Which MLB Teams Will Pursue Top-Tier Starting Pitchers in Free Agency?
There are three elite starting pitchers on the free agent market this winter, so let's find them a home.
The free agency rumors are flying, which means it must be Major Leauge Baseball's Hot Stove season, that wonderful time of year where agents and front offices leak information beneficial to their own negotiating position to the media in an effort to influence the market and rile up baseball fans all across the internet.
For teams that are in "win-now" mode, it's a chance to buff up a 25-man roster that is lacking in certain areas. For rebuilding teams, it's a time to find a few pieces of veteran assistance that they can use to get them through the 2018 season. But there is one commodity that virtually every team in baseball needs more of.
Starting pitching. Let's take a look at three of the top available options on the market.
The biggest mystery on the market is the Japanese version of Babe Ruth, Shohei Ohtani, who appears ready to forgo millions upon millions of dollars and come to the United States. Ohtani is just 23 years old, which already separates him from the rest of the pack, but he also throws close to 100 mph and could potentially be a Cy Young candidate, all while also possessing 30-homer potential as a hitter.
Ohtani made just five starts in 2017 and went 3-2 with a 3.20 ERA because he missed several weeks with two separate injuries to his ankle and thigh. He did hit .332/.403/.540 in 65 games with 8 homers and 16 doubles.
Since the right-hander is under 25 years old, there are restrictions as to how much money MLB teams will be able to spend on him, so there will be no bidding war. Teams will use their international spending pool cash on him, but there are 11 teams that cannot spend more than $300,000 on a contract for him. Those teams include the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres, and Houston Astros.
Still, some of those teams could be in the mix if they can offer something else to entice him. Every team in baseball could use Ohtani, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him choose a team that has a history of signing Japanese players, can allow him to make a lot of money in endorsement deals, and will allow him to hit on a regular basis. The Dodgers, Padres, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, and New York Yankees are among the perceived favorites to land him.
The team that lands Yu Darvish could also potentially land Ohtani, but Darvish should be enough of a prize on his own.
He struggled mightily in the World Series (21.60 ERA in two starts), but may have been tipping his pitches, something that happened earlier in the season. Outside of that, he had a very good year for the Rangers and Dodgers, with a 3.86 ERA in 31 starts (186.2 innings) and a strikeout rate of 27.3% that was slightly down from his career average of 29.7%.
However, his walk rate also went down -- it settled in at 7.6%, which is well below his career average of 8.9%. His average fastball velocity was 94.2 mph, which was a career high.
The 31-year-old doesn't have to deal with a qualifying offer, so there's no draft-pick compensation attached to him. That will understandably help his market, and while the Minnesota Twins are apparently making him their top priority, they're just one of many teams who will likely be bidding for his services.
Then there is Jake Arrieta, who rebounded from a terrible first half (4.35 ERA in 101.1 IP) to have a productive second half (2.28 ERA in 67.0 IP), saving himself millions in free-agent dollars.
He's not the same guy who won the National League Cy Young Award in 2015 with a 1.77 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.92, but in 2017, his ERA settled in at 3.53 and while his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 2.96, which is up a tick from his 2016 performance (2.50). Much of that is due to lost velocity.
He's seen a decline in his average fastball velocity since that award-winning season, as it's gone from 94.6 mph in 2015 to 93.7 mph in 2016 before settling in at 92.1 this past year. He also saw a big drop in the use of his cutter -- he threw that pitch 29.1% of the time with an average velocity of 90.3 mph in 2015, but those numbers dropped to 14.1% and 87.8 mph, respectively, in 2017.
He's become a fastball-changeup guy and has made it work, although he's no longer the ace of a postseason rotation. Still, the teams mentioned above for Darvish will also likely be in on Arrieta, who was given a qualifying offer and would require a team to give up draft pick compensation to sign him.