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Hot Stove Preview: Top Free Agent Starting Pitchers Available

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Now that the World Series is over, we have a full offseason ahead of us. As you have probably heard, this class of free agents isn’t exactly the most stacked. With only a handful of elite players, we might see teams rush to snag them so they’re not left with table scraps. Or we could see teams play a game of chicken with free agents in an attempt to drive their prices down.

Today, we’ll start by previewing the starting pitchers that will be available.

1. Rich Hill, LHP

The lefty proved that his resurgence at the end of the 2015 season with the Red Sox wasn’t a fluke. Over 20 starts between the Athletics and Dodgers, he posted a 2.12 ERA with a 129/33 K/BB ratio across 110 1/3 innings. He missed a lot of time between mid-July and early September due to a blister issue, but he came back strong in September and then pitched decently in the playoffs, including six shutout innings in Game 3 of the NLCS against the Cubs.

What’s working against Hill is that he’ll be 37 years old in March and hasn’t shown that he can be healthy for an entire season. As a result, teams will hesitate to commit to him beyond two years but Hill might have enough leverage in a weak starting pitching market to command a third year. He’s looking at a two-year, $30 million deal with an option or three guaranteed years at around $45 million total. It’s quite feasible that Hill crosses the $50 million threshold as well.

As SportsNet LA reported on Wednesday, Hill would like to stay with the Dodgers. He said, “Absolutely… with the leadership that’s here — Clayton [Kershaw] being the best pitcher in baseball … it’s something that you want to be around.” Expect the Dodgers to make a concerted effort to keep Hill around.

2. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP

Hellickson, 29, had some rough seasons from 2013-15 with the Rays and Diamondbacks, but he rebounded nicely with the Phillies this past season. Over 32 starts, he compiled a 3.71 ERA with a 154/45 K/BB ratio in 189 innings. He and Jerad Eickhoff were the only two reliable members of an otherwise uninspiring starting rotation.

If the qualifying offer rules stay the same with the new collective bargaining agreement, then the compensation attached to Hellickson after he rejects the Phillies’ $17.2 million QO could hinder his ability to find a home. A team that signs a player who rejected his previous team’s QO has to give up their earliest available pick. For a team that had one of the 10 worst records in baseball this past season, that is likely their second-round pick. For the other teams, it’s a first-round pick. While Hellickson had a nice season and would help most rotations, teams might prefer to gamble on a Jhoulys Chacin and keep their pick instead.

Hellickson will have more leverage in this weak market, but if he doesn’t foresee himself getting lucrative offers, he could accept the Phillies’ QO. That would be great for the Phillies, who have money to burn and could try to trade Hellickson at the end of spring training or at the trade deadline next summer.

3. Ivan Nova, RHP

Nova was pitching horrendously with the Yankees, posting a 4.90 ERA at the time they shipped him to the Pirates. But, like most wayward pitchers who wind up in Pittsburgh, pitching coach Ray Searage helped rebuild him. In 11 starts with the Pirates, Nova compiled a 3.06 ERA with a 53/3 K/BB ratio in 64 2/3 innings.

Will he parlay that into big money? Probably. Unlike Hill, he’s not so good that he can afford to confidently say no to most offers to drive his price up. And unlike Hellickson, he won’t have QO compensation attached to him. It’s quite possible that Nova will be the first starting pitcher off the board. Don’t expect the Pirates to do the honors.

4. Bartolo Colon, RHP

Colon will be 44 years old next season but he plans to play and there will be a market for his services. The right-hander finished with a 3.43 ERA and a 128/32 K/BB ratio in 191 2/3 innings with the Mets this past season, his best performance since joining the team in 2014.

Normally, a 44-year-old pitcher would be looking at a minor league deal at this stage in his career, but Colon was productive and durable, and he’s a free agent in a weak market. All of that will help him get something close to the one-year, $7.25 million deal he got with the Mets last December.

The Mets are expecting to finally have a rotation full of their young, promising arms: Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler. If nothing happens to Mets pitchers between now and when he signs, Colon will likely don a new uniform next season.

5. Edinson Volquez, RHP

The Royals have a $10 million mutual option with a $3 million buyout for the 2017 season with Volquez, but the club is expected to decline to bring him back.

Volquez, 33, had a horrendous 2016 season with the Royals, finishing with a 5.37 ERA and a 139/76 K/BB ratio in 189 1/3 innings. He had a career rebirth with the Pirates in 2014 under Searage, then went to the Royals in 2015 and helped them to a championship. To echo Meat Loaf, two out of three ain’t bad.

Volquez will still be pursued despite the poor showing and he’ll still command a multi-year deal. Teams are better equipped now more than ever to look past a pitcher’s ERA and they’ll notice that his FIP and xFIP were close to what he’s done over most of his career and they’ll value the fact he’s made 30-plus starts in five straight seasons.

6. Derek Holland, LHP

The Rangers have an $11 million club option with a $1.5 million buyout on Holland for the 2017 season. The club is reportedly trying to trade him before making a decision on the option.

Holland, 30, missed most of the 2014-15 seasons with an injury, then missed some more time this summer with a shoulder injury, making only 20 total starts. He finished with a 4.95 ERA and a 67/35 K/BB ratio over 107 1/3 innings.

In the likely event the Rangers can’t find a trading partner, they’ll likely decline the option to make Holland a free agent. In that case, Holland is likely looking at a one-year, incentive-laden deal.

Injury-Prone Ventures

Brett Anderson, Andrew Cashner, Charlie Morton, C.J. Wilson

Past Their Prime

R.A. Dickey, Colby Lewis, Jake Peavy, Doug Fister, Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum

Depth

Jon Niese, Jorge De La Rosa, Scott Feldman, Jesse Chavez, Bud Norris, Jhoulys Chacin, John Danks, Tommy Milone, Alfredo Simon

Skaggs Case: Federal Agents have interviewed at least six current or former Angels players

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The Los Angeles Times reports that federal agents have interviewed at least six current and former Angels players as part of their investigation into the death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs.

Among the players questioned: Andrew Heaney, Noé Ramirez, Trevor Cahill, and Matt Harvey. An industry source tells NBC Sports that the interviews by federal agents are part of simultaneous investigations into Skaggs’ death by United States Attorneys in both Texas and California.

There has been no suggestion that the players are under criminal scrutiny or are suspected of using opioids. Rather, they are witnesses to the ongoing investigation and their statements have been sought to shed light on drug use by Skaggs and the procurement of illegal drugs by him and others in and around the club.

Skaggs asphyxiated while under the influence of fentanyl, oxycodone, and alcohol in his Texas hotel room on July 1. This past weekend, ESPN reported that Eric Kay, the Los Angeles Angels’ Director of Communications, knew that Skaggs was an Oxycontin addict, is an addict himself, and purchased opioids for Skaggs and used them with him on multiple occasions. Kay has told DEA agents that, apart from Skaggs, at least five other Angels players are opioid users and that other Angels officials knew of Skaggs’ use. The Angels have denied Kay’s allegations.

In some ways this all resembles what happened in Pittsburgh in the 1980s, when multiple players were interviewed and subsequently called as witnesses in prosecutions that came to be known as the Pittsburgh Drug Trials. There, no baseball players were charged with crimes in connection with what was found to be a cocaine epidemic inside Major League clubhouses, but their presence as witnesses caused the prosecutions to be national news for weeks and months on end.