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Never-Going-To-Happen Pitcher Of The Day

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I mentioned this a few days ago, but with nothing else really going on right now I thought it might be worthy of a main-page post. Last Wednesday the Reds non-tendered Brandon Claussen, making him a free agent after a miserable season in which he posted a 6.19 ERA over 77 innings. That's a legitimately awful performance, and the sort that ordinarily justifies a pitcher's release. In this particular case, however, it was a bad decision, for a few reasons:

(1) Unless I'm missing something, Claussen wasn't even arbitration-eligible, meaning he was due to make very little money

(2) As a pre-arbitration player, Claussen would've been under Cincinnati's control for the next four seasons

(3) Just a year ago he put up a 4.21 ERA in 29 starts, with strong peripherals

(4) He was battling shoulder soreness for all of 2006 which took a toll on his performance, a problem that was solved by offseason rotator cuff surgery

(5) Even with a bum shoulder he had a K/BB better than 2, an indication that he still has the same stuff that made him a top prospect for the Yankees a few years back (low-90's fastball, good slider, adequate changeup)

(6) He doesn't turn 28 until May

(7) He was a decent pitcher in an organization with little to spare

Now a free agent, Claussen's virtually guaranteed to land a Major League contract, but given his status and recent history it's going to be exceedingly cheap. And, to me, he seems like the perfect gamble for the Mariners to make at the back of their rotation.

In 316 ML innings, Claussen's 16.1% strikeout rate and 8.0% walk rate line up almost perfectly with the league average. His ERA's substantially worse, though, because he gives up a lot of fly balls, and hence a lot of home runs. Part of the problem has been his bandbox home ballpark, but Claussen's ratios are actually a little worse on the road, suggesting that this isn't just a simple consequence of environment. He's homer-prone, and  guys who give up a lot of longballs have trouble preventing runs.

Here's where Seattle fits in. Jarrod Washburn was signed to an enormous contract in large part because he's such a good fit for Safeco Field. As a lefty flyball pitcher, he records a lot of fly outs by right-handed hitters who get killed by Safeco's cavernous LF power alley. Guess what? Claussen's not too different. He's also a lefty flyball pitcher, only he has a higher strikeout rate and a better slider that helps to neutralize righties. This is a park that could make him look at least as good as Washburn for a tiny fraction of the price. That has a lot of value.

Obviously, Claussen has his downsides. For one thing, he probably won't be ready for Opening Day; it could take him a little into May before he's back at full strength following offseason surgery. He also had a ligament replacement operation a few years back, so he clearly isn't the most durable guy in the world. On top of that, there's a chance that the league switch could cut into his ratios and turn him into a replacement-level #5, and those aren't the kinds of guys to whom you want to be giving guaranteed contracts. If Brandon Claussen really is as bad as he looked in 2006, then the Mariners would essentially be paying him money to lose games.

The upside, though, I think is worth the risk. Most importantly, the risk itself is low, because Claussen's not going to cost very much and even at his worst he's 95% as good as Cha Baek and three times the pitcher Jake Woods'll ever be. If it doesn't work out, you drop him from the rotation and either give him his walking papers immediately or non-tender him next December. You might lose, I dunno, $0.5-1m in the process, but that's hardly anything. And beyond that, Claussen just has so much potential for more. Where we pretty much know what we're going to get from Ramirez, Washburn, Batista, and Baek, Claussen has the repertoire and history of someone capable of taking a leap to the next level and becoming a bonafide #2/3 pitcher. He won't turn into the ace people thought he'd be as a Yankee, but there's still time for him to improve. And even if he doesn't, he's not much worse than the guys we already have, if at all.

The 2007 Mariners are a roughly .500 team with very limited potential for more. The majority of the players on the roster have low performance ceilings, which reduces the overall potential for overachieving. Low upside means a low chance of competing for the division title come September. Brandon Claussen adds to the potential upside without really taking away from the expected performance at all. Bringing him in would add one more player to the roster capable of a breakout season that would push the Mariners towards the playoffs, and he'd barely cost anything.

Let's put it this way. If Cha Baek has an expected ERA range between, say, 4.75 - 5.25, and Brandon Claussen's is between 4.00 - 5.50, why not try for the latter? The Mariners are in a position where they need some breaks if they want to contend, and Claussen brings moderate to high upside with low risk. Sticking with Baek would be the safe, conservative thing to do, but right now that's not going to win this team any championships. And besides, Baek would presumably still be hanging around anyway in case Claussen crashed and burned, so what's the harm in giving it a shot?

Come late April or May, I want to see Brandon Claussen pitching in a Mariner uniform. It isn't going to happen, but at least this gives me something new to be disappointed about. I'm tired of crying over bad trades. It's time to move on and focus that despondency on something else.