The end of spring training is often met with a lot of roster finagling. Jed Hoyer spoke at length during yesterday’s game about having the ability to make moves at this time year. Hoyer cited an insistence where the Red Sox had to pass on Nelson Cruz on waivers because lack of room on the 25 man roster. The Cubs have some roster flexibility with the injured players that could be added to the 60 day DL opening up 40 man roster spots, and the Cubs might have their eye on late spring training acquisition already.
Last night Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the Cubs were one of many teams in attendance for Chris Young’s final spring training start with the Nationals. Young had signed on a minor league deal in February to provide depth for the Nationals starting staff, but with 5 healthy starters Young had the option of opting out of his minor league deal to look for major league work. Later that night Chris Young did indeed opt out of the deal giving the Nationals 24 hours to add him to the major league roster or release him. (Update the Nationals have granted Young his release).
I must admit that I personally hadn’t thought much about Chris Young since the 2007 incident where he threw at Derrek Lee’s surgically repaired wrist causing a bench clearing brawl. The oft-injured former Padre and Met though is an intriguing target though. He is tied for being the second tallest pitcher in big league history at a commanding 6’ 10” and sports a career ERA of 3.79, and managed to put up a 4.19 ERA last year in 20 starts. The Cubs have need with their 7 capable major league starters down to 5 and Chris Rusin a Cubbie occurrence away from starting big league games again. So is this a perfect match?
It is logical to assume that the Cubs were at the game to watch Chris Young since the Cubs don’t play the Nationals or Astros in the first month of the season. Chris Young would make the most sense of any target available on either roster, but the amount of interest the Cubs have in Chris Young is hardly clear from sending one (or more) of many, many scouts the Cubs employ to watch this one game. And there were red flags despite the solid performance. Chris Young, never known to light up a radar gun despite his commanding presence, was clocked between 79-82 mph on his fastball. That is well below the 85 mph that Young’s fastball has been averaging since his first shoulder injury in 2009.
Injuries are the biggest knock against Chris Young. The starting pitcher hasn’t made 30 starts in six seasons, and has thrown more than just a 100 innings just twice since that time. Chris Young has been snake bitten with suffering an oblique injury in 2007, getting hit in the face with an Albert Pujols liner, and two separate shoulder injuries. Shoulder injuries are scary for pitchers, and many either are never the same or take a long time to come back from those issues. One only has to look at another pitcher in this city who was a teammate of Chris Young’s to see that. (An aside on the shoulder injury, while doing research for this blog I found a fascinating article in 2011 after he suffered bicep tendinitis after two starts. Read the whole article, but it mentions how this injury is a warning sign of bad mechanics and shoulder injuries.)
Chris Young also is a flyball pitcher with bad peripherals. Young has certainly benefited statistically from pitching in Petco Park and Citi Field. He also has consistently put up an ERA below his FIP, xFIP and SIERA. So while not a great pitcher during his career, he may have been also been lucky and park aided in achieving those numbers. So why then would the Cubs be interested in upsetting recently signed Carlos Villanueva by moving him to the bullpen right before the season starts for a lucky, park-aided, oft-injured, soft-tossing 33 year old?
Chris Young has talent, and the Cubs are still starved for pitching talent at the big league level and the upper minors (again Chris Rusin is the next man up right now). Young’s peripherals have never been good because of an ability to maintain a low BABIP. I call this ability and not luck very deliberately. Young does two things that allow him to maintain his low BABIP. First is by having more flyballs which are less likely to turn into hits than groundballs. Second is an ability to induce infield fly balls which are the most likely ball in pall to turn into outs. Chris Young had a 15.3% IFFB%, which was 0.2% lower than his career average, in 2012 which would have ranked fifth in baseball, if he qualified. Young also has shown improved command, an attribute that the front office has been focused on, with his walk rate dropping to 2.82 BB/9 in 2012.
Injuries and declining velocity are a concern that is not easily dismissed. The Cubs luck with injuries is well documented, and I am not particularly hopeful that at age 33 Chris Young will turn into a 200 innings a year pitcher. But the Cubs don’t need that, and the risk is likely to minimal in terms of financial commitment. The declining velocity is also worrisome. It was just a spring training game, and the velocity could come back as he builds back strength. Or it might not and we have yet to see what the loss of those few clicks off the fastball does to Young’s results. Some signs point to him being okay even at that velocity given that he has never had a blazing fastball, but has relied on location and late life on his fastball. An old article at his peak talked about how deceptive his fastball can be despite the lack of blazing speed.
By the end of the day we should know if Chris Young is staying in Washington or will hit the open market. Young has to be aware of the Cubs situation and know that the Cubs have two starting pitchers that will be coming back at some point this season. Young may choose to sign elsewhere where a spot in the rotation is more assured long term than the Cubs. Or we might find out if the Cubs are not interested in this opportunity. There are plenty of reasons for the Cubs not to be, but I think those are outweighed by another low risk possibility of adding talent. Carlos Villanueva has said all the right things about helping the team, and ultimately this move is about helping the team. Chris Young isn’t going to save the season, there isn’t one to save, and his age precludes him from being a core piece. But this is a short term talent infusion with the possibility of being leveraged into a long term asset. Those opportunities do not come along every day.