When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Adam Wainwright on Wednesday to a five-year, $97.5 million contract extension through the 2018 season, it meant that the free-agent market for starting pitchers next offseason will likely have a “most wanted” name at the top of the list.
Whichever free-agent-to-be ends the 2013 season in the best position to claim that spot could easily approach Wainwright’s $19.5 million annual salary and land at least a four-year deal. A few have the ability to blow that contract out of the water.
Let’s take a closer look at the potential candidates and what they have at stake during the upcoming season.
Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox
If he has his typical season from 2008-2012 (12 wins, 4.12 ERA, 31 starts, 190 IP, 2.8 BB/9, 7.2 K/9), Floyd could land a similar deal to the one Edwin Jackson signed this offseason (four years, $52 million).
Jackson’s deal covers his age-29 through age-32 seasons, while Floyd’s would start at his age-31 year.
If he has a career year and the others on this list fail to bounce back from unproductive seasons, he could possibly get a deal similar to the one Anibal Sanchez signed with the Tigers this offseason (five years, $88 million).
Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs
It’s not how you start the season, which is good since Garza will be on the disabled list with a strained lat. It’s how you finish, which is what teams will be looking at when deciding if he’s worthy of a multi-year contract that approaches Wainwright’s totals.
Garza will be just 30 years old heading into the 2014 season. Until last year, he had stayed relatively injury-free. From 2008 to 2011, he had a 3.72 ERA while averaging 198 innings per season, a 3.0 BB/9 and 7.6 K/9.
Not “ace” numbers, but he’s good enough to be the No. 1 starter on plenty of teams around the league. As long as he gets in 20 starts and finishes strong, he’ll still get paid like one.
Josh Johnson, Toronto Blue Jays
While he wasn’t quite the dominant pitcher he had been prior to a shoulder injury that cut short his 2011 season (29-12, 2.64 ERA, 2.5 BB/9, 8.6 K/9 in 70 starts from 2009-2011), Johnson did make 31 start. He finished the season with a 3.81 ERA in 191.1 innings.
Another healthy season while continuing to work his way back to his previous form could set up the 29-year-old for a huge payday—possibly the biggest of next offseason.
In his final 12 starts of 2012, Johnson had a 3.01 ERA with only 56 hits allowed, 30 walks and 69 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. If that’s a sign of things to come with his new team in Toronto in 2013, he could eclipse Wainwright’s deal next offseason.
Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
Adding Lester to this list is misleading because a bounce-back year will keep him in Boston at least another season. The Sox would almost certainly pick up his $13 million club option for 2014.
If he’s so good that he is first or second in AL Cy Young voting, however, he can void the option. There’s no doubt he could get a mega-deal that could exceed Wainwright's.
The 29-year-old had a 3.33 ERA with an average of 16 wins, 203 innings, 3.2 BB/9 and 8.7 K/9 between 2008 and 2011. For whatever reason, he was much more hittable in 2012, and his strikeouts were also down (7.3 K/9).
If his spring stats are a sign of things to come (24 IP, 2 ER, 8 H, 4 BB, 20 K), Lester is likely to return to Boston for another season in 2014. That doesn’t mean the Red Sox won’t try to lock him up to a Wainwright-like extension before the start of 2014.
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
Unlike Lester, Lincecum is not showing many signs of turning things around this spring (10.2 IP, 13 ER, 17 H, 7 BB, 10 K). He went from being one of the best pitchers in baseball, and potentially the richest, to one of the most unreliable starters in baseball.
He's an enigma, one year from hitting free agency for the first time.
Like the top free-agent pitcher this offseason, Zack Greinke, Lincecum will be just 29 years old at the start of the next season. Prior to 2012, Lincecum was better than Greinke and most other pitchers in baseball, so it wouldn’t have been far-fetched to think he could have exceeded Greinke’s six-year, $159 million deal he signed with the Dodgers.
That appears to be a long shot now. Nevertheless, some team will take the risk and pay up just for the possibility that he’ll regain his pre-2012 form.
Another similar disappointing season, though, and he’ll have to “settle” for a Dan Haren-like one-year, $13 million deal so he can try to rebuild his value. He could also get something in the three- to four-year range at $12-15 million per season.