Roy Oswalt, Potential Steal

A few minutes ago, Buster Olney tweeted out a note that the asking prices on free agent pitchers is on the way down, specifically naming Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, and Roy Oswalt. In the message, he noted that Oswalt is said to be asking for $8 million on a one year contract, where he hopes to prove he’s healthy, re-establish his value, and land a raise next winter.

At $8 million for one year, the line for Roy Oswalt should be out the door. I’d venture to go so far as to argue that any contender with enough money to spend is wasting a potential golden opportunity by letting him sit out on the market any longer. At that price, Oswalt might just be the biggest bargain of the winter.

There seem to be a few factors conspiring to drive down Oswalt’s pricetag, but all of them are related to questions about his health. Last year, he was limited to just 139 innings due to lingering back problems that landed him on the disabled list a couple of times. He also saw his average fastball velocity decline from 92.6 MPH to 91.4 MPH, and saw his strikeout rate drop from 23.1% to 15.7%. These kinds of declines are often evidence of health problems and cause for concern going forward.

But, in this case, I think those concerns are generally overblown. We know Oswalt was hurt, so we shouldn’t be overly surprised to find evidence of diminished performance while he was fighting back problems. Back problems can certainly linger, and this could come back to affect his performance in 2012 as well, but we can’t ignore the fact that Oswalt ended the season as a healthy pitcher who looked every bit as good as he had earlier in his career.

Here’s Oswalt’s Pitch F/x velocity chart for the last few seasons:

After spending his career sitting in the 90-95 range, he was more regularly 88-92 in the first part of last season. His diminished velocity corresponds directly to his two stints on the disabled list, and it’s pretty obvious that they are directly related. Now, however, notice the massive upward spike at the end of the season, after he returned from his second break of the season. During September, his average fastball returned to his previous career norms, even topping 95 in his final start of the regular season – something he hadn’t done since the middle of the 2010 season.

As the stuff came back, so did the results. Here are his monthly splits from last season:

Mar/Apr 6.50% 19.40% 0.247 3.66
May 3.80% 10.00% 0.358 4.09
Jun 6.70% 10.90% 0.301 4.92
Aug 4.20% 17.00% 0.402 3.78
Sept/Oct 5.90% 18.30% 0.282 3.57

Before his back problems began in May, his velocity was normal and his K% was 19.4%. In September, when he was healthy enough to pitch again, his velocity was normal and his K% was 18.3%. While these numbers are both lower than his strikeout rate from 2010, they’re perfectly in line with his performances in prior years. If anything, it’s the 2010 K% that stands out as the fluke.

There’s not much in his 2011 performance that suggests a healthy Oswalt took any real step backwards as a pitcher. When he was throwing at normal velocity, he was still pitching at a the level of a +3 to +4 win pitcher, and that was the type of ability he was showing when the season ended.

The back problems and age mean that you probably don’t project him for more than 150 or 160 innings next year, with anything a team gets beyond that being a bonus. But, even in that kind of quantity, Oswalt could still easily be a +3 win pitcher. There just aren’t that many starters in baseball who can strike out three times as many batters as they walk, get an above average number of ground balls, and pitch effectively against hitters from both sides of the plate.

Oswalt might not be a 200 inning workhorse anymore, but there’s still a lot of value in getting 25 high quality starts and having him as an option for your playoff rotation. And, let’s be honest, in today’s baseball economy, $8 million just isn’t all that much money. That’s just a few million more than what Paul Maholm got from the Cubs. That kind of money needed multiple guaranteed years attached to sign mediocre outfielders like Josh Willingham and Jason Kubel.

On a one year deal for that price, it’s hard to see teams being able to get a better expected return on investment than they would from signing Oswalt. Unless teams have an MRI of his back that shows his spinal cord is twisted into a pretzel, Oswalt looks poised to be one of the biggest bargains of the off-season.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

35 Responses to “Roy Oswalt, Potential Steal”

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  1. Kyle says:

    Could not agree more.

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  2. corvelay says:

    I never thought I would say this but someone really has to introduce this man to Scott Boras.

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  3. dan woytek says:

    Even to a non-contender, Oswalt seems worth it just for the trade value? Is he the type of pitcher who, when he reaches free agency would garner a compensatory pick under the new CBA?

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      You’d have to make a qualifying offer of ~$12 million for next season in order to get compensation. If he pitches really well and is in line for a two or three year deal, then you can probably assume he’d pass that up to get 3/24 or something, but I don’t think you can count on getting compensation picks if he walks at year’s end.

      But, yeah, any team could probably benefit from signing him. Even if you’re not a contender, you pay him $4 million to make your club better for the first half of the season, then ship him off to a winner in July for a prospect.

      In fact, if I’m Oswalt, I wouldn’t be all that motivated to sign with a contender. He’d have to know that he’s trade-bait come this summer if his team isn’t winning, so no matter who he signs with, he’ll probably end the year in a pennant race. If he picks his first half team by focusing on organizations with big parks and good defenses, he could set himself up for a nice paycheck the following year and still likely pitch for a winner in the final two months of the season.

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      • schlomsd says:

        Perfect fit for the Padres although with their ownership concerns and history I doubt they would spend $8m on Oswalt even though they should.

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      • DD says:

        If he’s traded mid-season, he cannot earn picks for the acquiring team.

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      • Jon says:

        He can’t earn compensatory draft picks, but the team that trades him can get something in return. If Oswalt is even close to what he was before and he has an option for 2013, the return in prospects should be good.

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  4. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    who could use a one year rental at Oswalt’s price though? bad teams are going to want to play as many youngsters as their roster permits. The contending teams have strong rotations already in place for the most par

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  5. Brad Johnson says:

    I’d like to see just about any team sign Oswalt to that contract. My jaw basically dropped. Even if you expect 120 IP out of him, it’s hard to imagine he can’t hit 2 WAR.

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  6. Krog says:

    For $8 million every team in the league should be leaping to sign Oswalt. The A’s paid $10 million for Ben Sheets’ corpse a few years ago. They could certainly afford Oswalt and with the trades they could use more starting pitching.

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  7. Neil says:

    Any team should want to sign him, it’s doubtful Oswalt would sign with any team.

    The Royals would be a great team to get him. He could help the young staff learn how to pitch in a pennant race.

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  8. NEPP says:

    Hell, I’d give Oswalt that much to pay for my softball team. Its insane that his price has dropped this far.

    The Phillies should move heaven and earth to dump Blanton and sign Oswalt instead.

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    • Phils_Goodman says:

      The Phillies should move heaven and earth to dump Blanton and sign Oswalt instead.

      I’ve been hoping for this all off-season. If someone would be willing to take around half of Blanton’s salary, it could work out for both sides.

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  9. Josh says:

    Why is everyone assuming that GMs all of a sudden became prudent in the course of one offseason? Why is no one mentioning the magic word, “collusion”?

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    • Josh says:

      This must be the first offseason in history that every Boras is getting completely hosed. He went from getting Werth at least $30 million over market value to settling(when was the last time Boras ever settled?) for a 1 year deal for Madson and having his other marquee clients all unsigned and looking like they will get way under the asking price. I believe there is a small, not insignificant chance of collusion against at least Boras clients. Werth happened and everyone said enough is enough

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    • chuckb says:

      Why would they collude against signing Oswalt to a 1 year, $8 M contract after “allowing” Pujols to leave St. Louis for $250 M?

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      • Josh says:

        So one big contract disproves the collusion theory? Collusion has to occur in 100% of the market for it to be happening? It’s inconceivable for it to be happening in a targeted section of the market(i.e. Boras clients)?

        Please come back when you have something to contribute that checks in above an elementary level of logical thinking

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      • wat says:

        Come back when you figure out who players fucking agents are.

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    • wat says:

      What are they colluding against? Fucking Bob Garber clients? Potential injury hazards?

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  10. jesse says:

    with Pineda headed to NY, Oswalt would make a nice slot in Sea with the big park and would be nice to add a veteran to a young Sea sqaud, and with the prattle about Sea making a run at Fielder its not like they have the purse strings tied tight.

    They could take Oswalt to stay competive early in the year and then flip him for a prospect in july. Boom #6ORG’d

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      Basically every team in a pitching-friendly park that’s in rebuilding mode that is hoarding prospects could use him. Oakland, Seattle, and San Diego all seem like great places for him. His numbers look great and then he gets traded for a nice prospect package, then he gets a big raise after helping out a contender. It’d be win/win/win for the rebuilding team, the contending team, and Oswalt.

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  11. There were some brief rumors that the Twins may offer 2/17.

    I’ll believe it when I see it, though.

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  12. Will says:

    The part of this article comparing Oswalt’s cost to that of hitters like Willingham and Kubel seems to overlook the recent downward trend in runs scored ( Due to a combination of factors,, there are just less good hitters out there right now (especially in the NL), driving up the value of reliable-but-not-amazing hitters like Willingham, Kubel, or Cuddyer.

    Meanwhile, the relative value of reliable #3-5 starters seems to have gone done a little. With the drop off in scoring, teams are finding they can man those slots with less heralded guys – that they don’t have to pay big name veteran free agents to fill out the rest of their rotations. So a guy like Oswalt – one of the better, more reliable NL starters over the last decade – doesn’t command the premium he might have if he were a FA his age 5-6 years ago. Does that theory make sense?

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