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Dumpster Diving: Starting Pitchers

Last week, we found potential free agent value picks in the infield and outfield for our Dumpster Dive All-Stars. Today, let's fill out the starting rotation. None of these names is sexy, and all of them come with some health, age or performance-related drawback. But, as Fangraphs' Dave Cameron noted, scrapheap starting pitchers proved to be the best value on the market last winter. Which down-on-their-luck starters could provide a great return on investment in 2012? Let's take a closer look.

(Note: I'm limiting this list to starters who almost assuredly will sign one-year deals with very little guaranteed money; that means you won't find guys who figure to get a decent-sized salary on a one-year deal, like Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda, or those looking for multiple years like Edwin Jackson. I'm focusing on starters that teams won't have to guarantee much of anything.)

Bartolo Colon

Why he's still available: A devout follower of the Rich Garces/Boomer Wells workout plan, Colon is 38 years old and pitched just 218 innings from 2006 to 2010 while dealing with rotator cuff, elbow, back, oblique and knee injuries. He returned to the majors with the Yankees last year and pitched quite well while earning scraps (2.4 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement for $900K), but he did take a DL trip with a pulled hamstring during the summer and seemed to lose steam down the stretch. Colon's fastball, which sat at 91-92 mph for most of the season, dropped to about 90 in September and his miss rate with the pitch dropped below 10 percent (15 percent prior to September).

Why he's valuable: Bad hammy aside, Colon did throw 164.1 innings for the Bombers. He won't be mistaken for the former horse who routinely topped 200 frames in the late nineties and early aughts, but that 2011 total is promising. Colon pitched better than his 4.00 ERA would indicate, too, with a 3.83 Fielding Independent Pitching. The right-hander's aggressive, heater-heavy approach means he'll get taken deep sometimes (1.2 HR/9), but that fastball also allowed him to whiff 7.4 per nine innings and walk just 2.2.

Colon's fastball, thrown a major league-high 83 percent of the time, remains one of the best in the business. It limited opponents to a .244 batting average and a .375 slugging percentage (the averages for starters are .261 and .411, respectively).

Where he'll sign: Colon is a possibility at the back end of the Red Sox rotation, and a reunion with New York would give the Yankees additional depth. Toronto could use another starter instead of hoping Dustin McGowan can stay healthy and Kyle Drabek can reclaim his former promise. Detroit, Philly and Cincinnati are other possible landing spots.


Paul Maholm

Why he's still available: I would guess that pretty much no front office would be dissuaded by Maholm's dismal win-loss record (6-14 last year, 53-73 career), but it probably doesn't help his case. More importantly, the 29-year-old lefty served his first ever DL stint in 2011, sidelined late in the year with a shoulder strain. That sealed the Pirates' decision to decline Maholm's $9.75 million option for 2012.

Why he's valuable: Admittedly, there's nothing exciting about Maholm. He's a four-pitch finesse guy with a fastball that rarely ventures out of the 87-88 mph range. But while he rarely misses bats, he also does a good job of limiting walks, keeping the ball on the ground and, until this past August, eating innings (Maholm averaged 188 IP from 2006 to 2010). His ERA has been all over the place during his career (from 5.10 in 2010 to a career-best 3.66 in 2011), but that's an occupational hazard of being a pitch-to-contact guy on a team that has generally played poor D. Maholm's  peripheral stats have consistently been indicative of a low-fours ERA pitcher.

Maholm's ground ball rate has dipped a bit in recent years, but he does a good job of getting worm-burners as long as he keeps the ball in the bottom half of the zone. Check out his ground ball rate by pitch location from 2009-2011, compared to the average for lefty pitchers:

Maholm's ground ball rate by pitch location, 2009-2011 

Average ground ball rate by pitch location for lefties, 2009-2011

Where he'll sign: Maholm's name has been attached to the Red Sox, though it might make more sense for his long-term career prospects to sign with a NL team offering a friendly ball park (say, San Francisco or the Mets?) He could also end up back in Pittsburgh.


Kevin Millwood

Why he's still available: Millwood, 37, got smacked around for a 5.10 ERA with the Orioles in 2010 and put up so-so numbers with the Yankees' and Red Sox minor league affiliates in 2011 (89.2 IP, 7.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9) before he received another big league shot with the Rockies in August. He probably didn't get glowing reports from scouts, sitting at 89 mph with his fastball and giving up 1.5 homers per nine innings pitched.

Why he's valuable: Millwood had problems keeping the ball in the park at Coors, but he pitched decently overall. He struck out only six batters per nine frames but issued a mere 1.3 BB/9, giving him a 4.30 FIP in 54.1 innings. By walking 3.6 percent of the batters he faced, Millwood ranked in the top five among starters who took on at least 200 batters:

Where he'll sign: The Rockies and Mariners were reportedly interested in Millwood, though Colorado doesn't want to offer the $3 million guaranteed that Millwood is apparently seeking and the M's have since signed Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. The Giants could use a fifth starter and could offer a good spot for his homer-prone style.


Jeff Francis

Why he's still available: Francis stayed healthy in Kansas City in 2011 after left shoulder injuries jeopardized his career, though his win-loss record (6-16) and 4.82 ERA suggest he was nothing more than a mediocre place-holder as the Royals' upper-tier pitching prospects gained more experience. While never known for strikeouts, Francis' 2011 K rate (11.3 percent of batters faced) was a career low and placed above just Sean O'Sullivan, Brad Penny, Chien-Ming Wang, Joel Pineiro, Blake Beavan, Aaron Cook and Carl Pavano among starters.

Why he's valuable: The 31-year-old's peripherals outpaced his ERA, as a career-best walk rate (4.9 percent of batters faced) allowed him to post a 4.10 FIP. Francis' out-pitch was his slow, upper-60s curveball, and he peppered the strike zone with the pitch:

Location of Francis' curveball, 2011

Francis threw about half of his curveballs in the strike zone, above the 46 percent average for starters. All of those in-zone curves came at the expense of whiffs, but batters did hit just .165 against Francis' curve.

Despite his decent FIP, Francis' ERA was closer to five to due to a high batting average on balls in play (.316) and a low rate of stranding runners on base (68.8 percent). Francis does have a higher BABIP than most pitchers during his career, and his strand rate is a few ticks below the league average. But even if those numbers only regress somewhat, he looks more like a low-fours ERA pitcher if he gets the benefit of a good defensive unit.

Where he'll sign: The Cubs, M's, Rockies, Twins and Pirates have been linked to Francis. Seattle (seventh in the majors in Defensive Efficiency in 2011) looks like the best fit in terms of park and personnel.


Rich Harden 

Why he's still available: Harden possesses the durability of just-baked Soufflé. His latest injury was a strained lat muscle that sidelined him until July, at which point he put up a 5.12 ERA in 15 starts for the Athletics. The 30-year-old used to be known as a guy who could dominate during the odd month when he was actually healthy enough to pitch, but 2011 marked the second straight year in which he had a five-plus ERA. When you barely pitch and then seemingly get lit up when you are out there, you're going to fall off teams' radars.

Why he's valuable: While Harden was legitimately lousy with the Rangers in 2010 (6.31 FIP), he was far more effective than his ERA showed in 2011 due to a very high home run per fly ball rate (15.6 percent, 10.4 percent during his career). He struck out 26 percent of batters faced, which ranked ninth (between Justin Verlander and Michael Pineda) among starters. Harden's low-80s changeup was the key, as hitters missed it 42 percent of the time they swung. Unless he hung the pitch -- and he rarely did -- hitters just couldn't connect. Look at opponents' contact rate by pitch location against Harden's changeup, versus the league average for righties:

Opponents' contact rate by pitch location vs. Harden's changeup, 2011

Average contact rate by pitch location versus right-handed changeups, 2011

Where he'll sign: Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports says teams are eyeing Harden in either a starting or relief role, though it's hard to say if Harden would be able to warm up quickly and work back-to-back days considering his fragility. His extreme fly ball style would work best in a spacious park like Petco or Safeco.

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