Jason Hammel is still a free agent. When the Cubs declined his option, it was seen as a nice gesture, a way to let him explore the dewey meadows of free agency and make scores of millions in what was supposed to be a pitching-starved market. Teams were supposed to line up for pitchers like Hammel and Ivan Nova, fours who might be threes, because that was all they had. And if you get one team interested in Hammel, you’ll probably get two. Two teams is all it takes for a bidding war. He was going to get so much money, everyone. This market was supposed to be wild.
So, anyway, Jason Hammel is still a free agent. All things being equal, he just might prefer being the fifth starter on one of baseball’s best teams, with an elite defense and lineup supporting him. He didn’t become the belle of the free agent ball. He didn’t get a contract that made you snork a ramen noodle out of your nose mid-bite. He’ll get a one-year deal, maybe two, maybe something with a player option. Something very reasonable at this point.
What happened, then? We could see that the pitch market was going to be bare for over a year, which meant we were almost guaranteed to see some price-gouging. When there’s one bottle of purified water left, you can charge an awful lot.
Jason Hammel is still a free agent, though. Jose Quintana probably won’t get moved until the deadline, if at all. If you want Jorge De La Rosa, he’s there for you. Same with Doug Fister, Jonathon Niese, and Jered Weaver. Heck, Colby Lewis had a 122 ERA+ last year and was worth 2.4 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference. That’s mid-rotation gold.
Rich Hill got a lot of money, but not an unreasonable sum for his expected production. Ivan Nova got a nice guarantee, but nothing outlandish. There were just four starting pitchers who signed a multi-year deal this year, with modest one-year contracts ruling the land. Brett Anderson signed a $3.5 million deal, even though he has a great shot at being a valuable, average starting pitcher.
We’ve learned a lesson, then. The free agent market isn’t always yoked to supply and demand. Not when you can see the empty store rooms from a mile away. Here are the reasons the bottom fell out of the starting-pitching market.
Teams planned ahead
When the Giants traded their starting third baseman for a starting pitcher last July, it was because they needed a starting pitcher. No surprise there. But it went deeper than that. They weren’t just looking at Matt Moore as Matt Cain insurance in 2016; they were looking at him as Rich Hill insurance in 2017. Not that Hill isn’t a fine pitcher (he is), but they were scared it would take a ridiculous contract to pry him away from the Dodgers, and after Hill, there wasn’t anyone with a better risk/reward balance for the short- and long-term.
That planning also likely factored into the deal to bring Cole Hamels to Texas, Mike Leake to St. Louis, Mike Fiers to Houston, Francisco Liriano to Toronto, and Drew Pomeranz to Boston. Those deals weren’t just made for an immediate need; they were made partially with this barren offseason in mind, too.
Teams decided to trust their youth
The Mets could have retained Bartolo Colon or welcomed back R.A. Dickey, but they’re comfortable in Zack Wheeler’s return to full strength. The Yankees want to contend, but they’re comfortable with the development of Luis Severino and Chad Green, at least when compared to an expensive rebound from an enigma like Fister.
Even teams that spent or planned ahead were willing to trust some younger players. The Giants got Moore, sure, but they’re also willing to use Ty Blach as a fifth or sixth starter, if needed. The Pirates spent money to keep Ivan Nova, but that doesn’t mean they’re opposed to seeing what Chad Kuhl can do for a full season.
FanGraphs looked at baseball’s middle class — the boring, reliable, market price veterans — and found that it was shrinking. Teams are turning more and more to younger, pre-arbitration players more than expensive stopgaps. That applies to the pitching market, for sure.
Teams exploited the glut of pitchers available on a one- or two-year deal
That goes for players who were acquired in a trade (Clay Buchholz) and players who were free agents (Colon, Dickey). The Reds will get some veteran support in their beleaguered rotation with Scott Feldman, and the Angels will get the same with Jesse Chavez. Even the two wild cards who did sign a multi-year deal (Edinson Volquez and Charlie Morton) signed for just two years and the kind of salary a team should expect to pay a fourth starter.
The market was barren, but it was barren for top-tier pitchers. Once you dug down a couple layers, there was a big ol’ reasonable-option party. The Braves pounced early and often with Colon, Dickey, and Jaime Garcia. The Rangers are spending $16 million on Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross and hoping at least one of them is worth that much. The Mariners decided to buy low on Yovani Gallardo. The glut of reasonable short-term options was so pronounced, it was possible to build a full rotation out of pitchers still available in January.
This is my biggest mistake. I was looking at three square blocks of fast food restaurants and screaming, “There’s nowhere to eat!” If you were dead set on four-star sushi, that was accurate. Once you started to consider the bun-ensconced mystery meat, though, a world of possibilities opened up.
Man, I could really go for some bun-ensconced mystery meat right now, if we’re being honest.
Teams accurately assessed their expected yield from substantial expenditures and adjusted organizational paradigms
Dumb it down for me.
Teams were like, “LOL whatever”
Ah. The Brewers, Twins, and other rebuilding teams. Yeah, while there was a lesson to learn from the A’s success with Rich Hill last season, that doesn’t mean there was a Rich Hill on this market, a pitcher who would cost a few million right now, but could turn into a prospect bounty in July. The Braves are trying their best. The Padres are trying Trevor Cahill, which could pay off.
For the most part, though, rebuilding teams are much more comfortable figuring out their in-house solutions than paying someone like Hammel to give them a shot at 180 innings of average. There is some benefit in a rebuilding team getting a veteran (less pressure on a young bullpen, for example), but there’s also some benefit in stashing the cash under a mattress.
The Red Sox gave up a lot to get Chris Sale. The Mariners didn’t get Drew Smyly for cheap, and the same goes for the Diamondbacks and Taijuan Walker. Beyond that, though, the pitching market was calm and reasonable, even more so than it was last year, when supply was way up.
What we just watched, then, was an offseason where nobody panicked. There wasn’t a team ready to pull a comically oversized lever on the last day of the Winter Meetings because they would be starting Jeff Suppan if they didn’t.
In a way, I’m proud of these teams. In another, much more real way, I’m very disappointed in them. Panicking teams is one of the very best parts of every offseason, and we should all feel cheated. Try harder next offseason, baseball.