B/R MLB Offseason 100: Ranking Top 25 Starting Pitchers Available This Winter
With the arrival of the 2014-2015 Major League Baseball offseason, dozens upon dozens of players are now available either on the free-agent market or the trade market.
That means there's some ranking to be done. And for that, we're going to kick off the B/R MLB Offseason 100 series with a look at the top 25 starting pitchers on the market this winter.
Our list mostly contains players who are due for free agency, but there are some trade candidates in the mix as well. To find them, we tracked down either rumors or highly plausible speculation.
As for how we went about doing the ranking, we borrowed from the B/R MLB 500 and came up with the following scoring system:
- Talent Outlook: Out of 70. The idea here is to look at how guys have performed recently, how they've gone about doing it and the outlook of their skills going forward. Think of a score of 35 out of 70 as a league-average pitcher, with 70 out of 70 essentially being Clayton Kershaw.
- Durability Outlook: Out of 20. The idea here is to project how durable guys are going to be based on their past workloads and injury histories. Think of 20 out of 20 as no concern whatsoever, whereas 10 out of 20 says a healthy future is a toss-up. Also, we'll keep things fair by only allowing pitchers who will require short-term commitments a maximum of 15 points.
- Value Outlook: Out of 10. The idea here is to ponder what kind of contracts or trade packages guys are going to demand and determine whether they could justify it. Think of five out of 10 as a fair deal, with zero out of 10 being a megabust and 10 out of 10 being a megasteal.
It all adds up, conveniently, to a total of 100 points. And in the event of ties, the nod will be given to the player we'd rather sign or trade for.
Along the way, you'll find plenty of links to relevant data at Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball. Also, a shout-out is owed to Baseball Prospectus for keeping such detailed injury histories.
That's all you need to know, so feel free to start the show whenever you're ready.
25. Edwin Jackson, RHP, Trade
Rumor Source: Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com
It doesn't get much worse than the 6.33 ERA Edwin Jackson posted in 2014, and it's hard to call it a fluke. He posted 4.0 walks per nine innings, struggled with home runs and watched his average velocity continue to slowly descend.
Jackson's lack of command and dwindling velocity are real concerns, as these are things you sort of need if you're going to be a fastball-slider pitcher. But since his slider is still an outstanding swing-and-miss pitch, he offers at least one reason for teams to target him as a reclamation project.
Jackson may only be 31, but he's been around for a long time. He broke into the big leagues on his 20th birthday in 2003 and has pitched over 1,600 innings between the regular season and postseason.
And now you wonder if it's beginning to take its toll, as Jackson's 2014 season was marred by a shoulder injury that sidelined him for a month. That it required his first disabled list stint since 2004 is the good news, but it's something to be wary of with two more years remaining on his contract.
Jackson is coming off a brutal season, and he has two years and $22 million still remaining on his contract. This means the Chicago Cubs won't have much leverage in trade talks, with the most likely scenario being them eating a chunk of his contract and taking on some low-level prospects.
In other words, Jackson can probably be had for next to nothing. That would be a fine way to take on a guy who, despite the red flags, has his merits as a reclamation project.
24. Brett Anderson, LHP, Free Agent
Brett Anderson was pretty good when he was healthy in 2014, shrugging off the thin air of Coors Field to post a 2.91 ERA. That's what you can do when you're as good at getting ground balls as he is, and he's good at it because he has a number of pitches that can do the job.
The downside is that Anderson's average velocity dipped below 90 miles per hour for the first time, and his well-below-par 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings left a lot to chance. There should be more hope for these things based on the fact that Anderson is only 26, but...yeah, about that...
Anderson's one and only 30-start season came in his rookie year in 2009. Since then, he's been slowed by Tommy John surgery, a stress fracture in his foot and, most recently, finger and back surgery.
At this point, it's become virtually impossible to count on Anderson staying healthy for a full season. There's really nothing else to say and no other way to put it.
The Colorado Rockies surprised nobody when they rejected Anderson's $12 million option for 2015. And as a free agent, he's likely only in line for a one-year "prove it" deal that, if he's lucky, will pay him half of what his option would have paid him.
A deal like that would be justified on the basis that Anderson's ground-ball style would produce serious results if he stayed healthy. But given the sheer unlikelihood of that, it would still be a gamble.
23. Gavin Floyd, RHP, Free Agent
Gavin Floyd hasn't done a whole lot of pitching in the last two seasons, but he did pitch to a 2.65 ERA when he was healthy in 2014. He was particularly effective at missing bats, which was in large part thanks to his curveball and slider/cutter. Both were exceptional swing-and-miss pitches.
Small sample size and all, but there may be something to that. Health problems aside, the whiff-per-swing rates on Floyd's two breakers have been trending up ever since 2011. And though he's had a lot of injuries and is about to turn 32, it's a good look that he hasn't quit sitting 91-92 with his heat.
This is where things get ugly. Floyd has made only 14 starts over the last two seasons, and he has his elbow to thank for that. Tommy John surgery sidelined him for most of 2013, and then his elbow just flat-out broke throwing a pitch in 2014.
Floyd is worth taking a chance on based on the high-ceiling returns of his breaking stuff. But whoever signs him will know full well that his health just may not cooperate.
After what he's gone through the last two seasons, it wouldn't be a shocker if Floyd had to settle for a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. If not, you have to imagine the best he can do is something like a $5 million salary for one year.
That's essentially a throw-away salary by today's standards, and Floyd could definitely surpass expectations if he were to stay healthy. It's just too bad that's a pretty big "if."
22. Jake Peavy, RHP, Free Agent
Jake Peavy went from a 4.72 ERA with the Boston Red Sox to a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts with the San Francisco Giants. He made some changes to earn that success, most notably simplifying things to a fastball/cutter approach and simply throwing more strikes.
The Peavy you watched struggle through the postseason, however, wasn't exactly a misleading representation. His stuff isn't nearly as electric as it used to be, and his ability to locate it comes and goes. He's much more of a back-end starter with less upside than that 2.17 ERA suggests.
More so than the turnaround with San Francisco, the big victory for Peavy in 2014 was staying healthy. He was able to make 32 starts and log over 200 innings for just the second time since 2007.
The odds of Peavy doing that again, however, can't be considered good. It's been several years since his last major arm injury, but he's still a 33-year-old with a laundry list of past health problems and close to 2,200 big league innings on his arm. That's not a guy who's a good bet to stay healthy.
Some teams will surely be wary of Peavy's 2.17 ERA in San Francisco and his durability outlook, but he should still be able to find a Tim Hudson-like deal for two years and around $20-22 million.
The only way Peavy can earn money like that is by staying in the National League and staying healthy. Even if he does, it's hard to imagine him surpassing expectations.
21. Dillon Gee, RHP, Trade
After posting a respectable 3.62 ERA in 2013, Dillon Gee came back down to earth to post a 4.00 ERA in 2014. That's a pretty accurate reflection of his talent level. He has a diverse mix of pitches that he uses to keep hitters guessing, but he's neither overpowering nor a particularly talented command artist.
The bright side, such as it is, is that there aren't any indications Gee's stuff is going to get any worse. He averages under 90 with his heat, but his velocity has been stable the last two years and he's still only 28 years old. As such, he should at least remain a starter at the back end of a rotation.
On either side of his 32-start season in 2013 are a 17-start season in 2012 and a 22-start season in 2014. Shoulder problems did the trick both seasons, and it's worth noting that Gee also experienced some elbow issues in his otherwise durable 2013 season.
This means Gee comes with much more injury risk than you'd expect from a 28-year-old with only 639.2 big league innings on his arm. And since he's under contract through 2016, whoever trades for him would have to deal with this risk for two seasons.
The offensively challenged New York Mets will presumably only deal Gee for a bat. That he has two years of club control will give them some leverage in talks, but their options will still be limited based on Gee's talent level. Rather than a star or hot young player, think something along the lines of a platoon bat.
Gee could justify a trade like that if he stays healthy, but that's not entirely likely. And even if he did stay healthy, it's certainly hard to imagine him surpassing expectations.
20. Brandon Morrow, RHP, Free Agent
After teasing a breakout with a 2.96 ERA in 2012, Brandon Morrow has fallen off to produce a 5.65 ERA over just 23 big league appearances since then. Injuries have done the bulk of the damage, but Morrow also reverted to his bad old habits with a 4.9 BB/9 rate in 2014.
Harnessing Morrow's command will be a challenge for whoever picks him up, but his stuff is worth an upside play. He's continued to show good velocity when he's been healthy the last two seasons, and he has two legit swing-and-miss pitches in his slider and splitter. That's one more than most pitchers have.
Here's the real issue with Morrow: He's been hurt an awful lot over the last two seasons. In particular, he's battled a bad oblique, a bad forearm and a bad finger. Those last two injuries were bad enough to force him to the 60-day disabled list.
Then there's the reality that Morrow's career high for innings is just 179.1. If he's picked up as a starter, his new team needs to be careful not to set its expectations for his workload too high.
Because the Toronto Blue Jays declined Morrow's $10 million option for 2015, he's now a free agent who likely won't get money like that on the open market. Something more like a one-year deal for $5 million and incentives is in play.
That would be your basic low-risk, high-reward contract. Control and durability concerns be damned, Morrow's fantastic pure stuff would make a deal like that a savvy upside play.
19. A.J. Burnett, RHP, Free Agent
After two quietly excellent seasons in Pittsburgh, A.J. Burnett went to Philadelphia and recorded a 4.59 ERA. It was largely a case of him reverting to his bad self, as he posted a 4.0 BB/9 and had issues with home runs. Also, it didn't help that his velocity dipped.
And that is something to worry about. Despite throwing his sinker more than ever, its reduced velocity had a hand in it not getting ground balls as consistently. That makes his only saving grace his curveball, which is fortunately still superb enough to keep him a viable option for a back end of a rotation.
Burnett has pitched at least 180 innings in seven straight seasons dating back to 2008. And though he's had some injuries along the way, his shoulder and arm haven't bothered him as much as they used to.
Still, this is a soon-to-be 38-year-old pitcher with over 2,600 big league innings on his arm, and one who may not be doing his arm any favors by throwing so many curveballs. Even in a one-year contract, Burnett would come with some injury risk.
Burnett and the Philadelphia Phillies have already nixed his $15 million mutual option for 2015. If he opts not to activate his $12.75 million player option, it will either be to retire or so he can try to get similar money from a team with a chance to contend in 2015.
More likely, Burnett would have to sign for a discounted rate. Something like $10 million, perhaps. And even that would be an iffy deal for his new club, as Burnett is more about downside than upside now.
18. Ryan Vogelsong, RHP, Free Agent
After an injury-marred 2013 that included a 5.73 ERA, Ryan Vogelsong rebounded to pitch to a 4.00 ERA in 2014. He was helped by more whiffs across the board that boosted his strikeout rate. Not so coincidentally, his velocity also got a boost. And as per usual, he lived mainly on the edges of the zone.
Trouble is, Vogelsong may not have a suitable home away from AT&T Park. He's been significantly better pitching there in his time with the San Francisco Giants, and that's no surprise knowing that batted balls off him are mostly in the air. Take that big outfield away from him, and he's not much to behold.
At 37 years old, Vogelsong is definitely up there in age. But between his time in the majors and Japan, you might be surprised to hear he only has about 1,200 professional innings on his arm.
And if you take away the fluky broken finger he sustained on a hit-by-pitch last season, really the only thing of note on his medical track record is a Tommy John operation he had all the way back in 2002. This is encouraging stuff for any veteran pitcher, especially one who's only in line for a short-term deal.
Whether it's with the Giants or somebody else, Vogelsong will probably only find one-year contract offers this winter. A good bet for a salary away from San Francisco would be around $5 million, but the Giants could be willing to bring him back for $7 million or so.
Either way, we're talking a very low-risk deal for a relatively low-risk starter. Provided the outfield is big enough wherever he ends up, he stands to be a solid value buy this winter.
17. Chris Young, RHP, Free Agent
After going AWOL from the majors in 2013, Chris Young reemerged to post a 3.65 ERA with the Seattle Mariners in 2014. He stuck to his custom of living dangerously with a small strikeout-to-walk ratio and lots of fly balls, but pitching up in the zone with his rising four-seamer ensured many of those were weak fly balls.
Young's prospects going forward should look bleak. But they don't. The rise on his four-seamer makes up for its well below subpar velocity, and FanGraphs' Eno Sarris can vouch that Young's aim-high style is a unique asset in aim-low times. Provided he has a big enough ballpark, he can continue to be effective.
In starting 29 games in 2014, Young took on by far his biggest workload since starting 30 games all the way back in 2007. That's what bad shoulder injuries can do to you, and Young's had some of those.
The last really bad one was back in 2011, so that's the good news. How his shoulder will respond to his biggest workload in seven years, however, could end up being the bad news. And even if it's not, well, it's just plain hard to trust a 35-year-old who's never been a good bet for six innings per start anyway.
With his track record, you can rest assured nobody's going to rush to give Young a multiyear deal. The league could also be skeptical of him away from Safeco Field, so he should end up being a cheap option on a one-year deal. Something like $5-7 million, perhaps.
If he can't stay healthy, that would be no big loss. If he can, odds are it would be a steal. As fluky as it may look, Young's 2014 revival is a reminder that he has talent.
16. Edinson Volquez, RHP, Free Agent
The Pittsburgh Pirates were going for a classic reclamation project when they brought Edinson Volquez aboard, and it worked. He made 31 starts for them in 2014 and pitched to a career-best 3.04 ERA. More than anything, the key to his success was simply throwing more strikes than ever before.
But be careful about reading too much into Volquez's ERA. He was still prone to walks and wild pitches, and a slight velocity spike didn't make him any better at missing bats. That's an uncomfortable thought knowing that said velocity spike may go away soon—he'll turn 32 during the 2015 season.
In large part due to a Tommy John operation in 2010, Volquez wasn't seen much between 2009 and 2011. But he's since started at least 30 games and topped 170 innings three years in a row. And apart from some blister issues, his health has been fine.
That's a reason for some optimism, and it can also be argued that Volquez's arm is relatively well preserved. He may be 31 years old, but he only has about 1,050 big league innings on his arm. At his age, that's not so bad.
Volquez's market certainly won't be weighed down by ties to draft-pick compensation. But with front offices around the league refusing to budge for ERA like they used to, the best Volquez can do is probably a two-year deal at around $8-10 million, perhaps with an option for a third.
That's a good deal if he repeats his 3.04 ERA. But it's probably more likely that he'll be little more than a No. 5 starter and at best will be able to live up to such a contract rather than surpass expectations.
15. Aaron Harang, RHP, Free Agent
After posting an ugly 5.40 ERA in 2013, Aaron Harang joined the Atlanta Braves and posted a 3.57 ERA in 204.1 innings in 2014. This was mainly a function of him going full smoke and mirrors, as his pitch selection reached a whole new level of diversity.
That's not a bad way for a veteran pitcher to get back on track, and the process effectively proved that Harang still has it in him to be effective without good velocity or elite command. A repeat performance is likely too good to be true, but Harang should at least be a good back-end guy going forward.
That Harang still had enough juice in his body to pitch over 200 innings in 2014 says a lot about how healthy he's kept himself over the years. Amazingly, the 36-year-old has been on the disabled list only twice with arm injuries—the last time being in 2008.
Harang probably can't be effective enough to hurl 200 innings again. But compared to most pitchers his age, him staying healthy and eating innings in the next year or two is a pretty good bet.
Even after his 2014 revival, it's hard to imagine Harang getting a multiyear deal. With his age and track record, he's more likely to get a one-year deal for a modest sum. Say, somewhere around $7-10 million.
That wouldn't be a steal. But for a guy who can provide some solid innings at the back end of a rotation, it would pass.
14. Jason Hammel, RHP, Free Agent
Jason Hammel went from a 2.98 ERA with the Chicago Cubs to a 4.26 ERA with the Oakland A's. That looks bad, but he was actually pretty good in Oakland after his first four starts. It also looks good that he maintained his 92-93 heat while his slider enjoyed a renaissance from a whiff-per-swing standpoint.
Still, it could be a problem that Hammel is strictly a fastball-slider pitcher, as his velocity will likely dip in 2015 and beyond. In particular, lefties could take his already iffy career platoon split and make it worse. It's best not to look at him as anything more than a solid back-end guy.
Staying healthy was one of the bright spots of Hammel's 2014 season, and doing so allowed him to top 170 innings for the first time since 2011.
That's about his limit, though, as his next 180-inning season will be his first. There's also the likely reality that one healthy season at age 31 doesn't mean more are on the way, especially knowing that he's a slider-heavy pitcher who very recently had a non-minor elbow issue.
Concerns aside, Hammel should draw interest from clubs that see him as a solid and affordable veteran option to keep around for a few years. That could put him in line for something like a Scott Feldman contract of three years and around $30 million.
Though that would more or less be market value for Hammel, a deal like that would still be a reach. Hammel's coming off a solid season, but he's still a guy who comes with durability concerns and without much upside.
13. Bartolo Colon, RHP, Trade
Colon followed up two strong seasons in Oakland with a less strong 2014 in New York, posting a 4.09 ERA in 202.1 innings. He did pitch better than his ERA, however. He continued to pound the zone on his way to an impressive 5.0 K/BB ratio and also had a reasonable home run rate for a fly-ball pitcher.
Then again, that's also the iffy part. Colon's splits show how much he needed Citi Field's big outfield to keep things under control. That's a luxury he won't necessarily have with a new team, and taking him for a ride will likely only get easier if his velocity dips again.
Colon's been able to make at least 30 starts in each of the last two seasons, racking up close to 400 innings in the process. That's pretty good stuff for a guy his age.
At the same time, it's hardly a guarantee that Colon's body won't break down at a moment's notice. He is, after all, a bad-body 41-year-old with over 2,800 innings on his arm and quite an extensive injury track record. None of that bodes well.
If the New York Mets do dangle Colon, they'll presumably be dangling him for a bat. If so, their options will be limited. With Colon's contract only containing one more year at $11 million, the Mets will likely only be able to get back a veteran hitter without much controllability left.
That wouldn't be too big a price to pay to get Colon. And provided he has a big enough ballpark to work with, him living up to his ceiling as a mid-rotation starter would make it a fair swap.
12. Mat Latos, RHP, Trade
Rumor Source: Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com
Though he was limited to just 16 starts in 2014, Mat Latos followed up a 3.16 ERA in 2013 with a 3.25 ERA. He was able to do so despite a big drop in his velocity and diminished use of his slider, which says a lot about the kind of pitcher he is.
Either that, or Latos got really lucky. That appears to be the case, based on how much his strikeout rate and ground-ball rate dipped. And though he pitched successfully anyway, it's a scary sign going forward that he lost velocity and, evidently, confidence in his slider.
And now for a look at why Latos' season started late and then featured lower velocity and fewer sliders. He had surgery on his right elbow over the 2013-2014 offseason, then suffered a knee injury and then experienced more elbow problems toward the end of the year.
Latos may only be 26 years old, but this is concerning stuff. If he's damaged goods, betting on him to stay healthy and eat innings in 2015 is just as iffy as betting on his good stuff coming back to him.
The Ken Rosenthal link up there will tell you Latos is the most likely starter to be traded by the Cincinnati Reds, and he's probably right. With Latos coming off a down year and due for a raise in arbitration, he's a good guy for the Reds to dangle.
Given what went on in 2014 and his lack of controllability, however, Latos could likely be had for a reasonable trade package. Maybe something like a young player who's part upside play and part reclamation project. If so, that's a deal that even a diminished Latos might be able to justify.
11. Justin Masterson, RHP, Free Agent
Justin Masterson never looked like himself in 2014, ultimately finishing with a 5.88 ERA that was brought on in large part by a 4.8 BB/9 rate and more dingers than usual. A bad right knee could explain everything, as an inability to push off properly would decrease one's velocity and hinder one's control.
The bright sides, however, are twofold. One is that Masterson isn't 30 just yet. And through all his struggles, his sinker remained an effective ground-ball pitch, and his slider remained an effective whiff pitch. Even with his command issues, he's very much worth a flier as a reclamation project.
It obviously doesn't look good that Masterson was limited to only 25 starts and 128.2 innings in 2014, and it's really been a while since he was fully healthy. Before his knee gave way in 2014, he ended 2013 battling an oblique injury.
But once again, there are positives. Masterson has youth on his side, and his arm and shoulder are just fine. And if you want to be really optimistic, his lesser workload in 2014 should help his arm and shoulder stay that way.
There's little doubt that Masterson is going to be picked up on a one-year "prove it" deal this winter, likely for a reasonable rate that could make him a trade candidate at the deadline. Something like $9-10 million should be in the cards.
A deal like that would indeed carry some risk based on what happened with Masterson in 2014. But since he looks like a strong bounce-back candidate, he could more than live up to it.
10. Kenta Maeda, RHP, International Free Agent
Kenta Maeda has authored some eye-popping numbers in Japan, including a 2.56 ERA in 2014. According to a 2013 scouting report from Ben Badler of Baseball America, what gets it done for the 26-year-old right-hander is an impressive command, an 87-93 heater and an above-average slider.
One scout's thinking is that Maeda could be a No. 4 starter in the majors, and that sounds about right. You can go far with plus command but not much further without any plus pitches. That's the downside of Maeda, as he doesn't have anything to match Yu Darvish's slider or Masahiro Tanaka's splitter.
I didn't have any luck trying to draw up Maeda's medical history, but there are things about him that will appeal to prospective buyers.
One is that Maeda is only 26 and with fewer innings on his arm than Tanaka had at the same age. He's also said to be a good athlete who repeats his delivery well. So over the life of a long-term contract, there's more than a decent chance that he stays healthy.
Whether the Hiroshima Carp will make Maeda available is a good question at this point. But if they do, a report from Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe suggests he could get over $100 million. And that would be on top of the $20 million posting fee.
If so, that's an awful lot of money for a guy who profiles as a No. 4 starter. Even if Maeda only goes more in the $80-100 million range, he may not have the goods to justify the expense.
9. Mark Buehrle, LHP, Trade
After a 4.15 ERA in 2013, 2014 was a tale of two seasons for Mark Buehrle. He had a 2.64 ERA in the first half and a 4.64 ERA in the second. That's what happens when bad luck catches up with you, and Buehrle's average on balls in play after the break shows that's what happened.
Still, I'd say Buehrle's true talent lies in between those two ERAs. His diminished stuff doesn't miss bats, but he's just about mastered the art of pitching with it. He plays with the edges of the strike zone really well, and he can bamboozle hitters by changing speeds.
You know the deal. The last and only time Buehrle has failed to reach 200 innings in his career was back in the first year of the George W. Bush administration. He should be slowing down at 35, but he's not.
That's normally an excuse to anticipate an injury, but Buehrle's different. Beyond having never gone on the disabled list before, he has an easy delivery, and his low velocity seems to be partially by choice. He doesn't push his arm harder than he has to and thus looks like a virtual lock to stay healthy.
If the Toronto Blue Jays do shop Buehrle this winter, they'll attract some interest from teams that aren't willing to pay market prices for mid-rotation starters. The catch there is that this could require the Blue Jays to eat the bulk of the lefty's $19 million salary to move him in a trade.
To do so, they'd need something good in return—certainly a controllable asset, and more than likely one they could plug right on to their major league roster. As such, a trade for Buehrle probably won't end up being a steal for any team that could pull it off.
8. Brandon McCarthy, RHP, Free Agent
Brandon McCarthy went from a 5.01 ERA with the Arizona Diamondbacks to a 2.89 ERA with the New York Yankees. He helped his cause by relying less on his sinker and displaying a more unpredictable pitch selection, all while maintaining his superb ability to locate his spots. He also benefitted from an unexpected velocity spike.
I'm skeptical about whether that velocity spike can last into next season, when he'll be 31. Even still, you can go far if you mix your pitches, hit your spots and get ground balls like he can. The next few steps into McCarthy's 30s shouldn't kill his effectiveness.
For the first time in his career, McCarthy made over 30 starts and hit the 200-inning plateau in 2014. He always had it in him to do that, but injuries kept getting in the way.
That's certainly a concern going forward. Even if you disregard the horrible scene that unfolded in Oakland in the fall of 2012, this is still a guy with a laundry list of shoulder problems in his past. A short-term deal is likely, but his durability is still something to be skeptical of.
After signing for two years and $15.5 million two winters ago, McCarthy will go sans draft-pick compensation onto a market where the going rate for a solid pitcher is now eight figures a year. And after finding his rhythm with the Yankees, somebody may go as far as three years on him.
It will be a risky venture based on McCarthy's durability outlook, but something like three years and $30-35 million is a gamble worth taking on a guy who's capable of pitching like a No. 2.
7. Francisco Liriano, LHP, Free Agent
Francisco Liriano's 2014 season wasn't as wildly successful as his 2013 season, but he sure ended it on a high note. In his last 15 starts, he had a 2.40 ERA with 98 strikeouts in 90 innings. That's largely a good reflection of how filthy his stuff still is, as he still boasts a 92-93 heater with an elite changeup and slider.
Now that he's 31, Liriano may not be throwing 92-93 for much longer. The bright side of that is he throws his secondaries more than his heat anyway and has shown he can be successful doing so. The downside is his already poor control will only get worse if he uses his secondaries even more.
Fun fact: Liriano has never pitched over 200 innings in a season. He doesn't have a pitch count-friendly approach and he's also no stranger to injuries. He had Tommy John surgery back in 2007 and has also dealt with shoulder issues on occasion.
So no, don't expect teams to be lining up to sign Liriano to a long-term deal. Based on both his talent and durability outlooks, that just wouldn't be a good idea.
After his successful rebirth with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Liriano should be able to do a lot better than the low-risk one-year deal they gave him. If Matt Garza can get four years and $50 million off his age-29 season, Liriano can probably do somewhere around three years and $36 million.
If so, that's a good deal for a guy who pitches like a No. 1 when he's on. But given his injury outlook and his general inconsistency, it wouldn't quite be a slam dunk either.
6. Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Free Agent
After a a 3.32 ERA in 2012 and a 3.31 ERA in 2013, Hiroki Kuroda slipped a bit to a 3.71 ERA in 2014. But his performance was otherwise par for the course, as he once again got by on ground balls and a fair number of whiffs on sliders and splitters below the zone.
And while Kuroda may be headed for his age-40 season, he's still sitting around 91 and commanding the ball well. Even if he does suffer a velocity loss, he used his secondaries more than his heat in 2014. That shows he's already prepared not to lean on his heat if it does go awry.
Kuroda fell one inning shy of 200 in 2014. But in making it to 199, he made it five straight seasons with at least 196 innings. That's pretty good for anyone, let alone a guy his age.
Sure, you can't take much for granted with 40-year-old pitchers. But Kuroda's clean injury history and smooth, low-effort delivery make it a bit easier to bank on him staying healthy for what would surely be his last major league season in 2015.
It's still up in the air whether Kuroda will come back in 2015. And even if he does, he'll presumably only play for the New York Yankees. And after making $16 million in 2014, it could take at least that much for them to bring him back.
Kuroda's a darn good pitcher, but signing him for that kind of money wouldn't exactly be a steal. He'd be more likely to underperform than he would be to overperform.
5. Ervin Santana, RHP, Free Agent
Ervin Santana's ERA rose from 3.24 in 2013 to 3.95 in 2014, but never mind that. That he was less homer-prone while upping his K/9 from 6.9 to 8.2 reflect how he improved. At the heart of it all was how he was still throwing 92-93 while adding a swing-and-miss changeup to his swing-and-miss slider.
This is a good sign. The soon-to-be 32-year-old's velocity may go sooner rather than later, but he's more of a complete pitcher now than he's ever been before. That will help him remain effective as he ages.
It's only because Santana got a late start to 2014 that he fell short of another 200-inning season. As it is, he's pitched at least 196 innings in four out of five seasons. That he's been able to keep the elbow issues he had in 2009 at bay has certainly helped, and relying less on his slider may keep them away.
Yet it is scary that Santana is almost 32 with over 1,900 big league innings on his arm. That puts him right there with James Shields (more on him in a moment) in terms of workload, which isn't necessarily a good thing as far as his future is concerned. Just how many bullets does he have left?
The qualifying offer had a hand in Santana settling for a one-year, $14.1 million offer from the Atlanta Braves last spring. So while he looks like an obvious candidate for a three- or four-year deal at around $15 million per year, he may find himself having to settle once again if he gets another qualifying offer.
But maybe he wouldn't be willing to do another one-year deal at this stage. If not, it's possible he could be had on a discounted two- or three-year deal. Even with the durability concerns, he's a good target for a value buy.
4. James Shields, RHP, Free Agent
James Shields was his typical self in his two years in Kansas City, posting a 3.18 ERA across 455.2 innings. Doing the trick was characteristically good control, and he's also made the most of an early-30s velocity surge by turning into a fastball/cutter pitcher.
The worry there is that a guy who's about to turn 33 probably can't hang on to such a velocity surge for very long. That doesn't bode well. For while he has his trademark changeup to fall back on, it's gotten worse at missing bats. Once Shields' velocity goes, his effectiveness might too.
That Shields has topped 215 innings in seven of eight seasons and has logged over 1,900 innings as a big leaguer says everything you need to know about his durability through the years. And indeed, his next trip to the disabled list will be his first.
Which means, yeah, it's hard to escape the notion that he's due. His right arm has thrown an awful lot of pitches, and the ones in the last three seasons have been at high velocity while he's been on the wrong side of 30. So despite his remarkable track record, it's hard not to worry.
In early October, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com noted that the thinking around the league was that something like $80 million over five years may await Shields on the open market. Something like four years and an option could be more like it, but something in the $80 million range does sound about right.
That will make Shields considerably cheaper than fellow aces Jon Lester and Max Scherzer. That would be awesome if he didn't carry the likelihood of slipping into a decline phase much sooner than them.
3. Cole Hamels, LHP, Trade
Rumor Source: Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com
Cole Hamels got a bit of a late start to 2014 but went on to pitch to a 2.46 ERA over 204.2 innings. His command was characteristically very good while his changeup was again excellent, and he also benefited from a velocity spike that made his heat harder to hit.
Whether Hamels can sustain that spike is doubtful now that he's on the wrong side of 30, but that might be moot. His increasing trust in his sinker means he can now give hitters different looks with his heat, and it gives him two ground-ball pitches to go along with his changeup. This is a guy ready to fight age.
Hamels' track record makes him out to be a lock for over 200 innings, as he's had only one season since 2008 in which he failed to reach the plateau. And overall, that he has close to 1,900 big league innings before his age-31 season is pretty impressive.
But it's also concerning to a degree. That's a lot of work, and he hasn't quite been injury-free throughout the process. A bad shoulder delayed the start of his 2014 season, making it easier to notice the time he hit the disabled list with a bad shoulder in 2011. His aging process isn't guaranteed to be kind.
Trading for Hamels won't be simple. The Philadelphia Phillies surely won't give him up without getting several pieces of controllable young talent in return, and they presumably aren't willing to eat much of the nearly $100 million he's owed over the next four years.
As such, it's going to cost a team to trade for Hamels. He'd justify the deal if he were to continue pitching like an ace, but it's hard to imagine him pitching well enough to qualify as a steal.
2. Max Scherzer, RHP, Free Agent
Max Scherzer didn't disappoint after his Cy Young-winning season in 2013, pitching to a 3.15 ERA and 10.3 K/9 across 220.1 innings in 2014. He succeeds because he has a 92-93 fastball headlining a four-pitch mix that also includes a lethal slider and changeup. He's also only getting better at throwing strikes.
Going forward, Scherzer's ever-decreasing use of his fastball helps alleviate some of the concern of an inevitable velocity decline. But at the same time, less velocity will still make him easier to hit, and continuing to increase the use of his secondaries could impact his command eventually. He may only be an ace at the beginning of what's going to be a long contract.
On the surface, everything looks good. Scherzer has yet to suffer a major injury as a big leaguer and has only been on the disabled list once. And while he's 30 years old, that he only has about 1,300 major league innings on his arm is hardly unreasonable.
And yet you do wonder about how Scherzer will age after pitching at high velocity for so many years. That and his funky delivery make it easy to be skeptical about the various minor shoulder issues he's had here and there. How long before a major shoulder injury finally surfaces?
Scherzer reportedly rejected a six-year extension offer worth $144 million from the Detroit Tigers, so he'll presumably have it in mind to get at least that much on the open market. And that's doable. Despite ties to draft-pick compensation that will come from him rejecting Detroit's qualifying offer, a good guess is that the bidding will start at $150 million.
That's a lot of money, but it will be for a legit ace in the short term and a guy who could age reasonably well if his body doesn't betray him in the long term.
1. Jon Lester, LHP, Free Agent
In 51 starts since the 2013 All-Star break, Jon Lester has pitched to a 2.43 ERA and 4.00 K/BB ratio in nearly 350 innings. Getting the job done for him in 2014 was mainly good location. He was a master at pounding the outside edge against lefties, and at playing with both edges of the zone against righties.
That allows for optimism for his future, as Lester effectively proved that hitting your spots is a fine trade-off for lost velocity. The best comp for his future outlook might be Cliff Lee. That's a good thing.
The early portion of Lester's career was derailed by serious health problems, but he's been healthy ever since. In making over 30 starts every year since 2008, he's only had to hit the disabled list once. That he has a smooth delivery has only helped.
Rather than his medical track record, the more pressing concern is Lester's age and workload. He'll soon be 31, and he has well over 1,600 big league innings on his arm if you count the postseason. There's a decent chance he could be a guy who's unbreakable right up until he's not.
The last time Lester had a big contract offer come his way was when the Boston Red Sox reportedly offered him a four-year extension worth between $70-80 million. As a free agent who won't have ties to draft-pick compensation, it's conceivable he could make around twice that in a five- or six-year deal.
Even still, he'll likely come cheaper than Max Scherzer will. That whoever signs him will be getting just as good a product without giving up a draft pick is a bonus.