When C.C. Sabathia re-signed with the Yankees almost immediately after opting out of the remainder of his deal, making him the richest pitcher in baseball history, the free agent market for starting pitchers went from not great to bad. Only two others achieved ‘Type-A’ status in Rangers’ lefty C.J. Wilson and the Phillies’ Roy Oswalt, who’s well past his prime and is a significant injury risk.
Another intriguing option is Japanese righthander Yu Darvish who is expected to be posted by his NPBL team sometime this offseason, but with a posting fee, Darvish could end up costing his North American team over $100-million; a risky proposition for a pitcher who has never thrown a pitch in the Majors. There are also ‘Type-B’ options Mark Buehrle, Hiroki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson, Aaron Harang, Bruce Chen, and Freddy Garcia and other notables such as Erik Bedard, Aaron Cook, Bartolo Colon, Zach Duke, Livan Hernandez, and Jon Garland.
In other words, there are some decent options, but no game changers outside of Wilson and Darvish who probably aren’t true number one pitchers themselves. The problem with trying to acquire starting pitching on the free agent market is just how expensive it is. Take a look at these contracts given out to starting pitchers last year:
Cliff Lee is the only pitcher on that list that can be considered a true number one; and he’s paid accordingly. Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly and Jorge de la Rosa were all signed in the $10-$12-million range and all three are probably number three pitchers on good teams. Carl Pavano and Jake Westbrook were signed at $8.25-million per season and are probably bad threes or good fours and guys like Garland, Kevin Correia and Harang are paid in the $4-$5-million to be back-end starters. Even significant injury-risks and depth starters like Brad Penny, Brandon Webb and Vicente Padilla are given $2-$3-million.
An alternative for teams looking for good starting pitching could be the trade market. The Royals were the first to take advantage of this, acquiring Jonathan Sanchez from the Giants for outfielder Melky Cabrera. Sanchez has serious upside, but also has the highest walk rate in baseball since becoming a fulltime starter in 2008 (min 600 IP) at 4.78 BB/9. Cabrera, on the other hand, is coming off a career year in KC, posting a .349 wOBA, but is unlikely to reproduce those numbers in San Francisco. The Royals gave up an expendable piece for a potential mid-rotation arm and they’ll pay him somewhere in the area of $7-million next season (he’s arbitration eligible), rather than the $12-million or so a pitcher of that calibre would cost them on the open market.
The White Sox appear to be shopping John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Both would net significant returns, but are much cheaper than comparable options on the free agent market. If the market for Sanchez is Melky Cabrera, it may not take five-star prospects to get one of these pitchers from the sputtering South-Siders.
Danks ranks 16th in fWAR among starting pitchers since 2008, ahead of such free agent options as Buehrle, Jackson and Oswalt (who could also cost the signing team a first-round draft pick). Buehrle, Jackson and Oswalt are all expected to net $10-$12-million per season, while Danks, who’s younger (27 next season) than all of them will likely net in the area of $8.0-million next season.
Floyd ranks 18th in fWAR in the same time period and will make only $7-million next year with a $9.5-million club option for 2013. He’ll be 28 in January and both he and Danks had sub-par years last year, but both are capable number three starters on good teams. The great equalizer here, of course, is what these pitchers will cost their acquiring team in terms of player-return, but if a team like the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, or Nationals can justify giving up a notable prospect or two, Danks or Floyd might be better options than the likes of Wilson, Buehrle or Darvish.