How Scott Kazmir, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes Deals Impact Elite SP Market

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 2, 2013

USA Today

The very second the offseason began, one thing that was immediately apparent was that the market was going to be pretty thin on starting pitching talent. Frankly, this year's collection of starting pitchers is one of the most "meh"-worthy in recent memory.

But so far, you wouldn't know that from the contracts that have been handed out. They've been on the big side, and what's scary is that the really good guys haven't gotten paid yet.

Well, unless you are one of the good guys, of course. For them, what's going on isn't scary. It's exciting.

If you're not up to date on the latest, three notable puzzle pieces have slid into place in the last few days. The Minnesota Twins handled two of them, signing Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million deal and fellow right-hander Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million deal.

On Monday, the Oakland A's struck. As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports was the first to report, the A's have agreed to a deal with 29-year-old southpaw Scott Kazmir. It's a two-year deal worth $22 million, as Jane Lee of reports.

So in a handful of days, make that three contracts handed out worth a total of $95 million over a total of nine years. That's an average of around $10.5 million per year, which looks like a lot for a trio of pitchers whose names aren't going to draw crowds.

Granted, the numbers have a positive opinion of two of these guys, but for now let's just focus on the general picture of things. Based on the contracts given to Nolasco, Hughes and Kazmir, the price for starting pitching in general would appear to be abnormally high this winter.

There's something to that notion, and it doesn't just have to do with the deals that Nolasco, Hughes and Kazmir got.

With an assist from MLB Trade Rumors' transaction tracker, my powers of Internet research tell me that there have been eight free-agent contracts either signed or agreed to by starting pitchers thus far. With FanGraphs WAR for 2013 mixed in, those eight contracts look like this:

Free Agent SP Contracts So Far
PlayerTeam2013 fWARYearsValueAAV
Tim HudsonSFG1.72$23.00 $11.50
Josh JohnsonSDG0.51$8.00 $8.00
Jason VargasKAN1.54$32.00 $8.00
Dan HarenLAD1.51$10.00 $10.00
Ryan VogelsongSFG-0.61$5.00 $5.00
Ricky NolascoMIN3.04$49.00 $12.25
Phil HughesMIN1.33$24.00 $8.00
Scott KazmirOAK2.52$22.00$11.00
Total18$173.00 $9.61

Note: That $9.61 million average AAV can be reached either by dividing the total years by the total dollars or by dividing the average value ($21.63 million) by the average years (2.25).

Exactly what constitutes an average WAR for a starting pitcher is a tricky thing to pin down, but FanGraphs' general baseline for "average" is a WAR somewhere north of 2.0. Thus, only two of the eight starting pitchers who have signed were above-average hurlers in 2013: Kazmir and Nolasco.

In light of that, a $9.61 million per year average does seem a bit excessive. And if you want another perspective that makes it look a bit excessive, well, we can manage that.

Another search on MLB Trade Rumors returns 24 free-agent contracts handed out to starting pitchers last offseason. The average AAV of those was around $10.65 million.

If one disregards the monster contracts given to Anibal Sanchez ($80 million) and Zack Greinke ($147 million), however, one gets 22 contracts worth an average of just about $7.30 million per year.

Disclaimer: It's still plenty early. The numbers are going to change. But eight starting pitcher contracts into this winter's proceedings, non-elite starters are already putting the contracts that non-elite starters got last winter to shame.

That's not something to be ignored, and it leads to an obvious conclusion: This bodes well for the elites who are still waiting to be signed.

Who are they? That depends on whom you ask. There are any number of free-agent rankings out there, and their opinions of this year's starting pitching crop all vary. Goodness knows front offices have their own opinions.

However, it does seem to be a bit easier to pinpoint the elite starters than it has been in prior winters. FanGraphs writers Dave Cameron and Jeff Sullivan have both made note of how ERA seems to be losing its luster, a notion bolstered in particular by the contracts given to Josh Johnson (6.20 ERA in 2013) and Hughes (5.19 ERA in 2013).

FanGraphs happens to use fielding independent pitching (FIP) as a primary ingredient for calculating WAR. That means the site determines value not by how many runs a pitcher actually allowed, but by how many runs he probably should have allowed.

If we keep things simple and focus solely on the top starting pitchers on the market as ranked by 2013 fWAR and contextualized by FIP, what we get is this:

The Free-Agent Class of Elite Starting Pitchers
Player2013 FIP2013 fWAR
A.J. Burnett2.804.0
Bartolo Colon3.233.9
Hiroki Kuroda3.563.8
Ubaldo Jimenez3.433.2
Ricky Nolasco3.343.0
Ervin Santana3.933.0
Scott Kazmir3.512.5
Matt Garza3.882.2
Mike Pelfrey3.992.1
Scott Feldman4.032.1
Tim Hudson3.461.7

Teams do and will consider more than what pitchers did in 2013 before making decisions. Notably, they'll consider each pitcher's history before 2013, as well as what future projections have to say about their performance going forward.

So far, however, it's hard to ignore how the above table strangely resembles a pay scale.

As far as his 2013 WAR is concerned, Nolasco is indeed deserving of the biggest contract (both in years and dollars) given out to this point. And while WAR says that Kazmir deserved a bigger contract than Hudson, FIP highlights how there was no real difference between the two in how they actually performed. The real difference was in innings, as Kazmir pitched 158 to Hudson's 131.1 in an injury-shortened season.

Knowing that, it's fair that Hudson's contract served as a sort of precedent for Kazmir's contract. And for what it's worth, Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the A's offered Hudson the same two-year, $22 million deal before they eventually gave it to Kazmir.

At the least, the top free-agent starters have to like how even pitchers like Hughes, Johnson and Jason Vargas have been valued at $8 million per year, and how the going rate for starting pitchers in general is well on its way to being grossly inflated over what it was last winter.

That parameters have been set by particularly strong 2013 performances, however, is something that the top starters on the market have to like even more. While ERA might not be king anymore, it's apparent that free agency hasn't quite gotten over being a "What have you done for me lately?" business.

If it was unclear before, the bidding for Ervin Santana's services might have to start at around $12.25 million per year over four years now. Santana's ties to draft-pick compensation are a complicating factor, but he was just as valuable as Ricky Nolasco in 2013 and the two are almost identical in age—Santana turns 31 on December 12, Nolasco on December 13.

An average of $12.25 million per year may also be the starting point in the bidding for Matt Garza, whose 2013 FIP was virtually the same as Santana's. The bigger difference between the two in 2013 was in innings pitched, not in performance. Just like with Hudson and Kazmir.

And who knows? It's doubtful that either of them will be paid particularly handsomely, but being in the same FIP discussion as Santana and Garza could prove useful for Mike Pelfrey and Scott Feldman as well.

As for the other notables on the list, it won't be a shocker if Ubaldo Jimenez ends up with the best contract of any free-agent starter this winter. He was more valuable than Nolasco, Santana and Garza in 2013, and he has youth on his side to boot. Jimenez is not quite 30, so something like five years at around $15 million per year looks like a legitimate possibility.

Elsewhere, the one-year offer worth $15-16 million that Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York says the New York Yankees have on the table for Hiroki Kuroda sounds about right, and Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports probably has it right about Bartolo Colon:

The last two contracts Colon has signed have been one-year deals worth $2 and $3 million guaranteed, respectively. A two- or three-year deal worth at least $12 million per year may be firmly in the cards now.

Concerning A.J. Burnett, it's still unclear whether he even wants to pitch in 2014. But given that he can easily back up the claim that he had a better year in 2013 than any other starter on the market, it's hardly inconceivable that he could wrestle a one-year deal out of somebody that, at the least, would be equivalent to the contract on the table for Kuroda.

The elephant in the room amidst all this is what's going to happen with Masahiro Tanaka, the 25-year-old right-hander from Japan who's due to be posted whenever Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball come to an agreement on a new system. But because he has legitimate No. 1 potential in a winter when even guys without legitimate No. 1 potential are in demand, it's not hard to imagine the bidding for him becoming more intense than expected.

Here at the end is where we acknowledge that, yeah, it always was just a matter of time before the top starting pitchers on the market got paid like it. But the contracts that have been handed out so far are real eyebrow-raisers, and the Nolasco, Hughes and Kazmir contracts go to show that the trend isn't quitting. The numbers are already big, and there's still room for them to get bigger.

Though the market may be thin on starting pitching, it's a damn good time to be a free-agent starting pitcher.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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