Free Agents 101: Starting Pitchers

 With Felix Hernandez locked-up long term and Hisashi Iwakuma’s 2015 option vested, the Mariners have a secure one-two punch at the top of the rotation. On paper the other three spots will be filled by youngsters Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Roenis Elias reasonable to significant upside. There isn’t a true need in the rotation outside of some back-end depth, however adding a significant piece strengthens the run prevention of a club that again finished near the bottom of the league in runs scored in 2014.

If a frontline arm such as Max Scherzer or Jon Lester is signed to big dollars, GM Jack Zduriencik could decide they possess enough depth to move one of the three kids in exchange for offensive help. The club may even gain such depth with the addition of a No. 3 type starter. Either way, Seattle should be active in the arms race, even  if it’s for depth in case of injury and/or development issues with young pitchers.

Frontline Arms

Jon Lester, LHP
Age: 31 on Jan. 7
Service: 8
Agent: ACES
Qualifying Offer: No
Lester and Scherzer top the free agent pitching market and are likely to sign nine-figure deals this witer. For his career Lester has a 3.58 ERA and FIP across 1596 innings and is coming off a very strong season split with Boston and Oakland. The left-hander’s ability to come up in the clutch in October is also well noted. Lester turned down a four-year, $70 million offer from the Red Sox in spring training and has gone on record saying he’s willing to return to Beantown.

Max Scherzer, RHP
Age: 31 on July 27
Service: 6.079
Agent: Boras Corporation
Qualifying Offer: Yes
Scherzer has one Cy Young Award to Lester’s two World Series rings, and has an identical 3.58 ERA in 1239 and 1/3 innings pitched — his career FIP is lower at 3.39. The right-hander reportedly turned down an offer slightly less than the seven years and $180 million the Detroit Tigers gave to Justin Verlander in March 2013. It would be no surprise to hear that his agent, Scott Boras, has set the bar for Scherzer at $200 million, but he’s more likely to sign a contract closer to what his teammate received.

James Shields, RHP
Age: 33 on Dec. 20
Service: 8.125
Agent: PSI Sports Management
Qualifying Offer: Yes
Although Shields is considered to be the third member of the ‘big three’ free agent starters, there’s some perception that he’s a notch below the other two. Shields, soon to be 33, has logged 1910 and 1/3 innings to the tune of a 3.72 ERA and 3.77 FIP for his career. As he’s the more veteran of the three Shields is probably looking for a shorter length of contract. He is looking for his tenth-straight season with 200-plus innings and that track record should pay north of $100 million on a five-year deal. Mark Buehrle earned $18 million in 2014 and is due $19 million in 2015.

Mid-rotation

Ervin Santana, RHP
Age: 32 on Dec. 12
Service: 9.104
Agent: Epitome Sports Management
Qualifying Offer: No
Santana was one of the premier arms available last winter but had to settle for a one-year deal after the draft pick compensation tag limited his market. After posting a 3.95 ERA and 3.39 FIP in 196 innings with the Atlanta Braves last year and had topped 200 innings in three of the previous four years. Santana is a dependable mid-rotation arm who regularly outperforms his ERA, but should be able to cash in on a multi-year deal despite receiving a qualifying offer once again. Think he would turn down four years and $48 million this time around? I don’t.

Francisco Liriano, LHP
Age: 31
Service: 8.104
Agent: The Legacy Agency
Qualifying Offer: Yes
Liriano was tendered the QO by the Pirates, a wise decision by Pittsburgh considering there’s a chance he’s well worth the $15.3 million of he accepts and the idea that handing him a two-year contract isn’t outlandish. He’s just 31 and despite a stint on the disabled list gave the Bucs 162 1/3 innings. He’s still missing bats with a 91-94 mph fastball, plus slider and a much-improved changeup. Liriano also is left-handed and playoff tested, not to mention still brings No. 1-2 starter upside.

Brandon McCarthy, RHP
Age: 32 on July 7
Service: 8.122
Agents: Ryan Ware and Chad Eberhardt
Qualifying Offer: No
McCarthy has battled injuries and inconsistency during his career but was resurgent after a mid-season trade to the New York Yankees. The right-hander had an outstanding 2011 season with Oakland that was followed by two injury-plagued years, but he managed to post strong FIP numbers and was often thought to be underrated. In 90 and 1/3 innings with the Yankees he posted a 2.89 ERA and 3.22 FIP. There’s interest in keeping McCarthy in New York, and like Volquez, he shouldn’t have a problem securing a three-year deal, perhaps with an eight-figure annual salary.

Back-end/Innings Eaters

Jake Peavy, RHP
Age: 34 on May 31
Service: 12.101
Agent: CAA
Peavy may be more than just a back-end arm based on his performance with the San Francisco Giants after struggling with the Boston Red Sox before being traded. The stuff isn’t the same as it was when he won the Cy Young for the Padres, but it appears he’s learning to pitch with an average fastball. Peavy likely will receive one-year offers laced with incentives and a low base salary. His injury history is a concern.

Edinson Volquez, RHP
Age: 32 on July. 3
Service: 7.059
Agent: Wasserman Media Group
Volquez has yet to reproduce his breakout 2008 season as a member of the Cincinnati Reds but has a strong 2014 season to back-up his case for a multi-year deal. The right-hander posted a 3.04 ERA in 196 and 2/3 innings pitched last year, though his 4.15 FIP suggests he outperformed the low earned run average. His walk rate declined for a fourth straight year, but so did his strikeout rate. Volquez will be hurt by a strong pitching market but could get guaranteed dollars for multiple years.

Hiroki Kuroda, RHP
Age: 40 on Feb. 10
Service: 7
Agent: Octagon
Kuroda was not tendered a qualifying offer by the New York Yankees and the veteran right-hander is said to be mulling over three options, according to Jon Morosi, via Twitter. Kuroda is choosing between retirement, playing one more year in the states and returning to Japan to pitch. He had a terrific 2013 but decline bit him in 2014 in some key areas, despite a similar FIP and workload. At this stage, Kuroda is a back-end starter who should continue to eat innings and pitch at a level above league average. He’s likely to get one-year offers from multiple clubs is ideal for any team that needs to shore up their rotation with a reliable option, rather than unproven youth or a significant injury risk.

AJ Burnett, RHP
Age: 38 on Jan. 3
Service: 15.038
Agent: Darek Braunecker
Burnett also is mulling over retirement but he did pitch well enough in 2014 to suggest there’s more in the tank. At one time he had the best raw stuff in baseball but he’s never possessed the command and control to back up the arsenal. His fastball dipped to 91.7 mph on average this past season but he threw more sinkers and changeups and that may be how he survives from here on out — if he chooses to continue. Burnett is likely to get a modest one-year deal.

Jason Hammel, RHP
Age: 32
Service: 7.153
Agent: Octagon
Hammel is the quintessential No. 5 starter in the American League and perhaps just a No. 4 in the NL despite his terrific first half with the Chicago Cubs. The one short stick is the right-hander’s lack of a 200-inning season, so there’s still some question as to how much more he can cover, especially now as he ages beyond his prime years.

Colby Lewis, RHP
Age: 35
Service: 8.136
Agent: Octagon
Lewis battled back from injury again to give the Rangers 170 1/3 respectable innings in 2014. The slider was again a weapon for Lewis but his curveball, changeup and fastball were well below average pitches. The Rangers tried to extend his contract in October but to no avail.

Kyle Kendrick, RHP
Age: 30
Service: 6.159
Agent: Relativity
Kendrick is best suited for a swing job and preferably in the National League. His cutting fastball is fringy at 86-88 mph and neither his slider or sinker are more than average offerings. His changeup is solid and he throws strikes, so he’s an arm worth having around, but anything more than a one-year deal with a modest guaranteed salary will be surprising.

Ryan Vogelson, RHP
Age: 37
Service: 8.020
Agent: Dave Meier
Vogelson is a legitimate big-league arm but he’s 37 and a severe fly ball pitcher, reducing his value to clubs that do not play in pitcher-friendly environments. His velocity remains in the 89-92 mph range and he avoids walks and in those pitcher’s parks the home run, too. Vogelson is well-worth the one-year deal for some guaranteed cash.

Chris Young, RHP
Age: 36
Service: 8.162
Agent: Lon Babby
Young, the 2014 American League Comeback Player of the Year, brings an unusual approach to the mound and one that worked for him this past season. The fastball touches 87 mph but sits 84-86 and none of the three offspeed pitches are plus. At 6-foot-10, you’d think Young would attack the bottom of the zone all day and create ridiculous downward plane to set up a decent slider and changeup. Instead, Young will tease the lower quadrant and then climb the ladder. He had one bad month and has likely earned a rotation spot for 2015.

Reclamation Projects

Justin Masterson, RHP
Age: 30 on Mar. 22
Service: 6.108
Agent: Rowley Sports Management
Masterson struggled in 2014 after a strong 2013 and was unable to stay in the rotation all year. Many believed he was destined for relief work years ago and that may be where he spend the majority of what’s left in his career. Still, it’s difficult to ignore his performance the previous four seasons. Some club will give him a shot to start again and will lure him with some guaranteed money.

Brett Anderson, LHP
Age: 27 on Feb. 1
Service: 6.00
Agent: Legacy Sports
Anderson is the most intriguing name among potential reclamation projects. He’s just 27 this winter and has terrific stuff equal to a No. 2 starter. He’s been injury plagued his entire career but almost always pitches well and is worth a flier, especially one that protects the club if he’s on the disabled list most of the year. Anderson may be better off in a relief role but he has the stuff to succeed there, too.

Gavin Floyd, RHP
Age: 32
Service: 8.045
Agent: Ron Shapiro
Floyd, not unlike Anderson, has the stuff to pitch effectively if he can stay healthy, and showed that again with the Braves this past year. Again like Anderson, he’s not an arm a club can afford to bank on, but an incentive-laden deal could payoff for both parties.

Roberto Hernandez, RHP
Age: 34
Service: 8.004
Agent: Jorge Brito
Hernandez still can get some ground balls but now health concerns top his list of obstacles.

Josh Johnson, RHP
Age: 32
Service: 8.026
Agent: Matt Sosnick
Johnson did not pitch in 2014 after signing with the Padres. He’s a risk for anything beyond a minor league deal.

Wandy Rodriguez, LHP
Age: 35 on Jan. 18
Service: 9.105
Agent: Adam Katz
Rodriguez was solid in 2013 then missed most of 2014 with a knee injury and subsequent surgery. He’s pitching in winter ball and 35 could very well be a great find on the free agent market considering his arm is sound.

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