Chen, Kazmir lead list of best starting pitchers left in free agency
With Johnny Cueto now a member of the Giants for the next two to seven years, all four of this off-season’s free-agent aces—Cueto, David Price, Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann—are off the market. A significant number of second-tier and mid-rotation starters have also found homes, including Cueto’s new rotation-mate Jeff Samardzija, Hisashi Iwakuma (Dodgers, albeit unofficially), John Lackey (Cubs), Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ (Blue Jays), Mike Pelfrey (Tigers) and Brett Anderson (Dodgers).
With those 11 men signed, time is running out for teams looking to add quality starting pitching via free agency. However, there are still options available, led by these top five remaining free-agent starting pitchers. (Note: Ages listed below are the player’s age for the 2016 season.)
1. Wei-Yin Chen, 30, LHP
Chen has had an interesting journey to this point. Born in Taiwan, he pitched in the Olympics for his home country at 18, then debuted with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan’s Central League at 19 and starred in their rotation in his age-23 to -25 seasons. He used an opt-out in his contract to come to the major leagues in 2012 as an unrestricted free agent, signing a three-year, $11.388 million contract with the Orioles.
A league-average starter for Baltimore at the age of 26, Chen finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting and helped the Orioles snap their 14-year playoff drought, beating the Yankees in his lone playoff start that postseason. The next year, he found an extra tick on his fastball, increased his use of his sinker and began a gradual and quiet ascent to the front of the Orioles' rotation, prompting Baltimore to pick up his $4.75 million option for this past season.
Chen was the Orioles' best starting pitcher this past season as much by default as because of the quality of his own pitching, but over the last two years, he has posted a 3.44 ERA (118 ERA+) and 3.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has succeeded despite being a fly-ball pitcher in a home-run ballpark. The most spectacular thing about Chen is his consistency and reliability: An oblique strain in 2013 has been his only in-season injury in his four major league seasons, and he walks fewer than two men per nine innings. With a good defense behind him in a slightly more pitcher-friendly ballpark, he could have considerable success.
2. Scott Kazmir, 32, LHP
Kazmir’s comeback has gone better than anyone could have expected. Plagued by shoulder and back problems that dropped his velocity into the 80s, Kazmir found himself in the independent leagues in 2012 but stormed back with Cleveland in '13, throwing as hard if not harder than he ever had in the majors. He has since maintained that velocity (sitting at 93 mph and spiking to 97), made the All-Star team in 2014 and was on the fringes of the Cy Young race this past season before being traded from the Athletics to his hometown Astros and struggling down the stretch. As with Cueto’s time in Kansas City, Kazmir’s post-trade struggles can easily be overstated: He posted a 3.06 ERA in his first ten starts for Houston before finishing the season with three disaster starts, and he was better in his lone postseason outing (5 1/3 IP, 3 R, no decision).
Over the last two years combined, Kazmir has posted a 3.33 ERA (116 ERA+) with a 3.66 FIP—the best mark of the four major leaguers on this list over those two seasons, as is his 7.7 strikeout-per-nine ratio over that span. He has also fixed his two major shortcomings from his days as the Rays’ ace: his lack of control and durability. Kazmir has walked just 2.6 men per nine innings over the last three seasons compared to 3.8 per nine in his three best seasons with Tampa. He is also staying healthy and eating innings, making at least 31 starts in each of the last two seasons and averaging 187 innings per season; prior to 2012, he had reached 30 starts and 180 innings just twice in seven “full” seasons.
3. Mike Leake, 28, RHP
Leake has been little more than a league-average starter in his career—something neatly illustrated by his career 101 ERA+—but there are three things that make him attractive as a free-agent option this off-season. First: He just turned 28 in November. Second: his above-average ground-ball rates (51.8% last year, 50.2% for his career). Third: his velocity—not the raw number, that is, but its steady increase over the last five seasons. In 2011, Leake’s average fastball didn’t crack 90 mph; in '15, it hit 93.4, per Brooks Baseball. Leake is thus more interesting for what he might be than what he is.
It’s surely tempting to take the athletic, albeit undersized, Leake out of his former home at the homer-happy Great American Ball Park and find out what potential lies in his increasing velocity and ground-ball tendencies. Unfortunately for him, the Giants already tried that when they picked up him up from the Reds at the non-waiver trading deadline and were underwhelmed by the results (a 4.07 ERA in nine starts over 55 1/3 innings), though a hamstring strain suffered in his first start for San Francisco played a part in that disappointment.
4. Kenta Maeda, 28, RHP
This is a conservative ranking for Maeda, who was posted by the Hiroshima Carp last week, because he has yet to throw a pitch in the majors, his strikeout rates in Japan weren’t all that far above league average, and the posting system is likely to make him more expensive than he would have been had he come over as an unrestricted free agent like Chen did. As is typical for Nippon Professional Baseball starters, Maeda also has a significant number of innings on his arm: He won’t turn 28 until April, but his career innings total in Japan exceeds the totals of every other player on this list, as well as Max Scherzer, Price and Cueto, just to name a few.
Still, Maeda is among the best pitchers Japan has to offer: A three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove award winner, he has twice won the Eiji Sawamura award (NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young), including for the 2015 season, in which he posted a 2.09 ERA over 206 1/3 innings with a 4.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Maeda was officially posted on Dec. 10, and while the posting fee has not been made public, it was expected to be close to the $20 million maximum. Teams must pay the fee to negotiate with Maeda, but all but the team that ultimately signs him will have their fee refunded.
5. Yovani Gallardo, 30, RHP
Gallardo is a tricky case. His strikeout rate has been declining for most of his career, accelerating in recent seasons: From a high of 9.9 strikeouts per nine in 2009, he fell to 9.0 in both '11 and '12 and plummeted to 5.9 this past season. There was some loss of velocity associated with that, as well, but it has largely held steady in the low-90s the last three years. Despite that career-low strikeout-per-nine ratio, however, Gallardo actually posted a career-best 124 ERA+ while pitching in the Rangers’ hitter-friendly ballpark this past season. In fact, while his strikeout rates have declined the last three years, his run prevention has improved. The result is a three-year average of 6.6 strikeouts per nine and an ERA+ of 107.
What appears to be happening is that, with increased use of his sinker, Gallardo has gone from being a strikeout pitcher to a pitch-to-contact–ground-ball pitcher. However, his ground-ball rate still doesn't inspire a ton of confidence in his future performance, particularly as his strikeout-to-walk ratio dipped below 2.00 this season. At best, he looks like a league-average starter going forward. That’s not nothing, nor is the fact that he has made 30 or more starts in each of the last seven seasons, averaging 191 innings a year over that span. As with Chen and Leake, Gallardo could benefit from a move to a friendly home ballpark (in a career with the Brewers and Rangers, he’s never had one) and would make good use of a strong infield defense.