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Assessing the free agent starting pitching market at this point

Will the Royals add a pitcher once the lockout is over?

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Arizona Diamondbacks v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Baseball is currently going through a transaction freeze, but we assume that eventually (probably around spring training?) things will thaw out and owners and players will reach agreement on a new labor deal. The Royals were largely silent on transactions before the lockout, perhaps for good reason as teams can often pay significantly less for free agents later in the off-season.

The Royals reportedly looking for a veteran starting pitcher at the right price to allow them to slowly ramp up the workloads for their young pitching staff. There was a frenzy of signings around baseball leading up to the lockout, so let’s take a look at the state of the free agent starting pitching market.

First, here’s who has signed already.

Free agent starting pitcher signings

Player Team Years Money 2021 fWAR
Player Team Years Money 2021 fWAR
Max Scherzer NYM 3 $130,000,000 5.4
Robbie Ray SEA 5 $115,000,000 3.9
Kevin Gausman TOR 5 $110,000,000 4.8
Eduardo Rodriguez DET 5 $77,000,000 3.8
Marcus Stroman CHC 3 $71,000,000 3.4
Jon Gray TEX 4 $56,000,000 2.3
Steven Matz STL 4 $44,000,000 2.8
Anthony DeSclafani SFG 3 $36,000,000 3.0
Justin Verlander HOU 1 $25,000,000 N/A
Alex Wood SFG 2 $25,000,000 2.5
Noah Syndergaard LAA 1 $21,000,000 0.0
Alex Cobb SFG 2 $20,000,000 2.5
Nick Martinez SDP 4 $20,000,000 N/A
James Paxton BOS 1 $10,000,000 0.0
Andrew Heaney LAD 1 $8,500,000 1.0
Corey Kluber TBR 1 $8,000,000 1.5
Michael Wacha BOS 1 $7,000,000 1.1
Dylan Bundy MIN 1 $5,000,000 0.0
Rich Hill BOS 1 $5,000,000 1.7
Jose Quintana PIT 1 $2,000,000 0.3
Jhoulys Chacín COL 1 $1,250,000 0.2

Who is left?

Top shelf

Clayton Kershaw - Little chance the Royals land the 33-year old three-time Cy Young winner who is reportedly either heading back to the Dodgers, or could possibly end up in his native Texas for the Rangers or Astros.

Carlos Rodón - A year ago the Royals could have signed Rodón to a $2 million deal, but the former third overall pick re-signed with the White Sox and responded with his best season ever, a 4.9 fWAR, 2.37 ERA season. Still just 28, he’s probably going to get a three- or four-year deal worth $15-19 million annually, likely out of Kansas City’s price range.

Still pretty good

Tyler Anderson - The former Rockies first-round pick is not a sexy free agent, and his strikeout numbers are very underwhelming, but he bounced back to put up a 2.1 fWAR season in 167 innings. He had the fifth-highest flyball rate among starters, which could play better at Kauffman Stadium. He’s a prototypical soft-tossing lefty who can eat innings, but that still has value, particularly on a team trying to protect younger arms.

Zack Greinke - He’s now 38 years old and not what he was in his prime, but the former Royals first-round pick is still a 1.2 fWAR pitcher who can give you innings and doesn’t ever seem to land on the Injured List. He has one of the lowest strikeout rates among qualified pitchers and relies on getting groundballs now. It would probably only take a one- or two-year deal at $10-15 million per season to land Greinke, but I wouldn’t expect a reunion.

Kwang Hyun Kim - The Korean left-hander came to the States to start, but he served as a swingman for the Cardinals, with a 2.97 ERA in 145 23 innings in two seasons. He has a pretty low strikeout rate, does not fare well against righties, and struggled to go deep in games when he did start, but he was able to get hitters out. The 33-year old seems likely to get a two-year deal worth $8-12 million per season.

Yusei Kikuchi - The 30-year old lefty turned down a $13 million player option which may end up being a mistake. He has been underwhelming since coming over to the states with a 4.97 ERA in 365 23 innings, although he had his best season last year with a 4.41 ERA in 29 starts. If the MLB work stoppage lasts much longer, it seems likely Kikuchi would head back to Japan, but maybe the Royals could swoop in with the long-term deal he was looking for.

Injury risks

Brett Anderson - The lefty was teammates with Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Giambi his rookie season, so he’s been around a bit. Now 33, he has generally alternated healthy seasons with injury-plagued seasons, and he was “healthy” last year, making 24 starts. his strikeout rates are pretty bad for this era, and he pitched just 96 innings, but he will likely be rather cheap on a one-year deal.

Matthew Boyd - It was not too surprising the Tigers non-tendered the left-hander after he had surgery to repair a flexor tendon. The 30-year old is expected to pitch in 2022, but there is no timeline for his recovery. In 2019 he was a 3.2 fWAR pitcher with 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings, and he had a 3.89 ERA in 15 starts this year before his injury. He has been lit up in his career at Kauffman Stadium, allowing a line of .339/.380/.454 in 13 starts.

Johnny Cueto - Remember the good times we had with Johnny Cueto? One fan wrote a song! Johnny is 36 now and he’s made a total of 46 starts over the last two years, although he was his healthiest last year with 1.5 fWAR in 114 23 innings. The Royals could probably land him with a one-year, incentivized deal, but he’s not a sure bet to be able to eat innings at this point in his career.

Danny Duffy - Duffy will avoid Tommy John surgery after a flexor strain last year, but he won’t be available until June. He seems willing to accept a bullpen role, but he could be in a hybrid role where he makes some starts if needed. The Royals really need someone to sop up innings at the start of the year, which make Duffy a less enticing possibility, although he has said in the past he wants to be buried a Royal.

Michael Pineda - The right-hander seems to perpetually be on short-term “make good” contracts because he can’t stay healthy - he has made 30 starts in a season just once in his career. He was a 1.4 fWAR pitcher last year with a 3.62 ERA in 109 13 innings, but he’s 32 now and time is running out for him to have much upside left.

Aaron Sanchez - The right-hander led the league in ERA early in his career, but has regressed since then, with injury troubles. He had right shoulder surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2020 season, the pitched just 35 13 innings last year due to bicep inflammation. He was effective in his limited time last year, but his velocity was down to 90 mph on his fastball, despite reports he was hitting 98 mph in workouts. He’s 29 and gets very high groundball rates, but it may be time for him to transition to a bullpen role.

Drew Smyly - The former Arkansas Razorback had a fairly promising career at one point, but he hasn’t quite been the same since Tommy John surgery in 2017. Last year was his best and healthiest season since his surgery, and he was barely above replacement level with a 4.48 ERA in 126 23 innings for the Braves. The 32-year old lefty is a back-of-the-rotation pitcher at this point, and you may not be able to count on him giving you innings.

Bounce-back candidates

Zach Davies - Another low-strikeout performer, Davies was replacement level with the Cubs last year, but has won 17 games with a 2.7 fWAR season as recently as 2017. He has been pretty healthy and seems to do better when he’s getting good groundball rates. The right-hander is just 28, and while he may not have huge upside, he could be a solid 1 WAR pitcher who gives you consistent innings on a one-year deal.

Mike Foltynewicz - He was a 2018 All-Star, even receiving Cy Young votes, but in 2020 Folty lost a lot of velocity and was abruptly designated for assignment by the Braves. The Rangers picked him up and some of the velo returned - he averaged 94 mph on his fastball - but he didn’t miss bats and had an ugly 5.44 ERA with the highest home run rate by any pitcher with at least 100 innings pitched. Still, he’s just 30 years old, and could be an interesting reclamation project that doesn’t cost much.

Carlos Martínez - The Cardinals signed Martínez to a long-term deal after he put up some 3 WAR seasons early in his career, but he suffered a strained rotator cuff in 2019 and has not been the same pitcher since. Last year he had a 6.23 ERA with a 6.23 strikeout-per-nine innings rate - not a good combo. His fastball velocity is down from 95 mph in his prime to 92 mph last year, and he relies on groundballs. The right-hander is 30 years old and underwent surgery to repair his thumb last year.

Julio Teheran - Another former Braves pitcher, Teheran was a 3 fWAR pitcher in 2016, but has declined significantly since then. He made just nine starts in 2020, in part due to a COVID-19 diagnosis, and he made just one start last year due to a shoulder strain. He is still just 30 years old, and had pretty good strikeout rates a few years ago. It may not even require a guaranteed MLB contract to see what he can do.

José Ureña - The former Marlins and Tigers right-hander has good velocity in the mid-90s but has never really translated that into good strikeout rates, instead relying on 50 percent groundball rates. He was a 1.6 fWAR pitcher for the Marlins in 2018, but has been around replacement level since then, with an ERA over five. He’s just 30, and could turn his career around with better coaching.

Vince Velasquez - It seems like everyone has been waiting forever for Velasquez to turn his 6’3’’ frame and mid-90s fastball with good strikeout rates into better overall results. But in seven MLB seasons he has a 4.95 ERA in 651 innings, and his best season was a 4.85 ERA/3.68 FIP, 2.6 fWAR season in 2018. Since then he’s been replacement level, and he really struggled with walks last year, inflating his ERA to 6.30. The right-hander is 29 years old, so maybe a change of scenery can unlock more potential.