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2018-19 Free Agency Preview: Starting Pitchers

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Beginning this Saturday, baseball’s free agents will be eligible to sign with any team they want.

Over the next couple of days we’ll break down the best available free agents by position, with some special attention paid to the top guys at each spot. We’ll get started with the starting pitchers.

Who’s Available?

A while LOT of guys, actually. Two of them — World Series Game 5 starters Clayton Kershaw and David Price — are merely potential free agents as they have opt-out clauses they could exercise. Price is extraordinarily unlikely to do so. As we wrote yesterday, we’re less clear on Kershaw. We’ll wait and see on him. There are others not on this list who could become free agents if they or their club do not exercise contract options, the most notable being Cole Hamels. We’ll wait and see on them, too.

Otherwise, here are the top starting pitchers available in, more or less, descending order of 2018 performance:

Patrick Corbin
Dallas Keuchel
Clayton Kershaw (can opt-out)
J.A. Happ
Charlie Morton
Lance Lynn
David Price (can opt-out)
CC Sabathia
Anibal Sanchez
Nathan Eovaldi
Gio Gonzalez
Hyun-Jin Ryu
Trevor Cahill
Derek Holland
Clay Buchholz
Wade Miley
Matt Harvey
Jeremy Hellickson
Garrett Richards
Tyson Ross
Brett Anderson
James Shields
Edwin Jackson
Marco Estrada
Francisco Liriano
Bartolo Colon
Yovani Gallardo
Jaime Garcia
Drew Pomeranz
Miguel Gonzalez
Chris Tillman
Ervin Santana

That’s a whole lot of names but, as always, the quality and durability drops pretty precipitously once you get even a little way down the list.

Corbin and Keuchel — and Kershaw, should he opt-out — are clearly the top arms available. Age and health concerns impact a number of the guys behind them.

Nathan Eovaldi — he of two Tommy John surgeries — certainly upped his stock in the postseason, as did Hyun-Jin Ryu, following an injury-driven first half absence. Charlie Morton looked to be making a case for a big deal, but late season injury issues turned him into a bigger risk.

Beyond that top tier, it’s equally possible to imagine any one of these guys having a fine 2019 season or being a total train wreck. No one anticipated, for example, that Anibal Sanchez would be pitching for a playoff team in 2018, but he did. No one, likewise, imagined that Matt Harvey would at least be making a case that he’s back on the road to being useful. So many of these guys are lottery tickets, for the good and the bad that implies.

Then there’s the soon-to-be 46-year-old Bartolo Colon, who someone should sign simply so there remains one player in the big leagues older than me.

 

Who’s Shopping?

Despite what bullpenning-crazy playoff games may have suggested to you, starting pitching still matters a great deal in Major League Baseball and more teams will cite starting pitching as their top need than anything else. Some may be shopping down on the Tyson Ross-Derek Holland end of the list as opposed to the top, and others may try to do what the Rays did last year and see if they can’t get away with having only three reliable starters at any given time while supplementing with bullpen days, but at the moment we should at least assume half the league or more is in the market for a starter or two.

The most notable team in the market for starting pitching is the Yankees, who are, potentially, losing two of the guys in this list in CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ, and already had starting pitching needs. They may very well bring both of those guys back, but they’ll no doubt try to do much more than that. Specifically, look for them to be mentioned prominently in connection with Patrick Corbin and, if he opts out, Clayton Kershaw. If they can’t get Corbin, Dallas Keuchel could very well be on their radar as well. The Yankees are, simply put, going to be driving the market for starting pitching this winter.

Other contenders in the market for starting pitchers:

  • Brewers: Their valiant run in the NLCS notwithstanding, they can’t expect to win 96 games again without another arm or two;
  • Athletics: They made a playoff push with a bullpening approach in late 2018 but their brass has indicated they want to give Bob Melvin more starting arms;
  • Braves: They could certainly use an arm to complement their contingent of young starters;
  • Cubs: Offense was their biggest problem late in the year, but they signed two starters last winter and one — Yu Darvish — was injured most of the year, leading them to pick up Cole Hamels in midseason. They have an option on Hamels for next season and are likely to exercise it, but it’s pricey;
  • Nationals: If they lose Bryce Harper and thus have money to burn they could — and likely should — look to bolster the back end of the rotation to take the heat off of their lackluster bullpen;
  • Diamondbacks: Losing Corbin would be huge, but they’re likely going to be a player to retain his services. If they do lose him, they’ll need an arm;
  • Angels, while not likely to be considered a major contender, at least have to proceed as one as long as Mike Trout is on the roster, and they have tended to proceed as one in the free agent market. Their loss of Shohei Ohtani clearly puts them in need of a starter.

A few teams in various stages of rebuilding will likewise be looking for starting pitching. Most likely second-tier (or worse) veteran arms who (a) can save their young pitchers from getting destroyed in losing causes; and (b) can be flipped for prospects at the deadline if those veteran starters prove to be surprisingly good. Here I’m thinking the Reds, Padres, Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers and White Sox.

As I said, basically everyone needs starting pitching, always. As the very long list above suggests, there’s a whole lot of it to go around.