Yesterday, I looked at the best free agent hitters at each position who remain unsigned. Today, in the wake of the news that the Rangers have secured exclusive rights to negotiate with Japanese ace Yu Darvish, I turn my attention to the top pitchers available to all teams by naming the top five free agent starters as well as the best-available closer and top righty and lefty set-up men.
1. Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda's newfound willingness to play somewhere other than Los Angeles or Japan is good news for teams in desperate need of rotation help. Kuroda's ground ball rate has eroded in his four major league seasons, with his home run rate increasing accordingly, but he's stingy with his walks and strikes out more than seven men per nine innings for a strong 3.30 K/BB ratio, and over the last two seasons has posted a 3.23 ERA (117 ERA+) while averaging 200 innings a season, showing no sign of hitting the dreaded Third-Year Wall often associated with pitchers who come to the majors from Nippon Professional Baseball.
Best fit: Red Sox. Boston's September collapse was keyed by terrible starting pitching and the Red Sox are desperate to remedy that problem. Look no further than their hair-brained scheme to move Daniel Bard (career 7.08 ERA as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues) into the rotation for proof. Now, with Tommy John surgery knocking Daisuke Matsuzaka out for the first half of the coming season and John Lackey for the whole year, Erik Bedard having signed with the Pirates and Tim Wakefield a 45-year-old free agent who posted a 5.22 ERA (82 ERA+) over the last two seasons, the Red Sox could use a healthy veteran like Kuroda.
2. Edwin Jackson. That Jackson has played with four teams and passed through five organizations in the last three years obscures the fact that he has emerged as a reliable mid-rotation starter over that span. He has posted a 3.96 ERA (108 ERA+) while averaging more than 200 innings a season from 2009-11, while keeping his once-problematic walks down around three per nine innings, and striking out a solid 7.1 per nine innings. He's not a front-end starter, but he throws in the mid-90s with a sharp slider, has made 30 or more starts in each of the last five seasons and is still just 28. He has also proven he can succeed in either league. In fact, he did his best pitching for the White Sox, an American League team in a hitter-friendly ballpark, posting 116 ERA+ and 3.05 K/BB in 30 starts between the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Best fit: Blue Jays. The Jays just lost the Yu Darvish sweepstakes and are trying to build a contender in the AL East, baseball's toughest division. Top prospect Kyle Drabek had a disastrous 2011 season, clearing room in the 2012 rotation, and while the organization is rich with pitching prospects, none will start 2012 above Double-A. Special bonus: Signing Jackson would give the Blue Jays the two best players in this July's Colby Rasmus trade.
3. Roy Oswalt. The degenerative disc in Oswalt's lower back is a serious concern. He lost more than 60 days of the 2011 season to back problems and, at 34, isn't getting any younger or healthier. Still, when he can take the ball, and he did so 23 times in 2011 despite the back problems, he's still capable of being a front-end starter and because of his age and injury concerns, should be able to be had without a major commitment.
Best fit: Red Sox. The Sox need more than one starter, and Oswalt's combination of up-side, experience and short-term contract make him a perfect fit.
4. Javier Vazquez. Vazquez is seriously considering retiring at age 35, but over his final 19 starts of 2011, he posted a 1.92 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 6.05 K/BB while going 10-5 for a weak Marlins team. During that 19-start stretch, Vazquez's fastball was sitting in the low 90s, averaging two miles per hour more than in his ugly 2010 campaign with the Yankees. It seems he still has a lot to offer, at least outside of New York, the site of his two worst seasons.
Best fit: Phillies. Vazquez would be well advised to stay in the National League, where he was the Cy Young runner-up in 2009, and would prefer to stay on the East coast. The Braves' rotation is already overflowing. Going back to New York seems ill-advised, but replacing Oswalt in the Phillies rotation could be the perfect spot, as it would put him on a contender and remove all pressure because he'd be at most the team's fourth-best starter.
5. Joe Saunders. Paul Maholm is equally deserving of this spot, but is reportedly in negotiations with the Cubs, so he may be off the market soon. Both Saunders, who was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks, and Maholm are league-average, pitch-to-contact lefties. The key differences are that Saunders is a year older (30 to Maholm's 29) and gives up more fly balls and thus more home runs. However, Saunders has been more reliable, making 30 or more starts each of the last four seasons while Maholm's 2011 season came to an end in mid-August due to a shoulder strain.
Best fit: Giants. As if the Giants didn't already have enough reason to burry Barry Zito in the bullpen, his 2014 option vests if he throws 400 innings in the next two seasons. Saunders would be a great fit as the fifth starter in San Francisco's home-run-suppressing ballpark.
Closer: Ryan Madson. A $44 million deal that would have kept Madson in Philadelphia for four more seasons fell through in early November. There's no way he'll get that kind of contract now that the teams most desperate for closers have them. Madson is 31 and has only saved more than 10 games in a season once, but over the past three years he has posted a 4.00 K/BB ratio to go with a 147 ERA+ and excelled in his postseason exposure, posting a 2.42 ERA, 12.5 K/9 and 3.4 K/BB in 22 games.
Best fit: Reds. Aroldis Chapman would seem like the obvious choice to replace free agent closer Francisco Cordero (who is still available, as well), but the Reds have said they are going to stretch Chapman out as a starter in spring training. Chapman seems like a long-shot for the rotation, but he could set-up Madson, or vice versa.
Righty: Dan Wheeler. With Kerry Wood reportedly only interested in pitching for the Cubs, we go to the next man on the list, who is Wheeler. Despite an ugly start to his 2011 season, Wheeler posted a 2.54 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 4.43 K/BB after returning from a calf strain in late May. Over the last four seasons, he has posted 3.49 ERA (122 ERA+), 1.01 WHIP and 3.33 K/BB despite being a homer-prone pitcher working in the AL East.
Best fit: Phillies. After committing $50 million to Jonathan Papelbon it would be a good investment for the Phillies to spend a fraction of that (Wheeler made $3 million in 2011) to make sure their leads last until the ninth inning.
Lefty: Darren Oliver. Yes, he's 41, but over the last three seasons, he has posted 2.52 ERA (an outstanding 177 ERA+) while striking out nearly a man per inning, 3.63 men for every walk and proving as effective against righties as lefties. What's more, with the Rangers over the last two seasons, he allowed just seven home runs in 112 2/3 innings.
Best fit: Rangers. Top lefty relievers are always in high demand, and the Brewers and Blue Jays, especially, could use an established lefty in their bullpens, but so could the Rangers. Given the success Oliver and the Rangers have had together the last two seasons and the fact that Oliver has spent roughly half of his career in a Rangers uniform and makes his home in Dallas, expect their relationship to continue for at least one more season.