By now, everyone who follows free agency in baseball should be keenly aware that the offseason market for free-agent starting pitching is arguably the worst in history. This winter’s top names will include a 36-year-old that was pitching in independent ball last season (Rich Hill), a former Rookie of the Year that was moved last winter in what amounted to a salary dump (Jeremy Hellickson) and a 30-year-old that opened the season in a long-relief role before a stunning transformation following a trade to the Pirates (Ivan Nova). That’s a far cry from the 2015-16 offseason, when David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija and Mike Leake each reeled in contracts of at least five years in length and at least $80MM in total value.
The paucity of not only top-tier starting pitchers but simply reliable arms that can be plugged into the middle or back of a rotation on this year’s open market has an impact not only on teams looking for starting pitching, but teams with decisions to make regarding club options on starters that, frankly, didn’t do a lot to justify the salaries that are included in those options in 2016.
The Rangers, for instance, hold an $11MM option with a $1MM buyout over left-hander Derek Holland. For a pitcher whose ERA has come in just shy of 5.00 over the past two seasons and has averaged just 68 innings per year dating back to 2014, an $11MM salary seems steep, to say the least. Holland, as Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News points out in examining his option case, has had two shoulder injuries and a major knee injury in the past three years and has scarcely been able to take the mound at all. The Derek Holland that pitched 213 innings with a 3.42 ERA for the 2013 Rangers probably feels like a distant memory for Rangers fans.
However, it’s also worth considering that even a bounceback candidate like Doug Fister received a one-year, $7MM deal last winter, while Mike Pelfrey pulled in two years and $16MM coming off a dreadful three-year run with the Twins. The Rangers owe Holland $1MM one way or the other, by virtue of the buyout on his option, so they effectively have to determine whether he’s worth investing an additional $10MM. Given the dearth of quality options this offseason, it’s not unthinkable that even rebound candidates will command numbers not that far off from that level. Edinson Volquez and Andrew Cashner, for instance, will probably both receive fairly notable contracts despite coming off of poor seasons. And while each has a better recent track record of health, neither delivered demonstrably better bottom-line results than Holland (who is also three years younger than Volquez). The Royals are effectively deciding that Volquez isn’t worth offering another $7MM by reportedly planning to buy out his $10MM mutual option for $3MM, but that certainly doesn’t mean that he won’t find a taker at or above that $7MM rate on an open market that is devoid of talented arms. In fact, I’d wager that he will top that $7MM mark and come out ahead of the $10MM he’d have earned via that mutual option.
The same logic can be applied to the options held by the Cardinals over Jaime Garcia ($12MM with a $500K buyout) and Clay Buchholz with the Red Sox ($13.5MM with a $500K buyout). An $11.5MM net investment in Garcia, who logged a 4.67 ERA in 171 2/3 innings this year and has his own history of durability issues, might seem steep to some, but a 30-year-old left-hander with a decent track record that finished the year healthy would probably command a multi-year deal in the upcoming market. If anything, his agents may be hoping that the Cardinals elect to decline the option option, but the context of the free-agent market suggests that there’s some value in that one-year commitment, even if the team explores the option of trading him after exercising the option.
Buchholz’s option may look even more daunting, as investing $13MM more into a pitcher that lost his rotation spot and finished the year with a 4.78 ERA and lackluster peripherals absolutely feels like an overpay. But Buchholz pitched more effectively in 28 2/3 innings after returning to the rotation in September, and he’s only a season removed from a 3.26 ERA that came with outstanding peripherals. While he’s been one of the more mercurial arms in the league over the past half-decade, the type of upside he brings on a one-year commitment is greater than that of most other options on the free-agent market. As is the case with Garcia, a multi-year pact could be attainable if he were to reach the open market (remember, again, that Pelfrey found two years last winter coming off not just a poor season but a poor three years and has never matched the success of Buchholz’s best years).
None of the three players in question here enjoyed a particularly good season, but each at least finished the year healthy enough to take the ball and has enjoyed quality results in the past. Even if their current teams feel that there’s no fit on the 2017 roster for a pitcher with these levels of question marks, it still makes sense to exercise the options and explore the trade market. Even if the Rangers, for instance, include $4MM to trade Holland elsewhere in exchange for a minor leaguer or two, they’re effectively purchasing those prospects for $3MM. It’s far from a lock that these options will be exercised, of course, and it’s worth also mentioning the likes of Gio Gonzalez and Jason Hammel, who seem like easier calls but wilted in the final month of the season in this discussion as well. From where I stand, so long as a pitcher finished the season in a reasonable state of health, committing to a one-year deal at a not-backbreaking rate given the market alternatives and the number of rival clubs that figure to be on the hunt for rotation help is the right call.