Free Agent Faceoff Rumors

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.

Free Agent Faceoff: Nelson Cruz vs. Carlos Beltran

In this installment of the Free Agent Faceoff series, we look at two aging, but powerful, outfielders in Nelson Cruz and Carlos Beltran. Both players provide poor defense but good bats in a market that has only a handful of the latter.

Cruz is currently serving the tail end of a 50-game suspension for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, working out in Arizona in preparation to potentially rejoin the Rangers for the playoffs if they happen to win one of the Wild Card spots. Cruz is very limited defensively, which explains how he has posted just 1.3, 1.1 and 1.6 fWAR the past three seasons. Still, his bat can provide a big boost, and the Rangers' struggles since his suspension may show how important his hitting was to their lineup — Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently went so far as to say that Cruz has "killed" the Rangers with his absence (which might be an exaggeration, given that Alex Rios has filled in capably since Cruz's suspension). Cruz is set to hit the free agent market after coming to the end of a two-year, $16MM deal with the Rangers that bought out his last two arbitration seasons. 

At 36, Beltran is three years older than Cruz, but he has a similar profile, in that his still-excellent offense is increasingly offset by his defense, resulting this season in a pedestrian 1.7 fWAR despite a .297/.337/.491 batting line. That rather low fWAR may have at least something to do with variance in single-season defensive statistics, but Beltran has fallen far down the defensive spectrum, and at his age, his defensive numbers might not get more than a dead-cat bounce. Beltran is finishing out a two-year, $26MM contract with the Cardinals. He'll aim to play at least a few more seasons, and hopefully give himself a clear shot at Hall of Fame induction in the process.

At this point in their careers, both players would probably be best suited for situations in which they can play DH at least a couple times a week. Beltran would have rejected that possibility two years ago, saying in 2011 that he wanted to remain in the National League so he could avoid the DH. We'll see if he retains that stance next offseason. Still, if nothing else, both have middle-of-the-lineup bats. Leaving aside the consideration of qualifying offers (Beltran might well get one, and we'll see about Cruz), which player would you rather have?

Free Agent Faceoff: Josh Johnson vs. Roy Halladay

Heading into the offseason, we can be sure of seeing the usual collection of low-risk deals for formerly marquee free-agent starting pitchers. Last winter, the Pirates struck gold with a one-year, incentive-laden deal for Francisco Liriano, as he's generated 3.0 fWAR this season while making just $1MM. Though they'll require larger commitments, two starters hitting the free agent market this offseason, Josh Johnson and Roy Halladay, offer similar ace potential and are also likely to be had relatively cheaply. They're up next in our Free Agent Faceoff series.

When I asked last week in a poll, just 29 percent of you said the Blue Jays should extend Johnson a qualifying offer this offseason after an injury-marred 2013. This season was certainly a disappointing one for the right-hander, as his 6.20 ERA was the worst of his career if you ignore 2007, when he threw just 15 2/3 innings. However, I made the case that Johnson was among the most unlucky starters in baseball this season, as 18.5 percent of his fly balls went for home runs. That's likely to fall, as it's double his career mark of 8.2 percent.  When Johnson's healthy, he can be as dominant as any starter in baseball, as his lifetime 3.40 ERA attests to. He's just rarely healthy for a full season. Any acquiring team will hope that the 29-year-old can recapture some of his 2010 magic, when he managed an acceptable 183 2/3 innings and led the NL in ERA.

Halladay's 2013 mark of 6.71 ERA in 61 2/3 innings was one of several troubling statistics for the right-hander in 2013, a year that also saw his average two-seam fastball velocity fall to just 88.7 mph. That's a concerning figure for a 36-year-old who missed significant time with a shoulder injury. Halladay's 5.0 BB/9 rate and 1.8 HR/9 rate were also his highest since 2000, when he was in his early 20s. At this point in Halladay's career, we may just be seeing the decline of a pitcher whose right arm logged more than 1,400 innings over a six-year period from 2006-2011. However, there's also no ignoring the fact that he has two Cy Young Awards to his name. If Halladay can prove that he's healthy, that sterling resume is sure to loom large in the evaluation process for many clubs.

In Johnson and Halladay, we have two starters who succumbed to injuries in 2013 but are likely to draw significant interest as former top-of-the-rotation starters. Johnson has dominated in the past when healthy, and though he hasn't had the career Halladay has, he has youth on his side at age 29. Halladay is a much older 36, but he was also among the best pitchers in baseball over that 2006-2011 span. Who would you rather have?

Free Agent Faceoff: Tim Lincecum vs. Ubaldo Jimenez

For today's installment of MLBTR's Free Agent Faceoff series, we'll look at a couple of former aces, both 29-year-old righties, whose careers have followed a similar trajectory over the last few years: Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez.

These guys were once expected to headline this year's free agent class. Over the 2009-10 seasons, Lincecum (11.7 fWAR) and Jimenez (12.1 fWAR) were among the ten most productive pitchers in the game. In 2011, they took a step back but were still solid: looking past their divergent ERA figures (2.74 for Lincecum; 4.68 for Jimenez), both posted fWAR tallies in the mid-3's. Last year, the wheels fell off. The two combined for just one win above replacement. 

The 2013 season has seen partial resurrections for both pitchers. Certainly, neither will hit the market as an ace. But both bring high strikeout rates and durability to the table. Since 2008, neither hurler has failed to make at least thirty starts. Of course, that statistic also implies mileage: Lincecum has logged over 1400, and Jimenez just shy of 1300, career innings. But these one-time stars should generate a lot of interest in a pitching market largely bereft of top-level talent. Let's take a closer look:

At first glance, Lincecum's 2013 season looks like a marginal improvement on 2012, and in some ways it is: he is carrying just a 4.44 ERA in 190 2/3 innings, and his strikeouts are down (though so are his walks). On the other hand, Lincecum's year looks much better in the eyes of advanced metrics: his FIP (3.77), xFIP (3.57), and SIERA (3.75) are all better than his 2013 ERA as well as his 2012 marks. Broadly, Lincecum seems to have figured out how to be successful — albeit not dominant — with less overwhelming stuff. As Andrew Baggarly of writes, Lincecum is a more mature pitcher now.

Though Lincecum's fastball velocity dipped in 2010, it took a more remarkable downturn between 2011 (92.2 MPH) and 2012 (90.4 MPH). Not coincidentally, perhaps, his offspeed offerings (slider, curve, change up) all registered negative pitch values last year. Lincecum's change, in particular, went from being his best pitch to his worst, as he was seemingly unable or unwilling to pound the zone low-and-away with the offering. He has apparently re-learned how to use his slow ball in 2013, to improved results. Though Lincecum no longer looks like a top-tier pitcher, he proved this season that he can still dial it up at times (as in his no-hitter) and, perhaps more importantly, that he should be a reliable rotation piece. 

Likewise, Jimenez entered the year with real questions about whether or not he would continue to be a guy that a team felt comfortable trotting out every fifth day. As with Lincecum, he has in large part answered those questions. MLBTR's Steve Adams just profiled Jimenez, who is likely to exercise his right to void the $8MM club option that the Indians hold on him for 2014. As Adams noted, Jimenez has produced excellent results at the right time: he sports a 2.72 ERA and 2.31 K:BB ratio over his last 145 2/3 innings, and has restored his ground-ball rate to his career levels. Though advanced metrics do not quite support his cumulative 3.39 ERA on the year, neither do they undermine his usefulness: Jimenez sports a 3.62 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, and 3.88 SIERA. 

Even moreso than Lincecum, Jimenez has dealt with a drastic velocity decline. His fastball, which once sat at 96, dropped to a 93.9 MPH average in 2011 and then fell off a table last year to 92.5 MPH. In reponse to his poor results in 2012, Jimenez made adjustments to his repertoire. He has continued to increase the usage of his change-up ever since his speed started to dip, and now throws it 20.2% of the time. More importantly, perhaps, Jimenez has largely abandoned his curve (3.7%) for his slider (22.3%), a big swing from his previous pitch mix. While I cannot make a full case for causation, the slider has the highest pitch value of any of Jimenez's offerings in 2013. Whatever the reason, Jimenez has restored his ability to generate swings and misses (8.8% SwStr% in 2013 vs. 7.0% in 2012), reduced his home run tendencies (0.85 vs. 1.27 HR/9), and restored his K:BB ratio to his prime levels (2.29 vs. 1.51 K:BB) while carrying a career-best 9.23 K/9.

Lincecum and Jimenez both have approximately the same age and arm mileage, and have posted similar underlying skill metrics in 2013. The Giants star has had greater highs and less-pronounced lows in his career than his counterpart in Cleveland, but in 2013 Jimenez actually increased his strikeout capabilities and outpaced Lincecum in fWAR (2.6 vs. 1.5). So, which one would you prefer your team target? 

Free Agent Faceoff: Grant Balfour vs. Joaquin Benoit

MLBTradeRumors is firing up this year's vesion of the Free Agent Faceoff series, in which two comparable free agents are analyzed side by side. Each post will conclude with a reader vote on the value of the two players.

The free agent market for relievers with closing experience isn't exactly stacked this year, nor is it a particularly youthful crop. However, if you're looking for a solid arm with ninth inning experience that's still plenty successful in spite of his age, Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour are two of the better guys to turn to.

Balfour, a native of Australia, has served as Oakland's closer for the past two seasons and was their setup man in 2011. He's thrived in both roles, posting a combined 2.57 ERA with 9.0 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and a 37 percent ground-ball rate in 196 1/3 innings. His FIP (3.43) and xFIP (3.63) both suggest that his ERA could come up a good deal. He's averaged 93 mph on his heater in that time but is averaging an even more impressive 93.4 mph in 2013. Balfour has also shown an ability to suppress home runs throughout his career — just 7.9 percent of fly-balls against him have gone for homers. He will turn 36 years old in late December.

Benoit turned 36 in July and has similar stats to Balfour. He's posted a 2.89 ERA with 9.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 38.9 percent ground-ball rate in 193 1/3 innings since 2011. He throws noticably harder — averaging 93.9 mph on his fastball and sitting at 94.1 mph in 2013 — and generates more swinging strikes than Balfour (14.9 percent compared to 9.1 percent). However, Benoit has proven more susceptible to the long ball, yielding more homers in 2012 alone than Balfour has in 2012-13 combined.  For his career, 9.9 percent of the fly-balls hit against Benoit have gone for homers. Like Balfour, Benoit has outperformed both FIP (3.39) and xFIP (3.27) over the past three seasons.

Both Balfour and Benoit will pitch most of next season at 36 (Benoit will turn 37 just prior to the trade deadline). Both average a strikeout per inning or better with solid command and a fly-ball profile, and both have done well when handed a closer's job late in their careers. It can be argued that Benoit's advantage in strikeouts and walks can be offset by Balfour's stingier ways with home runs, lower ERA and slight age advantage, begging the question…

Free Agent Faceoff: Liriano vs. McCarthy

Two of the biggest (yet most intriguing) question marks available on this year's free agent pitching market are Francisco Liriano and Brandon McCarthy.  Both are 29 and were once seen as top prospects, and while both have dealt with injuries and inconsistency through their careers, it's Liriano who is struggling to regain his form while McCarthy is simply trying to get healthy enough to get back on the field.

Few pitchers are as electric as Liriano when he's on his game, though he's only really harnessed that ability over a full season in 2006 and 2010.  It seemed as if that 2010 year signalled that Liriano was all the way back from Tommy John surgery and would now become an anchor in the Twins rotation, except things went south from there.  Liriano posted a 5.23 ERA over 60 games (52 starts) in 2010-11, still striking out close to a batter per inning but also posting a 5.0 BB/9 rate.  Perhaps there was no better summation of Liriano's potential than his May 3, 2011 start against the White Sox, when he walked six batters and only struck out two — yet still managed to no-hit Chicago. 

The raw material is there for Liriano to become an ace and that's why, despite posting ERAs north of 5.00 in three of the last four seasons, it's possible that he could find a two-year contract on the open market (or at least a one-year contract with a generous option for 2014).  Being left-handed helps, but the belief still exists that the right situation or right pitching coach could flip the switch on Liriano and make him a top-of-the-rotation starter. 

McCarthy's life, let alone his baseball career, was threatened on September 5 when a line drive from Erick Aybar struck the right-hander in the head.  After undergoing surgery to relieve cranial pressure on his damaged skull and brain areas, the great news is that McCarthy is recovered (and tweeting) and has been cleared to do his regular offseason training work.  While a freak incident, the head injury was just the latest in a series of maladies that has plagued McCarthy throughout his career, such as elbow problems and a stress fracture in his throwing shoulder.

While McCarthy is not yet free of the injury bug, he at least has delivered strong results when he's been on the mound.  The righty has a 3.29 ERA and a 4:1 K:BB ratio in 43 starters in Oakland, finally delivering on the potential he showed as a prospect in the White Sox system.  McCarthy overhauled his pitching mechanics before the 2011 season and turned himself into a pitcher who relies on grounders (a 46.7% groundball rate in 2011) and command — he has a 1.6 BB/9 in 2011-12, less than half of the 3.4 BB/9 he posted over his first five seasons.  While his ERA was a run lower at the pitcher-friendly Coliseum than it was on the road, McCarthy's skillset should translate well to most ballparks.

If we were judging these two pitchers based purely on recent results, McCarthy is easily the better choice; had Aybar not hit that liner, this wouldn't even be a valid comparison, as McCarthy would've been in line for a three- or four-year contract.  That being said, McCarthy's injury history can't be ignored, which is part of the reason why MLBTR's Tim Dierkes ranked Liriano higher than McCarthy (#28 to #32) on his list of the top 50 free agents of the offseason.  A power arm will always carry that extra bit of allure, especially an arm like Liriano's that has shown occasional greatness.

Both pitchers are being courted by several teams, from big-market clubs looking for back-end rotation help to smaller-market teams hoping to find an ace at a relative bargain price. 

Free Agent Faceoff: Angel Pagan vs. Shane Victorino

The free agent market for center fielders is strong this year, with regulars Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Josh Hamilton, Angel Pagan, and Shane Victorino currently unsigned.  MLBTR readers narrowly prefer Bourn to Upton, but both figure to receive five-year contracts in excess of $65MM.  Hamilton is in a class by himself, leaving Pagan and Victorino as more reasonably-priced options.

Pagan, 31, went from a non-tender candidate a year ago to whipping up Doritos Locos at Taco Bell for adoring fans last month (the latter is generally seen as a good thing).  Rival agents may attempt to take Pagan down a peg for a relatively short resume, but only one of his last four seasons was subpar (2011).  Pagan is above-average in all aspects of the game, from offense to defense to baserunning.  Prior to the World Series exposure he was good in kind of a sneaky way, but the sum total is a player potentially worth five wins above replacement.  There's a vibe that his superb timing may result in a contract worth $10-12MM annually over three or four years.  It's plausible that someone stretches and adds a fifth year.

Victorino, 32 later this month, is another late-blooming switch-hitter.  His success as a big league regular dates back to 2006, however.  Compared to Pagan, Victorino had the opposite walk-year effect.  His stock took a hit due to struggles against right-handed pitching and an unimpressive final two months after a trade to the Dodgers.  The term of his next contract seems likely to be shorter than Pagan's despite their similarity in age.  Pagan bounced back after an ugly 2011; there's no reason Victorino can't do the same next year.  And keep in mind that even with the down offensive year, Victorino's ability to play a credible center field still made him worth three wins above replacement in 2012.

Pagan and Victorino are overachievers, in that both were discarded by multiple teams and took a while to establish themselves as regulars.  Now both are on the free agent market, and their career trajectories might not be as different as you think.

Free Agent Faceoff: Ryan Ludwick vs. Cody Ross

Power-hitting corner outfielders are always in demand, but not every team has the pockets deep enough to make a run at Josh Hamilton or even Nick Swisher. The lower price tag on more affordable names like Ryan Ludwick and Cody Ross leads to plenty of interest from teams looking for a boost in the outfield.

Ludwick, 34, produced a robust .275/.346/.531 triple slash line with 26 homers in 2012 — his first season with the Reds. While he was better at home in his hitter-friendly ballpark and against left-handed pitching, Ludwick managed to crack an .850 OPS both on the road and against right-handed pitching. In short, he hit regardless of the situation he was in. However, he totaled his fewest plate appearances since 2008 and provided negative value on defense according to UZR. He'll also turn 35 next July.

Ross won't turn 32 until December, and he enjoyed a strong season in his own right. He hit .267/.326/.481 with 22 home runs in 2012 — also his first season with a new team (the Red Sox). Ross carried a noticeable home-road split (.921 home OPS; .684 away) and a significant left-right split as well (1.010 OPS vs. lefties; .729 vs. righties). Ross, however, appeared at all three outfield positions for the Red Sox and graded out strongly in right field according to UZR/150 (+6.3 runs).

Each has likely positioned himself for a multiyear deal. And, while each is drawing interest from his former club, other teams around the league surely are considering the services of both Ludwick and Ross.

Free Agent Faceoff: Michael Bourn vs. B.J. Upton

If you’re a team looking for a center fielder this offseason, you’re in luck. Two of the game’s best center fielders are on the free agent market, as Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton rank third and fifth on Tim Dierkes’ Top 50 Free Agents List, respectively. Both players offer speed and play a premium position, but the similarities stop there.

Bourn, a 29-year-old left-handed hitter, is a true leadoff hitter who posted a .274/.348/.391 batting line in 624 plate appearances for the Braves this season. He also stole 42 bases (fifth time over 40 in the last six years) and hit a career-high nine homers. According to UZR, Bourn has been baseball’s best defensive outfielder over the last three seasons (+35.3).

Upton, a 28-year-old right-handed hitter, is more of a middle of the order bat who put up a .246/.298/.454 line in 633 plate appearances for the Rays this year. He stole 31 bases (fifth straight year of 30+) and hit a career-high 28 homers. His walk rate, however, dipped to a career-low 7.1% (10.6% career). UZR has rated him as an average defender in center over the last three seasons (+0.4).