Four years ago, the big story in baseball for a while was that Johan Santana was going to the Yankees. The best pitcher in the league for the past half-decade was on the market and the Yankees had the pieces to make a deal. Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Austin Jackson, and Jose Tabata headlined one of the best systems in baseball. Brian Cashman had other ideas, though. The price tag was too high. He wasn’t about to give up a potential ace and package of future Major Leaguers, as well as an extension that could run up to 200 million dollars, for one player. He did something the Yankees had not been known to do. He waited. He called the Twins bluff and Santana was shipped off to the Mets for a much lesser package. A few months later, after missing the playoffs for the first time during his tenure as general manager, CC Sabathia was in pinstripes. So was Mark Teixeira. The waiting paid off and by 2009, we had a World Series winner on our hands.
Now, as the calendar turns to 2012, history may very well be repeating itself. Despite one of the craziest off-seasons in recent memory the Yankees are thus far empty handed. CJ Wilson is in Anaheim and Yu Darvish is in Texas. Mark Buehrle is a Marlin. Gio Gonzalez has been shipped off to Washington. John Danks is probably staying in Chicago. The price tag looks too high for Matt Garza, and Hiroki Kuroda, and Carlos Zambrano is finally off the table. And so now the attention of all of us in Yankee-land turns not only to the 2012 season but the off-season to follow, one potentially loaded with front of the rotation starters.
Of course, the narrative is not that simple. Cashman has shown himself, over the past few seasons, to be increasingly relient on a series of well-stocked farm systems to replace a core of aging stars. The pieces are there to build from within, or alternatively to make a move through trade for lesser but cost-controlled upgrades to the rotation. Sabathia is locked up, as are Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes, and the high levels of the minor leagues are absolutely overflowing with arms ready for a chance at big league success. It has also been made clear that the Yankees are intent to get their payroll under $189 million before the 2014 season – a lofty goal given the presence of Alex Rodriguez, Teixeira, Sabathia, Curtis Granderson, and Robinson Cano in the teams mid-to-long range plans. But there is undeniably a need to improve the rotation eventually and some, including Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, see next seasons bonanza of pitching prizes as an opportunity for the front office to finally pair a reliable number two with Sabathia. As Kepner writes:
Cole Hamels and Matt Cain, All-Stars younger than 30 with strong postseason pedigrees, are unsigned past this season. Either would make more sense for the Yankees, in the long term, than Wilson or the other top starters on this winter’s market.
Whatever you think of the Yankees quest for austerity, their honesty in pledging allegiance towards a frugal and home-grown revamp of the rotation, Kepner is right about at least one thing: next years free agent market, especially on the pitching side of the ball, looks special. Matt Cain and Cole Hamels rank, by wins above replacement, the National Leagues fourth and seventh most valuable pitchers over the past two seasons, trailing Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and in the case of Hamels, Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Carpenter. That’s not to mention Zack Greinke, who led Major League baseball in xFIP last season. Or 2010′s leader Francisco Liriano. Or James Shields or Shaun Marcum or Jake Peavy. The fact is, as it stands, we are looking at an off-season coming up in which three legitimate number one starters, as well as a few potential second starters, are unsigned and ready to hit the market and whether or not the Yankees have any intention to pursue these starting pitchers, it looks as though they may have the opportunity.
But of course, things don’t always work out that way. Felix Hernandez, the Mariners 26-year-old Cy Young winner, was scheduled to become a free agent after last season before signing a five year deal with Seattle in January of 2010. A week earlier, the Marlins had locked up Josh Johnson for four more years, and a couple of weeks later Justin Verlander had his own long term contract. Last summer, Jered Weaver, who himself could have represented the jewel of the upcoming free agent class, signed a five year, 85 million dollar contract to stay in Anaheim. With this in mind, what can we expect the 2012-2013 free agent class to look like, when it’s all said in done?
The first consideration that must be made is the all important factor of timing. In the above cases, each pitcher signed an extension more than a year before their impending free agency. As a general rule, the closer a player gets to free agency, the less likely they will be to sign a contract extension. A player a month away from free agency faces less injury risk, and therefore a better risk-reward proposition than does a player two years from free agency. In this regard, we have what is, in recent memory, a unique situation. Three number one starters less than a year away from filing free agent papers who are not only not signed, but whose contract negotiations have been kept, for the most part, out of the national baseball spotlight. This leaves us with few comparable situations – Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Santana. In the former two cases, there was free agency. In the latter two, a trade was agreed to contingent upon an extension. None of those four players signed a contract with their previous teams in the final year before free agency.
Matt Cain is the youngest of the big-three and would enter the free agent market at the age of 28. A well built right hander with excellent stuff and very good command, his ability to maintain ERAs in the low-3s and high-2s with low strikeout rates has been mostly the product of that command and of a propensity to keep flyballs from leaving the ballpark. While this is generally recognized by the statistical community as an aspect of pitching outside the pitchers control, in the case of Cain there appears to be legitimate skill. His 6.3% HR/FB rate at home matches up fairly well with his 6.8% HR/FB rate on the road. Pitching in the NL West probably helps, yet that would not account for the sizable difference between Cain’s and the rest of the league’s home run rates. His peripherals can at times paint the picture of a third starter, but the results are for real. He may not be a great fit for Yankee Stadium, but Cain is a borderline ace.
In San Francisco, however, Cain plays second fiddle to two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. The Giants also have a third top of the rotation starter, Madison Bumgarner. While Bumgarner went 13-13 last season, he led the Giants in FIP, xFIP, and wins above replacement as determined by Fangraphs. The Giants fourth starter, Ryan Vogelsong, was the owner of a 2.71 ERA last season in 179 and 2/3 innings. The Giants have plenty of pitching. What they need is offense. So while they will unquestionably make some effort to keep Cain in the long run, there is some question as to whether that will be their top priority. If they determine that Cain is expendable, that extending Lincecum and Bumgarner long term and building around that trio (with Vogelsong) will be acceptable, could they use that money instead on a bat? Could Cain be moved for a middle of the order outfielder? There’s bound to be a team more desperate for pitching than San Fran, and so if Cain wants to stay there, I think there’s a good chance a deal gets done, but if Cain wants to test the market I doubt the Giants will be willing to do what it takes to stop him.
Then there is Cole Hamels. Older than Cain by about 10 months, Hamels has had quite the career thus far. The third starter in Philadelphia behind Halladay and Lee, the Phillies have put themselves in a situation to win big now, but potentially in a hole long term. With Ryan Howard, Halladay, and Lee signed to big contracts and Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Jonathan Papelbon expensive in the near future it appears as though Philly has decided they can afford to lose Hamels, or at least that in the long term Hamels cannot, by himself, hold up such an aging core. Hamels is the only lefty of the three. He had the best ERA in 2011 pitching in the most offense-heavy ballpark and the most offense-heavy division of the three. He’s also got picture perfect peripherals – an 8.08 strikeout rate and 1.83 walk rate and a 52.3% groundball rate. The Phillies would do well to keep on board. The question is whether they can, and will, and I think the answer – when we consider their payroll situation and Hamels potential value as a nearly perfect left-handed front of the rotation starter on the open market – is that they won’t be able to, and that Hamels will be a free agent.
Finally, we come to Zack Greinke. Whether the Yankees would go after Greinke should he become a free agent is an entirely different topic, one I won’t go into too heavily here. As we all know, they passed on him last off-season after deciding the price tag was too high for a player with the risks Greinke presents. His anxiety disorder, at least in the opinion of the front office, was a problem. His 4+ ERA in 2010 was at the very least a manufactured problem. Yet coming off a dominant season in 2011, and potentially a third in 2012, Greinke’s value may be higher. He’s the oldest of the group and has the most spotty big league track record. But he’s also probably the most talented and he has the highest ceiling, as we saw in 2009. Greinke might want to stay in Milwaukee. It’s a good baseball city, and they have a winner for the time being. It’s also not a big market and would not come with the big market pressures. But with Greinke and fellow starting pitcher Shaun Marcum hitting the market at the same time, it will tough for Milwaukee to keep their core in place. Prince Fielder is likely gone and as a mid-market team there’s no reason to believe the Brewers could offer Greinke anything more. They may be better off extending Yovani Gallardo and building around him and Braun and their auxiliary pieces, perhaps including Marcum. If the Brewers are out of it mid-season, Greinke could be moved. If not, his contract will likely expire after 2012 and he will become a free agent.
Outside of those three, there is James Shields, who pitched as well as any of them in 2011 and has a track-record of low-end second, high-end third starter production. The Rays are almost certainly not going to sign him long term – what with David Price, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson among others already locked up, and a payroll that’s low as is. He could be moved and extended at the trading deadline but if the Rays are in the hunt that would be a tough sell. Jake Peavy – if he can pitch up to his peripherals from last season as opposed to done to his ERA – might be a valuable trading asset at the deadline for the rebuilding White Sox. If, for whatever reason, he stays in Chicago, there’s essentially no chance the White Sox pick up his option. Francisco Liriano will be a player to watch next season but the Twins have expressed a willingness to part with him for a couple of years now. His value will be largely a product of his production next season but I find it unlikely he’ll be in Minnesota come 2013. He could be traded, but a long term extension is unlikely. I think he hits the market.
When it comes down to it, we are looking at a unique situation developing, now ten months or so from the 2012-2013 off-season. With three number one starters unsigned at this point, and a plethora of other secondary options, this could be one of the deepest starting pitching free agent classes in recent memory. Greinke pitches for a small market team that may be better off building around a similarly gifted, less expensive starting pitcher, Cain for a mid-market team loaded with pitching and desperate for offense, and Hamels for a big-market team with such an overpriced, aging core that breaking the bank to keep him on board might not be an option. If all three hit the market, or even two of the three, to go along with Shields and Peavy and Liriano and potentially Marcum the Yankees (and every other pitching-desperate franchise) will have a number of options. There wont be one Cliff Lee to spurn a number of teams and send the league into a state of panic. There will be several Lee’s. Whether Cashman and the front office are willing to spend aggressively next off-season remains to be seen. If they are, waiting and spending next offseason is a strategy that could pay off handsomely.
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