The last time baseball offered a class of free agent pitchers as mediocre as the one November will unleash, the biggest contract went to Carlos Silva. It is that grim.
OK, maybe not that grim. Silva didn't even make it halfway through his four-year, $48 million deal with Seattle. He went 5-18 with a 6.81 ERA, couldn't muster a strikeout every two innings and proved true the old baseball adage: Do not give $48 million to Carlos Silva, you moron.
Executives across the game are going to face similar desperation this offseason, because goodness is the landscape ugly for pitching. At least in 2012 there was Zack Greinke, in 2011 Yu Darvish, in 2010 Cliff Lee. John Lackey in 2009 beats any of the best from this upcoming class, as does CC Sabathia in 2008. Even though locking pitching up through prime years is an almost universal strategy and one that tends to neuter the free agent pitching market, a class this barren is rare.
More than that, it's not a function of teams preventing players from reaching free agency. While the hitting market was pummeled by extensions – Joey Votto, David Wright, Alex Gordon, Ian Kinsler and Adam Jones among them – the only pitcher to sign long-term was Adam Wainwright.
So what exactly is Hiroki Kuroda doing as the best starting pitcher in the upcoming class? A 38-year-old who has signed three consecutive one-year deals is the best baseball has to offer? Well … pretty much. Among Kuroda's consistency, performance and track record of health, he amalgamates the qualities no other pitcher can.
Toward the middle of every season, 10 Degrees asks executives, scouts and agents to handicap the best of the upcoming free agent class position-by-position and assign a stock report. (Here's a link to the 2012 stock report.) The pitchers who were supposed to be alongside Kuroda are trending the wrong way. One sought $200 million in an extension, another won an ERA title and yet another will hit the market at 27 years old. And none comes close to Kuroda. Which makes the upcoming market so fascinating, seeing as how …
1. Hiroki Kuroda almost left the United States to return to Japan after last season. As Sabathia has struggled, Kuroda has proven the rock of the Yankees' rotation. This one is easy. Stock report: Up.
• Matt Garza: He's back. He looks healthy. He's throwing in the mid-90s again. If he can pitch the rest of the season, he'll surpass Kuroda and may get Lackey money, more than $80 million. Stock report: Slightly down.
• A.J. Burnett: Leads the National League in strikeouts and the curveball remains devastating as ever. Question is how many years he'll get at 37. Stock report: Up.
• Ervin Santana: Better than a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Still gives up far too many home runs (14 in 84 1/3 innings). Stock report: Way up.
• Josh Johnson: If he's healthy, he's No. 1 on this list. He is not No. 1.Stock report: Down.
• Ricky Nolasco: He'll be attractive not only because of the 3.61 ERA but when he gets traded, it prevents his new team from trying to get a draft compensation pick if he signs elsewhere. Beware low batting average on balls in play. Could collapse his numbers. Stock report: Slightly up.
• Paul Maholm: Since starting the season with three consecutive scoreless outings, his ERA is 4.62. Paucity of strikeouts is concerning, even if he is a soft-tossing left-hander. Stock report: Slightly up.
• Tim Lincecum: Remember when he was supposed to be the first $200 million pitcher? His 4.75 ERA is 80th among 105 qualified starters. He's this high only because of his name. Stock report: Way down.
• Scott Feldman: Another regression candidate. That said, these first 13 games almost certainly have bumped him into multiyear territory. Stock report: Way up.
• Tim Hudson: Worst ground-out-to-air-out rate of his career. If he weren't Tim Hudson, he might lose his rotation spot upon Brandon Beachy's return. Stock report: Down.
• Phil Hughes: Career ERA of 4.69 as a starter. Because he hits free agency at 27, he'll still get paid handsomely. Best comparison: Gil Meche, who had a 4.56 ERA and got five years and $55 million. Stock report: Down.
• Jorge De La Rosa: Back from Tommy John surgery and though strikeouts are down, already has eight quality starts. Stock report: Up.
• Roy Halladay: Nobody knows if he'll even be back. Stock report: Way down.
Option options: Easy call for Kansas City to pick up James Shields' ($12 million) and Boston Jon Lester's ($13 million). Not so easy for San Francisco to keep Ryan Vogelsong ($6.5 million), Cleveland Ubaldo Jimenez ($8 million) or Pittsburgh Wandy Rodriguez ($13 million). The only thing as near a certainty to the Mets rejecting Johan Santana's option ($25 million) is …
2. Brian McCann leaving Atlanta. With Evan Gattis playing like Paul Bunyan, Christian Bethancourt ready with his glove and McCann's price way bigger than the Braves' budget can hold, the catcher is almost assuredly out the door. Stock report: Slightly up.
• Jarrod Saltalamacchia: Just 28, he will get paid by someone who sees three straight .450-plus slugging seasons and gets very excited. "Too bad he still hasn't learned to catch," one scout sniffed. Stock report: Even.
• A.J. Pierzynski: While he's not the power monster of last season, he remains a solid enough presence behind the plate that at least he can start. Stock report: Even.
• Carlos Ruiz: Dreadful return from his amphetamine suspension notwithstanding, Chooch did hit .325/.394/.540 over 114 games last year. Stock report: Down.
• John Buck: Since hitting six home runs in his first 10 games, Buck is hitting .184/.255/.313 in 161 plate appearances. That's more like the old John Buck we know and love! Stock report: Even.
Option option: It will be a lot easier for Washington to swallow a half-million-dollar buyout than pay $8.5 million for Kurt Suzuki. The catching market would look a lot better if …
3. Mike Napoli still played the position. Whether his hip injury keeps him at first for good remains to be seen, though his glove, which is tremendous there, should be reason enough. Napoli's production this season quelled the concerns that prompted Boston to yank its original offer – one that may look like a bargain compared to what he should get this offseason. Stock report: Up.
• James Loney: Wait a second. James Loney. Like, the guy who was with the Dodgers and was awful and then went to the Red Sox and was worse. He's hitting .328/.390/.512? What? You sure it's not Lames Joney, his android double? Stock report: Way up.
• Justin Morneau: Though a shell of his former MVP self, he still hits for average and plays an excellent first base. Odd that he's so good at the tough-to-hit-at Target Field (.340/.380/.489) and so dreadful on the road (.259/.326/.302). Stock report: Even.
• Michael Morse: First nine games: .263/.300/.737 with six homers and nine RBIs. Next 38: .245/.316/.385 with five homers and 12 RBIs. Stock report: Even.
• Paul Konerko: Nearing the end of a great career. While he's no Hall of Famer, he's in the next echelon. Stock report: Way down.
Option option: With 225 plate appearances through 61 games, Lance Berkman is on pace for 598 times up – which would trigger a $13 million option. Otherwise, the Rangers must decide he's worth $12 million or if a DH market with …
4. Kendrys Morales at the top is more appealing. Morales has good power in a home park that isn't conducive to it, improved his walk rate and has cut strikeouts. Take him out of the field – he's not a first baseman and wouldn't have to be one if Justin Smoak didn't bust and he's even better. Stock report: Up.
• Travis Hafner: Cooled down, though his continued health is a big plus. Stock report: Even
• Jason Bay: The power is creeping back. A perfectly useful bat off the bench.Stock report: Slightly up.
• Todd Helton: Still can hit a little and draw a walk. Almost certain to finish as a career Rocky, though he could go to the AL and be a great 25th man. Stock report: Even
• Jason Giambi: The legend grows. At 42, and with just 75 at-bats, he's still got more homers than Manny Machado, Chase Headley, Billy Butler, Allen Craig, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Kemp and, yes, even Yasiel Puig. Stock report: Even
Option option: Still just 29, Adam Lind has three club options. While he's been plenty effective as a platoon DH, those usually don't cost the $7 million next year's option would. It's almost as much as …
5. Stephen Drew got to play shortstop for the Red Sox, something he has done in an eminently Stephen Drew way: OK but not as good as it ought to be; injured some of the time; and still somehow at the top of the free agent shortstop list, like he was last year. Stock report: Slightly down.
• Jhonny Peralta: Teams will be very wary of the 50-game Biogenesis suspension that could hit at any time, mitigating his quietly fantastic (.338/.382/.493) season. Stock report: Down.
• Rafael Furcal: The third-best shortstop in this class is missing the season after Tommy John surgery. That says all anyone needs to know. Stock report: Down.
• Brendan Ryan: Glove is so great it almost makes up for the bat. Almost. Stock report: Slightly down.
• Willie Bloomquist: Reminder: The shortstop class this year is brutal. Stock report: Even.
Option option: If Derek Jeter wants to pull a Mariano Rivera and announce next year is his last, he has a player option for $8 million. Chances are he would play alongside second baseman…
6. Robinson Cano once Jay-Z finishes recruiting every major athlete there is and gets down to, you know, negotiating Cano's deal. Barring there being any fire to the Biogenesis smoke that has linked his assistant to the clinic, it's going to be for at least $200 million, and it's going to be with the Yankees. Stock report: Even.
• Chase Utley: Looked great until he yanked an oblique. With Utley, the question is the same as always: Can he stay healthy? Nobody is nodding the affirmative. Stock report: Slightly down.
• Kelly Johnson: Lots of power, passable average, multiposition capabilities? Yes, please. Stock report: Way up.
• Omar Infante: Steady utilityman who can hold down everyday job as well. A valuable piece. Stock report: Even.
• Nick Punto: Slump turned a .340/.427/.420 line into .286/.364/.353. Still an improvement. Stock report: Slightly up.
Option option: The Rays are the masters of the option, and two more on Ben Zobrist for $7 million and $7.5 million make him one of the best deals around. Were he not so good at second base, he'd be high on the outfield list with …
7. Shin-Soo Choo barely holding down the top spot. His incredible start has yielded to struggles in every category except on-base percentage. Some smart team will move him back to a corner-outfield slot, lead him off and let him do his thing for the next five years. Stock report: Slightly up.
• Jacoby Ellsbury: The lack of pop – of anything from the bat, really – is frightening. All he's got left are his legs, which are great in the field and on the basepaths but don't age well. Stock report: Slightly down.
• Carlos Beltran: Just keeps raking, even at 36, though lack of patience is worrisome. Stock report: Even.
• Curtis Granderson: For all his power, the rest of his numbers in New York have been quite mediocre. This isn't exactly the walk year of dreams, either, with two hit-by-pitch injuries. Stock report: Down.
• Hunter Pence: Still have no idea how he does it – it being everything. Stock report: Slightly up.
• Nelson Cruz: Another Biogenesis suspension waiting to happen. Otherwise, same player as ever. Stock report: Slightly down.
• Nate McLouth: After disappearing for three seasons and proving last year was no mirage, McLouth leads the American League in steals and may have positioned himself for a multiyear deal. Stock report: Way up.
• Corey Hart: Still hasn't played since knee surgery in January. May end up permanently at first base, too. Stock report: Down.
• David DeJesus: Epitome of a good ballplayer. Can hit, run, catch and throw well. Just nothing great, which makes him a bargain. Stock report: Slightly up.
• David Murphy: Brutal walk year at .217/.266/.379. Stock report: Way down.
Option options: Considering their outfield depth, the A's probably will exercise Coco Crisp's at $7.5 million while declining the $11 million for Chris Young, whose former teammate …
8. Mark Reynolds no longer is the hottest hitter around but certainly resurgent enough to warrant a multiyear deal after killing on his one-year make-good with Cleveland. Stock report: Up
• Michael Young: Mediocre third baseman defensively. Doesn't hit for power. Gets on base. Is believed to have a skeleton made of pure grit. Stock report: Even.
• Kevin Youkilis: Looks bad since return from a back injury. "His swing got slow really quick," one scout said. Stock report: Down.
• Eric Chavez: When a backup is fourth – that tells you the entire left side of the infield, and not just shortstop, is a mess. Though Chavez (.325/.368/.588) warrants the high spot. Stock report: Up.
• Jeff Baker: He's actually been superb, albeit in a limited sample that, by season's end, will probably return him to his annual state of just OK. Stock report: Slightly up.
Option option: The Orioles are glad Wilson Betemit won't reach the 700 plate appearances to trigger a $3.2 million option because it's Wilson Betemit. Of course …
9. Edward Mujica fell into the that-guy-is-OK-but-nothing-special category until Jason Motte blew out his elbow, Mitchell Boggs forgot how to pitch and the Cardinals inserted him as closer instead of Trevor Rosenthal. Now with a split-change he throws 60 percent of the time, Mujica has 18 saves, one walk in 27 2/3 innings and a monster payday awaiting if he can keep from screwing it up. Stock report: Way up.
• Jesse Crain: He really oughta close somewhere. With 12 strikeouts per nine innings and a 0.65 ERA, he has been one of the best in the game. Stock report: Up.
• Grant Balfour: In his second year closing and still dominant. Only fear is walks. Stock report: Slightly up.
• Koji Uehara: Consistently fantastic. Another banner start with 34 strikeouts and four walks in just 23 2/3 innings. Stock report: Slightly up.
• Fernando Rodney: Stuff isn't the same as in his record-breaking 2012 season. Probably will get paid the most of the group simply because of perception and reputation. Stock report: Slightly down.
• Joaquin Benoit: Against all odds, he stayed healthy for majority of three-year deal so far. Good luck doing so for another three years. Stock report: Up.
• Joe Smith: Under-the-radar excellence from righty specialist. Stock report: Up.
• Javier Lopez: Best LOOGY in the game? Just might be. Stock report: Slightly up.
• Oliver Perez: Seriously. Check the numbers. Stock report: Up.
• Mike Gonzalez: Back to striking out guys by the handful. Also thankful Rivera's retiring, because he'd be off this list otherwise. Stock report: Slightly up.
Option option: The way he has pitched, exercising the $9 million option on Joe Nathan is a no-brainer. The problem: If he finishes 55 games this season, he can opt out and join …
10. Hiroki Kuroda as a free agent. And in this market, with all the money floating around, that's an entirely likely proposition.
Look at Kuroda. If he wanted, he could easily fetch a three-year deal in excess of $50 million. He eats innings, gets groundballs and strikes hitters out, the triumvirate of qualities teams look for when awarding multiyear deals.
Giving Lincecum anything more than an incentive-laden two-year deal is like handing a pyromaniac a sack of cash – especially when he himself admitted recently he may end up in the bullpen. At least he has kept pitching. Relying on Johnson is a scary proposition, though his talent remains so tantalizing some team with a desperate general manager or a slush fund for risky free agent buys will gulp that risk. Hughes is still big, still throws hard and still has a name because he was a Yankee. He'll get three years – maybe more.
If Carlos Silva taught baseball anything, it's that the industry needs to spend its money somewhere. The lack of quality in this class can only prevent so much. Teams still need pitching. Some teams do not have the resources to trade for it, nor the prospects to fill major league positions. So here free agency comes, ready to overpay, to perpetuate the idea of baseball giving out frivolous contracts – to prompt a prayer or two that none of these deals is the next Carlos Silva when the poor quality of this class and crazy money floating around the game almost guarantee one will be.
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