MLB Free Agents: The Top 25 Pitchers on the Market
With the Giants securing their first World Series title in 56 years – and first since moving from New York in 1958 – the 2010 Major League Baseball season came to a close. Soon, we will be talking about the MVP, Cy Young and assorted awards, and then, free agency.
This year's class of free agents is relatively weak. There are, however, still a number of good players without a contract for 2011, and many teams who need to improve their pitching.
We saw how the Padres came a game away from the playoffs, solely because of good pitching, and then the team with the best offense in the AL was silence in the World Series by a brilliant starting rotation. If the second coming of 'the year of the pitcher' did anything, it underlined that it's the people on the mound, more than those at the plate, who win championships.
Since building a bullpen is more often than not a crapshoot, there are only a handful of relievers on this list. The list was almost topped by a closer, but when one thinks about it, that wouldn't really have been fair, since we know he is going to stay with his current team and he won't really be on the market. Still, he's a free agent, and deserves a mention.
Honourable Mention: Mariano Rivera
2010: Yankees, 3-3, 1.80 ERA, 33 saves
He’s a free agent, and normally, he would be number one on this list, unquestionably. However, there is absolutely no chance of New York letting him pitch somewhere else.
Much like shortstop Derek Jeter – who’s contract also ran out this season – Rivera is a Yankee legend, and has spent his entire career in pinstripes. It wouldn’t be fair to put him number one on this list, though, when there is no doubt he’ll be back with New York.
25. Brandon Webb
2008: Diamondbacks, 22-7, 3.30
Webb pitched four innings in 2009, before undergoing shoulder surgery, and didn’t pitch at all in 2010. That means that any team that tries to sign him can be considered to be taking a big, big risk.
However, from 2006 to 2008, Webb was one of the best pitchers in baseball. His records in those years were 16-8, 18-10 and 22-7, and his ERAs, 3.10, 3.01 and 3.30. He won a Cy Young Award and came second in voting twice. He led the league in wins twice, shutouts twice, and complete games and innings once. Then the injuries came.
On merit, he should be very high up on this list, but he has basically missed the last two seasons, and that makes him more of a risk than a pitcher of his calibre should be.
24. Ben Sheets
Athletics, 4-9, 4.53
Again, a good pitcher hampered greatly by injuries. After back-to-back All-Star selections, Sheets missed the 2009 season, and managed just 20 starts in 2010.
The potential is certainly there, but many teams were put off by his injuries when he was a free agent after the 2008 season.
Even fewer clubs will be interested after missing most of the last two years.
23. Vicente Padilla
Dodgers, 6-5, 4.07
Padilla missed most of May, June and September with a neck injury, but when he was on the mound, he was a solid contributor for LA.
Even at 33, and even with his reputation as a distraction off the field, he will be a viable option for a few teams, but in particular the Dodgers. His injuries will reduce the cost of bringing him back, and if there’s one thing the Dodgers are concerned with right now, it’s saving money.
22. Rich Harden
*has mutual option for 2011
Rangers, 5-5, 5.58
Harden’s value is greatly curtailed by his ability to stay healthy. He was pulled from a game in the seventh inning in 2010, despite the fact he was working on a no-hitter at the time. The main reason manager Ron Washington went to the bullpen was because Harden is so fragile; the Rangers couldn’t risk his injuring himself, even though he'd only just gone over 100 pitches.
When he’s been able to take the mound, he’s shown promise, but in the last five years, he’s reached 100 innings just twice: in 2008, when he was 10-2 with a 2.07 ERA in 25 starts; and 2009 when he went 9-9, 4.09.
Despite his bad 2010 season, his upside is probably good enough to stir some interest, and with Texas leaving him off the playoff roster, that option likely won’t be picked up.
21. Dave Bush
Brewers, 8-13, 4.54
Dave Bush is actually quite an attractive options this offseason. He has been comparatively healthy, making at least 29 starts four of the five years he spent in Milwaukee.
The fact that his 4.66 career ERA ranks quite highly in this free agent class says more about it than him. He could be a very good, relatively cheap pickup, and if healthy on a decent team, could comfortably rack up 8 to 10 wins and pitch 180 innings.
20. Scott Downs
Blue Jays, 5-5, 2.64
Downs had a good 2010, which saw him record his third-best ERA and best WHIP, which was a brilliant 0.995. At the trading deadline, with numerous teams looking for bullpen help, it was Downs’ name that kept coming up as the best option.
With new manager John Farrell, there is a renewed optimism about the Jays for 2011, so they might be more interested in resigning him.
He’ll be 35 next season, so a long-term deal is probably not going to happen, but he has been durable enough to manage 60 innings in five of the last seven years, and his performance in 2010 will have improved his value as a free agent.
19. Kevin Millwood
Orioles, 4-16, 5.10
An ERA+ of just 83 and leading the league in losses should be almost enough to put anyone off signing Millwood. He never really lived up to the 5 year/$60m contract he signed with the Rangers in 2006, especially considering that he led the AL in ERA the year before. They traded him in December 2009 and he was just awful with the Orioles last season.
He collected only four wins and his WHIP was over 1.5, but despite that, there is still some potential there. In ’09, he was 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA. That was his only good season in Texas, but it might be enough to make a team think about him. There aren’t many good starters in this free agent class, and someone might be willing to take a gamble.
18. Jeff Francis
Rockies, 4-6, 5.00
The minefield that is free agency is all about balancing risk and reward, and trying to find a bargain player that others had disregarded. Jeff Francis could be that bargain pitcher this winter.
Again, the main concern is injuries, but his first half of 2010 was solid; he posted a 3.53 ERA in eight starts. His return from another trip to the DL saw his ERA rise towards the end of the season, but it was a year that showed promise. Enough, perhaps, to pique the interest of some.
17. Kevin Correia
Padres, 10-10, 5.40
In Correia’s two years in San Diego, he has experienced the good and the bad. In 2009, he effectively became their ace with Jake Peavy on the DL. His 12-11 record did no justice to his 3.91 ERA and career-low 1.3 WHIP, however.
In 2010, he struggled, going 10-10 with an ERA a run and a half worse than the year before. That said, his 2009 season was good enough to overshadow 2010 and make him a decent option in the offseason.
16. Grant Balfour
Rays, 2-1, 2.28
There seems to be a general thought that Grant Balfour is terribly injury-prone. Whilst it’s true to an extent, he has only made one trip to the DL in the last three years.
In 2010, the Rays’ relief corps was one of the best in baseball, and while Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano received much of the credit, Balfour played a bigger role than people give him credit for. His ERA and WHIP were the second-lowest of his career, and at 32 he’s amonst the younger pitchers in free agency.
15. Brad Penny
Cardinals, 3-4, 3.23
In 2006, Brad Penny was very good. In 2007, he was great. He finished third in Cy Young voting, (16-4, 3.03), leading the league in winning percentage. However, he hasn’t found that kind of form since.
He struggled in ’08, his last year with the Dodgers, and in the first half of ’09 with the Red Sox. After a midseason trade to the Giants, he looked back to his old self, with a 4-1 record and a 2.59 ERA in six starts. He was limited in 2010 with St. Louis, but still put up a very good 3.23 earned run average which deserved better than a 3-4 record.
Penny will be 33 next year and injuries could be a concern, but he has shown he can still perform at a pretty high level.
14. Jake Westbrook
Indians and Cardinals, 10-11, 4.22
Westbrook had made just five starts in 2008 when he had to undergo Tommy John surgery, ending his season. He didn’t pitch in 2009, and made his return to the mound on Opening Day in 2010.
In midseason, he was part of the three-team trade which saw Ryan Ludwick go from the Cardinals to the Padres. At that point, he was 6-7 with a 4.65 ERA. The rest of the way with St. Louis, he was much better.
His ERA+ jumped from 83 in Cleveland to 113, and he started to look like the pitcher who won at least 14 games in three straight seasons before his injuries hit.
Once again, one has to look past the injuries to see his true value, but it is there. He won’t be getting another 3-year/$31m deal, but he’ll get something somewhere.
13. Chris Young
Padres, 2-0, 0.90
Once again, a pitcher with solid potential, but who has been injured the past few seasons and has struggled to match the numbers he managed early in his career.
Young pitched only 20 innings, but they were good, allowing just two runs. The year before, his ERA was a career-worst 5.21, and he managed just 76 IP. He was an All-Star in 2007, but injuries have held him back since then.
As well as the injury worries, one must also remember that he is pitching in San Diego, with one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the Majors. A flyball pitcher, he might struggle in a smaller ballpark.
12. Bronson Arroyo
*has team option for 2011
Reds, 17-10, 3.88
Arroyo was one of the biggest reasons Cincinnati won the NL Central in 2010. He has pitched well in his five seasons with the Reds, recording 200 IP every year and at least 14 wins every year bar one. He led the National League in shutouts in 2009, and in 2010 was the best pitcher on the Reds’ staff.
It’s very likely that Cincinnati will pick up his option, or negotiate a longer deal. Either way, it would be surprising if he were pitching somewhere else in 2011. One never knows, though, and if Arroyo does make it to free agency, he’s lined up nicely to land a good contract.
11. Jon Rauch
Twins, 3-1, 3.12, 21 saves
When Joe Nathan was injured, Rauch became the Twins’ closer. After a move from the D-Backs to Minnesota in 2009, Rauch was great, with a 5-1 record and sub-2 ERA in 15.2 IP. As the closer in 2010, Rauch continued to pitch well, converting 21 of 25 save opportunities.
After the Twins got Matt Capps, Rauch was moved out of the closer role, but still pitched well, finishing the season with a 3.12 ERA – his best since 2004. He has proven he can pitch effectively in the AL, and will be an attractive option to many postseason-calibre teams, not least in the AL East.
10. Jorge de la Rosa
Rockies, 8-7, 4.22
After winning 16 games in 2009 and recording a career-low ERA and WHIP in 2010, de la Rosa might price himself out of Colorado. If he does, he will be one of the most lucrative free agents on the market.
The biggest thing he has going for him is his age. At 29, he’s one of the youngest pitchers on this list. The other big plus, he’s kept himself healthy. A two-month stint on the DL this year led to his fewest starts since he became a regular starter with Kansas City in 2006.
The Rox will try to resign him, but if he proves to be too expensive, he’ll be pitching elsewhere in 2011.
9. Andy Pettite
Yankees, 11-3, 3.28
Will he retire? A great 2010 saw Pettite make his first All-Star team in a decade and despite spending time on the DL in August and September, he was one of the best starters on the Yankees staff. He also continued his brilliance in the postseason, pitching to a 1-1 record and 2.57 ERA.
When he went down after the All-Star break, the holes in the Yankees’ rotation were all the easier to see. With AJ Burnett struggling, and Phil Hughes still developing, Pettite was New York’s second-best starter for much of the year.
Pettite will be 39 next year, but as he proved in 2010, he still has what it takes to be a very good starting pitcher.
8. Javier Vasquez
Yankees, 10-10, 5.32
After a stellar 2009 campaign which saw Vasquez finish fourth in the Cy Young race, he returned to New York, where he had struggled in 2004.
While he was bad in the Bronx in ’04 (14-10, 4.91) he was awful in 2010. Yes, he was in double digits in wins for the eleventh consecutive season, but with a 5.32 ERA, he would have been lucky to win three games for a team like Seattle.
How much of his poor year can be put down to the fact that he doesn’t pitch well in pinstripes is debatable, but he has rarely been injured in his career, and has been consistently solid for over a decade.
Signing a 35-year-old player who had a 5-plus ERA the year before is risky, but Vasquez represents one of the better free agent options this offseason.
7. Rafael Soriano
Rays, 3-2, 1.73, 45 saves
Soriano’s 45 saves led the American League in 2010, and his ERA was third amongst players with 60 IP. In a season where he was elected to the All-Star Game for the first time, he and Joaquin Benoit formed a formidable pairing at the backend of an already good bullpen.
2010 was probably the best season of his career, but he has pitched well for a few years now. He has 60 innings in four of the last five years, has had an ERA under 2 twice and a WHIP under 1 four times.
He signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay for 2010; this winter, he should expect to find multiple years somewhere, although his most likely home for 2011 is the Trop.
6. Joaquin Benoit
Rays, 1-2, 1.34
What an incredible turnaround Benoit made in 2010. After missing all of 2009 after having surgery to fix a torn rotator cuff, he was signed to a minor league contract by the Rays and he was incredible.
In 60 1/3 innings pitched, he had a 1.34 earned run average, a 295 ERA+, a K/9 over 11 and a WHIP that stood at a simply ludicrous 0.68. Amongst relievers with 50 innings pitched, his ERA and WHIP were the best in the AL.
As the setup man for Soriano, Benoit shone, and was one of the biggest reasons Tampa Bay had one of the best bullpens in the Majors. The Rays would do well to sign him. One thing that’s certain: wherever Benoit signs, it won’t be to a minor league deal.
5. Jon Garland
*has mutual option for 2011
Padres, 14-12, 3.47
Garland has bounced around the leagues a bit since his eight-year stint in Chicago came to an end in 2008. He’s pitched for four teams in three years, and has been good for each (except, perhaps, the Angels in ’08, with whom he posted a 4.90 ERA.)
With the Padres in 2010, he had his best season in five years. He set career-bests in ERA (3.47) and strikeouts (136), and his WHIP was the lowest since 2005. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2002, he has started at least 32 games, and pitched 190 innings, every year.
His 2011 option is for just under $7 million. That’s a pretty good deal, and he pitched very well for a Padres team that came achingly close to making the playoffs last year, so it’s possible they won’t let him leave, even if he wanted to test the free agent waters again.
4. Hiroki Kuroda
Dodgers, 11-13, 3.39
Kuroda has been pitching in the US for three years, and has enjoyed a fair bit of success. For the most part, he’s been relatively healthy (especially compared to the other free agent pitchers on this list) and has been worth the $35 million the Dodgers paid him to leave Hiroshima.
Having only logged three years of service time, he’s still in the middle of his arbitration-eligible period, but really, the cash-strapped Dodgers aren’t likely to offer it to a 36-year-old pitcher with concerns about his future health.
They will probably try and resign him, but there will probably be a few teams interested, and the rumours about a return to Japan won’t go away.
3. Kerry Wood
Indians and Yankees, 3-4, 3.13
Don’t let the 3.13 ERA fool you. Wood’s numbers were distorted by a poor start to the season in Cleveland, where he had a 6.30 ERA and 1-4 record. After his deadline trade to the Yankees, he was lights out.
26 IP, 0.69 ERA, 625 ERA+, 1.231 WHIP. Wood excelled in pinstripes. The last time he was a free agent, he elected to become a closer on a poor team. This time round, it’s far more likely he will choose to be a setup guy for a playoff contender.
He could get a big payout in the offseason in an AL East bidding war, but it won’t be just the Yankees and Red Sox who have their eyes on him. With relievers Wheeler, Shouse, Soriano, Balfour, Benoit, Qualls and Choate all free agents, the Rays might have some interest, too.
2. Carl Pavano
Twins, 17-11, 3.72
Could it really be the case that Carl Pavano is the second-best free agent starter available? As unlikely as it would have seemed this time last year, it might well be the case.
In four years with New York, Pavano started just 26 games; he didn’t pitch at all in 2006.In 2009, he split time between the Indians and Twins. He won 14 games, but his ERA was over five. Then, in 2010, he started the first game at Minnesota’s new Target Field and went on to compile a 17-11 record, with the third-lowest ERA of his career (3.75) and a WHIP (1.2) only bettered by his lone All-Star season in 2004. He led the American League in complete games (7) and shutouts (2), and pitched over 220 innings.
Pavano’s main problem has been staying healthy. He’s managed it the last two seasons, and he will more than likely land a good contract as a result.
1. Cliff Lee
Mariners and Rangers, 12-9, 3.18
After a trade to Texas in July, Cliff Lee was 4-6 with a 3.98 earned run average. While that was good, it was far from what the Rangers expected to get from the 2008 Cy Young winner. Then the calendar flipped to October.
There’s no way of avoiding it: Cliff Lee is money in the postseason. He helped the Phillies to the World Series in 2009, and then almost single-handedly kept them in it to see Game 6. This offseason, he was 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA in three starts in the ALDS and ALCS, pitching 24 innings. He struck out 34 and walked only one.
Before he became human in the World Series against the Giants, he was 7-0 in his career in the playoffs, with a 1.26 ERA. He took the loss in each of his two starts in the Fall Classic, but one bad series won’t diminish his value in free agency one bit.
Obviously, his main suitor will be the Yankees, who almost landed him at the trading deadline, before he was dealt to Texas. Others will make a run at him, of course, but really New York’s main competitor in the Lee sweepstakes will be Texas. It is hard to see the Yankees being outbid, but the Rangers are under new ownership and fresh off their first American League pennant. They wouldn’t have made it that far without Cliff Lee, and they will go all out to get him.