Sunday, 10 November 2013

Free Agent Targets: Starting Pitching

The happiest time of the year, at least for those of us that spend time spilling digital ink about baseball, is upon us yet again. Free agency opened up this week, with the deadline for teams to extend qualifying offers to their pending free agents having passed Monday at 5 p.m. With free agency season comes MLB Trade Rumors' Top 50 Free Agents list, along with Tim Dierkes' predictions of where they might end up signing. It's worth checking out the whole list as a lot of the predictions seems pretty spot on to me, at least in terms of the types of contracts we might expect to see each free agent sign.

I expect there to be a lot of sticker shock on a lot of these free agents this off-season (because there totally isn't any other off-season, right?), if the contracts the Giants dished out to Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum are any indication of this year's market. At this point, it's still hard to know whether the Giants went and blew up the market all on their own by setting a surprisingly high bar that superior free agents will expect to surpass, or if the added revenue from new TV deals would have inflated salaries anyways, with the Giants just being among the first to operate in this new climate. 

So, while I expect there to be some eye-popping overpayments to come, I find myself a lot more okay with the Blue Jays indulging in a bit of free agent silliness this off-season than I ever have been before. In my view, the team has a strong enough core, much of which is under team control or signed to absurdly team friendly contracts for the next couple of years, that they are at the point that supplementing that core through free-agency makes more sense to me than trading away the prospects that will hopefully be the core of the next competitive Blue Jays team. The team has very little in salary commitments beyond 2015, and how underpaid guys like Bautista and Encarnacion are should allow them a bit of flexibility to overpay some other players (*cough* Buehrle *cough*). Basically, if Rogers is willing to open the wallet a little bit more for the next two years, the Jays should be able to take on some salary without hamstringing their future payroll or depleting the farm too much.

That being said, I don't expect the Blue Jays to be players for some of the biggest names on the market like Cano, Choo, McCann and Ellsbury. Barring some pretty significant trades, I don't see that kind of money kicking around, and the fact that all of them will be attached to draft pick compensation will be some deterrent, although I feel that with that level of talent it should be a fairly minor consideration, especially with the Blue Jays being in possession of two protected first round picks. For a lot of the second tier free agents on the market, however, giving up even a second round pick and the associated bonus pool dollars will be a significant consideration, and rightfully so if the goal is to build a competitive team in the present without mortgaging the future.

So, with that in mind, here is the first of a two-part look at some names off the Top 50 list that the Blue Jays might be considering address their needs in the rotation, behind the dish, and at second base. First I'll be looking at starting pitchers with position players to follow. My rankings aren't just based on the quality of the player, but also the likely cost to sign them, whether they're attached to a draft pick, and in some cases the likelihood of the Blue Jays being able to convince a player to take their money.

The A-List

Masahiro Tanaka: Coming in at number five on the list, right behind the four aforementioned gentlemen, is this year's top Japanese free agent. I'm not going to get too deep into Tanaka because I already wrote about him here, but the highlights are his age (25 years old) and 1.47 ERA over the last three seasons. The points of concern are the 1315 professional innings already on his arm and a strikeout rate that is good, but trending in the wrong direction. I hope the Blue Jays will be in on him hard, because while he will cost a pretty penny, a lot of it will be the one time cost of the posting fee, with less of it burdening the payroll in the long term or being tied up in the risk of future injury. There is no draft pick lost for the signing, so all he costs is money. A lot of money, most likely. Some recent reports suggest his posting fee might top $75 million, which is both crazy and not at the same time, given the posting fee the Rangers paid to negotiate with Darvish and the inflation of salaries since. It's not my money though, so it's easy for me to say that they should throw lots of it at Tanaka, but given all the considerations he seems like the most desirable starter on the market.

Matt Garza: As far as pitchers with a major league track record go, the #7 ranked Matt Garza is my favourite of the free agent crop, and not only because I just learned that he and I share a birthday. I can't help but feel that some of the injury concerns about him are a touch overstated, as he made at least 30 starts each season from 2008-2011, before losing about half of 2012 to an elbow injury. He suffered a lat strain in training camp this season, but made 24 solid starts for the Cubs and Rangers the rest of the way, sporting a 3.82 ERA and a 3.88 FIP by season's end. He struck out 20.9% of batters while walking just 6.4%, both a bit better than his career rates. Obviously you can't just throw out his recent health issues altogether, but his overall health record is excellent, and he appeared to be pretty much his old self upon his return in 2013. It was his seventh straight season with a sub-4.00 ERA, and there's not really anything in his peripheral numbers that strikes me as particularly concerning.

He's been the model of good-but-not-greatness, which is what I think the Jays should be targeting this off-season. Anthopoulos has spoken of managing risk better this off-season, and a pitcher with Garza's history seems like a pretty safe bet to me. Given that he turns 30 this November, there's a good chance that he goes from a slightly above average to a below average pitcher over the term of this contract, but if Dierkes' projected four-year deal at $60+ million is near accurate, I'd do it in a heartbeat, especially since his mid-season trade makes him ineligible for draft pick compensation. However, if the reported contract desires of a couple of other guys on my list are accurate, I could see him getting more than Dierkes predicts.

Ubaldo Jimenez: At #11 on the MLB Trade Rumors list, Ubaldo Jimenez intrigues me for some reason, despite his recent rocky seasons and the fact that he comes attached to draft pick compensation. He's also the only player on the whole list that Dierkes predicts the Blue Jays signing. I generally try to look at a lot of data when I'm evaluating players, but this one is based more on a good gut feeling about Ubaldo. He had a couple of rough years in 2011 and 2012 as he dealt with a pretty significant decline in his velocity, but the nature of his struggles leave me optimistic that he might be a guy who has learned how to live in the low-90s, and that he might represent a pretty good value for whoever takes a chance with him. It might be foolhardy narrative construction on my part, but I feel like can wrap my head around how he's gotten where he is. He was really good for a few years when he threw 95-96, despite plying his trade in the pitcher's hell that is Coors Field, then not very good for a couple of years as his velocity declined. Now that it's been fairly stable for a couple of seasons, I have an easier time believing in last year's 3.30 ERA and 3.43 FIP as a product of having adjusted to his diminished velocity. With the exception of his brutal 2012, he's always been pretty good at keeping the ball in the park which should probably be a strong consideration given what we saw happen to our prized pitching acquisitions in 2013.

Dierkes has him as a candidate for something in the neighborhood of the four-year $52 million Edwin Jackson deal, and even with draft pick compensation attached I can't help but think that, with his upside, whoever signs him will have a great chance at a really good pitcher on a very reasonable contract.

Ervin Santana: At #6 on the MLB Trade Rumors list, Santana is well positioned to land a big fat multi-year contract given his record of health and strong 2013. He and his management group are very aware of this fact as well, if the reports of him seeking a $100 million deal are accurate. It might seem odd then that I have very little interest in the Blue Jays pursuing Ervin Santana, and not just because he'll cost buckets of money and a draft pick. I just don't see him as a good fit for the Blue Jays or, more specifically the Rogers Centre. Even in his best years he's been homer prone, and while things like HR/FB rates tend to fluctuate quite a bit, Santana's have consistently been quite high (11% career), despite having played his whole career in home run suppressing, pitcher friendly stadiums. He might be perfectly fine, but with his up and down career and homer prone ways, it just seems like a lot of risk for a guy that's going to command a huge contract. I'm alright with the Blue Jays taking on some risk, but not for that kind of price tag and long term commitment.

Hiroki Kuroda/A.J. Burnett: I've lumped these 8th and 9th ranked gentlemen together because, while they're both fine pitchers I'd love to see in Blue Jays blue next season, I consider the odds of it happening to be equally slim. Burnett has already announced that he'll be back with the Bucs or retire, and Kuroda will be in a position to be extremely selective with where he plays next season. I think that it will most likely be New York again, but if it's not I'd imagine a west coast destination might be more appealing to the Japanese hurler, and at 39, a return to Japan or retirement have to be considered likely options as well. Either way, odds are he'll be signing a one-year deal, and I don't love the idea of forfeiting a draft pick for just one year of pretty much any player. 

The Lottery Tickets

Behind the top tier of free agent pitchers are a few guys who, for various reasons, come with a significant amount of risk, but also a significant amount of upside should everything work out. They represent an opportunity for a team to get a great bang for their buck if they're able to stomach the possibility of it all going horribly wrong. Of course that's a risk with any free agent, so the fact that all these players will only be getting short term deals mitigates it somewhat.

Bartolo Colon: It's probably a bit unfair to the #22 ranked Colon that I have him filed under "Lottery Tickets", but let's face it, he'll be turning 41 during the 2014 season and despite the fact that he's gotten better every season since he returned to the big leagues in 2011, that still makes for a lot of risk. That he somehow managed to achieve his second best in the American League 2.65 ERA while throwing nothing but low 90s fastballs (85.5% of his pitches) for strikes is kind of awesome, but worrisome. Obviously it's been working for him (in the pitcher's haven of Oakland), but how long can that really last? At his age there's not much chance he gets anything but a one year deal, and MLB Trade Rumors' projected $10 million or so sounds pretty fair to me, so as the saying goes "there's no such thing as a bad one year contract". Colon was a 3.9 fWAR pitcher this season, so there's plenty of room for him to regress while still earning his money. Still, his age and the way he goes about his business make it hard for me to see him as anything but a bit of a risky acquisition for a team like the Blue Jays who are very much in a win-now phase.

Josh Johnson: I'm still not convinced that the Blue Jays' decision not to extend the #30 ranked Josh Johnson a qualifying offer won't prove to be a mistake. As with Tanaka, I've already written about the Johnson decision here, so I won't bother re-writing my case for him. Suffice to say that there were a lot of signs that suggest to me that, if he's healthy, his 2013 will end up being an anomaly and he'll be much better going forward, if for no other reason than it would be almost impossible for him to be as bad. His strikeout and walk rates remained above average, and the areas that he got burned in were his .356 BABIP, 63.3% strand rate, and his 18.5% HR/FB rate, all of which tend to regress towards league average. It seems like there was more than just bad luck involved, because the majority of his awfulness was with men on base. He was just incapable of pitching out of the stretch for some reason, but a bit of regression in all those numbers will leave someone with a pretty decent pitcher on their hands for a potentially bargain rate. I'm sure the Blue Jays are trying to re-sign him for less than $14.1 million, but now that Johnson is a free agent unencumbered by draft pick compensation, the odds of him deciding to try and rebuild his value in the AL East are probably pretty slim. I imagine there will be plenty of other teams willing to take a chance on a bounce back season from JJ, and many of them will be more appealing to a pitcher in his situation.

Scott Kazmir: It still feels weird to even be considering Scott Kazmir, but after the season he's had he deserves to be in the conversation. After nearly being out of baseball for a couple of years, Kazmir signed a minor league deal with the Indians prior to 2013, pitched his way onto the team, and then right into consideration for an honest to goodness, multi-year, major league contract for 2014 and beyond. At #16 on their list, MLB Trade Rumors projects him to get something like a two-year, $16 million contract which would be a pretty good deal if he were able to repeat or improve on his 2013 performance. He pitched to a 4.04 ERA and an even better 3.51 FIP by virtue of his 24.1 K% and 7.0 BB%. With a little bit better batted ball luck than he had last year, he could be an excellent value on this year's free agent market. He's always been a high pitch count kind of guy, and that was true in 2013 as well as he only gave the Indians 158 innings despite making 29 starts. However, they were 158 mostly quality innings that most teams would gladly pay him $8 million a season for. That being said, he's still Scott Kazmir and just a season removed from pitching in unaffiliated ball so there's a pretty significant chance that he turns right back into a pumpkin, but there's no denying that he looked good last year and might have even deserved a bit better based off his peripheral numbers.

Dan Haren: Haren comes in at #34 on the list, but he probably also deserved a better fate than his 4.67 ERA would suggest. His FIP was a bit better at 4.04, but his xFIP, which regresses his 13% HR/FB rate back to league average, was a very serviceable 3.67. He made 30 starts, struck out 21.1% of batters and had a stellar 4.3% walk rate. In the second half, his ERA got more in line with his peripheral numbers at 3.29, so there's reason to hope that he might be a strong contributor in 2014. Still, given his last couple of years it's hard to see him getting more than a one-year deal, probably very similar to the $13 million the Nationals gave him this year.

Roy Halladay: I couldn't resist. I'm not one to romanticize a Halladay return, nor do I really think it likely that he'd consider coming back. However, if they're going to gamble on someone, the #49 ranked Halladay would certainly be the sentimental favourite. The only problem is that he's been pretty terrible for the last two seasons, with shoulder surgery limiting him to just 13 starts with a 6.82 ERA last year. He was particularly bad post-surgery, topping out at just 83 in his final start of the season. Dierkes hypothesizes that Halladay might wait until mid-season to sign somewhere, which makes a lot of sense to me. It would allow him more time to get healthy, and apply that well documented Halladay work ethic to getting his shoulder back in shape. It's also probably the only scenario in which I could see him making a return to the Blue Jays. He'll want to go to a contender, but after last season's disappointment the Blue Jays' reputation as such must have taken a pretty serious hit. Maybe, if by mid-season they're playing as well as everyone expected them to last year rather than wallowing in the basement he'd consider it. I doubt it, but maybe. Don't get your hopes up.

The Innings Eaters

There are a number of free agents out there with a strong track record of eating innings but little else. They aren't sexy, but with the Blue Jays' recent history of pitcher injuries, fans should be able to appreciate the value that consistent, durable starting pitching has. They don't have the same upside as my "A-List" free agents, nor do they have the same amount of risk as the "Lottery Tickets". They can probably be counted on to be average or worse, but to do it every fifth day 25-30 times a season.

Ricky Nolasco: The #20 ranked Nolasco leads the pack of available innings eaters, and you could maybe even make a case that he belongs on the "A-List". Since 2007, the only season in which he's made less than 30 starts was 2010, when he still made 26. He's been a bit enigmatic over that same span, however, as he's one of those guys that consistently under-performs relative to his strong peripheral numbers. Over his career he's pitched to a 4.37 ERA, but a much better 3.76 FIP. By ERA- he's been 8% worse than league average for his career. By FIP- he's been 8% better. Regardless of how you feel about FIP, that's odd, and it does make me concerned that whatever it is that sees him posting such mediocre ERAs despite such solid peripherals would be exacerbated by a move to the AL East with its elite offenses and band box stadiums.

What gives me even greater pause is the report out of MLB Trade Rumors that he's seeking a contract in the neighborhood of $80 million. Umm... pass! I think that's a bit optimistic on Nolasco's part, but with predicted salary inflation and the fact that he's not attached to a draft pick due to his mid-season trade who's to say? $80 million is too rich for my blood when we're talking Nolasco, but I don't think he'll get that. If he can be had for something like Edwin Jackson's four-year $52 million deal with no draft pick  attached, I'd do it in hopes that he can keep on eating innings at a league average-ish level. As consistent as he's been, it would still be a risky signing, as it won't take much in the way of age related decline for Nolasco to get pretty bad pretty quick, but if he can stay the same steady Nolasco we've seen for even the first two years of the deal it would be a help to the Jays in their current competitive window.

Bronson Arroyo: It's hard to know what to make of 37 year-old Bronson Arroyo at this point of his career, especially if he were to make a move to the AL East. On the one hand, he's the most dependable of all innings eaters, having made 32 starts and pitched 200 innings every season since 2005 (okay, only 199 innings in 2011), enough to get him ranked at #23 on the list. On the other hand, he's a slop tossing right-hander that barely strikes anyone out and always looks like he's dangerously close to throwing batting practice every time he takes the mound. He's got a career 4.19 ERA, but has been better than that the past two seasons with a 3.74 in 2011 and a 3.79 in 2012 while pitching in the very competitive NL Central. He's sort of the anti-Nolasco in that he's pretty consistently outperformed his FIP for his career. His age might not be too much of a concern given that he relies on smoke and mirrors to get his outs, not velocity, but it's still a factor. It might even make him a better signing than a guy like Nolasco, whose relative youth puts him in line for a much bigger contract, despite the fact that a team can probably expect at least as much performance out of Arroyo. Really, if I had to choose between Arroyo and Nolasco, I'd probably take Arroyo as the two-year $24 million MLB Trade Rumors projects him getting is a lot more palatable to me than pretty much any contract Nolasco is likely to sign.

Paul Maholm/Jason Vargas/Scott Feldman/Jason Hammel: We're really getting into the mediocre now, to the point that I don't even feel the need to talk about these guys separately. They're all 4.00-ish ERA, back of the rotation innings eaters. They aren't worthless, but I would hope that one of (or some combination of) Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin, and maybe even Kyle Drabek are able to contribute enough in 2014 (and for a lot less money) that guys like these are unnecessary. I mean, I guess if the team doesn't feel that to be the case, or would rather keep the kids in the minors as depth I could get with signing one of them. I would just be really disappointed if none of our top pitching prospects can force their way into the starting rotation and be better than one of these guys.


There aren't really any surefire aces on the market this off-season, but really that's just fine with me as I doubt the Blue Jays would be in a position to sign a guy like that anyways. There are, however, a number of guys that might be able to provide a lot of upside and stability to the rotation. I'd like to see them go after one of the "A-List" candidates, and either a high upside "Lottery Ticket" guy or one of the dependable innings eaters. I feel like they'll have enough minor league depth now that Nolin and Stroman are a year closer and Hutchison and Drabek are recovered from their Tommy John surgeries, that they can take a bit of a gamble on a guy with some question marks in the hopes of getting a good value. Of course this assumes that they're more active in free agency than with trades, which would really be my preference at this point, but in reality it will probably be some combination of both that Anthopoulos pursues to acquire the necessary upgrades to the big league club. Be sure to check back in a few days for my take on some of the position players the Blue Jays might be able to pursue to upgrade around the diamond.

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