Ervin Santana, one of the top free agent pitchers on the market this offseason, is seeking a five-year contract worth in excess of $100 million, while fellow free agent starter Ricky Nolasco is seeking $80 million over the same span, according to FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, who cited "major league sources." On their face those contract demands seem ludicrous for a pair of pitchers who have each posted an ERA+ no better than league average in his career, but a closer look at the market for free agent pitchers this winter suggests that both may actually get closer to those figures than you might expect.
Looking at the list of this year's top 50 free agents as ranked by SI.com's Ben Reiter, there are eight starting pitchers in the top 20. The highest ranked of those eight, and by far the youngest, is 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Tanaka, however, is not a traditional free agent; he will be made available via the posting system. Though the revisions to that system have not yet been settled upon, what doesn't seem likely to change is the fact only the team that wins the bidding will be able to negotiate with Tanaka.
The next-best starting pitcher according to Reiter's list, and thus the one who will actually be able to play one team off another in order to increase his price, is Santana. He was very good for the Royals in 2013, going 9-10 but ranking in the top 10 in the AL in ERA (3.24, 9th), WHIP (1.142, 8th) and H/9 (8.1, 10th), but brutal for the Angels in 2012. That season he was 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA and a major league high 39 home runs allowed and sub-par strikeout rate. That performance, combined with his sub-par strikeout rate this past season (6.9 K/9 compared to an American League average of 7.7) should be red flags for teams contemplating a big-money, multi-year offer for the righthander.
Despite that, a look at the other six pitchers in Reiter's top 20 shows that none is clearly a better bet than Santana. To begin with, three of them are of significantly advanced age. Bronson Arroyo will be 37 in February, Hiroki Kuroda will be 39 in February and Bartolo Colon will be 41 in late May. Kuroda and Colon have played the last three years on one-year contracts and likely will again. Arroyo couldn't possibly demand more than three years, and will likely settle for two.
That leaves three others: Nolasco (who was born a day apart from Santana and turns 31 next month), Matt Garza (30 later this month) and Ubaldo Jimenez (30 in January). Garza spent 134 days on the disabled list with arm injuries over the last two seasons, and Jimenez was every bit as bad as Santana in 2012 (9-17, 5.40 ERA) and has seen his velocity drop each of the last four seasons.
So if you're a team looking for a multi-year fix for your rotation (and there are at least as many teams that fit that description as ones that don't), and you lose out on the bidding for the rights to negotiate with Tanaka (or opt to stay out of the bidding entirely), where do you turn next, and where does that money earmarked for Tanaka go? Garza and Jimenez are compelling options to be sure, but there are legitimate concerns about the durability and overall health of their arms. Nolasco, who spent this past year with the Marlins and Dodgers, is an innings-eater who has pitched exclusively in pitcher-friendly parks in the National League and has had an ERA+ above league average exactly once in his career, that coming back in 2008. Most likely, that money goes to Santana.
And that money is out there. As Rosenthal reports, the annual television income each team receives from the league will more than double in 2014, going from $25 million to $52 million. That's a $27 million increase that, by itself, would more than cover the $20 million average annual value of Santana's desired contract.
That's not to say that Santana or Nolasco will have their demands met to the dollar. It's only Nov. 8, and these are opening bids in major negotiations. Those players and their agents (the two pitchers have different representatives) know they are going to be negotiated down, so they have to open big. That said, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Santana wind up with the same five-year, $80 million contract Anibal Sanchez signed with the Tigers last winter, before the increase in TV money. With the exception of the aces with Cy Young awards on their shelves who have hit the market in recent years (Zack Grienke, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia) a contract of roughly that value and duration has become standard for the top pitchers on the market, including Sanchez, C.J. Wilson (five years, $77.5M), John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million) and A.J. Burnett (also 5/$82.5M).
A deal of that size would likely guarantee Santana's departure from the Royals. They'd be better off spending that kind of money on their current ace, James Shields, who will be a free agent after the 2014 season. However, a reunion with the Angels, who are desperate for rotation help, is not out of the question for Santana. He could also find a home with the Phillies, who are clearing Roy Halladay and his $20 million salary out of the rotation, or in the American League East, where the Orioles, Yankees and Blue Jays all need rotation upgrades as they attempt to hang on to, or in the latter's case assert, their status as contenders. As for Nolasco, because he was traded in the middle of his walk year, he was not eligible to be given a qualifying offer, meaning he won't require the draft pick compensation that Santana will. It also doesn't hurt that he went 8-3 down the stretch for one of the richest teams in the game. He'll still likely have to come down farther from his asking price than Santana, shedding at least one year and dropping his total value to something at or below $50 million, but that lower asking price and the lack of a qualifying offer should expand his range of suitors beyond the big-spenders hoping to contend in 2014.