When Randy Wolf and Scott Baker were cut free, it seemed like another move could be coming. Lloyd McClendon hinted at it last night, and here it is. The Mariners have signed 6'10'' right-hander Chris Young, recently released by the Washington Nationals.
The Mariners were linked to Young as soon as he was made available, so this isn't a big surprise. According to Ryan Divish, it's a major league deal, so even if Iwakuma/Walker return by the end of April, the team will still be on the hook for his salary until somebody else picks him up. Young will likely open as the #4 starter, breaking up the two lefties in James Paxton and Roenis Elias, the latter of which can be eased in as the #5 guy.
It's always been about health for Young, who's battled neck and shoulder injuries most recently. Last year, Young was a disaster in AAA (2.00 WHIP over seven starts) while he struggled with a nerve condition in his shoulder. The Nationals gave it another go in the spring, but the rotation was full, and he was given his release.
Young claims he feels better than he has in years, via the Washington Post.
"I feel completely different," he said. "I’ve battled shoulder stuff for really the last five years and last year when they finally said this isn’t your shoulder this is a nerve issue, thoracic outlet syndrome, my shoulder feels like it did five, six years ago. I’m really excited about it. I expect it to stay that way. It’s the best it’s felt in a long time. I want to get back to being the pitcher I can be."
The WP also says Young has touched 88 mph with his fastball after only throwing in the low 80s last spring.
At a glimpse, Young doesn't seem that impressive. He's now 34 and has made a grand total of 28 starts since the end of 2009. The good news is that those starts have been quite solid for a back of the rotation pitcher, and if the medicals check out (I'm assuming they have, if the team offered a major league deal), this could be a steal.
Since Young's poor 2009 season, he's amassed a 3.40 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 3.3 BB/9. He's a soft-throwing finesse pitcher, but despite his steep downward plane, he's also an extreme fly ball pitcher. This has made his peripherals, especially his xFIP, look completely out of whack compared to his actual results over his career. He's always been able to keep his ERA well under expected rates (xFIP), based on batted ball rates. Young has never had an ERA higher than his xFIP, and the career discrepancy is staggering -- 3.79 ERA vs. a 4.75 xFIP.
His last semi-healthy season came in 2012, where he managed a 4.15 ERA through 20 starts. His xFIP was 5.36, thanks in part to his extremely low 22.3% ground ball rate and staggering 58.3% fly ball rate. This is pretty much what to expect from Young, who has the lowest ground ball % of any starting pitcher over the last decade.
Still, he's made it work by not allowing many line drives (18.6% career rate) and displaying an ability to keep the ball in the park (8% HR/FB ratio). Some of that is surely thanks to his five years spent playing in Petco Park, but even away from pitcher friendly parks he's maintained that ability with an 8.2% HR/FB ratio on the road. He's not just a product of cavernous parks, but it certainly doesn't hurt that he's headed to another one. He'll have a bad outfield defense behind him, but otherwise, the match seems good.
Young's arsenal is incredibly simplistic. He essentially only throws two pitches, and he doesn't throw them hard. Young's fastball only averaged 85 mph in 2012, thrown 74% of the time. His only other primary pitch was a slow slider, clocking in at just 76.5 mph, thrown 21% of the time. He's one of the softest-tossing right-handed pitchers in baseball, but he's managed to make it work. Only R.A. Dickey had a slower fastball among right-handed starters in 2012.
It's not all roses of course, and that's why he's available. He's extremely slow to home plate from the stretch, and players have stolen on him at will throughout his career. His health has a tendency to come and go at any moment, and even though he feels good now, something is fairly likely to come up. But the upside is undeniable.
It's unclear how long Young will stick around, but if he succeeds, the Mariners will have a good problem: six healthy, possibly productive starters. There was never a real chance that Randy Wolf was going to become a solid option for the Mariners, but there is a chance, and not that small of one, that Young could end up being a nice surprise at the back end of the rotation. He's an extreme fly ball pitcher that will be pitching primarily in the cold, thick spring air in Seattle, when balls go to die on the warning track.
It's a great flier that puts the Wolf saga to bed. Young is a better player to carry out of camp than Wolf, and while the Mariners somehow managed to look bad doing something again, they still made a series of good decisions, even if there was another breakdown in communication.
It might be the end of the line for Bobby LaFromboise, but I'm optimistic he'll slip through waivers. As teams shuffle around their rosters, a lefty specialist with good minor league numbers but without overwhelming stuff seems like a good bet to slip through the cracks. Hector Noesi was out of options, so the decision to get rid of The Raspberry means Noesi has probably made the team. Why.
UPDATE (from Colin): Young's getting a decent chunk of change
The News Tribune's Bob Dutton has the details on the Mariners' deal with Chris Young.
RHP Chris Young's deal with #Mariners is for a $1.25 million guarantee. Can add another $3.475 million in performance bonuses.— Bob Dutton (@TNT_Mariners) March 27, 2014
For a guy who has the health issues Young does—and someone who was just released from a minor league deal—this is a good sum of money, and should put to bed any claims that the Mariners not seeing eye-to-eye with Randy Wolf was because they were pinching pennies.
In my mind, it's difficult to see this as anything but encouraging. McClendon said yesterday that he hoped to have clarity on the starting rotation in the afternoon, and they didn't. With that, and the size of this deal—both in the guaranteed money and the incentives—it sounds like there was a decent amount of competition for Young's services. And if that's the case, the scouts must've liked what they saw. And, of course, once the Mariners medical staff got a look at him, they must've liked what they saw too.
It's likely that, at this juncture, the Mariners view Young as more than a stopgap pegged to make just four or five starts.