November 6, 2013

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

Dating back to the 2011 season Twins starting pitchers have posted a combined 5.08 ERA for the worst mark in baseball and the only other rotation with an ERA above 4.80 during that three-year span plays half its games at Coors Field. In those three seasons Twins starters ranked 26th, 29th, and 30th in ERA. They also ranked 28th, 30th, and 30th in strikeout rate, including a pathetic 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings this year while no other team was below 6.0.

To figure out their options for addressing the dreadful rotation via free agency I've grouped the available arms 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 decent number of them are hitting the open market at the same time.

2013 Chicago Cubs Photo DayMatt Garza - RHP - 155 innings - 3.82 ERA - 3.73 xFIP - 136/42 K/BB

There are less likely Twins reunions (Kyle Lohse, for instance), but not many. Garza was misguidedly traded away for Delmon Young as a 23-year-old in 2007 and has gone on to post a sub-4.00 ERA in every season since. He never quite developed into an ace, but has been a solid No. 2 starter with good strikeout rates and mediocre control. He bounced back fairly well from an injury wrecked 2012 campaign and at age 30 is likely in line for a huge payday.

2013 New York Yankees Photo Day

Hiroki Kuroda - RHP - 201 innings - 3.31 ERA - 3.60 xFIP - 150/43 K/BB

For the second straight offseason Kuroda is one of the elite free agent pitchers available and for the second straight offseason no one seems to think there's any chance he does anything but re-sign with the Yankees. Kuroda will be 39 years old before Opening Day, but showed zero signs of slowing down this year in terms of workload, raw stuff, or effectiveness and has posted a sub-3.50 ERA in each of the past four years. He'd cost the Twins a second-round draft pick to sign.

Pittsburgh Pirates Photo DayA.J. Burnett - RHP - 191 innings - 3.30 ERA - 2.92 xFIP - 209/67 K/BB

Burnett was written off as a bum thanks to three ugly seasons in New York, but the Pirates gladly let the Yankees pay them to take him for two seasons and got 393 innings of a 3.41 ERA. Among the 81 pitchers to qualify for the ERA title this year Burnett ranked fourth in strikeout rate, second in ground-ball rate, and eighth in xFIP, but at age 37 it's possible he'll retire and if not the Pirates seem confident he'll re-sign.

2013 Toronto Blue Jays Photo DayJosh Johnson - RHP - 81 innings - 6.20 ERA - 3.58 xFIP - 83/30 K/BB

Johnson has always struggled to stay healthy (150-plus innings four times in eight seasons) and always pitched like an ace when not hurt (3.40 career ERA), but this year he was injured and ineffective. However, his secondary numbers were vastly superior to his bloated 6.20 ERA, including more than a strikeout per inning, and his fastball averaged 93 miles per hour. At age 30 no free agent pitcher has more upside, but Johnson's injury history is impossible to ignore.

2013 Kansas City Royals Photo DayErvin Santana - RHP - 211 innings - 3.24 ERA - 3.69 xFIP - 161/51 K/BB

No free agent pitcher improved his stock more than Santana, who went from the Angels dumping his $13 million salary on the Royals to throwing 211 innings with a 3.24 ERA at age 30. It's perfect timing and his horrible 2012 now looks out of place next to sub-4.00 ERAs in 2010, 2011, and 2013, but Santana remains very homer-prone and hasn't topped 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings since 2008. And he'd cost the Twins a second-round draft pick to sign.

Cleveland Indians Photo DayUbaldo Jimenez - RHP - 183 innings - 3.30 ERA - 3.62 xFIP - 194/80 K/BB

Jimenez emerged as a young ace for the Rockies and was acquired by the Indians in a mid-2011 blockbuster, but his raw stuff steadily declined and he was a mess in 2012. He got back on track in a big way this year, throwing 183 innings with a 3.30 ERA and 194 strikeouts, but his average fastball velocity actually fell even further to a career-low 91.7 miles per hour and he's always been extremely wild. He'd cost the Twins a second-round draft pick to sign.

Atlanta Braves Photo DayTim Hudson - RHP - 131 innings - 3.97 ERA - 3.56 xFIP - 95/36 K/BB

One of the best, most underrated starters of this generation, Hudson was having another effective year at age 37 when a fractured ankle ended his season in July. Hudson is overlooked because he doesn't rack up tons of strikeouts, but among all pitchers with at least 1,000 innings as starters since his debut in 1999 he ranks fourth in ground-ball rate and fifth in homer rate. It seems doubtful that he'd want to finish his career on a non-contender, but Hudson is a helluva pitcher.

2013 Washington Nationals Photo DayDan Haren - RHP - 170 innings - 4.67 ERA - 3.67 xFIP - 151/31 K/BB

Haren's health status made him a big question mark last winter and he chose a one-year, $13 million deal with an eye on resurrecting his value and hitting the open market again. Things went horribly for him early on, but from July 1 through the end of the season he started 15 games with a 3.29 ERA and 84/18 K/BB ratio in 88 innings. Injuries and diminished raw stuff make Haren a risk at age 33, but his secondary numbers were much more impressive than his ERA.

For a lot more about the Twins' free agent pitching options, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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.