While this offseason’s free agent market contains a plethora of starting pitching options, the reality is that few elite or top-of-the-rotation talents are available. Two of the better starters in Jon Lester and James Shields had team-friendly options picked up, and the influx of cash throughout Major League Baseball has led many teams to re-sign their prized, homegrown starters rather than let them escape to free agency.
However, all this cash does mean that teams will be more than willing to spend money on a scarce resource like starting pitching, as we saw last winter when Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez, and Edwin Jackson all signed lucrative, long-term contracts. As Ken Rosenthal explained a couple of days ago (and Tim Lincecum already demonstrated), we can expect a similar bundle of money to be spent on starters this offseason, especially if Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco are seeking these types of deals:
Sources: E. Santana seeking $100M, Nolasco $80M on five-year deals. Story: http://t.co/q8iNLosRrr— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 8, 2013
In addition, rumors that the Rays will be looking to trade David Price and the Tigers are willing to at least talk about dealing Max Scherzer or Rick Porcello have only added more intrigue to the hot stove.
As always, the question isn’t whether money will be spent, but rather which teams will go that extra mile (or year) to land their guy. So which starting pitchers will be most coveted? Let’s take a look.
Per usual with Japanese imports, many observers will raise an eyebrow in response to the figures being discussed for Tanaka. The right-hander has been on the radar of MLB teams for a couple years now, and after he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles (while also leading them to a Japan Series victory), Tanaka’s value is at an all-time high. His most attractive attribute is his age (25), which is 5-6 years younger than most pitchers ever are when they reach free agency.
Tanaka combines a low-90s fastball with a devastating splitter that most scouts regard as already being a plus pitch at the major league level. His potential is perhaps a small notch below where Yu Darvish’s was when he came out of Japan, but as Jeff Passan reported, many baseball executives think his ultimate price could set an all-time record. Both the Yankees and Dodgers are said to be interested, which means the bidding war for Tanaka could certainly escalate quickly.
The biggest question at this point is whether Tanaka will actually be eligible to sign with MLB teams. Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball are currently in the midst of negotiations regarding the posting system and bidding process that allows Japanese players to come to the U.S., with MLB reportedly looking to limit the large fees we’ve seen in the past. Beyond this, Tanaka would face the usual questions that surround Japanese stars who have to adjust to both a new culture and a new style of baseball. Earlier this month, for example, Tanaka threw 160 pitches during the Japan Series, something he’ll never be allowed to do in America.
Regardless, Tanaka is a premium talent at a young age, and he’ll get paid like it. The Yankees, who have the desire and room in their rotation, seem an obvious destination.
The Trade Market
While the rest of the starting pitching market is a notch or two below Tanaka, there is a very real possibility that an MLB team will be able to acquire an elite talent via trade this winter. All the talk has surrounded David Price, who, given his age (28), track record, and the two years of team control left on his contract, could be a franchise-altering type of acquisition. The problem is how much Tampa Bay would be asking in return for the big left-hander, and what teams could even muster up a package strong enough to tempt the Rays. The Rangers seem a logical fit, as do the Cubs and Cardinals, though it is questionable whether those two NL teams would be willing to deal their best prospects. Also in the mix could be the Dodgers and Pirates, and it is likely the Rays will look to drag the talks out, attracting as many suitors as possible and the best package they can extract from a trade partner.
The Tigers are also reportedly interested in dealing one of their starters this offseason, with both Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello said to be available. Scherzer could be a huge trade chip, as the probable AL Cy Young winner is at the peak of his pitching powers. But would a Detroit organization that knows its window for championship contention isn't far from closing really trade its best pitcher? Instead, I think Porcello is more likely to be dealt, and given his youth (he turns 25 in December) and strong second half, Porcello could bring back a solid package as well.
The Next Tier
Each pitcher in this next tier could legitimately help any major league rotation, but none possess the potential of Tanaka, and all have at least one question mark surrounding them. Ervin Santana had a tremendous 2013 campaign for the Royals, posting the best ERA of his career and his best FIP since 2008. But Santana is just one year removed from a disastrous 2012, and inconsistency has followed him throughout his career. Only 30-years-old and with little injury history, he will be paid well, but the $100 million contract that he is reportedly seeking would be a grave mistake for any team vying for Santana’s services.
Behind Santana sit four more right-handers in Hiroki Kuroda, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and A.J. Burnett. Kuroda was the best of the bunch in 2013, yet his age (37) and low strikeout totals make one wonder just how long he can pitch this well. In any event, Kuroda won’t be signing any more than a one-year deal and will probably return to Japan unless he re-signs with the Yankees.
Matt Garza is in line for a lucrative multi-year deal, and at 30-years-old, there is little doubt he can still pitch, even if his strikeout rate represented a three-year low last season. Most concerning is Garza’s injury history, as he hasn’t throw 200 innings since 2010. Even so, a team like the Angels seems like a pretty safe bet to throw money at Garza (and maybe a few others on this list) when the offseason begins to heat up.
Ubaldo Jimenez could be the best pitcher on this list, but he could also be the guy who was one of the worst starters in baseball in 2012. A strong second half (2.17 FIP, 29.1% strikeout rate, and .271 wOBA allowed in 84 innings) made Ubaldo some money this winter, and even if some lingering concerns remain surrounding his unorthodox wind-up, he could be a huge signing if things go well.
A.J. Burnett proved he still had plenty left in the tank last season, though he is apparently mulling retirement. If Burnett does return, he remains a pitcher who still has top-shelf stuff to go along with a new, groundball oriented approach—his 56.5% groundball ranked second among all major league starters in 2013.
Beyond these top starters, the free agent market has a bunch of pitchers who could prove to be shrewd buys. Ricky Nolasco and Bartolo Colon both defied conventional wisdom and impressed in 2013, although Nolasco will be the far more expensive of the two. Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, Josh Johnson, and Tim Hudson will be coming off injuries, but as a result, all could be had for a cheaper price than their talent and track record might suggest. Signing Wandy Rodriguez or Bronson Arroyo wouldn’t knock anyone’s socks off, but at least a team would know what they were getting with either of those two. Phil Hughes could be an intriguing change-of-scenery option, and three southpaws in Scott Kazmir, Paul Maholm, and Jason Vargas could also give a team some above-average innings.
None of the starters in this group are going to turn around the fortunes of a franchise, but a few will turn out to be smart, lower-cost signings in 2014. If they can stay healthy, Halladay and Johnson are two starters who could really make a team look smart.
Ultimately, the starting pitching market will play out in its own, often illogical way. Teams will overpay for the wrong guy, and others will find bargain deals. Watching how all these pieces fall into place will be the exciting part.
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All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.
Alex Skillin is a Staff Writer for Beyond the Box Score, a contributor to CelticsBlog, and also a Staff Editor for SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.