Quality of arms, game's economics bode well for bountiful Hot Stove
By Mike Bauman
There are at least 25 Major League teams seeking pitching. And there is widespread prosperity within the game.
Put those two facts together and it is a terrific time to be a free-agent pitcher
It is, of course, a great time to be at the head of the free-agent pitching class, like David Price or Zack Greinke or Jordan Zimmermann. But it is also a fine time to be a free-agent pitcher if you have a fastball and a pulse. Or in the case of a left-handed reliever, a slider and a pulse.
These are two questions central to this exercise: How much? And which?
How much do these pitchers get paid? And which teams end up paying them?
For fiscal guidance, let us examine the two biggest-ticket free-agent pitchers last offseason. Max Scherzer received a contract for $210 million over seven years from the Nationals. Some of the money was deferred, but this was still a windfall. Jon Lester received a contract for $155 million over six years from the Cubs.
These two contracts set the table for the forthcoming free-agent season. Can anybody in the current crop exceed the average annual value of Scherzer's deal? That AAV is right up there with ERA in measuring the real worth of contemporary pitching.
Neither Scherzer nor Lester was the best pitcher in the National League in 2015, although Scherzer pitched some brilliant games, and Lester gave the Cubs needed rotation stability. But the absolute best pitchers were Greinke over the whole season for the Dodgers, and the Cubs' Jake Arrieta, whose second half was so tremendous that it was unprecedented.
Obviously, Greinke put himself in an ideal bargaining position for the opt-out year of his contract with a 1.66 ERA. He is 32, but there isn't much evidence that the end is near, is there?
Arrieta, meanwhile, put up a 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break, the lowest ERA ever recorded in the post-break period. He hasn't hit free agency yet, and perhaps his emergence as an ace will steer the Cubs away from another run at the top tier of free-agent pitchers.
The Cubs are loaded with young talent at the everyday positions, but they need further pitching help. They could trade for substantial pitching help, with one of the rare clubs that has what appears to be an actual pitching surplus. Many reports during the 2015 season had the pitching-rich Mets trading with the Cubs. Many people thought this was a viable concept, although the Cubs and the Mets were apparently not among that group.
The Dodgers are obviously among the contenders for top-shelf pitching help. They have overtaken the Yankees in the largest player-payroll category. They have demonstrated a willingness to shell out for pitching greatness with Clayton Kershaw's contract: seven years, $215 million. If Greinke gets away from the Dodgers, one of the other leading free-agent hurlers could be collecting at the Los Angeles pay window.
The Red Sox are likely spenders in this arena. Boston approached the 2015 season with some good starters, but with no recognizable ace. The Sox said this situation would work out for them. But it didn't. They have major talent in their lineup. Boston still needs the No. 1 rotation guy. This is good news for free-agent pitchers.
The Giants have built a franchise around pitching that they have developed. San Francisco has built its franchise so successfully that it has won everything in each of the past three even-numbered years. Here comes another even-numbered year, but it appears that the Giants are going to have to shop for some front-line pitching this time.
You can't have a story about free-agent spending without including the Yankees. It's mainly habit. Maybe New York is no longer attempting to outbid the rest of the planet for talent, but you look at the fragility of the Yanks' rotation, and you expect that they'll be players in this market at some level.
This is not an exhaustive list of potential suitors for the top free-agent pitchers. These are merely some of the usual spending suspects, augmented by clubs that combine circumstance and fortune to be in a spending mode for available pitchers.
The economics of the game indicate that we could all be surprised by some club not usually associated with major expenditures in this area. There is enough money throughout the contemporary game for that kind of surprise.
But that, too, is good news for the entire class of free-agent pitchers. If you have something left in your arm, if you can pass a physical and a drug test, you're in the money, the skies are sunny. You have a rare and much sought-after skill, and now it is time to be fully compensated for it.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.