MLB Free Agency: Ranking the Starting Pitchers
With the World Series behind us and a long, cold winter of days without baseball ahead, seamheads now turn to the Hot Stove to keep their hands and feet warm.
Baseball free agency ain't what it used to be, though. In the past, teams would use the free agent market to re-stock their roster in the hopes the new hired guns will help them become playoff contenders. And while that is still true for some big-market teams, most franchises have discovered that signing players in their 30s to long-term deals for big money isn't the most economical way to put together a consistent winner.
That being said, for the teams that are close to championship contention, adding one last piece could be the key to solving the puzzle. And as we saw in the postseason, having one true ace (like Madison Bumgarner) can help a team overcome a lot of shortcomings and get them through the 162-game schedule and the playoff gauntlet.
That's why the first position we'll examine is starting pitchers, the most well-stocked position in free agency this year. There are three aces at the top, but lots of potential value among the mid-tier and even lower-tier starting options exists as well.
Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are both seen as slightly better than James Shields, especially after a rather lackluster postseason from Big Game James. But the regular season resume of all three arms cannot be questioned.
Scherzer's nERD of 2.14 was best among all the free agent starters available. This indicates that he would save his team 2.14 runs over a league-average player in a 27-out game. His Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) of 6.0 was better than Lester's 4.8, although Lester's 2.46 ERA and 1.10 WHIP were both better than Scherzer's. Plus, Lester has the best postseason resume of the three.
Scherzer (30) is also one year younger than Lester (31), although both are going to get contracts that take them well into their mid-to-late 30s. What makes Lester a more desirable commodity is that any team that signs him will have not have to give up a draft pick in order to do so. Because Lester was traded mid-season, he's ineligible for a qualifying offer. Scherzer and Shields will almost certainly get one ($15.3 million this year), meaning any team that signs them will have to give the Tigers and Royals their first-round draft pick, unless it is in the top 10. If it is first-round protected, they will give up a second-rounder.
Shields turns 33 this winter, which means he will likely be the last one signed to a team and could probably be had on a slightly shorter-term deal. Look for the Yankees, Cubs, Tigers, Dodgers, Rangers, Orioles, Red Sox, Giants, or Braves to make a run at any of these arms. And perhaps Kansas City will get aggressive this off-season, fresh off their World Series appearance and about to lose their ace.
The Mid-Rotation Guys
Outside of the top three, this next group could provide some stability as middle-to-back-end starters for contending Major League clubs or for teams looking for veterans on short-term deals. This strategy has worked wonders for the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants the last couple years. Pittsburgh got more than they ever could have expected from Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez the last two seasons. Coincidentally, both are free agents now, with Liriano now established as a fringe ace or number-two starter and Volquez a solid number-three/four arm. Neither will come cheap, however.
Japanese starter Kenta Maeda is ready to make his debut in the United States; he is seen as a number-four starter in the Majors. Aaron Harang had a surprising season for Atlanta, but at 36, teams will be wary of signing him to a long-term deal. Atlanta is also set to lose Ervin Santana, whose season was almost identical to Harang's. Santana, however, is still surprisingly young, just 31 years old.
When the season started for Brandon McCarthy, he was in Arizona putting up a 5.01 ERA and a bWAR of -0.5. It's amazing what a change of scenery can do. After being traded to the Yankees, his ERA for the Bombers was 3.49, and he put up a bWAR of 1.6. The 30-year-old likely made himself a lot of money pitching for New York, and he also cannot receive a qualifying offer, meaning he'll be very popular among teams looking for a number-three or four guy.
Jason Hammel is another starter who was traded mid-season, from Chicago to Oakland, and also cannot receive a qualifying offer. His time in Oakland did not go as well as it did with Chicago, watching his ERA jump from 2.98 with the Cubs to 4.26 with the A's.
And San Francisco is about to lose two of their starters, unless the team re-signs them or a qualifying offer is made that they choose to accept. However, it's unlikely the Giants will extend qualifying offers of $15.3 million to either Jake Peavy (34 years old) or Ryan Vogelsong (37). Both did well enough during the regular season to get the Giants to the playoffs and could be attractive to a team looking for some veteran stability on a one-year deal.
The Buy-Low Candidates
These are the guys who you would never depend on leading your staff but who you could hopefully sign to a team-friendly, one-year deal, in the hopes they either bounce back from a poor performance in 2014 or recover enough from an injury to provide an impact.
Justin Masterson simply had a horrible year for the Cardinals and Indians, but was only 29 years old this year. With the right pitching coach (the Cubs are known to turn pitchers like Masterson around, for example), perhaps he could be salvaged. Brett Anderson once again could not avoid getting hurt, but at 27, he pitched well for the Rockies this year when healthy. Toronto's Brandon Morrow is also a younger arm, just 30 years old, on which a team could take a chance. He's got electric stuff but pitched just 33.1 innings last year after amassing just 54.1 the year before. Anderson and Morrow are also good late-inning bullpen possibilities.
The Dodgers bought out Chad Billingsley's contract, which wasn't a surprise given the young right-hander has missed most of the last two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Los Angeles may bring him back at a cheaper price. Gavin Floyd pitched well for the Braves in 9 starts last year, but he'll be 32 next year and has made just 14 starts since the start of the 2013 season.
Josh Johnson is a perennial buy-low candidate. Last year the Padres were the latest to try to save him, but he got hurt before the season even began. The once-great Marlins ace has thrown more than 82 innings in a season only once since 2010.
And at 36, Wandy Rodriguez is no spring chicken, and has made a combined 18 starts over the last two years for Pittsburgh. But if healthy, he can provide some decent innings at the back of a rotation or as a swing man out of the bullpen.
This year's free agent market for starting pitchers has a little bit of something for everybody. For the big spenders, there are the big aces. For teams who like getting a good deal, there are options in the middle. And for everyone else, there is the pursuit of fools' gold.
The gold rush begins on Tuesday.