This upcoming offseason was poised to be one filled with excitement surrounding the starting pitchers available on the free agent market. Teams were poised to open up their wallets in hopes of signing Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, or Cole Hamels — but the market quickly dried up once Cain and Hamels signed contract extensions with their current teams.
An intriguing name should join the market this winter, however, as CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported last week that the Chicago White Sox are not expected to exercise Jake Peavy’s 2013 option worth $22M. Instead, they are expected to pay a $4M buyout and allow Peavy to sign elsewhere.
The 31-year-old should represent an interesting high-risk, high-reward option for potential buyers this winter. Peavy has thrown the baseball well this season, compiling a 3.71 FIP and +4.1 wins above replacement over 203.2 innings. He has soaked up innings and provided significant value as a solid number two option in the White Sox’s rotation.
The problem lies in the fact that Peavy’s option for 2013 pays him to be an ace, something he has arguably not been since 2007 when he posted +6.1 WAR for the San Diego Padres. Injury concerns also keep him away from ace-type money. He has only thrown more than 111.2 innings once since that 2007 season and has also seen both his swinging strike rate and velocity drop.
With that said, the right-hander has proven effective on the mound this season and should attract multiple suitors. Only eight pitchers in the American League currently have a higher WAR than Peavy. His 3.83 K/BB also ranks seventh-best in the AL. He has increasingly become a fly-ball pitcher over the past couple of seasons, but his approach on the mound has changed correspondingly to throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone to induce more swings at poor pitches. Only 42.9% of his pitches are in the strike zone, which is by far a career low. His 64.3% F-Strike% makes that approach feasible, though, working ahead and forcing opposing hitters to expand their strike zone.
It’s clear that Peavy still produces on the mound when healthy. What type of contract a team may be willing to offer this winter, however, is ultimately unclear because of those health questions. Jon Heyman asked an AL executive over the weekend what various free agents could command this winter, and Peavy’s potential contract came in at two-years, $25-30M. It seems unlikely that he’ll be able to ink a deal more lucrative than Edwin Jackson, who has developed into a workhorse, mid-rotation starter that should net him a three or four year deal this winter.
Peavy, though, could capture the highest average annual value (AAV) of any starting pitcher not named Zack Greinke. He possesses more talent — again, when healthy — than both Edwin Jackson and Kyle Lohse, and the age of Hiroki Kuroda and Ryan Dempster should keep any contracts relatively modest.
For the Chicago White Sox, their starting rotation loses significant production without Peavy and leaves them with question marks in the starting rotation. Chris Sale is a burgeoning ace and should anchor the rotation, but the remainder of the organization’s options were underwhelming this season. As a team — including Peavy — the White Sox only compiled a 4.24 FIP and was the seventh-best rotation in the American League. Losing Peavy gives them a projected 2013 rotation that includes the likes of Gavin Floyd (4.51 FIP), John Danks (5.03 FIP), Jose Quintana (4.11 FIP), and Dylan Axelrod (4.86 FIP). That, of course, depends on if the organization even brings back Floyd on his $9.5M option.
All of that projection clearly is devoid of any potential acquisitions made this winter, but the overall point is that Chicago does not have much to get excited about in their starting rotation after Sale. The organization reportedly has interest in re-signing Peavy after they decline his option. It seems unlikely, though, that the White Sox would be willing to go $15M per year if they declined effectively paying $18M for one year (his $22M option minus the $4M buyout).
Of course, having sparse options for the rotation does not necessarily justify committing significant payroll space to an injury risk, which is why Peavy and the White Sox are expected to part ways this winter. The impending departure simply highlights the need for the White Sox to acquire upgrades to their rotation.
It is important to remember that the White Sox actively sought to acquire Zack Greinke this summer. If the organization were to reallocate the funds saved by declining Peavy’s option to a five or six year deal for Greinke, the decision to part with Peavy will be looked upon with a significantly different lens. It would undoubtedly augment the White Sox’s starting rotation and give them a wicked one-two punch for the next half-decade.
However, if Peavy continues his success and compiles another four-win season in 2013 and the organization is stuck with middling options purchased on a dried-up free agent market, the White Sox could be left regretting the decision to not exercise his option. But such is the risk of parting ways with a talented, yet injury-prone pitcher. Teams must determine whether that potential pain outweighs the detrimental outcome of paying a pitcher $22M to potentially be on the disabled list for a significant portion of the season. The White Sox seemingly have determined the reward does not outweigh the risk.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).