A victim of what amounts to one of the deeper stables of starting pitching, Chris Young opted out of his contract with the Washington Nationals with the hopes that he could find a major league role in another city. The Nationals could ostensibly retain Young’s services should he fail in that pursuit, but it’s plausible that there will be several organizations interested.
Young, 33, is not so young anymore. The hulking 6-foot-10 right hander has had two shoulder surgeries in the last four seasons, limiting his major league innings from 2009 through 2011 to just 120. His 2012 comeback was a mixed bag, as he posted a 4.50 FIP, a 16.2% strikeout rate, and the characteristic high fly ball rate, flirting with 60%. His fastball has been in steady decline since he broke into the league in 2004, averaging just 84.6 mph in 2012 and almost all reports out of Spring suggested he was sitting in the 80-82 mph range frequently.
What’s remarkable is his ability to get by with a batting practice four seamer when he uses it over 70% of the time. And he’s done it for years, which is perhaps why his velocity really isn’t much of an issue. With his stature, Young’s biggest asset is deception as hitters presumably have a difficult time with his arm angle and/or release point. In 2007, Young was only throwing 88 mph and managed to produce a 24% strikeout rate and a 3.43 FIP. If Young can move the ball effectively and hit his spots, his slider has historically been an effective complement. And for the most part, that’s the Chris Young scouts saw this spring.
In 16 innings pitched this spring, Young posted a 2.25 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, striking out nine opposing batters, allowing just 11 hits. Sure, it’s not much of a sample to go off of, but you can understand why Young thinks he’s better than AAA at this point in his career — and with his history of injuries, perhaps he doesn’t want to waste any good innings left in his shoulder throwing at kids in Syracuse.
Who might be interested? A reunion with the Mets could make sense. The news on Shaun Marcum seems to get worse by the day. Johan Santana won’t be ready for two months and when he returns it’s unknown if he’ll be the Santana from the first half when he posted a respectable 3.65 FIP or the one who fell apart and couldn’t stay healthy in the second. Their fall back option appears to be Jeremy Hefner, who is certainly capable, but profiles as kind of a prototypical low-strikeout, pitch to contact kind of fifth starter. They could look to uber prospect Zack Wheeler but it seems like the club prefers to let him get a little more experience in the minors. If Marcum misses significant time, Young could provide a stop-gap until his return and based on his results, they could decide between him and Hefner going forward.
Another reunion might make sense with the San Diego Padres. Obviously, the park in San Diego agrees with Young’s fly ball ways as he had his best years there. The Padres lost Casey Kelly for the season, they recently released Freddy Garcia, and Cory Luebke won’t be back from surgery until mid-season. The shine on Eric Stults might be wearing off as he’s looked a lot more like what xFIP thought of him the last two seasons this spring. His low BABIP and HR/FB rate produced a tidy 2.92 ERA, but xFIP thought it looked more like 4.44. So far he’s pitched to a 6.63 ERA and 1.37 WHIP over 19 innings, giving up 22 hits, three home runs, and striking out just six batters. Right now, the Padre rotation appears to be Edinson Volquez, Clayton Richard, Jason Marquis, and then a mix of Stults, Tyson Ross, and Andrew Cashner. Beyond Cashner, Young could provide an upgrade, if only until Cory Luebke returns.
The Pittsburgh Pirates might kick the tires with news of Jeff Karstens shoulder woes. They just named their own reclamation project as their #4 starter in Jonathan Sanchez and the remaining slot will go to Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, or Jeanmar Gomez. Another option could be the Texas Rangers as they’re discovering Derek Lowe still isn’t very good anymore and Nick Tepesch has been lit up this spring. And Young went to High School in Texas, so there’s that.
If Young is going to find a job on a major league roster, it’s probably going to be in the next couple of days, so this will be ironed out pretty quickly. For a pitcher with a low-80’s fastball, a staggeringly low ground ball rate , and a history of significant arm injuries, it’s kind of impressive that he’s around at all. Perhaps even more amazing is that he can probably help someone win games.