Best Free Agent Starting Pitchers

James Schiano ranks the SPs left on the market

1. Carlos Rodón, 29

 

13-5, 2.37 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 34.6 K%, 6.7 BB%, 132.2 IP, 4.9 fWAR, 5.0 bWAR

 

There is a lot of both good and bad that floods Rodón’s profile. He has a wicked injury history that includes Tommy John surgery (May 2019), arthroscopic shoulder surgery (September 2017), and a litany of other left-arm issues like shoulder bursitis, fatigue, and inflammation in his elbow. This laundry list forces him to pitch just 232.1 innings from 2017 through 2020 and the White Sox non-tendered him just last winter.

But he came back with a vengeance and was one of the best pitchers in baseball for most of this past season while playing on a one-year “prove it” type deal. His 35.2 K% was the fourth-highest in baseball from opening day to July 31st trailing on Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes, and Tyler Glasnow. His 28.6 K-BB% was also fourth this time trailing deGrom, Burnes, and Gerritt Cole. Moreover, his 0.96 WHIP was tenth and 3.8 fWAR was seventh. Rodón was elite all-around.

However, I set that very arbitrary cut-off date around midseason because Rodón was far less effective through August and September. He went on the IL with shoulder fatigue shortly thereafter and only threw 28 total innings over the rest of the regular season. Just 1.7% of his fastballs were 98 mph or harder over his stretch. That number was down from 12.7% April through July.

Rodón ran out of gas, but that was to be expected after such limited availability for the past handful of years. His talent and ceiling are tremendous while workload concerns make him an imperfect option for certain teams who seek guaranteed innings.

 

2. Clayton Kershaw, 33

 

10-8, 3.55 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 29.5 K%, 4.3 BB%, 121.2 IP, 3.4 fWAR, 2.4 bWAR

 

Another lefty with durability concerns, Kershaw hits the open market at a strange crossroads. On one hand, he is still highly effective. His 29.5 K% and 25.2 K-BB% were bests since 2017 and his 3.00 FIP was seventh-lowest in the league.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to expect a steady workload from the veteran. He has not thrown 200 innings since 2015 and I highly doubt he ever does again. Just last year he had two separate IL stints: one for elbow inflammation and another for forearm discomfort.

The latter knocked him out of the Postseason and he has yet to resume throwing. However, he recently told Dan Patrick he was ‘ready to go’, for whatever that’s worth.

Still, Kershaw remains pliable. 2021 marked the first season of his career where his fastball was not his most frequently thrown pitch as he opted for more sliders. Also, his pitch shapes remain ideal. That less-used fastball still has above-average ride despite losing a few ticks. The command and drop on his patented 12-6 curveball remain perfect. I even have an eyewitness that saw him at Driveline last winter.

Kershaw can still be great. He might only give 100-130 innings, but they will be incredibly solid. It’s hard to see him outside of Los Angeles though; Southern California or Texas feel like the only places he’d wind up.

 

3. Zack Greinke, 38

 

11-6, 4.16 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 17.2 K%, 5.2 BB%, 171 IP, 1.3 fWAR, 1.2 bWAR

 

Our first righty (and second senior citizen) on the list! Greinke’s current skillset is the antithesis to Kershaw’s: he will give plenty of innings but their effectiveness remains to be seen. Last season’s strikeout rate was his lowest mark since 2005 and a massive pull-back from the 23% range he has sat in for the last few seasons. The decline in skill is obvious.

That being said, he did turn in 171 IP last season. That followed 67 IP in 2020 (that was near the top of the league) and at least 200 IP in each season from 2017 to 2019. Greinke can be very valuable to the right rotation who needs innings and can stomach an ERA in the fours.

 

4. Yusei Kikuchi, 30

 

7-9, 4.41 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 24.5 K%, 9.3 BB%, 157 IP, 1.1 fWAR, 1.7 bWAR

 

Kikuchi’s free agency comes as a bit of a surprise. He signed a seven-year deal with Seattle ahead of the 2019 season after dominating the NPB for eight seasons. The deal had a team option that would have paid him $66 million over the next four seasons, but the Mariners declined it. That triggered a one-year $13 million option for Kikuchi that he also declined.

Of course, the Mariners’ decision to spurn Kikuchi is a direct result of his poor performance. His ERA was well over five in his rookie season and the results have only improved marginally since.

Kikuchi in Seattle

Upset with his own play, Kikuchi spent the winter ahead of the 2020 season at Driveline to clean up his mechanics and hopefully find more velocity. His fastball jumped up from 92.5 mph in 2019 to 95.0 in 2020. Those gains held this past season and Kikuchi sat 96 up until June. He fell back a little in the second half, both in terms of velocity and effectiveness, but didn’t have a month where his fastball averaged less than 94 mph.

This profile is much more intriguing with a 94-96 mph fastball to go along with his slider and split-finger. There’s reason to believe the 30-year-old has his best season ahead of him.

 

5. Michael Pineda, 32

 

9-8, 3.62 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 19.2 K%, 4.6 BB%, 109.1 IP, 1.4 fWAR, 1.4 bWAR

 

Overall, Pineda is better known for his malfeasance than his performance on the mound. The once mega-prospect never realized his potential and was caught in possibly the most poorly hidden sticky-stuff incident during the 2o10s. So, it’s easy to miss the fact that he has been serviceable of late.

He had an impressive 4.01 ERA (4.30 xFIP) over 146 IP during 2019’s offensive chaos with a 23.3 K% and 4.7 BB% (97th percentile) to boot. His production was similar this past season despite fewer strikeouts and a leap in Hard Hit% (37.4 to 47.4).

There’s reason to believe that tandem decline could signal the end for the soon to be 31 year old, but it’s possible that a few key adjustments could help Pineda find a second wind.

His fastball is one of the worst in baseball. It has been losing velocity for the past few seasons and sits just 90-91 mph now with no ride. He used to get by with such a poor pitch shape since he had some heat. Those days are over.

Now, it’s significantly slower than league average with the lowest vertical approach angle in baseball. Yet, for whatever reason, he threw that flat and slow fastball 54.2% of the time last season and it was hammered for a .372 xwOBA. Yuck.

Similarly, his slider is shockingly benign. It moves just half an inch horizontally with moderate drop and may very well just be a mismarked curveball.

Looks can be deceiving though because the pitch has a whiff rate hovering around 40% dating back to 2020. A pitch that effective establishes a useful floor.

There’s a world where Pineda can better optimize these pitches and create a more coherent pitch-mix along with his changeup. His conditioning also seems like it has taken a hit over the past few seasons which could have contributed to his durability issues. A team could do worse for eight or nine million dollars.

 

6. Tyler Anderson, 31

 

7-11, 4.53 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 19.1 K%, 5.4 BB%, 167.0 IP, 2.1 fWAR, 1.6 bWAR

 

Last season’s deep-league darling, Anderson is the poster-child for boring. To steal a phrase from Eno Sarris and Derek Van Riper, this man is oatmeal. He will give a team little to no upside while pitching as many innings as his effectiveness will allow. That floor feels high, but there’s a world where the ERA keeps trickling up and he’s unusable.

There is still plenty of good with his profile though: he allows almost no walks, very little hard contact, and gets hitters to chase. Perhaps most importantly he has also found ways to circumvent his incredibly ordinary fastball. He threw it less frequently than ever before last season and seems to be fazing it out in favor of a more effective cutter and new sinker.

Leaning into those two pitches could help him get his ground ball rate over 40%, which would be meaningful given his low strikeout totals. Otherwise, a very large park would suit him.

 

7. Johnny Cueto, 35

 

7-7, 4.08 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 20.0 K%, 6.1 BB%, 114.2 IP, 1.5 fWAR, 0.8 bWAR

 

Sure, Cueto is prehistoric. He has pitched more than 2,000 innings in his career and under-delivered during his 6 years, $130 million contract with the Giants. It’s almost comical to say they had the option to decline a team option that would have paid Cueto $22 million for 2022.

However, take that exorbitant contract out of the equation, and here is a guy that was effective last year over a decent chunk of innings. His changeup and fastball each had whiff rates right around 28% and his profile reminds me of Michael Wacha’s from last offseason. A team could extract plenty of value out of the current version of Cueto

He has not been close to durable over the last five seasons though, so that’s a knock. Another for leaving the Giants because of both the park and brains behind the scene over there, but he can still give a team a relatively high floor over moderate innings.

 

8. Zach Davies, 28

 

6-12, 5.78 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 17.1 K%, 11.2 BB%, 148.0 IP, 0.1 fWAR, -0.9 bWAR

 

This list has gotten very boring very quickly. Davies was generally awful last year but he can still probably eat innings. Think of him as the nerfed version of Anderson: a healthy dose of moderately effective innings and nothing else. Not a sexy option, but a necessity for certain teams.

The rest of the pitchers on this list are somehow less exciting than Davies while offering the same capabilities of eating innings for what is likely a bad team.

 

9. Martín Pérez, 30

10. Wily Peralta, 32

11. Brett Anderson, 33

12. J.A. Happ, 39

13. Chase Anderson, 37

14. Matt Harvey, 32

15. Matt Moore, 32

 

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Shawn Palmer (PalmerDesigns_ on twitter)

James Schiano

Graduate of The Ohio State University and New York City dweller, I am a die-hard Mets fan who can generally be found screaming at the TV or making wise-cracks to anyone who'll hear them. Follow me on Twitter @JeterHadNoRange

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