For baseball high rollers — and even the spendthrifts — there are still many free agent starting pitchers available.
Take Jake Arrieta, for instance. The former Cy Young winner is probably available to the bidder willing to shell out around $30 million a year, for three to five years. His agent is the egocentric Scott Boras, so one has to believe he is playing hardball with rumored suitors in Minnesota and Milwaukee — especially since Yu Darvish signed in Chicago.
For teams not willing to spend Arrieta money, there are quite a few serviceable arms waiting for less expensive deals, like Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Hellickson.
Thus, some teams’ starting rotations might receive a decent boost in the coming days, depending on when that big domino Arrieta falls. We think that once he inks a new pact, the rest will be scooped up.
With Arrieta in mind, we know there are 10 high quality starting pitching staffs, along with five we think have improved and could get even better if they grabbed a free agent or two. Here they are, ranked.
15. San Francisco Giants – Could Improve
The Gigantes don’t have one of the top staffs, in our estimation, but they improve instantly without having to sign a top level free agent. How’s that, one may ask? Well, four-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion (and MVP) Madison Bumgarner is said to be “in the best shape of his life.” Which means the NL West ought to forget that San Fran finished dead last in baseball in 2017. With Bumgarner seemingly ready to be his old workhorse self as staff ace, the rest of the rotation also looks ready for a rebound. In a down year, Johnny Cueto was 8-8 in 25 starts along with a 4.52 ERA, while Jeff Samardzija went 9-15 (32 starts; 20 quality) and logged a 4.42 ERA. Rounding out the five are — so far — are youngsters Ty Blach (8-12, 4.78) and Chris Stratton (4-4, 3.68). Top prospect Tyler Beede, a first round pick in 2011 (Toronto) and 2014 (Giants) may be ready to step in to, having gone 6-7 in 19 starts at AAA Sacramento last year.
14. Seattle Mariners – Could Improve
The M’s missed out on the Shohei Otani sweepstakes as the “Babe Ruth” of Japanese baseball shunned them and five other teams for the Los Angeles Angels. No matter, Seattle’s starting staff is quite fine, thank you. Lanky lefty James Paxton usurped staff ace honors from Felix Hernandez in 2017, sporting a 12-5 record and 2.98 ERA in 24 starts, 14 of them quality. He also struck out 156 in just 136 innings. If he can pump up his starts to over 30, who knows how good he can be? Paxton should be ably followed by 2010 Cy Young winner King Felix, who is looking to come back from an injury plagued season to once again eat innings and win games. He was 6-5 in just 16 starts last year, striking out 78 in 86.2 innings. Rounding out the top three is veteran Mike Leake. In 31 total starts last season (26 with St. Louis) Leake was a combined 10-13 with a 3.92 ERA (3-1 with Seattle, 2.53). Erasmo Ramirez (5-6, 4.39) and Marco Gonzalez (1-1, 6.08) are penciled in at the back end. Giant (6’8″) prospect Max Povse might push Ramirez and Gonzalez for a job this spring.
13. Minnesota Twins – Could Improve
The Twinkies were one of the surprise teams of the 2017 season, making the wild card playoffs with a so-so 85-77 record before losing that game to the New York Yankees. Which means the Twins are either a team on the rise, or due a reality check, especially since they lost 103 games in 2016. We’ll go with the former, especially since they may be in the running to sign Jake Arrieta. Ervin Santana returned to the All-Star form he displayed in 2008, going 16-8 in 33 starts and leading the AL in complete games with five and shutouts with three. He also tied for the fourth most quality starts at 20. Should Arrieta go elsewhere, improving third-year righty Jose Berrios is a good second banana, coming off a 14-8 season, with 3.89 ERA and 139 Ks in 145.2 innings. Third on the depth chart is Kyle Gibson, who was 12-10 and recorded a lofty 5.07 ERA. The wild cards at the back end are youngster Adalberto Mejia (4-7 in 21 starts, 4.50 ERA) and especially veteran Phil Hughes (4-3 in nine starts, 5.87). Tall, hard-throwing lefty and top pitching prospect Stephen Gonsalves will push hard for a job this spring.
12. Milwaukee Brewers – Could Improve
If the rumor mill is correct, the Brew Crew is neck-and-neck with Minnesota for the services of Jake Arrieta. Milwaukee missed the playoffs, finishing one game back of Colorado for the wild card last season and actually owned a better record (86-76) than Minnesota. The top end of the rotation is better than average, anchored by young Zach Davies, who was 17-9 in 33 starts last year, along with a 3.90 ERA. Jimmy Nelson (12-6, 3.49) and Chase Anderson (12-4, 2.74) help form a very potent top three in Wisconsin. After them, we believe there will be ample opportunity for competition in spring training. Penciled into the four and five holes are veteran Jhoulys Chacin (13-10, 3.89 in 32 starts for San Diego in 2017) and fourth-year man Junior Guerra (1-4, 5.12 in 14 starts). Pushing them for work will be free agent signee Yovani Gallardo (5-10 in 22 starts for Seattle), Brent Suter (3-2, 3.42 in 14 starts) and top prospect Brandon Woodruff (2-3, 4.81 in eight starts).
11. Los Angeles Angels – Could Improve
Shohei Otani, the big fish of the international free agent market this winter, could either be the second coming of George Herman Ruth, or an over hyped bust like countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka. Otani, 23, is said to be as big a threat a starting hurler as he is a batter. The highly sought international clocked the fastest pitch ever in the Nippon Baseball League at 102.5 MPH and generally owned the NPB with a career 42-15 record, 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts. He also hit .286 in 403 games, with 48 homers and 166 RBI. He is slated second in a rotation fronted by Garrett Richards, who will look to put in a full season for the first time since 2015, when he was 15-12 in 32 starts (3.65 ERA). Homegrown veteran Matt Shoemaker will look to rebound from injury too, having started just 14 games in 2017, with a 6-3 record and 4.52 ERA. J.C. Ramirez (11-10, 4.15) and Tyler Skaggs (2-6, 4.55) will battle Parker Bridwell (10-3, 3.64), Ricky Nolasco (6-15 in 33 starts, 4.92 ERA) and Nick Tropeano (3-2, 3.56) for the fourth and fifth spots.
10. Toronto Blue Jays – Best
We are slotting the Jays’s staff at 10th best and they should go out and prove it, if they all can stay healthy. Much of Toronto’s success in 2018 — or a lack thereof after a 76-86 season — will depend on the arms of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada. Stroman, the de facto ace, announced himself loudly in 2017, pitching over 200 innings for the second straight season, while logging a 13-9 record, two complete games, and 3.09 ERA (ninth in baseball). After Stroman, the rotation will pivot on Aaron Sanchez, who has to shake off blister problems to be the pitcher he was in 2016 (15-2, 3.00 ERA). He started just eight times in 2017, going 1-3 with a 4.25 ERA. Estrada, an inning eating workhorse in three seasons with Toronto, needs to get his ERA back to 2016 level (3.48) after sporting a 10-9 mark with 4.98 ERA in 2017. J.A. Happ, as dependable as anyone in 2016, is coming off a 10-11 season, with 3.53 ERA. Rounding out the rotation is converted reliever Joe Biagini, who throws pretty hard, but was hot and cold.
9. Chicago Cubs – Best
Yu Darvish isn’t officially a Cub, yet, but all that’s required is his signature on a contract that will pay him $126 million over six years. Darvish, 31, will anchor a still formidable rotation that lost Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to free agency. Darvish, an All-Star in Texas, was a combined 10-12 with the Rangers and Dodgers, with a 3.86 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 186.2 innings. He was effective in the NL playoffs for L.A., beating the Cubs in the NLCS. But he got pounded by Houston in two starts, including game 7 of the World Series, which raises question marks about his durability. After Darvish, the Cubs rotation is so far very sound, with Kyle Hendricks (7-5, 3.03 ERA), Jon Lester (13-8, 4.33), Jose Quintana (11-11 with Cubs/White Sox, 4.15) and Tyler Chatwood (8-15 in 25 starts with Colorado, 4.69 ERA). Competition for back-end jobs will come from Eddie Butler and free agent pick-up Drew Smyly (who last pitched for Tampa in 2016).
8. New York Mets – Best
Much like the top of the Toronto Blue Jays rotation, the top two in Brooklyn, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard need to stay on the right side of the injured list if the Mets are to return to previous glory. The Mets regressed to a deplorable 70-92 in 2017, most of the misery pinned to the injuries suffered by flamethrower Syndergaard (just seven starts after a great 2016 campaign) and former All-Star Matt Harvey, who was 5-7 in 18 starts with a lofty 6.70 ERA. The only constant in the Mets starting five was deGrom, who pitched over 200 innings for the first time in his career and went 15-10 in 31 starts (21 quality) with a 3.53 ERA and 239 strikeouts. After those three, the Mets could use a full season from Zack Wheeler, who had just 17 starts in 2017 and registered a 3-7 mark with 5.21 ERA. Ditto Seth Lugo, the fifth man in the rotation who was 7-5 in 18 starts with a 4.71 ERA. Other pushing for employment include Robert Gsellman (8-7 in 22 starts, 5.19 ERA), former wunderkind Steven Matz (2-7, 6.08) and Rafael Montero (5-11, 5.52).
7. New York Yankees – Best
Up in the Bronx, the pitching situation is much clearer than in Brooklyn. The Yankees, unlike the Mets, enter the 2018 season with a robust starting rotation, backed up by a superstar bullpen. Luis Severino, 23, and Sonny Gray, 28, form one of the best one-two punches in baseball. Severino lived up to his advance billing in 2017, going 14-6 in 31 starts with a 2.98 ERA (eighth best in baseball) and 230 strikeouts in 193.1 innings. He got enough votes to finish third in Cy Young voting and made the All-Star team. Gray, brought in from Oakland at the deadline, was a combined 10-12 with a 3.55 ERA and 153 Ks in 162.1 innings. He, like Severino, has been an All-Star and also finished third in Cy Young voting (2015). From there, the rotation deepens in experience, featuring Masahiro Tanaka (13-12, 194 K, 4.74 ERA), C.C. Sabathia (14-5, 3.69) and sophomore Jordan Montgomery (9-7 in 29 starts, 144 K in 140 innings, 3.88 ERA).
6. Boston Red Sox – Best
If Red Sox fans were doing the voting, Chris Sale, and not Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, would have been the AL Cy Young award winner. The Bosox staff ace mowed them down at will in 2017, striking out a major league high 308 batters (40 more than runner-up Max Scherzer) in a MLB best 214.1 innings pitched. He tied Justin Verlander for most quality starts at 23 (out of 32 total), recorded a 17-8 record, .970 WHIP and 2.90 ERA. Right behind Sale is 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, who had a bit of an off year, going 11-17 in 33 starts (4.65 ERA). David Price, who was the Cy Young recipient in 2012, was injured for half the season and compiled a 6-3 record, 3.38 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 16 games (11 starts). Not to be forgotten, journeyman starter Drew Pomeranz was superb in 2017, winning a career high 17 games (six losses), striking out 174 in 173.2 innings and recording a 3.32 ERA. Fighting it out for the fifth spot will be Brian Johnson, Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez and Hector Velazquez.
5. Arizona Diamondbacks – Best
It was a truly remarkable year for the D-Backs in 2017, as the team finished second in the NL West at 93-69 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The Snakes did well because they got outstanding pitching from just about everybody, including their starters. Zack Greinke, the “old man” of the staff at 34, finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting with a bounce back year, going 17-7 with a 3.20 ERA and 215 strikeouts in 202.1 innings. He also shaved his WHIP down two full points from 1.273 in 2016 to 1.072 in 2017. Right behind him in the exceptional department were Robbie Ray (15-5, 2.89 ERA, 218 Ks in 162 innings) and Patrick Corbin (14-13, 19 quality starts, 4.03 ERA). The formidable starting five also includes Zack Godley (8-9, 3.37 ERA, 165 Ks in 25 starts) and Taijuan Walker (9-9, 3.49 ERA).
4. Washington Nationals – Best
If it weren’t for their lack of success in the post-season, we could easily have put the Nats’ starting rotation at the top of the heap. There weren’t many more consistent starting fives in baseball than Washington’s in 2017, fronted by three-time and back-to-back Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. He was 16-6 and led the NL in whiffs with 268, while also registering a major league low WHIP of 0.902 and hits per innings of 5.7. After Scherzer it was still a murderer’s row of hurlers, starting witih Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 2.52 ERA, 204 Ks in 175.1 IP) and including Gio Gonzalez (15-9, 2.96 ERA, 188 Ks in 201 innings). The three pitchers had, respectively, 22, 20 and 22 quality starts each. Not to be outdone was Tanner Roark, who went 13-11 in 30 starts (17 quality) and had a 4.67 ERA. They are all back this season to see about getting the Nats back to the post-season for a third straight season. The fifth job is up for grabs and will be challenged for by A.J. Cole, top pitching prospect Erick Fedde, Cesar Vargas and veteran Edwin Jackson.
3. Cleveland Indians – Best
We are quite sure AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber would trade his second such award for a long awaited championship on the shores of Lake Erie. The Tribe, who haven’t won it all since 1948, lost in the ALDS to the Yankees, just one year removed from battling the Cubs in the Fall Classic. For his part, Kluber was masterful, compiling a major league best 18-4 record, 265 strikeouts (third in baseball), 0.870 WHIP (lowest in the bigs), and 22 quality starts (second overall). While Kluber was dominant in the 2016 playoffs, he got shelled by the Yankees in two starts. He carries the hopes of Indians nation on his shoulders again and is supported by Carlos Carrasco (18-6, 226 K, 3.29 ERA), Trevor Bauer (17-9, 196 K, 4.19 ERA), Danny Salazar (5-6, 4.28 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (10-9, 4.98 ERA). Also potentially in the mix for the upcoming season is Mike Clevinger (12-6, 3.11 ERA).
2. Houston Astros – Best
The defending champs can pick up right where they left off in 2017, trotting out one of the deepest and most experienced starting rotations in the big leagues. That the ‘Stros were victorious in 2017 was a direct result of acquiring veteran presence and dominant hurler Justin Verlander for the stretch drive. The longtime Detroit Tiger was near unhittable in five starts after coming over at the deadline, winning all five with 43 strikeouts and just 17 hits against in 34 innings. He kept it right up in the playoffs winning two games in each of the ALDS and ALCS, his most masterful work done in game 6 of the ALCS against the Yankees, where he allowed five hits and no runs, while striking out eight in a huge 7-1 win. After Verlander, there is no respite for opposing batters either, with 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel a great second (14-5 last year, 2.90 ERA) and newly acquired former Pittsburgh ace Gerrit Cole slotted third (12-12 with the Bucs in 2017, 4.26 ERA, 196 Ks). Rounding out a hard throwing rotation are Lance McCullers Jr. (7-4, 4.25 ERA in 22 starts) and Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA, 163 Ks in 146.2 IP).
1. Los Angeles Dodgers – Best
Any time that outstanding young starter Alex Wood is slotted third in a starting rotation depth chart, it’s easy to see why that team is destined for glory. Yes, the Dodgers lost a thrilling seven-game World Series to Houston last year, but they did finish with the best regular season record at 104-58. Wood, in his fifth season, was 16-3 in just 25 starts, with a 2.72 ERA and 151 strikeouts in 152.1 innings. He backs up three-time Cy Young winner and fellow lefty Clayton Kershaw, who again put his name to the top of the Cy ledger (finishing second) with a 18-4 record, 2.31 ERA and 202 Ks in 175 innings. Old dog Rich Hill is second on the depth chart, coming off a 12-8 season (25 starts), with 166 strikeouts in 135.2 innings and 3.32 ERA. Kenta Maeda, fourth in this alarmingly good rotation, was 13-6 in 25 starts last year and fifth man, the still formidable Hyun-Jin Ryu, sported a 5-9 mark in 24 starts and 3.77 ERA. Even without Yu Darvish, this rotation is scary good.