MLB Free Agency: Top 10 Starting Pitchers and Where They'll Go

Ben ShapiroAnalyst IIINovember 22, 2011

MLB Free Agency: Top 10 Starting Pitchers and Where They'll Go

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    Last year it was Cliff Lee, and C.C. Sabathia was another top prize a few years back. Those two pitchers are indisputably "aces." This season there aren't any pitchers of that caliber on the market. 

    That doesn't mean that big bucks aren't going to be handed out to some pitchers, though. The market for starting pitching is always competitive. This season will be no different. 

    There are a number of options on the market. Who are the top free agent starting pitchers, and where might they end up? 

C.J. Wilson

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    He may or may not be the best starting pitcher on the market this year, but one thing is certain: C.J. Wilson represents the best combination of pitching ability and age available for teams seeking pitching this year. 

    Don't let Wilson's age (31) scare you. He's only been a starting pitcher for two full major league seasons. 

    Take a look at the American League Cy Young Award winner this season. Justin Verlander is only 28 but he entered the majors in the same season as Wilson did—2005. Since then Verlander has amassed 199 starts and 1,315.1 innings pitched. Compare that to Wilson, who in the same period of time has 73 starts and 708 innings pitched. 

    That's not to say that Verlander will tire or weaken anytime soon. It does show that Wilson's age might not be as much of a factor as it would normally be for a 31-year-old starter. 

    Then when you throw in the fact that in the two seasons in which Wilson has been a starting pitchers, he's fared pretty well. 2011 was better than 2010, and remember that Wilson pitches in one of baseball's more hitter-friendly ball parks in Arlington, Texas. 

    With all that going for him, Wilson will command a premium on the open market. As of now the teams that seem to be most overt in their interest are the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees, Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins. 

    The Marlins and Nationals seem to be in touch with everyone this offseason, but just because they talk to a player doesn't mean he'll sign with them. The Angels, in spite of genuine interest, already have a fair amount of starting pitching with Ervin Santana, Dan Haren and Jared Weaver. 

    That leaves the Yankees and Rangers. The Rangers recent acquisition of Joe Nathan means they will move closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation. Texas seems to already be prepping for Wilson's departure. The Yankees have money to spend, though, and now that they've locked up C.C. Sabathia, they don't need a No. 1 starter,

    Wilson as a No. 2 makes a lot of sense, and when the Yankees make up their mind to get someone, they usually do. Look for Wilson in pinstripes next season. 

Yu Darvish

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    Fairly or unfairly the next great Japanese pitcher will be automatically associated with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has not and will not ever come close to earning the over $100 million price tag that he cost the Red Sox. 

    Just because Darvish is another top young pitcher from Japan doesn't mean that he will mimic the lackluster performance of Dice-K. Darvish may command a bit less than Dice-K, but he might produce quite a bit more. 

    First of all, Darvish has absolutely amazing numbers. Japanese stats have never translated too well over to Major League Baseball, but in seven professional seasons in Japan his career numbers are 93-38 with an earned run average of 1.99 and a WHIP of 0.98. Darvish also has 1,259 strikeouts in 1,268.1 innings pitched. 

    Realize, though, that Darvish is only 24 but has thrown a ton of innings. He's physically very thin, standing 6'5'' and weighing 220 pounds. He is rumored to have as many as six pitches, but that type of ability in Japan has not always carried over to the United States very well. 

    In spite of a number of familiar red flags such as his workload, the number of different pitches he throws and the massive cultural divide between the two nations, Darvish is unquestionably the second best free agent if he does become available. 

    So where does he go? Darvish's destination will likely be determined by Wilson's. If Wilson ends up in New York, it's unlikely they would be willing to spend the needed money on Darvish. 

    Of course, Wilson in New York means that the Rangers have a pitching void to fill. The Washington Nationals have expressed interest. The Red Sox will likely make overtures as well. 

    In the end, Darvish may opt for the Los Angeles Angels who have money to spend and would also be a preferred destination for a Japanese player with its relatively close proximity to Japan when compared to the rest of the Nation. 

    The one "X" factor could be a Bobby Valentine hire in Boston. Valentine has plenty of experience in Japan and is probably as well equipped as anyone in all of baseball to help guide Japanese players through all the various cultural divides that exist between Japan and the United States. 

Roy Oswalt

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    While both Wilson and Darvish represent better long-term pitching investments, the free agent that might be the best pitcher in 2012 is named Roy Oswalt

    Oswalt is a little older and a lot more experienced than the other two pitchers already mentioned. There is no long-term deal staring Oswalt in the face this winter. His deal will likely be no longer than three years.

    That makes him quite appealing to many teams.

    Oswalt could easily be pursued by the Red Sox, Rangers, Marlins, Yankees, or maybe the Angels. Oswalt has never pitched in the American League, but that doesn't mean that both the Red Sox and Rangers won't be aggressive.

    In the end, look for Oswalt to return to Texas, where he spent nine-and-a-half years as a member of the Houston Astros. Whether or not he succeeds there is an entirely different question.  

Mark Buehrle

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    Mark Buehrle isn't a pitcher who strikes out a lot of batters, he doesn't throw 95 miles per hour either, but he is a consistent veteran pitcher who seems to always be productive. 

    Buehrle is four-time All-Star and winner of the last three consecutive American League gold gloves for pitchers. At 32 years old, he won't be getting a long-term contract, but make no mistake, he'll get a lucrative three- or maybe four-year deal. 

    The Florida Marlins have already made contact with Buehrle's agent, but with the Boston Red Sox having two openings in their rotation and Buehrle's reputation of durability (he's had 11 straight seasons of 30 of more starts), he'd be an excellent choice to fill a spot on a staff known for being injury prone. 

Hiroki Kuroda

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    In general, Japanese pitchers seem to arrive on the scene in this country and rather than getting better over the course of time, they seem to get worse as major league hitters are able to find the holes in their games. 

    Not Hiroki Kuroda, though. Kuroda, who arrived already in his 30's, has gotten better in each of his four seasons in the Untied States. Last season was his best, when he went 13-16 but with an earned run average of 3.07 and a WHIP of 1.213. 

    Kuroda is a pitcher who seems comfortable in Los Angeles, and it's not out of the question that he remains there. The Red Sox and Yankees were both rumored to be after him at last summer's trade deadline, but he remained a Dodger. 

    Kuroda's game seems more tailored to the National League, and the pitcher friendly confines of Dodger stadium would be sorely missed in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. If his asking price is reasonable, then he could remain a Dodger. But if he is looking for the biggest deal, he could be a target for the Oakland A's, Colorado Rockies or Los Angeles Angels. 

    Look for Kuroda to remain in Los Angels, either as a Dodger or as an Angel. 

Edwin Jackson

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    Edwin Jackson had an interesting season in 2011. He started the year in Chicago on a White Sox team with high hopes. The White Sox had an awful season, but Jackson was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals in July and then played a key role in the run to the postseason that culminated in securing the wildcard on the final night of the regular season. 

    Jackson's postseason was somewhat of a disappointment, but he's only 28 years old. He's spent the better part of the past nine seasons bouncing around the league. From the Dodgers, to Tampa, to Detroit, then Arizona, the White Sox and finally St. Louis. 

    At only 28, Jackson may or may not be a late bloomer. The team that eventually signs him this offseason will bank on Jackson being able to find a way to harness the ability he displayed in 2009. When as a member of the Detroit Tigers, he was able to keep his earned run average at a respectable 3.62. 

    Jackson can easily exceed 95 miles per hour with his fastball, but his location and his mental makeup are deservedly questioned at this point. 

    He's probably best served playing in a smaller market and in a pitcher-friendly ballpark. Staying in St. Louis wouldn't be a terrible idea, but with the Cardinals likely to spend over $200 million on Albert Pujols, Jackson won't be priority. 

    The Cincinnati Reds are said to be making acquiring a starter a priority this offseason, and Jackson might fit in well there. 

Aaron Harang

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    Aaron Harang will be an intriguing free agent—if he actually becomes a free agent. 

    The 10-year veteran, who is 33 years old, has had an up-and-down career. In 2006, he led the National League in wins with 16. In 2008, he led the National League in losses with 17. Last season was a solid season for Harang, going 14-7 with a 3.63 earned run average playing in San Diego. 

    San Diego is a very pitcher-friendly ball park, but Harang still had a decent season. If he hits the market, he'll get attention. 

    It's safe to say that San Diego won't be pursuing Harang if they don't pick up his option, so who would? 

    The Dodgers, Cubs, Reds, Rockies, A's and Orioles could all come calling. 

    I'd think the Dodgers would be a natural choice for Harang, who is familiar with the division and could pitch in the shadow of the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw—and on a more competitive team. 

Paul Maholm

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    Paul Maholm? Yes, Paul Maholm.

    Paul Maholm is one of the top 10 available free agent pitchers this season. How does a 6-14 pitcher make a top 10 list? 

    Well, Maholm actually is yet another example of how deceiving win-loss records can be. John Lackey was 12-12 with an earned run average of 6.41. Maholm was 6-14 but had an earned run average of only 3.62. That's not bad and at the age of 29. Maholm could be due for several more seasons of solid but unspectacular production. 

    Maholm might also appeal to mid-size or smaller market teams. Having spent his entire seven-year career in Pittsburgh, there will be doubts about his ability to deal with the intense pressures of larger, more competitive markets. 

    A team like Milwaukee might take a flier, as would Washington, Colorado, Cincinnati and even a team like Kansas City. 

    In the end, look for Maholm to end up in Colorado as a low cost back-of-the rotation starter. 

Freddy Garcia

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    It was a very good 2011 for Freddy Garcia. Garcia, a one time Cy Young contender, had fallen on tough times battling age and injuries. 

    In 2011, he ended up on the New York Yankees and had a pretty good season as well. 12-8 with a 3.62 earned run average was a far cry from his 18-6 year as a member of the Seattle Mariners in 2001, but it was much better than recent seasons had been. 

    Garcia is most likely to end up right where he finished in 2011—New York. The Yankees are likely to have room to retain him on the roster, and his low cost and his familiarity with the intensity of the New York baseball scene make him about as attractive a low cost option as the Yankees are going to find. 

Bruce Chen

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    Bruce Chen is a free agent, and some team will sign him this offseason. It won't be for the type of big money that those in the first few slides of this slideshow will make. It won't be peanuts, though. 

    Bruce Chen has had a long and not-so-glorious career. Last season was not that bad, though. Chen, who just happens to be a lefty, also had a respectable 12-8 record and 3.77 earned run average. Not eye-popping numbers but also not bad, and when you throw left handed, those numbers become even more appealing.

    In spite of those numbers, his career numbers—which include an earned run average of 4.52 and a WHIP of 1.388—ensure that he won't be getting a big contract. And his age (34) means it won't be a long-term deal, either.

    So where does a pitcher like Bruce Chen go?

    Perhaps the Chicago Cubs? Theo Epstein actually entertained a late-season trade for Chen as the Red Sox staff collapsed down the stretch. On a Cubs team that is building for the future, but also needs some pieces to fill in the pitching staff with Chen, could be a decent one-year flier.

    Other than the Cubs, a team like Oakland—who is always looking for players to sign on the cheap in the hopes of flipping them in midseason deals (think Ben Sheets)—is a possible destination.

    Epstein is under far too much pressure to make big moves in Boston. Oakland seems likely, as that type of deal has become common under Billy Beane.