Want a top-of-the-rotation starter this winter? You might want to check the trade market, because this year’s pool of free-agent starting pitchers is mediocre at best, and downright boring at worst. That’s a sharp contrast from last year’s group, which featured C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Derek Lowe at the top, and had teams bidding against each other in the worst economic environment we will ever see.
But while that’s obviously bad news for teams looking for a new ace, it could end up being great for teams looking for bargains; if there’s a glut of similar pitchers on the market, then it figures that prices will fall, just as they did for outfielder/DH types last year, or mid-level starting pitchers the year before that (e.g. Kyle Lohse).
Let’s try to quantify it. We’ll use our favorite stat, QuikERA, and assume that replacement level is about 5.50. (We don’t need to be super-precise here, we’re just looking to get a general sense of how this year’s group compares to last year’s.) So if a pitcher has a 3.50 QuikERA, and pitches 180 innings, we’ll say he’s saved 40 runs. (Real simple: 5.50 – 3.50 * 180 / 9)
Here’s this year’s top five, along with last year’s; note that this year’s group has had their numbers adjusted upward to represent a full season:
Pitcher Year QuikERA Runs Saved Joel Pineiro 2009 3.92 37.1 Rich Harden 2009 3.42 35.6 Carl Pavano 2009 3.97 33.2 John Lackey 2009 3.96 28.8 Andy Pettitte 2009 4.42 23.9 Pitcher Year QuikERA Runs Saved CC Sabathia 2008 3.07 68.3 A.J. Burnett 2008 3.57 47.5 Derek Lowe 2008 3.62 44.1 Randy Johnson 2008 3.56 43.2 Ryan Dempster 2008 3.50 40.9
That’s a blowout, and could be even more so if we were looking at multi-year figures. (I’m only using one-year numbers because that’s what many teams still base their valuations on.) The leader of this year’s class, Pineiro, wouldn’t have cracked last year’s top five, and runner-up Harden would have been eighth, behind Pettitte and Ben Sheets. And we haven’t even mentioned Oliver Perez, whose reputation so far-outstripped his actual performance level that he ended up getting the fifth-biggest contract among free-agent starters last year, despite coming in twelfth in runs saved (behind, among others, Odalis Perez and Braden Looper).
So the options at the top are obviously pretty slim. But that doesn’t necessarily carry over to the low end; check out spots 11-15 from this year and last:
Pitcher Year QuikERA Runs Saved Brad Penny 2009 4.67 15.5 Jarrod Washburn 2009 4.85 14.1 Mike Hampton 2009 4.74 10.9 Jon Garland 2009 5.04 10.6 Doug Davis 2009 5.05 10.1 Pitcher Year QuikERA Runs Saved Jamie Moyer 2008 4.75 16.4 Oliver Perez 2008 4.92 12.5 Pedro Martinez 2008 4.65 10.3 John Smoltz 2008 2.51 9.3 Paul Byrd 2008 5.06 8.8
That’s relatively similar, albeit through very different paths-this year’s group is full of back-end starters who have mostly taken their turns, while last year’s is an eclectic mix of injury cases, head cases, and AARP members. But regardless, the two groups end up matching pretty well, both in terms of QuikERA (aside from Smoltz), and Runs Saved. (You can see both lists in their entirety here.)
So while there aren’t any CCs or A.J.s this year, there are a whole lot of Jarrod Washburns, making this year’s group at least as deep as last year’s, if not nearly as top-heavy. Combine that with a much smaller gap from top to bottom, along with a relatively healthy supply of top-line hitters, and we could see a tremendous buyer’s market for starting pitchers this winter.
For teams looking to go dumpster-diving, that could mean a number of options at cut-rate prices, and if you look really hard, there might even be some guys worth getting excited over. Pavano, for one, has been much better than his ERA would have you think, and as much as he’s driven people crazy over the years, perhaps there’s something about a string of one-year contracts that can make a guy famous for his extended absences just show up and pitch. Erik Bedard is a riskier play, given that he might not even be able to throw until the spring, but he has as much upside as anyone on this year’s market-he led the league in QuikERA in 2007 at 2.68, and his 3.59 mark this year is right between Max Scherzer and Cole Hamels.
The real gem, however, might be Smoltz, who was unfairly left for dead just a few weeks ago. Here are his seasonal QuikERAs since 2005, when he rejoined the Braves rotation: 3.87, 3.43, 3.27, 2.51, 3.31. He’s seventh in all of baseball in that time-between Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia-and his ’09 mark is right in line with past performance. That’s not a guy who’s done; that’s just a guy who had freakishly high BABIP and HR/FB numbers for a few weeks, and is at an age where people jump to assume that he finally must have lost it.
So this year’s class does have some merit, if you’re willing to dive deep, and especially if it does turn into a buyer’s market. But keep in mind, we’re going to be in a vastly different economy this winter; sentiment was so bad last year that Bud Selig felt compelled to bring in Paul Volcker and George Will to tell the owners to hold on to their wallets. By the time free agency starts this year, we’ll likely have had a solid third-quarter GDP number, and a stock market nearly fifty percent off of its recent lows. Even if we’re not back to 2005-07 levels, owners should be far less fearful, giving their general managers a bit more wiggle room.
Still, don’t be surprised to see a lot of one-year deals, and a bunch of guys looking for jobs in February. For teams with discriminating eyes and a couple open rotation spots, that should be a very welcome development.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .