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Free-agent starting pitchers: A consumer's guide

It's a thin market this winter, particularly in the left-handed pitching department, so look for trades to liven things up.

Masahiro Tanaka
Masahiro Tanaka
Koji Watanabe

Well, I knew this day was coming, but I'm certainly not happy about it. Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but since I started writing about baseball there is a stretch in late September where I start mumbling, "I can't wait for this season to end." I'm not proud; it's an inevitable side effect of late-season fatigue, and like many things I've said in my life, I didn't actually mean it.

If you're like me, you looked at your iPad today, the day after the World Series, and upon seeing no new box scores, you contemplated throwing the superfluous gadget from the fifth-story window because it really serves no purpose beyond delivering box scores, tweeting, and radio-television capabilities (for baseball games only, of course). The lack of box scores sent me scrolling feverishly through the home screen, desperately seeking electronic enlightenment. I tried Angry Birds, but you couldn't figure out how to make that black bird explode when it crashes into things, and even though the five-year-old boy that taught me to play the game swears that the green bird is a boomerang, I certainly couldn't get it to come back.

Maybe you're here looking for an answer to the most important, question on the first day of the offseason: What the hell are we going to do with ourselves now?

Ervin Santana (USA TODAY Sports)

For those who don't pack away their baseball brains over the winter, the Internet really falls into three buckets for the next several months: Retrospective articles opining on the happenings of last season, the Hot Stove League, and cat videos. Since it seemed too soon for the retrospective and I don't have a kitten to film, I figured the best I could contribute on the first day of the offseason is some kindling for the Hot Stove fire with a look at the top free-agent pitchers to keep an eye on this offseason.

Good luck coping, everyone. The top free-agent pitchers, in no particular order:

Ervin Santana

Sometimes in baseball, there's such a thing as a selective memory; players that were once perceived as underachievers can become high-paid free agents in short order.

Following a 2012 season in which Ervin Santana posted a 5.16 earned run average and gave up 39 home runs (the most in the majors), the Angels traded him with cash to the Kansas City Royals for minor-leaguer Brandon Sisk. The trade seemed like a gamble for the Royals, who assumed a home-run prone pitcher at a $12 million price tag, but Santana exceeded expectations. He pitched 211 innings and dropped his ERA to 3.24. He also managed to slash his home run rate from 5.1 percent to 3.0 percent, which is still a little higher than average, but not awful. Santana also lowered his walk rate 5.9 percent, the lowest it has been since 2008.

Despite the bad days in Anaheim and the fact that Santana is really just an average pitcher, especially when it comes to strikeouts, there will still be several of teams interested in Santana. He's just 30 years old and one of the best in a shallow pool of free agent talent, which should be enough for a team to give him a three-year deal and to pretend like that whole salary dump thing never happened.

Matt Garza

Pundits will argue about whether the best pitching free agent is Santana or Matt Garza, but the fact is they are pretty comparable. They are both righties who will start next season on the wrong side of 30, but Garza may be more attractive to potential suitors. Since he was traded midseason from the Cubs to the Rangers, he's ineligible for a qualifying offer; teams pursuing him won't have to be concerned about losing a draft pick, which might make him more desirable than Santana.

Garza has been a pitcher teetering on the edge of ace-dom for his entire career, but he's always come up just short. Garza hasn't had any terrible seasons and his 3.84 career ERA is good; he doesn't give up many hits either, but a look at his peripheral stats doesn't stir any enthusiasm-he's been largely average when it comes to strikeout and walk rates throughout his career. Garza could be a No. 2 or No. 3 guy in a rotation, but the biggest concern facing his future is injury. In eight seasons in the majors, Garza has reached the 200-inning inning mark just twice; in the past two seasons he has been limited to 103.2 and 155.1 innings respectively as he dealt with elbow and shoulder injuries.

Still, there will be someone willing to give Garza a long-term deal, though the dollars will largely depend on the competition and how seriously teams perceive the risk of injury.

Ubaldo Jimenez (Eric P. Mull-US PRESSWIRE)

Ubaldo Jimenez

If there's anyone seizing the day this year with free agency, it's Ubaldo Jimenez. Though he had an option to return to the Indians next season for $8 million, coming off of one of the best seasons of his career meant that he declined it to test free agency. The Indians leveraged the farm back in 2011 to add Jimenez to their roster prior to the trade deadline in their final push to the playoffs, and for his first year and a half in Cleveland, he pitched dreadfully. There was a lot of resentment towards the pitcher who had 17 losses, the most in the majors, in 2012 and it seemed that the Indians wouldn't be able to get rid of him fast enough. A 7.13 ERA seemed to portend more of the same in 2013. However, this season was a year of redemption for Jimenez, who pitched 182 innings, posted a 3.30 ERA, and had a career-high 25-percent strikeout rate. His ERA after the first two months was 2.40; in September it was 1.09.

Given that the Indians don't have any clear successors in their rotation, they will likely give Jimenez a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer for next season. They might be interested in extending him beyond that, but they realize it's going to take money and years to keep him out of free agency. The amount that the Indians, or any team for that matter, will be willing to spend on Jimenez however will depend on whether or not they think that this latest version of Ubaldo -- the one with improved command and the dominant second half -- is the real deal.

Hiroki Kuroda

Every time Kuroda's contract is up, it's rumored that he would prefer to go back to Japan, but he never does. That has proved to be a good thing for the Dodgers and Yankees in the past, but this time there's a chance that a team could regret signing him.

Kuroda's most marketable attribute has always been his consistency; since coming over from Japan in 2008, he's been healthy and reliable, as comfortable and predictable as your favorite sweater on a cold day. Kuroda has a career 3.40 ERA and a 3.31 ERA in the past two seasons with the Yankees, which is impressive when you consider the hitter-friendly environment of Yankee Stadium. This season, though,  he fell hard down the stretch (6.56 ERA in his final eight starts) and given that he'll be 39 next season, it's impossible to know if that represents a fluke, fatigue, or just the effects of age taking hold. Taken at face value, Kuroda is a great pitcher, but when you consider there's at least a $15 million price tag affixed to each season, signing him may not be the smartest thing to do.

Masahiro Tanaka (UKoji Watanabe)

Masahiro Tanaka

The most talked-about pitching free agent hasn't even thrown a single pitch in the majors, but that won't prevent Masahira Tanaka from getting a huge payday. Tanaka, a 25-year-old right-hander who has been dazzling in Japan, will be posted this offseason, and considering that he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles it's understandable that he's garnered a lot of attention.

Tanaka has a four-seamer that sits in the low 90s, a two-seamer, and a slider, but his most impressive pitch is a splitter, which some are calling the greatest they have ever seen. There are some videos of his wicked pitches floating around the Internet that are well worth your time; you can watch them and decide whether you think the splitter talk is just hyperbole, though I imagine you'll be just as impressed as everyone else has been.

Tanaka's payday is expected to be in the same range as the six-year, $56 million deal Yu Darvish got with the Rangers back in 2011, but there's even more money associated with signing Japanese players in the form of a posting bid (Darvish's was $51.7 million). It's a great deal of money to spend on an unknown, but some teams with deep pockets will be willing to take the gamble in hopes of purchasing an ace for years to come.

Ricky Nolasco

Ricky Nolasco spent eight seasons with the Marlins before being traded at midseason to the Dodgers. The Marlins' interest in getting rid of Nolasco was mostly financial, and when the Dodgers agreed to take on the remaining $5.5 million of his salary it was a done deal. It wasn't a great trade for Marlins, who didn't receive top-tier prospects in return and also had to kick in some international pool money to complete the deal, but it was the final move in erasing all of the big salaries from their books.

Going to the Dodgers was a dream come true Nolasco, a native Southern Californian. He gave the back of the rotation some stability, pitching 87 innings with a 3.52 ERA, bringing along his signature feature, a low walk rate (5.7 percent), while continuing his recent trend of lower home-run rates.

A league-average pitcher at best to this point of his career, Nolasco would be ideal for a team that needs a fourth or fifth starter, but we're really talking about a very small segment of teams that are basically ready to win and just need to make sure that their last starter isn't totally incompetent. Nolasco does have a clean bill of health working in his favor though, and just like Garza, he's ineligible for a qualifying offer since he was traded midseason.

The Other Guys

This free agent class seems to have a shortage of two things: aces and lefties. None of the pitchers mentioned above are top-tier pitchers (and they aren't left-handed, either). Of course, in a thin market like this, these second-tier pitchers will be well sought after, and they'll be compensated beyond their abilities. In turn, there will be some incredulous ranting about how much money these pitchers are making, as though the money were coming out of the fans' pockets instead of the swimming pool of coins that all major-league team owners dive into nightly.

There are some older pitchers that are looking for deals this offseason, including Bartolo Colon, Bronson Arroyo, and A.J. Burnett. At age 40, Colon pitched one of the best seasons of his career with a 2.65 ERA in 190.1 innings pitched. There's mutual interest in Colon remaining in Oakland, though if the price gets too high, the Athletics will probably let the aging ace walk away.  Arroyo and Burnett, both of whom will be 37 next season, have surprisingly similar numbers, though they get their differently. Purposely not naming names here-one of them is 138-127 with a 104 ERA+, the other is 147-132 with 105 ERA+. Arroyo has the great leg kick and Burnett strikes out more guys, so you can tell them apart. Burnett has made a lot more money in his career but Arroyo's most recent payday put him roughly in line with his NL colleague and their offers may end up being close to identical. Burnett made some noise about retirement at the end of the season, so one question will be whether he does indeed want to return and if the Pirates will be willing to meet his price.

Josh Johnson will be 30 next season, but last season with the Blue Jays he struggled with consistency due to injury. This year alone, Johnson had problems with his triceps, blisters on his pitching hand, his left knee, a forearm strain, and underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his pitching elbow after the season ended. It's been a couple of seasons since Johnson has been really good, but there will be teams that see his upside and will be willing to gamble.

The pool of left-handed starting pitching is so shallow it's almost a pointless exercise to try to identify the most promising member of the group. In preparing this article I posed the question to Twitter, challenging people to name the top lefty free agent. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't much consensus. Scott Kazmir, Bruce Chen, and Johan Santana seem to be at the top of the list, with Erik Bedard, John Lannan, and Paul Maholm getting honorable mentions. Given the scarcity of lefties, there could be some trades -- the White Sox, for instance, have four lefties in their rotation and have many positional needs, so things could get interesting. Barring that kind of trade action, some of the free agent southpaws could get huge paydays out of proportion to their abilities just because they were born that way.

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