November 8, 2012

Free agent pitching options: Top-of-the-rotation starters

Twins starting pitchers combined for a 5.00 ERA during the past two seasons to rank dead last in the league and they head into the offseason with only Scott Diamond locked into a rotation spot. Terry Ryan has said he'd prefer to address the rotation via trades, which is no surprise for a team that's basically never pursued free agent pitching beyond bargain-bin shopping, but if they do decide to dive into the free agent pitching pool the water is reasonably deep.

In an effort to figure out the Twins' options I've separated the free agent pitching class into three categories: Top-of-the-rotation starters, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and back-of-the-rotation starters. First up are the top-of-the-rotation starters, which I view as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter on a contending team. By definition there are only around 40 of those guys across baseball, but a half-dozen of them are hitting the open market at the same time.

Zack Greinke - RHP - 212 innings - 3.48 ERA - 3.22 xFIP - 200/54 K/BB

As a 29-year-old coming off an excellent season and the only true ace available Greinke should be way out of the Twins' price range even if perceived off-field issues cause some teams to shy away. Greinke won the Cy Young award in 2009 and in the three seasons since then he ranks among MLB's top 10 in strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio while placing fourth in xFIP behind only Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, and Felix Hernandez.

Anibal Sanchez - RHP - 196 innings - 3.86 ERA - 3.60 xFIP - 167/48 K/BB

Sanchez recovered from multiple arm surgeries early in his career to throw at least 195 innings in each of the past three seasons and he's still just 28 years old. While not overpowering, Sanchez's above-average raw stuff produced 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings from 2010-2012 and he fared well for the Tigers after leaving the NL for the first time. Among all MLB starters since 2010 he's 26th in xFIP and 35th in ERA, which is a strong No. 2 starter.

Dan Haren - RHP - 177 innings - 4.33 ERA - 4.00 xFIP - 142/38 K/BB

Haren has long been one of MLB's most underrated pitchers, posting a 3.48 ERA with fantastic strikeout-to-walk ratios from 2005-2011 and topping 200 innings every season. Back problems in 2012 limited him to 177 innings and a 4.33 ERA that's the worst of his career, with the Angels choosing a $3.5 million buyout instead of a $15.5 million option. If healthy Haren could be a major bargain and a fly-balling fit for Target Field, but at age 31 a long-term commitment is risky.

Edwin Jackson - RHP - 190 innings - 4.03 ERA - 3.79 xFIP - 168/58 K/BB

After failing to land a huge contract as a free agent last offseason Jackson opted for a one-year, $11 million deal from the Nationals and hits the open market again sans qualifying offer. His numbers were similar to 2011, so I'm curious to see if the demand is higher this time. Jackson's overall production and strikeout rates have never quite matched his raw stuff, but he's started at least 30 games in six straight seasons despite being just 29 and ranks 36th in xFIP since 2010.

Hiroki Kuroda - RHP - 220 innings - 3.32 ERA - 3.67 xFIP - 167/51 K/BB

Kuroda was billed as a mid-rotation starter when he came over from Japan in 2008, but he's pitched like an ace with a 3.48 ERA in 919 innings. That includes a 3.32 ERA and 167/51 K/BB ratio in 220 innings for the Yankees, transitioning smoothly from a pitcher-friendly NL ballpark to a hitter-friendly AL home at age 37. He likely has no interest in pitching for the Twins and after receiving a qualifying offer it's probably a moot point anyway.

Ryan Dempster - RHP - 173 innings - 3.38 ERA - 3.77 xFIP - 153/52 K/BB

It was odd to see so many people buy into the notion of Dempster as an elite starter around the trade deadline. He had a pretty 2.25 ERA, but it was only 16 starts from a 35-year-old with a 4.09 ERA in the previous three years. Dempster was traded from the Cubs to the Rangers and came back down to earth with a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts. He's often pitched like a borderline No. 2 starter, but his velocity is trending in the wrong direction to feel good about a multi-year deal.

  • Paulie

    I’d love to see the Twins go “all out” on Sanchez given his age & performance. However, I plan on being underwhelmed once again with guys like Blanton & Villanueva. That’s the life of a Twins fatalist (realist). Keep up the great work Aaron.

  • BR

    Good list. Even your comments suggest that Dempster probably bleongs in teh next group of mid-rotation guys, as he’s unlikely to repeat last year’s numbers.

    I think the only guy here the Twins could conceivably land would be Jackson. Offer him 3 years plus an option; maybe that’s better than what he’s offered elsewhere. But it would still take more money ($10M+ per yr?) than they gave Willingham, and I guess I’ll believe they’re willing to pay that to a FA pitcher when I see it.

    Something to ponder: What about going after a top prospect, like the apparently available Trevor Bauer? Span could be the primary trade bait. He’s got top of the rotation potential…

  • Uri Jackanov

    We’ll end up with Derek Lowe, Kevin Millwood, Jeff Francis, Freddy Garcia or Kip Wells. Whoever is cheapest.

  • jfs

    it’s a mistake to trade valuable position players for pitching. anything can go wrong with a pitcher’s arm, and often does.

    acquire pitching through drafts and shrewd, inexpensive, incentive-heavy signings.

    focus on baker, liriano and villanueva this year.

  • RT

    Where is Kyle Lohse on this list?

  • Jumpin Jim Brunzel

    The only free agent pitchers the Twins will be interested in will be Terry Ryan dumpster diving specials. I just hope Ryan remembers to brush off some of the garbage this time around, last year Marquis still had dogfood lids stuck to him when he showed up in Fort Myers.

  • Dave T

    Marquis was an unexplained disaster. He was good enough before he got here, and was good enough after he left. Go figure.

    There will be dumpster-diving starters showing up for spring training, but Ryan is smart enough to know that you need a few proven innings-eaters as well. The Twins’ main trade bait is Willingham, not Span, and I think it would be a big mistake to trade Hammer this year. He is the right-handed power hitter the Twins have needed for years. (Yeah, I’m talking about you, Cuddyer — NOT!!) In the absence of a major trade, I think we’re going to overpay for a free agent starter, by giving him a year more than we should. Think Pavano II.

  • Jeff H

    The sad truth is that a middle-of-the-rotation starter on virtually any other MLB staff would instantly qualify as a potential “staff ace” on this team. If you don’t believe that, just recall that Scott Diamond became the unquestioned ace of the 2012 Twins after he made just a few starts.

    That’s why I agree with some of the other posters that a trade is the most likely scenario for us to end up with a good starting pitcher this offseason. The SP market is fairly deep, and Terry Ryan will sign one or two of the more affordable options, but as soon as one team offers any of them more than 3 years or $25 million, we’re effectively out of the running. I had hopes that Sanchez would struggle more in Detroit and end up with us, but he rose his price by pitching well late in the year. Hoping for Brandon McCarthy or anyone else with some upside who is in a position to accept a shorter-term deal for one reason or another.

  • michael

    Greinke is a great target for his
    Personal life. MN would be good for him and Mauer has the right personality to match. He fits here.

  • Brandon

    What do you think about calling up the champs and seeing if their 2-time Cy Young relief pitcher is available…Move one of the handful of outfielders in AAA? Add Edwin Jackson to eat up some innings and Target Field might sell out in August!

  • ML

    The Twins will not have any of these guys come April.

  • Chippy

    Have the Twins acquired a top-flight starting pitcher since John Smiley? (20 years ago!)

    I understand that baseball fans like to be hopeful in the off-season, but our favorite team will NEVER sign an ace from outside!