Still on the Shelves, Part 2: Top Remaining Free Agent Pitchers

With spring training suddenly less than two weeks away after the players’ union rejected Major League Baseball’s proposal to delay the start of the season, on Thursday I made note of the recent flurry of free agent activity while rounding up the top players at each position who remain on the market. Six of those placed among our Top 50 Free Agents, including two in our top 10, namely Marcell Ozuna and Justin Turner; as I was writing, a seventh, Kolten Wong, agreed to terms with the Brewers.

Likewise, as I was putting that together, relievers Alex Colomé and Joakim Soria came off the board, and as I turned my attention to this batch of still-available free agent starters and relievers, the Trevor Bauer chase appeared as though it could end before I filed, though that proved to be a false alarm. Anyway, until he signs, this group includes eight free agents in our Top 50, six starters and two relievers. Without further ado…

[Update: Further ado necessary, because on Friday afternoon, Bauer agreed to a three-year, $102-million deal with the Dodgers — not the Mets, a bit of a shock as the sequence below indicates. Ben Clemens’ analysis is here. I’ve left the rest of this article as written.]

Starters

Bauer is the reigning NL Cy Young winner and the top free agent still available according to our list; Craig Edwards placed him third behind J.T. Realmuto and George Springer, both of whom brought home nine-figure deals. The question is whether the 30-year-old righty will do the same. As of Thursday, the pursuit appears to be down to the Mets and Dodgers, with the other teams that have shown significant interest, including the Blue Jays and Padres, having falling by the wayside.

MLB.com’s Jon Heyman reported that the Mets’ offer is believed to be three years and close to $100 million, with an opt-out after the first year. Via MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, the Dodgers are believed to be interested in a one- or two-year deal possibly worth more than $36 million annually, which would surpass Bauer’s former UCLA teammate Gerrit Cole for the highest AAV in MLB history. On Thursday evening, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that Bauer had agreed to a deal with the Mets, though six minutes later, Feinsand refuted that report.

Obviously, even if Bauer does receive a record AAV, he’s not going to approach Cole’s $324 million total commitment. Leaving aside the fact that the Yankees had been keeping their powder dry on so many free agents for years so as to land Cole via a record-setting deal, there’s simply not much case for Bauer getting that kind of scratch unless it’s in a short-term situation. At the time Cole signed, he already had three All-Star appearances and three top-five finishes in the Cy Young voting including runner-up in the latter for his 326-strikeout season. Bauer’s 2020 season was great, but it was just 12 starts, and he has only one full-ish season (27 starts, 175.1 innings in 2018) approaching that level of quality in his nine-year major league career; in fact, that’s his only other season with an ERA below 4.00 or a FIP below 3.88.

Beyond his performance, Bauer’s track record generates concerns not only with regards to the internal clashes that helped to wear out his welcome in Arizona and Cleveland but also due to multiple nasty Twitter exchanges with women — a matter that the Mets ought to be particularly sensitive to given their recent dismissal of general manger Jared Porter for his sexual harassment of a reporter as well as allegations of sexual harassment against former manager Mickey Callaway, which earlier this week were levied by multiple reporters. Bauer’s penchant for playing the internet bully carries the risk of alienating an already-reeling fan base with his behavior, offsetting the gains to be had from his ability and his keen baseball mind.

Of the other remaining starters, Taijuan Walker (22nd on our list) might be the most intriguing. A former supplemental first-round pick and top 10 prospect, Walker enjoyed a modest breakout in 2017 with the Diamondbacks after more or less league-average work (and multiple injuries) with the Mariners, but he totaled just four starts over the next two seasons due to Tommy John surgery. Finally healthy in 2020, he split his season with the Mariners (again) and Blue Jays, pitching to a 2.70 ERA but a 4.56 FIP; his high-ish walk and home run rates didn’t bite him as badly as they might have. For all that he’s been through, he’s still just 28, and as Brendan Gawlowski noted in his writeup for our Top-50 list, a bit of tinkering might restore the mid-rotation potential that talent evaluators once saw.

The Blue Jays are interested in bringing Walker back, and while we’re on the subject of ex-Mariners with health questions, they’re said to also be interested in British Columbia native James Paxton (13th on our list). The 32-year-old lefty owns a career 3.58 ERA and 3.34 FIP, but he was limited to five starts in 2020 due to surgery to alleviate a herniated lumbar disc, and then a flexor strain in his left elbow. While his overall numbers and 3.4-mph dip in average fastball velocity weren’t pretty, he did strikeout 28.9% of the hitters he faced in between the two injuries. Paxton reportedly reached 94 mph in a December showcase attended by representatives from as many as 20 teams. In addition to the Blue Jays, Paxton is among the starters being considered by both the Cardinals — who currently project to have a bottom-10 rotation via our Depth Charts — and Phillies.

Also under consideration for those three teams is Jake Odorizzi (24th on the list), who was limited to just four starts last year by an intercostal strain and a blister, quite a bringdown from a strong 2019 in which he accompanied a 3.51 ERA in 159 innings with career bests in FIP (3.36), strikeout rate (27.1%), K-BB% (19.0%), home run rate (0.91 per nine) and WAR (4.3). Odorizzi’s market appears to be bigger than the aforementioned pair, with the Angels, Giants, and Red Sox as well as the Twins, for whom he’s pitched in the past three seasons, interested as of late January; the Mets might be in the mix as well if they don’t sign Bauer. One of the majors’ most extreme fly ballers — his 45.4% rate is seventh among pitchers with at least 500 innings since 2012 — he’s less suited to Fenway Park and the AL East than those other locales.

Speaking of moving out of the AL East, Rick Porcello (43rd on the list) more than halved his home run rate in going from Fenway (1.60 per nine) to Citi Field (0.76) leading to a significant drop in FIP (from 4.76 to 3.33), but for the second year in a row, his ERA was nonetheless in the mid-5.00s. The 32-year-old righty is nothing if not durable, having last missed a start in 2015. While his name hasn’t come up often in the rumor mill this winter, he’s a sure bet to round out somebody’s rotation.

Just below Porcello on our list is Matt Shoemaker, who’s been anything but durable, making a total of 32 starts over the past four seasons, including 11 for the Blue Jays in 2019-20 amid a torn ACL and an oblique strain. The Red Sox and Royals have both reportedly reached out.

Moving beyond the Top 50, of more interest to these eyes than either of those last two pitchers — and perhaps the best choice for a win-now team — is Rich Hill, who returned from primary revision surgery to post a 3.03 ERA and 3.99 FIP in 38.2 innings with the Twins. The soon-to-be-41-year-old lefty carries plenty of risk injury-wise, having averaged just 20 starts and 109 innings a year from 2016-19 with the Dodgers and A’s, but he posted a 3.00 ERA and 3.51 FIP in that span, striking out 29% of batters faced while averaging 2.2 WAR. The Rays, Brewers and Mets are reportedly in pursuit; he’d make a whole lot of sense for those first two teams given how regularly they limit their starters to twice through the order.

On the subject of oft-injured lefties, Brett Anderson has actually made a pretty full complement of starts over the past two seasons (41, totaling 223 innings). Hopefully I didn’t jinx anything by pointing this out — I’m trying to find the 33-year-old southpaw a job! Anderson only averaged 4.7 innings per turn in 10 starts for the Brewers, but he gained steam as the season went on, and finished with a 4.21 ERA and 4.38 FIP while posting the sixth-highest groundball rate among starters with at least 40 innings (57.7%). The inventory of left-handed Andersons also includes Tyler (no relation), who was non-tendered by the Giants after very league-averageish season (4.37 ERA, 4.36 FIP in 59.2 innings) with the third-lowest groundball rate (28.5%) of the aforementioned starters.

Among the biggest names on the market, in that he’s a former Cy Young winner, is Jake Arrieta, who provided diminishing returns during his three-year run in Philadelphia. His ERA has increased every year since he won the award in 2015, rising from 1.77 to 5.06 while his average fastball lost 2.5 mph over that span, dipping from 94.6 mph to 92.1. The soon-to-be 35-year-old righty threw a showcase last Friday; representatives from the Mets, Twins, Phillies and Cubs were among those in attendance, though a reunion with either of his last two teams appears unlikely.

Also on the showcase-to-draw-interest path are two pitchers who each made exactly one appearance for the Braves last year, Cole Hamels and Mike Foltynewicz. The 37-year-old Hamels was sidelined by triceps and shoulder injuries, but pitched to a 3.81 ERA and 4.09 FIP in 141.2 innings in 2019 thanks to the renewed effectiveness of his changeup and cutter. The Giants are among the “several teams” that showed interest earlier this winter. As for the 29-year-old Foltynewicz, he was outrighted off the Braves’ roster after getting pummeled during his lone start, during which his fastball averaged just 90.5 mph, down 4.4 mph from 2019 and 5.9 mph from ’18. The Mets, Rays, and White Sox have reportedly shown interest.

There are a couple of dozen other starters still out there, many of them in various states of disrepair. One presumably not broken but perhaps a little rusty is Mike Leake, who made at least 30 starts annually from 2012-19 before opting out last year. He did not have a great 2019 campaign, posting a 4.26 ERA and 5.19 FIP for the Mariners and Diamondbacks, but he did throw 197 innings.

Relievers

The four-year, $62 million contract of Mark Melancon (30th on our list) — signed with the Giants but completed with the Braves — didn’t exactly pay off unless you consider $27 million per win to be a good deal. Nonetheless, Melancon, who turns 36 on March 28, is still able-bodied and well-suited to generate groundballs if not miss a ton of bats; his 14.7% strikeout rate was a career low. The Twins checked in before landing Colomé, and they may still be interested given that they considered their bullpen to be a significant area of need, though right now it projects to rank among the top 10 via our Depth Charts. A return to the Braves is possible as well.

Trevor Rosenthal (36th on our list) is the other reliever from our Top 50 who has yet to sign. The 30-year-old flamethrower bounced back from a rough 2 1/2-year stretch during which he underwent Tommy John surgery, missed all of 2018, and was cuffed for a 13.50 ERA in 15.1 innings in ’19; he notched 11 saves for the Royals and Padres while posting a 1.90 ERA and 2.22 FIP. His asking price was apparently too high for the Twins — who guaranteed only $5 million to Colomé — and he might be too pricey for the Padres as well, but the Blue Jays are said to be interested even after signing Kirby Yates, and the Astros checked in about a month ago as well.

Outside the rankings, the well-traveled Tyler Clippard — who’s pitched for nine teams in the past six seasons, including the Twins in 2020 — tied with Rosenthal for the highest WAR among the still-available relievers (0.8), that while delivering a 2.77 ERA and 2.65 FIP in 26 innings. Minnesota appears likely to bring him back, but if not, the soon-to-be-36-year-old will surely find work. Sticking with well-traveled righties, swingman Trevor Cahill has checked off eight teams in the past seven seasons, making at least one start for each of them and at least one relief appearance for all but one. He struck out an eye-opening 29.2% in 25 innings with the Giants (six starts five relief appearances) while doing a good job of staying out of the middle of the zone with a four-pitch arsenal that featured fewer fastballs and more changeups than ever.

Jeremy Jeffress cut his ERA from 5.02 to 1.54 even as his FIP rose slightly (from 3.96 to 4.09) and his strikeout and walk rate converged — but hey, he did save eight games for the Cubs. They’re among the eight teams who were interested to some degree or another as of as of mid-January. Other available righties of some notoriety included Tommy Hunter, Shane Greene, Yusmeiro Petit, and Sergio Romo, none of whom is generating any heat in the current market.

Among the lefties still available, only a few names stand out. Oliver Pérez is 39, entering his 10th year exclusively as a reliever (!), and coming off a strong three-year run in Cleveland. During that time, he held lefties to a .240 wOBA and righties to a .267 wOBA, though last year, his average fastball velocity dipped to 89.9 mph (down from 91.7) and his strikeout rate to 19.4% (from 27.7%).

Justin Wilson did a solid job with the Mets over the past two seasons, particularly when it came to suppressing hard contact; last year, his 84.5 mph average exit velocity placed in the 96th percentile, and his 28.3% hard-hit rate in the 92nd percentile. Platoon-wise, his three-year splits are rather wide, with a .272 wOBA against lefties, and a .311 mark against righties. The Twins (again) have recently been linked to the 33-year-old southpaw, and a reunion with the Mets is also a possibility.

The Rockies’ Reverse Midas Touch certainly applied to Jake McGee’s three-year, $27 million deal such that he was released during summer camp. He caught on with the Dodgers, and thanks to a minor tweak in his grip not only regained lost fastball velocity (95.0 mph, up from 93.5 in 2019) and movement but threw the heater almost exclusively (96.9%). He was dominant, striking out 41.8% of hitters while walking 3.8%, though when batters made contact, they managed a 92.3 mph average exit velo.

Other familiar names among available lefties include José Álvarez, T.J. McFarland, Mike Montgomery, Chasen Shreve, and Tony Watson.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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sadtrombonemember
1 year ago

Quick, name all of the teams that need Trevor Bauer *less* than the Mets and Dodgers. The only one I can think of are the Padres.

It’s kind of wild that the Blue Jays are supposedly out on him. They just spent $150M to upgrade in center field and they’re relying on bounceback seasons from some set of Matz, Ray, Stripling, and Roark in the rotation.

CC AFCmember
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

How bout just the Mets because both starting pitchers and guys who harass women should be low on their priority list at the moment?

MikeSmember
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Especially since he doesn’t seem to want a real long term deal. Usually a guy like this is looking for 5 or 6 years and you just assume he is going to be much less good by the end of it and you will lose him for a year to some kind of injury, since he is a pitcher. There is much less long term risk for whatever team signs him.

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I wonder if the Mets sign him, if they can trade him to the Blue Jays for George Springer. The Blue Jays desperately need a top-end, durable starting pitcher; the Mets desperately need a center fielder. Could be a win-win! 🙃

Shalesh
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Sure, the Blue Jays budgeting seems “wild” to people who aren’t financially literate. Otherwise, it’s predictable based on their recent revenues and payrolls. The one thing that isn’t predictable is the swift return to pre-pandemic payrolls after a devastating season of losses in MLB (nearly 2/3 of the season lost) and in many businesses that can’t operate over IP.

darkness88
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Nah, but they did spend quite a bit of money, did they? Obviously they should be fine, but I would definitely go after him.

Do we really know how much years/AAV Bauer wants? He’s always been interesting with all his talking stuff on the years of his deals.