Thursday, December 06, 2012

Free agent preview: Jeff Karstens

By Jack Moore |

Did the Pirates make a mistake by getting rid of Jeff Karstens? (US Presswire)
Pitchers of Jeff Karstens's profile usually don't become free agents. When a team has the right to retain a pitcher with a 3.59 ERA and a 3.38 K/BB over the last two seasons, most will exercise that option. In the case of Karstens, his arbitration award was likely to cost the Pirates around $5 million -- a small sum given how little that same $5 million buys on the free agent market.

But the Pirates did not offer arbitration, declining to tender the 30-year-old a contract. And so he becomes a free agent, joining a pitching class lacking depth, particularly with Hiroki KurodaDan HarenScott BakerScott Feldman and Jeremy Guthriealready off the market.

The Pirates are hardly in a position to turn down a solid starting pitcher. A.J. Burnettwas the only above-average full-time starter for the 2012 Pirates, according to ERA+. The 2013 rotation is woefully uncertain, with only Burnett, James McDonald andWandy Rodriguez locked in place.

It would seem, therefore, the Pirates could use a cost-controlled back-end starting pitcher -- exactly what Karstens has looked like for the past two or three years. Either the Pirates think they can find free agent starters of equal value for cheaper -- they can't -- or they think Karstens just isn't a major league starter.

And that's your answer: The Pirates don't seem to doubt his ability to pitch well but his ability to pitch well and stay healthy. The money quote comes from Neal Huntington back in early October:
"He's doing everything he can to get the best out of his abilities," Huntington said. "Unfortunately at times, his body lets him down, and it's been various body parts."

Karstens has dealt with both hip and shoulder problems throughout his career. His high MLB inning total is just 162.1 in 2011, although he did reach 190 between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors in 2006. Since then, Karstens has never made more than 25 starts in a season. He's been yanked between the bullpen and starting rotation on top of the injuries -- due to performance issues, as he posted just a 5.15 ERA in his first four seasons (216.2 innings). The combination kept him from ever finding a consistent rotation spot, and as a result a 200-inning season -- the typical starting pitcher standard -- never became his norm.

The Pirates' lack of faith in Karstens is understandable -- injuries, age, and his low quality prior to 2011 all play a part. But it's not a favorable market for starting pitchers. If you don't want to pay three years and nearly $40 million to Ryan Dempster, where do you go next? It's either an even bigger injury risk (and still more expensive pitcher) like a Shaun Marcum or a known poor commodity like Joe Blanton or Freddy Garcia.

If the Pirates balked at a $5 million price tag, chances are the rest of the league won't go much higher. However, considering Dan Haren found a $13 million contract after the Angels declined his option for $12 million (the difference between the $15.5 million option salary and the $3.5 million buyout), Karstens could be able to find a one-year deal worth $6-7 million (although $4-5 is more likely).

As always, plenty of teams will be looking to bolster the back end of their rotation. The TwinsPadres and Indians could see him as a reclamation project to help in the rebuilding process whereas the Red SoxOrioles or Blue Jays could see him as pieces to help in contending efforts. Effectively, though, the league at large should be in play, depending on how the top of the pitching market shakes up.

The back-end-starter market tends to deal in lottery tickets. Maybe the Pirates don't see the odds they like in Karstens, but it will be hard to beat his cost. Any gain on Karstens's ticket will be realized outside the Steel City.

Potential Suitors: Twins, Padres, Orioles

Long Shots: Indians, Red Sox, Blue Jays

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