MLB Free Agency Preview: Examining 8 Top-of-the-Rotation Pitchers
Everybody always needs starting pitching. You can never have enough. And if you don't have any, you need to get some if you want to win.
Luckily, for teams other than the New York Mets, there is a plethora of starting pitching available on the free agent market this winter. There are top-of-the-rotation arms, there are third and fourth starters galore, and there are the back-end guys, the old guys, and the guys who may decide to retire rather than strap 'em up for one more go-around.
It is a free agent market flush with elite hurlers, and for the teams willing to pay the exorbitant prices it will cost to get them, they should see their rotations bolstered for 2016 at least.
It's the years after that in which things could get hairy. Today, we'll look at the eight arms that could potentially front a rotation. Later we'll get the mid-rotation and back-end starters who could help provide some much-needed depth.
It was a foregone conclusion coming into the year that Jordan Zimmermann would leave the Nationals after this season, and as it turns out, the Nats got nothing for him. They couldn't deal him at the deadline because they were still in the hunt for the NL East, but after failing to make the playoffs, all they can get is a draft pick if they extend a qualifying offer to him.
Zimmermann will enter free agency as a 29-year-old arm coming off, what was for him, a down season. He went 13-10 with a 3.66 ERA and a 3.75 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and saw his strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) fall from 8.20 last year to 7.32 this year. He also saw his walk rate and home run rate jump up, and his 3.0 fWAR was the lowest it's been since his rookie season in 2009 (1.9).
But that's not to say Zimmermann was bad, because he wasn't. He was durable, starting a league-best 33 games in 2015 and pitched 200 innings for the third straight year (he finished 1/3 of an inning short last year, so I'm counting that as well). And 2016 will be his age-30 season, so there is likely another two or three years of elite-level starts ahead of him. For a team in win-now mode, Zimmermann provides a lot of stability and would be a terrific pickup for a team like the San Francisco Giants.
Even though he had an up-and-down postseason, David Price should be one of the hottest names this winter. Because he was traded mid-season, signing him won't require a team to forfeit their first-round draft pick. That means more money for Price and more suitors as well.
Price went 18-5 with an AL-best 2.45 ERA in 32 starts, striking out 9.2 batters per nine and walking just 1.9. The AL Cy Young race will likely come down to he and Dallas Keuchel, and what he did for the Blue Jays after the deadline was fantastic: 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA, striking out 10.5 batters per nine innings.
Like Zimmermann, 2016 will be his age 30 season, and he'll likely get a seven- or eight-year deal, making the last few years of his contract a bit of a pill to swallow. But for a team like the Chicago Cubs, built to win right now and managed by his former manager Joe Maddon, putting him at the front of their rotation makes them immediate favorites to go to the World Series in 2016.
And don't be fooled by the random small sample size that is the MLB playoffs. Price has shown what he can do, and that narrative should be squashed like the tiny little bug it is.
We've discussed Johnny Cueto here numerous times before. His splits between Cincinnati and Kansas City are concerning, and teams will undoubtedly be wary of offering him a huge, big-money deal, until they can be certain there is nothing wrong with his shoulder or arm.
That being said, if all the medicals check out, then Cueto is absolutely one of the four pitchers who can be a true number-one ace of the staff. He proved that last year when he won 20 games and posted a 2.25 ERA for the Reds, striking out 8.9 batters per nine and finishing second in the NL Cy Young voting. He sure looked like a pretty darn good pitcher in Game 5 of the ALDS clincher against Houston and Game 2 of the World Series against the Mets. And because he was traded mid-season, he, like Price, would not require the team that signs him to give up their first-round draft pick.
However, the market for Cueto may take a while to develop. Teams will likely want to get as much information on him as they can, and it wouldn't be surprising if he's still unsigned as spring training approaches. That could open the door for a team like the Kansas City Royals to re-sign him to a shorter deal with less money. However, one of the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees could bite the bullet and offer him a five-year deal averaging more than $20 million a season.
Of all the top-notch starters on this list, Zack Greinke is perhaps the best suited to hold his value long-term.
Greinke's MLB-best 1.66 ERA was the lowest by any starter since Greg Maddux's 1.63 ERA in 1995, and he did it while averaging just 91.8 miles per hour on his fastball this year. That's the lowest mark among the four ace-level starters on the market, including Zimmermann (93.0 miles per hour), Price (94.0) and Cueto (92.2). In other words, the 31-year-old was baseball's best pitcher for most of the season without having an overpowering fastball, something that is among the first items to go as a pitcher ages. His best secondary pitch, the change-up, is also one that should continue to allow him to remain effective for a long time.
Which is why, if any pitcher is worth a seven- or eight-year deal this winter, it's Greinke. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees need a starter, and even though both are intense media markets that might not fit Greinke's personality perfectly, his arm would be perfect atop either of their rotations.
It's a pity for Jeff Samardzija that his free agency didn't hit last offseason because he would have been coming off a season in which he posted a 2.99 ERA with a 3.20 FIP, striking out 8.3 batters per nine, with 202 strikeouts in 219 2/3 innings. Instead, he heads into free agency having given up a league-high 228 hits in 214 innings. No pitcher in the American League gave up more earned runs than Samarzija (118), and no pitcher served up more dingers (29). And his ERA of 4.96 is a bit scary as well.
However, Samardzija still throws hard, averaging 94.3 miles per hour this season with the White Sox, right along with his career velocity numbers. Location was an issue, and he may need to sign a one-year deal with some in order to restore some value and hit the market next year looking for a long-term, ace-like contract.
So, Scott Kazmir's second half after joining the Astros didn't go well. Like Cueto, the 31-year-old simply did not perform well at all after being traded, with a 2-6 record and 4.17 ERA in 13 starts with Houston. His strikeouts per nine dropped from 8.3 with the A's in the first half to 6.6 in the second half, and his hits per nine jumped from 6.9 to 9.6.
However, for a team looking for someone who can be a viable number-two starter, he probably won't cost more than a three-year deal with an option for a fourth. And given the fact he missed virtually all of 2011 and 2012, it would be wise to avoid anything really long-term. The team that signs him has to hope they're getting the guy who put up a 3.55 ERA in 32 starts for Oakland in 2014 and a 2.38 ERA in 18 starts for the A's prior to the trade deadline this season.
Perhaps Yovani Gallardo isn't a lock to be a number-two starter, especially on a good rotation. But he was that guy for the Texas Rangers, and they won the AL West, so I'll include him here.
Gallardo's days as a guy who averages a strikeout per inning are long gone, and he's not a hard thrower anymore. But he did go 13-11 with a 3.42 ERA in 33 starts for the Rangers this season, with a 4.00 FIP, striking out just 5.9 batters per nine, with a WHIP of 1.416. Again, he wouldn't look good matching up against Matt Harvey or Jon Lester in a playoff series but could slot in nicely to a team with wild card aspirations, looking to slide in a reliable starter behind an ace.
Because of a clause in his contract that forced him to pitch for the league minimum this year, John Lackey was the best bang for the buck by far this season. That won't be the case next season. Not after a year in which he put up a 2.77 ERA in 218 innings, the first time in his career that he finished a season with an ERA below 3.
Lackey, who will be 37 next season, likely won't get anything more than a two-year deal with an option for a third, which could be a nice deal for a team like the Royals, who will certainly need another starter after Cueto departs.