The market for starting pitchers has shrunk substantially since free agency opened at the beginning of November. Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Cole Hamels have all found contracts. Jake Odorizzi, whom MLBTR ranked as the game’s 10th-best free agent at the outset of the winter, accepted a qualifying offer from Minnesota. The Twins also re-signed Michael Pineda and just picked up two more starters in Rich Hill and Homer Bailey.
With all of those pitchers and several others (Kyle Gibson, Tanner Roark and Julio Teheran, to name some) off the board, it looks like a pretty bare-bones group at this point. So, if you’re still banking on finding a No. 1, 2 or 3 type of starter in free agency, you may be out of luck. Even a surefire No. 4 or 5 seems like a lot to ask right now, but there are at least a few unsigned starters with upside who won’t cost a bank-breaking amount to sign. Left-hander Alex Wood and righty Taijuan Walker are two examples.
Between Wood and Walker, the former wins this battle in a landslide as far as major league track record goes. The 28-year-old flew under the radar to some degree from 2013-18, an 803 1/3-inning stretch in which he combined for a sterling 3.29 ERA/3.36 FIP with 8.27 K/9, 2.57 BB/9 and a 49.5 percent groundball rate with the Braves and Dodgers. Thanks to that run, the Reds acquired Wood last offseason with the expectation he’d give them front-line production. Instead, though, back problems limited the relatively soft-tossing Wood to seven starts and 35 2/3 frames of 5.80 ERA/6.38 FIP ball. Since then, there hasn’t been any reported interest on MLBTR’s pages in Wood, who has quickly gone from coveted starter to buy-low candidate.
Walker’s in a similar position – someone who could be a high-reward pickup at a reasonable cost. Now 27, Walker was an extremely hyped prospect with Seattle, which chose him 43rd overall in 2017. However, Walker didn’t prove to be irreplaceable to the Mariners over a fairly small sample of action, and they wound up trading him to the Diamondbacks in a late-2016 blockbuster.
Walker and his ~94 mph fastball were quite effective in his first season in Arizona – 3.49 ERA/4.04 FIP with 8.35 K/9, 3.5 BB/9 and a 48.9 percent grounder rate in 157 1/3 innings – but he has barely pitched since. He tossed 13 innings in 2018 before undergoing Tommy John surgery that May, and totaled just one frame last season (in the D-backs’ final game) after shoulder injuries stunted his TJS recovery. Arizona then cut Walker loose via non-tender instead of paying him a projected $5MM-plus in arbitration. Since then, at least one team – Walker’s old employer in Seattle – has shown interest in signing him.
Walker and Wood appear as if they’d be sensible additions for the Mariners or any other team that wants to take a back-of-the-rotation risk on a short-term deal. Odds are that neither player will secure a multiyear guarantee, though a one-season contract with a club option for 2021 could be a worthwhile gamble. Wood seems likely to rake in more money (MLBTR predicted he’d get a one-year, $8MM pact), but does that make him a better bet than Walker? Which of the two would you sign?
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