Slim pickings for starting pitchers

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

So, more than two months since anyone last threw a pitch, the only free-agent starting pitchers with jobs are the very skilled (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett), the heroically aged (Jamie Moyer, Randy Johnson), the desperate (Mark Hendrickson, Mike Hampton), the sentimental (Ryan Dempster) and the blindfolded dart toss (Daniel Cabrera).

At a time when many teams are terrifically short on starters (and shorter on relievers), general managers aren't climbing over each other to pay Scott Boras prices on Derek Lowe or Oliver Perez, or to entrust their staffs to Ben Sheets' physical therapists.

Among other free agents, Randy Wolf and Jon Garland are functional but not particularly inspiring, Andy Pettitte is obsessed with pinstripes (and was ineffective in his final three months wearing them), Pedro Martinez is all pluck and no velocity, and John Smoltz and Tom Glavine perhaps are deciding which arms to throw with this season. One could take a flier on Braden Looper (consecutive 12-win seasons in St. Louis) or Freddy Garcia (his people insist winter ball is going well), or assume Kenshin Kawakami is more Hiroki Kuroda and less Kei Igawa, or go no-risk/big-reward on Carl Pavano, now that we know big-risk/big-reward is probably not an option.

An email checking in with Paul Byrd on Friday brought the following response – "Still thinking possible retirement or maybe a mid-season joining of a team with a need" – and maybe he was joking, or experiencing the trepidation that comes with a silent telephone, or is simply done, at 38 and potentially fighting health issues. My measured response – "Huh? Seriously? Retire? I'm surprised." – brought no answer. About three weeks ago Byrd declined an arbitration offer from the Red Sox, so maybe he is serious.

There are few aces in the world and, assuming the Blue Jays don't start a rebuild by shopping Roy Halladay, the only available one is Jake Peavy. His preferred list is short and the Padres' demands are long, so the market is going to have to make do with Lowe, who is clearly the best of the remaining free agents, followed by a host of pitchers who bring even greater opportunity for middle-of-the-rotation mediocrity (and hard contact).

Lowe is reliable and keeps the ball down, meaning fewer chances for complete disaster. The Mets have made a three-year offer believed to be worth $36 million, even amid an organizational debate as to the better potential signing – Lowe or Perez. They have not made an offer to the inconsistent Perez, who has good stuff and battles, but whose primary attributes appear to be that he's left-handed and seven years younger than Lowe.

A Mets official said Friday the club is not likely to significantly strengthen its current offer to Lowe, meaning that money could slide to Perez, or some of it could be put toward Wolf or perhaps even Garland, though the official was far less enthusiastic about the latter. The fact is, the Mets rotation gets sketchy after Johan Santana (and barren after John Maine and Mike Pelfrey), so they have little choice but to risk some of their millions on an arm or two they don't necessarily completely believe in. It's the way of the baseball world, especially where pitchers are concerned, and why owners continue to throw too many years and too many tens of millions of dollars at starters in the face of what history tells them.

An available Smoltz would have made the market more interesting, and he is technically available. He is, however, recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning he might be ready to pitch in April, but might not be ready until June, either. He is quite devoted to the Braves as well, and few who know Smoltz believe he'd actually entertain offers to pitch elsewhere, and the Braves will make him a reasonable offer.

The team that could turn its pitching desperation into a thriving market by itself is the Dodgers, particularly if Manny Ramirez finds true love (and a three-year deal) in San Francisco, Washington, New York or elsewhere and they can get out from under Andruw Jones (they're sick of each other), leaving owner Frank McCourt and GM Ned Colletti with some spare change. The Dodgers' rotation as of today: Chad Billingsley (recovering from a broken leg), Clayton Kershaw (21 career starts), Kuroda, Jason Schmidt (25 2/3 innings since 2006) and, I don't know, James McDonald?

Wolf would work again here. And while they need to stop signing players who don't really play for them (like, oh, Schmidt and Jones), the Dodgers should take a hard look at Sheets (resisting the urge to pay him Schmidt money, of course), hope the price for Peavy comes down and investigate whether Pettitte might pitch for Joe Torre again.

It seems for the moment the Yankees believe they've done quite enough damage to this free-agent class, meaning Hank Steinbrenner might be talked into living with a rotation that starts with Sabathia, Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain and ends with Phil Hughes or Ian Kennedy or Humberto Sanchez. He could invite back Pettitte just for the heck of it. He could throw another $15 large a year at Lowe.

But chances are the rest of the free-agent starters will spend more time with the Red Sox, the Phillies, the Mets and the Dodgers. The Cardinals, Orioles, Twins and Braves are also scraping for a starter or two, and they're all in on Kawakami. And the Angels, who had money to spend on Teixeira not so long ago, still have some left over after signing reliever Brian Fuentes. If Peavy could be talked into the American League, he would look especially good next to John Lackey.

Really, beyond Lowe, maybe Perez, Garland and Wolf, and possibly Kawakami, they'll buy 'em up, they'll plug 'em in, they'll hope for something other than complete disaster. It's not asking for much. It's probably exactly what they'll get.

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