Earlier today, I examined the big-dollar free agent hitters from the past winter who have thus far delivered the best returns on investment for their teams. There weren't a whole lot of happy stories to be found, but the situation is at least somewhat different as we turn to the big-dollar pitchers. Again, while acknowledging that two and a half months is very early to render a verdict on a multi-year contact, what follows is an attempt to rank the winter’s top free agents in light of the help they're providing their teams’ bids for contention this year.
NOTE: Only pitchers to have signed contracts worth at least $9 million per year are listed. The next pitcher down, Ryan Madson, signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Reds but is out for the season following Tommy John surgery; after that comes Joe Nathan, whose $7.25 million average is a much smaller investment.
C.J. Wilson, Angels (2.44 ERA, 1.5 WARP)
Contract: 5 years, $77.5 million
The southern California native has fared well enough in his homecoming that his 2.44 ERA ranks second in the American League, while his 80 percent quality start rate ranks third. Wilson particularly stepped up during Jered Weaver's DL stint, allowing just three runs in a 31-inning stretch across five starts from May 22 to June 13 — a stretch that not coincidentally helped the Halos emerge as the game's hottest team. A closer look at his numbers suggests minor causes for concern, as his strikeout rate has fallen from last year's 8.3 down to 7.7, while his walk rate has risen from 3.0 to 3.8. Both developments have been masked by a difficult-to-sustain .254 BABIP, though it's worth noting that with the Rangers in 2010 (his first year as a starter), Wilson finished with 7.5 strikeouts and 4.1 walks per nine, with a .267 BABIP. He'll be fine.
Yu Darvish, Rangers (3.45 ERA, 1.2 WARP)
Contract: 6 years, $56 million
Darvish has a walk rate of 5.0 per nine innings and has walked four or more hitters in six of his 14 starts, four of which he's left without completing six innings. There's evidence to suggest he's getting squeezed at the knees with a greater frequency than most other pitchers, but even with the walks, his tendency to pitch down in the zone is also helping him prevent home runs via a 49.6 percent groundbball rate and just 0.7 homers per nine. Even better, his 9.7 strikeouts per nine lead the league, and he's done an exceptional job of preventing runs in a tough environment for pitchers. Strictly on a dollars-per-win basis, it's going to be a challenge for him to justify the $107 million investment (including the posting fee), but flags fly forever, and the Rangers are strong enough contenders that the odds of them breaking through to win their first World Series title over the next six years are high.
Edwin Jackson (3.02 ERA, 0.6 WARP)
Contract: 1 year, $12 million
The Nationals signed Jackson just two weeks prior to the opening of camp, a move that gave them a fourth strong starter beyond Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, not only bolstering their rotation but also signaling the team's intent to contend. Jackson has lived up to his end of the bargain, pitching deeper into games than any other pitcher in the quartet (6.6 per start) and delivering quality starts 69 percent of the time while helping Washington to the NL East lead and the league's second-best record at 37-29. His strikeout, walk and homer rates are all within a click of where they were last year; he doesn't miss a ton of bats (6.6 K/9) but he doesn't issue too many free passes (2.6 BB/9). He's getting the benefit of a .239 BABIP, but even if that regresses, the move still rates as a very good one given its short-term nature and the team's surprising shot at a playoff berth.
Contract: 1 year, $10 million
Kuroda's transition to the AL East has been more difficult than many (this writer included) expected. All three of his major peripherals have taken a step backwards; his 2.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio is an alarming dip from the 3.2 he had compiled as a Dodger, while his homer rate has increased by nearly 50 percent, to 1.2 per nine. One can't blame Yankee Stadium for that; Kuroda has actually allowed fewer homers at home (five), than on the road (seven), with pitcher-friendly parks in Seattle, Minnesota and Detroit accounting for five of the latter. In line with the rest of the Yankee rotation, his performance has improved lately; Tuesday's outing was the first time he had allowed more than three runs since May 16, and the return of Andy Pettitte has taken some of the pressure off Kuroda to be the rotation's No. 2 pitcher. There's virtually no such thing as a bad one-year deal, and as he gains comfort, the bet here is that the AL East-leading Yankees won't regret the money they've spent on him.
Contract: 4 years, $58 million
As noted earlier, things aren't exactly going swimmingly for the Marlins, who have gone 4-13 in June to slide into fourth place in the NL East. Buehrle hasn't really been the problem — blame an offense that's 14th in scoring (3.66 runs per game) despite a surprisingly hitter-friendly ballpark — though his eight losses are tied with Tim Lincecum for the league lead. Buehrle's ultra-low strikeout rate has always made him something less than a sabermetric darling despite low walk rates and his durability, and this year is more of the same. He's whiffing just 4.3 batters per nine, a mark that would rank as the second-lowest of his career, but while he has offset that by walking a career-low 1.3 per nine, he's been particularly homer-prone (1.2 HR/9), that despite a HR/FB rate that's not far from the major league average at 10.8 percent. The bottom line is that he's fundamentally the same pitcher as he was for the White Sox a solid mid-rotation guy but not a staff ace no matter what his contract suggests.
Contract: 4 years, $50 million
While the Phillies can be glad they didn't spend the money on Ryan Madson given his loss to Tommy John surgery, this deal doesn't look so hot. There's been absolutely nothing wrong with Papelbon's performance, as he's converted all 17 of his save opportunities while striking out 10.7 per nine. The problem is that manager Charlie Manuel has followed a strict orthodoxy when it comes to closer usage, deploying Papelbon in the eighth inning just three times, and failing to use him in tie games on the road no less than eight times, all of which have ended with inferior pitchers surrendering the game-winning run while Papelbon idled in the bullpen watching Philadelphia's season slip away. As if that's not bad enough, the Phils' $50 million commitment to a closer appears to be a foolish expenditure of resources for a team that's got so many other pricey commitments that they may not be able to afford an extension for impending free-agent Cole Hamels.
Heath Bell, Marlins (5.68 ERA, 0.0 WARP)
Contract: 3 years, $27 million If the Papelbon deal looks misguided, Bell's is already something of an embarrassment, given that he temporarily pitched his way out of the closer role while blowing four of his first seven save opportunities en route to an 11.42 ERA. Bell's performance since then has actually been quite strong (11-for-11 in saves, a 2.70 ERA and a 19/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16 2/3 innings), and it's very possible he'll salvage his season. But in retrospect, the Marlins should have been wary of his falling strikeout rate, which plunged to 7.3 last year after sitting at 10.6 during his first two years as the Padres' closer. They could be closing games with a much cheaper reliever such as Steve Cishek; when the honeymoon in Miami ends — if it already hasn't, given the sub-.500 record and 10th place rank in NL attendance — the team will regret having Bell's contract on its books.