Saturday, October 25, 2008

Under The Radar - JP's Busy Friday

Who said Hot Stove action during the World Series is pointless?

Canadian ex-left handed pitcher Adam Loewen has been signed to a two year contract by the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays also made a roster move to allow the claiming of ex-first round pick, Bryan Bullington from the Cleveland Indians. Both of these moves are very solid moves by the Jays front office as there was a reason both players were selected within the first four picks of the 2002 MLB draft. While much of the air has been sucked from the balloon that is these players respective ceilings, one can still see them amounting to Major League contributors.

Great analysis, riiiight?

Let's first begin with Bryan Bullington.

In early July, Bullington was claimed off waivers by the Cleveland Indians. This move went largely unnoticed and to most, signaled the end of a very disappointing career. It also signaled a reminder to Pirate fans of the terrible job that the old regime did in running this franchise into the ground.

Bullington was the first overall pick of what was a historic draft, known to this day as the Moneyball draft. If we look through the first round selections of this draft, we see some extraordinarily impressive picks, coupled with some major misses. The first round saw current stars such as BJ Upton, Prince Fielder, Zach Greinke, Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels, and Matt Cain being selected. Other players of note include Jeff Francis, Jeremy Hermida, Joe Saunders, Khalil Greene, Russ Adams, Nick Swisher, Denard Span, Jeff Francoeur, and Joe Blanton.

In other words, Bullington and Loewen arearguably the worst two picks of this draft, considering where they were taken and what they have accomplished thus far.

However, the cement is yet to dry for Bullington who really showed signs of improvement in 2008, specifically once he moved to the Indians system and was under the tutulage of ex-Ten Foot Pole front man, Scott Radinsky. I'm not sure what exactly change with Bullington, but as a 28 year old groundball pitcher with just over 3.5 seasons of professional baseball innings under his belt, there's a chance he could be at least servicable as either a long reliever or 6th/7th starter. Keep in mind, having a 6th/7th starter available is highly important for a team looking to compete, as the Jays are.

To this point, Bullington's career has been a tale of two halves. The first, from draft day in 2002 to his 2005 Major League debut. During Bullington's first three professional seasons, he put up a stastical line of: 3.33 ERA, 6.69 K/9, 2.52 BB/9 in 397 innings pitched.

After a brief cup of coffee with the Pirates in 2005, Bullington was shut down with shoulder soreness. A justified move by the club trying to protect their first rounder who had his season delayed due to shoulder tendinitis. However, this precautionary measure led to labrum surgery just a month after being shut down.

The shoulder surgery marked the beginning of the second half of Bullington's professional baseball career. Bullington would go on to miss the entire 2006 season and clearly would need some time to not only rehab, but to rebuild the prospect status he had built up from a largely succesful 2005 season.

The 2007 season saw Bullington begin the year at triple A, a surprisingly aggressive move for a player coming back from such major surgery. Bullington went from being an average strikeout pitcher to below average. Couple that with a below average walk rate, and you have a pitcher that is clearly struggling.

The Pirates gave him a couple starts at the big league level in 2007, but he was terrible. Albeit, this is a small sample size, however Bullington's triple A struggles continued as he was not only very hittable, but further dropped his strikeout rate. Despite Bullington's walk rate returning to his pre-surgery rate, striking out fewer then four batter's per nine innings pitched simply is not going to get it done at the big league level.

2008 saw Bullington begin the season again at triple A only to see him being dumped the day before Independence Day despite displaying much of the numbers he had shown prior to surgery. However, the Pirates are relatively deep with what is known as quadruple A arms, and the front office may have been looking to distance themselve from the decisions of the previous regime.

The Cleveland Indians then swooped in, figuring that the reward would certainly outweigh the cost. Bullington continued his 2008 triple A success enroute to a 3.88 FIP. This was certainly deserving of a spot start, to which Bullington received two, as well as a five inning outing in long relief.

Despite posting a 5.65 FIP in 14.2 major league innings, Bullington displayed enough positives to believe that he was returning to the form of 2005, rather then being the pitcher he was in 2007. While Bullington does not project to be much more then a #5 pitcher in a team's rotation, he does project as a fine one at that position.

Consider the data collected by The Hardball Times' Jeff Sackman in December of 2006. Sackman came up with the following numbers:
Lg      #1      #2      #3      #4      #5
MLB 3.60 4.14 4.58 5.10 6.24
AL 3.70 4.24 4.58 5.09 6.22
NL 3.51 4.04 4.57 5.11 6.26
Even if Bullington settles in as a pitcher with a 5.45 ERA, he will be substantially better then the league average fifth starter. In fact, Bullington would arguably be as good as a fair amount of forth starters league wide.

However, with Brad Arnsberg, there is reason to believe Bullington could improve on his 2008 production and come very close to being the equivalent to an average number four starter.

Why is it teams are willing to fork over $10-13M for an average #3/4 starting pitcher, like Carlos Silva and are unwilling to spend pennies (relatively speaking) on a guy like Bryan Bullington? Because of this market inefficiency, JP Riccardi made a very impressive move in bringing aboard Bullington.

The second move Riccardi made was not as immediately impressive. While the media loves the move of bringing aboard a Canadian, and this is certainly a dream come true for Adam Loewen, if the Jays are truly looking to give Loewen 1000 Minor League at bats prior to hitting in the bigs, it is unrealistic to think Loewen will be with the Jays once he is ready.

However, the marketing opportunities that will coincide with Loewen's signing is enough to make this deal worth while. Consider that Loewen will be marketed as the next Rick Ankiel, an electric, yet wildly erratic pitcher turned outfielder.

There is, however, hope that Loewen could have Ankiel-like success and fast track his way to the bigs in under 1000 at bats (or 2 seasons). Unlike Ankiel, Loewen will still be relatively young when he begins his position change. Being just 24 years old (25 shortly after Opening Day), Loewen is at an age where he can be compared to college draftees. Ankiel, on the other hand, was set to be 28 in the middle of his first transformation season.

Loewen's college comparison has a scout who saw Adam in college stating that he probably would be picked in the first five rounds of a draft today. Even when Loewen was drafted, most were 50-50 on whether he should pitch or hit, figuring there wasn't wrong direction to go. The Orioles at the time decided to go the route of pitcher, as 6'6" left handed pitchers with mid 90's heat do not come around very often.

In hindsight, due to some injury issues, this was probably the wrong decision. But who knows how Loewen would have developed as a hitter.

One American League scout even went as far as to state that he "wouldn't bet against Loewen becoming an impact position player."

Jays fans have to be happy with these moves. The cost for both were minimal, with the rewards having an extremely high amount of potential. These sort of low risk, high reward moves are what makes for an ideal 'Under the Radar'.

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