And now there’s a run on pitchers. Because of their inherent risks, this is getting close to the upper limit for hurlers, even though each pitcher at this point is an excellent performer and an excellent value. Oh, and there’s some hitter you might have heard something about this year too.
Under Team Control Through 2016: $10M, $10M, $10M, $11M
The Rangers bet big on Darvish, but it’s proven to be a wise investment, as he has turned into a top shelf starting pitcher, and projects as one of the best pitchers in baseball for the next few years. His stuff is elite, his command has improved, and if he can keep the ball from flying over the fence quite as often, he’s got an outside shot at the Cy Young Award.
The Rangers might want to root for Darvish to not win that award, however. His contract contains a clause that turns the 2017 portion of his contract into a player option if he wins the Cy Young Award once and then finishes in the top four a second time. Unless Darvish blows out his arm, he would happily opt out of the last year of the deal and score a bigger paycheck in free agency.
Still, at either 3/30 or 4/41, Darvish’s contract is well below market price for a frontline starting pitcher, and doesn’t come with the long term risks that guys like Verlander or Hernandez present. The Rangers already wrote the big check to get Darvish in the first place, and any team trading for him now would get the advantage of his deflated salaries. Which, of course, is a reason why the Rangers aren’t trading him. They invested a lot to put Darvish at the front of their rotation, and now that he’s returning dividends, they’re going to keep him.
Under Team Control Through 2019: $4M, $7M, $10M, $12M, $12M option, $12M option
Despite a bump in the road at the end of last season, Bumgarner has rebounded to pitch just like he always does. Perhaps the most surprising thing about him is that he’s still just 23-years-old, even though he made his Major League debut back in 2009. Bumgarner is an excellent young pitcher, but he’s this high on the list because of the contract the Giants got him to sign last year.
By striking early, the Giants got his three arbitration years for a total of about $20 million, then got his first free agent year for $11.5 million, and then options for two more free agent years at prices that will be far under the market price by the time they come into play. Given the rate of inflation in MLB, those options could end up being massive bargains.
Of course, Bumgarner is a pitcher, and he’s a pitcher who throws a ton of sliders, so there’s also a chance that those options might never get picked up. Counting on getting significant value from any pitcher in six years is a risky proposition, but the contract is structured in a way that doesn’t really gamble any significant money, while giving the team huge cost savings if Bumgarner stays healthy and keeps pitching at this level.
He might not have the raw upside of some other hurlers in the top half of this project, but his combination of consistent success and a very friendly earn him this spot in the top 20.
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Under Team Control Through 2015: Arbitration
The breakout star of 2013, Davis is establishing himself as one of the game’s premier power hitters, and at age-27, he’s just now entering his prime. There’s still some uncertainty about just how much of this Davis can sustain, but there’s no reason to doubt the power, which has always been his calling card. He won’t keep slugging .700, but .600 doesn’t seem entirely out of the question, at least for the next few years.
The big question is cost. If the Orioles don’t sign him to a long term deal, Davis could be a very interesting arbitration case this winter. He’s very likely going to finish the year with 50+ home runs and he’ll be among the league leaders in RBIs, which are the kinds of numbers that arbitrators have typically awarded higher salaries to. While he’s coming off a modest $3.3 million salary, he’s going to get a big raise, and could easily blow past the $10 million mark. If he has another big season in 2014, his final arbitration payout could get near some of the highest salaries the system has ever given.
So, the Orioles have some risk-reward balancing to do. If they’re confident Davis won’t regress, locking him up now could save them a lot of money in the long term, as the Blue Jays did with Jose Bautista after his one big year. Buying high after a breakout season can seem scary, but the Orioles can use his lack of track record against him now, while they won’t be able to if he follows it with another strong season.
With just two years of team control and uncertain prices on those two years, I can’t put Davis any higher than this. However, if the Orioles can sign him to a reasonable extension and he has another big season next year, he could easily move up on next year’s list.
Under Team Control Through 2018: Pre-Arb, Arbitration
If it wasn’t for some other young hurler in the NL East having an okay season, you might be hearing a lot more about Fernandez this season. Playing in obscurity for the Marlins probably isn’t helping either, so in case you hadn’t noticed, Jose Fernandez has been ridiculously good. Oh, and he doesn’t turn 21 until the end of the month.
In fact, by throwing 100 innings in the big leagues as a 20-year-old, Fernandez has put himself in some pretty great company, as only 11 other pitchers in the last 30 years have even managed to throw a half season in the big leagues in their age-20 season. While you have the likes of Jeremy Bonderman, Rick Ankiel, and Ed Correa as reminders of what can go wrong, the list is mostly just really excellent pitchers.
As with all pitchers, health will be a big factor in Fernandez’s future outcomes, but if he can avoid surgery, the future looks pretty bright. Because the Marlins chose to put him on the Opening Day roster rather than hold him back for a few weeks, he’s down to five more years of team control after this one, but five years of Jose Fernandez at heavily discounted prices is still a premium asset. If the Marlins do decide to trade Giancarlo Stanton this winter, they’ll have another franchise player to take the mantle.
Under Team Control Through 2019: $4M, $6M, $9M, $12M, $13M option, $14M option
Sale is the American League’s answer to Madison Bumgarner, just with a few slight improvements. Both are tall left-handers who rely heavily on their big sweeping sliders for strikeouts, and not coincidentally, both have almost exactly the same contract. There is no question that Bumgarner’s 5/35 with two options contract was used as a template for the 5/33 with two options contract that Sale signed with the White Sox. If all the options on both contracts are exercised, the total payouts will be almost identical.
Sale ranks ahead of Bumgarner because he’s been a little bit better, especially once you factor in park and league adjustments. Instead of playing in a pitcher friendly west coast ballpark and getting easy outs from opposing pitchers, Sale has pitched in a hitter friendly midwest ballpark and run through the DH league. As a guy who has shown he can be effective against stiffer competition, and is certainly not a product of his home park, Sale would command a bit more than Bumgarner in trade, though both are excellent pitchers.
Sale’s arm problems from last summer, when he was temporarily moved to the bullpen, probably remain a bit of a drag on his value. His delivery has long brought about questions about his long term durability, and that scare reinforced preexisting beliefs that he might end up breaking down. Of course, no one really knows how to forecast future pitcher health yet, and Sale is good enough to earn his contract — and then some — in the near future.
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