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It's a down year for free-agent starters

It's a down year for free-agent starters

This is not a good time to need to overhaul a starting rotation with a major assist from the free-agent market. There are plenty of warm bodies, even some hot prospects, but most general managers will have an easy time looking elsewhere for help.

That makes it a perfect time for John Lackey to be a free agent. Not because he went 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA last season; a select few other free-agent starters can match that.

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But Lackey just turned 31, has been a winner six consecutive seasons and has a winning career record.

No one else can match that combination. So it is easy to understand why the Texan has monopolized most of the attention at the outset of this Hot Stove season.

It is also easy to grasp why we keep hearing "A.J. Burnett" money in relation to Lackey's prospects.

Burnett was 31 with an 87-76 career record when signed by the Yankees a year ago to a five-year, $82.5 million contract.

Lackey is 31 as he goes to market with a 102-71 career mark.

His free-agent adventure will be intriguing. Unlike Burnett, who seriously considered only East Coast teams, Lackey has no geographic leanings. And unlike last winter's other free-agent headliner, CC Sabathia, few teams will be priced out of the market, at least not in the beginning.

Of course, a case doesn't really need to be made for Lackey. The Elias Sports Bureau already did that: Lackey is the only right-handed free-agent starter with a Type A ranking.

The only other Type A starter on the list is lefty Randy Wolf. Type Bs abound, but the only ones able to justify that rank with a winning record in 20-plus starts in 2009 are Braden Looper, Jason Marquis, Vicente Padilla, Carl Pavano and Joel Pineiro. Also, Andy Pettitte with an asterisk: He is still eligible to file for free agency, but the consensus is that he will either return to the Yankees or retire.

Perhaps reflective of the overall modest pool, considerable intrigue will surround a duo of right-handers who weren't even on the scene this season. Ben Sheets (flexor tendon surgery in February) and Justin Duchscherer (elbow surgery and subsequent depression) are returning from injury.

Head of the class

Lackey (11-8, 139 SO, 3.83 ERA), Type A: His seasons have gotten off to delayed starts due to injuries each of the past two years (after he'd averaged 200-plus innings the previous five seasons). But the reason he is most in demand was evident on his very last (thus far) afternoon in an Angels uniform -- when he fought manager Mike Scioscia against leaving Game 5 of the ALCS vs. the Yankees. Lackey is a throwback competitor who hates giving up the mound. Along with the usual big spenders, the Mariners are interested, hoping to convince Lackey to stay in the AL West; he has faced 23 other teams, but 39 of his 102 career wins have come over the three in that division.

Wolf, (11-7, 160, 3.23), Type A: The California native prefers a West Coast team, but he'll get a lot of attention from all over after his misleading 11-7 season. The Dodgers bullpen blew seven of his leads and his 23 quality starts were the NL high for a lefty (only righties Tim Lincecum and Dan Haren had more). Wolf proved his health by reaching 200 innings for the first time since 2003.

Rich Harden, (9-9, 171, 4.09), Type B: He can be a GM's worst nightmare -- a pitcher of supreme talent when he is on the mound with the X factor of how often he can make it there. Harden, who doesn't turn 28 until later this month, has won 34 of his past 49 decisions. Trouble is, it has taken him four years to do that. This season he got only 141 innings out of 26 starts, though those were his most since 2004.

Looper, (14-7, 100, 5.22), Type B: The former closer (85 saves from 2003-05) made a more successful transition to starting than probably anyone expected, going 38-33 the past three seasons. He also led the NL with 34 starts -- and with 39 homers allowed. Never overpowering, Looper has always been a contact pitcher (hence the shift from closing), and hitters certainly made good contact last season. How did he manage to go 14-7 with a 5.22 ERA? The Brewers averaged seven runs in his wins.

Marquis, (15-13, 115, 4.04), Type B: Who wouldn't want a 31-year-old right-hander who guarantees a postseason berth? That has less to do with his pitching -- although, with 80 wins over the past six seasons, that's solid -- as with his charm. Every one of Marquis' teams during his 10-year career has made the playoffs.

Jon Garland, (11-13, 109, 4.01), Type B: The 30-year-old righty has won in double figures for eight straight seasons, making 32 or 33 starts in each of them. He doesn't throw hard, which makes some teams leery, but you can't argue with those results and that dependability.

Pineiro, (15-12, 105, 3.49), Type B: A late bloomer who, with the aid of a newly-adopted sinker, broke through with a 15-12 season for the Cardinals after having averaged seven wins the prior five years. The 31-year-old righty has amazing control, issuing fewer than a walk per start.

Padilla, (12-6, 97, 4.46), Type B: One of the game's so-called "bad boys" re-established his reputation with his brief, but eye-popping, tenure with the Dodgers, who signed him on Aug. 20 after he was released by Texas. As a result, the right-hander, who has great stuff but an erratic history, will be coming off consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2002-03.

Erik Bedard, (5-3, 90, 2.82), Type B: The object of a fierce trade-market competition won by the Mariners prior to the 2008 season, the lefty had a disappointing, injury-marked 11-7 two-year tenure in Seattle. But his upside is still considerable, and he could create yet another stir.

Randy Johnson, (8-6, 86, 4.88), Type B: Who knows where the road will take the 46-year-old Big Unit and his 303 wins? He still had his dominant spells last season, before being waylaid by a rotator cuff injury suffered while batting. He returned late in the season to pitch in relief for the Giants, something he has no desire to continue. But the extremely proud guy may want to arrange a better exit strategy for his legacy, so he could resurface somewhere.

Also on the market

Paul Byrd (Red Sox), Jose Contreras (Rockies), Doug Davis (Type B, Diamondbacks), Duchscherer (Type B, A's), Kelvim Escobar (Angels), Josh Fogg (Rockies), Gagne (unaffiliated), Mike Hampton (Astros), Livan Hernandez (Nationals), Pedro Martinez (Phillies), Eric Milton (Dodgers), Brett Myers (Phillies), Pavano (Type B, Twins), Brad Penny (Giants), Jason Schmidt (Dodgers), Sheets (unaffiliated), John Smoltz (Cardinals), Brett Tomko (A's), Jarrod Washburn (Tigers), Jeff Weaver (Dodgers), Todd Wellemeyer (Cardinals) and Kip Wells (Reds).

Ready to buy

Cliff Lee filled a big void, but the Phillies still have a hole where Jamie Moyer used to be. The Red Sox need to upgrade the bottom of their rotation to stay with the Yankees -- who themselves may not be comfortable banking on both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. The Dodgers' entire late-season rotation appears to have landed on the free-agent market. The Cardinals, Angels and Rockies also lost pitching pieces.

And those are only the 2009 playoff teams that need to scurry to try to maintain their level. Every one of the 30 Major League clubs, with the possible exception of overstocked Atlanta, has needs, and among the most ardent shoppers will be those with designs of knocking off some of the incumbents, such as the Mariners, the Mets and the Rangers.

Window shopping

The Giants have as solid a trio as anyone, but are looking for a reliable arm that can help Lincecum, Matt Cain and Barry Zito over the top. White Sox GM Ken Williams was bitterly disappointed to have his '09 team miss the playoffs and is hot for Nos. 4-5 starters who could impact next season. In the same AL Central, the Twins are keeping their eyes open for a veteran chaperone to their young starters.

Potential 2011 class

Bronson Arroyo ($11 million club option with $2 million buyout), Josh Beckett, Joe Blanton, Jeremy Bonderman, David Bush, Matt Cain ($6.25 million club option), Jorge De La Rosa, Jeff Francis ($7 million club option), Roy Halladay, Aaron Harang ($12.75 million club option with $2 million buyout), Cliff Lee, Ted Lilly, Kevin Millwood, Jamie Moyer, Nate Robertson. Ian Snell ($6.75 million club option), Jeff Suppan ($12.75 million club option with $2 million buyout), Javier Vazquez, Brandon Webb, Jake Westbrook, Dontrelle Willis, Chris Young ($8.5 million club option).

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Change for a Nickel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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