Teams Should Be Careful What They Wait For

After Clayton Kershaw, next year’s class of free agents is light on starters.
(Photo: Arturo Pardavila III)

This slow offseason has many fans and teams already looking toward — and maybe salivating over — next year’s free-agent class. The star power available next season is incredible. Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado are among the top-nine position players on our Depth Chart Projections. All three will be free agents in November. With Charlie Blackmon, A.J. Pollock, Brian Dozier, Clayton Kershaw, Daniel Murphy, and Andrew McCutchen also set to hit the market, the class boasts quality depth, as well.

Those are certainly some impressive names. Notably, however, almost all of them belong to position players. While next year’s free-agent class could be unrivaled in terms of overall talent, it’s possible that the glow of the top hitters has obscured how lopsided that class is likely to be. Kershaw is great, but there’s only one of him. Multiple teams, meanwhile, will be searching for pitching upgrades next winter. A preliminary glance at things reveals that their options could be limited.

Before getting to next year’s crop of pitchers, let’s perform a brief refresher on the one wrapping up. We had Yu Darvish at the top of the class, with Jake Arrieta a rung below followed by Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, Tyler Chatwood, Jhoulys Chacin, and Jaime Garcia. This year’s group of free-agent starting pitchers lacked both firepower and quality depth, an unexpected development considering how things looked heading into last season. In December 2016, I naively believed in this year’s crop of starters. The projections backed me up, too: at that time, three pitchers appeared likely to produce four-win seasons, six to top three wins, and eight pitchers total to put up at least 2.5 WAR. By November, only Yu Darvish hit free agency with a season above 2.5 WAR, and even he missed his projection by a full win.

The table below shows the free-agent starting-pitching class I expected over a year ago, including projections for 2017, their actual production last season, and their resulting contract, if any.

The Failed Free-Agent Class
Name 2017 Proj. WAR 2017 WAR Difference Result
Yu Darvish 4.5 3.5 -1.0 5/$126 M
Johnny Cueto 4.2 1.2 -3.0 Did not opt out
Jake Arrieta 4.1 2.4 -1.7 3/$75 M
Masahiro Tanaka 3.9 2.7 -1.2 Did not opt out
Michael Pineda 3.5 1.1 -2.4 TJ Surgery, 2/$10 M
Danny Duffy 3.1 3.4 0.3 Signed extension
John Lackey 2.8 0.5 -2.3 Free agent
Wei-Yin Chen 2.5 0.5 -2.0 Did not opt out
Tyler Chatwood 2.3 1.1 -1.2 3/$39 M
Jaime Garcia 2.3 2.1 -0.2 1/$10 M
Jeremy Hellickson 2.2 0.2 -2.0 Free agent
Bartolo Colon 2.2 0.6 -1.6 Minor-league deal
Ian Kennedy 2.1 -0.2 -2.3 Did not opt out
Francisco Liriano 2.0 0.8 -1.2 1/$4 M
CC Sabathia 1.9 1.9 0.0 1/$10 M
Jhoulys Chacin 1.9 2.3 0.4 2/$15.5
Lance Lynn 1.9 1.4 -0.5 1/$12 M
Alex Cobb 1.6 2.4 0.8 Free agent
Marco Estrada 1.5 2.6 1.1 1/$13 M
Chris Tillman 1.4 -1.0 -2.4 1/$3 M
Jason Vargas 1.4 1.6 0.2 2/$16 M
AVERAGE 2.5 1.5 -1.0

Of the 14 pitchers projected for at least two wins in 2017, only five cleared that bar. Of those five pitchers, only three (Arrieta, Darvis, and Garcia) made it to free agency. Johnny Cueto was ineffective after a great 2016 season, and he remained with the Giants. Masahiro Tanaka was good last season, but he chose to take the Yankees up on his three-year, $67 million option. Michael Pineda is now recovering from Tommy John surgery. Danny Duffy signed an extension last January. Further down the line, we see some players who met expectations, but none of the them proved to be difference-makers, and many come with age or injury concerns.

Last year’s class didn’t have to turn out so poorly, but at least it started from a pretty high base in terms of expectations. By contrast, consider next year’s class. Below is a table showing the top projected free agents for next season, including players with opt-outs. Included here are last year’s performance, this year’s projections, and each pitcher’s age in the 2019 season (that is, the first in a potentially new contract). Players with team options are not included because, if they are good, the team figures to pick up the option. If they are bad and become free agents, they probably don’t merit much discussion. (Cole Hamels might represent an exception to that rule.)

The Best Potential Free Agents for 2018-2019
Name 2017 WAR 2018 Proj. WAR Age in 2019 Player Option
Clayton Kershaw 4.6 6.2 31 2/$65 M
Dallas Keuchel 2.5 4.3 31
David Price 1.5 3.6 33 4/$127 M

If he finishes the season healthy, Kershaw seems a lock to opt out of his contract and — as Jay Jaffe discussed last month — seek another $200 million deal. After Kershaw, things get a bit dicier. Keuchel is projected for a very good season, but he’s only been worth around five wins the last two seasons combined. He pitched very well in the playoffs, but it might be a stretch to think he can sustain that performance across an entire season when he hasn’t done so since his 2015 Cy Young campaign. If David Price merely hits his projection, he seems unlikely to walk away from the remaining years and dollars on his contract. He would need to put in a great performance to try to induce a team into paying him more than $25 million per year though his age-37 season. That’s a pretty tall order. The most likely scenario is Kershaw on top with a solid Keuchel lined up behind him.

Next, we get to a collection of pitchers who are above average but probably wouldn’t be slotted into the top-two spots of the rotation — and maybe not even the top three on some contenders.

The Decent Potential Free Agents for 2018-2019
Name 2017 WAR 2018 Proj. WAR Age in 2019
Gio Gonzalez 3.3 2.9 33
J.A. Happ 2.9 2.9 36
Garrett Richards 1.0 2.7 31
Drew Pomeranz 3.1 2.5 30
Charlie Morton 3.3 2.4 35
Patrick Corbin 3.0 2.1 29
Brandon McCarthy 2.4 2.0 35
Adam Wainwright 1.5 2.0 37

Half of these guys will be 35 or older during the 2019 season. Most have been injured or ineffective in recent seasons. Gio Gonzalez has been consistently good for nearly a decade, but it’s hard to say what that might be worth in free agency as he enters his mid-30s. If teams are looking for players to help them contend and be a part of a playoff rotation, the pickings appear slim. There’s some depth beyond these players, as the list below illustrates.

The Potential Depth Free Agents for 2018-2019
Name 2017 WAR 2018 Proj. WAR Age in 2019
Nathan Eovaldi 0.0 1.7 29
Hyun-Jin Ryu 0.8 1.7 32
Lance Lynn 1.4 1.6 32
CC Sabathia 1.9 1.6 38
Matt Harvey -0.8 1.4 30
Jason Hammel 2.1 1.2 36
Francisco Liriano 0.8 1.2 35
Josh Tomlin 2.2 1.1 34
Miguel Gonzalez 1.4 0.7 35

Some intriguing options exist here. Lance Lynn, another year removed from Tommy John surgery, could recover some value. Matt Harvey has pitched like an ace in the not-too-distant past. Eovaldi and Ryu could be beat their projections. That said, next winter could look a lot like this offseason — literally in the case of repeat free agents like Gonzalez, Liriano, Lynn, and Sabathia.

For clubs seeking a star position player, next winter provides a free-agent class worth anticipating. For those searching for the same on the pitching side of the market, however, there’s going to be Clayton Kershaw. After the best pitcher on the planet, the free-agent class of starting pitchers could prove disappointing.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

I don’t think this offseason has been about waiting for next year’s pitchers, but more about not giving long contracts to aged pitchers. Outside of kershaw I see that continuing next year

5 years ago
Reply to  al_beast

That still doesn’t explain what happened with guys like Lynn and Cobb who are good pitchers and still young enough to have expected 3+ years with a strong AAV.