Entering the offseason, the market for rotation upgrades was robust — arguably one of the strongest groups of free-agent starters we’d seen. Two bona fide aces — Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg — headlined a group that also featured the NL Cy Young runner-up (Hyun-Jin Ryu), one of baseball’s hardest-throwing starters (Zack Wheeler), a 30-year-old four-time All Star and three-time World Series winner (Madison Bumgarner) as well as a host of quality veteran innings eaters and midrotation options.
The result has been 14 multi-year deals for starting pitchers and nearly $1.13 billion spent on hopeful rotation upgrades. Granted, Cole himself accounts for nearly 29 percent of that sum. Combining him and Strasburg accounts for 50.4 percent of the total issued to starters on MLB deals this winter. Their presence skews those total figures a bit, but it’s nevertheless been a healthier free-agent market than we’ve seen over the past couple of years.
The accelerated pace of the market and the unexpected aggression of some teams not expected to be prime players for free agents — the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks, in particular — have left teams still seeking rotation upgrades with a dearth of options to pursue in free agency. So with all the high-end options gone, what’s left on the market?
Ivan Nova has averaged 30 starts per season dating back to 2016. He had a strong finish after a brutal start to the season with the White Sox in 2019. He’s probably going to post an ERA north of 4.00 with well below-average strikeout totals, but Nova is the best bet for serviceable bulk innings remaining in free agency. Other options in this mold include Jhoulys Chacin, Andrew Cashner and Jason Vargas. They’ve all been roughly 30-start-per-season arms since 2017, although both Chacin and Cashner lost starting jobs and were put into the bullpen in 2019. There’s not much excitement among this bunch, but if you’re looking for 150+ innings that won’t kill you, this isn’t a bad place to start.
Injury Bounceback Candidates
Alex Wood will turn 29 in January and, in 2017-18, posted a combined 304 innings of 3.20 ERA ball (3.43 FIP) with 8.5 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and a ground-ball rate better than 50 percent. The lefty’s delivery has led to durability issues throughout his career, but when healthy he’s at least a midrotation arm, if not more.
Jimmy Nelson, long a top prospect with the Brewers, looked like an emerging ace in 2017 when he pitched 175 1/3 innings with a 3.49 ERA, an even more impressive 3.05 FIP, 10.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and a 50.3 percent grounder rate. Shoulder issues wiped out most of his 2018-19 seasons, but Nelson won’t turn 31 until next June.
Let’s not forget Taijuan Walker, who’ll pitch all of next year at 27. Once one of baseball’s truly elite pitching prospects, he’s barely pitched since 2017 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018. Walker tallied 157 1/3 innings of 3.49 ERA ball with 8.4 K/9, 3.5 BB/9 and a 48.9 percent ground-ball rate with the D-backs in ’17. He’s had no shortage of injury troubles in his career, but Walker offers as much upside as any still-unsigned player on the market.
Meanwhile, Danny Salazar has pitched in only one game (four innings) in the past two seasons but will pitch next year at 30 and has averaged better than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in his MLB career. Tyson Ross has completed just one healthy season in his past four but was an All-Star caliber pitcher back in 2014-15. Aaron Sanchez could technically slot into this bucket as well, but it’s still not fully clear when in 2020 he’ll be ready to pitch after undergoing shoulder surgery late in the season.
Veterans with a Bit of Upside
As improbable as it’d have sounded 12 months ago, Homer Bailey is probably among the more intriguing low-cost arms on the market. The 33-year-old never lived up to his $105MM contract in Cincinnati, but in 2019 he posted slightly below-average strikeout rates, better-than-average walk rates and solid ground-ball tendencies. Bailey’s 10.8 percent swinging-strike rate in 2019 was the second-best of his career.
Drew Smyly quietly turned in a solid showing with the Phillies down the stretch, and posted a huge 12.2 percent swinging-strike rate after signing in Philadelphia. His teammate, Jerad Eickhoff, is “only” 29 but hasn’t had a strong showing since the 2016 campaign.
Veteran Reclamation Projects
Several pitchers on the market carry name value but minimal results in recent years. Felix Hernandez, Matt Harvey, Marco Estrada, Wei-Yin Chen, Clayton Richard, Clay Buchholz and Trevor Cahill are all free agents, but no one from that group has been particularly healthy or effective over the past few seasons (although Buchholz’s injury-shortened 2018 season in Arizona was undeniably impressive). Shelby Miller is younger than anyone in that group, but his struggles over the past several seasons are well-documented at this point.
And on the Trade Market?
Everyone knows that Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd is available for the right asking price, but the Tigers have a lofty asking price on his final three seasons of club control. The Diamondbacks could make Robbie Ray, a free agent next offseason, available now that the free-agent market is largely devoid of options.
Less clear is whether the likes of Jon Gray or Chris Archer are available. Both possess the type of high-end stuff that will appeal to other clubs, but the Rockies and especially the Pirates could be selling low if they made a move this winter. Colorado also hopes to contend in 2020, though that seems rather unlikely with the Dodgers and D-backs ahead of them in the NL West and so many strong clubs vying for two Wild Card spots.
The Marlins have a bevy of young pitchers, and Caleb Smith’s name has persistently been kicked about the trade circuit over the past several months. Miami trading him is hardly a surefire thing, but one can imagine that for the right combination of prospects and controllable big leaguers, the Marlins would consider it.
Could some veterans be on the move? The Red Sox have been trying to find a way to move a portion of the remaining $96MM on David Price’s contract. The Cubs, also operating under an ownership change of course that has placed substantial payroll constraints on the front office, could mull a trade involving Jose Quintana as a means of opening some payroll space.
Mike Clevinger’s recent emergence on the rumor mill immediately made him one of the most popular targets among fans, but it’d be a rather significant surprise if the Indians dealt him away — recent trade of Corey Kluber notwithstanding.
Who’s Still Looking?
The Angels and Twins, two of the teams viewed as most in need of pitching help heading into the winter, haven’t yet made an impact move. The Minnesota org brought back Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda but still hasn’t improved its rotation over 2019. The Angels have acquired Dylan Bundy and signed Julio Teheran, but the big-name starter for which fans pined never materialized. Likewise, the Padres never found the top-of-the-rotation arm they’ve been seeking for awhile now.
The Dodgers were connected to the big fish, as they are every offseason, but once again opted against a substantial commitment to an open-market player. The Brewers have taken flak for their lack of starting pitching but continue to prioritize lower-scale value plays and depth over higher-priced options. That could put them in play for some of the upside candidates mentioned above, but it’s worth noting that they moved on from Jimmy Nelson already. The Astros have Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and a returning Lance McCullers Jr. (Tommy Johns surgery), but they have limited certainty beyond that group. The defending-champion Nationals are among the clubs looking for fifth-starter candidates.