Max Scherzer. Clayton Kershaw. Kevin Gausman. There’s no shortage of pitching talent available in 2021-22 MLB free agency, and championships will be made or broken based on what moves are taken. Buster Olney, Jesse Rogers, Bradford Doolittle and Alden Gonzalez are here to break down what’s at stake in the starting pitching market this offseason.
Which one free-agent starting pitcher would you most want on the mound for your team on Opening Day 2022?
Olney: If we’re going to separate this question from the issue of financial commitment and value over the duration of the contract, I don’t know how you can pick anyone other than future Hall of Famer Scherzer. He dominated for the Nationals last summer, and then he did the same for the Dodgers, even closing out the Giants in the division series. But I hope there is an understanding between Max and his next team: No more short relief stints in the postseason. Please.
Rogers: It’s hard to go against Scherzer, especially if under the assumption that we only care about 2022. He’s got at least one dominant year left. However, Robbie Ray was in a class all by himself among lefties. None of his numbers scream fluke — unless he loses his command and returns to the old Ray. If I had any hint that Scherzer was slowing down, Ray would be my guy. Then again, I wouldn’t bet against Justin Verlander to win comeback player of the year. Tough call but Scherzer is money in the bank right now.
Doolittle: If by “opening day” we actually mean “Game 1 of a postseason series” then it’s Scherzer, not because the answer would be different, but because that’s what teams signing an elite free agent starter have in mind. While Scherzer petered out after the Dodgers-Giants series, he was as dominant as ever over the closing weeks of the season. If I’m looking at a starting pitcher as a finishing piece for a championship team, that’s who I want from this group of free-agent pitchers.
Gonzalez: Scherzer’s first nine starts with the Dodgers (all against teams in contention): 58 innings, five earned runs, seven walks, 79 strikeouts. He is undoubtedly the choice, which is why I think he’ll get the three-year, high-dollar contract many believe he seeks, even though he’ll turn 38 next year. The way the 2021 season ended did provide at least some uncertainty. Scherzer had to be pushed back a day coming off his relief appearance in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, then said he pitched through a tired arm in his first start of the following round and had to be pushed back again for his second start, which ultimately never happened. Was he just exhausted, or is there something going on medically?
What do you think will be the biggest money contract given to a starting pitcher this winter?
Olney: For total dollars, it will be Gausman, who turns 31 in January. No one has ever doubted his pure stuff, but now that he has apparently turned the corner in his time with the Giants, he’ll be his generation’s version of Charlie Morton.
Rogers: I want to see Gausman repeat his season throwing in three different parks, all of which are more hitter friendly than Oracle Park in San Francisco. That’s what Ray had to do playing for the Blue Jays in 2021. He or Gausman will get the biggest overall deals but the desire by teams for a dominant lefty may push Ray over the top.
Doolittle: It will definitely be Scherzer by average annual value, but it might be him by total value as well, even though he is not likely to get more than two or three years. If Gausman or Ray can get a fifth year, then maybe they edge Scherzer in total contract value. But I could see Scherzer getting at least $40 million a year for three years, and that is going to be hard to beat.
Gonzalez: Buster is probably right about Gausman here, but I do wonder about the market for someone like Ray, who always had the raw stuff and finally put it together for what could amount to a Cy Young season in 2021. Gausman has a slightly longer track record of elite pitching, but Ray’s upside is probably slightly higher. I’m sure there are plenty of teams that believe they can help him replicate his dominance with the Toronto Blue Jays, with whom he posted a 2.84 ERA with 248 strikeouts and 52 walks in 193⅓ innings.
Who is one under-the-radar free-agent starting pitcher you would target this offseason?
Olney: The underlying metrics for Eduardo Rodriguez provide a much more complete view of his season than his bloated ERA of 4.74. He was hurt significantly by Boston’s inefficient, erratic defense — and since the Red Sox saw this firsthand, I think he’ll wind up working out a deal to stay in Boston for what’ll turn out to be a high-value contract.
Rogers: There’s something about Michael Pineda. Hampered by injuries in 2021, he managed a 3.62 ERA in 21 starts for a bad Minnesota team. His peripherals weren’t great — his strikeout rate plunged — but it feels like there’s more in there. Get him some new scenery, a healthy spring and he can fit nicely in the back end of a rotation. He’s only thrown 136 innings over the past two seasons — so between injuries, his 60-game suspension in 2019 and the pandemic, Pineda is a young 32. There’s life left in his arm.
Doolittle: More than half of the free-agent class consists of pitchers I’d take a flier on as an injury and/or performance bounce-back candidate if the price is right. One guy who misses bats when healthy whom you haven’t heard much about is James Paxton, but it’s hard to say how much you could count on him for next season. I’ll go with Danny Duffy: He misses bats and still hasn’t pitched in a big league game for anyone but the Royals, so he may be open to some tweaks from fresh perspectives. Plus, even if he isn’t working in the rotation, I’ve always thought Duffy will have a lot of end-of-career value as a high-leverage and long reliever. He was really good last season before he got hurt.
Gonzalez: Jon Gray recovered from a rough 2020 season to post a 4.59 ERA with 157 strikeouts in 149 innings and should be in line for a nice multiyear deal. The 30-year-old right-hander is a tick below the likes of Scherzer, Ray, Gausman, Carlos Rodon and Marcus Stroman, but he’s one you can envision taking another leap forward with an organization that is smart about pitching. Gray nearly doubled his strikeout percentage from a year ago and dropped his hard-hit rate from 46% to 38%.
Which team most needs to sign an ace this offseason?
Olney: The Mets have no idea what they will get out of Jacob deGrom next season — and if somebody in the organization tries to paint a rosier picture, just remind them of all the times they indicated that he might be back last summer. Other than Sandy Alderson’s reference to a partial tear of deGrom’s right ulnar collateral ligament — something deGrom dismissed in the days that followed — the Mets really haven’t explained where deGrom stands or why he didn’t pitch after July 7. They also don’t really know what they’d get out of Noah Syndergaard, assuming that the right-hander accepts their qualifying offer, and Stroman is trolling around in free agency. If the Mets want to contend with the Braves for the NL East, they’ll need a solid starter.
Rogers: I’m going to throw a curveball into the Angels pick because the Angels need more than just an ace. That would help, of course, but the Seattle Mariners were closer to making the postseason and they have no championship experience in their rotation. If they want to take that next step, while recovering from the PR disaster that was their trade deadline, they need an ace who’s been there, done that. Every contender-ish team eventually has to take that leap at some point. Seattle should do it.
Doolittle: The Angels. It’s always the Angels.
Gonzalez: The Angels. It’s a perpetual need, especially now, with Shohei Ohtani under contract for only two more years, Mike Trout in his 30s and Anthony Rendon well into the back half of his career. To quote Nez Balelo, the agent for Ohtani: “They’re really close to being a really dynamic team. There’s just a few things that they need to do to help.” What they need is starting pitching, particularly elite starting pitching. Angels GM Perry Minasian acknowledged as much, and though he cautioned by stating that frontline starters are “tough to acquire,” the reality is that he needs to get it done. The Angels can contend if Ohtani is their third starter. Otherwise, it’s hard to envision.
Who is the top starting pitcher you think could become available via trade this offseason?
Olney: Once the Reds dumped Wade Miley on waivers after an excellent season, that was a clear indication that Cincinnati is looking to cut payroll — and the easiest way for the Reds to do that is to move Luis Castillo and/or Sonny Gray.
Rogers: It’s easy to pick any hurlers from the A’s and Reds as they’re dumping salary but why wouldn’t the Cubs listen to offers for Kyle Hendricks? Doesn’t mean they have to pull the trigger, but with the team in rebuilding mode, why waste the two years left on his contract? He would fit any team. His personality is Grade A, he’s hardly a huge injury risk and he’s had success in the biggest games. The Cubs would max out this offseason if they moved him. Can’t say the same in a year. They may quietly listen to offers for him and his batterymate, Willson Contreras.
Doolittle: With the Reds waving the white flag before Thanksgiving, I’m calling every hour about Castillo. He had an inconsistent 2021, to be sure, but his velocity/changeup combination is sick. He gets chases, stays off the barrel of the bat, is durable and could be one pitch-mix tweak away from challenging for a Cy Young. Sign me up.
Gonzalez: The A’s are clearly in cost-saving mode, and Chris Bassitt, who’s only a season away from free agency, is an obvious trade chip. Bassitt, 32, went 12-4 with a 3.15 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and a 4.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio in an All-Star season in which he also took a line drive to the face — and somehow recovered to contribute for the stretch run.
Clayton Kershaw: Dodger for life or headed somewhere new this offseason?
Olney: If he pitches anymore, it’ll be for the Dodgers. He’s family to that organization; he’s a legacy player. But he’s had enough physical trouble that inevitably, there will be a day when he’ll surprise the baseball world with a retirement announcement, as Sandy Koufax did, and he’ll step onto the path for unanimous selection (presumably) to the Hall of Fame.
Rogers: Probably the Dodgers on a smaller deal. Are they actually going to say no to him if he’s reasonable? How about a sleeper team? St. Louis is looking for pitching and they don’t need front-end guys, necessarily. Joining his playoff nemesis would make for a good story and he can punch his ticket to October today if he signs there. Add a pitching-friendly ballpark, a congenial fan base and a veteran catcher in Yadier Molina and it could work.
Doolittle: I feel like it will be the Dodgers or retirement. Even given his ties to the Dallas area, I just can’t see him playing for another organization, even the Rangers. And while Kershaw has plenty left in the tank, I could also see him looking at his injury issues last season, the expiration of his contract, and his career as a whole and decide enough is enough. But if he does play on, and it’s not the Dodgers, I’d be shocked if he doesn’t land with the Rangers.
Gonzalez: Over these past few years, two reasons have been cited for why Kershaw wouldn’t pitch for the Dodgers beyond his just-expired extension: He retires abruptly, or the hometown Texas Rangers come calling. I would still side with Kershaw re-signing with the Dodgers this offseason, but I’m not ready to rule out either of the other two possibilities. The Rangers seem determined to spend money this winter, and the health of Kershaw’s left arm is a legitimate concern.
After a strong showcase this week, what do you think the market for Justin Verlander looks like this winter?
Olney: Evaluators have compared Verlander’s situation to Corey Kluber’s last winter, when the former Cy Young Award winner got $11.5 million from the Yankees despite a recent history of injuries. But I think Verlander will do better than that, given that his medical history is relatively clean when compared with that of Kluber. I’d bet that some team will bet big on Verlander’s work ethic. A three-year, $55.2 million deal might be where he lands, but Verlander could prefer a one-year bet on himself, so he could launch into the free-agent market again next winter. Among teams, there is an expectation that Verlander wants to go where he can have a chance to win next year. Houston? The Yankees? The Dodgers? We’ll see.
Rogers: On a one- or two-year deal, it will be strong among contending teams. Houston should still take a look, even if he turns down the qualifying offer. The Dodgers, if Scherzer leaves, would be very cool. Could AJ Hinch persuade him to come back to Detroit where the Tigers are on the rise and reside in a somewhat weak division? That would be another good story. He’s extremely attractive as a bounce-back candidate who can’t command too huge of a payday.
Doolittle: It’s got to be pretty strong given those reports. I can’t see a team giving him more than two years, unless an option year is tacked on. But if Verlander is already hitting 97, you’ve got to pay attention to that. He’s been one of the most durable pitchers of the era and is driven to play on not just for another contract, but because he loves to pitch and wants to go well into his 40s. The Tigers should be all-in on this pursuit.
Gonzalez: His desire, his relatively clean bill of health, and the stuff he reportedly displayed in a recent workout should make Verlander one of the most coveted free-agent starters among contending teams. He’ll be cheaper than Scherzer, with perhaps more certainty than Kershaw, and he won’t require a long-term commitment.