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With Patrick Corbin gone, free agent starter market is weak

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The Nationals plucked starter Patrick Corbin off the free agent market on Tuesday, agreeing to a six-year, $140 million contract. Now that Corbin’s gone, the free agent market for starters is quite weak. Here’s who’s left:

From this list, we can extract a handful of players — Eovaldi, Happ, Keuchel, and Morton — as being clearly better than the rest. But all of these pitchers come with warts to varying degrees. The aforementioned four just have the fewest. Those warts include age, recent injuries, and recent poor performance.

Keuchel, for instance, had a career-low strikeout rate in 2018 at 17.5 percent, a four percent decrease from the year prior. He turns 31 when the calendar turns to January and his fastball averages under 90 MPH. Patrick Corbin he is not.

Eovaldi’s stock skyrocketed with yeoman’s work during the postseason for the World Series champion Red Sox. He tossed 22 1/3 innings, including six in relief in the 18-inning barnburner with the Dodgers in Game 3 of the World Series. Eovaldi also pitched well during the regular season, compiling a 3.81 ERA across 21 starts and one relief appearance with the Rays and Red Sox. The 28-year-old, however, finished his first full season since 2016 after undergoing multiple elbow surgeries. His durability is anything but a given.

Morton has continued to get better and better following a metamorphosis that appeared to begin with the Phillies in 2016. His average fastball registered between 91-93 MPH with the Pirates, but averaged 94 MPH in his brief four-start stint with the Phillies, then came in at 95 and 96 MPH in the past two seasons with the Astros. Morton’s strikeout rate rose with it, going from 17-19 percent towards the end of his stint with the Pirates, 27 percent with the Phillies, and 26 and 29 percent in his two years in Houston. 2018 was the best year of Morton’s career as he went 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA and a 201/64 K/BB ratio in 167 innings. There’s a lot to believe in with Morton. However, he’s 35 years old and last year was the only year in his 11-year career in which he reached the 30-start plateau.

Happ has been both good and durable for much of the past five years. Over that span of time with the Blue Jays, Mariners, Pirates, and Yankees, the lefty made 145 starts to the tune of a 3.62 ERA with 782 strikeouts and 253 walks across 848 innings. Happ actually finished sixth in AL Cy Young Award balloting in 2016, but it’s the only time in his career he’s ever received votes for the award. Despite his durability and reliable production, Happ is now 36 years old and he doesn’t have nearly as high a ceiling as someone as Corbin does. While the Yankees and Phillies — both teams that heavily pursued Corbin — view Happ as a fallback, but it’s name-brand versus store-brand.

The next tier of pitchers — García, González, Jackson, Liriano, Pomeranz, Ramírez, Ross — are not the types of pitchers one would like to ink to multi-year deals. The rest of the list are pitchers likely to land minor league deals with invitations to spring training.

So now that Corbin is off the board, the best starting pitching upgrades are likely to be found via trade. The Indians have reportedly been listening to offers for Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer, for instance. It wouldn’t be surprising to see teams like the Phillies and Yankees head that route and then spend their money on the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

Noah Syndergaard: ‘I feel like I’m going to bet (on) myself in free agency’

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Yankees starter Luis Severino and Phillies starter Aaron Nola both signed contract extensions within the last week. Severino agreed to a four-year, $40 million contract with a 2023 club option. Nola inked a four-year, $45 million deal with a 2023 club option.

While the deals both represented significant raises and longer-term financial security for the right-handed duo, some feel like the players are selling themselves short. It has become a more common practice for players to agree to these types of deals in part due to how stagnant free agency has become. Get the money while you can.

Mets starter Noah Syndergaard is in a similar situation as Severino and Nola were. He and the Mets avoided arbitration last month, agreeing on a $6 million salary for the 2019 season. He has two more years of arbitration eligibility left. A contract extension with the Mets would presumably cover both of those years plus two or three years of what would be free agent years. As Tim Britton of The Athletic reports, however, Syndergaard plans to test free agency when the time comes.

Syndergaard said, “I trust my ability and the talent that I have. So I feel like I’m going to bet (on) myself in free agency and not do what they did. But if it’s fair for both sides and they approach me on it, then maybe we can talk.” He clarified that he would be open to a conversation about an extension, but the Mets thus far haven’t approached him about it. In his words, “There’s been no traction.”

Syndergaard, 26, has been one of baseball’s better starters since debuting in 2015. He owns a career 2.93 ERA with 573 strikeouts and 116 walks in 518 1/3 innings. Among pitchers to have logged at least 400 innings since 2015 and post a lower ERA are Clayton Kershaw (2.22), Jacob deGrom (2.66) and Max Scherzer (2.71). Syndergaard made only seven starts in 2017 yet still ranks seventh among pitchers in total strikeouts since 2015.

If Sydergaard doesn’t end up signing an extension, he will be entering free agency after the 2021 season. The collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2021 and a new one will likely be agreed upon around that time. Syndergaard will hopefully have better prospects entering free agency then than players do now.