Yesterday, I took a look at the notable names on the free-agent market among position players, so today I’ll finish up our very, very early look-ahead by talking about the pitchers set to hit the open market this winter.
Last year’s class featured two huge names at the top of the list. It was Gerrit Cole, who was coming off an incredible season in which he was the runner up for the American League Cy Young while striking out an obscene 13.8 batters per nine, and Stephen Strasburg, who put together his first fully healthy season in years to help the Nationals win their first-ever World Series.
There aren’t any aces like Cole or Strasburg headlining this year’s free-agent class, but there are still a handful of quality arms set to hit the open market.
In the event of a cancelled season, I think the market for pitchers will take more of a hit than the position players. Teams are already wary of handing out massive contracts to pitchers due to the inherent volatility of the position, so doing so after (possibly) not having seen these guys pitch for over a year will only add to that skepticism. Only five starters (Cole, Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, and Hyun-Jin Ryu) were given deals of four years or longer last year.
We’ll likely see an even more aggressive lean into that trend this winter, assuming there isn’t a season. If there was ever a time to not invest mega dollars in free-agent pitching, it would be this winter after losing a bunch of revenue due to games being cancelled.
Gotta love service time manipulation… https://t.co/Z2YLB5dSjJ
— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) March 26, 2020
The most interesting name out there this winter is the always-controversial and outspoken Trevor Bauer.
Bauer has repeatedly claimed that he’s planning to go year-by-year in free agency, avoiding the security of locking himself into a long-term deal in one place to continually give himself the option to find a better situation for himself. He actually makes some really interesting points in regards to shifting Major League Baseball’s paradigm to pay players what they’re worth right now in the moment for what they can do to help a team win.
“I think it solves a lot of problems in this day and age,” Bauer told USA Today. “Which is [teams’ ] increased reliance on aging curves and projection of future performance. Baseball used to pay for what you’ve done, and baseball is now shifting to projecting that they’re going to do.
“How much would Bryce Harper be worth on a one-year deal? Or Dallas Keuchel? How much would Max Scherzer be worth last year to the Brewers who were one game away from the World Series and needed an ace.
“If players are willing to take more risk and shorter term, they can really drive the value up. I can’t imagine a team wouldn’t pay $40 million for a year for Harper, Machado, or Scherzer.”
Next up in Bauer’s radical plans to change baseball, he said he’s going to suggest starting every fourth day rather than every fifth day to potential teams in free agency.
“I think when people actually sit down and look at the information that I have and look at the case that I can make that I would actually be better pitching on four days than I am on five days,” Bauer said. “When they see that information and then look at the potential WAR benefits, potential wins that could add to a team, the way it helps, especially, other members of the rotation to keep them fresh. If teams actually take me seriously and sit down and look at the merits of it, I think they’ll start seeing some of those things and it won’t seem so crazy.
Bauer is also the prime example of a guy who really gets shafted heading into free agency if there isn’t a season. He would be pitching himself to teams with his most recent performance being an ugly 10-start showing after being dealt to Cincinnatti in which he posted a 6.39 ERA without a chance to redeem himself.
It shouldn’t matter all too much if Bauer truly does want to do the year-by-year thing, but his breakout 2018 season would be well in the rearview mirror by the time he’s able to become a free agent this winter.
That’s news to me. Lol
— Marcus Stroman (@STR0) July 26, 2019
Our old pal Marcus Stroman is also one of the big names set to hit free agency for the first time in his career this winter. Unlike most of the other names we’ll talk about here, Stroman might be the beneficiary of a bad situation.
The Mets, of course, acquired Stroman at last year’s trade deadline. If this season gets wiped, they’ll have ended up giving away Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson for 11 starts of Stroman in a season in which they weren’t really contending. The Mets’ plan, it seemed, was to have Stroman help the team contend in 2020.
Factor in the uncertainty around Noah Syndergaard, who underwent Tommy John surgery and won’t be ready to pitch until next April at the earliest, and it probably makes a lot of sense for the Mets to keep Stroman around. They already lost Wheeler to free agency and Syndergaard is now a wild card (and he’s a free agent the following winter), so losing Stroman would be pretty devastating for the Mets.
James Paxton said, best case, he’s back in mid-May. Just played catch for the first time since surgery.
— Brendan Kuty (@BrendanKutyNJ) March 11, 2020
Sticking with New York for a moment, the Yankees, perhaps more so than anybody else in baseball, are set to benefit most from a prolonged stoppage of play. Because of course they are.
New York is currently decimated by injuries. Luis Severino is going to miss all of 2020 with an elbow injury, Aaron Hicks would be out until mid-June with an elbow injury, Aaron Judge would miss at least April due to a rib injury, and James Paxton would be set to return to action in mid-May, at the earliest, after undergoing back surgery.
Ultimately, New York can just sit around and let this time off heal their broken roster. In the event that the season is cancelled, James Paxton is put into a difficult situation. He was excellent last year, posting a 3.82 ERA across 29 starts in his first season with the Yankees. But he’s also coming off of that aforementioned back surgery, so he might not get a chance to showcase himself to potential free-agent suitors after his rehabilitation process.
Given the fact Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ (this one is trickier because of his vested option) are set to have their contracts expire this winter, the Yankees might be able to get Paxton signed long-term at a discounted price due to the concerns around signing a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 who hasn’t started a game since having back surgery.
— MLB Trade Rumors (@mlbtraderumors) November 13, 2019
Jake Odorizzi will be able to hit the open market this winter without being anchored down by draft pick compensation. Last year, the Twins qualified Odorizzi and he ended up accepting because the prospect of giving up a top draft pick to sign him seemed to bog down his market. We know the Blue Jays had an interest in Odorizzi, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he was a name we heard again this winter now that there won’t be a draft pick involved.
Robbie Ray has the potential to become this year’s version of Odorizzi. If there is a season, we would very likely have seen the Diamondbacks deal Ray ahead of the trade deadline as he’s set to become a free agent for the first time in his career. If there isn’t a season and Arizona doesn’t get a chance to deal him, they’ll undoubtedly tender him a qualifying offer. Ray, a good-not-great starter might end up taking that offer and betting on himself going into free agency the following year without being tied to a draft pick.
The list of quality starting pitchers rounds out with a handful of veteran names, Tanaka, Mike Minor, and Jose Quintana, all of whom have upside and some risk factors associated with them.
Tanaka has been all over the grid for the past few years, putting together stretches that have been both brilliant and horrendous, and there are major questions surrounding his durability. After missing all of 2015 and 2016 and spending 2017 as a reliever, Minor posted back-to-back strong seasons for the Rangers in 2018 and 2019. Then there’s Quintana, a former ace for the White Sox who hasn’t been the same since switching jerseys and playing for the Cubs.
These are all pitchers who I imagine would be suited with one-year deals like the one we saw Cole Hamels get from the Braves last winter.
— MLB Trade Rumors (@mlbtraderumors) September 3, 2019
Finally, we have the market for relief pitchers, which is nearly impossible to predict at the best of times, let alone with the looming threat of a cancelled season ahead of us.
Ken Giles would be poised to hit free agency for the first time in his career, though I would expect the Blue Jays to tender him a qualifying offer so they don’t risk losing him for nothing. Giles would be heading into free agency with other stud closers like Liam Hendriks, Kirby Yates, Shane Greene, Alex Colome, and possibly Brad Hand if Cleveland doesn’t pick up his option.
As I said, reliever free agency has become a total crapshoot, so there isn’t much point in diving too deep into this discussion. What I can garner, though, is given the wealth of quality names out there, the Jays might actually be in a good position to either get Giles signed to an extension or, at the very least, accept a qualifying offer to test free agency when there aren’t so many other names to compete with.