would surely be the top starter on the market if he was available. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
On Monday, we presented our All-Could-Have-Been-A-Free-Agent Team. Earlier on Tuesday, we followed with a comparison of how the hitters from that group stack up against the actual free agents at their position, and now we present the pitchers.
NOTE: The free agents and their rankings come from the Reiter 50, the annual list of the top free agents in the game compiled by SI.com's Ben Reiter. For comparison, I used each player's total Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) from the past two seasons. As you can see below, at almost every position, the player who did not make it to free agency -- listed in the table in all caps -- would have been the best among the group.
Because of injuries and changed circumstances, one year of data isn't enough to get a great sense of where a player ranks within a given position's hierarchy, and while three years is probably more appropriate, I'm going to stick with two years as it provides a good sense of the trends involved. Keep in mind that 2.0 WAR is roughly the equivalent of a league-average starter, while 5.0 WAR is All-Star caliber.
Could-Have-Been Team: Adam Wainwright, Johnny Cueto, Jon Lester, Yovani Gallardo, Tim Lincecum
Pitchers: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, am I right? Using that 2.0 WAR per year figure as a guide, it's clear that even the equivalent of stringing together back-to-back seasons around league average is a tall order. Just 54 starters compiled 4.0 WAR in 2012 and '13 combined, an average of less than two per team, and only four of them are free agents this winter. The top two free agents (aside from the not-pictured Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka) are Hiroki Kuroda and Bartolo Colon, both of whom will be over 39 years old by Opening Day and are in year-to-year contract territory. Given the Giants' signing of Tim Hudson to a two-year, $23 million deal, both could justifiably seek $15 million annual salaries given the recent performance gap.
Wainwright and Cueto would shine among this class even with one subpar season apiece, the former as he struggled with his command following Tommy John surgery in 2012, the latter as he lost two-thirds of this past season to a recurrent lat strain. Even Gallardo and Lester would stand to reap windfalls when compared to the free agent starters perceived to be on the upper tier, namely Santana, Jimenez and Garza. Note the similar values of pitchers as diverse as Feldman, Johnson, Santana and Hughes and the extent to which sequence will matter; Santana will reap big money on the strength of his 2013 work while Johnson and Hughes will be considered much riskier coming off terrible years. Feldman — who offers the least upside, having never approached anything resembling dominance — will be the safe fallback. The Giants' overpayment of Lincecum (two years, $35 million) is good news for any of these guys hoping to get by more on reputation than performance.
Could-Have-Been Team: Rafael Soriano, Glen Perkins
As far as actual WAR-based value goes, this year's free agent class actually qualifies as something of a bumper crop when it comes to relievers. Nathan ranks third among all relievers, not just those who are free agents, in two-year WAR. Rodney is ninth on that same list, Crain and Benoit tied for 14th and Balfour is 18th. Soriano and Perkins would be 19th and 20th (the latter tied), just two more good pitchers who would help to continue driving the price of closers down
In fact, it's fair to wonder if Soriano would have come anywhere close to the $14 million per year he got from the Nationals last winter, let alone the three-year, $35 million deal the Yankees bestowed upon him in January 2011 and which he opted out of to sign with Washington. Note that the only other active closer with an average annual salary above $9 million is Jonathan Papelbon, who ranks 24th in two-year WAR (3.2) and who is still owed $26 million over the next two years (or $39 million over the next three if his vesting option kicks in); you might have noticed that the Phillies continue to seem a bit out of step when it comes to player valuations.
Meanwhile, the only other active reliever averaging $9 million a year is ex-closer Heath Bell
, who has been 0.8 wins below
replacement in the first two years of his deal -- yet another cautionary tale along this grim road. The bet here is that something not too far above the recently completed Nathan and Benoit deals (two years, $14.75 million for the former, three years, $16.5 million for the latter) will represent the top of the market. Given the multiplicity of alternatives and the lessons imparted by the most recent postseason -- where the final four teams (Red Sox
) all finished with different closers than those with which they began the year -- it would be a surprise if any closer reaches $10 million per year.