MLB: Cleveland Indians at Oakland Athletics

Despite Spring Training getting under way in mere weeks, a whole mess of starting pitchers are still sitting out there on the free agent market. The pitchers – good, bad, and indifferent – all sit in a holding pattern because of Masahiro Tanaka.

Once Tanaka signs, his contract helps define the type of deal available to those at the top of the free agent heap. From there, there is some cash to spread around for the filler-types and then minor league invites for those living below the Zito line.

But if we take stock of the long list of names still out there, how do we group them? If your team has the money, who do you hope ends up in your jersey of choice? Let us lift and separate these players in order of desirability in the proud internet tradition.

Detritus

Bruce Chen
Freddy Garcia
Jon Garland
Jair Jurrjens
Jason Marquis
Daisuke Matsuzaka
Jerome Williams
Tommy Hanson
Aaron Harang

Detritus is a really mean way to describe very accomplished men with long careers and substantial baseball earnings in their chosen profession but here we are. This is not a game of subtlety. Great and/or serviceable as these guys once were, they are not emergency plans and low-ceiling keno tickets for teams with nothing left to lose. Let’s move on, the quicker the better. But for the grace of Bud go thee

You still left-handed? Let’s talk

Barry Zito
Erik Bedard
Chris Capuano
Clayton Richard
Joe Saunders
Paul Maholm

There are some things in our sporting world that defy logic. Left-handed pitchers and seven-foot tall NBA players are born, not made. Just as an inordinate number of American-born men who stand seven-feet tall end up playing professional basketball in one capacity or another, lefties have an inborn advantage that lengthens their careers.

It almost feels unfair to lump Chris Capuano and Paul Maholm in with these other guys. Capuano put up some pretty good numbers with the Dodgers in 2012 and Maholm has as many good (average) seasons as bad on his resume, though injury and ineffectiveness bothered him in 2013.

Both Capuano and Maholm should find guaranteed deals. Maybe. Might. Maybe. Almost.

An elbow full of spiderwebs, a pocket full of dreams

Roy Oswalt
Johan Santana
Jeff Niemann
Jeff Karstens
Scott Baker

Roy Oswalt might need a wee bit of a wakeup call. Though he is just 36-years old, he must embrace the reality that his days as a viable starter might just be over. But, then again, gaze upon his workable peripheral stats and think he might just be worth a shot.

Johan Santana is another side of the same coin. Once great, recently good, but really who knows? He didn’t pitch at all last year and didn’t pitch at all in 2011. It’s much closer to the end than to the beginning for Johan Santana, which isn’t to suggest he can’t stitch his body back together for another run to glory (note: he probably will not.)

Jeff Niemann wasn’t even good was he was good but he also was not bad. Not bad goes a long way as the season is so very long. So long. Endless. Kinda like the off-season, whiskey-and-tear soaked as it’s become.

Wildcards

James McDonald
A.J. Burnett
Suk-Min Yoon

A.J. Burnett deserves a better fate than the company he keeps here. He’s coming off another fine season, one of the best in his career. He could cash in with the third multi-year deal of his career. But that does not appear to be his prerogative. Burnett might retire, or at least he will leverage that threat into something meaningful. The ball is entirely in his court, which makes the Walking Dead extra a true wildcard.

James McDonald is probably not very good. He is a free agent because he refused a triple-A assignment in September. He is 29-years old. He has a live arm. He has little control and little success at the big lealgue level. He probably won’t get a big league job but a small voice in my head suggests he could still post a shock season after putting it all together. Note: this is incredibly unlikely. But who knows?

Suk-min Yoon arrived in the USA hoping to catch a ride on Tanaka Express. There isn’t a lot known about him, save his Korean stats and some dodgy scouting reports. Maybe he’ll be good? Maybe the Korean league is the new inefficiency, where the quality of play is dismissed and viable players are overlooked as a result. It’s like New Jersey, in that way. Which is to say, Yoon Suk-Min is the Mike Trout of diminutive Korean pitchers. You heard it here first.

Hungry Man Innings Chomper For Hire

Bronson Arroyo
Jason Hammel
Jake Westbrook

Not all innings eaters are created equal. Jake Westbrook isn’t as good as Bronson Arroyo, who might not be as good as Jason Hammel. It remains strange the way we shape our perceptions of reliable, unspectacular pitchers. Bronson Arroyo had one very bad season and it seems to color the ways others perceive him, despite being a league-average starter capable of throwing 200 innings basically every year for a decade.

Aside from his terrible 2011 season, Arroyo put up numbers at or near league-average every season since 2002. He’s an eccentric, right-handed Mark Buehrle in his heart of hearts. Which, as Buehrle’s…burly pay packet can attest, has a lot of value.

Jason Hammel took the benefit of the doubt and ran away with it. After spending the early days of his career stuck at Coors Field, he put up a very nice season in Baltimore after they sprung him from the Rocky Mountain Pitcher Prison. Last year he resumed being pretty much what he always was – a league-average pitcher. Actually, he was worse than that in 2013 but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Again, not an indictment as much as a fact that requires an adjustment of expectations.

Another adjustment required for anyone about to undergo the Jason Hammel experience: injuries are gonna happen. He is yet to make more than 30 starts in a single season, making 20 and 23 respectively during his two years in the American League. So don’t count on him for much and also don’t wish on him recklessly. Buyer beware is the recurring theme here.

Three Big Three

Matt Garza
Ubaldo Jimenez
Ervin Santana

Big is a relative term here. These might be the three biggest fish left in the pond but by no means are any of these pitchers top of the rotation game changers. They are three ships passing in the night, one coming off a great season, one coming off a great season (if you look at the right parts) and one coming off an injury-plagued season that still holds a lot of promise.

Ervin Santana rewarded the Royals faith with a tremendous year in 2013. He left his long ball troubles in the past and pitched 211 innings of 3.24 ERA ball. He had his best season since 2008, improving his control while staying healthy and generally being really good. Can he do it again, is the zillion dollar question.

How much did the Royals excellent outfield defense help him? Probably a lot. How much did the vast space of Kaufman Stadium help him? Probably a little. How much can be attributed to a walk year bump? Not much. The whys and hows of Ervin Santana’s season have been debated in depth over and again, now it is just a matter of cutting a cheque.

Were I a cheque cutting man, I’d pony up the dough for Santana long before I’d put Matt Garza’s name on a contract. If you ask me to choose between health and performance, I’ll take health just about every time. Bad years come and good years go but health is, mostly, forever (until it isn’t.) Matt Garza’s health hasn’t been great over the last two years, not exactly the most reassuring sign going into free agency.

It’s too simplistic to just point to the recent past and say “he was hurt ergo he is hurt” but a track record suggesting his arm is something less than 100% is scary. If we take his health at face value, what is there to say about Matt Garza’s performance? How much of his more homer-prone 2012 & 2013 comes back to health? Is 2011 the outlier or the time since? Hard to imagine just moving out of the American League East (and then back to the AL) made as drastic a difference as Garza’s number suggest.

Of the three, Jimenez is the one who gets my imaginary dollars. Durable to a fault, Jimenez is tough to pin down because of the mixed bag of results during his time in Cleveland.

A big part of me wants to believe his strong finish to the 2013 season is a reflection of real changes made by the former Cleveland starter – a renewed interest to work inside combined with the ever elusive “pitchability”, as Beyond the Boxscore went over earlier today. Once the market is established, Ubaldo should stand as the biggest earner and the best addition of the domestic free agent crop.

The White Whale

Masahiro Tanaka

The legend grows. Day by day. Minute by minute. With every new team diving into the “chasing Tanaka” pool, he gets better and better. His ceiling floats higher and higher. His numbers look more and more real.

In fairness, not many 25-year old pitchers with the body of work Tanaka claims hit the free agent market. Based on the scouting reports and eyewitness accounts and the never-enough need for pitchers, the feeding frenzy is justified. Many teams will throw their hats into the ring but only one will bag their new number two starter.

Last week, we looked at who it might be. Whichever teams gets Tanaka’s name on a contract clearly ends up with the best pitcher still available. All the names below him on the list can thank their lucky stars they were along for the ride when this unique talent showed up just as free agent money went from sublime to ridiculous.