B/R MLB Offseason 100: The Top 25 Starting Pitchers Available for 2017
Bleacher Report's rundown of the top 100 players available in the 2016-17 MLB offseason now moves to the mound.
Up first are the top 25 starting pitchers who are either free agents or trade candidates pulled from rumors and/or plausible speculation. With very little starting talent available in free agency this winter, be warned that this list is especially heavy with trade candidates.
The players are ranked according to how they fared in the following scoring system:
- Talent Outlook: Out of 70. The idea is to look at how each pitcher has performed and how his performance will or won't change in the future. 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. This is a look at 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. This is a discussion about the contracts or trade packages guys are going to command and about 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.
In the event of ties, the nod goes to the player we'd rather sign or trade for.
Now then, let's take it away.
25. Colby Lewis, SP, Free Agent
Colby Lewis put a rough stretch in 2014 and 2015 behind him in 2016. Albeit in only 19 starts, he had a 3.71 ERA. Not great, but a huge improvement over the 4.90 ERA he had over the two prior years.
The 19 home runs Lewis gave up in his 116.1 innings are one reason to be skeptical. There's also the reality that the 37-year-old isn't overpowering anyone. His average fastball is down to 87-88 mph. But by upping his slider usage in the last two seasons, he's at least being more proactive about keeping hitters off his fastball. That's a good crutch for him to lean on in a short deal.
Last season was the only one in the last five in which Lewis has made over 30 starts. He missed a lot of time following elbow surgery in 2012 and struggled with a strained lat in 2016.
Also in Lewis' history are two shoulder surgeries from the mid-2000s. With no recent or long-term track record of durability, his age-37 season offers no guarantees of him staying on the mound.
The Rangers signed Lewis for $6 million last winter. Given that his return to form was marred by injury, he may not have more value now than he did then.
Besides which, the Rangers may be the only team in play for Lewis. Assuming he even wants to keep pitching, settling for another affordable one-year deal with them is presumably the route he'll choose.
24. Derek Holland, SP, Free Agent
Derek Holland was outstanding in 2013, posting a 3.42 ERA in 213 innings. Things have been rough since then. He's battled injuries and ineffectiveness, particularly in posting a 4.93 ERA over the last two seasons. His fastball velocity has been all over the place, and he's lost faith in his once-trusty slider.
For teams interested in trading for Holland, the hope will be that he can stay healthy and be energized by a change of scenery. This isn't a hopeless leap of faith. Holland's stuff likely peaked in 2013, but he still throws in the low 90s with a slider that hasn't gotten considerably worse at missing bats. Health permitting, these tools could at least make him a decent back-end starter.
A prolonged recovery from left knee surgery limited Holland to just six appearances in 2014. In the last two seasons, problems with his left shoulder have limited him to 32 appearances.
Put another way: The guy's been a wreck in the last three seasons. And where his left-shoulder woes would be concerning in any context, they're slightly more concerning now that he doesn't have youth going for him. He recently crossed the age-30 threshold.
There had been reports about the Texas Rangers looking to trade Holland rather than pick up his $11 million option. That didn't pan out, so they paid him a $1.5 million buyout and made him a free agent.
This means a team can name their own price for taking Holland on as a reclamation project. The going rate for guys like that has been in the $5-7 million range. Suffice it to say these are better rates with which to gamble on him than $11 million.
23. Brett Anderson, SP, Free Agent
Brett Anderson reminded everyone what he can do when healthy in 2015, posting a 3.69 ERA in 180.1 innings. But then came the injuries again. He made only four appearances in 2016. It didn't help that he wasn't any good in them, allowing 15 runs in 11.1 innings.
It won't be lost on prospective suitors that Anderson has been healthy in only two of his eight major league seasons. And yet, he's still only 28 with talent that's still attractive. He keeps the ball low as well as anyone, which feeds his career 58.2 ground-ball percentage. Health permitting—he said while shrugging—he could provide good value in the back half of a rotation.
You name it, Anderson's had it. Tommy John surgery. Foot problems. Hand problems. And most recently, back surgery.
While it may still be possible to be optimistic about his talent, the time to be optimistic about his durability is long gone.
Anderson pulled a fast one on the Los Angeles Dodgers when he accepted their $15.8 million qualifying offer last year. Suffice it to say he won't get this year's $17.2 million qualifying offer.
And Anderson is not likely to get another $10 million deal like the one that put him in LA in the first place. He's due for a reclamation-project price. Something like $5 million-$7 million. That would be a good deal if he stays healthy, but...yeah.
22. Andrew Cashner, SP, Free Agent
Andrew Cashner looked like a budding ace when he put up a 2.87 ERA across 2013 and 2014. But since then has come a 4.72 ERA over the last two seasons. His velocity has fallen short of the high-90s peak he once enjoyed. His control has also diminished and produced ugly walk rates.
So, yeah. The 30-year-old is a yet another reclamation project. But he is one worth tackling. Even if his stuff isn't what it once was, he still has a good fastball (93-94 mph) and good breaking stuff. There may yet be a way to translate this stuff into production in a starting role. Failing that, he could be let loose in a relief role.
The book on Cashner used to be that he had a lot of talent but no durability. Go figure that he's lost the former and gained the latter, making 31 starts in 2015 and 28 in 2016.
But he's still not out of the woods. Cashner's trip to the disabled list with a bad neck this season was the fifth DL stint of his career. That's a lot for a guy who only recently turned 30. Even if the worst of it is behind him, his durability is still no sure thing.
Although Cashner doesn't have much production to lean on as he makes his case in free agency, you can bet his talent will draw a crowd anyway.
So much so that he could even get a nice raise on the $7.15 million he made in 2016. Justin Masterson and Brett Anderson both landed in the $10 million range on one-year deals under similar circumstances two years ago. If that's where Cashner ends up, there will be a risk factor.
21. Doug Fister, SP, Free Agent
Doug Fister's attempt at a comeback in 2016 started well enough. He had a 3.55 ERA at the All-Star break. But then came a 6.20 ERA after the break. The once-reliable starter now has a 4.48 ERA over the last two seasons. With his age-33 season due up, his best days look squarely behind him.
While still short of his peak, one silver lining from 2016 is how Fister's velocity rebounded somewhat. That and his always-good control give teams something to work with. And if nothing else, the 180.1 innings he logged in 2016 are proof he can still handle a workload at the back end of a rotation.
Of course, the notion that Fister can eat innings is slightly misleading. He either can or he can't. He's topped 180 innings three times since 2011. In the other seasons, he was laid low by various strains.
At 6'8" and 210 pounds, there's a lot of Fister for the injury bug to bite into. And again, he's nearly 33 years old. His durability is at once his best selling point and something that can't be taken for granted.
The Houston Astros picked Fister up on a $7 million contract last winter with the idea being to luck into a renaissance season. That didn't pan out, leaving Fister's stock largely unchanged from a year go.
Still, he offers some name value and a half-decent promise of innings. He might be able to make like Mike Pelfrey and snag a two-year, $16 million deal. Best of luck to any team that takes the plunge.
20. R.A. Dickey, SP, Free Agent
R.A. Dickey's four years in Toronto were a mixed bag. It's a positive that he pitched over 210 innings three times en route to a total of 824.1 innings. But they were mediocre innings. Dickey managed just a 4.05 ERA, never coming close to his 2.73 ERA from his Cy Young-winning season in 2012.
The reason is simple: He never had the same knuckleball. It was a hard knuckler in 2012. Then its velocity fell off in 2013 and never recovered. That made it easier to get a bat on it, and Dickey's rate of 1.2 home runs per nine innings says plenty about what kind of contact it was. Now that he's 42, this leaves any interested parties to hope he could at least provide innings in a short deal.
Dickey hasn't been on the DL since 2005. Knuckleballers do indeed seem averse to the ravages of age. I guess that would go double for a guy who doesn't even have an ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm.
As such, he's as good a bet to stay healthy in a short-term deal as a well-traveled 42-year-old can be.
Dickey made $12 million in each of the last three seasons. He won't be in line for anything close to that on the open market. It'll be up to him to accept that or call it a career.
If Dickey does decide to keep at it, the thin market could push a one-year deal slightly over the $7.25 million Bartolo Colon got last year. That's the best comp for Dickey to point to, and a fair rate for what would likely be a nice bundle of innings.
19. Edinson Volquez, SP, Free Agent
For the second time in four years, Edinson Volquez led his league in earned runs allowed in 2016. He put up a 5.37 ERA. The .794 OPS he allowed marked a 102-point increase from his 2015 figure of .692. These numbers are even more cringeworthy knowing he pitched half his games at Kauffman Stadium.
Still, the 189.1 innings Volquez pitched will stand out to innings-needy teams. And it's possible the bad numbers he put up are a mere blip after quality seasons in 2014 and 2015. Volquez was still throwing 93-94 mph and finished with his best ground-ball percentage since 2011. He could be due for the good kind of regression in 2017.
Volquez's career hit snags when he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009 and was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in 2010. He's bounced back since, making over 30 starts in each of the last five seasons.
At 33 and with over 1,400 innings on his arm, Volquez is hardly fresh. It also can't be ignored that his arm slot is dropping, which could lead to trouble. Nonetheless, he's in solid shape for a veteran hurler.
Seeking to save money, the Kansas City Royals declined to pick up Volquez's $10 million option for 2017 and instead paid him a $3 million buyout. Now he looks to find employment elsewhere.
He could be picked up on a one-year reclamation-project deal, the going rate for which is around $6 million-$8 million. But in this market, it seems more likely he'll make like Mike Pelfrey and find a two-year deal to eat innings at around $8 million per year. Not ridiculous, but not risk-free either.
18. Drew Smyly, SP, Trade
Drew Smyly doesn't throw hard. His average fastball is only 90-91 mph. And yet he's struck out nearly a batter per inning in his major league career. One of his secrets is an elite amount of rising action on his four-seamer. It's not easy to hit even if the hitter is sitting fastball.
But then there's the 4.88 ERA Smyly put up in 2016, not to mention the 43 home runs he's allowed in 242.0 innings over the last two seasons. He gave up 36 of those to right-handed batters, who have him pretty well figured out. A team that solves that would have a gem on its hands. If not, Smyly may be limited to back-end duty or perhaps a demotion to a lefty specialist.
Smyly was able to make 30 starts in 2016, but what happened in 2015 still looms large. He was limited to 12 starts that year by left-shoulder problems.
At 27, Smyly is still young enough to possibly put that behind him. But it would be easier to believe he could if he had a track record of durability before and after. He has neither. Further trouble in his last two years before free agency should not be ruled out.
Smyly is part of a starting pitching excess that Polishuk thinks the Tampa Bay Rays could deal from this winter. They don't seem interested in rebuilding, so any deals they make would have to bring major league or major league-ready talent.
It's a good question as to how much value Smyly has, however. He's not only coming off a rough season, but is also projected by MLB Trade Rumors to go from a $3.75 million salary to a $6.9 million salary. Any team that gives up something of value for him would be making a risky play on his upside.
17. Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Trade
Source: Buster Olney of ESPN.com
In the first year of a five-year, $110 million contract, Jordan Zimmermann was limited by injuries to 18 starts and struggled badly with a 4.87 ERA. It's especially alarming that both his velocity and his ability to strike hitters out continued to trend in the wrong direction.
But this doesn't necessarily mean the 30-year-old is finished as an effective pitcher. He at least maintained his control in walking 2.2 batters per nine innings. His command could come back with improved health, as his neck injury affected his release point and barred him from throwing his customary high fastballs. If he can get those things back, he'll get by as a quality finesse pitcher.
The injuries Zimmermann has dealt with in 2016 make this part an obvious source of concern. It's possible his body is just worn out after being tasked with handling nearly 1,000 innings between 2011 and 2015.
As such, this is a case where just one injury-plagued season could well lead to more trouble in the coming years. It's not a given that Zimmermann will get back to making 30-plus starts per season.
If Olney is right about Zimmermann being available when the Detroit Tigers open for business this winter, my guess is he could only be moved in a bad-contract swap that would give the Tigers some payroll relief and the other team a lottery ticket.
Whether that would work out for Zimmermann's next team depends entirely on his health. That's something I'm just not sure about.
16. Vince Velasquez, SP, Trade
Source: Todd Zolecki of MLB.com
Vince Velasquez burst out of the gate in 2016 with a 2.42 ERA through his first eight starts. He struck out 59 in 48.1 innings mainly through the use of blazing heat. But then his heat began to tail off. And then the injury bug found him. He ultimately finished with a 4.12 ERA in 24 starts.
As such, the 24-year-old still hasn't answered the question of whether he's cut out to be a starter. Optimistic suitors will view 2016 as a jumping-off point to better things. Pessimistic suitors will view him as a guy who may need to be used out of the bullpen. Which is the right diagnosis remains to be seen. But if nothing else, one thing remains true: Velasquez isn't lacking in talent.
Velasquez has been struggling with durability since high school. He's racked up a list of injuries that includes a stress fracture, a couple of ligament strains that led to Tommy John surgery, a groin problem and, most recently, a strained biceps.
The good news is, Velasquez has the youth and a sturdy enough build (6'3" and 205 lbs) to put all this behind him. Even still, there's a debate to be had about whether he should be starting.
Zolecki didn't report that Velasquez is on the block. But he did say the Philadelphia Phillies, who have a ton of young arms, will be open for business while also noting Velasquez was involved in trade talks over the summer.
If the Phillies do trade him, it would probably be for a similar player: a talented, but somehow flawed young talent. In a deal like that, both sides would be looking for a lottery ticket.
15. Jason Hammel, SP, Free Agent
Jason Hammel has reinvented himself since bombing with a 4.97 ERA back in 2013. Nothing too complicated. He just turned his slider from a secondary pitch into his primary pitch, and he's done so without sacrificing too much control. Thus, he's put up a 3.68 ERA since 2014.
Of course, Hammel's heavy slider usage helps distract from his steadily declining velocity. It also hasn't changed the fact that he's a fly-ball pitcher who's prone to home runs. Because of these things, the 34-year-old doesn't belong atop anyone's rotation. But in a market as thin on starting pitching as this one, even a crafty back-end type like him sticks out as a guy worth signing.
Hammel has topped 30 starts in each of the last two seasons, but prior concerns about his durability haven't evaporated entirely. He was rolling right along until his elbow started barking late in 2016.
That plus a previous elbow scare in 2013 will give suitors pause. So will the simple fact that he's a pitcher in his mid-30s with plenty of mileage on his arm.
The Chicago Cubs pulled a fast one on everybody when they declined Hammel's $12 million option for 2017. In so doing, they freed him up to do notably better than that in a multi-year deal.
The best comp for Hammel from recent winters is J.A. Happ, who got $36 million over three years. In such a barren market, Hammel might get a couple extra million in a three-year deal. That would make him a tad overpaid.
14. Ivan Nova, SP, Free Agent
When Ivan Nova left the New York Yankees this summer, he had a 4.90 ERA that had bumped his career ERA up to 4.41. Then Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach/whisperer Ray Searage got his hooks into Nova and squeezed a 3.06 ERA and 17.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio out of him.
Nova's always had a good arm, maintaining fastball velocity in the 92-93 mph range. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs broke down, all Searage did was get Nova to stop nibbling and be more aggressive. That resulted in a lot more strikes without harming the marketable skill Nova already had: his ability to get ground balls with a 50.8 career ground-ball percentage. These things should have suitors intrigued.
The big red flag on Nova's track record is the Tommy John operation he underwent in 2014. Even before that, he had landed on the DL in 2012 and 2013 with arm and shoulder injuries.
These are things to be wary of as Nova heads for his age-30 season in 2017. He's going to attract a crowd of teams that want innings as much as production. His track record doesn't make many promises.
J.A. Happ's name came up a lot in Charlie Wilmoth's breakdown of Nova's free-agent prospects at MLB Trade Rumors. That would mean a contract in the range of three years and $36 million.
In September, however, Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Nova had five years and $70 million in mind. Now Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports is echoing those figures. It's not surprising, given the lack of talent available, but it sure seems like the stars are aligning for Nova to be insanely overpaid.
13. Ian Kennedy, SP, Trade
Ian Kennedy was pretty good in the first year of a five-year, $70 million contract that not everyone was a fan of when he signed it last winter. The 31-year-old logged a 3.68 ERA in 195.2 innings, striking out 8.5 batters per nine innings. He continued a pattern of leaning on a fastball that keeps getting faster.
The downside is that Kennedy is continuing to work around the middle of the zone with that fastball. That contributes to his ongoing problem with home runs. He gave up over 30 for a second straight season. If that's a problem at Kauffman Stadium, it'll be an even bigger problem elsewhere. And that's before even getting into the possibility of him losing velocity as he gets deeper into his 30s.
Kennedy hasn't been on the disabled list since 2008. A few aches and pains aside, it's been smooth sailing as he's made 30 or more starts in each of the last seven seasons.
However, that is indeed a lot of work on an arm that's no longer young. You also wonder if he's expending valuable energy to maintain his late-blooming velocity. His durability may not be built to last.
Kennedy is one of several Royals trade targets Sherman referenced, but probably the most realistic. Trading him would be a good way to clear some badly needed payroll space.
Trouble is, he likely doesn't have much value beyond the $62.5 million he's still owed. And outside of Kansas City, it will be more difficult for him to be worth that much. Even if a team were to give up nothing in return and just take on his remaining contract, the risk would be great.
12. Bartolo Colon, SP, Free Agent
Bartolo Colon just keeps rolling along. The fluffy 43-year-old made it four straight seasons with at least 190 innings in 2016. He also put up a 3.43 ERA. And in walking 1.5 batters per nine innings, he maintained a walk rate that's second to only Cliff Lee (remember him?) since 2012.
That 3.43 ERA should be taken with a dose of skepticism. Everyone knows Colon's approach is to pound the zone with fastballs in the mid-to-high 80s. The different movements keep batters on edge but don't overpower them. Colon is prone to hits and home runs. That makes his ERA prone to fluctuate.
Colon is several years past 40 with a long list of injuries, the body of a sumo wrestler and exactly 3,172.1 innings on his arm.
This information should send teams running for the hills. But Colon has been a solid workhorse in recent years despite it all. There's a limit to how much this can be trusted, but it does bode well for a short-term deal.
Colon was overlooked on last year's market, allowing the New York Mets to bring him back on a cheap $7.25 million deal. He won't be as overlooked this winter, as teams will gladly take a solid innings-eater in lieu of better options.
There's not much precedent for a free-agent pitcher like this, so I'll take a wild guess and say Colon will be picked up on a one-year deal worth $10 million-$12 million. That would be a fair rate for 190 or so solid innings.
11. Gio Gonzalez, SP, Trade
Source: Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors
Gio Gonzalez went into 2016 with a 3.31 ERA over the six prior seasons. He didn't live up to that, posting a 4.57 ERA in 177.1 innings. That's the kind of thing that puts one in search of answers. For him, the one that can't be missed is how much his velocity has fallen from its 2012 peak.
Gonzalez has at least had the good sense to respond to his diminished velocity by varying his pitch mix. He's done so without costing himself any control or pushing his strikeout rate below the league average. So despite his 2016 performance, the 31-year-old is actually aging well and could be a good get for the next two years in a trade.
This is one thing Gonzalez hasn't had a problem with. He's made at least 30 starts in all but one year since 2010. The one exception was when he was sidelined for a month with a bad shoulder in 2014.
Still, this is a case where past durability may be no guarantee of future durability. Gonzalez is headed for his age-31 season with over 1,400 innings on his arm. That mileage could catch up to him.
Todd brought up Gonzalez as a possible trade chip in running down the Washington Nationals' options for the winter. They have plenty of pitching depth, and he's an expendable piece that could draw interest amid a thin free-agent market.
The Nationals won't trade Gonzalez unless they get a piece that could help them win in the immediate future. They'd also be looking to offload $12 million in salary for 2017 with another $12 million possibly on the way in 2018. Nobody's going to steal him from Washington.
10. Ervin Santana, SP, Trade
Source: Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors
In the wake of assorted challenges in 2014 and 2015, Ervin Santana had one of the better under-the-radar seasons of 2016. He put up a 3.38 ERA in 181.1 innings with a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio at 2.8. With his age-34 season due up in 2017, this looks like proof he's not done being effective just yet.
Despite his age, Santana has maintained his velocity while also reinventing himself. He used to be all four-seamers and sliders. He's since made his sinker and changeup bigger parts of his arsenal. This, plus his reliable control, have helped him downplay a home run problem that used to be a lot worse. He should be a solid mid-rotation guy in the last two years of his four-year contract.
Despite a bad back that landed him on the disabled list in April, Santana made 30 starts for the eighth time in his career in 2016.
Still, you wonder about when his durability will finally run out of life. Various concerns about his elbow have popped up here and there over the years. With nearly 2,200 innings on his arm, it may be just a matter of time before that smoke leads to some fire.
Santana is only mentioned in passing as a trade target for the Yankees in Adams' breakdown of their offseason. But it's reasonable to expect him to be a target for other teams as well. Moving him would indeed be a way for the Minnesota Twins to exploit a market that lacks good free-agent starters.
Santana is still owed $28 million, however. He likely won't have excess value beyond that, so any team that surrenders talent for him and agrees to take on all or most of his contract will be taking a risk.
9. Jeff Samardzija, SP, Trade
Jeff Samardzija recovered from a 4.96 ERA in 2015 to post a 3.81 ERA in his first season in San Francisco in 2016. Boosting his strikeout rate was key, and helping him do that was velocity that increased as the season moved along. All the while, he maintained strong control with a rate of 2.4 walks per nine innings.
What won't be lost on suitors is that Samardzija was better at AT&T Park than on the road. They should also worry about whether a velocity spike at age 31 can last, as he has yet to prove he can survive without electric stuff. His chief problems are a struggle to change speeds and no interest in changing eye levels. He may not be more than a quality innings-eater in the last four years of his contract.
Samardzija has yet to have any trouble with the injury bug and has therefore had little trouble crossing 200 innings in each of the last four seasons.
With his age-32 season due up in 2017, Samardzija is at an age where past durability is usually no guarantee of future durability. But because he's a sturdy 6'5" and 225 pounds with solid mechanics and a clean injury history, he's a better bet than most to stay healthy.
Sherman is stretching the limits of believability in wondering if the Giants will make Samardzija available. But he's right about them having needs to fill and trades being the best solutions in a weak free-agent class.
A team would have to give up established talent to get Samardzija. Presumably, trading for him would also require taking on some of the $79.2 million he's still owed. In all, a big price for a guy who's only an innings-eater.
8. Jake Odorizzi, SP, Trade
Jake Odorizzi is in the "Better Than You Think" club. He has a 3.53 era over the last two seasons, in which he's struck out 8.0 and walked only 2.5 batters per nine innings. He changes eye levels as well as anyone, throwing a ton of high fastballs and keeping everything else around the knees.
The trouble with high fastballs, however, is that they make it easy for hitters to get the ball in the air. Odorizzi has yet to post a ground-ball rate over 40 percent. He also has a home run problem. Said problem could get worse at a ballpark smaller than Tropicana Field. Any teams that eye Odorizzi's last three seasons of club control better have a big ballpark to put him in.
Odorizzi landed on the DL with an oblique strain for a few weeks in 2015, but he's otherwise been healthy as a major leaguer. He's also still just 26 with fewer than 600 major league innings on his arm.
Between his track record and the fact his mechanics don't require too much effort, there's little reason to believe Odorizzi won't stay healthy over the next three seasons.
Along with Smyly, Odorizzi is another of the starters Polishuk wonders about the Rays trading this winter. If they do, they'll be shopping a young, talented and cost-controlled starter.
With the Rays "hellbent" on getting back to contention, they probably wouldn't deal Odorizzi unless it meant getting an immediate upgrade. This upgrade would probably have to be for an offense that finished 14th in the American League in runs in 2016. But if it's a straight-up swap of young, cost-controlled talents, both teams could walk away happy in the end.
7. Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Free Agent
Jeremy Hellickson crumbled with a 4.86 ERA between 2013 and 2015. Now he's back after a 3.71 ERA in 2016. This despite the 29-year-old's strikeout rate staying where it's been in recent years, with no evident changes in the quality of his stuff. Hmmm.
But while the quality of Hellickson's stuff didn't change, his usage of it did. He diversified his pitch mix, downplaying his four-seamer for more movement from his sinker and cutter. Combined with good control that delivered a career-low walk rate, batters suddenly had a hard time squaring Hellickson up. His soft-hit and hard-hit rates were his best in years. This is a guy ready for his 30s.
Hellickson's bumpy ride through 2013 and 2015 also included a health scare. He needed surgery to clean loose bodies out of his elbow in 2014, costing him most of the season.
He's otherwise been able to stay on the mound. And while that long absence obviously played a role, it's hard to say Hellickson's been overworked. He's never topped 190 innings in a season and has just 975 total innings on his arm. Many guys his age have had it worse.
Not surprisingly, the Philadelphia Phillies extended the $17.2 million qualifying offer to Hellickson. He'll reject that and take his chances on the open market despite the draft-pick compensation.
Hellickson will probably be gunning to match or exceed the five-year, $80 million contract given to fellow pitch-to-contact specialist Mike Leake last winter. The lack of other options makes that a realistic possibility. As much as I like Hellickson, even I would be skeptical of a deal at that rate.
6. Rich Hill, SP, Free Agent
For starters with at least 130 innings over the last two seasons, the best ERAs belong to Clayton Kershaw (1.96) and Rich Hill (2.00). The 36-year-old has struck out 10.7 and walked only 2.5 batters per nine innings. He's surrendered just a .507 OPS. This is real dominance, folks.
The details are just as impressive. Only Phil Hughes has hit the strike zone more often than Hill since 2015. And in 2016, Hill was the king of spin rate. His fastball and curveball are electric, and not to be overlooked is how well he uses location to disguise the latter as the former. In short, his tools aren't the reason to be skeptical about him.
This is the reason to be skeptical about Hill. His career is riddled with scars, ranging from Tommy John surgery to shoulder surgery to groin and blister troubles that limited him to 20 starts in 2016.
This would look bad on any pitcher. It looks worse on a 36-year-old whose one year as a workhorse happened back in 2007. Nothing should be taken for granted with his durability.
The trade that sent Hill from the Oakland A's to the Los Angeles Dodgers barred him from qualifying offer consideration. He'll head into free agency without ties to draft-pick compensation. He'll also be sharing the market with very little top-tier talent.
All this could allow him to beat the two-year, $32 million contract that John Lackey got off his age-36 season last winter. I doubt anyone would go to four, but it's easy to picture three years for $45-50 million. That would be risky with a lost draft pick. Without one, it would be fair.
5. Zack Greinke, SP, Trade
Today in "Things That Look Bad," we have Zack Greinke going from a 1.66 ERA in 2015 to a 4.37 ERA in the first year of a six-year, $206.5 million contract in 2016. He was also limited by injury to 26 starts. And by the way, he's headed for his age-33 season.
And yet it's not all bad. Greinke's velocity is just fine, and he continued to have sharp control in 2016, walking just 2.3 batters per nine innings. His command slipped as more pitches drifted toward the middle of the zone, but that can be corrected. With the right battery mate, so can his diminished ability to draw strikes outside the zone. Don't write him off as a fallen star just yet.
That Greinke missed any time with an injury in 2016 is the bad news. The good news is that he wasn't felled by an arm injury. It was a bad oblique that did the deed.
In fact, Greinke's arm and shoulder have been largely healthy throughout his career. That's a benefit of his consistent, low-effort mechanics. He may be at an age where good health can't be taken as a given, but he likely won't become damaged goods in the final five years of his deal.
In the wake of a disastrous 2016 and with new management now in town, Sherman isn't the only one speculating that the Arizona Diamondbacks could put Greinke on the trade block.
Of course, moving him means moving most or all of his (very complex) remaining contract. Besides which, Greinke's the type of guy who could use his limited no-trade protection to try to add extra money to his deal. So while he's an attractive reclamation project, he would be a costly one.
4. Justin Verlander, SP, Trade
Source: Buster Olney of ESPN.com
After it all fell apart in 2014, Justin Verlander showed signs of life in 2015 and got back to being a true ace in 2016. He put up a 3.04 ERA and led the American League in strikeouts. Most encouraging at all, he did so with his best average fastball velocity since 2012.
With Verlander headed for his age-34 season, that can't last forever. But he also may not need vintage velocity to be effective. He fell back in love with the high fastball in 2016, allowing him to change eye levels once again. We also know now that he gets an elite amount of spin on his pitches. These are solid safeguards against Father Time's dirty tactics.
Things were dicey in this department in 2014 and 2015. Verlander was slow to recover from core muscle surgery after 2013 and ran into an arm injury in 2015. In 2016, he put these issues behind him and threw 227.2 innings.
Nonetheless, Verlander's age and past workload mean the possibility of further trouble can't be dismissed. And with a contract that runs through at least 2019, there's plenty of time for said trouble to crop up.
As Olney suggests they could, the Tigers would be wise to shop Verlander while his value is high once again. This could be their best chance to offload the $84 million left on his contract.
Knowing them, however, the Tigers won't do a deal unless they can get rid of at least the bulk of that contract while also getting some major league-ready talent in return. Trading for Verlander would thus cost a team a lot of money and some valuable talent. That's a big price to pay for an aging ace.
3. Chris Archer, SP, Trade
Chris Archer was a breakout star in 2015, finishing with a 3.23 ERA and 252 strikeouts in 212 innings. He regressed in 2016. Despite continuing to strike out hitters at a rapid pace, he struggled with the long ball and finished with a 4.02 ERA in 201.1 innings.
There's a good chance this will be just a blip on the radar. Archer's struggles were all in the first half. In the second half, he rode improved velocity and more aggressive slider usage to a 3.25 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 91.1 innings. With only his age-28 season on deck for 2017, he should put 2016 behind him and pitch like an ace in a contract that controls him through 2021.
Archer has been a picture of health since settling into Tampa Bay's rotation in 2013. In all, he's made 122 starts and logged 736.2 innings.
One reason to worry about Archer's health coming into 2016 was the way his arm slot had dropped throughout 2015. That might have turned out to be an early indicator something was wrong. But that didn't carry over into 2016. That narrows the list of reasons to worry about him down to nagging suspicions about his high-velocity and slider-heavy pitching style.
If Polishuk is indeed right about the Rays looking to upgrade their roster by trading a starter this winter, Archer will be their best hope for a blockbuster. He's not only very talented, but controlled for five more seasons at slightly less than $40 million.
My best guess is that an Archer trade would have to be constructed around a legit bat and a young up-and-coming starter. That would be a big price to pay, but Archer's talent and cheap contract could make it worth it.
2. Jose Quintana, SP, Trade
It's a crime that 2016 was Jose Quintana's first All-Star season. He's been one of the best pitchers in the league for a while now. For example, three pitchers have four straight seasons of at least 200 innings and an ERA+ over 110: Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner and this guy.
Quintana can keep this up in a contract that runs through 2020. His game depends less on stuff and more on location and sequencing. There's a big disparity between his fastball and curveball velocity that he accentuates by working both sides of the zone and changing eye levels. He doesn't overwhelm hitters, but he can get outs by missing bats or by missing barrels.
Quintana has made over 30 starts in each of the last four seasons. His body hadn't betrayed him even before then. He owes that to clean mechanics that allow him to put little effort into each pitch.
Of course, pitchers can be durable right up until they're not. But at just 27 years old and with such a clean injury history, Quintana shouldn't have to worry about his breakdown just yet.
If Sherman is right about the White Sox putting Quintana on the block, there will be many interested parties. He's a great pitcher whose is under contract for four more seasons at just $37.85 million.
And yet, he'll probably come a lot cheaper than fellow White Sox ace Chris Sale. A team will have to surrender some blue chip talent for Quintana, but not all its blue chip talent. That would be a sweet deal considering Quintana isn't much worse than Sale, if at all.
1. Chris Sale, SP, Trade
Behold one of the best pitchers in baseball. Chris Sale has a 3.04 ERA over the last five seasons, in which he's allowed just a .635 OPS and collected five strikeouts for every walk. The 27-year-old has some of the best stuff in the game, so it borders on being unfair that he also has plus command.
The thing to be worried about is Sale's velocity drop. That may be permanent now that he's nearing 30. And yet, he showed in the second half of 2016 that he can get strikeouts regardless of that. He did a better job of changing eye levels and also developed more velocity differential between his heat and his changeup. More of this will allow him to keep being an ace in the last three years of his contract.
In part because the Chicago White Sox have kept a close eye on Sale's elbow and shoulder, he's only gone on the disabled list once as a major leaguer. The breakdown everyone has expected hasn't happened yet.
But it still could. Sale's slim 6'6" frame forces him to put a lot of effort into each pitch. And with 1,110 innings to his name, he's thrown many pitches. His durable track record isn't necessarily a guarantee of future durability.
Sale is one of several White Sox players who Sherman thinks might find their way to the trading block this winter. This kind of speculation is nothing new where Sale is concerned. Neither is any speculation about what it would take to acquire him. It's going to take a collection of elite prospects.
However, he could be worth it. Despite reservations about his body holding up, he's an elite starting pitcher who could be the missing link for a team with championship aspirations.