Free Agent Evaluation: High Reward Starting Pitchers

bensheetsAnyone who watched the Mets in 2009 knows that after Johan Santana, there was a large hole in the starting rotation. The Mets desperately needed a #2 starter, and some would argue they didn’t have anyone worthy of being deemed a #3.

But there’s only one legit #2 starter on the free agent market — John Lackey — and he likely will either re-sign with the Angels or receive a contract that reeks of more risk than reward.

On the other hand, there is an intriguing group of potentially low-risk, high-reward arms available — pitchers who may require only a one-year commitment and less than $10M, yet have #2 or even ace potential. Will the Mets roll the dice? Let’s take a look at them.

Ben Sheets
When healthy, he is one of the top starters in MLB — an absolute ace. In addition to his lively 95+ MPH fastball and nearly unhittable, hard-breaking curve, Sheets is a bulldog, an intense competitor whose demeanor reminds one of Roger Clemens. Health, of course, is the major issue, as his career is pockmarked with elbow, shoulder, hamstring, and back injuries. If his elbow was the only problem, then signing him would be a no-brainer, since the surgery on his elbow flexor tendon was a success. But there’s still the back and the shoulder, which likely in turn caused the hamstring injury … and he’ll be 32 by the All-Star break.

Rich Harden
Like Sheets, Harden is an ace — when healthy. After starting only 16 games in 2006 and 2007, Harden managed to make 25 starts each in 2008 and 2009. Despite that improvement, Harden is far from durable. In each of the last two years, he’s spent time on the DL for problems with his back and shoulder. Previously, he had elbow problems — including an injury that kept him out for nearly all of 2006.

Unlike Sheets, Harden has yet to throw more than 189 innings in a season (in fact, he’s only topped 150 IP once in 7 years). Also unlike Sheets, he’s never been on an operating table. His age is also an apparent plus — he’s only 28. But you know what? His mechanics are downright awful, and will continue to cause him multiple arm injuries. He has a similar arm action to John Maine, in that he over-rotates during the leg lift and his right arm extends behind his back after the hand break — which puts extreme pressure on the shoulder. That over-rotation also leads to premature opening of the front side, which is exacerbated by a lazy glove that stays low and pulls the upper body toward first base — putting more pressure on the shoulder and additional strain on the elbow. In my opinion, Harden will never start more than 25 games in a season — and may be lucky to start that many. Some may argue that 25 Harden starts are better than 25 by most others, but in 2009, he had a .500 record and a 4.09 ERA — not exactly dominating. His back and shoulder issues will only get worse as he ages, and they can’t be helped by surgery.

Erik Bedard
Bedard is in the same class as Sheets and Harden when it comes to ace-like stuff, and he’s been the lead man on many staffs. But his issue is with his shoulder, and that’s a problem because unlike the elbow, the full recovery from shoulder surgery is an anomaly rather than a rule. Bedard has had two shoulder surgeries since the summer of 2008 (the first was to remove a cyst — not unlike John Maine’s). And he shares another similarity with Sheets and Harden in that he’s already had a major elbow injury — he had Tommy John surgery in 2002. So, like Harden, you have to suspect there is something inherently wrong with Bedard’s mechanics. The mechanical flaw plus the fact he’s coming off shoulder surgery makes him an extremely risky signing.

Justin Duchscherer
OK, he may not have ace-like stuff, but he’s shown enough to suggest he could be a borderline #2 — along the lines of a Derek Lowe. Duchscherer missed all of 2009 after elbow surgery, but is now healthy — physically, anyway. In addition to the arm problem, Duchscherer also had a bout with depression. Still, the soft-tossing righty was a two-time All-Star and went 10-8 with a 2.54 ERA and 0.995 WHIP through 22 starts in 2008. Considering that most pitchers make full, successful recoveries from Tommy John surgery, and that Duchscherer never relied on velocity to succeed, there is every reason to believe he can return to his All-Star form.

Kelvim Escobar
Another guy with absolutely electric stuff but who has had a hard time staying healthy. Unfortunately, Escobar had surgery to repair a shoulder tear in 2008 that has sapped him of much of the velocity that made that stuff so electric. He threw five innings in one start in 2009, and his health remains questionable. He might be worth a minor league deal and ST invite, but nothing more.

Brett Myers
As a 24-year-old in 2005, Myers made 34 starts, won 13 games, and struck out nearly a batter an inning. It seemed he was on the verge of becoming an ace. But injuries and behavioral problems have sent his career downhill ever since. Now he’s in his late twenties and coming off a season in which he missed 86 games due to a hip injury, and another 18 games with a back problem. He has good stuff, but his recent injury history and questionable attitude make him a major risk.

Jason Schmidt
Shoulder problems have ended this hard-throwing righthander’s career. He is expected to retire.

To me, Duchscherer has the best chance of coming back and pitching effectively, but he’s more Jamie Moyer than Nolan Ryan. Even though Sheets didn’t throw a pitch in 2009, I think he has a better chance of making 25 starts in 2010 than Harden or Bedard. That said, if the Mets are to roll the dice, I’d like to see them make a gamble on Sheets.

What do you think?

As a reminder you can vote on your favorite Mets free agent targets.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Brian December 3, 2009 at 10:00 am
    Good read, I posted a similar article on Sheets, I say go for him. I also don’t mind Duch, but will pass on the rest.
  2. Mike December 3, 2009 at 10:26 am
    Just thinking logically here but why not take a shot? Sheets is my preference but really there is hardly any reason not to at least try this. Just go into ST with absolutely no expectations. In the best case scenario we have a number two starter, worst case the Mets lose a few million. The staff should be constructed as though (I’ll say) Sheets is not there and you let the best five pitch out of ST. It’s a no brainer and low risk in that way.
  3. isuzudude December 3, 2009 at 10:33 am
    It all depends on how much they’re asking for. I think the precedent was set for ace-like pitchers coming back from injury/surgery last year when the Red Sox inked John Smoltz to a $5.5M deal. Which ever of these pitchers are willing to take that amount or less should be considered; the rest can look for employment elsewhere.
  4. […] a post to Mets Today, Joe Janish takes a look at seven high-reward starting pitchers, such as Ben Sheets and Justin […]
  5. gary s. December 3, 2009 at 11:48 am
    maybe sheets is worth a shot..if it’s going to take 5.5 mill, the wilnots won’t make an offer..rather spend it on sure things like livan, moises alou, castillo, cora and redding and ollie perez.. lol
  6. […] a post to Mets Today, Joe Janish takes a look at seven high-reward starting pitchers, such as Ben Sheets and Justin […]
  7. astromets December 3, 2009 at 5:59 pm
    I like Sheets, Duscherer and Myers the most from this list.
    Sheets because he is dominant when he pitches, giving one quality and length.
    Duscherer and Myers because they both have the stuff to be top of the rotation pitchers and have both succeeded there, but they have also both succeeded in the bullpen. This way we can plan for them to be starters, but if others (Niese/Nieve/Holt) force there way onto the big league starting rotation, or if they are ineffective, then we can move them to the pen. The one knock a lot of Mets fans have on Myers stem from that wife hitting incident, which obviously no one condones but appears to be an isolated incident. But people deserve second chances and far as I know no one really knows everything that was going on then, so we shouldn’t judge him so harshly on that one event. If we got him then we are stealing one pain in the butt from Philli.
  8. Mic December 3, 2009 at 10:51 pm
    1. Brilliant. GREAT synopsis.

    2. How about this idea: Writing about who the Mets might trade this offseason (both from the ML and minor league roster.