The Remaining Market for Jake Odorizzi

As the calendar flips to March, exhibition season has begun (!) in both Arizona and Florida, and yet a few top free agents remain unsigned. Atop the list in terms of projected impact is Jake Odorizzi, who’s had the misfortune of mistiming the market, in part due to an injury-wracked 2020 season. Still, there’s no shortage of teams that the veteran righty, who placed 24th on our Top 50 Free Agents list, could help.

Odorizzi, who turns 31 on March 27, spent the past three seasons with the Twins, putting together a solid campaign in 2018 (4.49 ERA,4.20 FIP, and 2.5 WAR in 164.1 innings), and an All-Star one in ’19 (3.51 ERA, 3.36 FIP, and 4.3 WAR in 159 innings). Last year was a near-total loss, though, as he was limited to 13.2 innings by an intercostal strain and a blister. Prior to that, Odorizzi pitched four years and change with the Rays, that after being traded in blockbusters involving Zack Greinke and Lorenzo Cain (2010) — he was originally a supplemental first-round pick by the Brewers in ’08 — and then James Shields and Wil Myers (2012). In Tampa Bay, he totaled 6.5 WAR from 2014 to ’16 before a bout of gopher trouble (1.88 homers per nine) led to a replacement level season in ’17. That hiccup aside, he’s been very solid and (prior to 2020) rather durable, averaging 30.3 starts per year from 2013 to ’19; an oblique strain in ’15 and hamstring and back woes in ’17 kept him to 27 starts in those seasons. As best I can tell, he’s never missed significant time due to an arm injury.

Odorizzi has gone his entire career without signing a multiyear deal. He won back-to-back arbitration cases against the Rays in 2017 ($4.1 million) and ’18 ($6.3 million), the reward for which was being traded to the Twins just two days after the latter decision was announced. After making $9.3 million in 2019, his best season, he received a $17.8 million qualifying offer from the Twins, which apparently put a drag on his market before he could fully test the waters. Via’s Do-Hyoung Park, Odorizzi received “a lot of interest” from other teams at the time, to the point of exchanging dollar figures, “but the uncertainty generated by the timeframe and the draft considerations ultimately led to his return to Minnesota.” The fact that Odorizzi wouldn’t be be subjected to another qualifying offer the next time he reached free agency, and thus wouldn’t have the millstone of draft compensation attached to his signing, was a factor in his decision.

Alas, his 2020 season didn’t pan out as planned. The intercostal strain landed him on the injured list to start the season, and so he didn’t make his season debut until August 8. In his third outing, on August 21, he was hit in the chest by a batted ball, suffering a contusion and landing on the IL again. Upon returning, a blister problem led to another early hook. Though he was on the roster for the AL Wild Card series against the Astros, he did not pitch.

Odorizzi has drawn significant interest this winter, at various points being connected to the Twins, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Giants, Red Sox, Mets, and lately the Phillies and Angels. In midwinter he was reportedly seeking a three-year deal for $36 to $42 million, but in this market, that’s been a pipe dream. The only starting pitchers who have landed multiyear deals are Trevor Bauer, Mike Minor, Taijuan Walker, and KBO returnee Chris Flexen, with Bauer the only pitcher to get three years. Here’s how that compares with the previous five winters:

Multiyear Deals for Free Agent Starting Pitchers
Winter 2 3+ Total AAV ≥ $10M
2015-16 6 12 18 13
2016-17 4 2 6 2
2017-18 6 5 11 4
2018-19 5 4 9 6
2019-20 8 5 13 3
2020-21 3 1 4 1
AVG 2015-19 5.8 5.6 11.4 5.6
SOURCE: MLB Trade Rumors

That’s a pretty remarkable fall-off, all the moreso given the decreasing frequency of AAVs of $10 million or more, with the 2018-19 offseason standing out as an anomaly in that department. This is admittedly an incomplete analysis without the one-year deals and a fuller picture of average salaries thrown in, but it’s a stark illustration of the current market nonetheless.

It’s worth noting that Odorizzi and Bauer, this winter’s lone recipient of a deal worth more than $10 million annually, actually entered the 2020 season with vaguely similar career numbers: a 3.88 ERA, 4.09 FIP and 13.6 WAR in 1,028.2 innings for Odorizzi, and a 4.04 ERA, 3.92 FIP and 17.4 WAR in 1,117 innings for Bauer, who’s about 10 months younger, though obviously their paths diverged in 2020.

Even leaving aside the bleakness of the current landscape, history suggests that the odds of Odorizzi landing a multiyear deal are slim; in recent memory there haven’t even been a whole lot of one-year deals worth $10 million or more signed in March. Alex Cobb signed a four-year, $57 million contract with the Orioles in March 2018, and [as I forgot until after publishing this initially] Jake Arrieta signed a three-year, $75 million one that year as well. Lance Lynn landed a one-year, $12 million deal with the Twins that same year. Ervin Santana took a one-year, $14.1 million contract with the Braves in March 2014. Kyle Lohse snagged a three-year, $33 million deal from the Brewers in 2013. Santana was the only one of that group who didn’t have a qualifying offer complicating matters, but despite coming off a 211-inning season with a 3.24 ERA and 3.93 FIP, he couldn’t do any better in the market. At this stage, a straight three-year contract might be unrealistic, but a more complex one, with player and club options, could help to mitigate that, and those seem to be in vogue these days, as both Bauer and Walker signed deals along these lines.

As for which teams could target Odorizzi, several make sense in terms of the way their current rotations project, particularly in a year that’s likely to be short on workhorses and long on six-man plans given the ramp-up from 60 games to 162. Odorizzi, who via our Depth Charts projections is forecast to provide 2.1 WAR via a 4.46 ERA and 4.54 FIP in 150 innings, would provide a significant boost, though whether the teams in question have the will to add him via anything but a lowball deal at this juncture may be another matter. Here are eight teams that stand out — out of 11 projected to win between 78 and 85 games — in the order of their Depth Charts rankings.

Nationals (5th in Depth Charts, 15.4 WAR)

Thanks to Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals project to have a top-five rotation, but the fall-off to the back end is steep. Free agent Jon Lester and holdovers Joe Ross (who opted out last year and who’s never made more than 19 starts) and Erick Fedde project to provide a combined 2.4 WAR in 324 innings. Adding Odorizzi eyeballs as at least a one-win upgrade — no small matter for a team that will need some breaks to contend, given that Washington is projected to win 81.5 games via our Playoff Odds. With Scherzer a free agent after this winter and with less than $70 million in payroll committed to next year, the Nationals do seem like a team that could get a multiyear deal done, particularly given their history of deferring money.

Phillies (11th, 13.7 WAR)

Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler make for a solid 1-2 punch, and both Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez project to produce in the two-win range, but Philadelphia’s back-of-the-rotation options — Matt Moore (who’s back from Japan), Spencer Howard, and Chase Anderson — are only forecast for 2.1 WAR in 251 innings. The Phillies, who project to win just 78.5 games, probably needed to do something bigger this winter in the ultracompetitive NL East, as the Mets and Braves aren’t standing still. They’re already at $201.7 million for Competitive Balance Tax purposes, but the fact that they checked in on Odorizzi last week is telling.

Red Sox (15th, 12.2 WAR)

In early January, the Red Sox were reportedly eyeing Odorizzi. Since then, they’ve brought back Martín Pérez and added Garrett Richards via one-plus-option deals. That pair slots in behind Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi, with Tanner Houck or Nick Pivetta rounding out the starting five until Chris Sale is ready to return from Tommy John surgery. That won’t happen until at least late May given that he’s on the 60-day injured list and could come even later than that, as he’s been slowed by neck stiffness and a COVID-19 infection. The Sox are projected to be in the Wild Card hunt, so even an incremental upgrade along these lines would improve their odds considerably.

Rays (17th-tied, 11.8 WAR)

A return to Tampa Bay would make some sense for Odorizzi given the Rays’ meager ranking, which is down from third in last year’s Positional Power Rankings after they lost Charlie Morton via free agency, Blake Snell via trade, and Yonny Chirinos to Tommy John surgery. Between Chris Archer returning from thoracic outlet syndrome and the oft-injured Michael Wacha and Rich Hill in the fourth and fifth slots, the Rays are dealing with significantly elevated risks that Odorizzi could help mitigate given his track record.

Cleveland (17th-tied, 11.8 WAR)

Cleveland might have the best pitcher development system in the game, but after shedding Corey Kluber, Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Carlos Carrasco over the past three years, the team’s depth is noticeably thinner; the rotation ranked eighth in last year’s PPRs. The top contenders for the fifth rotation spot, lefty Logan Allen and righty Cal Quantrill, project to produce 1.6 WAR in 216 innings, and the team is currently running just a $53 million projected payroll, $37 million less than the freakin’ Royals. Yeesh.

Angels (17th-tied, 11.8 WAR)

At least at first glance, depth doesn’t appear to be the Angels’ problem, as they’ve added Cobb and Jose Quintana to join Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney, and Griffin Canning, with Shohei Ohtani slated to return from a season lost to a flexor pronator strain after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October 2018. There are question marks within that bunch given their injury histories, but the fact that the Angels have been “in all along,” as’s Jon Heyman characterized them last week, tells you something, as does their perpetually low ranking here.

Astros (22nd, 11.2 WAR)

This one makes a whole lot of sense, particularly given that Odorizzi pitched in Tampa Bay when general manager James Click was in the team’s front office. Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., and Framber Valdez project as a solid 1-2-3, but Jose Urquidy, Cristian Javier, and Forrest Whitley project to produce just 2.3 WAR in 243 innings, with the last of those having high upside but a long track record for injuries. Justin Verlander, meanwhile, ain’t walking through that door given his late-September Tommy John surgery. With Greinke, Verlander and McCullers all free agents after this season, Odorizzi makes sense from a multiyear perspective, though the Astros’ proximity to the $210 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold — they’re at $201.2 million via Roster Resource — could be an issue.

Cubs (28th, 8.7 WAR)

Woof. Outside of Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs don’t project to have a single pitcher worth 2.0 WAR or even one that will fan more than 7.6 per nine, and while the quality of their defense mitigates that somewhat, this is particularly grim. Arrieta, Alec Mills, Trevor Williams and Adbert Alzolay may each have a facet or two that inspires hope of outpitching his projection: Arrieta, a former Cy Young winner, was an ace in Chicago; Mills threw a no-hitter last year; Willams was excellent in 2018; Alzolay “has mid-rotation upside assuming good health,” according to Eric Longenhagen. But together, that group projects for 3.7 WAR in 481 innings, which again, woof. Given how tight the NL Central should be, any upgrade could have an outsized impact, though it seems unlikely that cost-cutting Chicago is willing to travel that route.

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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1 year ago

With Miles Mikolas already having issues coming off of flexor tendon surgery, I can see the Cardinals jumping in to see about bringing Odorizzi home on a Kyle Lohse Spring Training 2008 type deal.

1 year ago
Reply to  snakestl

It’s not really an issue, just pushing him back a few days out of caution. If he wasn’t returning from surgery, he would make his scheduled start.

In any case, while the Cardinals’ rotation does have question marks, it also has a ton of upside and depth. It’s not hard to see 5 or even 6 of their starters out-pitching Odorizzi this year.