Firing up the Hot Stove: Starting pitchers

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This is the first article in an eight-part series examining this winter’s free agents and looking at potential trade candidates and non-tenders. I’m also predicting contracts and destinations for the major free agents, but given that it’s August, those are to be taken with a grain of salt.
Starting Pitchers
Cliff Lee (Rangers) – The Indians, Phillies and Mariners all knew it well: Lee had no intention of forgoing free agency and settling for less than top dollar in a contract extension. And it looks like the strategy will pay off in a big way. No other free agent starter compares to Lee, the AL Cy Young Award winner in 2008. He’s 46-21 with a 2.80 ERA over the last three years, and he has a ridiculous 137/9 K/BB ratio in 161 1/3 innings in 2010. Only Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright and Tim Lincecum have better numbers since 2008.
The Rangers’ new ownership insists it’s committed to making a strong bid to keep Lee, but everyone expects the Yankees to attempt to reunite him with CC Sabathia atop their rotation. The Tigers, with so many contracts coming off the books, are another team that could make a run at him, and there is the chance that either the Nationals or Orioles will put their resources to work. The Red Sox, on the other hand, probably took themselves out of the mix when they chose to extend Josh Beckett.
Lee is turning 32, but he’s never been overused in his career and he hasn’t had many arm issues. He’s probably not going to get the seven-year, $161 million deal that Sabathia did, but he deserves to join Sabathia, Johan Santana and Halladay as the league’s only current $20 million-per-year pitchers. The Rangers better be prepared to offer $100 million for five years if they expect to have a chance.
Prediction: Yankees – six years, $120 million
Andy Pettitte (Yankees) – Before a strained groin knocked him out of action last month, Pettitte was 11-2 with a 2.88 ERA and appeared well on his way to his best season since 2005 with Houston. Prior to 2010, Pettitte had turned in four straight similar seasons, amassing a 4.24 ERA while averaging 207 innings per year. He’s 38 now, so he can’t simply be penciled in for 32 starts per year. Still, if he wanted to shop himself around, he’d be a candidate for a two-year deal in the $25 million range this winter. Since he still appears committed to the Yankees, he’ll probably take a fifth straight one-year deal. Retirement can’t be ruled out, but there’s little reason for him to quit now.
Prediction: Yankees – one year, $13 million
Javier Vazquez (Yankees) – After 13 seasons and five trades, the 34-year-old Vazquez will finally become a free agent for the first time this winter. It will be fascinating to see what happens. Vazquez was brilliant in the NL last year, going 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA for Atlanta, but his ERA has jumped to 4.90 in his return to the AL and New York. He’s shown incredible durability — he made at least 32 starts every season from 2000-09 and could get there again this year — but now there are suddenly questions about his arm with his velocity down over the last month. Vazquez prefers to pitch on the East Coast, and he might enjoy a return to the NL. He’s an obvious fit with the Nationals, though Detroit would also make some sense.
Prediction: Nationals – three years, $33 million
Jorge De La Rosa (Rockies) – He could use a big finish, but it’s possible De La Rosa will get the second biggest contract of any free agent starter this winter. The 29-year-old left-hander has struck out a batter an inning since moving into Colorado’s rotation in 2008, and he won 16 games last year. Unfortunately, a torn finger tendon that cost him 2 1/2 months has prevented him from making a big contract push this year. He has been pretty good outside of his first two starts back. He was 3-1 with a 3.91 ERA before going down, and he has a 3.82 ERA in his last five starts. Overall, though, he has a 4.99 ERA and he’s walked 33 in 61 1/3 innings. Since he’s the one starter in the class whose best days may still be ahead of him, some team might take the kind of gamble on him the Royals did with Gil Meche a few years back. $55 million for five years is out of reach, but some team could go to $36 million for four.
Prediction: Tigers – four years, $36 million
Ted Lilly (Dodgers) – Even though he missed time the last two seasons, Lilly gave Chicago plenty of value over the course of his four-year, $40 million contract. He went 47-34 with a 3.70 ERA during his Cubs career, and he’s 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA since being traded to the Dodgers last month. Lilly has managed to avoid major injuries since reaching the majors, but it’s worth noting that he’s pitched 200 innings just twice in his career, and since he’s about to turn 35, the odds would seem to be against him adding to that total. He’s undoubtedly worth $10 million per year, but for just how long will be the tough decision for suitors. Someone will probably go three years if he finishes strong.
Prediction: Dodgers – three years, $30 million
Carl Pavano (Twins) – Lo and behold, Pavano is in position to land another big deal two years after finishing up the four-year, $40 million deal with the Yankees that made him one of the biggest busts in free agent history. After a decent 2009, Pavano has gone 15-7 with a 3.27 ERA and five complete games this year. The Twins were able to keep him as a free agent last winter by offering him arbitration and signing him for $7 million. He’ll probably hold out for a three-year deal this time around, and barring a poor September, someone will give it to him. It’s safe to assume it won’t be the Yankees.
Prediction: Athletics – three years, $24 million
Hiroki Kuroda (Dodgers) – Kuroda is finishing up the three-year, $35.3 million contract he signed with the Dodgers after leaving Hiroshima following the 2007 season. He’s more than met expectations from a performance standpoint, amassing a 3.67 ERA with a 314/103 K/BB ratio in 441 innings for the Dodgers. However, durability is an issue, particularly with him turning 36 in February. If he wants to stay in the U.S., something like $20 million for two years would be fair.
Prediction: Mariners – two years, $18 million
Jon Garland (Padres) – There’s a $6.75 million mutual option attached to Garland’s contract, but with the season he’s had, he seems certain to decline his half and go looking for that elusive multiyear deal. Garland is 11-8 with a 3.41 ERA for the Padres, and while Petco has played a big role there — he has a 2.49 ERA at home — his road numbers aren’t bad. What’s most encouraging is that he’s amassed the highest strikeout rate of his career, fanning 97 batters in 145 1/3 innings. Garland is on pace to make 32 starts for a ninth straight season, and he’s younger than most of the other available starters (31 in Sept.). He’ll get at least a two-year deal.
Prediction: Padres – two years, $16 million
Jake Westbrook (Cardinals) – Back from Tommy John surgery, Westbrook took some time to get going this year, opening the year 0-2 with a 5.74 ERA in six starts. He’s improved steadily, though, and he has a 3.32 ERA and a 19/2 K/BB ratio in 19 innings since joining the Cardinals. Given Dave Duncan’s magic with veteran starters, it’d make all kinds of sense for Westbrook to remain with St. Louis going forward. The Cardinals, though, will have just one opening in their rotation, and Westbrook will need to continue to impress if he expects a generous offer from the team. The Diamondbacks, Brewers and Nationals are among the teams that could look to lure him away.
Prediction: Cardinals – two years, $15 million
Vicente Padilla (Dodgers) – Despite a very impressive stretch run for the Dodgers in 2009, Padilla went unsigned until late January and had to settle for a $5.025 million guarantee from L.A. He’s missed time with a forearm strain this year, but he’s again been effective, going 6-3 with a 3.32 ERA and an especially strong 1.00 WHIP in 14 starts. It seems like Padilla’s been around forever, but he’s just turning 33 in September. Of course, he’s also known for wearing out his welcome with teams and for not taking very good care of himself. More than anything else, it’s those two concerns that could force him to choose from one-year deals again this winter.
Prediction: Dodgers – one year, $7 million
Brad Penny (Cardinals) – Penny, who was guaranteed $7.5 million under the terms of the one-year deal he signed with the Cardinals last winter, has been unable to overcome a back injury that’s sidelined him since May. He had a 1.70 ERA in his first seven starts before getting hit hard in his last two and landing on the DL. He also finished strong in 2009. Still, he hasn’t turned in a productive season since 2007. Another one-year deal is a certainty, and unless he comes back and shows something in September, he might have to settle for something incentive-laden.
Prediction: Astros – one year, $5 million plus incentives
Livan Hernandez (Nationals) – Hernandez finished with ERAs of 4.83, 4.93, 6.05 and 5.44 in the four years leading up to 2010, but here he sits at 3.08 through 157 2/3 innings. It’s all due to what would seem to be unsustainably low home run and hit rates, but there is the chance it will land him a multiyear deal this winter. It could hinge on how the Nationals want to play it. They declined to make him available to teams prior to the trade deadline, and odds are that they’ll make quite an effort to re-sign him. He’ll ask for several times his current $900,000 salary.
Prediction: Nationals – one year, $5 million
Kevin Millwood (Orioles) – Millwood was strong for two months in his first and likely only year with Orioles, posting a 3.89 ERA through the end of May. Two disastrous months followed, making him untradeable at the end of July, but Millwood has turned in back-to-back quality starts now and he still might be involved in a deal before the end of the month. Making his way out of the AL East and to a bigger ballpark would help: Millwood has allowed 24 homers this season, 17 coming at Camden Yards. His ERA sits at 5.74, but his 97/45 K/BB ratio in 138 innings isn’t bad. Millwood would be an ideal choice to step into San Diego’s rotation if Garland leaves. He’d also work for the Mets or Cardinals.
Prediction: Padres – one year, $4 million plus incentives
Jeremy Bonderman (Tigers) – Shoulder problems limited Bonderman to 13 starts between 2008 and 2009, and the Tigers didn’t really have any idea what they’d get out of him this year. He has managed to stay healthy in his walk season, but the results have been barely adequate, as he’s 6-8 with a 5.16 ERA. On the other hand, his FIP ERA stands at 4.37. He has a nice 90/36 K/BB ratio, and he’s given up a reasonable 17 homers in 125 2/3 innings. Those numbers suggest that his ERA should be considerably better, but even in his good years, Bonderman tended to put up ERAs that were significantly worse than his peripherals. So, I don’t know. One could look at him and say he’s right where Pavano was a year ago. However, since his velocity isn’t what it was, his upside is probably pretty limited.
Prediction: Brewers – one year, $4 million plus incentives
Kevin Correia (Padres) – One of Petco Park’s big success stories, Correia has barely held his own in 2010 after turning in a 3.91 ERA as a full-time starter for the first time in 2009. He’s currently 9-7 with a 4.86 ERA in 22 starts. Outside of Petco, his ERA stands at 5.24. The Padres should opt to let him go rather than give him a raise from the $3.6 million he’s earning currently. A few clubs will probably look at him as a nifty fourth starter, but he could easily turn back into an adequate middle reliever in another ballpark.
Prediction: Mets – one year, $4 million
Rich Harden (Rangers) – It was already the longest of long shots, but with Harden landing on the DL again Sunday, this time with shoulder tendinitis, there’s no way the Rangers will exercise their half of his $11 million mutual option for 2011. He walked 50 and gave up 16 homers in 74 1/3 innings before going down for the second time this year, leaving him with a 5.45 ERA. Harden’s velocity is well down, his command is subpar and he’s a poor bet to stay healthy even while having his workload monitored closely. He can still get swings and misses with his fastball and changeup, but it might be time for him to give the pen a try.
Prediction: Royals – one year, $3 million plus incentives
Brandon Webb (Diamondbacks) – The wild card. Webb hasn’t taken the mound since Opening Day, 2009. The hope was that he’d return from shoulder surgery in time to start this year, but his arm hasn’t responded and now the best-case scenario is that he makes it back as a reliever in September. Even if he pulls that off, he’ll probably remain in line for an incentive-laden one-year deal as a free agent. The Yankees, Red Sox and Mariners are among the teams that might want to gamble on him, but it’s possible that Webb will take less money to stay in Arizona if he feels he’s let the team down these last two years.
Prediction: Reds – one year, $2.5 million plus incentives
Other free agents: Pedro Martinez (FA), Justin Duchscherer (Athletics), Rodrigo Lopez (Diamondbacks), Jamie Moyer (Phillies), Freddy Garcia (White Sox), Braden Looper (FA), Dave Bush (Brewers), Nate Robertson (Cardinals), Dontrelle Willis (Giants), Bruce Chen (Royals), Jeff Suppan (Cardinals), Todd Wellemeyer (Giants), Chris Capuano (Brewers), Kris Benson (Diamondbacks), Tim Redding (Yankees), Mike Hampton (FA), Mark Prior (FA), Noah Lowry (FA), Ben Sheets (Athletics)
Options
Aaron Harang (Reds) – $12.75 million club option, $2 million buyout
Bronson Arroyo (Reds) – $11 million club option, $2 million buyout
Chris Young (Padres) – $8.5 million club option
Erik Bedard (Mariners) – $8 million mutual option, $250,000 buyout
Jeff Francis (Rockies) – $7 million club option
Doug Davis (Brewers) – $6.5 million mutual option, $1 million buyout
There’s only one tough call here, that being Francis. The 28-year-old southpaw has pitched pretty well in his return from shoulder surgery, having gone 4-4 with a 4.56 ERA in 16 starts. However, he just landed on the DL with more shoulder soreness. How he comes back next month will determine whether the Rockies exercise the option. … Arroyo will have his $11 million option picked up. It’s an easy choice after factoring in the buyout. The rest all figure to join the free agent pool.
Trade candidates: Zack Greinke (Royals), Matt Garza (Rays), James Shields (Rays), Ricky Nolasco (Marlins), Jonathan Sanchez (Giants), Edwin Jackson (White Sox), Chris Volstad (Marlins), Anibal Sanchez (Marlins), Aaron Cook (Rockies), Paul Maholm (Pirates), Zach Duke (Pirates), Carlos Zambrano (Cubs), Tom Gorzelanny (Cubs), Jeremy Guthrie (Orioles), Scott Feldman (Rangers), Andy Sonnanstine (Rays), Manny Parra (Brewers), Glen Perkins (Twins), Derek Lowe (Braves), Kenshin Kawakami (Braves), Kyle Davies (Royals), Brian Bannister (Royals), Matt Harrison (Rangers), Kyle Kendrick (Phillies), Scott Kazmir (Angels), Oliver Perez (Mets), Sergio Mitre (Yankees), Greg Smith (Rockies)
Greinke will have two years left on his deal, so there won’t be any urgency to trade him. If he becomes a malcontent in Kansas City, then he’ll probably be moved at the deadline next year. … The Rays may opt to part with a starter in order to fill other holes. All things being equal, they’d probably prefer to move Shields. However, he’s locked in at a modest price. Garza doesn’t have a long-term deal, and he could potentially make $6 million in arbitration next year and perhaps $10 million in 2011. … The Marlins are sure to field inquiries about their starters. Nolasco will probably receive a raise to about $6 million in arbitration, and Sanchez could triple his salary from $1.25 million to $3.75 million or so.
Non-tender candidates: Zach Duke (Pirates), Jeremy Guthrie (Orioles), Brian Bannister (Royals), Kyle Davies (Royals), John Maine (Mets), Ian Snell (Mariners), Scott Olsen (Nationals), Chien-Ming Wang (Nationals), Andrew Miller (Marlins), Ryan Rowland-Smith (Mariners), Brandon McCarthy (Rangers), Chris Narveson (Brewers), Jeff Karstens (Pirates), Scott Richmond (Blue Jays), Dustin McGowan (Blue Jays), Jo-Jo Reyes (Blue Jays), Sergio Mitre (Yankees), Dustin Moseley (Yankees), Anthony Reyes (Indians), Eric Hurley (Rangers), Kevin Mulvey (Diamondbacks), Ryan Feierabend (Mariners), Bryan Bullington (Royals)
Players in arbitration don’t get paycuts, so Duke could see his salary climb to $5 million or so, even though he’s 5-11 with a 5.20 ERA this season. He’s simply not worth it. … Guthrie is off to a great start in the second half, so he’s most likely safe. He’s another due about $5 million in arbitration. … Bannister ($2.3 million) and Davies ($1.8 million) were fortunate to avoid the non-tender list last year. Bannister looks like a goner this time around, while Davies might be able to save himself again. His ERA is down from 6.06 at the end of June to 5.22 now. … Maine and Snell are pretty much definites to join the free agent ranks.
It doesn’t look like Wang will pitch in the majors this year after taking a $2 million deal over the winter. The Nats certainly won’t go to arbitration with him. … Miller will be an interesting case for the Marlins. If he were making the minimum, it’d be worth keeping him around for another year. However, because he signed a major league contract out of college, he currently has a salary just under $1.8 million, even though he’s not eligible for arbitration yet. The Marlins can cut that figure by 20 percent, but it probably isn’t enough.

Pre-2012 free agents: Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)*, Chris Carpenter (Cardinals)*, Roy Oswalt (Phillies)*, Ryan Dempster (Cubs)*, Wandy Rodriguez (Astros), C.J. Wilson (Rangers), Mark Buehrle (White Sox), Joel Pineiro (Angels), Edwin Jackson (White Sox), Aaron Cook (Rockies)*, Paul Maholm (Pirates)*, Carlos Silva (Cubs)*, Jason Marquis (Nationals), Zach Duke (Pirates), Gil Meche (Royals), Kenshin Kawakami (Braves), R.A. Dickey (Mets), Scott Kazmir (Angels)*, Scott Olsen (Nationals), John Maine (Mets), Kyle Davies (Royals), Chien-Ming Wang (Nationals), Oliver Perez (Mets), Tim Wakefield (Red Sox), Sergio Mitre (Yankees)
2012 options: Wainwright – $21 million for 2012-13 (vests w/top-5 in CY balloting in 2010 or ’11), Carpenter – $15 million ($1 million buyout), Oswalt – $16 million mutual ($2 million buyout), Dempster – $14 million player option, Cook – $11 million mutual ($500,000 buyout), Maholm – $9.75 million ($750,000 buyout), Silva – $12 million mutual option ($2 million buyout), Kazmir – $13.5 million ($2.5 million buyout)
Pre-2013 free agents: Zack Greinke (Royals), Matt Cain (Giants), Francisco Liriano (Twins), Dan Haren (Angels)*, Jered Weaver (Angels), Cole Hamels (Phillies), John Danks (White Sox), Chad Billingsley (Dodgers), Tim Hudson (Braves)*, Ricky Nolasco (Marlins), Jake Peavy (White Sox)*, Fausto Carmona (Indians)*, Gavin Floyd (White Sox)*, Shaun Marcum (Blue Jays), Ervin Santana (Angels)*, James Shields (Rays)*, Jonathan Sanchez (Giants), Carlos Zambrano (Cubs)*, Colby Lewis (Rangers), Daisuke Matsuzaka (Red Sox), Scott Baker (Twins)*, Derek Lowe (Braves), Randy Wolf (Brewers)*, Joe Saunders (Diamondbacks), Joe Blanton (Phillies), Anibal Sanchez (Marlins), Brett Myers (Astros)*, Jeremy Guthrie (Orioles), Kyle Lohse (Cardinals), Scott Feldman (Rangers)*, Brian Bannister (Royals), Anthony Reyes (Indians), Brandon McCarthy (Rangers)
2013 options: Haren – $15.5 million ($3.5 million buyout), Hudson – $9 million ($1 million buyout), Peavy – $22 million ($4 million buyout), Carmona – $9 million, Floyd – $9.5 million, Santana – $13 million ($1 million buyout), Shields – $9 million ($1.5 million buyout), Zambrano – $19.25 million player option w/top-2 CY finish in 2011 or top 4 in 2012, Baker – $9.25 million, Wolf – $10 million ($1.5 million buyout), Myers – $10 million vesting ($3 million buyout), Feldman – $9.25 million ($600,000 buyout)
Listed options are club options unless otherwise noted.

Report: Koji Uehara close to signing with the Cubs

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 10:  Koji Uehara #19 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the American League Divison Series at Fenway Park on October 10, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald reports, citing a source as well as Nikkan Sports, that reliever Koji Uehara is close to signing a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Cubs.

Uehara, 41, finished the 2016 season with a 3.45 ERA and a 63/11 K/BB ratio over 47 innings. He missed some time in the second half with a strained right pectoral muscle. When Uehara returned from the disabled list on September 7, he tossed 11 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts and two walks through the end of the regular season. So there’s at least some evidence, albeit in a very small sample size, that Uehara has stuff left in the tank.

The Cubs recently acquired closer Wade Davis from the Royals. Uehara would join Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Jr., Justin Grimm, and Mike Montgomery in what is once again a very deep bullpen.

MLB implements another player-unfriendly rule, this time targeting draftees

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media before Game Three of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of MLB Network and FOX Sports reports that the MLB draft has a new program in which the top-50 pitching prospects are asked to undergo a voluntary pre-draft MRI on their throwing arm. At first glance, it seems reasonable because, hey, pitchers are injury-prone and players sometimes hide injuries. It would feel bad if my favorite team drafted a lemon!

The reality is that this is just another player-unfriendly rule that shifts financial risk away from the owners and onto the players. The players, in this case, are often not wealthy and are about to begin life in the minor leagues where they earn less than $8,000 per year. Signing bonuses help alleviate some of the immediate financial discomfort of minor league life.

The pre-draft MRI is “voluntary” with quotes around it. Choosing not to undergo the MRI will only give prospective teams more reason to be skeptical of one’s durability. It’s a lot like those voluntary workouts in football that aren’t so voluntary due to superior and peer pressure. You don’t show up, you’re lazy, entitled, a bad teammate, etc. In this case, a pitching prospect refuses to undergo the MRI, it’s because he’s hiding an injury.

Ian Anderson was the first pitcher taken off the board in the 2016 draft, going to the Braves at No. 3. He got a $4 million signing bonus. Let’s say this new MRI program had already been instituted and Anderson refused, or something came up that caused the Braves to change their minds. Anderson’s draft stock falls, let’s say to 21 where the Blue Jays took T.J. Zeuch with a $2.175 million signing bonus. Falling 18 spots in this case costs Anderson about $2 million, perhaps more because he loses a lot of negotiating leverage. Maybe he falls further, even to the second round.

In a column for FanGraphs nearly two years ago, Nathaniel Grow showed that, as a percentage of total league revenues, player salaries have been declining since the early 2000’s. In 2002, player salaries made up 56 percent of league revenues. In 2014, it was only 38 percent.

In isolation, the MRI program isn’t a big deal. The injured player loses stock, but another player moves up to take his place and earns a bit more money. As part of the bigger picture, however, this is part of an ongoing trend in which owners abdicate financial risk and push it all onto the players. The new collective bargaining agreement, for example, capped international signings at $5-6 million per team per year. That removes any incentive for overseas stars like Shohei Otani from coming over to play Major League Baseball. If he wanted to anyway, he would make much less money than he otherwise would on an open market. The amateur draft itself is almost entirely risk-avoidant for owners and it’s terrible for the players because they, too, would earn much more on an open market. And let’s not forget how owners have fought tooth-and-nail to keep minor league salaries suppressed.

Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick once paid $2.8 million for the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card. Let’s not act like these owners can’t afford to shoulder the risk on young pitchers.

EDIT (4:40 PM EST): As I’ve seen others mention it, it’s worth bringing up the Astros/Brady Aiken issue. The Astros took him first in the 2014 draft, but they took issue with his elbow health. The two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, but the Astros wanted to reduce it to $5 million as a result. Aiken didn’t end up signing with the Astros. He underwent Tommy John surgery and was later selected by the Indians 17th overall in the first round of the 2015 draft. He got a $2,513,280 signing bonus.