Creating a Checklist for Finding the Ideal Free-Agent Pitcher

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Creating a Checklist for Finding the Ideal Free-Agent Pitcher
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Trying to navigate the waters of MLB free agency has become a high-priced affair, especially when it comes to starting pitching. Starters are commanding top dollar this winter, as evidenced by the deals inked by Tim Lincecum (two years, $35 million), Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million), Jason Vargas (four years, $32 million) and Scott Kazmir (two years, $22 million).

But the biggest contracts for pitchers haven't even been signed yet, as the top four available starters each figure to have huge paydays coming their way in the next few weeks. It appears that the baseball world is moving at the pace of Masahiro Tanaka right now, as the Japanese right-hander has less than two weeks to make his decision on which MLB team to sign with after being posted by his club the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Once Tanaka signs his deal, expect the others like Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez to follow suit. So what makes a pitcher worth the risk? There are a number of factors in play, so let's take a look at some of the keys to evaluating free-agent starters.

 

By The Numbers

2013 Stats for Top Free Agent Starters Available
Name Age IP W-L ERA ERA+ FIP WHIP BB/9 K/9
Masahiro Tanaka 25 212 24-0 1.27 N/A N/A 0.943 1.4 7.8
Matt Garza 30 155.1 10-6 3.82 106 3.88 1.236 2.4 7.9
Ubaldo Jimenez 30 182.2 13-9 3.30 114 3.43 1.330 3.9 9.6
Ervin Santana 31 211 9-10 3.24 127 3.93 1.142 2.2 6.9

Baseball-Reference.com

* Age as of opening day 2014

By no means am I a sabermetrician, but it doesn't take a genius to make sense of some basic numbers that can be telling indicators.

At this point, win-loss records are almost an irrelevant stat to provide much context to a pitcher, so don't pay much attention to Santana's 9-10 mark from 2013. His career-best 3.24 ERA is a better indicator of how effective he was this past year, as the righty was able to reduce his BB/9 rate to 2.2, well below his career rate of 2.8, to go along with his 1.14 WHIP and 3.16 K/BB ratio.

But when considering how a pitcher will perform in a new ballpark, advanced stats like ERA+, which takes ballparks into account and uses +100 as an average benchmark, with high numbers representing more success, are superior. FIP (fielder-independent pitching) helps paint a clearer picture, and Fangraphs.com provides a rubric for evaluation, with 2.90 representing an excellent FIP and 5.00 marking an awful FIP.

Heck, ERA+ can also be used as a valuable tool to provide context for Tanaka's recent dominance in Japan. Daniel Golebiewski of BaseballAnalytics.org stacked up Tanaka's success from the past three years to other MLB pitchers who made the jump from the Japanese league, suggesting Tanaka is the best of them all based on his 236 ERA+ since 2011.

 

Compensation

It's all about the money, right? In some cases, that's not the only factor in free agency.

This marks the second offseason that players and clubs have engaged in the qualifying-offer process. It's essentially the MLB's answer to the NFL's franchise tag, as clubs can extend a one-year offer at the average price of the league's top 125 paid players, a figure which came to $14.1 million this offseason.

Sure, that's a nice payday for a player, but the lack of long-term security has led to 22 rejections in 22 qualifying offers so far, with 13 this winter and nine last year. When a player declines an offer, he will cost any new team that signs him a first- or second-round selection. With the draft playing such a huge role in baseball, clubs have largely been reluctant to surrender a high draft pick for an expensive veteran.

Of the top remaining starters available, Santana and Jimenez are two pitchers that turned down qualifying offers earlier this offseason, and it might come back to bite them at the negotiating table. Garza, meanwhile, has benefited from being traded midseason, as he was ineligible to be slapped with a qualifying offer and comes with no compensation attached other than dollar bills.

Nolasco was in the same situation as Garza and he ended up with four years, $49 million from the Twins in a deal that will likely set the market for the remaining quartet of top arms. Expect the MLB-proven trio of Garza, Santana and Jimenez to command at least four years and $60 million.

Tanaka, meanwhile, will bring in the most money of them all. At 25 years old, Tanaka is much younger than the other options on the market. As such, he's expected to haul in more that $100 million, per David Waldstein of The New York Times.

The high market values are impossible to avoid in the booming economic state of baseball, but it's other factors like draft compensation and the waiting game for Tanaka that make this an offseason unlike any other in recent memory.

 

Injury History

With the exception of Tanaka, virtually all of the top starters available will be at least 30 years old by opening day in 2014. As such, it's a risk committing so much money to a pitcher who is likely nearing the end of his career, and teams will do their homework on his health history.

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Innings-eaters are valuable in any rotation, but that value only goes so far when there is so much money involved. Despite his mercurial career results-wise, there has been one constant about Santana that makes him so attractive this offseason: He's been able to stay on the mound.

Since becoming a full-time starter in 2006, Santana has averaged 194 innings pitched per year, just shy of the 200 IP benchmark that is today's standard for durability. Jimenez is in the same boat, as he has made at least 31 starts in the past six seasons but has been up and down along the way.

And while Garza has been much more consistent throughout his career, he's made just 42 combined starts the past two years. Tanaka, meanwhile, is young but he already has six seasons of Nippon Professional Baseball under his belt, with an average of 188 innings pitched per year.

Projecting one's future health can be a tricky, and at times, impossible, proposition, but it's one of the biggest things teams have to think about when crafting a deal.

 

Clubhouse Chemistry

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The baseball season is a grind, and like all other team sports, a tight locker room goes a long way. Take Ryan Dempster, for example.

On paper, he wasn't much more than a struggling starter past his prime, eating up innings at the back of the Boston Red Sox rotation. In reality, he had a huge hand in the leadership of Boston's locker room, making a big impact along with other new savvy vets like Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli.

Ultimately, none of these top available pitchers seem to be so volatile that they would cause hesitation for prospective clubs. Matt Garza can be fiery on the field and Santana is known for being a loose presence in the clubhouse, with both types of personalities having their benefits for a team.

As for Tanaka? Sure there will be a culture shock, but it's easier than ever for overseas stars to acclimate to today's game. Teams are sure to offer interpreters and extra attention to marquee Japanese players like Tanaka, and there will be enough traveling media following him that he will be speaking plenty in his native tongue.

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