Monday, December 11, 2006

ted lilly and jason marquis

with the signing of jason marquis following on the landing of ted lilly, the cubs pitching situation for the next couple years has congealed markedly in just a few days. both of these pitchers are contractually obligated to the cubs for years beyond carlos zambrano at this point, so it behooves us to examine them closely in order to determine what fortunes await the team.

sadly, such analysis is not entirely kind.

lilly has been signed as an ostensible second fiddle to zambrano. it should perhaps be a warning to even casual fans that the cubs are lilly's fifth major league team despite the fact that lilly is just 31. and further warning is given by the fact that the toronto blue jays saw fit to acquire a.j. burnett at some expense and risk for that role in 2006 behind roy halladay.

upon longer investigation, the merit of those warnings can be confirmed. lilly statistically simply doesn't rise to the standard of a front-of-the-rotation starter. clearly, he is not a bad pitcher -- a career record of 59-58 is respectable, and though his career era is 4.60 over his last four years he has allowed 340 earned in 683.2 innings to amount a 4.48 era. he will on occasion dazzle as do most decent pitchers. twice in 2006 he managed ten or more strikeout in a start; twice he managed to pitch eight complete.

but just as clearly, neither to such numbers make for a very good pitcher. lilly has over the same span allowed about a hit an inning (664), which would be fine if he had demonstrated an ability to limit walks. but he has not -- lilly is one of the more walk-prone starters on the junior circuit, allowing 286 over that same four-year span to make 3.8 per nine innings and a whip of 1.39. he also failed to pitch into the sixth in nine of his 32 starts last year. while some mild mitigation of his downside can be expected in coming to the national league, the move will not in and of itself transform lilly into a different pitcher. he will walk over 80 men if he can (for the first time in his career) pitch 200 innings. those who have found zambrano's control difficulties hard to stomach will find themselves in somewhat better but still familiar territory with lilly, whose capacity to escape hits nowhere near approaches zambrano's -- lilly walked at least four in nine different starts in 2006, compared to zambrano's 14, compiling a 4.31 era in those outings.

measurement by more advanced metrics confirms a tepid assessment. lilly for his career stands at 3 pitching runs above average in 936 innings; over the last four years -- the probable peak of his career output -- that same figure stands at 9. in terms of vorp, lilly's last four seasons totals are 26.4 in 2006, 4.0 in 2005, 46.8 in his career year of 2004 and with oakland in 2003 25.8 -- an annual average of 25.7. this is the model profile of an average major league starter, which is what the cubs have indeed signed. expectations for him in 2007 should be similar to those held for greg maddux in recent years with the cubs -- solid, but unspectacular and prone to the typical maddening bouts of difficulty.

for those who have been watching the cardinals in recent seasons, it will be perhaps evident that marquis is yet less than that as a pitcher. if we evaluate lilly by his praa and vorp totals, we should do the same for marquis: (-62) praa in 910.1 career innings, a four-year vorp line of (-5.7), 18.2, 36.7 and (-1.9) that averages 11.8. decidedly, this is a well-below-average major league starter.

while marquis pitched brilliantly at times for the cardinals, he also there benefitted from one of the most brilliant of national league defenses. by most measures 2004 was his career season, in which he posted a 3.71 era that jim hendry surely hopes to see replicated. but marquis, it must be said, was exceptionally fortunate that season -- totaling a rare (-24) in delta-r, an approximation of runs unallowed by luck. with that benefit, marquis' defense-adjusted era that year was 4.36, putting him some half a run better for the assistance of his defense -- but still a standout year for a pitcher with a dismal career dera of 5.13.

to be sure, marquis is not as disastrous as his 2006 campaign totals would indicate -- marquis may not be a good pitcher, but this last was a bad year even for him. but a broader view still must find marquis wanting -- the cubs would probably have done better to trust in the arrival of pitchers like sean marshall or juan mateo that to make a three-year commitment to marquis, whom was outperformed handily by both in a simple comparison. indeed, against marquis' 5.13 career dera, marshall posted in his rookie year 5.32 and mateo likewise 5.34. on balance, this writer finds it very hard to expect much more from marquis than from these two novices.

in the final analysis, following on a 66-win campaign in which the pitching staff frequently collapsed under the weight of uncertainty, it must be said that here hendry bought in marquis what he perceives to be a known factor. and certainty has a value. however, whether or not that value is of any assistance in pursuing the playoffs is questionable when this team is in a position to need luck to prevail.

when added to an in situ rotation of zambrano, rich hill and wade miller, the likelihood would seem to be that lilly and marquis show just what a terrible hazard it is to try to assemble by free agency a winner from a club so low as the 2006 cubs. immense strides had to be taken, and even if one or two were successful they would not be enough to climb out of such a deep crevasse to the mountain peak of a league pennant without others.

it seems here that these others the cubs have now failed to take -- with jason schmidt having landed in los angeles and the cubs having shot their bolt on these two, any meaningful pursuit of a difference-making pitcher is now over. and the cubs would seem to be left in a no-man's land of mediocrity so familiar to so many of us -- neither atop the peak nor deep in the crevasse, but stranded upon the face of the mountain to face the elements, praying for good fortune and fearing bad.

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