The free agent market and trade market has centered on offense to this date. Big names such as Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin have changed locations; all going to an AL East giant, while international free agent Yasmany Tomas signed with the Diamondbacks and Nelson Cruz went to the Mariners. While there are relatively few position players left on the free agent market, with Melky Cabrera and Chase Headley leading a very thin selection, the only free agent starting pitcher to sign so far was A.J. Burnett to the Pirates after a rocky one-year tenure in Philadelphia (Note-Jason Hammel has since signed with the Cubs.) The free agent market was skewed towards starting pitching to start with and starting pitchers are now an overwhelming majority of the top free agents. This is primarily due to the decrease in offense around the league, as teams are now much more focused on acquiring hitters than pitchers. That being said, pitchers such as Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are going to find a home somewhere, most likely with rich bounties of money in the bank. While I have no crystal ball and I do not even play a fortune-teller on TV, here are my predictions for the top 10 starting pitchers’ new homes and salaries, with favorites and one wild card team listed.
1. RHP Max Scherzer, age 30
2014 Team: Tigers
Favorites: Yankees, Tigers, Cubs, Blue Jays, Nationals
Wild Card: Angels
Ultimate Destination: Chicago Cubs, 7 years, $175 million
Scherzer has had an odd free agent experience so far as the top dog on the market, as he has gotten relatively little buzz compared to his southpaw friend next on the list. While he is certain to get paid somewhere, there are a lot more reports about teams who cannot afford him than teams who are interested. The Yankees have been rumored to be out on him, citing lack of interest in another big contract, but we would be foolish to completely rule them out. Keith Oddo (’15), a longtime Yankees fan thinks they could be a favorite for Scherzer. “The Yankees will outbid the other teams and get Scherzer,” he said. “They also find a way to get the guys they want.” Although the Angels have been seldom connected to Scherzer, they make a lot of sense to me as a win-now team with a large payroll and a major need for starting pitching. I settled on putting him with the Cubs partially as an aftershock of #2 on my list resigning in a familiar city, as it leaves the Cubs with a big stack of cash and urgency to land a big free agent starting pitcher. The Cubs have been heavily connected to trading for Cole Hamels, but their new regime seems set on stockpiling position player prospects and the Phillies would probably ask for at least 2 of Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Addison Russell or Albert Almora. The Cubs probably will not pay that price and that will lead them to Scherzer instead.
2. LHP Jon Lester, age 30
2014 Team(s): Red Sox/ Athletics
Favorites: Red Sox, Cubs, Giants, Dodgers, Yankees
Wild Card: Blue Jays
Ultimate Destination: Boston Red Sox, 6 years, $150 million
The Red Sox have certainly been busy this offseason with the signings of Sandoval and Ramirez. Those two signings give them an abundance of position players, but their starting pitching is still suspect. According to the Steamer projection system, they do not have a single starting pitcher under contract for 2015 who is projected to have an ERA under 4.00 and only one, Clay Buchholz, who is projected to have a Fangraphs WAR over 2. That means that at best, they have a bunch of #4 or 5 starters in a 5 man pitching rotation. This is where a homegrown player such as Lester could factor in, as they should not be afraid to spend the money to bring him back if they are willing to spend to bring in Sandoval and Ramirez. Add in Lester’s multiple public statements during his time in Boston about how badly he wanted to resign and it seems like a perfect reunion. There was some bad blood over the Red Sox reported offer of 4 years, $70 million, which was panned by most as a lowball offer, but Dr. Wanda Finney does not buy that as a deterrent to him signing with Boston. “He would go back to Boston,” she said. “if they pay him enough.” The biggest contender to take him away from the Red Sox seems to be the Cubs, as according to a report from David Kaplan of CSNChicago.com, the Cubs have made Lester an offer over $135 million. That certainly makes them a serious contender, but at the end of the day I think Lester’s comfort level in Boston wins out if the money is close. One team that could blow apart the Boston reunion if they really want to is the Dodgers, as they have the financial muscle to outbid anyone. Brett Jones (’16), who is both a Nationals and a Dodgers fan, sees the Dodgers in the bidding for one of the big starting pitchers, especially Lester. “The Dodgers should get Lester because you cannot have enough depth in the starting rotation,” he said. “They need another pitcher with Beckett retiring and Billingsley gone.”
3. RHP James Shields, age 32
2014 team: Royals
Favorites: Red Sox, Rangers, Blue Jays, Angels, Dodgers, Cubs
Wild Card: Marlins
Ultimate Destination: Los Angeles Angels, 4 years, $80 million
While some may choose to focus on how ridiculous his nickname “Big Game James” is given his career 5.46 postseason ERA, those who dwell on that for too long are missing the bigger picture with this reliable workhorse. His strengths start with his reliability and clean bill of health, as he has thrown 200 plus innings every year since 2007. At the same time, that could play against him to some degree in free agency, as some teams may be concerned about his huge workload, especially given that he will pitch this year at the age of 33. These factors will most likely limit the years that any team is comfortable giving to him, as he will likely at most get 5 years and more likely 4. Given the Angels all-in mentality as Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton continue to age and become more expensive, they would certainly seem to be in the market for a pitcher such as Shields and he may have a desire to be closer to his home in California. The Angels are far from his only potential suitor however, as the Red Sox make a lot of sense if they miss out on a Lester return and the Blue Jays also seem like a solid fit, especially with their recent trade of J.A. Happ.
4. RHP Ervin Santana, age 31
2014 team: Braves
Favorites: Royals, Braves, Angels, Diamondbacks
Wild Card: Twins
Ultimate Destination: Kansas City Royals, 3 years, $40 million
Santana was victimized last year partially by a qualifying offer and partially because of reports of outlandish $100 million demands, as he ultimately had to settle for a one year $14.1 million deal with the Braves. Similar concerns may arise again this year, as was once again tagged with a qualifying offer, which means that any team who signs him that does not have a top 10 protected first round pick in the amateur draft will lose their first pick if they sign him. As a pitcher he profiles a grade below the first 3 guys, as he is much more of a solid #3 pitcher in a rotation than a top of the line guy. This means that teams such as the Royals, who in all likelihood are losing Shields, can afford him, as he will not have nearly the price tag of the top 3. The Royals are familiar with him, as he pitched for them in 2013 and he fits a need for a team looking to repeat it’s 2014 success.
5. RHP Brandon McCarthy, age 31
2014 team(s): Diamondbacks, Yankees
Favorites: Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Braves
Wild Card: White Sox
Ultimate Destination: New York Yankees, 3 years $39 million
McCarthy did not have a good year according to traditional statistics, as his ERA was a middle of the road 4.05, but that number is very deceiving. For the first half of the year, he was pitching in Arizona where the ball flies well and the Diamondbacks did not allow him to consistently throw his cutter, one of his main pitches. This predictably did not go well for either the player or the team, as he gave up 15 homeruns in the first half on his way to a 5.01 ERA. The Yankees however smartly saw some major upside with him, as his strikeout to walk rates remained strong, which led them to acquire him for a low upside young pitcher in lefty Videl Nuno. He rewarded them with 90.1 quality innings of work with an ERA of 2.89 and I think both the team and the player see the fit. Other smart organizations such as the Cubs and Red Sox could see him as a cheaper alternative to the bigger name pitchers and decide to sign him.
6. LHP Francisco Liriano, age 31
2014 team: Pirates
Favorites: Pirates, Cubs, Angels, Blue Jays, Phillies
Wild Card: Cardinals
Ultimate Destination: Pittsburgh Pirates, 3 years $39 million
Liriano has always been somewhat of an enigma, as his career has been one flash of brilliance after one flash of injury or control problems. He seems to have found a home in Pittsburgh however, as he has posted two solid seasons in a row, with 2013 being the second best of his entire career. With their huge park and reliance on defensive shifts, the Pirates seem to be a safe haven for starting pitchers. The most serious contender to take him away from Pittsburgh to me would be the Blue Jays, as they have a need for a starting pitcher and they just signed Liriano’s former battery mate in Pittsburgh, Russell Martin.
7. RHP Hiroki Kuroda, age 39
2014 team: Yankees
Favorites: Yankees, Japan
Wild Card: Dodgers
Ultimate Destination: New York Yankees, one year, $13 million
This is one of the simpler free agent cases, as Kuroda has stated in the past that he would only consider pitching for the Yankees or returning to Japan. Despite his advanced age, Kuroda was still effective and reliable for the Yankees in 2014, leading the team by far in innings pitched. I think he has one more year left in the states and that most likely it will be for the Yankees, unless he is persuaded by a bigger one year guarantee to return to the Dodgers, the team he broke into the majors with. Oddo agrees. “Kuroda was their most consistent pitcher last year through all their injuries,” he said. “He would fit perfectly as their 4th or 5th starter, especially if they sign one of the big free agent starters.”
8. RHP Jake Peavy, age 33
2014 team(s): Red Sox, Giants
Favorites: Giants, Braves, Cardinals, Pirates
Wild Card: Marlins
Ultimate Destination: San Francisco Giants, 2 years $22 million
Peavy is no longer the ace he was in his San Diego days, but he is a solid back end of the rotation starter for a National League team. He had a great time in San Francisco last year, as he posted an ERA of 2.17 in 78.2 innings and won a World Series ring. Throw in the Giants history of retaining their own players from World Series teams and the Giants have to be considered the heavy favorite. The other strongest contender seems to be the Braves with Peavy’s Alabama roots and club president John Hart’s mandate that they need more pitching, even after the Jason Heyward-Shelby Miller swap.
9. RHP Jason Hammel, age 32
2014 team(s): Cubs, Athletics
Favorites: Cubs, Braves, Giants, Pirates, Angels, Royals
Wild Card: White Sox
Ultimate Destination: Chicago Cubs, 2 years $20 million (Actually nailed this prediction)
Hammel had a resurgence at the beginning of last year after being signed by the Cubs to a 1 year $6 million contract, leading him to be sent to the A’s last year along with RHP Jeff Samardzija for top prospects SS Addison Russell and OF Billy McKinley. I think he returns to the place in which he had success last year before imploding for the Athletics, as there is still a need for pitching in Chicago and he fits well there. If the Giants miss out on bringing back Peavy or the Royals do not sign Shields as I predicted, I could also he a solid fit for him in KC or Atlanta.
10. RHP Justin Masterson, age 29
2014 team(s): Indians, Cardinals
Favorites: Red Sox, Cubs
Wild Card: Pirates
Ultimate Destination: Boston Red Sox, 1 year $8 million
After a very successful 2013 that saw him make the All-Star team and post an ERA of 3.45, Masterson majorly regressed in 2014, as he posted a ghastly WAR of -1.7 and was demoted to the bullpen by the Cardinals by the end of the year. He was pitching through a knee injury all year and saw his average fastball velocity plummet from an average of 93.1 MPH in 2013 to 90.3 MPH in 2014 according to PITCHf/x. He may turn out to be a solid buy low candidate for a team with a solid infield if he is truly healthy, as ERA predictors such as xFIP and SIERA see him in a much more positive light than his ERA from last year and his ground ball percentage remained at a very high 58.2% last year.