MMO Mailbag: Valverde, Howell and the Outfield

As 2012 winds down, Scott Rozell asked MMO the following questions:

I thought I’d check your thoughts on the Mets signing Jose Valverde. I know his performance has declined, but the reward could be great and he could be had at less cost than the other high profile relievers. Speaking of that category, what are the Mets’ thoughts, or yours, on JP Howell? He’s younger and seems to have the qualities that the Mets should invest in. Last, as the available FA outfielders are not too hot, are there cast-offs or AAA guys who are blocked on their current teams that are worth giving a shot? Hairston was basically pulled off the scrap heap and did better than expected, and every year there seems to be a dozen or so guys that “come out of nowhere” and finally breakthrough.

Thanks for the questions, Scott. I’ll answer your question in pieces. As far as Valverde goes, he’s an interesting case because of the chasm-sized difference betwee his 2011 and 2012 seasons. In 2011, he was a perfect 49-for-49 in save opportunities with a 2.24 ERA. But in 2012, he struggled, blowing five saves and seeing his ERA rise about a run and a half. True, Valverde was terrible in non-save situations in 2011 (5.79 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in roughly a third of his innings pitched, which is no small sample size, so his 2012 didn’t come as a complete shock. He threw merely 3.1 fewer IP in 2012, and surrendered two fewer home runs and seven fewer walks, but seven more hits. His WHIP only rose .06 points in 2012. After studying the numbers, I noticed three very specific and important reasons for his 2012 struggles.

Jose ValverdeFirst is the extra-base hits. Valverde allowed ten more XBH in 3.1 fewer IP, including seven more doubles and three more triples, which adds up to 16 more total bases. Second is the decrease in strikeouts. This past year, he struck out 21 fewer hitters, which is very significant in a reliever’s workload. He went from an 8.59 K/9 to a 6.26 K/9. That means that there were 21 more outs in 2012 that could have been “productive,” as far as moving runners up via groundouts or tagging up on fly balls, which is compounded by all the extra base hits he surrendered. In fact, he gave up three more sacrifice flies in 2012 as part of the 13 more runs he surrendered. Third, and more egregious, is Valverde’s timing, so to speak. In 2012, opposing hitters went 4-9 with a walk with the bases loaded, as opposed to going only 1-8 with a walk in the same situations in 2011.

The struggles with the bases loaded are a matter of luck, but the decrease in strikeouts and the increase in extra-base hits could mean an underlying health problem. Valverde’s 34-years-old, so it’s not a stretch to think his age is catching up to him. However, he only lost a half a mile off his fastball from 2011 to 2012 and there was a bigger difference between his heater and splitter, so I’m inclined to think health wasn’t as big of a factor than his bad luck with the bases loaded, though I wouldn’t completely ignore it. I would take a flyer on him in general, but I don’t think he fits well with the Mets and the direction they’re headed. Valverde won’t get more than a two-year deal, and could very well end up with just one guaranteed year plus an option. I would guess Valverde inks a deal very similar to the contract the Mets signed Frank Francisco for. This doesn’t suit the Mets. The Mets should be using 2013 to see what they have in pitchers like Robert Carson, Josh Edgin, Elvin Ramirez and where they fit in a bullpen, along with seeing if Mejia and Familia can stick in a rotation or if they’re even needed in one, provided guys like Hefner, McHugh and Gorski can progress and capably fill out the back of the rotation. Francisco and Parnell are already slated for a bullpen role and Greg Burke will be given a shot.

That brings me to J.P. Howell. Howell’s a different animal, like you mentioned. He is younger and does possess the skills the Mets are looking for. After a failed attempt at starting, the Rays moved Howell to the bullpen in 2008. Over the next two seasons, in 156 IP, Howell pitched to a 2.48 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. After missing all of 2010 due to surgery on his throwing shoulder, he struggled mightily in 2011. But after a full year removed from the procedure, Howell’s 2012 was almost as productive as his pre-surgery performances (3.04 ERA, 1.21 WHIP). Mind you, this was all in the AL East. Howell’s the rare lefty with no significant platoon splits. Better against lefties, but productive against righties for sure. Contract-wise, you can get two or maybe even three years out of him for the same cost of one year of Valverde or Francisco. Because of his age and apparent successful recovery from the surgery, I think he could anchor a bullpen well into the upcoming wave of competitive Mets baseball. I would have no problem giving him a three-year-deal. Using Randy Choate’s recent deal as a barometer (three years, $7.5 million), three years for Howell could run between six and seven million, and I would jump all over that. Good catch on Howell, Scott.

Finally, the outfield. There are still two free agents that interest me. Austin Kearns is a guy who can play a solid right field with good on-base skills. He’s righthanded, but does not struggle against righthanded pitching. He would be a fine platoon partner with Mike Baxter that could even come on a minor league deal. The second interesting free agent, and gets more interesting with each passing day, is Michael Bourn. Initially deemed far too expensive and requiring far too long a deal for the Mets to consider, his stock has seemingly plummeted. There hasn’t been any news on offers to the former Brave, and just last week former GM Jim Bowden tweeted the Mets could be in the running for Bourn, along with Cleveland, Texas, Miami, Philly and Seattle. With the acquisition of Nick Swisher, the Indians are likely out and I just can’t see anyone signing a long-term deal with Miami. That leaves three teams the Mets surely can’t enter a bidding war with, so he remains a longshot. Though it seems has price has fallen to where the Mets at least have shot. I mentioned a couple of week ago that I wouldn’t give Bourn more than 4 years and $52-$56 million, and it seems like most GMs agreed with me.

Jason KubelAs far as other team’s castoffs, Arizona comes to mind. Already with an abundance of outfielders, they recently added Cody Ross to the mix. But after winning the division in 2010, they don’t strike me as sellers for the sake of rebuilding. There was a lot of talk over the summer and again at the winter meetings about Justin Upton, but nothing ever materialized. And why not? He’s young, relatively inexpensive and a perennial All Star, if not an MVP contender. The tea leaves are speaking to me and they’re saying that the addition of Ross to their plethora of outfielders means it’s more likely Jason Kubel is the odd man out. Kubel is owed $7.5 million in 2013 and has an option for 2014 at $7.5 million with a $1 million buyout. He has very exagerated home/road splits and doesn’t impress with the glove. The D-Backs couldn’t command a lot for someone with that baggage, unless they eat a significant portion of that contract. That might be the route the D-Backs prefer. They’re not entirely cash-strapped, so they don’t need to dump Kubel’s salary, and they’d much rather add a prospect with upside to hopefully aid their efforts to try and knock off the Giants while they still have the likes of Upton, Parra, Goldschmidt, Eaton, Montero and their sickeningly young and talented rotation.

The Orioles will have to shuffle their bench around, and a lot depends on Brian Roberts. If he’s healthy and Alexi Casilla becomes a utility player, it might allow them to move Nolan Remiold. He has some pop, averaging 24 home runs per 162 games, but is a marginal outfielder. An improvement defensively over Duda (which isn’t exactly impressive), but a downgrade from Kirk and probably on par with Hairston. He’s also a righty with no platoon splits, which does add a little something. He’s young enough to give a shot, however, as opposed to Kearns who is strictly a bench/platoon player. Reimold’s 2013 will be his age 29 season, and he might have something to offer if he’s committed to as an every day outfielder.

Thanks for the e-mail, Scott. The staff at MMO encourages reader participation. Please don’t hesitate to send your questions in.

MMO Mailbag

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Born in Queens and raised in the Bronx, Xtreem grew up in a family of Mets fans with a father who worked for the New York Parks Department and had a box at Shea. Thus, it begun. With a degree in Broadcast Journalism and bylines in publications from the New Haven Register to the Key West Citizen, Xtreem has experience in a variety of formats and topics. He is thrilled to be given the chance to lend his name to MMO.