The Strong Free-Agent Pitching Class of 2017-18

Teams have been less than enthusiastic with this year’s class of free-agent starters. Only two pitchers, Rich Hill and Edinson Volquez, have received multi-year contracts worth more than $10 million per season. Combined, the years and dollars on their contracts equal the same five years and $70 million that Ian Kennedy received from the Kansas City Royals last year, the eighth-highest contract given to a starting pitcher during the 2015-16 offseason.

There’s good reason for the lack of sizable free-agent contracts for starters this winter: the class isn’t particularly good. While some have already begun looking ahead to the monster class of free agents available after the 2018 campaign — one that includes Bryce Harper, Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, Manny Machado, and David Price — next year’s class should actually be quite strong as well. It might be even stronger than the 2018-19 offseason’s free agents on the pitching side.

The effect of opt-outs in contracts has been rather small thus far. In recent years, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia both opted out of their contracts and then re-signed with the New York Yankees. Zack Greinke opted out of his contract with the Dodgers last winter and cashed in with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Next winter, we’re going to see the first full-fledged offseason during which opt-outs could loom large.

Here are the pitchers whose contracts feature opt-outs after next season, including the remaining money on their deals, per MLB Trade Rumors.

Starting Pitchers with Opt Outs After 2017
Name 2016 WAR 2017 Projections 2017 AGE Opt Out (Yrs./$M left)
Johnny Cueto 5.5 4.2 31 4/$84 M
Masahiro Tanaka 4.6 3.9 28 3/$67 M
Wei-Yin Chen 0.8 2.5 31 3/$52 M
Ian Kennedy 1.7 2.1 32 3/$43 M

Chen, Cueto, and Kennedy all signed their free-agent deals just last offseason, while Tanaka will be four years into the seven-year deal he signed with the Yankees back before the 2014 season. If Tanaka posts another four-win season this year, he seems like the best bet to opt-out. He’ll be entering his age-29 season, and would seem to be assured of finding terms than those remaining on his contract with the Yankees. The decisions for the other three starters are less clear.

Chen is coming off a disappointing season. If he rebounds, though, opting for free agency to get another four or five years might make sense — even at a lesser average annual value. Kennedy’s contract seemed like an overpay by Kansas City at the time — and he still seems like a decent bet to stay with the club — but if he puts together a strong 2017 campaign, he might test the market. Cueto is owed the most money of this group, but if he approximates his performance his 2016 numbers in 2017, he’d be in a situation similar to the one in which Zack Greinke found himself last year. All four pitchers could reap the benefits of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, given that penalties for players who’ve been extended a qualifying offer have now lessened.

Even if just those four players represented the best of next year’s free agent class, it would still mark a significant step up from this year. Cueto and Tanaka are pretty far out in front of Rich Hill in terms of performance and age, while the only other pitchers to record two-plus wins en route to free agency this year were 43-year-old Bartolo Colon, Jeremy Hellickson (who never made it to free agency), and Ivan Nova.

The four players in the table above do not represent the entirety of the free-agent starting-pitcher market for next year, however. At the top of the heap, there will be two proven aces and two younger players who could earn themselves a lot of money with good years.

Top Potential SP Free Agents Next Winter
Name 2016 WAR 2017 Projections 2017 AGE
Yu Darvish 2.7 4.5 30
Jake Arrieta 3.8 4.1 31
Michael Pineda 3.2 3.5 28
Danny Duffy 2.8 3.1 28

If Cueto and Tanaka opt out, there could be six free-agent pitchers who enter the 2017-18 offseason sporting better future projections than Rich Hill does this offseason. This year, it’s tough to fill out a decent five-man rotation with free agents, while next year we could see a top-of-the-line squadron of pitchers hitting free agency. Nor is it not just at the top where next year’s class is solid.

This offseason’s free-agent class features eight pitchers — (Colon, Hellickson, Hill, Nova, Volquez, Jhoulys Chacin, R.A. Dickey, and Jason Hammel) — who are currently projected to record at least 1.4 WAR next season. Only seven reached that in win-projection threshold last season (same group minus Dickey). We don’t yet know what this year’s group of free agents will do, but it’s hard to fathom they won’t be significantly improved next season. Even assuming that none of the pitchers above exercise their opt-outs, there are 17 pitchers with a projection greater than 1.4 WAR, 10 of at least 2.0 WAR, along with the four above 3.0 WAR mentioned above.

Potential SP Free Agent Depth Next Winter
Name 2016 WAR 2017 Projections 2017 AGE
John Lackey 3.1 2.8 38
Tyler Chatwood 2.1 2.3 27
Jaime Garcia 1.2 2.3 30
Jeremy Hellickson 3.2 2.2 30
Bartolo Colon 2.9 2.2 44
Francisco Liriano 0.4 2.0 33
CC Sabathia 2.6 1.9 36
Jhoulys Chacin 1.6 1.9 29
Lance Lynn 0.0 1.9 30
Alex Cobb -0.1 1.6 29
Marco Estrada 3.0 1.5 33
Chris Tillman 2.4 1.4 29
Jason Vargas 0.3 1.4 34

While Colon, Lackey, and Sabathia are all old by the standards of the game, seven of the pitchers in the group above will be just 30 years old or younger next year. Hellickson represented one of the very best pitchers on the market this winter. Next year, if Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn will rebuild their value, he could find himself outside the top-10 best starting pitchers. This list doesn’t even include Tyson Ross, who might increase his value considerably. There’s also another list of guys who could pitch their way to relevancy, including Clay Buchholz, Andrew Cashner, Nathan Eovaldi, Miguel Gonzalez, Derek Holland, and Hector Santiago.

While the free-agent market for starting pitchers this season has been pretty brutal, things will be much better a year from now. We don’t know what will happen over the course of the next year — last year at this time, Stephen Strasburg was going to be the jewel of this winter’s class — but it certainly seems like those in need of pitching next offseason will have some very good options from which to choose. The new CBA should help expand the number of teams able to pursue pitchers who’ve been extended a qualifying offer, and the proliferation of contracts featuring opt-outs last winter could bolster the crop of pitchers both at the top and in the middle.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

Seeing Bartolo projected for 2.2 WAR at age 44 makes me smile. He is a treasure.