Free agency is not as much of a no-brainer as it used to be. The clean cut obvious pickups you’d find sometimes don’t exist because teams can extend the most valuable players and keep them away from free agency.
However, every year there are going to be free agents and a lot of them are going to be talented and ready to receive a giant paycheck to set them for life. Let’s examine the most talented starting pitchers.
It’s no secret that ANY superstar pitcher is going to be a risk due to age, injury potential, slated for decline, and because they will oodles and oodles of cash which will take up chunks of budget. So teams that sign a terrible free agent starting pitcher hurt themselves from contending.
The following four pitchers are all in their 30s (or going to be next year) all of them have miles on the odometer of their arm and all of them are going to be expensive as heck. They have been fantastic players up to now and yet at the same time, they are the most dangerous free agents.
1. Zack Greinke
Zack Greinke is a free agent I have studied extensively. He’s as odd a case as he is a person (trust me when I say he’s odd) and yet he’s got a Cy Young from back in 2009 and after a subpar season with the Royals, they traded him to Milwaukee in 2010 for four prospect, both of whom became ALCS MVPs for them (Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain).
So Kansas City doesn’t regret that trade and no, before you wonder, there will not be a reunion. Greinke fits perfectly with Kansas City, but that would mean David Glass would have to pay a lot of money and the cheapskate owner only just scratched the $100 million mark for payroll this year. He won’t up it by $20 million or more.
Greinke’s time in Los Angeles has been very successful. 51-15 with a 2.30 ERA after a year where he lead the league in ERA (1.66) and was runner-up for the NL Cy Young. That’s good enough to want him back even if the FIP was 2.76 (meaning he had great defense lowering that ERA), but because he’s 32, there’s cause for concern.
How many years does he have left? Most pitchers started to lose velocity by this time in their careers and Greinke has shown some signs of that happening. It’s not sudden but steady. His average fastball in KC was in the 93 mph range, went down to 92ish in Milwaukee and since he’s been a Dodger, it’s been below 92. Plus he’ll want a deal probably in the seven-year range worth maybe $200 million.
The Dodgers and a few other rich ballclubs can afford him, but should the investment be made in him? That’s a question I’ve yet to answer and I’m sure there are front office men staring at Excel spreadsheets asking the same question.
2. David Price
David Price is the biggest name (even bigger than Greinke in a way) and was the runner-up to the AL Cy Young leading in ERA (2.45) with a 2.78 FIP. But his biggest flaws are he’s dreadful in the postseason (0-7 as a starter) and an ERA of 5.14 with just two quality losses. His fastball is still strong, but he’s still 30 and does anyone really want to shell out $200 million to a guy who can’t get it right in October? The answer is yes, but should they is the bigger question because any team banking on Price is going to meet his price and pay the price if he doesn’t play well in postseason alone. If he is terrible in the regular season eventually, the front office will look like a skit of the Marx Brothers.
3. Jordan Zimmerman is the Nationals second guy. He’s been the name behind Strasburg and the name behind Scherzer, but he’s actually played well by himself. The thing that bothers me about Zimmerman is that he wants ace money and to me, he’s a semi-ace. He’s not the best pitcher in either league but he’s so good he’s top 10 at worst. But that’s not $200 million (what he wants), it’s more $150 million range.
Plus he’s coming off his worst season, granted a good season (3.66 ERA/3.75 FIP over 201.2 innings and 164 K) but it’s still his worse season. It’s an indicator that he’s possibly declining already and his fastball average dropped three-quarters of a mile this past season (93.8 down to 93.0). Zimmerman is probably the most dangerous pitcher of the bunch including Cueto who speaking of…
(Editor’s Note: As of press time, Zimmermann has agreed to a five-year $110 million deal with the Detroit Tigers)
4. Johnny Cueto
He is last because he’s the champ. After having an ace-like career in Cincinnatti, he was traded to Kansas City to bolster the rotation. There, he proceeded to almost wreck his value by absolutely stinking the mound up. He went 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA and ballooned an ace season (2.62 ERA in Cincinnati) to a 3.44 ERA season.
Cueto is an annoying pitcher because he’s hurt often. He has 24 starts in 2011 and only 11 starts in 2013. His best seasons were 2012 and 2014. 2012 put him on the map with a 19-9 record and a 4th place finish in the Cy Young race. 2014 was his single All-Star year where he was runnerup in the Cy Young while leading the league with 243.2 innings pitched and 242 strikeouts. His ERA was 2.25. That’s Cueto ace. He even saved himself a great deal of despair (unlike Price) by finishing the season on the highest note. Ned Yost believing that having the KC crowd behind him would help, started Cueto in game 2 of the World Series.
Cueto, who before had been inconsistent if not terrible in the postseason before, went the full nine innings and allowed only one run, two hits, and three walks. So he saved himself some cash there. His fastball fluctuates. From 2010 on, it drop a mile (93.1 to 92.0), went up half a mile, dropped a tick in 2013, went up to 92.8 in 2014 and this year was a steady 92.5. So there is no apparently pattern of him declining, but he’s going to be 30. He will decline eventually.
What’s a great concern and legitimate one is his height. He’s 5’11. Now that’s an ok height (or I tell myself that because I really wish I was 6’0) but its short for a pitcher. Height’s an important thing because the taller the pitcher, the easier the mechanics of throwing are. Price is 6’6, Zimmerman and Greinke are 6’2. Almost every ace in the game today is at least 6’0 tall.
The one super ace I can think of who was 5’11 in recent years was Pedro Martinez. Cueto is far from Pedro’s level and Pedro’s prime ace disappeared in 2004, his age-32 season. Now that’s just one comparison and a whole separate research article can be down on short pitchers, but you get the idea that taller men do well when they are flinging balls at unnatural high speeds with their arms.
To sum it up, all four have their pluses and negatives. But all four are dangerous and all four are going to be expensive so teams have to pick carefully.