Winter Meetings Preview

added 12/2/2006 by Scott Barzilla

The Astros got their big fish in Carlos Lee. Now, they want to try to shore up the mound. Woody Williams is a nice pick up, but he should be nothing more than third or fourth starter material. The Astros really need a number two starter to go behind Roy Oswalt. One of them is in town, but he says he will not make up his mind until before Christmas. So, the Astros go into the Winter Meetings searching for a starter. They can go in several directions.

The first direction is obviously free agency. Free agency doesn't require you to give up players, but it does require more money these days. Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt would probably fit the bill in terms of talent, but in bang for buck they are way out of range. The second tier of pitchers is more of the Astros flavor. These include Jeff Suppan, Gil Meche, Ted Lilly, Mark Mulder, and Vicente Padilla. When you combine them with Andy Pettitte you already have an impressive list of pitchers to choose from in the open market. Yet, the market is going nuts.

The biggest mistake teams make is jumping on a player that performed well last year. Pitchers more than any player fluctuate in performance from season to season. Therefore, a three year average is important. Additionally, if you focus on wins and losses or even ERA you can sometimes miss the boat. The so-called DIPS (defense independent pitching statistics) numbers and innings pitched are far more important. So, we will look at both to see if there is a competitive advantage the Astros may have.

                  W-L    ERA    INN    WHIP    RSAA
Ted Lilly        37-34   4.52   505    1.41     11
Gil Meche        28-23   4.82   457    1.48    -27
Mark Mulder      39-23   4.60   524    1.43     -8
Vicente Padilla  31-29   4.57   462    1.41      0
Andy Pettitte    37-26   3.38   519    1.23     56
Jeff Suppan      44-26   3.95   572    1.40     22

Of course Pettitte looks better than these folks because the Hendricks brothers and Pettitte aren't comparing him to this group. He's being compared to Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt. They are letting those two set the market and it's a good bet that at least one will sign during the winter meetings. So, is Pettitte as good as those two?

                 W-L     ERA    INN    WHIP    RSAA
Andy Pettitte   37-26    3.38   519    1.23     56
Jason Schmidt   41-23    3.67   610    1.24     47
Barry Zito      41-34    4.05   662    1.33     34

At the moment, it appears the Hendricks brothers have a really good case that their client deserves as much if not more than those two pitchers. The Astros might be willing to meet that price for a year, but they must shore up the rotation in addition to waiting around for Andy Pettitte. After all, if you believe Pettitte, he has not decided if he wants to pitch. Let's take a look at the sabermetric and DIPS numbers for the other four free agents in the second tier.

                   NW-NL    INN    SO/9   BB/9   HR/9
Ted Lilly          36-35    505    7.55   4.06   1.37
Gil Meche          23-28    457    6.65   3.99   1.24
Mark Mulder        31-31    524    5.17   3.23   1.08
Vicente Padilla    30-30    462    6.64   3.50   1.15
Jeff Suppan        38-32    572    5.16   3.10   1.10

Neutral wins and losses assume that each pitcher gets average run support. The other numbers are the so-called DIPS that Voros McCracken introduced several years ago. They are better predictors of future performance than ERA. When we look at these five pitchers we can begin to predict what kind of pitcher they might be in Minute Maid Park. Immediately, we can tell that Ted Lilly and Gil Meche should make us nervous. However, the other three might not be that bad. When you combine durability and production, it appears that Jeff Suppan should be best out of the bunch. Padilla might be a close second in terms of DIPS, but his durability hasn't been exceptional.

All in all, you are looking at perhaps another third or fourth starter type. Neutral records aren't perfect, but they do demonstrate one thing: you are looking at five average pitchers. Average pitchers are important if they can give you 180 or more innings. Yet, when they start costing between eight and ten million dollars a season it makes you swallow a little harder. The trade market is always thin, but it can provide a pitcher or two at a cheaper rate financially. There are two potential targets on the Astros list.

                  W-L   INN   ERA   WHIP   RSAA
Jason Jennings   26-34  535   4.71  1.54    16
Jake Westbrook   44-34  637   4.01  1.33    25
           
                 NW-NL  INN   SO/9   BB/9   HR/9
Jason Jennings   31-29  535   5.89   4.17   0.93
Jake Westbrook   42-36  637   4.86   2.43   0.75

Jason Jennings name has been bandied about in connection with the Astros throughout the winter. Westbrook was mentioned more often last season, but with the Indians seemingly more than a season away they may see if they can get a king's ransom for Westbrook. His numbers are better, but he did pitch in Cleveland (a good pitcher's park) in comparison with Jennings toiling in Denver. Westbrook would likely cost someone like Hirsh and maybe a couple of prospects in the lower minors (Pence and Patten?). Whereas, the price for Jennings appears to be some combination of Burke and Lidge. That seems more palatable and Jennings numbers would more than likely improve in a neutral stadium like Minute Maid Park.

The Astros certainly have a couple of options at their disposal. Paying Andy Pettitte fifteen million to pitch for one more season might not be appetizing, but it's also your best opportunity to get the second starter you need. Otherwise, you are simply adding another end of the rotation type. Personally, I'd rather have Jennings or Jeff Suppan than Wandy Rodriguez or Taylor Buchholz, but the costs go up by the day.