A Great Free Agent Class For Those Who Like Risk

With all the new television money flowing into the game, Major League teams have ramped up pre-free agent contract extensions, keeping the best players away from the open market. When the off-season rolls around, you’re going to hear a lot of talk about what a lousy group of players are available, especially if Robinson Cano ends up staying with the Yankees. However, there’s one area where this free agent class is actually quite interesting: broken but perhaps fixable formerly great pitchers.

Among the hurlers who will hit the open market this year: Roy Halladay (2010 NL Cy Young), Tim Lincecum (2008/2009 NL Cy Youngs), Dan Haren (three time All-Star, finished 7th in 2011 Cy Young), and Josh Johnson (two time All-Star, finished 5th in 2010 Cy Young). Just a couple of years ago, this quartet would have made up the best rotation in baseball, as they combined to throw 749 innings and post a 2.67 ERA in 2011.

Over the last few years, though, things haven’t gone so well, especially this season. Over 419 innings, these four pitchers have combined for a 5.22 ERA. Halladay didn’t look like himself last year, and spent most of this season on the DL with a shoulder problem. Johnson was lousy for the Blue Jays in the first half and will end up missing the final two months of the season with a forearm strain. Lincecum has stayed off the DL, but his velocity is still missing and his ERA over 4.50 for the second straight year. Haren was so bad in the first half that the Nationals stashed him on the DL just to give him a break, and while he’s been better since, his 4.66 ERA overall is not what the team was hoping for when they signed him as a free agent.

In each case, the results these guys have posted make them look like a shell of their former selves. However, in each case, there’s reason for some optimism about the future, and a team with a significant appetite for risk could potentially rebuild their entire rotation in one fell swoop this winter.

ERA can often be a misleading indicator of future performance, and especially in one or two year samples, a pitcher’s FIP and xFIP will often give you more of an idea of what they’re going to do in the future. We’ve already noted that these pitchers have all been lousy by ERA this season, but FIP and xFIP tell a pretty different story in each case.

Tim Lincecum: 4.55 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 3.39 xFIP
Josh Johnson: 6.20 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 3.59 xFIP
Dan Haren: 4.66 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 3.81 xFIP
Roy Halladay: 7.92 ERA, 6.37 FIP, 4.58 xFIP

Lincecum, Johnson, and Haren all grade out pretty well by xFIP, which is based on their walk rates, strikeout rates, and ground ball rates. Halladay’s numbers aren’t as good, but his 2013 season covers fewer than 50 innings so far, and an off-season of resting his shoulder may allow him to come back stronger next year. Even including Halladay, the group’s collective FIP is 4.24, and their xFIP is 3.66, so some significant positive regression may be in store.

Of course, that regression is not guaranteed. Among the pitchers who posted a much higher ERA than xFIP last year was Joe Blanton, who was a total disaster for the Angels this year. Lincecum was on the list last year as well, and while he’s been better this season than last, his ERA is still much higher than his xFIP. There could be sustainable problems that are driving higher hit and home run rates for each of these four hurlers, and especially for pitchers who have health issues, their results can’t be entirely ignored.

However, in each case, these guys have a long track record of big league success. It isn’t a question of talent, as each have proven themselves more than capable of dominating Major League hitters when they’re healthy and locating their pitches effectively. None of these guys are Joe Blanton. As recently as two years ago, these were four of the elite pitchers in baseball.

Perhaps age and injuries have permanently broken them, and I wouldn’t expect any of them to turn back the clock and pitch like they were 27 again. However, as their underlying peripherals mostly show, the rumors of their demise may have been greatly exaggerated. For teams willing to take risks on short term bets for aging, past-their-prime starters, this winter looks like one of the best crops in recent history. You’re not going to rebuild your franchise around one of these guys, but if a team is looking for a rotation boost in 2014, there are several very interesting options to be found.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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I really like the idea of the Cards signing Haren in the offseason but I also wouldn’t mind taking a shot with Halladay. Either would doubtless be better than picking up Westbrook’s option.

David McCann
David McCann

I have signed up and you have taken my money