Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tigers Sign Brad Penny. Where Does That Leave Armando Galarraga?

Tigers General Manager Dave Drombrowski has publicly hinted at the idea of adding another starter to his rotation a few times this off season, and with the recent signing of Brad Penny, he's finally made that a reality. By moving Phil Coke to the rotation, the Tigers already had a full five man rotation, but the addition of Penny gives the team additional depth that, beyond Andrew Oliver, was lacking internally.

While Penny himself hasn't been anything particularly special the past three years, having posted a 5.02 ERA while struggling through various injuries, he has been a steady if unspectacular innings eater throughout his career posting a career ERA of 4.11 with an FIP of 3.98 and an xFIP of 4.19. Despite a mid-90s fastball (93.4mph career / 94.1mph 2010), Penny's rate stats profile more like that of a inning-eating-sinkerballer: 6.27K/2.85BB-45.7GB.

What the Tigers will get out of Penny of course, remains something of a mystery. If healthy, Penny could be good for around 170-190 innings with an ERA in the low 4s. Poor results aside, an examination of Penny's rate stats the past three seasons reveals very little change other than a slight (but not completely insignificant) decline in his strikeout rate. He remains an average to somewhat low strikeout pitcher with average or slightly better walk rates and solid/plus ground ball tendencies. Of course, the issue of his health remains a big IF given his past three seasons. He could also pitch the way he did in 2008 or 2009, or end up making just nine starts as he did in 2010 for the Cardinals.

That being said, speculating on injuries is a fools errand. What we should be taking into account is that the Tigers had a need - someone who could eat innings at the bottom of the rotation - and while Penny comes with plenty of risk, he also comes with an upside that former 5th starter Armando Galarraga doesn't possess. For what it's worth, Bill James projects Galarraga for 178 innings of a 4.45 ERA. While projections aren't out yet for Penny, one would assume they won't be good given his performance over the past three seasons.

But with Penny signed, the Tigers have given themselves something more difficult to measure than even advanced metrics can quantify - peace of mind. Penny gives the Tigers depth that insulates them against the all-too-common pitching injury, a veteran presence and a proven innings eater - and he does so at a cut-throat rate.

The worst case scenario for this signing is that Penny, who struggled in the AL during his only stint in Boston, tanks and is summarily released, traded, or banished to mop-up duty. The best case of course, is significantly better. While some might be quick to label the signing as insignificant (something it may very well end up being) I like it because even in its insignificance, it is meaningful.

There are other angles of this signing to explore however. As implied in the title of this post, one has to wonder what this ultimately means for the future of Galarraga. While I've seen some speculation that he may become trade bait, that would seem to run counter to what I imagine Dombrowski's real intent is - to create depth that protects the team against injury or ineffectiveness. Short term, I expect the Tigers to utilize Galarraga in a long-relief role where he'll almost certainly prove to be more effective than Eddie Bonine was in 2010. Long term however, he remains a viable option as a #4 or #5 starter on most teams. Whether that team will be the Tigers or not will likely have much to do with how the Tigers relatively deep corps of pitching prospects develops.

Speaking of pitching prospects, I also wonder what this says about the Tigers short-term view of Andrew Oliver. While Oliver possesses good stuff, with a fastball that averages 93.8mph and a good slider with late break that will be very effective as a put-away pitch against both lefties and righties. His changeup is still developing and in the long run, that will make him vulnerable to lefties. More importantly, his control is still very much a work in progress as this point. While Oliver is rightfully well-regarded as a pitching prospect, his reputation may be ahead of his refined talents.

That being said, Oliver's short-term outlook shouldn't cloud the long-term one, he's still a rare beast, a live-armed lefty who, despite his flaws, projects as a #2 or #3 pitcher. It just seems that the Tigers brain-trust doesn't believe his time is now.

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