Vicente Padilla: High Risk, Medium Reward

The Red Sox entered the 2011 season with high hopes of winning their third championship of the millennium. Best laid plans didn’t come to fruition as the events of that wild and wacky final day of the regular season kept them out of the playoffs entirely.

Their offense wasn’t to blame, as the Red Sox posted a league-leading .351 wOBA and 116 wRC+. Their bullpen led the junior circuit in WAR and FIP as well, while throwing 517.1 innings. That innings total was the second-highest in the league, indicative of their major problem area: the rotation.

While the Red Sox starting rotation wasn’t atrocious, it certainly didn’t live up to expectations. It posted the highest walk rate in the American League, and finished in the bottom third in all of ERA, FIP and SIERA. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester pitched well, as did Clay Buchholz over his 14 starts. Everyone else left much to be desired.

After seeing the Yankees eek solid seasons out of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, the Red Sox seem to be adopting a similar approach for the 2012 season. Instead of looking for major splashes, or even above average reinforcements like Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt, the Red Sox have signed Aaron Cook, and are currently engaged in talks with Vicente Padilla. Cook makes some sense, in spite of his recent struggles to stay on the mound, because he offers one of the best groundball rates in baseball when healthy, and averaged close to 4 WAR from 2006-08.

Padilla is another story, as he carries various forms of risk and has never really offered much reward. Minor league deals are almost never detrimental to the signing team, but expectations should be significantly tempered for Padilla, even if he somehow manages to stay healthy.

The idea behind signing a high risk pitcher is that he tends to offer something of value given a specific caveat. Either he hasn’t been healthy in recent years, or his performance has substantially dropped off after years of above average numbers. Teams take fliers on these types of players because they come cheap and, if healthy or under the right guidance, can turn in good years. Both descriptors apply to Colon and Garcia, who respectively tallied 2.9 and 2.2 WAR for the Yankees last season.

The same can’t be said of Padilla, who has thrown a mere 251 innings since 2009 with erratic numbers to boot. He isn’t an extreme groundballer and his strikeout and walk rates are tough to peg. He throws hard, and with a violent windup, but he is as likely to post respective K and BB rates of 5.3 and 3.2 as he is to post rates of 7.5 and 3.5. And those rates are irrespective of league, because his career hasn’t followed any type of predicable pattern. In fact, the only thing that can be said with any semblance of certainty given his recent history, is that Padilla is unlikely to throw 180-200 frames again, whether his time on the mound is cut short from health or performance struggles.

Padilla is also notorious for his reviled clubhouse presence. His Rangers teammates mostly despised his work ethic and attitude, and he didn’t exactly endear himself to anyone throughout his Phillies tenure either. Maybe the injuries have humbled him, and he has a new outlook on his career, but for someone whose upside is maybe 2 WAR, the same attitude can represent a material argument against a flier. He isn’t Milton Bradley-esque in off-the-field problems, but he also isn’t Bradley-esque from a production standpoint.

On the other hand, his career has tapered off so drastically that, even with incentives — should he get the call to the majors in the first place — he isn’t going to cost much this season. His upside might only be league average, but that has value, and on a deal approximating $1.5-$2 million max, including incentives, the Red Sox or any other interested party could conceivably eek out some value. That’s ultimately the beauty of minor league deals with spring training invitations: they don’t cost much, carry virtually no financial risk, and don’t even guarantee one full year at the major league level.

Padilla might be a head case and a volatile performer without much upside, but for the league minimum anything is worth a shot. It just seems strange for the Red Sox or any other team to target him when various other options carrying lesser risk with the potential for a similar reward, remain available.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

8 Responses to “Vicente Padilla: High Risk, Medium Reward”

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  1. Headhunter says:

    Don’t forget that Padilla is famous for plunking opposing players. Now in the AL he can do so without repercussions. Although, I’m sure Youk will have something to say about it once he gets one in his earhole after a Padilla HB.

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  2. word nerd says:

    “Eek” is what someone scared says when they see a mouse. “Eke” is to work hard to get something.

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  3. guesswork says:

    Padilla provides about as much reward as Garcia did for the Yankees. Garcia had been erratic for several years, and also didn’t pitch much (228 IP from 08-10 compared to Padilla’s 251 from 09-11 that you cited). Further, Garcia’s career GB%, K%, and BB% are nearly identical to Padilla’s.

    These types of deals are never really high reward, but they are often excellent value, which is really the point. Is Padilla an ace? Absolutely not, but that’s why Beckett and Lester are there. He’s someone with the potential to be a league average starter at under $1M, with far less uncertainty than the average NRI. With NRI’s it’s not always about getting high reward but also about signing someone for cheap who offers a reasonable amount of certainty to be average/above replacement.

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    • Preston says:

      But Garcia had logged 157 healthy innings in 2010. Plus it was expected that he would get a slight boost in velocity from being a healthy year removed from serious surgery. The bulk of Padilla’s innings came in 2009. In addition Garcia has none of the baggage that Padilla has.

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  4. This Bud's for You says:

    Padilla is a drunk. He’ll fit perfectly in the Boston clubhouse.

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  5. Jmag043 says:

    Can’t wait to see that 96mph fastball set up his 58mph eephus.

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  6. joel p says:

    i dont quite understand this article.

    how is padilla not a good signing yet colon and garcia were? colons recent numbers look very very similar to padillas. garcia may have had a bit more recent success but he got paid more last year than what padilla will make.

    what is the better option for the red sox? they have no money and need starters. signing guys like cook and padilla is really the only way they can fill in the back of their rotation. what else should they do?

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  7. ben says:

    I get your point, but I don’t think a $1mil signing is ever really a “high risk” in mlb.

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