The Houston Astros have put Bud Norris on the trading block. It feels like there are trade rumors swirling around Norris every year but it seems the 2013 trade deadline is the best opportunity for Houston to trade him for the most value. With the Chicago Cubs supposedly asking a king's ransom for Matt Garza, a free agent to be with a long, detailed injury history, Norris provides a more controllable, younger alternative. Only arbitration eligible for the first time this season, Norris won't be a free agent until 2016 when he'll be 31.
The Astros aren't going anywhere this year or the next and they have a couple young, high-upside arms in Jarred Cosart, Lance McMullers Jr. and Mike Foltynewicz developing in the minors. Having a pitcher who will be getting more and more expensive through the 2015 season doesn't seem necessary for a team that isn't going to be competitive in the not-so-distant future. Therefore, Bud Norris is an intriguing trade option for contending teams and others that are looking for an innings-eaters that could be a stable back-end rotation piece.
As mentioned before, Norris became arbitration eligible for the first time this past winter and settled for a $3 million salary with the Astros, making him the highest paid player on Houston's roster. He'll be a free agent after the 2015 season so he provides some intriguing long-term value. Norris isn't very expensive this year but he's on pace to have the best season of his career so he may be due for a raise next year.
Norris doesn't boast a very eclectic pitch arsenal with a four-seamer, sinker, changeup and slider. Since debuting in 2009, his fastball velocity had been steadily decreasing but has seen a bounce back in 2013, averaging about 93 MPH. Velocity may have somewhat returned in 2013 but his strikeout rate has plummeted. From 2009 until 2012, it hovered around 22-23% but has dropped to 16.7% this year. But he is posting a career low 7.4% walk rate!
Once thing Norris has always had a problem with is home runs. His HR/FB% has usually been 1-3% higher than the league average, leading to an xFIP that has always been lower than his ERA and FIP. Since we have three full seasons to work with, it could be assumed that he was going to continue to be homer-prone. But right now, Norris is sporting a 5.8% HR/FB rate. His batted ball profile has been practically identical with his career norms so it seems that he has been getting lucky and not making a significant improvement. The midseason xFIP of 4.35 warns of an impending regression in the second half of 2013.
Norris has had his fair share of nicks and bruises and has only eclipsed 180 innings once. At the All-Star break in 2013, he had thrown 114 innings. Batters are making contact more often (79.6% contact rate in 2013) and he's thriving on a significant boost in first-strike percentage (65.2%) so he's seemingly become more efficient. His BABIP is higher than it has ever been (.326). At this rate, it looks like Norris is getting a little bit unlucky with balls put in play but he's getting ahead of batters more often than before. It's looking like he might be able to reach 190, maybe even 200 innings this year. He's not going to be on the leaderboards with innings pitched but durability shouldn't be a concerned.
Overall, Norris has been slightly better than replacement level over his first three full seasons, averaging 1.4 fWAR every year. At the All-Star break, he's already accumulated 2.1 fWAR in 2013. He is still just 28 years old and may still be improving but we have a pretty good snapshot of the pitcher Norris is: decent-to-good strikeout rate with average control and prone to the long ball. If we're buying into his significantly lower HR/FB rate in 2013 and expect it to continue, Norris could end up being worth more than three wins this year. Earning just $3 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility, he is definitely going to command more next year. Wins are worth about $5 million and Norris should continue to be worth one-and-a-half wins and possibly more throughout 2015. Arbitration should keep his salary down, leaving teams the ability to extract considerable value from an innings eater with good strikeout potential.
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Who are the other starting pitchers believed to be on the block? Teams such as the Brewers, Twins, Marlins, Cubs, White Sox, Mariners, Royals and Padres can arguably be considered out of contention and may be positioned as "sellers."
Of these eight teams, I think we can safely say that those controlled, dominant starting pitchers such as Jose Fernandez, Felix Hernandez and Jeff Samardzija. Teams have apparently been lining around the block to inquire about Chris Sale from the White Sox but after signing a team-friendly, long-term deal, I highly doubt he'll be wearing a different uniform after July unless Chicago is completely blown away by some offer.
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But there are a couple controllable starters that may be on the block such as Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Villanueva and John Danks. Gallardo is an intriguing option to "buy low" as he's in the middle of his worst season but has a proven track record of being a productive starting pitcher, accumulating 12.4 fWAR from 2009-12 and averaging 195 innings a season. He's earning $7.75 million this year but his salary will rise to $11.25 million next year. The deal also holds a $13 million team option in 2015 with a $600,000 buyout. Younger than Norris at just 27 years old, Gallardo may be the best controllable starter if Milwaukee puts him on the block.
Carlos Villanueva was signed by the Cubs in October for 2 years and $10 million to serve as a back-end starter who could also shift into the bullpen. Although his strikeout rate has dropped, Villanueva's walk rate has improved and his groundball percentage is at its highest since 2008. This and a significantly lower fly ball rate have led to a career low 3.77 FIP/3.85 xFIP. Chicago isn't going to catch the Cardinals, Reds or Pirates and have already traded Scott Feldman and are currently weighing offers on Matt Garza, who is likely to be traded this week. With another starter about to be traded, I think the Cubs will keep Villanueva this year to hold down the back-end of their rotation.
John Danks had shown serious promise when he was younger, breaking out with a 3.44 FIP in 195 innings for the White Sox in 2008. Injuries have sidetracked his career throughout the past couple years, culminating with surgery to repair a capsule tear in his left shoulder in the summer of 2012. He's been able to pitch 62.2 innings before the All-Star break but doesn't seem to be getting the excellent results that he used to. More prone to homeruns than ever before, his ERA and FIP have swollen to 4.31/4.64 but his xFIP argues that he's still a productive pitcher. His batted ball profile has been very similar to his successful years so perhaps he's just been getting unlucky with his HR/FB rate. Danks has never had substantial strikeout potential and has thrived on control. Although it's rather smaller sample size, Danks has posted an impressive 3.2% walk rate. Still only 28 years old, there may be some good years ahead for Danks. But with the upside comes a hefty price tag. From 2013 until 2016, Danks will be earning $14.25 million. Contending teams may not want to take a risk on an expensive pitcher coming off of major shoulder surgery.
There are also a handful of free-agent-to-be starters that are believed to be available such as Matt Garza and Phil Hughes. Much has been written about Garza over the past few weeks and appears a lock to be dealt.
The Yankees have been staying afloat in the AL East race despite tons of injuries to their aging core. With Michael Pineda waiting in the minors and Phil Hughes a free agent to be, New York has understandably been fielding offers for the intriguing pitcher. Hughes has shown some promise over his career but struggles with inconsistency and durability, leaving doubt about whether he would be a rotation upgrade for some contending teams. Inquiring teams may be thinking of him as a bullpen piece that he excelled in earlier in his career. Needless to say, Hughes may get traded but I think more teams will be interested in the similar but cheaper and more controllable Norris.
Jeff Passan has kindly done most of the work already, listing some possible matches for Bud Norris. The Rangers keeping tabs on Norris as an alternative to Garza isn't surprising nor is the Giants as Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum may be pitching their last seasons in San Francisco. Toronto is interesting because even if Josh Johnson leaves this offseason, Kyle Drabek should be recovered and able to slide into his rotation spot. Considering how unlucky the Blue Jays have been with starting pitching injuries over the past couple years, they actually make for a conceivable landing spot. Personally, I'd expect the Angels and Indians to jump into the bidding war as dark horses as well.
Texas always seems to be looking for ways to improve their rotation. With Colby Lewis still rebuilding arm strength after last year's Tommy John surgery and Matt Harrison not expected back until September, Jon Daniels and company may view Norris as a better option than Martin Perez as the fifth starter. With a farm system plentiful with young, high-upside players, Texas will quickly have the upper hand over its competitors. Perhaps they could dangle an intriguing ranked prospect such as Joey Gallo in trade talks.
Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong are free agents to be and San Francisco has to be concerned with Matt Cain's sudden implosion this year. With reigning NL MVP Buster Posey still performing well and Pablo Sandoval assumingly getting healthy over the All-Star break, don't be surprised if the Giants make a run at the up-for-grabs NL West. Their playoff odds are low but an acquisition such as Bud Norris could stabilize their rotation and allow them to try to trade Lincecum for outfield help. Edwin Escobar or Andrew Susac could pose as decent trade bait that Houston could ask for.
The Blue Jays
Toronto made a big splash this offseason and traded a lot of their rising talent but still have some prospects to spare. Josh Johnson is due to become a free agent next year, J.A. Happ is recovering from concussion symptoms and Brandon Morrow continues to struggle to stay healthy. The instability of their rotation may be the primary factor in their reported interested in Norris. That being said, Kyle Drabek should be back for the start of 2014, Esmil Rogers has had some great spot starts and they always have the option of stretching Brett Cecil out, even though he has been lights out in the bullpen. With Houston owning all of the leverage in trade talks, I think Toronto acquiring Norris could be considered a long shot.
The Dark Horses
I wouldn't be surprised to see the Angels reported as a potential landing spot for Norris. Joe Blanton has been a disaster since signing with Anaheim, Jason Vargas (a free agent to be nonetheless) is still recovering from a blood clot and Tommy Hanson, hasn't been able to stay healthy and effective. The Angels aren't rolling out a gigantic payroll just to be a distant third behind Texas and Oakland and I think Norris would be a better option than Garrett Richards or Jerome Williams.
The Indians have reportedly been interested in Matt Garza but I think they will fall short as playoff contenders this year. Detroit should run away with the division in the second half and the Rays, Rangers and Athletics are simply better teams that will be duking it out for the wildcard. Therefore, Cleveland should be looking for future pitching help instead of for the present. Scott Kazmir was a scrap heap pickup that has been pitching better as of late but Norris would provide more durability and innings in the long run. Ubaldo Jimenez has an $8 million team option for 2014, which Cleveland will likely use, but if he falls apart in the second half, they could have Norris as insurance.
Overall, Bud Norris has been a serviceable innings-eater that could be a viable #4 or #5 starter on most teams. Cheap and controllable with strikeout potential, he provides considerable long-term value for inquiring teams. Although he may not be as attractive as other controlled starters such as Gallardo, Norris is in the middle of a career year and may continue to improve. With such a low payroll, the Astros shouldn't really have a burning desire to trade him but if they're planning on getting two top prospects for Norris, perhaps now is the best time to sell high.
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Mike Mulvenna is a writer for Beyond the Box Score.
You can follow him on twitter @mkmulv.