Wrapping up USA Today’s series looking at baseball’s free agent class is this breakdown of the available starting pitchers. The Yankees have made it clear that they’re in the market for at least two starters, with Brian Cashman saying the team needs to find 400 innings somewhere.
The bidding starts with Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, regarded as the top starter on the market once he’s posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Tanaka, 25, went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season and figures to draw the kind of interest Yu Darvish attracted two years ago, when the Texas Rangers invested more than $107 million to obtain his rights and sign him.
Among the current major leaguers, right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Matt Garza lead the pack of available starters despite mixed results in recent years. They’re all in the 30-year-old range and coming off strong seasons, even if Garza tailed off after being traded from the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers.
Jimenez is particularly intriguing because, after his mechanics became discombobulated and his confidence sank with his results for more than 2½ seasons, he regained his ace stuff during the second half of last year. Jimenez led the AL in ERA (1.82) after the break and struck out 100 in 84 innings. Unexpectedly, his two- and four-seam fastballs picked up velocity late in the season, with August and September registered the highest average speed for both pitches (93-plus mph), according to brooksbaseball.net.
Santana throws nearly as hard and performed consistently for the Kansas City Royals, with only one month in which his ERA climbed above 3.85. Always homer-prone, Santana cut down on his gopher balls from 39 to 26 while reducing his ERA by nearly two runs to a career-best 3.24, so he’s entering the market at the right time.
Garza’s value took a hit when he pitched poorly with the Rangers, giving up at least four earned runs in seven of his last 11 starts. That raised questions about his ability to succeed in the American League. But he was mostly sharp with the Cubs, including a midseason stretch when he pitched at least seven innings while allowing no more than one earned run in five consecutive starts.
Ricky Nolasco boosted his free-agent resume right after getting traded from the Miami Marlins to the Los Angeles Dodgers, going 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA in his first 12 starts with his new team. He seemed like a shoo-in to remain close to his Southern California roots, before a late-season tailspin (12.75 ERA in his final three starts) and a so-so postseason outing clouded that picture. Still, Nolasco has won in double figures six years in a row while making at least 31 starts in five of those seasons, so he remains an attractive option for clubs seeking a No. 3 starter.
Nolasco will be 31 in December, considerably younger than the next three starters in this category — A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon and Hiroki Kuroda — all of whom would start next season at age 37 or older.
Burnett blew up in his one postseason start, but his 3.30 ERA in 30 starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates matched his career best, and his 209 strikeouts were his highest total since 2008. Burnett still throws in the 93-94 mph range and has improved command of his outstanding curveball, his out pitch. The veteran right-hander has indicated a predilection for returning to the Pirates, who could get a hometown discount.
Colon, 40, and Kuroda, 38, showed their age late in the season and can probably be had for one-year deals. Colon actually had a tremendous September (4-1, 1.16 ERA) after an August stint on the disabled list and will get some Cy Young Award consideration. Kuroda finished with a 3.31 ERA for the New York Yankees despite fading badly at the end.
Worth a flier
Bronson Arroyo, Scott Kazmir, Scott Feldman, Josh Johnson. All have their warts and their virtues.
Arroyo, 36, is a soft-thrower prone to giving up the longball who nonetheless has started at least 32 games in nine consecutive seasons and pitched 199 or more innings in all of them, the last eight at Cincinnati’s hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
Kazmir, who turns 30 in January, resurrected his career with the Cleveland Indians after nearly two full seasons out of the majors. The lefty had a 4.04 ERA and averaged better than a strikeout per inning.
The 6-7 Feldman doesn’t overpower hitters but gets ground balls with his sinker and pitched to a 3.86 ERA in 30 starts split between the Cubs and Baltimore Orioles.
Johnson, who will be 30 in January, was the NL ERA champ in 2010 but has a history of injuries and had a miserable year with the Toronto Blue Jays (2-8, 6.20 ERA) before undergoing surgery to remove loose bodies and a bone spur from his elbow right after the season.
There are lots of starters hoping to regain old glory, such as former Cy Young Award winners Roy Halladay, Johan Santana and Barry Zito. More realistic options might be the likes of Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had three terrible starts with the New York Mets but finished the season with four strong ones, and Chad Gaudin, who had a 3.53 ERA in 12 starts for the San Francisco Giants.
When the Giants awarded a two-year contract worth $35 million to Tim Lincecum, who went a combined 20-29 with a 4.76 ERA the last two years, the message was clear that even mediocre starting pitching would be costly this offseason.
Even if that deal is regarded as a bit of an anomaly, it’s bound to have repercussions on the rest of the market. The top available starters are not ace types, but they can still expect to land four- and five-year deals with an average annual value in the $15 million range.
One complicating factor for some of those leading starters, especially Jimenez and Santana, is their teams made them qualifying offers, so the club that signs them must surrender a first-round draft pick, or a No. 2 if it falls in the top 10. That may limit their appeal, but in a market with few high-level options, they can still expect to cash in.
Associated Press photos