This is part 9 of an ongoing series featuring a breakdown of the current free agent players at each position. Positions completed so far: catchers, first base, second base, shortstop, third base, left field, remaining outfielders, and designated hitters.
As mentioned in my earlier posts, I’m assessing the current free agent players seeking their respective paydays by comparing each player with his historical comp. Then, after painstakingly looking over the numbers, I determine if I’d bet on the current free agent to perform better over the next few years or go with the comp.
It’s that simple.
All comparisons are pulled using the Similarity Score by age from Baseball-Reference and all free agents were borrowed from the listing at MLB Trade Rumors.
Today, I discuss the starting pitchers.
By my count, there are currently 37 available free agent starting pitchers (Daisuke Matsuzaka is returning to Japan after signing with the reigning Japanese League champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks) available on the market with just under half of those playing the 2015 season at 33 years or older. There are just as many 37-year olds (three) as there are players in their 20s, and of those three youngsters (all left-handers oddly enough . . . ooh, collusion!) only one of them had an ERA+ above league average.
If a young starting pitcher hits the open market, he probably owns an issue or three (arm troubles, control issues, missing shoulder [it could happen]) that will give any buyer pause, but teams will call because if there’s one absolute truth in baseball: you can never have enough pitching.
Someone out there will take a flyer on Josh Johnson next year. I don’t know who it will be, and I don’t know for how much it will cost (probably cheap) but some GM will remember that mid-90s fastball and figure, “Why not. His Tommy John surgery was so last season. If nothing else, we’ll throw him in the bullpen like Wade Miller and make the last three innings a gauntlet of awful . . . like the Royals rode all the way to the Series.” That’s atrocious dialogue and optimistic thinking, but GMs are thinking it and Johnson will bank a few dollars in the meantime.
The Pirates have made something of an art out of resurrecting starters such as this, Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano for instance, so if I’m Chad Billingsley’s agent I’m on the phone with Neal Huntington every day until he gives my client a tryout. Both Volquez and Liriano are both beneficiaries of pitching coach Ray Searage’s voodoo magic and both will get paid (Liriano turned down the Bucs qualifying offer so possibly a multi-year deal in Pittsburgh).
Gavin Floyd should be pitching a tent outside PNC Park until given some face time.
Floyd and Billingsley are two of the recent Tommy John surgery patients over the last few years, and there are 13 pitchers—with Colby Lewis going under the knife in 1997 for the ulnar collateral ligament (typically associated with TJ surgery) and again in 2012 for a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow—in this group who have had the surgery. Should teams be more worried about a pitcher having had the surgery or not having had it yet? Brandon McCarthy is 31 and saw a huge jump in both K/9 and cutter velocity last season.
Should a team freak out a little that he hasn’t had a major elbow injury? Is that more worrisome than the roughly two seasons of cumulative games he’s missed since 2009 because of various shoulder strains, soreness, or injuries?
Bronson Arroyo is 37 and went in for TJ surgery in 2014. No age is safe anymore. An enterprising agent might sell their client as having the surgery already so there’s nothing to fear. Does the scar bring a premium in today’s game?
Anyway, to keep this list manageable (and readable), I’ll be breaking the pitchers out into groups and discussing them in separate posts. It’s the holiday season. Time to bake cheesecakes; watch the true Christmas classics such as Die Hard, First Blood, and Lethal Weapon; and spend time decorating the tree with countless Star Wars ornaments.
I’ll get to the 31-year old journeyman starter in time.
Starting Pitchers by Comps
BIG TICKET PITCHERS
1. Max Scherzer – For all the various reasons why I think Scherzer will do the best in this group, one of his comps at a similar age is David Cone. Brandon Webb sits just one above Cone at number nine, but we won’t discuss that. If there’s any connection at all between Scherzer and Cone, then I say sign this man immediately.
Scherzer is the youngest in this sub-group, playing ’15 at the young age of 30, and is coming off consecutive Top five Cy Young finishes (he won the award in 2013). With every Scherzer start I keep waiting for the wildness to return, that we’re going to see him revert back to those early years and walk 3+ per nine. That guy is gone. He strikes out a ton of batters. He’s the only one in this group to average over 10 K/9, and he’s done that three years in a row (he’s the active leader in K/9 at 9.59 and currently fourth in Major League history) all while topping the 200 inning mark in consecutive seasons and making 30+ starts in five straight.
Pitchers are never sure things, but I’d be confident saying Scherzer has some life left in that arm. Sometimes it looks like he’s throwing a wiffle ball.
Put him in the NL, and he leaps into the top 10 for single season K/9 by a starter. Put him in Los Angeles, and the Dodgers turn into the 1971 Orioles.
Matt Morris is one of the first pitchers I remember returning from TJ and being successful. Norm Charlton was sort of okay after he returned, and Eric Gagne was lights out with the Dodgers starting in 2002, a year after Morris broke through, but it was Morris that grabbed the headlines for his return and subsequent success. By the time he was 30, though, Morris had surgery on his labrum, and he struggled upon returning.
Scherzer is the pick.
2. Jon Lester – Even Jon Lester couldn’t escape the Royals World Series inevitability express as the pedigreed lefty entered the eighth inning staked to a 7-3 lead in the wild card game and somehow exited after allowing two singles and a walk and being on the hook for six earned runs (something he’d done only one time last season). It was an ugly way to end the season, but the rest of the year was nothing short of a huge success.
He set career bests in innings pitched, BB/9, ERA, FIP, ERA+, and WHIP. His fWAR of 6.1 was the second best of his career while his bWAR of 4.6 was fourth. So, yeah. It was a pretty good year when you look back upon it.
Lester relied upon his cutter more in ’14, throwing the pitch 30% of the time, up from the low 20s where he’d been throwing it in prior seasons, and batters hit a meager .241 against it. Good times. Keep doing that Jon. For his career, he’s been equally tough on righties as he has been on lefties, and he averaged 9.01 K/9, the third time in his career he’s topped nine. If there’s concern, last season was the first time he walked fewer than two per nine and in both ’12 and ’13 he’d struck out around 7.5 per nine, which would make me wonder if last season was just a guy having one of those years and rediscovering lost glory or if we’ll see a Lester settle somewhere around 8-8.5.
Before getting bit by the TJ bug at 33, Tim Hudson had one good and one borderline All Star quality season with Atlanta at 31-32. Hudson accounted for 14.3 bWAR over the four seasons from 31-34 (including one season lost to TJ surgery), and the early 20s Lester surpasses that total without question. I’m going to go with Lester here, believing the latissimus dorsi strain and wonky mechanics from 2012 are well behind him and he won’t fall into anymore sustained funks.
If Hudson doesn’t get hurt, Hudson wins easily. Damn you stupid elbow ligaments!
3. James Shields – Shields enters 2015 with eight consecutive seasons of throwing 200 or more innings, tying him with Justin Verlander with the second longest active streak in the Majors. Mark Buerhrle has the longest with 14 straight. In fact, since 2007 when that streak began, Shields has thrown the most innings in the big leagues with 1,785 2/3 innings, narrowly edging out Felix Hernandez by one solitary out.
Before running these numbers, I was sort of amazed by the fact that Shields has been so durable and thrown so many innings. Eight straight seasons? Golly! Yeah, well, Don Sutton did it 15 straight, and Greg Maddux managed the feat 14 times in a row (18 overall). Eight doesn’t seem all that impressive when compared to those totals, but to manage 30+ starts each year while remaining in the game long enough to reach 200 innings is both a skill and a mark of competence. People may not consider Jerry Koosman an all-time great, but he tossed eight straight seasons of 200+ innings between 1973-1980 and in only one of him was he sub-replacement.
All of those innings don’t seem to be bothering Shields. He still cranks it up there, relying primarily on a low 90s fourseamer and a cutter. Pitching half of his games in Kauffman Stadium has helped him keep the ball in the park. He’s about middle of the pack for starters, averaging about .91 HR/9 last season and roughly the same for the last four. Basically, he’s not the guy who led the AL in home runs allowed with 34 in 2010.
Shields will be playing next year at the age of 33, and while there are plenty of examples of pitchers posting seasons of 3+ bWAR at 33 or older (Buerhrle and Hiroki Kuroda are two recent examples) it’s highly unlikely he’s going to get the payday of the two men above him. He’s a solid option to have in your rotation, but he won’t give you the Scherzer sizzle for instance. Four straight seasons of posting nearly 3 or greater bWAR is still pretty good.
Doc Medich pitched for both the Rangers and Brewers at 33, turning in the worst season of his career at -0.1 bWAR. Shields wins.
4. Hiroki Kuroda – It might seem a little strange to place Kuroda above younger pitchers like Ervin Santana and Liriano, especially considering that if Kuroda decides to pitch next season, he’ll be 40 years old, but for a one-year deal I like him better than anyone else. For all the things that went wrong in the Bronx last year, Kuroda wasn’t one of them.
He was the Yankees best starter not named Masahiro Tanaka, and his 199 innings pitched easily led the club and left him one inning shy of reaching 200 for the fourth straight year. He also happened to post the best BB/9 and WHIP of his career.
If you’re wondering if the old guy is only good for the early going, think again. Kuroda seemed to improve as the season went along. In the final two months of the season, Kuroda allowed a paltry .224/.252/.325 batting line with an ERA of 3.13.
Luke Hamlin was out of baseball after his age 39 season. If Kuroda pitches, he should surpass the many fishing expeditions.
5. Ervin Santana – If Santana was disappointed with the offers he received last year, settling for a one-year deal with the Braves after teams were scared off by Santana’s asking price, then he’ll definitely be disappointed with this offseason. The move to the NL helped Santana look more like a big strikeout pitcher, topping eight K/9 for the first time since 2008, but the wildness from Anaheim days returned as well. The 2.89 BB/9 from last year was more in line with his career average, making that 2.18 from 2013 look like the outlier.
Santana is a durable pitcher, making 30+ starts for the fifth straight season and narrowly missing out on 200 innings. His last season with any notable injury was 2009, so he’s a good guy to chew up innings and give you some mid-rotation relief. Looking for him to be a #2 or to be worth anything more than 1-2 wins might be a reach.
At Santana’s age, Pat Hentgen was on the downside of his career. TJ surgery ended his age 32 season and most of the following year as well. All told, in the four years from 2001-04, Hentgen was worth about 3.4 bWAR.
I figure Santana will surpass that at least.
6. Francisco Liriano – Liriano received the dreaded qualifying offer from the Pirates, so you wonder just how hot his market will be. Liriano was on the fast track to superstardom until TJ surgery derailed his brilliant age 22 season of 2006. At the time, Liriano was 12-3 with an ERA+ of 208. He’d allowed an absurdly low 6.6 H/9 while striking out 10.7 per nine.
Prior to resurrecting his career in Pittsburgh, Liriano dealt with various should ailments, pitched like he’d forgotten where the strike zone was located, and mostly looked like a guy who would be remembered as the guy that should have dominated AL lineups alongside Johan Santana with each year making that A.J. Pierzynski trade look more and more foolish.
Liriano won’t eat up innings like others on this list. He’s never reached 200 and he’s inched over 160 the last two seasons, giving him only three seasons where he’s done that with his 191 2/3 innings pitched in 2010 way past him.
If he’s walking 3-3.5 per nine while striking 9+ he’s a pretty good bargain. If he’s walking 4-5 per nine, then it’s tough to justify big money. When he’s on, though, he does things like this. Poor Matt Adams.
Randy Wolf put in some solid work from the 31 on (he’ll also appear later in this list as a potential free agent). Over the next four years, he averaged around 2 wins per season, and I don’t think Liriano will top that.
7. The spot that should be occupied by Gavin Floyd if he could stay healthy.
8. Jason Hammel – So, which one was the real Jason Hammel? Was it the guy who dominated in Chicago, posting 3.1 bWAR in half a season of work? He didn’t draw all the headlines like Jake Arrieta and Jeff Samardzija, but he posted a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts while tying a career high with 8.6 K/9. Was Hammel the one with the A’s? His time with Oakland didn’t go as well. His ERA jumped to 4.26 (FIP from 3.19 to 5.10) and he happened to give up the single to Salvador Perez that plated Christian Colon in the 12th inning of the AL wild card game. Things ended badly.
Hammel relies primarily on a fourseamer and a slider, throwing each equally as often in any count. His slider was particularly effective last season as batters whiffed on the pitch about 16% of the time while hitting .194.
Calling Hammel mid-rotation is optimistic considering he’s had three seasons where he’s been worth two or more bWAR, but I’m buying into the Cubs days from the first half of ’14, figuring he might be worth half of that over a season or three.
Since Scott Feldman and Hammel are the same age, this exercise comes down to who I believe will provide more value going forward. Feldman will probably never have the upside of Hammel, but I believe he’ll be a steadier presence.
9. Brandon McCarthy – Up until last year, things haven’t gone that great for McCarthy since getting hit by a line drive in the head. His time in Arizona was something of a disaster as he spent a season and a half allowing 10.7 H/9 in the desert with an ERA of 4.75. Leaving the easier league for the Yankees, after being traded with cash for Vidal Nuno, McCarthy went on to make 14 starts for New York, 10 of which were quality ones, including a four-hit shutout of Houston where he struck out eight Astros.
Okay, whatever. So it was Houston.
McCarthy will be 32 next season, and 2014 was the first season he hasn’t dealt with some sort of shoulder soreness since 2009. I highly doubt if he’ll hit 150 innings in each of the next few seasons much less the 200 he reached in 2014, but he’s probably worth a flier. He’s less mid-rotation and more wishful thinking for #4/5, but if he stays healthy, 1-2 quality years is some lucky team’s prize. Don’t break the bank, but 2/20 is a reasonable deal.
Brian Lawrence tore his rotator cuff at the age of 30, and his career was over after struggling in six starts with the Mets upon his return.
McCarthy wins this one.
Similar Players by Count
Next I continue looking at the starting pitchers.
Jon Lester and Hiroki Kuroda photo credit: Keith Allison via photopin cc