Playing ‘This or That’ with pitching prospects
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com
We’re well-past the Trade Deadline — what a dud that was, huh? — but this is a fun thought experiment any time of the year really.
Imagine you’re a general manager on the phone with another GM. (Or you’re Brad Pitt acting out a scene in Moneyball. Your pick.) You’re about to make a big trade, just some basic haggling left to do. The other guy’s ready to accept the deal, but he just wants one of two prospects. He’ll let you choose because all the evaluations have these two players so close, it makes no difference to him whom he gets.
So whom do you give up?
This is a game we’ve been playing a little around the office. As such, I’ve devised scenarios for three pairs of pitchers here. Although I’m looking at it through this lens, it’s important to remember that this is more an evaluation on which of each pair has the most long-term value. Hitters will come in a different post, so feel free to leave suggestions for that in the comments below.
Michael Wacha vs. Carlos Martinez, St. Louis: The Cardinals’ prospect pool has been considered one of the deepest in baseball, and both Wacha and Martinez present two of the top prizes in that pool. Wacha, who is just two months older than his counterpart here, checks in as MLB.com’s No. 18 prospect under the updated rankings while Martinez sits not far behind at 26.
The two hurlers don’t have many physical similarities, besides being right-handers. Wacha stands six inches taller than Martinez and provides more of a commanding presence on the mound. But what the latter lacks in size, he makes up for in stuff. Possessing a plus fastball and impressive curve, the Dominican native owns a better strikeout rate (7.94 K/9 vs. 7.73 for Wacha) over the pair’s time with Triple-A Memphis but is also a little more wild (3.88 BB/9 vs. 2.01). His ERA (1.76) and FIP (3.16) numbers are also better than Wacha (2.65, 3.53), although they come with the caveat that he’s pitched 34 fewer innings in the PCL.
Those would seemingly point to Martinez being the choice to keep here. But in the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.” Given his size, durability concerns have always followed Martinez. The Cardinals seemingly can’t decide whether his future lies in the bullpen or rotation, though. He made 10 relief appearances for the big league club, compared to 13 starts in the Minors, before finally being given his first Major League start on Wednesday. (He allowed four runs on seven hits before being lifted in the fifth due to muscle cramps in his right hand.)
Meanwhile, Wacha is more of a known commodity. He projects as a starter over the long term with a floor of a No. 4 and a ceiling of a No. 2. Obviously there’s not much room in between there, but he’ll no doubt be a solid Major Leaguer at the very least. That’s quite valuable. Martinez could be a very good starter or perhaps an elite reliever. I’d just prefer to know what I have. Advantage: Wacha.
Kevin Gausman vs. Dylan Bundy, Baltimore: This is a little more difficult a comparison because we have no stats for Bundy this season. The 20-year-old right-hander, who owned a 2.08 ERA across three levels last season and made two Major League appearances with the Orioles, is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in late June and won’t be back until next year. He was a top-five overall prospect before the elbow issues but now finds himself at No. 17 overall.
Gausman, on the other hand, is just one spot above him at No. 16 after the O’s selected him fourth overall in last year’s Draft. He’s been all over this season with stops at Double-A Bowie and the Majors before he’s settled in with Triple-A Norfolk. As much as he’s moved around, the results have been just as spotty. He has fanned about a batter an inning at each location and has been stingy on the free passes (1.7 BB/9 in the Minors, 2.4 in the Majors). But he’s also been very hittable in the Majors where he owned a 6.21 ERA and 5.02 FIP. Those numbers were very good at 3.11 and 2.44 in eight starts at Bowie, and he’s been unlucky thus far with Norfolk with a FIP (3.16) much lower than his ERA (5.20). Despite the ups and downs, the 22-year-old right-hander — MLB.com’s No. 15 overall prospect — still has plenty of potential for growth, especially when it comes to his off-speed stuff.
Still I think you’d rather have Bundy’s future. Look to the stories of Stephen Strasburg and John Lackey as recent examples of pitchers that have thrived post-Tommy John, and I don’t believe Bundy will be any different. When he returns next season, he’ll only be 21 ½ and if rehab goes well, he could be in Norfolk or Baltimore by the end of the season, where he’d likely be the youngest hurler at either destination. The future is still bright for Gausman, but I don’t think any shine has been taken away from Bundy because of the surgery. Advantage: Bundy.
Matt Barnes vs. Anthony Ranaudo, Boston: This is the debate that actually kicked off this whole post, and it is indeed a timely one now. Ranaudo made his Triple-A debut last Sunday night, and you couldn’t have asked for more from Boston’s No. 6 prospect — six scoreless innings, four hits, no runs, no walks, five strikeouts. That came after he owned a 2.95 ERA and a Eastern League-leading 1.09 WHIP in 19 starts (109 2/3 innings) with Double-A Portland. All in all, it’s been a nice bounceback season for the 6-foot-7 right-hander, who was 1-3 with a 6.69 ERA in nine starts during an injury-riddled 2012 season with the Sea Dogs.
But how does it compare to Barnes — the No. 5 Red Sox prospect? The 6-foot-4 right-hander owns a 4.40 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 21 Eastern League starts (94 innings). Those stats don’t exactly jump off the page, but his numbers on the periphery are more encouraging. He’s been striking out batters at a rate of 11.5 per nine innings — Ranaudo’s K/9 was 8.70 at Portland — and his FIP (3.51) is actually the same as Ranaudo’s at the same level, suggesting that Barnes’ elevated ERA is a result primarily of bad luck. That’s backed up even more by the fact his BABIP (batting average of balls in play) is .355, while Ranaudo’s was much lower at .250 at Double-A.
Because of all that, this debate is actually closer than the back of a baseball card would have you believe. I still would prefer Ranaudo at this point because he’s been more consistent throughout this season. His month-by-month ERA from April to July was 0.83/1.91/4.91/3.86 with Portland while Barnes’ was 9.00/2.65/6.86/1.74. Part of that heavy fluctuation falls on the defense behind Barnes, obviously, but it’s just more encouraging to see the consistency of Ranaudo’s numbers, especially after it looked like his star had dimmed last season. Advantage: Ranaudo.