Stephen Strasburg was far and away the best pitcher who would have been on this off-season's free-agent market, but his extension will leave a barren market.
The surprise announcement of Stephen Strasburg's seven-year contract extension dealt a swift blow to this coming winter's free-agent market. Whereas this past off-season offered buyers choices along a spectrum from proven aces (David Price and Zack Greinke) and frontline starters (Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann) to solid mid-rotation pieces (John Lackey, Jeff Samardzija, Wei-Yin Chen, Mike Leake, Scott Kazmir) to riskier propositions (Ian Kennedy, J.A. Happ, Yovani Gallardo, Doug Fister), this coming year's class largely begins with pitchers who would land in the last bin … and it only gets riskier from there.
Just six weeks into the season, it's too early to know if the performance trends we've seen from the coming free-agent class will hold up, to say nothing of their health, which is always a wild card for any pitcher. Rather than over-analyze the work of a small handful of pitchers, here’s one man’s attempt at a taxonomy of the relatively slim pickings.
The cream of the coming winter's crop may not actually be determined until after the World Series, when players, agents and executives figure out which players with options—either player or club—will actually test the market. No doubt, the thinness of the overall class will be a major factor in the decision-making process, with teams likely more willing to bank on the devil they know than the devil they don't, particularly given the information asymmetry when it comes to their own pitchers' medical histories.
The decisions on whether to stay or go are in the hands of the Padres' James Shields and the Dodgers' Scott Kazmir, both of whom hold player options but might seek longer guarantees than the next two years. Shields, who turns 35 on Dec. 20, is guaranteed at least $44 million through 2018, including a $2 million buyout of a $16 million club option for '19. His performance has fallen off since moving to San Diego, as he's posted a 3.86 ERA (97 ERA+) and 4.50 FIP since the start of 2015 in toiling for the going-nowhere residents of a supposedly pitcher-friendly park that has suddenly become more conducive to home runs, as his rate of 1.4 per nine attests. Kazmir, who turns 33 next Jan. 24, has $32 million guaranteed for 2017–18; since tossing six innings of one-hit shutout ball in his Dodgers debut, he's been drummed for a 6.61 ERA and 2.6 homers per nine, making just one quality start out of six. If Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-jin Ryu and/or Mike Bolsinger make solid returns from injury, the Dodgers could grease the skids for Kazmir by sending him to the bullpen, but counting on sustained health from currently injured pitchers is a fool's errand.
As for pitchers on club options, one more year of below-market prices may start to look attractive even with scuffling pitchers such as the Rangers’ Derek Holland ($11 million for his age-30 season, but a 5.08 ERA and 1.4 HR/9 since the start of 2015), the Royals’ Kris Medlen ($10 million for his age-31 season, with a 4.80 ERA and 86 ERA+ since his mid-2015 return from a second Tommy John surgery) and the Rays’ Matt Moore ($7 million for his age-28 season, 5.19 ERA and 1.3 HR/9 since the start of 2015). Meanwhile, don't expect Gio Gonzalez ($12 million for his age-31 season, with a 2.19 ERA this year and a 3.32 ERA since joining the Nationals) to hit the market even with the Strasburg extension; at worst, he'll bring back significant value in trade. Likewise for the Cardinals' Jaime Garcia ($12 million for his age 30-season, 2.57 ERA since returning from his thoracic outlet surgery) and the Cubs' Jason Hammel ($10 million for his age-34 season, with a 3.27 ERA in parts of three seasons in Chicago) on the off chance their teams come up with better replacements.
Edinson Volquez, who has a $10 million mutual option with the Royals, could be included in the class above. He's also part of this one: pitchers who benefited from Pirates pitching coach/miracle worker Ray Searage, whose work—generally in simplifying deliveries and adopting a more ground-ball-centric approach—has notably paid off for Volquez, Happ, Francisco Liriano and the retired A.J. Burnett. Pummeled for a 5.09 ERA from 2011 to '13, Volquez owns a 3.35 ERA (116 ERA+) in two-plus seasons since, including his 2014 in Pittsburgh. Even maintaining this year's numbers (3.89 ERA, 3.67 FIP) would put him in line for a Samardzija-like five-year deal of at least $90 million; if he remains healthy, he's my early bet to get the winter's top pitching contract.
Searage's success mandates keeping an eye on reclamation projects Juan Nicasio and Jon Niese. Inexplicably nontendered by the Dodgers after a solid season in the bullpen, Nicasio has posted a 3.16 ERA, 4.12 FIP and 9.2 strikeouts per nine in six starts, maintaining mid-90s heat. If he survives the better part of the season on his admittedly limited arsenal (86% of his pitches are either a four-seamer or slider), he's got a multi-year deal ahead, though he'd do well to absorb Searage’s lessons of the value of the sinker while he still can. Likewise for Niese, on whom the Bucs hold a $10 million option for his age-30 season. His sinker has been punished for a .676 slugging percentage, and he's posted a 5.63 ERA and 2.3 HR/9 thus far. If he continues along that tack, Ryan Vogelsong could get a longer look in the rotation; he turns 39 on July 22 but may carry some value as a swingman willing to accept a short-term deal.
Dude, What Happened?
Once upon a time, Clay Buchholz was one of the game's brightest young pitchers, but between injuries and erratic performances, the going-on-32-year-old has become one of its most puzzling enigmas. He's been stellar in half-healthy half-seasons (1.74 ERA in 16 starts in 2013, 3.26 in 18 starts last year) but rancid when exposed to the elements for longer (4.56 in 29 starts in 2012, 5.34 in 28 starts in '14). Given his 5.90 ERA and 5.11 FIP through seven turns thus far, it appears he's become the off-brand Josh Beckett, unable to string together two healthy, productive seasons in a row. The Red Sox hold a $13.5 million option on Buchholz, and if they continue to be burned on this year's $13 million option, Dave Dombrowski—who's shown that he's not beholden to the decisions made prior to his arrival in Boston—might decide he's a cost worth cutting. Who knows, perhaps a change of scenery would help Buchholz; pitching half of one's games in the shadow of the Green Monster is no picnic.
Jered Weaver doesn't have Fenway Park as an excuse, as he plays in one of the majors' most pitcher-friendly environments, but innings and injuries, including degenerative changes in his cervical spine, have reduced his fastball to a feeble 83 mph. While the calendar says he'll turn 34 on Oct. 4, he looks like a 44-year-old in a swan-song season. Since the start of 2015, he owns a 4.66 ERA (81 ERA+) and 4.81 FIP, with home run and strikeout rates (1.4 and 5.0 per nine) that are far too close together. Former NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, who turns 35 on May 31, threw just 110 2/3 innings last year and has been rocked for an 8.47 ERA and 1.9 homers per nine and is averaging less than five innings per start this year despite having AT&T Park as his home field. Also in the how-far-they-have fallen pile is former AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, who since posting a 3.06 ERA (125 ERA+) from 2010 to '12 in Tampa Bay has managed just a 4.86 ERA (82 ERA+) since, with similar numbers for the Phillies thus far despite—or because of—his eye-opening 2.2 homers and 9.1 strikeouts per nine.
Another pitcher who may be worn down to the nub (or may simply need a change of scenery) is Andrew Cashner. A former first-round pick who battled health woes before establishing himself in a big league rotation, he delivered a 2.87 ERA (119 ERA+) in 298 1/3 innings for the Padres in 2013–14. But since being limited to 19 starts in 2014 due to an elbow strain and shoulder inflammation, he's struggled with his command and managed just a 4.43 ERA (84 ERA+). Speaking of changes of scenery, just-turned-35-year-old lefty Jorge De La Rosa has battled Coors Field as nobly as any pitcher ever has: He owns a career 106 ERA+ in 1,027 2/3 innings for the team (third in franchise history, with second place less than 40 innings away) but is currently sporting a 10.18 ERA. He can still miss bats and would be a candidate for a short-term deal; his stock could go up if he pitches his way into being somebody's trade deadline target.
No doubt the largest bin is this one, because sadly, injuries are a rite of passage for just about any pitcher. After making just 37 starts with a 90 ERA+ in 2014–15 and passing through the hands of four teams, Mat Latos is enjoying a renaissance with the White Sox, posting a 2.62 ERA (but a 4.44 FIP) through five starts. If he's still upright come October, the going-on-29-year-old will get paid much more than his current $3 million base salary. Rich Hill, whose four stellar starts for the Red Sox last September offset a seven-season run of injuries and futility (5.41 ERA in 153 major league innings) to net him a $6 million deal, has a 2.39 ERA and 11.0 K/9 through seven starts. Whether he can survive another 4 1/2 months with his arm attached is an open question, as he last topped 60 big league innings in 2007. Scott Feldman, who was limited to 18 starts with the Astros last year due to a torn meniscus and a shoulder strain, has been serviceable when available to the Astros via a 3.78 ERA (1.04 ERA+), though it's only been with a move to the bullpen that his recent fortunes have improved, with six perfect innings shaving his ERA from 4.58 (thorough four starts) to 3.51.
That trio at least has some solid 2016 work under their belts. Doug Fister has struggled with the Astros (4.54 ERA, 5.09 FIP) after being limited to 40 starts across two seasons in Washington. Brett Anderson, who made 30 starts last year for the first time since his 2009 rookie season, will at best return from back surgery sometime in the second half but isn't likely to receive anything approaching this year's $15.8 million qualifying-offer salary. C.J. Wilson, who's pitched to a 4.24 ERA (87 ERA+) over the past two seasons and missed the final two months of 2015 due to surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow, has yet to pitch this year due to a bout of shoulder tendinitis he experienced in spring training; he's hoping to return in mid-June. He'll be 36 on Nov. 18, so time isn't exactly on his side, but a solid performance could net him an incentive-laden deal. Tim Lincecum, who underwent surgery to repair the torn labrum of his left hip last September, held a showcase for some 23 teams last Friday and is hoping to land a deal for the remainder of 2015 as a starter, ideally for a team west of the Mississippi. If he's able to restore some velocity and bite to his arsenal after three years of largely sub-replacement-level work, he'll be in line for a bigger deal next year.
Bronson Arroyo, Charlie Morton (on whom the Phillies hold a $9.5 million mutual option), John Danks, Brandon Beachy, Jhoulys Chacin … the pile of far-from-mint pitchers is bottomless, and who knows if any of these guys will be viable options come 2017. At best, they're candidates for low-base or even minor league deals.
Escape from New York?
Ivan Nova would qualify for the grouping above, as he's hoping to better last year's post-Tommy John surgery showing (5.07 ERA in 90 innings). He made his first start of 2016 on Monday night, replacing CC Sabathia in the rotation after the big man suffered a groin strain in his last turn. Nova held the Royals to one run in 4 2/3 innings on 81 pitches before departing, but he's got his work cut out to restore his place in the Yankees' pecking order, and might want to escape the AL East and the only organization he's ever known once he gets the chance. He'll only be 30 on Jan. 12.
Teams outside of New York will certainly have a better shot at Nova than they will his Dominican countryman and fellow New Yorker Bartolo Colon, who turns 43 on May 24. Still basking in the glow of his first major league home run, the unlikely cult hero is amid an autumnal love affair with the Mets and their fans, and even if his performance is only intermittently above-average, he's not likely to pitch anywhere else.