Comparing the top free-agent pitchers: Garza, Jimenez and Santana

Friday December 20th, 2013

Matt Garza may have the biggest advantage: he won't cost his new a team a draft pick.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka may not be posted this offseason after all, according to several Japanese newspapers reports (summarized here by the New York Times), though on Friday the club denied a decision had been made. Such a move would turn the full focus of pitching-seeking major league clubs to the three top domestic free agents: the Rangers' Matt Garza, the Indians' Ubaldo Jimenez and the Royals' Ervin Santana.

It's easy to make a case that any of them is the best option based on his numbers. Does one value recency (Santana), consistency (Garza) or durability (Jimenez)? Only Garza won't cost the signing team a draft pick, so that's a major plus in his column. Otherwise, it's tough decision. Jimenez has logged the least disabled list time his career (one brief stint in April 2011 for a cracked cuticle), which would seem to favor the risk-averse club, except that no pitcher's performance has fluctuated as much as his. Here's a closer look at each right-hander's comparative pros and cons:

Most consistent: Garza

Garza is as close to a known commodity as it gets in pitching, a big prize for the risk-averse consumer, whereas the performances of Jimenez and Santana have at times fluctuated wildly. Since 2007, when Garza first made at least 15 starts in a season, he has recorded an ERA between 3.32 and 3.95 every year. Using the adjusted ERA+, which accounts for league and ballpark, he's never been worse than a league-average pitcher (a 100 ERA+ in 2010) but he's never been better than his 119 ERA+ in 2008, which was 19 percent above league average. At the same time, however, Garza is the only one of the three never to be named an All-Star and never to have received a Cy Young vote.

Highest ceiling: Jimenez

The best single season turned in by any of these pitchers was Jimenez's 2010 in which he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA (161 ERA+), 1.16 WHIP, 8.7 K/9 and two shutouts (including a no-hitter) over 221 2/3 innings for the Rockies, a season for which he was named an All-Star and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting.

Lowest floor: Jimenez

Jimenez's performances, however, have oscillated wildly. Just two seasons ago, he suffered the worst year compiled by any of these three pitchers, going 9-17 for the Indians with a 5.40 ERA (72 ERA+), 1.61 WHIP and career-low 7.3 K/9. He walked 4.8 batters per nine innings, the majors' third-worst rate.

Santana had a worse ERA in 2007 -- 5.76 -- but there was much more scoring throughout the league, so his adjusted ERA+ was 79 that year; he had a 74 ERA+ in 2012, suggesting his floor is roughly comparable to Jimenez's.

Best 2013 season: Santana

Santana is building off the best recent performance for his single season in Kansas City, during which he had a 3.24 ERA (127 ERA+, which matched a career-best) in 211 innings with a 3.2 K/BB ratio. His 23 quality starts were tied for fourth in the AL.

Youngest: Jimenez and Garza (virtual tie)

Though the birth certificates show a two-month difference (Garza turned 30 on Nov. 26 while Jimenez doesn't finish his third decade until Jan. 22), in baseball terms both are entering their age-30 season. Santana, meanwhile, turned 31 last week.

Best bat misser: Jimenez

Jimenez set a personal best for strikeout rate in 2013, by fanning 9.6 batters every nine innings. That raised his career K/9 to 8.3, which outpaces Garza's 7.6 and Santana's 7.1 Jimenez has induced swings-and-misses on 22 percent of his career pitches, compared to 20.8 percent for both Garza and Santana.

Best control: Santana

Santana has both the best single-season walk rate (1.9 BB/9 in 2008) and best career walk rate (2.8 BB/9) on his résumé, trailed not to far behind by Garza's 3.0 BB/9 career rate, while Jimenez is a distant third at 4.0 BB/9.

Best ground-ball rate: Jimenez

Having spent all or parts of six seasons in Coors Field, Jimenez learned to keep the ball on the ground, with a 64.2 groundball percentage during his time with the Rockies. Combined with his 54.5 groundball percent in Cleveland, he has a 60.9 percent career rate that bests Garza's 52.4 percent and Santana's 50.2 percent. Santana not only has the worst home-run-allowed rate for his career (1.2 HR/9), but he also allowed an AL-worst 39 homers in 2012.

Least injury-prone: Jimenez

Jimenez has made at least 32 starts in each of his full big league seasons, dating back to 2008. Santana is an honorable mention, having made at least 30 starts in all but one of those seasons, after spending time on the disabled list in 2009 with an elbow sprain; he made 23 starts that year. After making at least 30 starts fro 2008 through 2011, Garza has missed time each of the past two years, logging 18 outings in '12 and 24 in '13.

Verdict: (Mostly) too close to call

It really does come down a team's individual need. A rebuilding organization with a protected first-round pick might want to snag Jimenez, whose ceiling is the highest. A team without a protected pick should snag Garza. A club that plays in a spacious home ballpark would do well to pursue Santana.

Forced to choose one universal pick, the vote here is for Jimenez who, despite the inconsistency, has the strikeout and groundball skills that are most highly prized.

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