Masahiro Tanaka has been unofficially designated as the unrivaled ace of the available starters. While a bidding war develops for his services, some tested and talented starters are forced to essentially wait in line until the Tanaka situation is resolved.
There is a Jan. 24 deadline for Tanaka's signing, so the wait will not be endless. Still, it's a weightless period for the free-agent hurlers, between jobs, unemployed for the moment. They'll eventually be OK -- after Tanaka makes a decision on which team will win his services.
Four pitchers come immediately to mind in this category. They were the class of the free-agent starters before the Rakuten Golden Eagles decided that they would make Tanaka available in the posting process, thus opening up his opportunity to join Major League Baseball.
Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Bronson Arroyo fit into the category of pitchers with substantial enough credentials to be considered extremely helpful for a Major League rotation. None of them went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, as Tanaka did, but they do have the virtue of having pitched at the highest level in the Western Hemisphere.
Garza has had impressive stuff over the course of his career, and at 30 years old should have plenty left. He was the Most Valuable Player of the 2008 American League Championship Series, helping the Rays into the World Series. He threw Tampa Bay's first no-hitter in 2010. His current cause was not helped by his performance with Texas in the second half of last season, when he went 4-5 with a 4.38 ERA.
Jimenez revived his career with the Indians last year. He had slipped considerably after an All-Star season with Colorado in 2010, but he bounced back with a very strong second half in 2013, finishing the year 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA for a Cleveland club that re-established itself. He also is 30, and it turns out that his stuff is not in an irreversible decline.
Santana, 31, had a solid season with the Royals, going 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA. He has had a 17-victory season and two seasons in which he won 16 games. He has a history of pitching for winning teams, first in Anaheim and then last season in Kansas City.
Arroyo, who turns 37 in February, may have age working against him in terms of the length of his next contract. But he has been one of baseball's most consistent pitchers over an eight-year stay with the Reds. Plus, his durability has been remarkable. He has worked more than 200 innings in eight of the past nine seasons. And in the one season he did not pitch more than 200 innings, he worked 199.
With the vast majority of Major League teams in need of additional starting pitching, these four in particular should be at least warm commodities on the open market. For the moment, though, they are in what amounts to a holding pattern, waiting for the Tanaka derby to be decided.
The free-agent market has never been a sure thing in either direction. Who would have known that one of the best signings of last winter would have been the Pirates' inking Francisco Liriano? Seemingly off the scrap heap, Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA, became the National League Comeback Player of the Year, and the Pirates became a postseason team for the first time in two decades.
At this moment, though, Tanaka is seen as the closest thing to a sure thing that the market is offering. The rest of the free-agent pitchers might be having their patience tested now, with Spring Training a month away, but the process should work out well for them.
Tanaka is going to sign for an amount of money and a number of years that will do nothing to depress the cost of pitching. Every pitcher on the market could be indirectly aided by that.
And all but one of the clubs pursuing Tanaka will be disappointed, making each of them highly motivated to find pitching alternatives.
Far from being pure tedium, waiting for Tanaka to decide on a North American employer could be a very worthwhile exercise for at least some of the currently unemployed free-agent starters.