2019 MLB Free Agency: Ranking the Top 10 Starting Pitchers on the Market

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2019

2019 MLB Free Agency: Ranking the Top 10 Starting Pitchers on the Market

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    This year's MLB free-agent market features one of the best arms to become available in the history of free agency in Houston Astros right-hander and AL Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole.

    While he's undoubtedly the marquee starting pitcher available this winter, there are several other quality options capable of bolstering a team's rotation.

    Ahead, we've provided our ranking of the top 10.

    No assumptions were made about contract options or opt-out clauses, so the following players were not included in this conversation:

    • Stephen Strasburgopt-out
    • Yu Darvishopt-out
    • Jake Arrietaopt-out
    • Corey Kluber$17M club option
    • Julio Teheran$12M club option
    • Jose Quintana$11.5M club option
    • Chris Archer$9M club option
    • Jason Vargas$8M club option
    • Martin Perez$7M club option

    Even with those players removed from the discussion, there are still some solid starting pitchers set to become available this winter as teams look to counter the offensive explosion taking place across baseball.

    Let's kick things off with a few honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Homer Bailey
    Homer BaileyTim Warner/Getty Images

    A case can be made for Adam Wainwright deserving a spot inside the top 10 in these rankings. The 38-year-old enjoyed a solid bounce-back season, and he threw a gem in Game 3 of the NLDS, but he'll almost certainly remain with the St. Louis Cardinals if he does continue pitching.

    Veterans Brett Anderson (176.0 IP, 3.89 ERA), Homer Bailey (163.1 IP, 4.57 ERA), Wade Miley (167.1 IP, 3.98 ERA) and Ivan Nova (187.0 IP, 4.72 ERA) all ate innings at roughly a league-average rate, and they should secure MLB deals to round out MLB rotations.

    Lefties Rich Hill (58.2 IP, 2.45 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez (87.1 IP, 3.50 ERA) pitched at a high level while they were on the field, and while they probably can't be counted on to make 30 starts, they still have value.

    For teams looking to buy low on a potential bounce-back candidate, former Cy Young winner Rick Porcello (174.1 IP, 5.52 ERA), Alex Wood (35.2 IP, 5.80 ERA) and Michael Wacha (126.2 IP, 4.76 ERA) have all enjoyed considerable previous success and could each be worth a roll of the dice.

    Digging a bit deeper, Jhoulys Chacin (103.1 IP, 6.01 ERA) struggled through a tough 2019 season, but he's just a year removed from posting a 3.50 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 192.2 innings as the ace of the Milwaukee Brewers staff.

10. RHP Kyle Gibson

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    Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

    It's too bad Kyle Gibson didn't reach free agency a year sooner.

    In 2018, he tossed a career-high 196.2 innings and registered the best ERA (3.62) and WAR (3.8) of his career in the process.

    The 31-year-old took a step back this season, with his ERA climbing to 4.84 in 160 innings of work, including five relief appearances down the stretch after he was bumped from the rotation.

    Still, he's proved durable with at least 25 starts in each of the past six seasons, and he showed in 2018 that he's capable of pitching like a solid No. 3 starter when everything is working.

    The peripheral numbers also provide reason for optimism, as his hard-contact rate fell (-2.3%) and swinging-strike rate climbed (+1.6%), and an unusually high 20.4 percent home run-to-fly ball rate was a big reason for the spike in his ERA.

    He's not the most exciting option, but he's a solid bet to make somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 starts at a league-average level, and there's a bit of upside based on his past success.

9. RHP Tanner Roark

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    After back-to-back seasons with a sub-100 ERA+, Tanner Roark enjoyed a nice resurgence while splitting the season between Cincinnati and Oakland.

    His 165.1 innings pitched made it four years in a row and five of the last six that he has tossed at least 165 innings, and his 103 ERA+ represented his best mark since his brilliant 2016 season.

    That year, he posted a 2.83 ERA and 1.17 WHIP with 172 strikeouts in 210 innings to finish 10th in NL Cy Young voting, logging 5.6 WAR along the way.

    The fact that he held his own at hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark during his time with the Reds, posting a 4.40 ERA with just seven home runs allowed in 59.1 innings, is a chip in his favor amid a leaguewide long-ball explosion.

    The 33-year-old has proved to be a reliable workhorse and should broadly appeal as a back-of-the-rotation starter for contenders or a stopgap innings-eater for teams in transition.

8. LHP Cole Hamels

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    Quinn Harris/Getty Images

    Cole Hamels will turn 36 on Dec. 27, and his 2,694.2 innings rank fifth among active pitchers, behind CC Sabathia (3,577.1), who is headed for retirement, and Felix Hernandez (2,729.2), who may wind up joining him.

    Tack on another 100.1 postseason innings, and it's fair to wonder how many more bullets the 14-year veteran has in his left arm.

    While he turned in another solid season overall in 2019, posting a 3.81 ERA with 143 strikeouts in 141.2 innings, he scuffled down the stretch with a 5.79 ERA and .315 opponents' batting average over his final 10 starts.

    He's still an attractive option on a one-year deal, especially with that aforementioned playoff experience, but anything else will come with considerable risk.

7. RHP Michael Pineda

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    The Minnesota Twins signed Michael Pineda to a two-year, $10 million deal with the knowledge that he was going to miss the entire first year of that contract recovering from Tommy John surgery.

    That investment paid dividends this year, as he returned to post a 4.01 ERA and 1.16 WHIP with 140 strikeouts in 146 innings.

    However, his season came to an abrupt halt when he was slapped with a 60-game PED suspension at the beginning of September, leaving him unavailable for the postseason.

    Will that scare off potential suitors?

    In a thin market for starting pitching, probably not, especially considering how well Pineda pitched after a rocky start to the year.

    After posting a 6.09 ERA over his first seven starts, he went 9-2 with a 3.38 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 110 strikeouts in 112 innings in his next 19 appearances, including six innings of one-run ball with 10 strikeouts in his final start of the year against the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 6.

    Despite the suspension, the 30-year-old still seems like a good bet for a multiyear deal.

6. LHP Dallas Keuchel

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    Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

    Dallas Keuchel is no doubt hoping for a speedier resolution to his free agency this time around.

    The former Cy Young winner had to wait until June 6 to sign with the Atlanta Braves after rejecting a qualifying offer and failing to find anyone willing to meet his asking price during the offseason.

    The good news is, he won't be eligible for a qualifying offer this time around, as players are now only subject to that free-agency anchor once in their careers.

    Since jumping back into the fray, Keuchel has again been a reliable starter, posting a 3.75 ERA with 91 strikeouts in 112.2 innings over 19 starts.

    He was handed the ball in Game 1 and Game 4 of the NLDS, and he has a solid postseason track record with a 3.47 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 59.2 innings.

    As long as he maintains his groundball rate, which was at an impressive 60.1 percent again this season, he is a safe bet to be an above-average starter.

    The 31-year-old should also age better than most, given his reliance on command over velocity.

5. RHP Jake Odorizzi

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Jake Odorizzi picked the perfect time for a breakout season.

    Just take a look at the surface-level statistical comparison between his 2018 and 2019 campaigns:

    • 2018: 32 GS, 4.49 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 162 K, 164.1 IP
    • 2019: 30 GS, 3.51 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 178 K, 159.0 IP

    An uptick in his fastball velocity (93.0 mph, +1.6 mph) was in part to thank for the significant spike in his strikeout rate (+4.3%) to a career-high 10.1 K/9 en route to his first All-Star Game nod.

    The 29-year-old also backed his 3.51 ERA with a 3.36 FIP that ranked 12th among pitchers with at least 150 innings of work, lending some credence to that breakout performance.

    Will the Minnesota Twins extend him a qualifying offer?

    He seems like a prime candidate, and the Twins would likely be fine with him accepting the one-year deal, so it's a win-win situation on their end.

    That will have an impact on his market, but given his age and strong peripherals, he should secure a lucrative multiyear deal.

4. LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu

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    Will Newton/Getty Images

    Hyun-Jin Ryu is going to finish in the top five in NL Cy Young voting this year.

    The 32-year-old led the majors with a 2.32 ERA, to go along with a 1.01 WHIP and a terrific 163-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 182.2 innings.

    While all of those numbers are impressive, it's the innings total that is most meaningful.

    After averaging 172 innings during his first two MLB seasons, Ryu tallied just 213.2 innings total over the next four years, missing time with back, shoulder, elbow and groin injuries.

    An excellent 1.97 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 82.1 innings in 2018 earned him a qualifying offer, and he opted to accept that one-year, $17.9 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    That will help his cause this time around, as he will not have draft pick compensation tied to signing him, but his age and lengthy injury history still figure to limit his earning power.

    Anything beyond the two-year, $34 million deal that J.A. Happ signed with the New York Yankees during the offseason will represent a considerable risk.

3. LHP Madison Bumgarner

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Madison Bumgarner saw his 2017 and 2018 seasons both derailed by freak injuries.

    Finally healthy once again, the big left-hander put together a solid overall season, reaching 200 innings for the seventh time in his career while posting a 3.90 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 203 strikeouts in 207.2 innings.

    The recovery of his strikeout rate, which had dipped to a career-low 7.6 K/9 last season, played a significant role in his rebound, and his 3.90 FIP validated his surface-level performance.

    At this point in his career, with nearly 2,000 innings on his arm, the 30-year-old is no longer an elite-level starter and Cy Young candidate.

    However, he's still an absolute horse, finishing the 2019 season tied for 11th in the majors with 20 quality starts.

    That level of durability and his fantastic postseason track record, which includes a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 innings and three complete-game shutouts, will still make him a hot commodity.

    A qualifying offer won't scare teams off in this case.

2. RHP Zack Wheeler

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    It's hard not to wonder how much Zack Wheeler would have earned if he had reached free agency last winter.

    After a so-so first half, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball after the All-Star break in 2018, rattling off a 1.68 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in 75 innings over 11 starts.

    It was an impressive return to form from a pitcher who missed the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery, followed by an abridged 86.1-inning showing in 2017.

    The 29-year-old proved healthy once again in 2019, logging a 3.96 ERA and 1.26 WHIP with 195 strikeouts in a career-high 195.1 innings.

    By not trading him at the deadline, the New York Mets can now extend him a qualifying offer, which could have an impact on his market.

    However, his age, plus stuff, clean bill of health and strong peripheral numbers that included a 3.48 FIP stand to make him one of the highest-paid players on this year's market.

    The four-year, $68 million deal that Nathan Eovaldi signed last offseason might be his floor.

1. RHP Gerrit Cole

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    After a brilliant first season with the Houston Astros when he finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting, Gerrit Cole was even better in 2019.

    The 29-year-old led the AL in ERA (2.50) and topped the majors in strikeouts (326), matching teammate Justin Verlander every step of the way in the AL Cy Young race.

    His 13.8 K/9 strikeout rate not only led the majors but represents the new single-season record, surpassing Hall of Famer Randy Johnson (13.4 K/9) in 2001.

    He struck out at least 10 batters in 21 of his 33 starts and then added a 15-strikeout performance over 7.2 scoreless innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 2 of the ALDS.

    Simply put, he checks all the boxes of a legitimate ace-caliber starter, and he's the only pitcher on the market this year capable of transforming a team.

    The hefty contracts given to Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million) and Zack Greinke (six-year, $206.5 million) in recent years will likely serve as the starting point in negotiations with the Scott Boras client.

         

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.