There’s no equivalent to Robinson Cano on the pitching side of the 2013-14 free agent market. While there are plenty of free agent arms to choose from, not many could reasonably be described as top-of-the-rotation starters.
Fewer pitchers are hitting free agency in their prime as teams move aggressively to extend top arms, which means general managers are faced with a choice: rely on what they have, explore the trade market, or grit their teeth and spend on what’s out there.
To assess the free agent class, sportsnet.ca reached out to 40 MLB agents and front office executives. The consensus: the class lacks elite starting pitching but features many decent pitchers capable of stabilizing a rotation and one particularly intriguing international player.
Here’s a look at some of the free agent pitchers likely to dominate discussion around the game for the next few months…
The one player who jumps out as a potential ace isn’t a free agent at all, but executives are intrigued by Masahiro Tanaka, the 24-year-old right-hander who spent the 2013 season pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan.
The Eagles don’t have to post Tanaka, so MLB teams may not get the chance to place bids on him. But if he does become available after going 20-0 with a 1.24 ERA in 181 innings, teams will likely bid aggressively.
Though Tanaka has never pitched in the majors, he’s viewed by many teams as a potential top of the rotation starter. That said, there’s some skepticism among executives that Tanaka will be able to replicate Yu Darvish’s success at the MLB level.
For teams that seek youth, but prefer to spend on a known commodity, Ervin Santana will be an appealing option. The right-hander will receive a qualifying offer from the Kansas City Royals following a bounce-back season in which he posted a 3.24 ERA in 211 innings. Santana, who posted a 5.16 ERA in 2012, has positioned himself for a multi-year deal worth perhaps $12-15 million per season. He won’t rule out any destination at this stage.
Matt Garza also has a case for a long-term deal after posting a 3.82 ERA for the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers. At 29, Garza is younger than most available starters. He has had trouble staying healthy in recent years and his home run rates have ticked up, but that shouldn’t stop him from cashing in. Because he was traded midseason, teams will be able to sign him without forfeiting a draft pick, an advantage for Garza and his representatives at CAA Sports (Garza’s agency also represents free agents Phil Hughes, Jason Vargas, Roy Halladay and Dan Haren).
Like Garza, free agent right-hander Ricky Nolasco was traded midseason and won’t be tied to draft pick compensation this winter. He should command a multi-year contract as he hits free agency for the first time.
Ubaldo Jimenez also has a case for a multi-year deal following an impressive second-half performance for the Cleveland Indians. At age 29, he’s young enough to generate considerable interest, even if his stock fell to an all-time low early in his tenure with Cleveland (Jimenez’s contract includes an option, though he’s expected to reach free agency).
Longtime Atlanta Braves right-hander Tim Hudson hopes to play for two or three more years before retiring, agent Paul Cohen told sportsnet.ca. Now on the brink of free agency, the 38-year-old seeks a multi-year contract. Hudson, who ended the season on the disabled list due to an ankle injury, will consider leaving Atlanta– as long as it’s for a contender.
A.J. Burnett and Hiroki Kuroda are among the veteran free agent starters hitting free agency after strong seasons. Burnett has said he’ll re-sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates or retire, so he doesn’t appear to be an option for most teams. Similarly, the 38-year-old Kuroda will be able to hand-pick his next destination.
Johan Santana (no relation to Ervin) will hit the market once the Mets decline his 2014 option, and could be viewed as a high-reward option after missing the 2013 season. The left-hander wants to continue pitching, and despite the shoulder injuries that have sidelined him for two of the last three seasons, he’s just 34 years old. He recently started throwing again — the first step in his return.
Teams seeking rotation depth could turn to Hughes, Bronson Arroyo, Scott Feldman, Roberto Hernandez, Bartolo Colon and Paul Maholm. Clubs willing to take on more risk could pursue Josh Johnson, Roy Halladay and Scott Kazmir. If the two-year, $35-million contract obtained by Tim Lincecum provides any insight into the market, there should be lots of cash to go around.
Starting pitching suitors: New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels.
The overall number of multi-year deals obtained by relievers has dropped in each of the last three off-seasons. Teams are more hesitant to spend on top late inning relievers now that sabermetric research has shown that closers have a high turnover rate and a limited impact relative to starting pitchers or position players.
But some teams will still be in the market for relief help, and there’s still enough money in the game for many relievers to sign multi-year deals. Quality arms will get paid.
Teams seeking closers can pursue Grant Balfour, Joe Nathan, Joaquin Benoit and Fernando Rodney (Nathan’s contract includes an option, though he’s expected to reach free agency). All four relievers were the primary closers for playoff teams in 2013, but none will be younger than 36 on opening day.
Edward Mujica doesn’t profile as a traditional closer, since he relies on a splitter and limits walks exceptionally well. But the results are there, so he also has a case for a multi-year deal.
Then there’s Chris Perez, the former Cleveland Indians pitcher who was recently released. He struck out one batter per inning while saving 25 games in 2013, when he allowed a career-high home run rate.
Bullpen suitors: Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Angels.
Will the Miami Marlins’ recent fire sale prevent free agents from taking Jeffrey Loria’s money? Last winter’s trades eroded the trust of agents, and the owner’s continued meddling only worsened matters.
But at a certain point, free agents and their representatives will engage with any team, the Marlins included. “What the heck, you’ve got to consider it if they’re offering $5 million more,” one agent said.
Freddy Garcia keeps on pitching and will be available to teams seeking pitching depth… many non-closing relievers are expected to seek multi-year deals, including Javier Lopez… left-handed relief is a strength of the free agent market in the view of some observers… David Aardsma and Kyle Farnsworth will also be available to teams looking to round out their bullpens.