Is MLB Offseason Pitching Market Actually Too Crowded with Top Talent?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 9, 2014

Does Max Scherzer have too much company on the winter market?
Does Max Scherzer have too much company on the winter market?Leon Halip/Getty Images

You know that old saying about how you can never have too much pitching?

It would seem that the 2014-2015 Major League Baseball offseason is intent on putting that to the test.

You'll recall one of the main storylines at the start of the winter was the wealth of high-end pitchers on the free-agent market. Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields were available. So were Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano and Brandon McCarthy.

With a collection of arms like that, there would have been enough top pitching talent available this winter even if the trade market didn't add any to the pile.

But if you've been paying attention, you'll know quite the opposite has happened.

Cole Hamels is coming off the best year of his career and has a contract that could run through 2019.
Cole Hamels is coming off the best year of his career and has a contract that could run through 2019.Brian Garfinkel/Getty Images

Cole Hamels stands out as the top target on the trade market, but there's plenty to say about Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bartolo Colon, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Ian Kennedy, Rick Porcello and Scott Kazmir.

So put together, there's far more than enough high-end pitching options available this winter. You'd think that would equal a lot of action.

But so far? Nope.

None of the aforementioned trade chips has been moved, and the action on the free-agent market has almost totally ignored the arms. Up until the Chicago Cubs agreed to a deal with Jason Hammel, per Chris Cotillo of SB Nation, the only starter to sign in a month's worth of free-agent action was A.J. Burnett.

The image you get in your head is straight out of a Three Stooges sketch: A whole bunch of high-end pitchers are trying to squeeze through one door and naturally having a hard time of it.

Mind you, that isn't quite a perfect representation of what's going on.

As MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince and ESPN.com's Buster Olney (subscription required) have noted, there should be an increase in activity on the pitching market once Jon Lester signs. His contract will set the market for high-end pitching on the open market. Teams will know whether they can afford the going rate or if they have to turn to the trade market, and that should help get things moving.

For example, you can think of how the early run on hitters got going. Michael Cuddyer and Victor Martinez signed quickly, setting the market for hitters and forcing teams to scramble for what was left.

"There's always this domino effect," Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik told Bob Dutton of The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington, after signing Nelson Cruz. "When someone makes a move, it gets the ball rolling."

Some might recognize these last few paragraphs as me recapping a recent piece of mine. But the point is that the slow-developing pitching market isn't so much a case of a bunch of guys trying to fit through a doorway as it is a case of a bunch of guys waiting for the door to open.

But even with that said, there is also something to say about the idea of there simply being too much high-end pitching available. So let's take this discussion a little further.

Though there should be more action after Jon Lester signs, the pitching market might still be relatively quiet.
Though there should be more action after Jon Lester signs, the pitching market might still be relatively quiet.Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Like any market, the offseason market is all about supply and demand. And if you consider the first part of that equation, one thing MLB has a huge supply of these days is pitching.

Offense in baseball has been trending down for several seasons now, and one of the reasons for that is how the quality of the league's pitchers increased. There have been more qualified starters with sub-3.50 ERAs in the last two seasons than there have been in decades. Same goes for pitchers with sub-3.25 ERAs.

This helps explain why teams have been so hot after bats this winter, but it also works as an explanation for the general lack of urgency to add pitching.

In a league where quality pitching is plentiful, there's invariably going to be less demand for it. There surely must be a few general managers out there who are perfectly willing to wait for the market to suppress the prices for free agents before they make their move.

What's happening on the trade market, meanwhile, is even more complicated.

Part of the reason there are so many arms available on the trade market has to do with what we were just talking about. The trade market mainly consists of expendable assets, and pitching has become far more expendable than hitting.

That's an issue knowing that the trade market is also where teams try to deal from strengths to fix weaknesses. For a lot of teams these days, that means trying to deal surplus arms for surplus bats. Unfortunately, one just isn't nearly as easy to find as the other.

Granted, not every team with an arm to deal is looking for offense. Some teams—e.g. the Philadelphia Phillies and Oakland A'sare more in rebuilding mode and looking for controllable talent.

Just a hunch: the Padres probably can't get what they want for Ian Kennedy.
Just a hunch: the Padres probably can't get what they want for Ian Kennedy.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

The trouble is that controllable talent isn't any less valuable than hitting in today's game, as there's a clear emphasis on developing, integrating and, eventually, extending young talent. So no matter which way you look at it, clubs are putting premium prices on their pitching assets on the trade market.

To this end, there's one issue in particular with most of the names we dropped way back when: With the exception of Hamels, every single pitcher we mentioned is due for free agency after 2015. For the most part, the high-end pitching options on the trade market are rentals.

Rentals only have so much value to begin with, of course. That value sinks even further as the number of options available increases, as it means a lack of leverage for GMs with rentals to deal. It sinks even further when there's a handful of strong candidates for multiyear commitments on the open market.

As Olney put it in an interview with WEEI in Boston:

In the past, we were conditioned to [think], "Wow, you're trading Jeff Samardzija, you should get a ton in return." But with so many guys available, I think there's been some frustration for those teams looking to market the guys who have one year of control before they become free agents next fall, and there are just so many of them.

On the flip side are the teams looking to trade high-end pitchers with several years of team control left. That's the boat the Phillies are in with Hamels, and they should theoretically have a major advantage over the teams with mere rental options.

And yet, that advantage is watered down.

As much as the Phillies would like to acquire the world for as many as five years of Hamels, why would teams shed both controllable talent and lots of money (Hamels is owed at least $96 million through 2018) to acquire him when they can simply sign a high-end starter for only money?

All told, here we are with a perspective of the disadvantages at play on the pitching market:

  1. High-end options on the open market are at a disadvantage because there's a relatively minor demand for high-end pitching.
  2. Teams with controllable starters to deal are at a disadvantage because of the wealth of high-end options on the open market.
  3. The availability of controllable options on the trade and free-agent markets hurts the leverage of teams with rentals to deal, and the lack of expendable bats hurts them even further.

The big picture of this winter's slow-moving pitching market is complicated, and part of it does have to do with how teams are waiting for somebody (namely Lester) to set the market.

But between the ways in which the free-agent and trade markets are complicating things for one another and how, in general, the supply is greater than the demand, yeah, there is something to the notion that this winter's pitching market is simply too crowded.

This is something that's sure to frustrate a lot of people, be they players, agents or executives. But no matter how things play out, it's worth keeping in mind that this winter's pitching excess could be a mere warm-up for next winter.

Remember, guys like Cueto, Latos, Colon, Zimmermann, Fister, Iwakuma, Kennedy, Porcello and Kazmir could all be free agents a year from now. If you're convinced the pitching market is too crowded now, just wait. It could be we haven't seen anything yet.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.

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