Free Agent Market: Starting Pitcher

Some of the following twirlers can really play the game of ball called base!

In 2011, a total of 272 different pitchers started a game in the MLB — that’s an average of 9 starters per team. In other words, five starters is not enough. Successful MLB organizations need pitching depth — and lots of it. Some teams may need a 7th or 8th starter for only 1 game, but ask the Boston Red Sox how important 1 game is.

For teams in the need, the 2012 starting pitcher free agent list has some value and some worthy risks out there, but as with every year, no team should expect the free agent market to have all the answers. The following list, though not exhaustive, runs down the most important names of the 2012 free agents:

Top Tier — Starters who promise big contracts and big seasons.
C.J. Wilson (LHP, Age 31 next season, free agent)
CC Sabathia (LHP, 31, may opt out)
Hiroki Kuroda (RHP, 37, FA)
Edwin Jackson (RHP, 28, FA)
Mark Buehrle (LHP, 33, FA)
Javier Vazquez (RHP, 35, FA)

The Obvious One, Mr. C.J. Wilson, finally promises to pull in that contract big enough to purchase his long-awaited solid-gold rocket car. Wilson, the heat-hurling lord of the lefties figures to have at least two very impressive suitors — the New York Yankees and his present team, the Texas Rangers. Since becoming a starter two years ago, he has posted a combined 10.5 WAR, sporting an ace-worth 3.24 FIP this year.

Not only does Wilson have a shot to break the bank, but there appears to be a chance that twirling titan CC Sabathia may opt out of the final four years of his contract with the Yankees. Sabathia has been yawningly awesome through his 10-year career, never posting a FIP- higher than 96 and assembling a career-best 2.88 FIP in 2011.

Kuroda and Jackson (his 7-walk outing last night notwithstanding) are great, but obviously on a different, less sparkly level than Wilson and Sabathia. Both have quality years left and should expect solid contracts in 2012.

Mark Buehrle assembled another very Mark Buehrle season, beating his FIP, beating his xFIP, beating his SIERA, and doing it for 200+ innings. Buehrle, one of the few defensive-dependent pitchers in history (as in, his defense is crazy good, enabling him yearly to obfuscate DIPS stats), has been a dependable, inning-eating stud of a pitcher. He should do fine this off-season.

Meanwhile, while America was busy not caring about the Florida Marlins, Javier Vazquez went out and pitched nearly 200 innings of 3.57 FIP baseball. Though he’s not a world-beater and is only a season removed from his Yankees asplosion, he is still one of the better pitchers of the 2012 free agents.

Good Risks — They may not be cheap, but they should be productive.
Erik Bedard (LHP, 33, FA)
Paul Maholm (LHP, 30, club may decline)
Roy Oswalt (RHP, 34, may decline mutual option)

Departing after an eight-start tenure with the Red Sox, Erik Bedard promises to post near a 3.50ish FIP and value possibly comparable to Javier Vazquez. But Bedard has only pitched over 150 innings twice in his last 7 years, so it’s hard to expect too many healthy starts from the lefty.

Apparently, the Pittsburgh Pirates may try to shop Paul Maholm in the hopes someone may find his ~$10M club option worthy of throwing a prospect Pitt-town’s way, but if not, he could make an interesting free agent target. Maholm has consistently beat his xFIP for the last three years and could potentially blossom with a strong defense and legitimate team around him.

Roy Oswalt may choose to leave the Palace of Pitching in Philadelphia, and if he’s healthy, he could be a more expensive, yet younger version of Kuroda. Oswalt pitched less than 150 innings this year, his lowest total since 2003, but if his back is strong and injury-free, he could be Top Tier quality.

Risky Risks — There’s a legit shot they will earn more than they’re worth.
Chris Capuano (LHP, 33, FA)
Bruce Chen (LHP, 35, FA)
Bartolo Colon (RHP, 39, FA)
Freddy Garcia (RHP, 36, FA)
Livan Hernandez (RHP, 37, FA)
Kenshin Kawakami (RHP, 37, FA)
Jason Marquis (RHP, 33, FA)
Brad Penny (RHP, 34, FA)
Tim Wakefield (RHP, 45, FA)
Jeff Francis (LHP, 31, FA)

Notable among this group: Yankees starters Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. Both had mixed results through the season, but ended with near league average FIPs and comfortably resurrected careers. They earned a combined $2.4M in 2011, and though they’re due a pay raise, they should both be relatively inexpensive.

I’m told Bruce Chen is the baseball incarnate of Höðr the warrior god, but I’m much less intrigued by the Chinese pride of Panama than I am by lefty Chris Capuano, who sported a brow-wrinkled, puckered nod-inducing 3.67 xFIP and 3.60 SIERA.

I applauded the Kansas City Royals for signing Jeff Francis at $2M last year, and though he didn’t dominate, he certainly pitched a strong 180+ innings. He could be a steal again next year given his bloated 4.82 ERA (despite a 4.10 FIP).

Fun fact: When Tim Wakefield started pitching for the Boston Red Sox, Justin Bieber was 13 months old. Christopher Reeve was still walking. Microsoft computers came standard with Windows 3.0. There was no eBay. There were no DVDs. There was no Jumanji or Playstation. The world as we know it had hardly yet-formed.

In other words, I’m fairly certain Wakefield is either re-signing with the Red Sox or disintegrating in a puff of historical majesty.

Low Risk, Medium Reward — An MiLB contract might bring them in for some depth.
Joel Pineiro (RHP, 33, FA)
Brandon Webb (RHP, 33, FA)
Dontrelle Willis (LHP, 30, FA)
Chien-Ming Wang (RHP, 32, FA)
Doug Davis (LHP, 36, FA)

Welcome to the injury club! Joel Pineiro, Brandon Webb, Dontrelle Willis, and Chien-Ming Wang are all coming off of a varying degrees of significant injuries. Any one of these pitchers could get an MLB contract, but at this point, an MiLB contract makes more sense. Wang, Willis, and Pineiro all finished the season as starters, so they should be healthy going into the 2012 season.

And honestly, I cannot believe it, but Doug Davis actually deserves consideration for a competitive minor league contract next year. Cubs fans may remember Davis as a dropped member of the Cubs Soul-Pulverizing Rotation of Doom, but he in fact managed a 3.86 FIP in his 9 starts with the Cubs. His 4.80ish xFIP seems atrocious, but following his release from the Cubs, he dominated the Chicago White Sox Triple-A rotation, twirling a 2.68 FIP through a final 9 starts. Will Davis compete for a rotation spot? Heavens no. Can he potentially fill in for a few starts? Yeah, why not?

Imports — Not really traditional FAs, but potentially big contributors.
Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP, 31, FA)
Yu Darvish (RHP, 25, posting)
Tsuyoshi Wada (LHP, 31, FA)

These names are worth knowing, though I would rather leave the deep analysis to Patrick Newman and other Japanese-speaking mavens. Suffice it to say this much though: Both Iwakuma and Wada have been very capable starters in the NPB, and Darvish may be the most amazing athlete to cross the Pacific in either direction. As my pal mb21 noted, “Darvish has posted numbers that are difficult to post on the Playstation.”

Oh baby.



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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


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Mark
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Mark

Tim Wakefield has been pitching for the Red Sox since 1981? He’s a lot older than I thought!

Oh, you’re talking about the movie Jumanji. Awkward.

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