Top 10 MLB free-agent pitchers: No shortage of top-end rotation options

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Robbie Ray. (Julio Cortez/AP)

This winter’s free agent pitching market offers a little bit of everything. Cy Young winners; future hall-of-famers; one-time staff aces returning from major injuries; early-30’s frontline starters; late-30’s living legends. It’s a fascinating class chock-full of talent, experience, and huge personalities. For front offices with rotation holes to fill and payroll to spend, there’s no shortage of options. Here are 10 of the best pitchers available.

Max Scherzer

What else is there to say about the future hall-of-famer? At 37, Scherzer’s a contender for his fourth Cy Young award after pitching to a 2.46 ERA over 179.1 innings this season. His strikeout rate (34.1 per cent) was MLB’s second-highest. His walk rate (5.2) was among the game’s five lowest. He’s just completed a nine-figure free agent deal and — incredibly — could be in line for another one.

This time around, Scherzer won’t come anywhere close to the seven-year term he earned from the Washington Nationals back in 2015. But could a win-now team with payroll room to spare see the value in Scherzer on a three-year pact at an average annual value close to $40-million? The way Scherzer’s pitching, it’s not out of the question.

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Robbie Ray

The Blue Jays made the most cunning move of last winter’s off-season only days after it opened, inking Ray to a one-year, $8-million contract and watching him put together a spectacular, Cy Young worthy season. There won’t be a similar bargain to be had with Ray this time around and for good reason. The 30-year-old just led the American League in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts, answering major questions about his command along the way by shaving four points off his career walk rate.

Clubs will no doubt have concerns about the outlier nature of Ray’s 2021, his max-effort delivery, the fact he essentially used only two pitches this season, the decline in his velocity as his innings increased, and how sustainable his approach can be into his 30’s coming off the largest workload of his career. But the one thing you can never deny Ray is his stuff, which is as electric as anyone’s in the game. Some pitching-needing team is likely to make a nine-figure bet that Ray can keep it rolling.

Kevin Gausman

The 30-year-old Gausman bet on himself last winter, accepting a qualifying offer and laying waste to the National League through the season’s first half, pitching to a 1.73 ERA over his first 18 outings. Things got a little dicey from there, however, as Gausman regressed to a 4.42 ERA over 77.1 second-half innings, coughing up 12 home runs in 15 starts after surrendering only eight over those first 18.

Teams can look to that poor home run luck, plus the fact Gausman’s strikeout rate remained steady and his walk rate actually decreased, as indicators that he’s more of the first-half guy than the second. And his greater body of work remains quite impressive, as Gausman has now pitched to a 3.00 ERA over 251.2 innings since the beginning of 2020 with stellar strikeout (30 per cent) and walk (6.5) rates. His splitter’s one of the best in the game and it’s a good bet someone will offer him in excess of nine figures to throw it from their mound for many years to come.

Marcus Stroman

Stroman does some things teams really value, like remaining healthy and generating groundballs at an elite clip. And some that they don’t, like giving up contact and posting below league-average strikeout rates. But results are results and Stroman reliably gets them. After opting out of 2020, he pitched to a 3.02 ERA over 179 innings this season, the third time in his last four campaigns that the 30-year-old has made at least 32 starts with a 3.22 ERA or lower.

Certain advanced statistics will never agree with Stroman considering how much contact he allows, but the fact so much of it is on the ground — Stroman’s never posted a groundball rate below 50 per cent — should be reassuring to teams rostering sound infield defenders. Durable, low-ERA starters like him are rare, which puts Stroman in line for a sizable guarantee this winter.

Carlos Rodon

Rodon’s market will be as fascinating to track as his 2021 was to follow. Non-tendered last December, Rodon won a job in the White Sox rotation on a one-year, $3-million pact and looked to be running away with the AL Cy Young award mid-season, pitching to a 2.14 ERA with an insane 36.7 per cent strikeout rate over his first 96.2 innings. But that’s when shoulder fatigue — a persistent problem throughout his career — afflicted the left-hander and limited him to brief, four- or five-inning starts down the stretch.

Based on pure stuff and results, Rodon’s one of the highest-upside pitchers available. He used his dominant fastball-slider mix to finish within MLB’s 90th percentile or higher in whiff rate, strikeout rate, xBA, xSLG, xERA, and xwOBA this season. But those shoulder troubles that limited him to only 132.2 innings will give teams pause. Will one accept the risk and invest in Rodon on a medium-term deal? Or will he create a bidding war between clubs trying to sign him to a short-term, high-AAV pact?

Anthony DeSclafani

He doesn’t carry as much name value as other pitchers on this list, but DeSclafani’s been solid the last three seasons, working to a 3.86 ERA over 368 innings. He used his sinker-slider mix to strike out batters at a 22.5 per cent clip in 2021, pairing that with a 6.2 per cent walk rate to produce a 3.17 ERA. Fielding independent metrics will never love the fact he doesn’t miss bats at an elite rate, but DeSclafani still posted an encouraging 3.62 FIP and 3.95 xFIP in what amounted to a three-win season.

That’s certainly valuable. And at 31, with two fastballs that sit 94-m.p.h. and three other pitches in his arsenal, it’s possible teams with deep pitching development staffs could see even more upside in him going forward. DeSclafani won’t grab many headlines this winter. But he ought to have plenty of interest.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Noah Syndergaard

There’s no questioning what Syndergaard’s capable of when healthy. He pitched to a 3.31 ERA over his first five seasons in the majors, overpowering hitters with a fastball that sat at 98-m.p.h. and touched triple-digits. The question now is how nasty the 29-year-old can still be after sitting out nearly two years due to Tommy John surgery.

Syndergaard finally got back on an MLB mound this September, throwing a pair of one-inning outings for the Mets. It was only 26 pitches, and Syndergaard’s fastball was sitting in the mid-90’s, but it was likely enough to convince value-seeking teams to offer the 29-year-old creative, incentive-laden deals this winter. It’s also possible Syndergaard takes a one-year, prove-it contract in hopes of re-entering the market off a healthy platform year next winter. No matter what happens, if a team gets a healthy Syndergaard, they could be getting a frontline starter at a discount.

Clayton Kershaw

It’s unrealistic to expect Kershaw to resume performing like he did at his mid-2010’s peak, when he finished top-five in NL Cy Young award voting for seven consecutive seasons. But the early-mid 30’s version of Kershaw we’ve seen over the last few seasons hasn’t been too shabby, either. Kershaw’s pitched to a 2.96 ERA over 519.2 innings since 2018 and was perfectly serviceable this season, finishing with a 3.55 ERA over 22 starts with typically strong peripherals.

The issue’s been health, as Kershaw battled a shoulder issue in 2019, a back problem in 2020, and forearm inflammation in 2021. But he’s still Clayton Kershaw when on the mound, and that brings a much higher ceiling than most pitchers can offer. It feels strange to picture Kershaw in any colours other than Dodger blue during his age-34 season and a reunion remains the most likely outcome to his free agency. But Los Angeles hasn’t been afraid to let similarly talented players walk in prior off-seasons, which will make Kershaw’s market fascinating to watch.

Justin Verlander

There will be plenty of uncertainty to stomach for whichever team signs Verlander this winter after he missed nearly all of 2020, and 2021 in its entirety, due to Tommy John surgery. He can of course point to the two Cy Young awards — one as recent as 2019 — on his mantle as evidence of what he’s capable of. But come opening day it will still have been 20 months since the right-hander’s thrown a pitch in an MLB game.

Turning 39 in February, it’s difficult to envision Verlander getting much more than a one-year prove-it deal. But if he performs anywhere close to the level he was at prior to surgery — Verlander pitched to a 2.55 ERA over 437 innings between 2018 and ’19 — he’ll be a massive boon for whichever team takes the plunge.

Zack Greinke

You can make a strong case for a number of candidates to cap this list. Eduardo Rodriguez’s rock-solid peripherals belie his 4.74 ERA. Steven Matz throws a mid-90’s fastball from the left side and pitched to a 2.91 ERA over 14 second-half starts. Alex Wood’s still only 30 and bounced back nicely from a couple injury-ravaged seasons with a 3.83 ERA in 2021. Raisel Iglesias and Kenley Jansen are turnkey closers. Who knows what Jon Gray’s hard fastball and sneakily effective sider could do away from Coors Field?

But let’s use this space to acknowledge one of the game’s most enigmatic, unorthodox, and downright effective starters in Greinke. Now 38, he no longer possesses the arm that he built his hall-of-fame career on. But he’s still getting big-league hitters to make outs, posting a below league-average 4.16 ERA over 171 innings this season. And it could’ve been even better if not for a disastrous end to his year in which Greinke allowed 20 earned runs over four outings. Prior to that, he held a 3.41 ERA through 26 starts.

His fastball’s slow, his stuff doesn’t miss bats, and he coughed up 30 homers this season. But Greinke’s still as durable as they come, with pinpoint command that produced 92nd percentile or better walk rates each of the last five seasons. He’s as good a bet as any pitcher to log upwards of 170 innings at a league-average ERA or below in 2022. Add in the veteran intangibles he brings to a clubhouse every day and there ought to be plenty of teams interested in adding Greinke’s stability to their rotation on a low-risk, one-year deal.

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