It always makes a great story when a formerly great player who has been forgotten by time overcomes his injuries to lead a team to victory. Every year, a few MLB teams are willing to take a chance on a guy like this, someone who was on top of the world a few years ago, but who has been hurt and ineffective since.
This year the free agent market is teeming with players like this, especially starting pitchers. By my count, there are a half dozen starters under the age of 35 who were among the game’s elite a few years ago but have had multiple seasons destroyed by injury and ineffectiveness.
Most of these guys would be worth a shot for the Twins, because they’re available at bargain basement prices. No team should count on any of them as a #2 or #3 starter, but if they’re just brought to camp on a minor league contract or signed to fill a long relief slot, there’s not any real risk. Worst-case scenario is that they’d lose a few games for Rochester. Best case scenario, however unlikely that is, is that they suddenly become Cy Young caliber pitchers again.
Opening Day Age: 33 (born 3/6/1979).
Glory Days: 2006-2007. Bedard won 15 games for a terrible Orioles team in 2006. The next year he was even better, going 13-5 with a nifty 3.16 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 221 strikeouts in 182 innings. Not bad for a guy who pitched at the hitter friendly Camden Yards.
Injuries and Decline: The O’s traded Bedard across the country to Seattle after the ’07 season. He started out well, but after just 15 starts he tore the labrum in his pitching shoulder. Shoulder problems have plagued him ever since, though he was healthy enough to make 24 starts this season with Boston and Seattle. He went 5-9, 3.62, with 125 strikeouts in 129 innings.
Outlook: Bedard is probably the least risky of the pitchers on this list, given his partial 2011 rebound. Some team will give him a chance to be a #4 or #5 starter, and given his still high strikeout totals, he could surprise and become much more than that. This is a double edged sword, though. Bedard’s success with Boston last year means that he’ll probably be the most expensive pitcher on this list.
Opening Day Age: 31 (11/30/1981).
Glory Days: 2004-2005. Harden was very promising as a 22 year old in 2004. He made 31 starts, won 11 games, and had an ERA of 3.99. In 2005, he only made 19 starts, but he had a dazzling 2.53 ERA and 121 whiffs in 128 innings. He looked like the latest in the long line of Oakland aces.
Injuries and Decline: A shoulder strain limited him in 2005. In 2006 and 2007, he failed to reach even 50 innings at the Major League level due to more shoulder problems, as well as lower back and elbow injuries. He found some success with the Cubs in 2008 and 2009, but even there he failed to exceed 150 IP in either season. Last year he returned to the A’s. In 15 starts (after he recovered from another shoulder strain), Harden had an ugly 5.12 ERA, but he did strike out 9.9 batters per 9 innings.
Outlook: I am on record stating that the Twins should sign Harden. I doubt he’d stick as a member of the starting rotation. But he still throws hard enough and strikes out enough batters to be a very effective reliever. Shifting him to the ‘pen would also limit his workload and hopefully also reduce the chance of another arm injury. If he’s available in the $1 to $2 million range, he’s worth a shot.
Opening Day Age: 28 (1/24/1984)
Glory Days: 2005-2008. Kazmir was a legitimate ace and a big part of the Rays’ ascent from doormat to AL powerhouse. He consistently kept his ERA well below 4.00, and he managed to win double digits each year despite the terrible team around him. The only year he exceeded 200 innings was 2007, but he struck out 239 batters that year.
Injuries and Decline: Kazmir spend some time on the DL in 2006 and 2008 with shoulder and elbow problems, but 2009 was the turning point for him. He missed a month with a right thigh strain, and his ERA ballooned to 4.89, and his strikeout rate fell considerably. He pitched for the Angels in 2010, but he was a shell of his former self with a 5.94 ERA and 1.58 WHIP, as well as two DL stints due to shoulder soreness. Last year, he couldn’t even pitch well for the Halos’ AAA team. He was 0-5 in five starts there with an ERA of 17.02.
Outlook: Not good. Kazmir has pitched badly for long enough that nobody should bet on him coming back. And his fastball has declined considerably. According to Fangraphs, when he came up with the Rays he averaged around 93 mph. Last year (albeit in very limited action), he was around 86. If Kazmir is going to have any future Major League career, he’ll have to reinvent himself as a crafty lefty instead of the power pitcher he used to be.
Opening Day Age: 33 (7/18/1978)
Glory Days: 2004. Sheets was good enough to qualify as the #1 starter for a weak Brewer staff for most of the last decade. 2004 was his best season by far. He had a 2.70 ERA and .98 WHIP, and he struck out 10 batters per 9 innings. He might have won 20 games if he’d played for a winning team. After a battle with the injury bug in 2006 and ’07, Sheets reemerged to have a great 2008 campaign, going 13-9, 3.09 and leading the Brew Crew to the playoffs.
Injuries and Decline: Sheets blew out his elbow and missed the entire 2009 season. In 2010, the Oakland Athletics inexplicably gave him $10 million, and he had an utterly unimpressive season before blowing out his elbow again. He went on the DL that August and then underwent Tommy John surgery.
Outlook: Sheets should be available to pitch in 2011. Pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery are always unpredictable, though, and the fact that Sheets is already at an age where players tend to decline means that his best days are probably behind him.
Opening Day Age: 32 (5/9/1979)
Glory Days: 2005-2008. Webb was probably the best homegrown pitcher in D-Backs history. He had a rare combination of an elite ground ball rate and high strikeout rates that made him very hard to hit. In 2006 he won the NL Cy Young award with 16 wins, 178 strikeouts, and a 3.10 ERA. In 2007, he ERA dipped to 3.01 and his K total rose to 194. And in 2008 he won 22 games for the Diamondbacks.
Injuries and Decline: Webb was the picture of health until Opening Day of 2009. He lasted just four innings in that start before being placed on the DL with a frayed labrum in his pitching shoulder. He recovered from that injury, and the Rangers signed him to a $3 million contract last year, but he didn’t make it past his rehab starts before suffering a different injury, a rotator cuff tear, in the same shoulder.
Outlook: $3 million was probably excessive last year, and it would be way too much this year. Webb would be worthwhile on a minor league contract, nothing more. Nobody has seen this guy pitch in three years, so it’s hard to tell how effective he could be.
Opening Day Age: 30 (1/12/1982)
Glory Days: 2003-2006. Willis was effective as a rookie in 2003, and he was an important component of the Marlins’ World Series run. His best season was 2005, when the lefty won 22 games with a 2.63 ERA.
Injuries and Decline: Willis slumped in 2007 when his ERA jumped to 5.10. He was then traded to the Tigers in the same move the brought them Miguel Cabrera. He never pitched well for Detroit, though. Unlike the others on this list, Willis suffered from psychological problems, not physical ones. He missed nearly the entire 2009 season with severe Anxiety Disorder. Since then, he has bounced around with several organizations, including the Giants and Reds. Last year with Cincinnati he had a 5.00 ERA in 13 starts.
Outlook: Willis is still young, and he does not suffer from any physical damage. He was also never a power pitcher, so he is not dependent on a blazing fastball to get hitters out. It is tempting to think that he might have another good year or two left in him. Whether that’s the case or not, I really hope the Twins bring this guy to camp, if only because I want to see the words “What’chu Talking About Willis” in big letters on the sports page of the Star Tribune.