Free Agent Faceoff Rumors

Free Agent Faceoff: Max Scherzer vs. Jon Lester

A look at this year’s market for free agent starting pitching reveals a group that is deep in quality options and also features a pair of prime-aged top-of-the-rotation arms in Max Scherzer and Jon Lester. This duo, represented by Scott Boras and ACES, respectively, is commonly believed to be the cream of the free agent crop, but which will be the better buy?

Few pitchers have been as dominant as Scherzer over the past two seasons. In that time, he’s pitched to a 3.02 ERA with 10.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and a 36.5 percent ground-ball rate in 434 2/3 innings. His K/9 rate trails only Yu Darvish among qualified starters, and he grades out well according to ERA estimators FIP (2.79 — sixth) and SIERA (2.94 — eighth). In that two-year stretch, Scherzer leads qualified starters in ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, K/9 and opponent batting average (.216), to name a few categories. He’s entering his age-30 season on the heels of a pair of All-Star appearances and a pair of top five finishes in the Cy Young voting — including his first Cy Young win in 2013. The 6’3″, 220-pound right-hander has cemented himselves among the game’s elite arms and is looking for a sizable payday, as evidenced by his rejection of a six-year, $144MM contract extension in Spring Training.

Lester is no slouch, however, as he ranks second to Scherzer in ERA (3.10) and FIP (3.19) among qualified free agent starters in that time. His SIERA mark, though a ways behind at 3.49, is still third-best over the past two seasons (Brandon McCarthy sits between them). Beyond that, Lester has been more of a workhorse in his career; he has reached the 200-inning mark in six of the past seven seasons, falling shy only in 2011 when he tossed 191 2/3 frames. Lester certainly keeps the ball on the ground more often than Scherzer, with a career ground-ball rate just under 47 percent and sitting at 43.7 percent over the past two seasons. Lester is also coming off the best platform season of any free agent starter, having pitched to a brilliant 2.46 ERA with 9.0 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and a 42.4 percent ground-ball rate. He’s spent almost all of his career in the hitter-friendly AL East, whereas Scherzer has spent more time in a more favorable pitching environment (Detroit’s Comerica Park). Lester is a year older than Scherzer, however, and he’s thrown about 300 more innings in his big league career. He’s rumored to already have an offer upwards of $120MM from the Red Sox, and another possibly as large as $135MM from the Cubs, so the price tag figures to be substantial here as well.

In our free agent profiles, MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes predicted a seven-year contract for Scherzer while I personally went with six years for Lester, but it certainly wouldn’t be a shock to see a team guarantee Lester that seventh season. The above paragraphs are a mere snapshot of each pitcher, while the linked profiles offer a more in-depth look at the pair of aces. You can read over those to brush up on each pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses before making a vote below if you wish, but let’s get to the question at the root of this post.

Free Agent Faceoff: Ervin Santana vs. Brandon McCarthy

MLB Trade Rumors is firing up this year’s version of the Free Agent Faceoff series, in which comparable free agents are analyzed side by side. Each post will conclude with a reader vote on the value of the players involved. The first faceoff featured three shortstops. In the second, we’ll look at a pair of starters:

It’s a common consensus this year that the free agent class for starting pitchers has a great deal of separation between the top three starters — Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields — and the rest of the class. While opinions on the ranking of those three vary (perhaps a topic for another installment in this series!), there’s a cloudier picture when it comes to the second tier of free agents. Most of the pitchers in the second tier come with some form of blemish on their record, be it a checkered injury history, the possibility of a qualifying offer, inconsistent year-to-year results or some combination of the above. Today we’ll take a look at a pair of 31-year-old starters who can each try to make a case that he’s the best among the second tier: Ervin Santana and Brandon McCarthy. (This is, of course, not to say that the “best among the second tier” is specifically limited to these two.)

McCarthy vs. Santana is somewhat of a case of tantalizing upside versus steady and reliable. McCarthy totaled an even 200 innings in 2014 — the first time in his career he’s reached that mark and just the second time in which he’s topped 180 frames. Santana, on the other hand, threw 196 innings and has topped the 200 mark on five occasions in his career. He’s averaged 207 innings per season over the past five years — durability to which McCarthy cannot lay claim.

In four of the aforementioned seasons, Santana has posted an ERA south of 4.00 — bottoming out at 3.24 last season in Kansas City. McCarthy’s best seasons came in 2011-12 with Oakland when he posted a combined 3.29 ERA in 281 1/3 innings. However, those two seasons are the only in which he’s successfully kept his ERA under 4.00.

To this point, the argument seems skewed heavily in Santana’s favor, but McCarthy’s case is certainly not without merit. When looking at the two through a sabermetric lens, McCarthy can be seen as not only the better pitcher, but arguably one of the better pitchers in the league. McCarthy’s 2.86 FIP in 2011 led the league, and a comparison of their marks in ERA (3.81 vs. 3.87), FIP (3.44 vs. 4.19), xFIP (3.43 vs. 3.88) and SIERA (3.60 vs. 3.93) all favor McCarthy. The Yankees were likely drawn to McCarthy’s sabermetric profile this July when trading for him, and that investment paid off handsomely, as McCarthy pitched to a stellar 2.89 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9 in 90 1/3 innings down the stretch.

McCarthy has generated more ground-balls than Santana since buying into sabermetric principles back in 2009, but he took his ground-ball rate to a new level in 2014 (52.6 percent) while Santana regressed in the same area (42.7 percent). Both pitchers possess strong command and can miss bats, but McCarthy has shown better control over the past four seasons while Santana has bested McCarthy in strikeout rate each year. McCarthy’s strikeout rate did jump in 2014, along with his velocity (career-best 92.9 mph average fastball), but Santana’s strikeout rate rose as well (even against non-pitchers in the NL).

Other factors to consider: Santana will pitch all of next season at age 32, while McCarthy won’t be 32 until July. Additionally, Santana is eligible to receive a qualifying offer, meaning he could again come with draft pick compensation attached to his name; McCarthy is ineligible to receive a QO after being traded midseason.

Each player has been on the receiving end of a Free Agent Profile at MLBTR (McCarthy’s penned by me, Santana’s by Tim Dierkes), which provide even more in-depth looks at the pros and cons of each. Use those as you wish to help formulate an opinion before voting…

Free Agent Faceoff: Cabrera vs. Drew vs. Lowrie

With J.J. Hardy off the market, teams looking for a pure shortstop suddenly lack an obvious potential solution. Sure, Hanley Ramirez still hits like an All-Star corner outfielder, but he also accumulated the second-most negative defensive value of any shortstop in 2014 (per Fangraphs) and has put his 20’s in his rearview. Any club signing him will have to expect a move to third at some point over the life of his deal, if not from the get-go.

Teams that simply want a new field marshal up the middle will have three primary options to choose from, each of whom brings somewhat different strengths, downsides, and expected contract terms.

As we sit here today, the Indian-turned-National Asdrubal Cabrera has yet to turn 29 years old. He has never quite met his promise, but has put up several well-above-average years both at the plate and in overall value. Defensive metrics have never been fans of the glove, but Cabrera is pretty solid at the plate and is a good bet to deliver 15 homers and 10 steals. And while he’s had his share of bumps and bruises, Cabrera has not missed any significant stretches since a forearm fracture back in 2010. But Cabrera was shifted to second after his mid-season trade to the Nationals, and some think that’s where he should stay.

Stephen Drew, most recently of the Yankees, is the oldest of the bunch, and he is coming off of a disastrous, qualifying offer-shortened 2014 season. Drew was worth over one win below replacement, thanks to an abysmal .162/.237/.299 slash over 300 plate appearances. But he has otherwise been pretty good when healthy, and had a good enough 2013 that he spurned the one-year, $14MM QO in hopes of finding a longer deal on the open market. And there’s an argument to be made that Drew is the best defender of this group. Given his depressed value, he could be a popular buy-low candidate.

The Athletics’ Jed Lowrie, meanwhile, is just one year removed from posting a .290/.344/.446 slash with 15 home runs. But that was his first season of full-time action, and his age-30 follow-up year was not nearly so sterling (.249/.321/.355, 6 home runs). He did see improved defensive marks, but UZR is much more favorably inclined to his work up the middle than is Defensive Runs Saved, which saw him as a -10 defender. But if you believe he can stay at short, in some ways, Lowrie could end up being the safest bet of this bunch while also delivering a bit of power upside.

Let’s go ahead and take a poll. It will not ask you to pick the best player, or the one who’ll get the largest contract. Rather, it asks for which player — given their likely expected contract situation — is likely to provide the best value. For instance, given his age and durability, Cabrera is the best bet of this bunch for a lengthy deal — but that could make him the most expensive to acquire. And a rebound from Drew could make him an incredible bargain.

Free Agent Faceoff: Nelson Cruz vs. Kendrys Morales

Yesterday, I took a side-by-side look at right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, asking MLBTR readers who they preferred between the prominent early-30s hurlers, as each has seen his free agent stock weighed down by draft pick compensation. Today, let's take a look at another pair of players who are languishing on the free agent market due to their ties to draft pick compensation: Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales.

While Cruz, unlike Morales, is an outfielder by trade, neither is known as a solid defensive player. Rather, each is valued primarily for his bat, and teams/fans can make the case that each is best suited for a DH role at this point in his career (the players and their agents, of course, would strongly disagree).

Cruz, 33, entered the offseason as one of the top right-handed power bats on the open market — a rare trait among free agents. No remaining free agent, not even Morales, can claim to match Cruz's power. He batted .266/.327/.506 with 27 homers in 2013 in just 109 games (446 plate appearances). However, the reason for the shortened campaign wasn't injury, but rather a 50-game suspension for his ties to the Biogenesis PED scandal. Cruz can argue that he's served his time and state that his violations took place in 2012 (via the L.A. Times' Mike DiGiovanna) as he recovered from a rare illness that caused him to lose roughly 40 pounds, thereby indicating that his 2013 numbers were legitimate. Interested teams don't appear as likely to write off the suspension, however.

Morales comes with his own baggage, though his in the form of injury history. The 30-year-old switch-hitter fractured his leg in 2010 while celebrating a walk-off grand slam and missed the better part of two seasons recovering from that freak accident. Morales has posted solid offensive numbers since returning (.275/.329/.457), but his production hasn't come close to matching that which he showed in 2009-10 (.303/.353/.548 in 203 games) prior to his injury.

Neither player is considered much of a defender, though Morales is limited to first base while Cruz can man a corner outfield spot, even if defensive metrics don't speak highly of his outfield play. Even at his best, Morales' isolated power (slugging minus batting average) from 2009-10 was .246 — roughly the same as the .241 mark Cruz has averaged over the past six years. However, Morales is a switch-hitter who strikes out far less often and is also three years younger than Cruz. He's also succeeded in pitcher-friendly environments, whereas Cruz's .912 OPS at Rangers Ballpark dwarfs his career road mark of .734.

Clearly, each player has some flaws. Cruz likely offers more power and can be played a more valuable defensive position, but he's older, strikes out more and comes with troubling home/road splits. Morales has yet to prove that he can replicate his monster 2009 season, and he's even more defensively limited than Cruz, as all but 31 of his games last season came as a DH. Either would bolster the majority of Major League lineups, but (assuming both would fit on your team) if you had to choose just one…

Free Agent Faceoff: Ervin Santana Vs. Ubaldo Jimenez

Now that both Masahiro Tanaka and Matt Garza are off the market, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez are widely considered the top two starters in free agency. Some may argue in favor of Bronson Arroyo as well, but given the lack of draft pick compensation and his age relative to Santana and Jimenez, Arroyo figures to have a different market than the pair of early-30s Dominican right-handers.

Santana turned 31 in December and enjoyed an excellent rebound campaign with Royals in 2013 after he was acquired in a salary dump trade with the Angels. Similarly, Jimenez, who turned 30 last week, rebounded from a disastrous 18-month stretch that saw him post an ERA north of 5.00 and caused many fans around the game label him a lost cause.

Jimenez is more of a strikeout pitcher than Santana but also comes with worse control, as reflected in his 9.6 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 rates in 2013. While he was once an extreme ground-ball pitcher, Jimenez turned in a slightly below-league-average mark of 43.9 percent in 2013 (44.5 percent was average). Santana, meanwhile, relied on pristine command but picked up strike three far less often than Jimenez. He averaged nearly three full strikeouts fewer than Jimenez on a per-nine-inning basis (6.9) but walked just 2.2 hitters per nine. His ground-ball rate has trended upward over the past three seasons, culminating in a career-best 46.2 percent in 2013.

However, the pair shares some similarities as well. For one, Santana and Jimenez have displayed durability, averaging 200 and 198 innings per season, respectively, dating back to 2008. And, despite the different ways in which they've prevented runs, they've done so at nearly an identical rate. Dating back to that same 2008 season, Jimenez's 3.90 ERA is just a hair lower than Santana's 3.93 ERA. Both have experienced significant swings in that time, and that inconsistency has played a part in the fact that they remain on the free agent market on Jan. 27.

Also playing a part has been the lengthy Tanaka saga and the fact that each hurler will require forfeiture of a draft pick. Despite strong rebound campaigns for each, neither pitcher has seen his market develop much. That figures to change in the next month, and the debate among pundits as to which pitcher is the better investment for a team in need of pitching will likely produce arguments for both sides. With all that said, let's see what the MLBTR readership has to say about this pair of high-upside but relatively inconsistent pitchers.

Free Agent Faceoff: Carlos Ruiz vs. A.J. Pierzynski

As usual, there are multiple MLB teams that could look to upgrade their backstops. The Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Phillies, among others, will enter the off-season unsettled behind the dish. Teams such as those might chase the consistent power and presence of Brian McCann, or the emergent bat and youth of Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But both players look to be in line for multiple years and tens of millions of dollars.

So, let's say your team misses on McCann and Salty. Or, perhaps, it isn't willing to roll the dice on the former's balky shoulder or the latter's sudden breakout. Or maybe it sees value further down the market, among a couple of aging veterans who might just have some life left. 

The next two catchers on the list, Carlos Ruiz of the Phillies and A.J. Pierzynski of the Rangers, have both passed the midway point of their fourth decades. Neither figures to command more than two years, if that, and should be had for a reasonable annual salary. And while neither probably has the on-field upside of McCann or Saltalamacchia entering 2014, each may well have more value upside and is nearly certain to carry less risk. But which is a better target? That question warrants another Free Agent Faceoff.

Fortunately, the task of evaluating these two catchers is made easier by the profiles that MLBTR recently published. Tim Dierkes analyzed the 35-year-old Ruiz, pointing to the rather remarkable .303/.388/.454 triple-slash that he posted over the 2010-12 seasons. Though he came out of the gate poorly this year after missing time due to a suspension for Adderall, over the last two months of 2013 he hit much like the Chooch of old. Ruiz is only one year removed from a 4.5 rWAR/5.2 fWAR campaign, though he has experienced a series of minor injuries over the last few years and may not be capable of manning a truly full-time load behind the plate.

Pierzynski, who was profiled by Steve Adams, has never had a year quite like Ruiz's 2012, but could be viewed as a safer, sturdier choice. As Adams notes, the 36-year-old has been incredibly durable, averaging over 130 annual games with the gear on for over a decade. And he is still hitting a ton of long balls for a catcher, though he rarely draws walks. Pierzynski is one of the least-liked opponents in the game, but then again he has drawn his fair share of praise from teammates. And even after putting up better numbers than did Ruiz in 2013 (94 OPS+ versus 90 OPS+), he might well come cheaper.

Whether by choice or by way of backup plan, which veteran backstop would you prefer to ink this off-season?

Free Agent Faceoff: Scott Feldman vs. Paul Maholm

For tonight's Free Agent Faceoff entry, we'll take a look at Scott Feldman and Paul Maholm. As two soft-tossers with below-average strikeout rates, they're likely to draw interest from NL clubs who're looking for an extra piece to fill out a rotation.

The Cubs likely targeted Feldman last winter as a pitcher whose strikeout and walk rates were on the upswing in recent years despite inconsistent results. In 2012, he struck out nearly seven batters per nine innings and walked just 2.3 per nine while being shuttled between the rotation and the bullpen. SIERA suggested his ERA should have been somewhere in the range of 3.95, but he ended the season with a mark of 5.09. Dropped into the Cubs' rotation in 2013, Feldman rewarded the team with 91 quality innings before being flipped to Baltimore in July, and he remained relatively effective in the AL East despite seeing his strikeouts tick down and his walk rate rise. It added up to a 181 2/3-inning, 3.86 ERA campaign for Feldman that likely ranks as his best major league season thus far. While his strikeout rate remained below average for a starter, Feldman continued to avoid excessive walks this season, and also saw his groundball rate shoot up to 49.6 percent, easily the highest rate of his career among years in which he's worked mostly out of the rotation.

Maholm also doesn't rely on the strikeout, but he's much more ground-ball oriented than Feldman. Only once has his ground ball rate fallen below 50 percent in a season, and he's averaged 52.1 percent for his career. Those grounders are his meat and potatoes, as he's averaging just a 6.4 per nine strikeout rate over the last two seasons and a solid, but not excellent, walk rate of 2.6 per nine. He also relies heavily on neutralizing lefties, who've managed just a .220/.287/.318 line against him for his career, while righties have fared much better at .286/.353/.447. That's generally been a recipe for success for Maholm, whose ERA climbed to 4.41 in 2013 but was 3.66 over the 2011 to 2012 seasons. His 2013 innings total, 153, was his lowest since his first full season in 2006, with a wrist sprain and elbow inflammation causing him to miss time. However, he's generally been a durable pitcher, as he's never failed to complete 150 innings in a season and has reached the 180-inning plateau three times in the last five years.

In Feldman and Maholm, we have two pitchers who have achieved some success despite living below the 90 MPH mark with their fastballs. Feldman will turn 31 in February, and averaged 89.9 MPH with his heater last season. Maholm will turn 32 during the 2014 season and is a bit behind Feldman on fastball velocity, averaging 87.5 MPH in 2013, but he's also been much more effective at generating ground balls over his career. Who would you rather have?

Free Agent Faceoff: Hiroki Kuroda vs. A.J. Burnett

This edition of MLBTR's Free Agent Faceoff will examine a pair of veteran right-handers coming off strong seasons that can potentially be had on a one-year deal in 2014 — Hiroki Kuroda and A.J. Burnett.

Kuroda, who turns 39 in Februrary, is coming off a second consecutive impressive season in the AL East. In spite of the hitters' paradise that is Yankee Stadium, Kuroda has posted strong — and nearly identical — seasons in 2012-13. Over that time, he's posted a 3.31 ERA with 6.8 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9, though his innings total in 2013 fell from 219 2/3 to 201 1/3. Kuroda has stranded runners at a rate that's well above the league average for each of the past three seasons, helping him to outperform some of his peripheral stats. Averaging between 91-92 mph on his fastball, Kuroda sits slightly above the league average in swinging-strike rate but relies more on his pristine command and plus ground-ball rate for success. In 2013, his splitter produced a 70.2 percent ground-ball rate, and his overall ground-ball rate from 2012-13 is a healthy 49.5 percent. Kuroda is very durable and hasn't been on the disabled list since 2009.

Burnett is two years younger than Kuroda, as he's set to turn 37 in January. Unlike Kuroda, Burnett relies heavily on the strikeout, having racked up 389 punchouts in 393 1/3 innings over the past two seasons. His 3.41 ERA since 2012 is very similar to Kuroda's, though doesn't have the same command; Burnett has walked three batters per nine innings over the past two seasons and was at 3.2 in 2013. He misses more bats (10.6% swinging-strike rate in 2013 compared to Kuroda's 9.9) and throws a bit harder (92.5 mph), relying on a curveball as his out pitch. Burnett is no slouch with ground-balls either and is actually at nearly 57 percent in that department since joining the Bucs. He missed four weeks with a calf strain this summer.

Both right-handers are getting up there in years, but both are clearly still effective. While some might prefer Burnett's relative youth and his swing-and-miss arsenal to Kuroda's sharper command, Kuroda's supporters will point to the fact that he's succeeding in one of the game's toughest divisions and toughest parks for pitchers. There's the possibility, of course, that one or both of these pitchers will retire this offseason. For the purposes of this post, let's assume that's not the case and ask the question…

Free Agent Faceoff: Matt Garza vs. Masahiro Tanaka

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?

Free Agent Faceoff: Scott Kazmir vs. Phil Hughes

For today's Free Agent Faceoff entry, we'll take a look at Scott Kazmir and Phil Hughes, two formerly heralded prospects who enter the free-agent market this offseason with big question marks.

Kazmir emerged from obscurity this season to put together a respectable 4.14-ERA, 152-inning campaign for the Indians. That ERA wasn't a fluke, as Kazmir also posted a K/9 of 8.9 and a BB/9 of 2.7. The second figure is particularly impressive, as it's easily the lowest of Kazmir's career. As a left-hander who misses bats, suppresses walks and averages 92.1 mph on his fastball, Kazmir would potentially be in line for a multi-year deal with annual eight-digit salaries if he had a stronger recent track record. However, around this time last year, Kazmir was pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in independent ball. He also struggled with efficiency throughout the season, averaging less than six innings per start.

There was talk earlier in the year of a qualifying offer for Hughes, but that possibility has evaporated after another disappointing season for the 6' 5", 240-pound right-hander. In a final line that's perhaps representative of his checkered career, Hughes posted a 5.19 ERA in 145 2/3 innings despite a 2.88 K/BB ratio that places him in the same range as starters such as Derek Holland and James Shields. As has often been the case for Hughes, otherwise good results were dragged down by an inability to keep the ball in the park. Hughes posted a 1.48 HR/9 this year, ranking among the league leaders. Given his natural fly-ball tendencies (career 33.6 percent GB rate), a team with a more spacious ballpark than Yankee Stadium could target Hughes as a buy-low candidate.

The major knock on Kazmir is the bizarre trajectory his career has taken. There's just not many comparables for the 29-year-old, a former top young starter who appeared to be out of baseball but re-emerged this season to post a 3.36 K/BB ratio in 152 innings. Hughes, 27, has always inspired optimism, but he's never developed into the dominant starting pitcher that many projected based on his size and stuff.