Weak Free-Agent Class Gets Weaker Sans Strasburg

Next year’s free-agent class is going to be weak. It was going to be weak before Stephen Strasburg opted out of it. It was going to be weak before Adrian Beltre opted out of it. It might have been strong if Madison Bumgarner, Freddie Freeman, Buster Posey, Chris Sale, and Giancarlo Stanton hadn’t opted out of the class much earlier, but we’ve known for a while now that this year’s free-agent class was not going to be strong. Without Strasburg, the pitching class will be one of the weakest we have seen in recent history.

The position-player side of this year’ free-agent class won’t be strong, but between Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Gomez, and Josh Reddick — along with Yoenis Cespedes and a resurgent Dexter Fowler opting in to next year’s class — there will be handful of above-average players available for teams looking to add an extra bat. On the pitching side, that will not be the case.

After Cespedes signed his three-year contract with the New York Mets, I took a look at the free-agent class Cespedes was entering. With Strasburg gone, Cespedes is likely the top free agent and the only one projected for more than four wins this season. The pitching side looked even worse, as I wrote in January:

Next year is a good year if you want to get a closer on the free-agent market, but if you want an a pitcher approaching an ace level, it is Stephen Strasburg or bust. James Shields would need to opt out of his contract. The same holds true for Scott Kazmir, who got $48 million in the current market. Brett Anderson accepted the qualifying offer this year. The top of next year’s class looks a lot more like the middle of this year’s, and the middle next year looks a lot like the lower-tier options from this offseason.

Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen will be free agents, but when it comes to starters, there’s not much to go around. Last year’s class was topped by Zack Greinke and David Price, but Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmerman weren’t terrible fallback options. Zimmerman put up three wins above replacement last season and he received the fourth-largest contract of the past offseason. Unless a pitcher dramatically exceeds his current projections there won’t be any pitchers who put up even a three-win season this year. The only pitcher currently projected to produce more than 2.1 WAR this season is a 36-year-old pitcher who recorded no major-league starts for a period of six years between August 2009 and September 2015.

The table below shows all free-agent starters projected for at least one win above replacement from now until the end of the season. With four-fifths of the season to go, it shouldn’t be a difficult bar to clear. Yet here we are:

Free-Agent Pitchers at the End of the Season
2016 ROS Projection Pitcher Rank
Rich Hill 2.0 50
James Shields 2.0 51
Clay Buchholz 1.9 56
Scott Kazmir 1.9 61
Andrew Cashner 1.5 78
Jorge de la Rosa 1.4 96
Bartolo Colon 1.3 101
Jeremy Hellickson 1.2 114
Edinson Volquez 1.1 115
Jake Peavy 1.1 118
R.A. Dickey 1.0 134
Mat Latos 1.0 140
Doug Fister 1.0 142

If you believe that projections are a fair representation of a player’s current talent level, then this year’s free-agent pitching class lacks any of the league’s more valuable pitchers. Stephen Strasburg, for his part, has already accumulated 1.7 WAR, more than all but four pitchers are projected to reach between now and the end of the season.

The table below adds a little more information in the form of age — important information when considering the type of contract a player will sign — as the age of a player greatly impacts the duration of the offers he’ll receive. As you might have guessed, many of the players on this list are older, limiting the number of years on a contract. Five of the players were free agents this past offseason. Also included in the chart is WAR so far this season as well as projected end of season WAR. In the interest of completeness, the list above was doubled to include a few more players.

Free-Agent Starters at the End of the Season
2017 Age 2016 WAR 2016 ROS Projection 2016 EOY WAR
Rich Hill 37 0.8 2.0 2.8
Bartolo Colon 44 0.9 1.3 2.2
James Shields 35 0.1 2.0 2.1
Clay Buchholz 32 0.0 1.9 1.9
Scott Kazmir 33 -0.1 1.9 1.8
Andrew Cashner 30 0.2 1.5 1.7
Edinson Volquez 33 0.6 1.1 1.7
R.A. Dickey 42 0.3 1.0 1.3
Mat Latos 29 0.3 1.0 1.3
Jhoulys Chacin 29 0.4 0.9 1.3
Jeremy Hellickson 30 0.0 1.2 1.2
Jorge de la Rosa 36 -0.3 1.4 1.1
Jake Peavy 35 -0.1 1.1 1.0
Doug Fister 33 0.0 1.0 1.0
Jesse Chavez 33 0.1 0.9 1.0
Colby Lewis 37 0.1 0.9 1.0
Ivan Nova 30 0.1 0.8 0.9
Jered Weaver 34 0.1 0.6 0.7
CJ Wilson 36 0.0 0.6 0.6
Scott Feldman 34 0.1 0.4 0.5
Brett Anderson 29 0.0 0.3 0.3
Alfredo Simon 36 -0.3 0.4 0.1

If a team needs a starting pitcher but failed to pick one up last season, they’re going to be out of luck. Wei-Yin Chen, Yovani Gallardo, and Jeff Samardzija look down on these guys. Mike Leake, signed this past offseason, might fit in somewhere near the top of this list, but at least he has age on his side. If you want a good pitcher, you’ll have to trade for it — and any club that possesses strong pitching is going to look at this list and then ask for the moon.

Any free-agent class is going to look bad when compared to last year’s players, but is it really that bad going back a few more years? I went back to 2011 and looked at the top-five domestic free agents by total contract size and added the WAR. The graph below shows the results.


Remember the free-agent class of 2013 headed by Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ricky Nolasco, with support from Bronson Arroyo, Scott Feldman, Phil Hughes, and Jason Vargas? There was a reason the Yankees decided Masahiro Tanaka was worth $175 million that winter, and among them had to be the rest of the free agents available. This year’s group of players is worse than that one. Scarcity can drive prices up, but there needs to be competition on the marketplace and it isn’t clear that teams will want to compete for such a lackluster group.

Some players could dramatically improve their fortunes by turning things around, it is difficult to find a player with that sort of potential. I suppose Clay Buchholz or Andrew Cashner could go on a run, but it is difficult to see a skyrocketing price tag. Last winter saw two pitchers sign for more than $200 million, but this winter could see 2016 joining 2011 as the only years of the current decade during which a pitcher, from anywhere, failed to sign for at least $100 million. Given inflation over the years, that’s quite a tumble for starting pitchers on the free-agent market this winter.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
6 years ago

Love the second chart. I come out on top of James Shields once again.