Are the Cubs Interested in Joe Blanton?

While Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella appear to be satisfied starting Spring Training with the pitchers they already have on the 40-man roster, the rumor mill is saying otherwise. Erik Bedard has been a target of Jim Hendry in the past but a new name has popped up that could be just as effective.

If Spring Training started next week, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Hill would be the only locks in the rotation. Sean Gallagher, Sean Marshall, Kevin Hart, Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis would battle it out for the remaining two spots with Marquis and Dempster having a slight edge in the competition based on reports this winter. If Gallagher were moved to Baltimore, possibly along with Sean Marshall, for Brian Roberts, the competition for the final two spots would obviously have fewer possibilities.

Rich Hill could single handedly make the top of the Cubs’ rotation one of the best in the league if he is able to “figure it out” in 2008. Hill has the talent to challenge Carlos Zambrano for the title of staff ace. But with all of the questions behind Hill should Hendry make a move to strengthen his rotation and add a legitimate third or fourth starter?

Both Steve Stone and Dave Kaplan mentioned the name Joe Blanton last week, but do the Cubs have enough to give Billy Beane for Blanton, and if so, could he help Lou Piniella win ballgames?

2008 will be the fourth full season in the big leagues for Joe Blanton. Blanton turned 27 on December 11th and is coming off his best year in the majors. Blanton was the first round pick of the Oakland A’s in the 2002 draft, 24th overall, from the University of Kentucky. Blanton was dominant at times in college but was erratic and struggled with mechanics and command.

Blanton’s fastball was clocked in the upper 90′s in college but he relied on it too much. He had a decent curveball in college but that has improved as a pro and has become his strikeout pitch. Before the 2006 season, Kevin Goldstein from Baseball America described Blanton as an innings eater and a number three starter in most rotations. Goldstein did not see Blanton as a number one or a number two in the big leagues.

Scouting Report on Blanton

Blanton’s fastball has been clocked at 96 MPH but averages in the 91-93 MPH range with movement. Blanton can work both sides of the plate effectively with good command. When he is able to locate is fastball, his “12-6” curveball is very effective.

Blanton has four solid pitches. Along with a fastball and a curve, Blanton throws a slider and a changeup. Blanton pitches with confidence but will overthrow from time to time and will try to overpower hitters.

Blanton has worked with his mechanics and when he “is right” he has tremendous command. He throws strikes and keeps his pitch counts low despite giving up more than a hit per inning. Blanton has shown good endurance and is effective beyond the 100-pitch mark per outing. Blanton has not had any serious health problems but most are concerned about his mechanics.

For the Cubs the most important stat is his ground ball to fly ball ratio. Blanton keeps the ball down and does not give up many home runs. Last season he recorded 307 groundouts to 237 flyball outs, 1.39 GO/AO, and allowed 16 home runs in 230 innings.

Blanton has the talent to dominate a game but he is still learning how to pitch and does not possesses one dominant pitch….yet.

Stats

Blanton has made at least 32 starts in each of his first three full seasons in the big leagues. He is 42-34 in 102 games, 98 starts, with 6 complete games and 2 shutouts with a 4.10 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. Blanton has 369 strikeouts and 167 walks in 633 2/3 innings with 57 home runs allowed.

Blanton set the rookie record for the A’s in games started with 32 in 2005 and tied the A’s record in wins for a rookie with 12.

Last season Blanton was 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP in 34 starts, a career high….opponents batted .269 with a .299 OBP. He allowed 240 hits, 16 home runs, walked 40 and struck out 140 in 230 innings, another career high.

Blanton ranked 2nd in the AL in innings pitched (230) and 3rd in complete games (3) and had the lowest home ERA in the AL (2.69).

Lefties hit .291 with a .714 OPS and righties hit .248 with a .647 OPS.

Blanton’s home/road splits are a little concerning. In 15 home starts he was 7-5 with a 2.69 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP….opponents hit just .227 with a .564 OPS. On the road Blanton made 19 starts and was 7-5 with a 5.11 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP….opponents hit .304 with a .775 OPS.

Blanton was 8-5 in the first half with a 3.28 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. In the second half he was 6-5 with a 4.89 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP….3-1 in September with a 4.41 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP, the highest mark of any month last year. Blanton did appear to show signs of fatigue as the season came to a close.

Contract Status

Blanton is arbitration eligible for the first time in 2008 and will become a free agent after the 2010 season. Blanton made $380,000 in 2007.

Cost for Blanton

The Mets have shown a lot of interest in Blanton. According to Buster Olney, the Mets were offering a package of Carlos Gomez, Aaron Heilman and Kevin Mulvey. Gomez was the Mets third best prospect before last season and Mulvey was number six according to Baseball America. The Dodgers were showing a lot of interest during the Winter Meetings, before signing Hiroki Kuroda, but were not close to offering enough to Billy Beane for Blanton.

Jim Hendry and Billy Beane have worked together before and Beane is in rebuilding mode, but Blanton’s value is at an all-time high and Beane will likely use the package of prospects he just received from the Diamondbacks for Dan Haren as a starting point. Whether Jim Hendry actually tries to land Joe Blanton will depend on what he sends to Baltimore for Brian Roberts, if the Orioles actually end up letting him go.

Blanton does not have the resume that Haren does, but any team that trades for him will have the young right-hander under their control for the next three seasons with a very reasonable price tag.

Joe Blanton does fit the profile of the type of pitcher that Lou Piniella likes to have on his staff. He is a hard thrower, can work deep into a ballgame and most importantly….he throws strikes. The Cubs defense should be much improved next season, and that figures to fit well with Blanton.

Blanton could give the Cubs a solid rotation, even with Jason Marquis or Ryan Dempster as the 5th starter. Remember pitching and defense win championships, and most think the Cubs are a starter short of the first part of the equation.

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