Marlins acquire Nate Robertson from Tigers


I was casually minding my own business, getting back on the internet in preparation to write another post today. I was kind of wondering what I would write, as the days before Opening Day can get kind of dull. Luckily, team news sprung up to help me out (H/T Hotstove.com).

On Tuesday, Florida acquired left-hander Nate Robertson and cash from Detroit for lefty prospect Jay Voss.

This will be Robertson’s second stint with the Marlins. Drafted in the fourth round by Florida in 1999, he made his Major League debut with the club in 2002, appearing in six games.

“This is a now move with an experienced guy,” Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said. “We’ve got to make some decisions shortly.”

Robertson, 32, has been with the Tigers since 2003, and last year, the left-hander was 2-3 with a 5.44 ERA. He appeared in 28 games with six starts.

The arrival of Robertson adds a lefty to what was shaping up as an all right-handed rotation.

Welcome back Nate Robertson, a former fourth-round selection by the Marlins. Robertson was initially dealt to the Detroit Tigers as part of the deal to acquire Mark Redman prior to 2003. He spent a few games with the Marlins in 2002, but was otherwise unseen. From 2004 on, however, he had pitched a grand total of 949 innings for the Tigers, including four seasons with over 160 IP. To acquire Robertson, the Marlins traded away Jay Voss, a promising relief prospect who would have started off 2010 either in Double- or Triple-A. While Voss had a solid 2009 campaign, he appeared to be one of many other fungible relief arms in the Marlins minor league system, albeit a young one that may have had a future with the team. Obviously, the intriguing part of this deal is the shakeup of the rotation via the acquisition of Robertson.

The Marlins acquired Robertson for the specific purpose of entering the rotation, meaning that Clay Hensley, who was in line for the fifth starting slot, will get knocked out of the way. Here’s what Larry Beinfest had to say on that matter:

Beinfest added that Clay Hensley, a non-roster invitee who had been lined up as the fifth starter, will likely make the team. Hensley now projects to join Burke Badenhop as a long reliever.

“Robertson is going in the rotation. It is very likely that Hensley will make this team,” Beinfest said. “We will figure out exactly how the back end of that rotation looks. We traded for Nate with the thought that he will go into the rotation.”

There’s a good shot Hensley ends up in long relief and Badenhop gets bumped up to more high-leverage work, so there’s a bit of good in that regard. Now, what has Robertson done to deserve that spot? Here are Robertson’s FIP/xFIP since 2004:

2004: 4.52/3.91
2005: 4.73/4.23
2006: 4.72/4.35
2007: 4.62/4.70
2008: 4.99/4.62
2009: 4.55/5.37

Robertson’s K-BB differential is unimpressive, with a career differential of 7.7%. He used to get more ground balls, but he has been dropping towards the league average since he debuted in 2003. One oddity that has repeated in his career is that he allows an unusually high number of fly balls to leave the park, as evidenced by his career 12.7% HR/FB%. At this point, you have to think some of that anomalous career rate is “skill” rather than just bad luck, meaning that xFIP will always overestimate him by a tad.

Essentially, Robertson is a solidly unimpressive pitcher, which doesn’t necessarily mean he is a poor one. A career 4.74 FIP in the American League is by no means awful, and in fact Robertson hung out around 2 WAR seasonally according to FanGraphs from 2005 to 2007. In 2008, the wheels began to fall off a bit as his control seeped upwards, and in 2009 he lost his rotation spot with Detroit. Here’s what FanSided’s own John Parent of Motor City Bengals had to say about Robertson’s play in 2009:

[Robertson] lost out on a rotation spot at the end of camp in ’09 and worked in the ‘pen. the results weren’t very good. In June of last year he had some “fatty masses” removed from his elbow and when he came back he was much better. He started several games down the stretch last year and was pretty good. His velocity hasn’t come back but he showed this spring that he can work effectively at 88-89. He has a decent change and his slider is as good now as it ever was and he spent time working with Kenny Rogers and Jaime (sp?) Moyer learning how to pitch with more finesse.

FanGraphs has his fastball averaging 90 mph since he debuted, giving him the classic lefty repertoire. Still, he was fairly decent in the past, and it seems injuries and mechanical issues messed him up heading into 2008 and into 2009. Can pitching coach Randy St. Claire fix those issues? Hopefully he can, because the projection systems aren’t kind to Robertson as he stands now. PECOTA is as optimistic as it gets, projecting a 4.54 FIP that he has not hit in years (it’s worth noting that their commentary isn’t very high on him), though the adjustment factor for the American League may be a tad higher. CHONE and ZiPS don’t see the same thing, projecting 4.81 and 4.74 FIP respectively. A move to the National League, however, should help drop those run values a little bit, as he won’t have to face the DH.

The likely primary reason why the Fish picked up Robertson is his status as a lefty. As I mentioned on Friday, the Marlins were set to go into the season without a lefty in their rotation, and while it didn’t seem like an awful thing, it appears as if the Marlins brass thought it was worth rectifying. The good news is that, even in his bad seasons, Robertson has always stuffed lefties (numbers are career totals):

K%: 18.6%
UIBB%: 5.3%
GB%: 55.1%
HR/FB%: 9.1%

Unfortunately, as a starter, he’ll be facing a lot more righties, and those same numbers are far less appealing.

K%: 14.5%
UIBB%: 8.6%
GB%: 44.4%
HR/FB%: 13.7%

In the past, Robertson has been able to get by by dominating lefties, and he probably can still do that. Whether he has deteriorated badly against righties remains to be seen, but is yet another reason why he may be a scary option as a starter. Still, I guess it will comforting to know that at least one rotation member outside of Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson can be trusted against Ryan Howard or Chase Utley.

Overall, this can’t be considered a bad move. At best, the team moved laterally, giving up very little to get another starting option. With the Marlins only paying the minimum to Robertson (the Tigers are covering the remaining $10M), we would expect close to replacement level production. While I doubt Robertson will be that bad, he probably won’t be too much better. On the off chance that he has regained form (and apparently those “fatty clusters” removed from his arm last season may give us hope for regained form), we might have ourselves and inning-eating, back-of-the-rotation guy who could approach 1.5 WAR. And all we gave up was Jay Voss. Here’s what John Herold had to say on Voss:

Jay Voss was drafted in the 8th round of the 2007 draft. His first two seasons, where he mostly started, were not pretty at all. He’d post a 6.92 ERA in 117 1/3rd innings of work between Jamestown and Greensboro. His ERA was inflated by BABIP though, as his peripherals were a decent 6.90 K/9, 3.45 BB/9, and 1.00 HR/9 (Both places are severe HR parks), good for a FIP of 4.23. He was converted into relief full time and saw his peripherals improve with his ERA dropping drastically. In 49.7 innings between Jupiter and Jacksonville, he put up an ERA of just 2.72. His FIP was a similar 2.96, with peripherals of 8.33 K/9, 3.26 BB/9, and 0.36 HR/9. He also gets GBs at a very high rate. For his career, he has given up a FB 27.6% of the time, and last year it was just a tiny 22.8%. The Marlins sent him to the AFL this past offseason, and it looked like he could be fast tracked as the lefty to complement Meyer in the pen. Having a prototypical RP Fastball/Slider repetior, he’s likely going to lean more towards being a LOOGY.

All in all the Marlins did not lose much in Voss. Sickel’s rated him a C and BA ranked him 23rd (The 4th lefty, behind Dan Jennings, Brad Hand, and Edgar Olmos). And with Pinto and Meyer at the ML level, Hunter Jones and Taylor Tankersley in AAA, and Jennings either in AA or AAA, they have enough left handed relief arms that are ML ready to still be fine without him. Giving up Jay Voss isn’t too perplexing, but what they received in return is.

It’s always good to know that we didn’t give much to get very little back. Essentially, the Marlins are in a no-lose situation: if Robertson succeeds, the team gets 160 or so innings of 4.60 FIP, and if he flops, the team has many options still left in the minors. The only disappointment for me is that this all but assures that Rick VandenHurk won’t see the light of major league day without some injury occurring, though with Anibal Sanchez on the team, that won’t be too long from now. If you’re a Marlins fan, you have to at least feel ambivalent towards this deal, with the off chance that we’ll be decently happy the Marlins made it in the end. Solid, low-risk move by Beinfest & Co.

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Tags: Clay Hensley Miami Marlins Nate Robertson

  • JoeA.

    Michael,

    I can’t help but think that, considering his splits, Robertson would be more valuable in the pen as a loogy.

  • John Herold

    JoaA,

    Considering both of our LHP in the bullpen don’t have a heavy split and that their best pitches work better against the opposite hand (Change Up for Pinto, Cutter for Meyer), getting a really LOOGY in the pen would be real nice for all those LHB we face inner division.

    I actually wonder if we would do something like Hensley v.s. a RHP-heavy team and Robertson v.s. a LHP-heavy team. Unlikely but that could be a better use for them.

    • Michael Jong

      John,

      That’s a really interesting idea! I’d imagine that would be the best way to utilize them, to have them spot start depending on the lineup formation. It may even lead to some interesting games of manipulation by the two managers.

      I think we should give Robertson a shot at starter, with a short leash. With the plethora of options available to us, there is absolutely no need to give him more time to show us that he isn’t that good. Then again, it’s the fifth starter, how much does it really matter, given injuries to pitchers slotted above him and the natural volatility of the title of “fifth best starting pitcher in an organization.”

  • JoeA.

    John,

    I like that idea. Maybe Robertson can become our “Philles killer”. Kind of like Charlie Manuel making sure Moyer comes around in the rotation every time they play us.

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