In years past we've seen plenty of pitchers sign big-time free-agent deals only to fizzle with their new teams. Names like Barry Zito and Mike Hampton come to mind when thinking of starters who didn't live up their albatross contracts, and teams will be trying to avoid similar situations this offseason.
At 12:01 a.m ET on Tuesday, free agents will officially be able to sign with new teams, per MLB.com, setting the stage for the baseball hot stove that's sure to heat up heading into the winter meetings on Dec. 9-12.
There is a notable crop of veteran starters on the market this winter, but teams have to be weary when handing out the big dollars for starters who could be on the downturn. Let's take a look at some of the free-agent starting pitchers teams must avoid signing before a big contract evolves into a big problem.
The 25-year-old Japanese righty might not technically be an MLB free agent yet, but he's expected to be posted for bid by his club the Rakuten Eagles this offseason. Masahiro Tanaka's record of 30 consecutive unbeaten starts was snapped in Game 6 of the Japan Series against the Yomiuri Giants on Saturday, forcing Game 7 in the Japanese equivalent of the World Series.
Still, it does little to blemish the stellar regular season Tanaka had, as he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 212 innings this year. Given his age and accomplishments so far, it's widely believed that Rakuten will receive a bid higher than the $51.7 million the Texas Rangers posted for the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish in 2011. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports even speculated the posting bid could be between $75 and $100 million, with an ensuing contract pushing the total upwards of $125 million.
There's no doubting Tanaka's dominance this year, but comparable situations have happened in recent years with mixed results. When thinking of high-priced, marquee pitchers leaving Japan for MLB, Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka serve as examples with different outcomes.
While Darvish has established himself as one of baseball's elite pitchers during his two seasons in Texas, Matsuzaka has flamed out after two solid years with the Boston Red Sox in 2007-08.
So where does that leave Tanaka? No one will know until next spring, and that doesn't seem like a smart $125 million bet.
Sure, he reportedly owns one of the best split-finger fastballs on Earth right now, but it seems like too big of a gamble for an unproven asset, no matter how talented he is. Teams would be better served to get consistent veterans like Bartolo Colon or Hiroki Kuroda for the short term while exploring other less risky avenues for the long term.
Ubaldo Jimenez picked a good time to recapture his form as an elite pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, as he dominated after the All-Star break just in time to boost his stock for free agency. The righty, who turns 30 in January, posted a 6-5 record, 1.82 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 100 strikeouts in 84 innings across 13 second-half starts.
As a result, Jimenez posted season-long numbers that included a 13-9 record and a 3.30 ERA. During his second-half run, Jimenez conjured up flashbacks of his dominant self during his days in Colorado, like when he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA in 2010.
But Jimenez has been plagued by inconsistency in the three seasons since, and perhaps it has something to do with the drop of velocity on his fastball. According to FanGraphs.com, Jimenez's fastball averaged at about 96 miles per hour during his career year in 2010, but it dipped below 92 in 2013.
He's not getting any younger and won't be adding any more speed onto that fastball any time soon. It was encouraging to see Jimenez put together a nice stretch run this past season, but he hasn't shown the ability to be consistent since losing his best stuff.
His marks of a 9-17 record with a 5.40 ERA in 2012, and even his subpar start to 2013, should be kept in mind at the negotiating table this winter. Jimenez will likely earn a nice payday to be a team's No. 2 or 3 starter, but his inconsistency and troubles adjusting to life without his blazing fastball make him trouble down the line.
Much like Jimenez, Santana had a well-timed season for success in 2013. Santana turns 31 next month and has been hit-or-miss throughout his entire career.
But this past season he went 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA in 211 innings pitched, serving as a key member of the Kansas City Royals pitching staff that ranked first in the American League with a 3.45 team ERA.
If Santana's track record is any indicator, however, he isn't a smart bet to duplicate his success in 2014. Only once in his nine-year career has he been able to string together two straight seasons with sub-4.00 ERAs—in 2010 (3.92) and 2011 (3.38). In that same span, he's posted three seasons with ERAs over 5.00.
Santana certainly has value in today's game as an innings-eater, having topped the 210-inning mark in three out of the past four seasons, but his up-and-down career trend makes him one to stay away from in 2014. He's still at the point of his career to command a healthy multiyear deal, but I suspect it will become a headache by the end of the agreement.
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