For tonight's Free Agent Faceoff entry, we'll look at Matt Garza and Masahiro Tanaka. Teams can be relatively sure of what they'd be getting by signing the former, while the latter has both boom and bust potential.
Garza, 29, has been an above-average starter since his second season with Minnesota in 2007, as he hasn't posted an ERA above 3.95 since his rookie campaign. While he's not a strikeout machine, he gets more than his fair share of Ks - his punchout rates have consistently been above the league average for starters, and that didn't change this season, when he racked up 7.9 per nine innings. Garza appeared to ascend to another level in 2011, when he set a career high in K/9 and also boosted his ground ball rate. However, after struggling with injuries in 2012, he's settled back into being the good, but not great, pitcher that he's been for the majority of his career - a guy who has strikeout stuff and walks fewer batters than the average starter, but also gets a below-average amount of ground balls.
Tanaka is expected to make the jump to MLB this winter after dominating Japanese baseball to the tune of a 1.24 ERA in 181 innings this season. The fact that much of his success comes from limiting walks - his BB/9 in Japan this year is 1.3, and he posted an insane rate of 1.0 per nine last season - is likely to give some teams pause. Two recent Japanese imports, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, both saw their walk rates spike dramatically when squaring off against major league hitters. And while he's generated plenty of Ks in Japan, his 2013 K/9 of 7.7 suggests his stuff isn't on the same level as Darvish's, as the latter pitcher was striking out almost 11 batters per nine innings by the time he was ready to migrate to the states. Nevertheless, the reports that we've gotten from Baseball America's Ben Badler on Tanaka's arsenal - a low-90s fastball and two plus secondary offerings, including what is "arguably the best splitter in the world" - suggest that the team who ultimately signs him may be snaring a frontline starter. At 24, he's also much younger than Garza.
While signing a free agent starter to a long-term deal is an inherently risky move, Garza is a good bet to provide a team with many quality major league innings. In contrast, as a Japanese pitcher, Tanaka is largely an unknown quantity - Daisuke Matsuzaka has struggled mightily in the U.S., while Darvish is currently among the most valuable starters in baseball. Who would you rather have?