It's the middle of December and as a blizzard hits the Midwest United States, the baseball hot stove is just heating up.
In the past couple of weeks, the Red Sox have signed Carl Crawford and traded for Adrian Gonzalez. The race to sign Cliff Lee has sped up and several lesser free agents have fallen into place.
But what if your team still needs pitching help? Don't worry. Even if you don't get Lee, there are still several starting pitchers and relievers worth bringing on board for 2011.
Yeah, that Mark Prior.
While Mark Prior hasn't pitched in the major leagues in nearly half a decade, he's still one of the biggest names in the sport. If Prior could get himself on the field, it would be very interesting to see how he'd perform.
Back in 2003, Prior was the best pitcher in baseball. Still in his early 20s, he was a phenom like few others, the Dwight Gooden of this decade. He was what Stephen Strasburg was for a few months last season.
Now Prior is a punchline. His injuries have kept him out of baseball, and even a healthy Prior might not be worthy of a major league contract. Still, his talent and what he was half a decade ago land him a spot on this list.
It seems like Freddy Garcia has been around forever, but the right-hander just turned 34 this past October.
While Garcia is no longer the pitcher he once was, he's still the kind of guy you bring into spring training and give a shot at a rotation spot.
After a solid 2009 season in which he posted a 3.35 FIP, Garcia struggled in 2010, with a 4.64 ERA and 4.77 FIP in 28 starts. Still, he can give you innings. If he can get his ERA into the low-4s, he's a valuable No. 5 starter.
Need a soft-tossing lefty specialist to fill out your bullpen? Feliciano could be your man.
The 34-year-old middle reliever has spent his entire nine-year career with the New York Mets. As a lefty with a mid-to-high 80s fastball, Feliciano has never received much attention, but he has put together a very solid career since his breakout 2006 season.
Last year, Feliciano appeared in 92 games for the Mets, with a 3.30 ERA in over 60 innings of work. His strikeout rate fell and his walk rate spiked, but his 56-percent groundball rate and 0.14 HR/9 made him one of the Mets best relievers.
Feliciano is best used in the lefty-specialist role as leftys OPS just .580 against him compared to a .795 mark for right handers. Though this does limit his value, several top teams have expressed interest in Feliciano, with the Yankees and Red Sox meeting with his representatives.
It would be fair to say Justin Duchscherer makes this list only because of his 2008 season, in which the right-hander posted a 2.54 ERA in 140 innings. Outside of that, Duchscherer has been an injured messed, and injury prone pitchers rarely just become healthy.
But it's hard to ignore Duchscherer's talent. The 33 year old was an accomplished middle reliever for the Oakland Athletics, coming out of the bullpen from 2004 to 2007. In 2008, Duchscherer moved to Oakland's rotation and dominated, leading the league in ERA for part of the season and making the All-Star team.
Duchscherer missed the 2009 season and made just five starts last season. In those five starts for the A's, he went 2-1 with a 2.89 ERA. Though Duchscherer clearly benefited from a low BABIP in 2008, this is not out of the norm for him. His career .272 BABIP indicates this may not be a fluke.
Duchscherer may very well end up back in Oakland next season. The Pirates and Red Sox have also expressed interest.
Was Penny's string of success in 2010 a small sample size fluke? Was it the magic of Dave Duncan? Or is the former front-line starter's career ready for a rebound?
Penny was a solid front-of-the-rotation starter during the middle of this past decade. Though never a strikeout pitcher, Penny combined his mid-90s fastball and pinpoint control to produce results for the Marlins and Dodgers.
Penny struggled with the Dodgers in 2008, and the Red Sox in 2009, before a good nine game stretch last season, with a 3.89 K/BB rate and a 3.23 ERA.
While I doubt Penny can translate his 2010 success over a large sample size, his long-term track record and talent makes him a pitcher worth taking a shot on. It's quite possible Penny will end up back in St. Louis in 2011.
Back in the middle of the past decade, Jeff Francis was a young, talented left-handed pitcher who, despite mediocre results, was well thought off in the baseball community. After a 17-9 season in 2007, Francis looked poised to breakout at just 26 years old. But injuries have plagued him ever since.
So why would an injury prone 29-year-old pitcher with a career ERA of 4.77—and underlying statistics to match his poor performance—be worth taking a shot on? His 20 game stint in 2010 gave some hope that Francis is finally figuring things out.
Though a 5.00 ERA is nothing to write home about, Francis displayed never before seen control, walking fewer than two batters per nine innings. He also allowed fewer flyballs than usual and his FIP reached a career low 3.88.
Jeff Francis is not a young pitcher anymore and his lack of success over the past half decade will not make him a terribly attractive option to most teams. But he's also right in the middle of what should be his prime. In his last full season, he took somewhat of a step forward, going 17-9 with a solid ERA in Coors Field and he showed hints of ability last season.
The Rockies, Brewers, and Mets have all expressed interest in Francis.
Once the best young pitcher in the league, Wood has revitalized his career over the past few years as a solid middle reliever and closer.
Wood was among the league's best closers in 2008 and after a tough 2009 season, Wood again posted a solid ERA as a closer and setup man this past year.
Despite this success, Wood still has major control issues, and his injury issues may not be entirely behind him. Wood may be looking for a closer's role and a closer's contract. I would not give him one.
After a stellar season in 2008, the Angels signed Brian Fuentes to a massive deal, making him one of the highest paid closers in baseball in an attempt to replace record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez.
Fuentes struggled in 2009, with an ERA near 4.00, and a strikeout-to-walk rate bellow 2.00. He had somewhat of a rebound year in 2010, with an ERA of just 2.81, but his underlying numbers are not nearly as pretty. A strikeout to walk rate of just 2.35, a groundball rate of just 22.8 percent and an expected FIP of 4.54.
So why is Fuentes so high on this list? He is getting up there in age and his 2010 season wasn't quite the rebound I expected. But Fuentes was so good just two years ago, and showed some solid skills again in 2010. Assuming his flyball rate was just a fluke, Fuentes should be a solid middle reliever or even closer again in 2011 and come at a bargain.
One of the better closers in baseball in 2009, Qualls struggled last season as part of a terrible Arizona bullpen. The 32-year-old reliever posted a career worst 7.32 ERA in 59 innings.
Despite this terrible performance, Qualls is one of the better relievers on the market this year. Last year was the first time in Qualls' seven-year career that he failed to post an ERA bellow 3.80.
The problem Qualls faced last season was poor control. Usually a control artist with walk rates at or around two per nine, Qualls walked well over three batters per nine innings last season. His strikeouts also decreased.
I believe that was more a fluke than a sign that the end is near for Qualls. While his 2010 season lost him a lot of money, I expect a return to usual for the 6'5" reliever in 2011.
Yep, another reliever.
A long-time setup man who spent a few years in Washington and then in Arizona, Rauch got a shot to close last season for the Twins and didn't disappoint.
Rauch saved 21 games for the Twins last season, posting an ERA of 3.12 in 59 games. Rauch's 3.29 K/BB rate was a huge step up from 2009.
Rauch has never been an elite middle reliever and 2010 sort of came out of nowhere, so it would be unfair to rank him any higher. Still, after a very solid season as the Twins closers, he'd be worth a shot as a setup man and emergency closer.
One of the league's oldest players, the 41-year-old Rhodes made his first All-Star team in 2010 and will again be in search of a contract for the 2011 season.
In 70 games last season, Rhodes posted a 2.29 ERA and 3.24 FIP. He struck out 50 batters and walked just 18. No longer the fire-baller he once was, Rhodes relies more on outstanding command to dispense of batters.
Rhodes will eventually slow down, but that doesn't mean the decline will start next season. The Reds would like to bring Rhodes back, and the Red Sox have also expressed interest.
Another injury prone but talented starting pitcher, Harden followed up a very solid 2009 season with a terrible year in 2010, dropping his stock significantly around the league.
Harden is no doubt one of the most talented pitchers in the league, with incredible stuff and, at times, quite solid control. But when things go bad, it can get ugly. Last season, Harden walked more than six batters per nine innings.
Injuries are also still a major issue. Harden threw just 92 innings last season and has never thrown 200 innings in any season.
The positives do outweigh the negatives, though, making Harden worthy of short-term, incentive-laden contract. Harden was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2008, with an ERA of just 2.07 and a strikeout rate over 11 per nine.
In another year, Kevin Gregg might be looking at a pretty big deal this offseason. The 32-year-old saved 37 games with a 3.51 ERA for the Blue Jays in 2010 and has 20 or more saves in each of the past four seasons.
But with several similar relievers on the market, Gregg is probably looking at a smaller deal and potentially a setup role going into next season. While Gregg is a useful piece for any bullpen, don't expect a repeat performance.
Gregg was aided by a 6.1 percent home run-to-flyball rate last season, a figure he is unlikely to repeat. He was also coming off a career worst 4.72 ERA in 2009, and while he's clearly a better pitcher than he was with the Cubs, it's not something I'd ignore.
With that said, Gregg has been consistently solid and has experience in the closer role, something many teams covet. The Orioles have offered him a contract believed to be worth 10 million over two years and several other teams have expressed interest in bringing him on board.
Given the number of closers and middle relievers on this list, it might seem strange to see Grant Balfour in the top 10. But Balfour followed up a disappointing 2009 season with a huge year in 2010.
Balfour, a journeymen reliever for much of the past decade, broke out in 2008 with a 1.54 ERA in 59 games for the Rays. He struggled in 2009, with an ERA well over 4.00, but was again one of the best relievers in baseball last season with a 2.28 ERA and 2.68 FIP.
Balfour combines great swing and miss stuff with (no surprise here) average control that can get him into trouble. But he kept the free passes under control last season, and it showed in his results.
Balfour is seeking a three-year deal, and the Boston Red Sox have expressed interest in bringing him on board.
As it was last offseason, Andy Pettitte has yet to decide whether he will come back next year, delaying retirement again. Should he play in 2011, he will almost certainly be a member of the New York Yankees. But after a rebound season in 2010, Pettitte could be looking at a sizeable salary going into next year.
Pettitte went 11-3 last season with a 3.28 ERA. The problem was injuries. Pettitte pitched in just 129 innings last season, missing most of the second half of the season. He's also 39 years old.
Pettitte is clearly still a solid mid-rotation starter and someone that any team, especially the Yankees, would like to bring on board. But his age makes him a one-year option and, with his 2011 in doubt, he can't rank any higher than seventh.
Injuries derailed Carl Pavano's career in New York, but over the past two seasons, the righty has revitalized his career. In 2010, with the Minnesota Twins, Pavano went 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA.
Pavano is not a strikeout pitcher and he took his finesse style to an extreme last season, striking out fewer than five batters per nine innings, but also walking just 1.5 batters per nine innings for a very solid 3.16 ERA.
After four tough years with the Yankees, Pavano threw 199 innings in 2009 and 221 last season. He's been healthy, dependable, and very effective. While injury questions still linger, and he's far from an elite option, he ones of the better pitchers on the market this year.
The Twins may have some interest in bringing back Pavano and the Rangers have also expressed interest in his services.
Some will disagree with my inclusion of Brandon Webb this high on my last. After all, the 31 year old has made just one start since 2008.
But Webb was so good when he was healthy, I think it would be foolish to place him outside the top five. The last time Webb was healthy, he won 22 games and finished second in Cy Young voting. The year before, he posted a 3.01 ERA and finished second in Cy Young voting. The year before, he won the National League Cy Young.
Brandon Webb had serious injury problems and issues with Arizona management. He's a couple year removed from the major leagues and you never no what he'll have left when he comes back. But he was also a top five pitcher in baseball the last time he was pitching. If he can get that back, some team is going to be very happy.
Jenks was non-tendered by the White Sox in November and it might seem like his time as an elite reliever has passed. But I would argue that Jenks was better last season than he was the year before, and he is still among the league's best closers.
Jenks' 4.44 ERA last year was the highest of his career. He also saved just 27 games, the lowest figure of his closing career. Yet his 10.42 K rate was the highest it's been since 2006. So was his groundball rate (58.3 percent) and his strikeout-to-walk rate was the highest it's been since 2007 at 3.39.
The bottom line is that Jenks' skill set is still there. He just has to translate these skills into results on the field and before last season this has never been a problem. He's just 29 years old and while his weight is an issue, it shouldn't keep teams in need of a closer from committing money to him. He's still one of the best.
Has Rafael Soriano broken out, or will injuries continue to keep the former Rays closer from elite status?
Soriano was one of the best middle relievers in baseball both in Seattle and in Atlanta. His ability to strike batters out made him a valuable commodity, but his injury issues kept him from realizing his potential and becoming one of the league's best closers.
This past year, Soriano did just that. He led the league with 45 saves and posted a 1.73 ERA in 64 games for Tampa Bay. On the down side, Soriano's strikeout rate dropped from 12.13 to just 8.23.
This drop is concerning, but Soriano was still one of the best in the business. He's got the talent to be an elite closer and after two healthy seasons, you have to think he's worth a decent chunk of change on the open market.
Nothing more really needs to be said about Cliff Lee. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball and clearly the best free agent remaining on the market.
Whether Lee will sign with the Yankees or Rangers (or the infamous "mystery team"), we should find out in the next few days. Whoever he signs with, Lee will likely get a seven-year deal worth upwards of 150 million dollars.