Good Pitching, For Cheap

Masahiro Tanaka has the attention of nearly every team in Major League Baseball right now. Not every team is going to bid on the Rakuten’s ace, but interest in him is so high that it has essentially shut down the market for other starting pitchers as well, as pitchers like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, and Ubaldo Jimenez are waiting until Tanaka signs so they can be market themselves as a Plan B to the teams who fell short in the bidding war. The trickle down effect has basically pushed back the market for starting pitchers, so even though we’re only a few months from spring training, there are still some interesting pitchers left unsigned. And the good news is, there are even some pitchers who won’t break the bank. Even teams that are dealing with tight budgets could still add a quality arm by looking beyond Tanaka and the rest.

Here are three pitchers who are likely going to sign for a fraction of what the top pitchers get this winter, but could be perfect fits for teams looking to add quality innings without spending an arm and a leg.

Chris Capuano, LHP

Perfect Fit: Seattle Mariners

Here’s a fun fact for you: Capuano and teammate Zack Greinke posted identical 3.22 K/BB ratios as starting pitchers in 2013. Two other starting pitchers also posted a 3.22 K/BB as starters last year: Jose Fernandez and Mat Latos. Madison Bumgarner was just behind them, at 3.21, while supposed big time free agent Matt Garza checked in at 3.24. Pitching isn’t just walks and strikeouts, but if you can get batters to swing and miss while throwing strikes, you’re most of the way to being an effective hurler, and that’s exactly what Capuano did last year. And it was actually the third consecutive year in which Capuano ran a K/BB ratio over 3.00. From 2011 to 2013, Capuano posted the 29th best K/BB ratio of any regular starting pitcher in baseball.

Because he’s given up some hits on contact and hasn’t done a very good job of stranding runners, his ERA doesn’t match up with his underlying numbers, but those variables bounce around a lot, and with a little bit better luck, Capuano could easily be a quality mid-rotation starter again in 2014. And for a team like Seattle in need of multiple starters while also planning a big offer for Tanaka, a cheap effective hurler like Capuano could be just what the doctor ordered. After all, Dan Szymborski called Erasmo Ramirez the “worst #3 starter in baseball” earlier this week, and even signing Tanaka wouldn’t fix their depth problem.

Toss in the fact that Safeco Field is still a pretty decent place for pitchers, even after they moved in the fences last year, and Seattle should be an appealing destination for Capuano. While the marine layer on the west coast didn’t exactly save his 2013 ERA, these pitch-to-contact strike-throwers do best in west coast parks where the ball doesn’t carry as well in the summer, and no west coast team needs a cheap effective starter as much as the Mariners. Even if they sign Tanaka, Capuano should still be in their sights, but they definitely shouldn’t let Capuano get away while they ponder a bid for Rakuten’s ace.

Jerome Williams, RHP

Perfect Fit: Houston Astros

The Astros already threw $30 million at Scott Feldman to give their rotation a boost, but Williams would also be a good addition to a team that doesn’t yet have five big league starting pitchers. While his lack of an out pitch gives him limited upside, Williams has shown the ability to get ground balls and avoid walking too many hitters, which is the basic recipe for a classic innings, and in that regard, isn’t too terribly different from Feldman.

Only Williams should cost Houston a lot less than the $10 million per year they spent on their first free agent starter, since the Angels decided to non-tender him rather than risk offering him arbitration and having him earn roughly $4 million in salary next year. The fact that he was put on the free agent market rather than get paid $4 million for one year suggests that there’s not going to be a dramatic bidding war for his services, but Williams could provide a team like Houston with some additional innings of major league quality without any of long term commitment or financial outlay. And if Williams ends up giving them 100 good innings by the All-Star break, then they’d have a decent little trade chip on their hands, having rehabilitated Williams’ value and signed him to a team friendly contract. For a non-contender with a little bit of money to spend, guys like Williams are a great place to use a few million bucks.

Paul Maholm, LHP

Perfect Fit: Toronto Blue Jays

If you stopped paying attention at the halfway point of 2013, you probably remember Paul Maholm having a pretty decent year. At the break, he had thrown 115 innings and had a 3.98 ERA, and had helped the Braves build a nice big lead in the NL East. Then, in his first start of the second half, he gave up seven runs in three innings and was subsequently placed on the DL with a left wrist contusion, which caused him to spend the next month on the sidelines. He was pretty mediocre after returning from the DL in late-August, and then was left off the Braves playoff roster, ending his season a pretty sour note.

But, prior to those 35 bad innings in the second half, Maholm was on a 450 inning run of consistently solid performances. He ran a 3.66 ERA/3.68 FIP in 2011, and then followed that up with a 3.67 ERA/4.00 FIP in 2012. At the All-Star break, he was at 3.98 ERA/4.07 FIP. These aren’t sexy numbers, but they’re perfectly serviceable for a major league starting pitcher, and that’s not the kind of track record you want to ignore because a guy had 35 bad innings surrounding a stint on the DL.

As a 32-year-old lefty with an 87 mph fastball, though, Maholm doesn’t exactly get anyone excited. However, it isn’t hard to make a case that Maholm can give a team most of what Jason Vargas could put up, and Vargas got $32 million over four years earlier in the off-season. On a cheap one year deal, Maholm could be a great addition to a team like the Blue Jays, who need a short term upgrade but hate giving long term deals to pitchers. Maholm won’t be the kind of signing that gets Blue Jays fans excited like last year’s trades did, but he’ll help make sure that they don’t have to watch Ricky Romero take the mound again in 2014, and that makes it a move worth doing in and of itself.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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