It doesn’t take a baseball savant to figure out that Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are the two best pitchers on the free-agent market. Cole is on a collision course with the largest contract a hurler has ever secured, a sure bet to outdo the $217MM Boston’s David Price received four years ago, while Strasburg could come within $20MM to $30MM of the $200MM mark in his own right. After those two aces, the starting market for free agents gets a lot less interesting, but that’s not to suggest it’s made up of nothing but back-end types. Quite the contrary, actually, as MLBTR forecasts that four other starters will land guarantees worth at least $50MM this offseason.
Former Met Zack Wheeler, longtime Giant Madison Bumgarner and ex-Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu make up the remainder of the top five free-agent starters after Cole and Strasburg. Going by projected earning power, Wheeler is easily the most desirable of the trio. We’ve got him signing for $100MM over a half-decade, Bumgarner putting pen to paper on a four-year, $72MM accord and Ryu getting a three-year, $54MM contract. But you’re well within your rights to want Bumgarner or Ryu over Wheeler. Let’s take a closer look at the touted troika, and then you can vote on who’s the most appealing…
Zack Wheeler, RHP
Age: 30 in May
Qualifying offer? Yes
- Wheeler missed almost all of 2015-17 while dealing with arm issues, including a Tommy John procedure, but he has emphatically put those days behind him. He has been one of the most productive starters in baseball over the past two seasons, having tossed 180-plus innings of sub-4.00 ERA, four-plus-fWAR ball in each year. But it’s not just the bottom-line production that has put Wheeler on clubs’ radars. It’s also his elite fastball velocity, which clocked in at a personal-high 96.7 mph in 2019. His fastball and curveball spin were also better than average, per Statcast, while his average exit velocity against (86.2 mph; 90th percentile) and hard-hit rate against (32.2 percent; 82nd percentile) were near the top of the league.
Madison Bumgarner, LHP
Qualifying offer? Yes
- Bumgarner’s legendary postseason exploits are well-documented, but he hasn’t pitched a playoff game since 2016. Over the past couple years, Bumgarner’s days as a front-line starter have seemingly faded away. But he remains a major asset, someone just about any team would be happy to plug into its rotation. After a couple injury-shortened seasons, Bumgarner reestablished his durability in 2019 with 207 2/3 innings of 3.90 ERA/FIP ball and 8.8 K/9 and 1.86 BB/9. And Bumgarner’s fastball/curve spin rates were near the apex of the league this season, for what it’s worth.
Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP
Age: 33 by next season
Qualifying offer? No
- No one in this group did a better job preventing runs this year than Ryu, who’s an NL Cy Young finalist after recording a 2.32 ERA/3.10 FIP, 8.03 K/9 against 1.18 BB/9, and a 50.4 percent groundball rate across 182 2/3 innings. Terrific results are par for the course for Ryu – on a per-start basis, he may be the No. 1 pitcher here – but age and injury history threaten to hinder him to some degree on the open market. Ryu missed all of 2015 and then threw anywhere from 4 2/3 to 126 2/3 innings in each season from 2016-18.
There you have it, a quick rundown of the three premier free-agent starters not named Cole or Strasburg. Considering their histories, their qualifying offer statuses and their potential earning power, who’s the one you’d most like to sign?
(Poll link for app users)