Today, former-Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmerman signed with the Detroit Tigers. The deal is for five years and $110 million, for an average of $22 million per year. Zimmermann is generally regarded as the third-best starting pitcher available, so from his contract we can now make more accurate predictions about how much the other free-agent pitchers will make.
Let’s take a look at the available pitchers in three tiers: the elite pitchers, the middle-of-the-rotation pitchers, and the temporary “fill-in” pitchers.
RHP: Zach Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto
LHP: David Price
These four pitchers stand above the rest of the class for sure, with each having been an ace pitcher for their former team. Price and Greinke are definitely the two best pitchers, for a number of reasons. Both finished second in the Cy Young voting for their respective leagues, and both were among league leaders in wins, ERA, innings, and WAR.
Since Price and Greinke are better than Zimmermann, they should each expect to sign for more money than Zimmermann. Price, who is only 30, should get more years than Greinke (32). Either way, both should expect to get more money per year than Zimmermann. A good point of reference would be Max Scherzer’s deal last year. Scherzer pulled in $210 million over seven years, good for $30 million per year.
Price and Greinke are both as accomplished as Scherzer was, so both should push to get about $30 million per year in their contracts. They might have to settle for slightly less however, since there are better alternatives this year than there were last year when Scherzer cashed in.
As for Johnny Cueto, he was more on par with Zimmermann. Both are still capable of being a top-level starter for a team, and would be overqualified as a “number two” pitcher on most teams. Cueto struggled down the stretch, but still was instrumental in helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series.
Cueto and Zimmermann, both 29, had very similar seasons. Both took a step back from their impressive 2014 seasons, but still finished as two of the better pitchers in baseball. Cueto, even with a rough finish, still finished with an edge in strikeouts, ERA, innings, and WAR. Cueto then, should push for a deal slightly better than what Zimmermann pulled in.
Here are my predictions: Price signs for 7 years and $200 million, Greinke signs for 5 years and $150 million, and Cueto signs for 5 years and $120 million.
RHPs John Lackey, Jeff Samardzija, Mike Leake, Hisashi Iwakuma
LHPs Scott Kazmir, Wei-Yin Chen
This is a group of guys where it is more difficult to gauge their worth. John Lackey, like everyone on the St. Louis Cardinals, had a great season. His ERA dropped all the way to a career-best 2.77, and was worth a whopping 5.7 WAR. Lackey is already 37 though, and outperformed some of his peripheral statistics. At any rate, Lackey would be a good pickup for any contending ball-club.
Samardzija and Kazmir were both thought of as potential elite pitchers in 2014 when both were with Oakland, but since then both have cooled off a bit. Kazmir actually ended up with his best ERA since 2006 but his K/9, HR/FB, FIP, and WAR were all down from his 2014 campaign.
Samardzija meanwhile ended up having a dreadful year. Worse yet, his 2014 was his best season as a pro, so he definitely took a step in the wrong direction. Take a look at his numbers from 2014 compared to 2015:
Samardzija actually ended up winning more games but by every other metric he had a horrible season. Still, teams in need of pitching will look at his 2015 and hope it was more of an aberration rather than a trend in a negative direction. It may benefit Samardzija to sign a shorter deal to rebuild some of his value.
Chen and Iwakuma are easier to figure out. Chen is headed in the right direction, posting career-highs in ERA, K/9, and WAR. Iwakuma, on the other hand, had a very statistically similar season this year to his 2014, but is “old” at 34. Both are more of a sure-thing than Samardzija or Kazmir, who have been up-and-down at times. Teams will value the consistency that Chen and Iwakuma can offer.
Finally there is Mike Leake. He was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the San Francisco Giants, and made 9 starts for the Giants in the second-half of 2015. Leake has posted a 3.70 ERA the past two seasons, which is very solid for a middle-rotation pitcher like Leake. He has offered roughly 2.0 WAR per season across his career, and is still in his prime at age 28.
Here are my predictions: Lackey signs for 3 years and $65 million, Kazmir signs for 4 years and $80 million, Samardzija signs for 2 years and $30 million, Chen signs for 6 years and $100 million, Iwakuma signs for 3 years and $25 million, and Leake signs for 5 years and $90 million.
RHPs Doug Fister, Dillon Gee, Kyle Lohse, Aaron Harang
Out of all of the remaining pitching free-agents, these five pitchers are the last five who should expect to be a part of a starting rotation at the beginning of 2016. This is a group of pitchers who should expect to “fill-in” at the back of a team’s rotation, as the fourth or fifth starter.
Doug Fister had a career-year in 2014, and took a major step back. His ERA was way up, he allowed too many home-runs, and only ended up pitching 103 innings due to injuries and a demotion to the bullpen. Teams will look at his great 2014 and hope that they can get something in-between that and his most recent results.
More difficult to figure out is what to do with Gee and Lohse. Both pitchers ended the season with an ERA higher than 5.80. That is well-above what is acceptable as a starting pitcher. Both have a track-record of success though, and both should be looking to grab a shorter “prove-it” deal.
Harang pitched for the lowly Philies this season, but didn’t let that deter him from turning in a decent season. His ERA jumped to 4.86 but he turned in 0.8 WAR this season, which means he still has value to somebody. Harang is past his prime for sure, but Steamer predicts that at worst he’ll turn in a 2016 marginally better than his 2015.
Here are my predictions: Fister signs for 1 year and $10 million, Gee signs for 3 years and $21 million, Lohse signs for 2 years and $18 million, and Harang signs for 2 years and $12 million.
The rest of the pitchers on the market should either be viewed as potential bullpen pitchers, or better yet be willing to accept a minor-league contract and a chance to prove themselves in Spring Training. Here is a list of every 2015-16 MLB Free Agent.
Statistics provided by: ESPN.com, FanGraphs.com, and baseball-reference.com
Images from: Washington Times, Perform Group, Fssta.com, trbimg.com, freep.com