year after going “only” 13-12 but leading the league in strikeouts and coming in 5th in Cy Young voting.  Under club control through 2012.

And, adding in the non-home grown players for a complete picture of the future Ace starter FA market:

  • Halladay: 3 years/$60M (2011-13), plus 2014 option
  • Lee: 5 years/$120M (2011-15), plus 2016 option
  • Carpenter: 5 years/$63.5M (2007-11), plus 2012 club option
  • Sabathia: 7 years/$161M (2009-15) but he can opt out after the 2011 season
  • Oswalt: 5 years/$73M (2007-11), plus 2012 club option
  • Santana: 6 years/$137.5M (2008-13), plus 2014 club option
  • Greinke: 4 years/$38M (2009-12)

So, here’s a quick summary of when these Aces may hit the FA market:

  • After 2011: Wainwright (but he’ll be post-TJ surgery), Sabathia (probably)
  • After 2012: Cain, Liriano, Weaver, Oswalt, Carpenter, Greinke, Hamels
  • After 2013: Johnson, Lincecum, Santana (probably)
  • 2014 or Beyond : Jimenez, Lester, Buchholz, Price, Verlander, Hernandez, Halladay, Lee

Notice how teams are locking up these Ace pitchers for the long haul.  We’re likely to have perhaps just an injury reclamation project in Adam Wainwright and opt-out 100% certain to return to the Yankees Sabathia as the sole major  free agent candidates this coming off season.  I’ve read differing opinions on whether or not Sabathia opts out of his contract (he’d be abandoning $92M of guaranteed pay over 4 years) but I’d be surprised (shocked actually) if he did NOT opt out, especially if he has a third consecutive year of similar production to his first two for the Yankees.  You would have to think he could easily merit a contract north of Cliff Lee’s $24M/year for 7 additional years.  7yrs/$170M or so.

Lastly, lets look at the 8 playoff teams from last  year and investigate how many of their starters were home grown:

  • Giants: 4 of 5 homegrown (Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Bumgarner).  1 FA in Zito
  • Rangers: 3 of 5 home grown (Wilson, Hunter, Feldman), 1 trade acquisition (Lee), and one FA (Lewis)
  • Yankees: 1 home grown (Hughes) and 4 Free Agents (Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, Vazquez)
  • Phillies: 1 home grown (Hamels), 3 traded acquisitions (Halladay, Oswalt, Blanton) one FA (Moyer).
  • Rays: 4 home grown (Sheilds, Neiman, Price, Davis) one trade acquisition (Garza)
  • Twins: 3 home grown (Baker, Blackburn, Slowey) one FA (Pavano) and one trade acquisition (Liriano).
  • Braves: 3 home grown (Hanson, Jurrgens, Medlen/Minor), one FA (Lowe), one trade acquisition (Hudson)
  • Reds: 3 home grown (Leake, Bailey/Wood, Cueto), two trade acquisitions (Arroyo and Harang).

Six of the Eight playoff team used rotations that were mostly home grown.  Most of the trade acquisitions here were trading of prospects (either the acquiring team using prospects to acquire a proven Vet, as with Hudson, or the acquiring team acquiring and developing the player, as with Garza).

What is the lesson, after all this analysis?  Draft well, develop well, and then lock down your Aces for the long haul.  That is the pathway to success.  There are some exceptions of course (the Phillies have acquired 2 Aces by leveraging their very good farm system depth, and still have enough lower-level depth to rank among the best farm systems in baseball.  And the Yankees of course have bought themselves a good portion of their team).  But looking at the playoff teams last year, most of them were draft-heavy on starters.

Coincidentally; the Nats 2011 rotation by way of comparison?  2 drafted (Lannan, Zimmermann), 2 FAs (Livan and Marquis) and one trade acquisition candidate (Gorzelanny).  This would look far better of course if we were using two key drafted/developed players (Strasburg, Detwiler or even Maya).

Here’s hoping that the Nats’ higher-end starting pitcher draft picks (Strasburg, Zimmermann Solis, Cole, and Detwiler) become the core of our rotation for years to come.

5 Responses to 'The importance of Home grown Starting Pitching'

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  1. The Rays can now field a completely home grown rotation. And then some. They just might move Jimmy Shields (Nats?) for that reason. They will be interesting to watch this year … perhaps one of the more interesting teams given their enviable position in the 2011 draft with 11 top picks! The unfortunate thing for their very canny and talented front office: they truly do have a dirt cheap owner who constantly whines about his small market. Will they draft for sign-ability or will their owner allow them laissez faire for this draft. If he’s smart he will let his excellent front office pick who they want no matter the cost.


    11 Mar 11 at 6:09 pm

  2. I learned quite a bit about Tampa while visiting a friend in the area last summer. The stadium is more or less inaccessible for most of the area that the team would draw from (the whole of the Northern Tampa suburbs, south tampa’s up and coming area, and the eastern suburbs) and the stadium experience isn’t that great. But, they have like the 3rd or 4th best TV ratings of any team in the league. So they have lots of fans but they watch at home and don’t show up at the stadium. Interesting. They still worry about relocation and the weekend I was in town an article highlighted some of the competing areas that might tempt the team (the usual suspects; Vegas, Portland, San Antonio/Austin, etc).

    From a team perspective, I have a feeling they’ll struggle out of the gate b/c of the lost offense and may become major sellers. Shields and Neimman both were really kinda just mediocre last year but would fare much better in the NL. Cardinals? Phillies? A team that picks up an injury? They throw Sonnanstine and Hellickson into the rotation and go young. They also have another really good starter in AAA named De Los Santos who was 14-5 there last year that they could give a shot to, even if they traded both guys.

    Todd Boss

    11 Mar 11 at 8:25 pm

  3. You forgot Jake McGee who probably could also be in that rotation and was a terrific starter in their minor league system.

    I think they’ll have plenty of offensive fire power this year … and they have the chips to trade for what they need if the don’t!

    Their two infield corners are rock solid with Ramirez and Longoria. Damon can really help this team in the outfield. Brignac and Desmond Jennings bring youth and a lot of upside offensively as well as defensively. Upton and Zobrist are still young enough to have upside as well after an off year for him offensively. Both can hit 20-30 homers.

    Don’t count Tampa out yet!


    12 Mar 11 at 12:06 am

  4. I think McGee almost certainly is their 8th inning guy, groomed to be the closer. What an electric arm though. If he does go into the rotation (and I think big time arms like Feliz, McGee, even Clippard and Storen are far more valuable as starters than relievers, as posted here) you are right, they’ll be vastly improved. I was curious how Tampa is treating McGee; here’s their spring training pitching stats. He’s only gotten 4ip in 2 weeks, definitely not being stretched out. Plus Sonnanstine and Davis aren’t looking good at all.

    I’ve got a big-time NY Yankees fan as a friend and we talk about NY vs Tampa all the time. I did a comparison position by position of Tampa and they’re downgrading at so many positions it is really hard to believe they’ll win 90 games. Here’s a cut-n-paste of that email:

    Changes from 2010 to 2011:
    – From Carlos Pena -> Dan Johnson at first; Pena batted near the mendoza line but hit homers. Dan Johnson did … basically the same. Offensive downgrade, probably defensive downgrade too.
    – From Jason Bartlett -> Reid Brignac; almost identical hitting middle infielders. Offensively a wash.
    – From Carl Crawford -> Johnny Damon; lose power, lose some speed on basepaths, lose defensive capability. Damon is more or less a singles hitter now but still a capable one. Crawford was a 5-tool beast. Desmond Jennings may be in the mix here as well. Either way, Offensive downgrade.
    – From a black hole of .200 hitters at DH -> Manny Ramirez; What a steal for the Rays. Look up Manny’s hititng last year; he’s still hitting at a 150 Ops+. Without worrying about playing the field he can focus on what he cares about. I’m betting he’s a monster at the plate. Huge Offensive upgrade here.

    – From Garza to Hellickson: Ironically Tampa’s rotation isn’t THAT great and Garza only pitched at about a league average last year. Hellickson is the minor league pitcher of the year and was 4-0 in 4 spot starts last year. They also may move their weakest link Shields at some point and bring up another good minor leaguer in De Los Santos (14-5 in AAA last year with similar numbers to Hellickson) since there’s so much demand for starters out there in the trade market. Still, losing Garza is a downgrade until Hellickson proves that he can continue where he left off. De Los Santos probably is an upgrade over Shields.

    – last year’s 7 were: Soriano (closer), Cormier, Benoit, Wheeler (setup), Choat (loogy), Balfour and Sonnanstine (longman/spot starter)
    – this year is looking like: Farnsworth (closer?), Peralta (setup), McGee (setup), Russell, JP Howell/Ekstrom, Ramos and Sonnenstine (longman)

    For me, too many downgrades position-by-position and the bullpen could be a disaster. I’d predict 88 wins and 3rd place in the AL East.

    Todd Boss

    12 Mar 11 at 8:20 am

  5. Never underestimate the effect of an awful stadium. The S.F Giants always had (for 30+ years) mediocre attendance and top tier TV ratings; then they build a great park and it’s almost sold out every game.

    Mark L

    12 Mar 11 at 9:34 am

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