The 2017 MLB Ultimate Free-Agent Tracker: starting pitchers

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
Shohei Otani pitches during the Nippon Ham Fighters’ spring camp in January. (Junko Ozaki/Kyodo News via AP)

We ranked 2017’s top free-agent starting pitchers. Overall ranking in the 2017 free-agent class is in parenthesis.

[More FA rankings: Complete list: Nos. 1-184 | C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | UT | OFRP]

1. (1) Shohei Otani, SP: One of the best baseball players in the world, and certainly the most interesting, will not sign for more than $3.53 million this winter. That’s the most a team can pay Otani, the right-hander who throws 102 mph and also pummels home runs batting from the left side. New rules on international amateurs limit the amount a team can spend on a signing bonus, and rather than wait two years, get past the 25-year-old threshold and rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, Otani wants to come now. Will he go American League or National League? West Coast, East Coast or in between? Will he play two ways or stick solely to pitching? All of it remains unknown. The only thing teams do know is that a 23-year-old franchise player is a free agent who will cost what amounts to the change teams pick out of their couch cushions. If that’s not a great story, great stories don’t exist.

2. (2) Yu Darvish, SP: He is still this high on the list because he is still an excellent pitcher. Two starts do not change that. Let’s not ignore the two, either, because both came in the World Series and lasted five outs and contributed heavily to the Los Angeles Dodgers losing. And when Darvish, he of the low ERAs and high strikeouts and great groundball rates, asks for $25 million a year and seeks six years, what every owner, president and GM is going to do is ask himself or even aloud: How can we do that when he folded at the two times his team needed him most? This is what Darvish will face leading up to the Winter Meetings in Orlando starting Dec. 10, and this is a question that may not have a satisfactory answer, leaving one team needing to take a leap of faith and Darvish needing to prove it prescient.

3. (5) Jake Arrieta, SP: The groundball rate dipped by more than 10 percent. The home run rate tripled. The difference between 2015 Arrieta and 2017 Arrieta is noticeable and notable, because the 2017 version shows enough red flags that teams are trying to pump the breaks on laying out $25 million a year for five years. All it takes is one, of course, and nobody knows how to leverage that one quite like Boras. Just look at his second half, one can imagine Boras saying, and yes: With a 2.28 ERA, it looks a lot better. But that belies the peripherals, which were more or less the same and in which the front offices that spend the cash believe. Which means what, exactly? This negotiation has every hallmark of one that will stretch into the new year.

4. (8) Alex Cobb, SP: Few players generate love as universal as front offices’ toward Cobb. They love his fastball, which is back to its pre-Tommy John surgery velocity, and they love his curveball, which he is throwing more than ever, and they even love his changeup, which hasn’t been the pitch it was before the surgery but flashes it often enough to think it may be. It’s not that they see Cobb as a No. 1 starter; he isn’t and won’t be. They love his competitiveness and his attitude and the raw intent with which he delivers every pitch. Just 30, he’ll have plenty of four-year offers. The team that goes five may get him.

5. (13) Lance Lynn, SP: Yes, the 3.43 ERA he posted last season did not really reflect his ability to strike out hitters or prevent walks and home runs. Sometimes baseball gifts a guy like Lynn a walk year that looks good enough to goad a team into offering four, maybe five years. The paucity of starting pitching helps, as does the playoff experience, so all life is these days is a waiting game until an owner convinces himself he thinks five years for Lance Lynn is A-OK.

6. (18) CC Sabathia, SP: Part of Sabathia’s allure is the reality that he’s unlikely to necessitate anything more than a one-year commitment. Sabathia is the modern version of a late-career David Wells or Jimmy Key. He doesn’t eat innings because managers’ reticence at letting a pitcher see a lineup the third time through. He does, however, grind for outs, which often is all a team needs from a back-end starter.

7. (26) Tyler Chatwood, SP: The best comp to Chatwood may be Gil Meche, who hit free agency with a 4.65 career ERA and still managed to get a five-year deal because teams loved his stuff. Chatwood is 27, his ERA is 4.31 and he has a ton of fans who believe if ever he were to leave Colorado, he’d break out. He won’t get the five years Meche did. Three? It’s well possible.

8. (32) Jaime Garcia, SP: He pitches a fair number of innings. He induces a ton of grounders. In 2017, that’s a $10 million-a-year pitcher for multiple years.

9. (35) Andrew Cashner, SP: Continuing the time-honored tradition of offseason Andrew Cashner comments and Wu-Tang Clan references, perhaps it’s best to quote the sharks at Wu-Tang Financial: “We about to go to war. Invest in some nuclear bombs.” In other words: When you’re coming off a 3.40 ERA season, forget anyone who asks about the awful 4.6 strikeouts per nine. Just keep reminding them about how good last season was and hope they don’t understand the predictive power of peripherals.

10. (41) Michael Pineda, SP: Likely to get a two-year deal (or, at very least, one year with a club option) as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. He could conceivably return late this season, though the prospect of a 19-month gap between the procedure and spring training 2019 would allow Pineda time to let his arm heal and work himself into better shape.

11. (46) Jason Vargas, SP: In the first half, hitters slashed .244/.291/.373 against him. Following his first career All-Star appearance, it was .292/.366/.538. First-half ERA: 2.62. Second half: 6.38. He is indeed lower than a starter who probably won’t pitch this year, which isn’t a great place for a guy who at 34 may find himself choosing among one-year deals.

12. (54) Jeremy Hellickson, SP: That whole build-on-a-strong-2016-and-go-bananas-in-2017 plan didn’t work out so well. Now Hellickson is a 30-year-old who gave up the third-most homers per nine of any qualified starter and struck out the third fewest in the same group of 58 players.

13. (56) Jhoulys Chacin, SP: Look, it’s entirely possible to walk more than 3.5 hitters per nine innings and be a good major league pitcher. Gio Gonzalez and Hector Santiago can attest. They’re about it, though, which makes this the most bearish prognosis on Chacin. The stuff isn’t great. The strikeouts aren’t there. Even with a good groundball rate, too many walks. It’s not a desirable free-agent recipe.

14. (58) Chris Tillman, SP: It’s difficult to find a worse walk year than Tillman’s. He had literally the worst ERA in history of a pitcher who started at least 19 games: 7.84. Opponents hit .324/.406./.575 off him, meaning the average hitter for 444 plate appearances against him in 2017 was essentially Freddie Freeman. All that said, he will get a one-year deal, because baseball is a desperate place.

15. (59) Yusmeiro Petit, SP/RP: Four of his past five years have ranged from good to excellent, so forgive the low spot. Petit does offer a solid four-pitch mix and can go multiple innings or spot start when needed. The versatility is great. Here’s guessing the deflated home run rate in 2017 simply doesn’t hold.

16. (69) Miles Mikolas, SP: After three seasons reinventing himself as a starter in Japan, the former San Diego reliever should get multiple years following a nice year in which he struck out nearly a batter an inning and posted an 8.1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

17. (72) R.A. Dickey, SP: If Dickey’s arm is as resilient as he says, shouldn’t a team put him in the bullpen, allow him to pitch as many low-leverage innings as possible (with incentives to reward innings pitched) and thus allow themselves to either get by with five other relievers and use the extra spot for a bench player or stack six relievers who could be used more frequently when fourth and fifth starters get pulled before the third time in the batting order comes up?

18. (76) Francisco Liriano, SP/RP: The raw stuff is good enough to get him a big league deal, but his deal might as well be signed with nitroglycerin, because he is as capable as any big league pitcher of entirely blowing up.

19. (78) Miguel Gonzalez, SP: Your classic good-enough No. 5 starter that you hope is replaced midseason by someone younger and better.

20. (80) Doug Fister, SP: Remember when the Nationals traded Robbie Ray in a deal for Fister and everyone was convinced Washington had fleeced Detroit? Yeah.

21. (82) Wade Miley, SP: Could be on his fifth team in five seasons. A once-reliable innings eater, Miley lost every semblance of control last season and led the major leagues with 93 walks. If he rediscovers it, he’s an under-the-radar potential good deal.

22. (84) Hector Santiago, SP: Considering the starting-pitching deficiency in the game, Santiago may get a low-dollar, high-incentive bite. Teams crave depth now more than ever.

23. (88) Brett Anderson, SP: His ability to induce groundballs and suppress home runs remains desirable enough that he’ll get another shot. An intrepid team may try to offer an incentive-loaded deal in an effort to switch Anderson to the bullpen.

24. (92) Scott Feldman, SP: Some non-contender is going to sign him, plug him in to the back of its rotation and deal him to an injury-plagued contender in July, because that’s his lot in life, and he has made more than $50 million doing it.

25. (100) Tim Lincecum, SP: Have a feeling he’s not quite done yet.

26. (103) Clay Buchholz, SP: Flexor-tendon injuries are like the slightly better-dressed, better-behaved version of a UCL tear, but don’t be fooled by the façade. Anyone who needed surgery, as Buchholz did last year, faces a difficult trek back. Teams still will line up in hopes of snagging a one-year bargain.

27. (106) Ricky Nolasco, SP: The last time Nolasco hit the open market, the Twins gave him $49 million. In return, he gave them 321 innings of 5.44 ERA baseball. Free agency!

28. (116) Hideaki Wakui, SP: It’s been nearly a decade since Wakui’s last great season in Japan, and though he’s a pure free agent, with no posting fee necessary, he’ll be lucky to get anything more than a minor league deal and a spring-training crack.

29. (120) Jesse Chavez, SP/RP: Reliably OK swingman who got got by the juiced ball. Nothing is worse in 2018 than a homer-prone pitcher, and Chavez’s history puts him in something of a precarious position.

30. (125) Ubaldo Jimenez, SP/RP: For the $50 million they paid Jimenez over the past four years, the Baltimore Orioles received 594 1/3 innings of 5.22 ERA baseball. Of all the guys to let slide on the physical rigmarole through which Baltimore puts pitchers who sign as free agents. Why’s he this high? As a pitching coach once said about Jimenez: “He’s just a tweak away from being great. Now you just need to figure out what the tweak actually is.”

31. (126) Trevor Cahill, SP/RP: After 11 solid starts in San Diego, imploded in Kansas City. Cahill’s ability to start and relieve gives teams the sort of flexibility they desire.

32. (131) Bartolo Colon, SP: In lieu of fat jokes, age jokes and secret-second-family jokes, we’ll simply point out – blasphemous though it may be – that Bartolo Colon was a truly horrendous baseball player in 2017.

33. (136) Chris Young, SP: Prepare for the unveiling of CY 3.0. Seriously. One person who has seen him this offseason believes he’s primed, at 38, for another comeback.

34. (137) Hisashi Iwakuma, SP: Missing the last five months of the season with a shoulder injury isn’t exactly the way a pitcher wants to walk into free agency.

35. (150) Austin Bibens-Dirkx, SP: Just hope you get the Bibens. Because the Dirkx. The Dirkx is trouble, man.

36. (157) Edwin Jackson, SP/RP: Wanna feel old? If he pitches in the big leagues next year, it will be Jackson’s 16th season.

37. (160) Dillon Gee, SP/RP: Gee, this list is too freaking long.

38. (171) Yovani Gallardo, SP/RP: Gallardo found three extra miles per hour on his fastball last season, and even that couldn’t stop the runaway freight train that is his career from careening to an uglier place than before.

39. (172) Matt Garza, SP: Ibid Gallardo, minus that whole extra-velo thing.

40. (176) Mike Pelfrey, SP: Answer: Who is Mike Pelfrey? Question: This pitcher has somehow remained employed in 12 major league seasons, half of which he finished with a negative Wins Above Replacement, including 2017.

41. (183) Anibal Sanchez, SP/RP: Among pitchers with at least 300 innings over the past three seasons, Sanchez has the single worst ERA, at 5.67. During that time, Detroit paid him $55.4 million.

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