No. 16: LHP Rich Hill
No. 41: LHP Alex Wood
No. 47: RHP Ivan Nova
In recent days both Dallas Keuchel ( ) and Hyun-Jin Ryu ( ) agreed to new contracts, leaving the top of the free-agent pitching market bare. Keuchel, Ryu, Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Zack Wheeler are all off the board.
Available free agents
Cons: Vargas has a razor-thin margin of error. Without velocity and without a reliable out pitch, Vargas has to thread the needle perfectly to have success, and he needs a good defense behind him. A big ballpark wouldn’t hurt either. Vargas will turn 36 before spring training opens and the risk he completely falls off the cliff and becomes unrosterable is rather high. Getting another 150-ish league average innings seems like a 90th percentile outcome at this point.
Pros: Two years ago Nelson pitched at a near ace level before hurting his shoulder in a freak baserunning accident. He had frontline stuff, produced frontline results, and pitched with conviction. Nelson returned to the big leagues late this past season and was still able to miss bats, and he is only 30. Maybe getting all the way back to his 2017 form is too much to ask at this point, but it’s not hard to talk yourself into Nelson being an effective starter as he gets further away from the injury.
Pros: Aside from Clevinger, Price might have the best chance to pitch at an ace level in 2020 among pitchers in this post, mostly because he pitched at a near ace level in 2018 and has been an ace most of his career. He’s adjusted to declining velocity as he enters his mid-30s by emphasizing his cutter and living on the corners, something he was able to do even at his peak. The Red Sox are trying to get under the luxury tax threshold next year and could be willing to eat money to facilitate a Price trade, so that’s cool. Pros: You needn’t look back far to see the last time Chacin was a very good major leaguer. He threw 192 2/3 innings with a 3.59 ERA for the Brewers as recently as 2018, and he was their No. 1 starter in the postseason. Chacin posted the highest full season strikeout rate of his career in 2019 (21.5 percent) and he turns only 32 next month, so it’s not like he’s over the hill. Sometimes a bad year is just a bad year, and Chacin can return to his 2018 form in 2020 after an offseason to clear his head. Cons: Similar to Nelson, the fact the Diamondbacks non-tendered Walker rather than pay him million or so through arbitration is a bad sign. They weren’t comfortable betting a relatively small sum of money on Walker returning to form, or even having trade value this offseason. Walker’s velocity in his one-inning return to the big leagues in September was right where it was pre-surgery, but it was only a quick look. The D-Backs know him better than anyone and they walked away. That’s worrisome.
Cons: Bailey’s injury history is ugly. He made 69 starts total from 2014-18 and never more than 23 in a given season due to elbow and shoulder woes. The best predictor of future injury is past injury and Bailey is very risky. He was excellent against lefties this past season, holding them to a .216/.277/.375 batting line, and that is way out of line with the rest of his career. Bailey was never that good against lefties even at his peak. There could be regression coming. Also, Homer is a terrible name for a pitcher. Pros: The overall numbers aren’t pretty, but Smyly wasn’t that bad after leaving the Rangers and joining the Phillies this past season, pitching to a 4.45 ERA in 62 2/3 innings. The 23.4 percent strikeout rate was promising and Smyly posted the best velocities of his career in 2019. Smyly is still only 30, so it’s not completely crazy to think he can improve as he gets further away from the elbow woes that sidelined him in 2017 and 2018. If MLB un-juices the baseball, Smyly could be sneaky effective. Pros: If nothing else, Happ can provide stability. He’s made at least 25 starts each of the last six seasons and he’s pitched at a well-above-average rate in four of those six seasons. Happ is the quintessential been there, done that low-maintenance veteran. Plug him into the rotation and send him out there every fifth day with no worries. An un-juiced baseball might be all he needs to return to his 2018 All-Star form. Happ hits the sweet spot between short-term contract and (presumably) low asking price. The calendar has not yet flipped to 2020 and . This offseason has been very different than the last two and that’s welcome. Slow offseasons are boring. This offseason has been anything but.
Pros: No pitcher in this post had a better 2019 season. Clevinger was electric and he’s been among the game’s best starters since arriving for good in 2017. Scouts and statheads alike praise him, and he’s under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2022, so Clevinger would be a long-term addition. There’s a lot to like here. Clevinger passes the eye test, the numbers test, and the team control test. He has a lot to offer. Only three starting pitchers on remain available now that Keuchel and Ryu have signed: Cons: The things that made Price so great earlier in his career (durability, velocity, soft contact, etc.) have started to fade in recent years. He missed considerable time with elbow trouble in two of the last three years, and he was more hittable in general. Missing the barrel isn’t quite as easy as it was once upon a time. Also, the Red Sox may eat money to facilitate a trade, but Price is owed million through 2022. It’s still a lot of money and it’s not a short-term deal either. Pros: The best thing King Felix has going for him right now is his track record. He’s a Hall of Fame level talent and betting on a guy like that to make adjustments and find success as he ages isn’t a terrible idea. It can take time — Mike Mussina and CC Sabathia both needed several years to make those adjustments late in their careers — but the reward makes them worth it. Hernandez with a chip on his shoulder could be something.
Cons: Boyd led the league with 39 home runs allowed and he pitched to a 5.67 ERA in his final 20 starts this past season, so the cons are pretty much everything other than the strikeouts and team control, I suppose. He’s not a hard-thrower and that means his margin of error isn’t very big. Also, the Tigers are said to be driving a hard bargain. They’re asking for your top prospects for Boyd. That’s a good way to push potential trade partners elsewhere. Cons: Archer’s decline has been steady and it started long before he joined the Pirates. His ERA by season from 2015-19: 3.23, 4.02, 4.07, 4.31, 5.19. Archer joined Pittsburgh in the middle of 2018, so that’s three and a half years with the Rays, who know a thing or two about pitching. It has been a half-decade since Archer pitched at an ace level and it could take more than a few minor adjustments to get him back on track. Also, it might hurt to get him. Hard to think Pittsburgh’s new front office regime will sell low. Pros: Walker will play most of next season at age 27 and, prior to Tommy John surgery, he looked like he was starting to put it all together. The strikeouts were there, the ground balls were there, and the ability to miss the barrel was there. Walker was a former top prospect with impressive stuff who was figuring it out when his elbow gave out. He’s healthy now and he’ll be further away from surgery next season. There are worse ideas than betting on a 27-year-old former top prospect regaining his old form after elbow reconstruction. Cons: Thirty-two home runs and 55 walks in 114 innings is a real eyesore, isn’t it? Counting on MLB to un-juice the baseball so a guy can be effective is not a plan — it’s a hope and a prayer, and that’s no way to build a roster. The injuries have been piling up, and even before getting hurt, Smyly’s track record of MLB success included maybe 30 starts. He was always more promise than production, and eventually you reach a point where it’s time to turn the page on a player like that.
Cons: More than anything, the cost to acquire Clevinger will be prohibitive. He’s older than you may realize (29) but he’s very good, he’s affordable, he’s under control long-term, and the Indians don’t have to trade him. Corey Kluber was traded because he’s expensive and Francisco Lindor is in trade rumors because he’s only two years away from free agency. None of that applies to Clevinger. The Indians can and will demand a huge return. It’ll hurt to acquire Clevinger, for sure.
Pros: Strikeouts and team control, team control and strikeouts. Boyd fanned more than 30 percent of the batters he faced in 2019 and he will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2022. He’ll turn 29 in February and it’s real easy to look at him and believe he’s coming into his own as a pitcher. Best-case scenario is you get a guy about to become a difference-maker. Worst-case is you get a frustrating yet effective innings muncher. Any team looking to add an impact starting pitcher (i.e. Angels and Twins) has little choice but to turn to the trade market now. The free-agent market offers no true difference-makers. Here are a few starting pitchers who could be on the move now that the top of the free-agent market has been picked clean, listed alphabetically.
Pros: You know, Vargas did throw close to 150 league average-ish innings in 2019, something he’s done twice in the last three years. There’s something to be said for a been-through-everything veteran who can take the ball every fifth day and be serviceable, which is more or less than Jason Vargas story. In an era of big velocity, Vargas is the exact opposite — his fastball averaged 84.5 mph in 2019, lowest among pitchers with at least 140 innings — and having a different look in the rotation can be beneficial. Pros: Few pitchers in the sport can match Gray’s pure stuff. It’s easy mid-to-upper-90s gas and two swing-and-miss breaking balls in the slider and curveball. The changeup isn’t bad either. Gray managed an ERA at least 35 percent better than the league average in two of the last three years and he’s under team control through 2021 as an arbitration-eligible player. It is easy — very easy — to believe Gray could quickly ascend into the game’s top tier simply by escaping Coors Field.
Cons: Once a dominant ground ball pitcher, Chacin posted a well below league average 37.5 percent ground ball rate in 2019, and it’s probably not a coincidence his trademark sinker had its lowest average velocity in years. Chacin has always been susceptible to left-handed hitters and, because of that lower-velocity sinker, righties roughed him up in 2019 too. You could always count on him to neutralize righties and get ground balls. Those skills went missing this past season. Pros: At risk of oversimplifying it, Archer could improve just by getting away from the Pirates. So many pitchers have left Pittsburgh and immediately blossomed elsewhere (Gerrit Cole, Jordan Lyles, Charlie Morton, etc.) that it’s easy to think Archer can do the same. A few tweaks to his pitch selection and viola, you have a just-turned-31-year-old starter on an affordable contract through 2021. Archer is a prime change of scenery candidate.
Hill had elbow surgery in late October ( ) and he’s not expected to return until the All-Star break. , but also makes him less appealing to interested teams. Wood was hurt this past season and is a reclamation project. Nova is a back-end innings guy. Nothing more, nothing less. Pros: Thanks to his splitter’s return to glory, Bailey turned in a rock solid 2019 season and made more than 23 starts (he made 31) for the first time since 2013. Somehow he is still only 33, and the revived splitter is a tangible reason to believe his success is here to stay and not a one-year fluke. He probably needs a big ballpark at this point of his career, but there’s a chance Bailey will make whichever team gives him a one-year contract very happy. For what it’s worth, Bailey leads unsigned free-agent starters in projected WAR next season, if that’s your thing.
With that in mind, now is as good a time as any to reset the pitching market. Who are the best available free-agent pitchers? What about the trade market? The latter should pick up now that the top free agents have signed. Let’s break down the current state of the pitching market with spring training less than two months away. Hill, Nova, and Wood are not the only starting pitchers sitting in free agency, however. There are currently 13 free agent pitchers who made at least 10 starts in 2019. Here are a few other notables now that Keuchel and Ryu are off the board, listed alphabetically.
Cons: Those strikeouts come with a lot of walks — Ray has the sixth-highest walk rate (10.9 percent) since 2016 — and also a lot of home runs, even before the juiced ball arrived. Walks and homers are not a good combination! Rays has a tendency to be more hittable than the stuff would lead you to believe, and even on his good days, he doesn’t pitch especially deep into games. Only 15 times in his 33 starts did he complete six full innings in 2019. All those walks and strikeouts raise the pitch count in a hurry. Cons: Even after taking Coors Field into consideration, Gray has been more hittable than the raw stuff would lead you to believe. The tools are there for ace-level dominance but we’ve only seen flashes, fewer than you’d like even from a Rockies pitcher. Gray’s been able to avoid a major arm injury to date but he’s had a series of left foot (landing foot) injuries in recent years, which is something to keep in mind. He’s been more potential than production, and Coors Field makes it tough to properly evaluate him.
Pros: Hard-throwing lefties are always in demand and only Max Scherzer (33.8 percent), Chris Sale (33.3 percent), and Justin Verlander (31.0 percent) have posted a higher strikeout rate than Ray (30.8 percent) the last four years. It’s very easy to dream on Ray performing at an ace level in 2020, something he’s done intermittently the last few seasons. Ray will pitch the entire 2020 season at age 28 and it is his walk year. Players have a way of having career years on the cusp of free agency. Cons: Everything you worry about with a 37-year-old pitcher happened to Happ in 2019. His velocity slipped, he became more hittable, and the ball started flying out of the park. He’s owed million next season, so he’s not cheap, and his contract includes an attainable million vesting option for 2021, so there’s a chance you could get stuck with him for another season. You can count on Happ for innings. It’s unclear how good those innings will be at this point.
Cons: Pretty much everything except the track record. Hernandez has been hurt and ineffective going on four years now, and he will turn 34 shortly after Opening Day, so he’s not young anymore. Some elite pitchers make adjustments and carve out a nice second phase to their careers, like Mussina and Sabathia. Many do not. The name value has outweighed the on-field value for quite some time, and seeing Felix as an effective major-league starter in 2020 requires a lot of squinting.