Scott Kazmir Is the Best Free-Agent Starting Pitching Option for San Francisco Giants

Sep 6, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Scott Kazmir (26) delivers in the sixth inning against the New York Mets at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

David O’Brien of The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported via Twitter on Tuesday that the San Francisco Giants “are serious about signing a [Tim] Hudson or [Dan] Haren type to short deal (2 yrs top) — with higher avg. salary than you’d expect.”

The Giants have to fill two rotation spots this winter after declining club options on Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito. As it stands now, the San Francisco rotation includes Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. Yusmeiro Petit could be an option for the fifth spot in the rotation, and Vogelsong could also be re-signed later this winter to compete for that job. If San Francisco settles on Petit or Vogelsong for the fifth spot, they’ll need to get someone with upside for the fourth starter position.

Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Monday that the Giants aren’t willing to surrender their first-round pick (14th overall) to sign a free-agent pitcher who received a qualifying offer. That rules out Hiroki Kuroda, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. It makes sense for the Giants to hold onto that pick given that they need to replenish a farm system that Baseball America ranked 28th before the start of last season. Kuroda, Santana and Jimenez just aren’t worth the cost of the pick plus the multi-million dollar contracts they’re likely to command.

The best free-agent starting pitcher on the market is Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who wouldn’t cost the Giants a draft pick. However, the posting fee to negotiate with Tanaka will likely cost more than the $51.7 million the Rangers spent to win the rights to Yu Darvish. Schulman reported that the Giants are not expected to bid for Tanaka. If the Giants aren’t willing to pay top dollar for Tanaka or surrender a first-round pick for Kuroda, Santana or Jimenez, the club’s options for the fourth spot in the rotation are limited to the likes of Hudson, Haren, Bronson Arroyo, Phil Hughes and Scott Kazmir.

Scott Kazmir is the best of those options.

Hudson will turn 39 in July, and he’s coming off of a major ankle injury. He’s still a legitimate mid-rotation starter, but he can’t afford to lose any more velocity. Given his age, at some point soon, he’s going to be in for the collapse that Vogelsong endured last season.

Haren, 33, has gone 22-27 with a 4.50 ERA over the past two seasons. The long ball has been a huge problem, as he’s allowed 56 since the beginning of 2012, or 1.5 per nine innings pitched. His fastball velocity dipped from 90.0 mph in 2011 to 88.9 mph last year, which could explain his inability to keep the ball in the park. Haren is a strike thrower who still misses bats, and his fly ball tendencies would appear to benefit from a move to AT&T Park. Yet his age, declining velocity and injury history (the Chicago Cubs nixed a deal for Haren last winter due to concerns about his hip and back) make him a risky proposition.

Arroyo, who will turn 37 next season, is another fly-ball pitcher with below-average velocity. His fastball has averaged around 87 mph the last three seasons, which gives him absolutely no margin for error or further velocity loss. He’s gone 26-22 with a 3.76 ERA over the past two seasons despite pitching at hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Despite his recent success, Arroyo’s lack of velocity and strikeouts, combined with his increasing age, make him a riskier proposition than his stats indicate.

That leaves Kazmir as the best option available for the Giants. Kazmir had the 15th best strikeout rate among starting pitchers last season. His fastball velocity ballooned back up to an average of 92.5 mph after falling all the way down to 86.5 mph two years ago. After missing all of the 2012 season, Kazmir returned to post the best xFIP of his career with the Cleveland Indians in 2013. He also posted the lowest walk rate of his career.

Kazmir will only be 30 years old next season, so he’s a good bet to maintain his success from 2013 into the next few seasons. He told FanGraphs that he made adjustments during his stint in independent ball that allowed him to get back on track. Kazmir said:

“Taking some time away from the game, I fell in love with it again. I went back to play independent ball, just because I love the game. We were staying at the worst hotels — no AC with 90-degree heat — but I was actually fine with that. The grinding was okay, because I’d found that love again. I didn’t really ever lose arm strength, it’s more I lost my ability to use my body. I lost my ability to use my lower half — everything was upper body — and everything started swinging side to side; I didn’t have a good direction to the plate. It was brought to my attention quite a bit that I’d lost arm strength, and would never get it back, but I knew that wasn’t the case. There were just things I had to figure out, and piece by piece, I started to do that. It’s taken time, but I think I’m in a pretty good place now.”

Kazmir’s mechanical and mental adjustments allowed him to regain his velocity and flourish last year. The soon-to-be 30-year-old lefty has the most upside of any free-agent starter on the market, with the exception of Tanaka. If the Giants aren’t willing to spend the money to sign Tanaka, they should gamble on Kazmir. Like Lincecum, who the Giants re-signed earlier this winter, Kazmir has unrealized potential left to fulfill.

Kazmir is the type of upside play the Giants need to make to rebuild their rotation this winter.

All statistics in this article are from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

Topics: MLB Free Ageny, San Francisco Giants, Scott Kazmir

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