Pitching Reclamation Projects

Today, Dying Quail posted his shoestring-budget plan for the Astros offseason, and it included signing a top-tier reclamation project so that new pitching coach Brad Arnsberg could work his magic.  I like the idea of going for upside this offseason with our pitching signings...I'm not really up for repeating the Hampton/Ortiz experience next season.  

Inspired, I've cobbled together quick profiles on the three pitchers DQ named in his piece: Rich Hill, Justin Duchscherer, and Ben Sheets.  There are still some other reclamation projects out there, and some potential buy-low candidates (Noah Lowry, anyone? Jon Garland?).  Post your potential pitching deals in the comments!

Rich Hill, LHP

DQ's choice for under-the-radar reclamation project, Rich Hill, is a double-whammy reclamation project.  First, he's known as a bit of a headcase, with most recent articles about him mentioning the possibility that he has Steve Blass disease -- the sudden and near-complete loss off the ability to accurately throw a baseball.  He had an excellent 2007 with the Cubs, with a 3.92 ERA over 195 innings.  He racked up nearly a strikeout per inning that year, and allowed less than a hit per inning (170 H over 195 IP).  At one point early in that season, he had put together a string of 18 innings without an earned run.  But by the end of the season, it was clear that he was having control issues.  As Lou Piniella put it, he was "not the same pitcher that left spring training."  His decline was sharp, and in his fifth start of 2008, he failed to get out of the first inning, walking four out of the six batters he faced.  The general consensus on the Internet seems to be that Hill's control problems are a matter of confidence.

But the mental aspect of the game is not all that Hill has to work on.  In 2009, after being traded to Baltimore for a PTBNL, Hill suffered a torn labrum.  His surgery was on August 7, 2009. 

Overall, as a reclamation project, Hill seems like he's got limited upside.  Leaving aside his most recent injury, in his best major league season, he still put up a 4.32 FIP / 4.17 xFIP.  Further, he's only seen 80 innings of major league batters in the last two years.  My bet is that some team starts him off in 2010 with a minor league deal and the potential to fill in at the major league level in case of injury.

Justin Duchscherer

Duchscherer was Richard Justice's choice for an offseason pitching bargain.  First breaking into the big leagues with the Rangers in 2001, "The Duke of Hurl" spent most of his career as a reliever.  He had an excellent season in 2008, however, when Oakland pulled him out of the bullpen and slotted him into the rotation.  Duchscherer had a 2.54 ERA, 3.69 FIP, and allowed less than one baserunner per inning (0.995 WHIP).  

He battled injuries all through that 2008, however:  an upper arm strain followed by a hip strain requiring his second hip surgery in two years.  Further, in 2009 spring training, a sore elbow required him to have arthroscopic surgery that sidelined him for a month.  The series of injuries and the related rehabilitation, combined with his intense desire to get back on the field and contribute eventually led Duchscherer to take a break from the 2009 season to deal with what his agent called "a very treatable case of clinical depression".  

The 31-year old is probable looking for a starting gig, but for me, the ideal signing would be for him to start the season in the bullpen (as a precaution, due to his recent injuries) and be moved to the rotation at the first opportunity.  He's been fairly effective in relief throughout his career, so this would not be a nonsensical route.  But realistically-speaking, there are enough teams out there starved for starting pitching that Duchscherer should have no problem finding a starting job if that's what he wants.

Ben Sheets

Sheets was a fan-favorite-free-agent last offseason here at The Crawfish Boxes.  Like Duchscherer, Ben Sheets can pitch very well when he's healthy.  Saying he had a sub-4.00 ERA from 2004-2008 actually understates his ability.  During that period, Sheets pitched 839 innings and put up a 3.24 ERA.  Heading into the offseason, Sheets had the potential to land a seriously huge contract...anything less than $15M/year over several years would have been a steal.  But Sheets's health has always been an issue, and he ended the 2009 season with a sore elbow.

He was reportedly close to a two-year deal with the Rangers in early 2009, but his physical showed that his elbow was in worse shape than previously thought.  Sheets ended up having surgery for a torn flexor tendon.  The last time Sheets was seen, he was rehabbing up in Arlington and he said he expects to be ready to pitch by Spring Training. 

It is speculated that one of the reasons Sheets was so interested in the Rangers is because they have highly-regarded pitching coach Mike Maddux.  Maybe now that we have our own highly-regarded pitching coach, Sheets will have more interest in Houston.  Sheets will likely be the most expensive "reclamation" signing this offseason.

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