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Free agency preview: Starting pitchers

It is the currency of baseball.

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Dayton Moore has long emphasized starting pitching, at one time imagining a rotation that could produce 1,000 innings. But since his first full season in 2007, the Royals have the third-worst starting pitcher ERA in baseball.

That could be about to change as a crop of young pitching prospects makes its way up with Brady Singer and Kris Bubic already holding their own in 2020. Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Asa Lacy, and others could soon follow, but the Royals may look for a free agent starting pitcher to anchor the staff as those youngsters get their feet wet.

It is not a deep class of starting pitchers this year, but the best arm available is controversial right-hander Trevor Bauer, who should command a $100+ million contract. Other top tier pitchers Rays right-hander Charlie Morton, who has a $15 million club option for next year, Mets starter Marcus Stroman, who opted out of this season after suffering a leg injury, and Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka.

The Royals seem unlikely to shop in the top tier, but there are still some solid starters available.

Solid starters

Kevin Gausman - The 29-year old right-hander has bounced around four teams in the last three seasons, posting a 5.72 ERA in 2019 and rebounding with a 3.62 ERA in 2020. His strikeout rate has significantly spiked in the last two seasons, and he actually ranked 18th among all starting pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched since 2019, and he could be due for a two-year deal worth around $10-14 mill per year.

Mike Minor - The lefty resurrected his career with the Royals in 2017 as a reliever, but he has been a solid starter since then, although his numbers took a hit this year. He posted a 5.56 ERA this season, coming off a 4 WAR season in 2019, but his strikeout numbers were still strong and it may just be a temporary blip in home run rate. Minor will turn 33 in December, and is likely to get a two- or three-year deal worth about $6-10 million per year.

Jake Odorizzi - Jake pitched two games for the Royals in 2012 before being part of the James Shields trade, but since then he has become a reliable starter for the Rays and Twins. He made just four starts this year due to a various injuries (intercostal, abdomen injury from a line drive, and a blister issue). He is a flyball pitcher who can give up home runs on occasion, but the 30-year old right-hander has seen his velocity and strikeout rate inch upwards recently. Odorizzi accepted a Qualifying Offer last year, and would probably get a two-year offer for around $8-12 million per year.

James Paxton - The only lefty starter with a higher strikeout rate since 2017 is Chris Sale. Paxton won 15 games and was a 3.5 WAR pitcher in 2019, according to Fangraphs. The lefty turns 32 next month, and had back surgery earlier this year plus a left forearm flexor strain this season that limited him to just five starts. If his medical check out, Paxton can still expect a two- or three-year deal worth around $12-15 million per year.

Rick Porcello - Since winning the Cy Young in Boston in 2016, Porcello has posted a 4.87 ERA and 4.35 FIP. His 5.64 ERA this year seems pretty bad, but he was very BABIP-unlucky and had a FIP of 3.33. Porcello used to be an extreme groundball pitcher but has evolved to be more balanced, and he has improved his strikeout numbers in recent years. Porcello turns 32 and has been very durable and has only been on the Injured List once in his twelve-year career, but is probably looking at a one-year deal after a poor season.

Jose Quintana - The 31-year old lefty always seems to post a higher ERA than FIP, so while his 4.68 ERA in 2019 seems underwhelming, his FIP was just 3.80, making him a 3.5 WAR pitcher, according to Fangraphs. He suffered a bizarre injury slicing his hand with a knife, and pitched just ten innings in 2020. He should be able to recover next year and is a decent bet to put up the kind of 3-4 WAR seasons he puts up every season. Quintana should expect a two- or three-year deal worth around $10-14 million per year.

The Bargain Bin

Chase Anderson - The Blue Jays hold a $9.5 million club option on the right-hander, but they may decline it after he posted a 7.22 ERA in 33 23 innings this year. He was a 3.2 WAR pitcher in 2017 with the Brewers, according to Fangraphs, but he has been less impressive the last few seasons. Anderson, who turns 33 in November, does not overwhelm with his strikeout numbers and doesn’t have pinpoint control, so his margin of error is small. He is not a workhorse, having never pitched even 160 innings in a season, but he has been serviceable and could be a decent stopgap.

Anthony DeSclafani - The right-hander has been a 2-3 WAR pitcher in the past, but was under replacement level this year with a 7.22 ERA in 33 23 innings and was left off the post-season roster for the Reds. His strikeout numbers took a big drop, while his walk numbers went up significantly, which could either be a bad sign going forward, or a small sample size blip. The 30-year old features a 94 mph fastball and could be a bargain on a one-year deal.

Mike Leake - The 32-year old right-hander decided to opt out of playing this season as he was recovering from a fractured wrist. He won 12 games with a 4.29 ERA in 2019, but posted a 5.19 FIP and was just a 1 WAR pitcher, according to Fangraphs. Leake had the third-lowest strikeout rate among all starters with at least 400 innings pitched from 2017-2019, but he also posted the second-lowest walk rate. He is a groundball pitcher, and has generally been durable, pitching at least 160 innings or more in every season from 2011 to 2019.

Iván Nova - If you’re a team looking for a one-year stop gap guy to eat some innings, Iván Nova is your man. Nova has played on one-year deals the last two seasons with the White Sox and Tigers. he was serviceable in 2019 in Chicago with a 4.72 ERA and 2 WAR, but he was pretty awful in just four starts with the Tigers this year. Nova will be 34 in January and relies mostly on groundballs with the third-lowest strikeout rate in baseball since 2018.

Martin Pérez- Pérez is pretty much the left-handed version of Nova. He gets groundballs, doesn’t strike anyone out, can eat some innings, and has little room for error. The 29-year old has also been pitching on one-year deals, posting a 5.12 ERA in 2019 with the Twins and a 4.50 ERA this year with the Red Sox.

Robbie Ray - The right-hander was an All-Star in 2017 and earned Cy Young votes, but his career has taken a turn for the worse since then. He posted a 6.62 ERA and had the highest-walk rate in baseball for anyone with at least 50 innings pitched. Still, he’s just 29-years old, and since 2018 he has the fifth-highest strikeout rate in baseball, better than Jacob deGrom or Trevor Bauer. A one- or two-year gamble may pay off if Ray is able to find the plate.

Julio Teheran - The right-hander made at least 30+ starts in every season from 2013 to 2019, and while he generally puts up good ERA numbers, his FIP totals are frequently higher. His walk numbers have gone up significantly the last few seasons and he had a horrific 2020 season, with a 10.05 ERA in 31 13 innings. He has a decent track record, but his lack of control and a fastball under 90 mph makes the 29-year old a bit of a risk.

Michael Wacha - At his peak, the right-hander was a 2-3 WAR pitcher, but he has also battled some injuries and had a rough season with the Mets this year, posting a 6.62 ERA in 34 innings. He did have an unlucky BABIP this year, and had a terrific strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he posted a 5.61 FIP in 126 23 innings in 2019, and was below replacement level, according to Fangraphs. The 29-year old is probably looking at a one-year deal to show he can still reach his potential.

Others: Trevor Cahill, Tyler Chatwood, Tommy Milone, Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, Drew Smyly

Injury Risks

Chris Archer - It is still mind-boggling the Pirates traded Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane Baz for Archer, and got just 33 starts and 1.5 WAR out of him in two and a half seasons. The 32-year old was a 4-5 WAR pitcher at his peak with the Rays, but his numbers have been in decline for some time. Archer had surgery for neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome and is questionable for the start of next season.

Merrill Kelly - The right-hander returned from Korea and became a serviceable starter with the Diamondbacks with a 4.15 ERA and 4.44 FIP and 2.6 WAR over 37 starts. Kelly throws in the low-90s and relies on sinking action to produce ground balls. The 32-year old had surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome and is questionable for the start of next season.

Corey Kluber - The Rangers have an $18 million club option on Kluber that they are sure to decline, but they would like to work out a revised deal with him. The two-time Cy Young winner made just seven starts with a 5.80 ERA with Cleveland in 2019, then made just one start with the Rangers before he suffered a Grade 2 strain of the teres major muscle in his right shoulder. The right-hander will be 35 next April, but he may be worth a one-year gamble if his medicals check out.

Garrett Richards - The right-hander has made just 41 starts over the last five years and had Tommy John surgery in 2018. But he finally looked healthy in 2020, and was the Padres Opening Day starter, posting a 4.03 ERA in 51 13 innings.

Taijuan Walker - The 28-year old right-hander is an injury risk - he had Tommy John surgery in 2018 and missed most of that season and the next. But he was finally healthy this year, making 11 starts with a 2.70 ERA, although a 4.56 FIP. The former first-round pick has yet to reach his potential for a full season, and has only made 25+ starts in a season three times. But he is still young for a free agent, and shows an ability to miss bats with his 93 mph fastball.

Alex Wood - The lefty has a deceptive delivery and has been a 2-3 WAR pitcher, winning 16 games for the Dodgers in 2017. But he missed most of 2019 with a back injury, and pitched just 6 23 innings this year with left shoulder inflammation. Wood doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he seems to get results when he’s healthy. He doesn’t turn 30, but he may have to move to the bullpen to keep him off the Injured List.

Others: Collin McHugh, Jimmy Nelson, Matt Shoemaker

Old Guys

Jake Arrieta - The sinkerballer won the 2015 Cy Young Award, but the 34-year old has a 4.75 ERA with a 4.83 FIP in 33 starts over the last two seasons. His strikeout rate has fallen in each of the last four seasons, but he may be worth a one-year deal to see if he can keep inducing grounders.

Homer Bailey - The Royals gambled on Bailey before, but he may be a bit pricier after winning 12 games in 2019 as a 2.9 WAR pitcher. He made just two starts this year due to a bicep injury, so the 34-year old Tommy John surgery survivor is still an injury risk.

Mike Fiers - The 35-year old right-hander has the third-lowest strikeout rate among all pitchers over the last two seasons, but has still been serviceable with a 4.29 ERA over that time. Fiers could be a nice one-year stop gap that eats some innings, but his ceiling is very limited.

Cole Hamels - The lefty signed a one-year, $18 million deal with Atlanta, and pitched all of three innings. He battled a tricep injury to begin the season, and finished the season with shoulder fatique. The four-time All-Star will turn 37 in December and may not have much left in the tank.

JA Happ - There is still a vesting option that has to be figured out, since Happ was unable to hit the required marks in a shortened season. But most likely Happ and the Yankees will work out a settlement that will allow them to part ways. Happ has still been successful despite mediocre strikeout numbers, although he can be home run-prone. The lefty had a 3.47 ERA in nine starts last year, but his FIP over the last two seasons is 5.07.

Rich Hill - To give you an idea of how old Rich Hill is, Greg Maddux was once his teammate. The 40-year old lefty had a 3.03 ERA in eight starts for the Twins, so while he is probably not dependable enough to make 30 starts, he can still get guys out with that big curveball.

Jon Lester - The Royals were interested in Lester before the 2015 season, but his price tag was out of their range. Now 36, Lester is coming off his worst season, with an ERA of 5.16 in 12 starts. His velocity is down significantly, so it may be time soon for Lester to hang ‘em up.

Jeff Samardzija - He once wanted to brawl with the Royals, so it seems unlikely the Royals would bring in the Shark. Samardzija had a 4.45 ERA and 5.05 FIP over the last three seasons, and his fastball has lost its zip.

Anibal Sanchez - His career seemed over a few years ago in Detroit, but Sanchez put together a couple of nice seasons with the Braves and Nationals before posting a 6.62 ERA this year. The 36-year old is a junkballer at this point who is going to have trouble keeping the ball in the ballpark.

Adam Wainwright - Waino seems likely to either return to the Cardinals or retire, but there are reports he could depart with Yadier Molina to sign somewhere together. Perhaps his old manager Mike Matheny convinces the 39-year old to come to Kansas City and he mentors a young crop of pitchers with that amazing curveball that won 167 games in the big leagues.

Others: Gio Gonzalez, Félix Hernández, Wade LeBlanc, Jordan Zimmermann