The free agent market has been slower than usual this winter, but one area of the market that has stayed fairly consistently active throughout the offseason has been the starting pitching market. More than half of the league entered the offseason in hopes of acquiring a starter or two this winter, and deals have come together for many of them. While the Yoshinobu Yamamoto sweepstakes have held things up for many top-of-the-market options, potential mid-rotation arms have seen no such delay in free agency as players like Kenta Maeda, Lucas Giolito, Seth Lugo, Eduardo Rodriguez, Michael Wacha, and Nick Martinez have all been among the players to come off the board since free agency officially opened in early November.
That flurry of activity has left the pickings fairly slim in this area of the market, even as the top of the market still features the likes of Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery and plenty of lower-level options like James Paxton and Sean Manaea remain available. One mid-rotation piece who has yet to be taken off the market is right-hander Marcus Stroman, who opted out of the final year and $21MM on his contract with the Cubs to test free agency last month. Since Stroman’s decision, there has been little public interest in the right-handers services. The Royals reportedly engaged with the righty earlier this offseason, though the club added both Lugo and Wacha to their rotation since then and appear to be done making significant additions to the roster.
It’s somewhat understandable that Stroman hasn’t generated major interest so far this offseason. The right-hander is entering his age-33 season, meaning he’s older than the likes of Rodriguez, Wacha, and Giolito. What’s more, the righty is coming off a injury-marred campaign in Chicago where he missed six weeks due to a rib cartilage fracture and posted a brutal 8.29 ERA across his final 11 appearances with the Cubs. That clubs may be hesitant about a pitcher entering his mid-thirties who struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness in the second half last year is hardly surprising, but that lack of interest could make Stroman one of the more undervalued assets available in free agency this offseason.
After all, Stroman was among the most dominant pitchers in baseball in the first half, with a sterling 2.28 ERA in 98 2/3 innings of work across his first sixteen starts of the season. That dominant performance earned Stroman the second All Star nod of his career, and while the righty’s 3.33 FIP and .235 BABIP indicate some of that exceptional run prevention may have been due to good fortune, that FIP was still considerably better than league average and his incredible 59.9% groundball rate surely helped to explain his unusually low home run rate. Meanwhile, Stroman’s atrocious results in the second half were generally not backed up by underlying metrics; his aforementioned 8.29 ERA in the second half was more than four runs higher than his far more palatable 4.23 FIP, and his strikeout and walk rates only worsened slightly as he punched out 19.3% of batters faced while walking 9.6%.
Taken together, Stroman’s 2023 season paints a picture of a playoff-caliber, mid-rotation arm: the right-hander posted a 3.95 ERA (113 ERA+) with a 3.58 FIP in 136 2/3 innings of work while striking out 20.7% of batters, walking 9%, and generating grounders at a 57.7% clip across 27 appearances (25 starts). That was good for the 18th-best FIP in baseball last year among pitchers who made at least 25 starts, sandwiched between Montgomery and Mets right-hander Kodai Senga. If Stroman can as much as match his peripheral numbers from 2023 with improved health and batted ball luck, he figures to be a quality piece who could improve the majority of rotations around the league. And while both of his seasons in Chicago saw the right-hander miss time due to injury, Stroman has made 32+ starts four times in his career, most recently in 2021 as a member of the Mets.
The Cubs have been connected to pitchers such as Shota Imanaga in free agency and Shane Bieber via trade this offseason, and Stroman previously publicly expressed his desire to remain in Chicago long-term over the summer, ahead of the trade deadline. While a reunion between the sides has not been rumored to this point in the offseason, the Cubs certainly remain a fit for the righty’s services as they look for an additional arm to pair with Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, and Jameson Taillon in the rotation. Looking beyond Chicago, the Red Sox are in the hunt for pitching and could benefit from pairing Stroman’s stable, mid-rotation production with higher variance pitchers like Giolito and Brayan Bello, while the Giants, Padres, Yankees, and Rangers are among the many teams who could look for rotation upgrades going forward this offseason.
Though many of those clubs would surely prefer to add a player such as Snell, Montgomery, or even Imanaga to their rotation mix, each of those southpaws is expected to garner $100MM or more on the open market. At this point in the offseason, teams hoping to add a playoff-caliber starter without breaking the bank will be hard-pressed to find a better option than Stroman, who was projected by MLBTR for just two years and $44MM in our annual Top 50 MLB free agents list. That appears to be more or less par for the course in the mid-rotation market, as Giolito landed a two-year, $38.5MM deal with the Red Sox while Lugo received a three-year, $45MM guarantee from the Royals. If Stroman does garner a similar contract to the other mid-rotation arms available this winter, it’s easy to imagine the deal proving to be among the more cost-effective pitching signings of the offseason should he manage a full, healthy season in 2024.