Pros and Cons of the Top 10 MLB Free Agents Still on the Market
It took a while, but the starting pitchers' market for the MLB offseason was finally set this week. Teams have been patiently awaiting the status of Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka and eventually learned that he will be eligible to pitch in the United States in 2014.
With Tanaka's deal likely serving as a benchmark for his contemporaries, the remaining free-agent pool is rife with marquee starting pitchers. That's not to say there still aren't a few big bats available and quality bullpen options, too.
Each available free agent has his respective pros and cons. Let's examine those benefits and drawbacks of the top 10 players available on the open market.
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP
Pros: The Japanese ace is officially eligible to become an MLB free agent after he was recently posted by his club, the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Now, any team willing to pay the $20 million posting fee has the chance to negotiate with the right-hander, who used his nasty split-finger fastball to go 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA this past season.
At 25 years old, Tanaka is considerably younger than the top pitchers on the market and has a track record of dominance, albeit in another league.
Cons: Clearly, the biggest question mark with Tanaka is whether or not his success will be able to translate in MLB. While he isn't expected to duplicate his outlandish numbers from 2013, it's unknown if he can ever step in as a middle-of-a-rotation presence.
Yu Darvish has established himself as an elite pitcher in America, but there are also other high-profile Japanese players, like Daisuke Matsuzaka, who flamed out and didn't live up to their big contracts. At an expected annual asking price of $17 million, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today, it's a big gamble for Tanaka.
Matt Garza, RHP
Pros: Of the available starters, Matt Garza has the most consistent track record against MLB competition. Aside from his rookie campaign of 2006, his ERA has never been above 4.00 for a single season. In all, he has a 67-67 record, 3.84 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 7.6 K/9 ratio in eight years, giving him a solid body of work.
Since he was traded midseason, Garza also doesn't come with draft-pick compensation, another factor that makes him one of the most attractive starters on the market.
Cons: Garza was very durable during the 2008-11 seasons, making at least 30 starts each year, but he's made just 42 combined starts the past two years. He also had mixed results with his two different clubs in 2013, starting the year strong with the Chicago Cubs (6-1, 3.17 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 7.9 K/9) before pitching inconsistently with the Texas Rangers (4-5, 4.38 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.9 K/9) to close out the year.
Like all other big-name pitchers available, Garza figures to command a significant commitment in terms of years and dollars, so teams will have to be confident in his sustained success.
Nelson Cruz, OF
Pros: Nelson Cruz possesses the most pure power bat on the open market this winter. From 2009-13, he was a consistent force in the lineup for the Texas Rangers, batting .272/.331/.511 with yearly averages of 27 homers and 81 RBIs.
Home-run hitters are rare among this offseason's free-agent class, but Cruz is available for the right price.
Cons: Cruz is a 33-year-old who is limited in the outfield, perhaps making him an AL-only candidate, as he'll likely be a designated hitter in the near future.
Another aspect of Cruz's situation that makes him unattractive is that he declined a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Rangers earlier this offseason, meaning he'll cost his new club a high draft pick to sign him.
Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP
Pros: Among his fellow free-agent starters with MLB track records, Ubaldo Jimenez has the most upside. He hasn't been the same since his career year in 2010, but he's learning how to pitch without his blazing fastball.
After the All-Star break this past season, Jimenez went 6-5 with a 1.82 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, .223 opponents' average and a 10.7 K/9 ratio. It's a small sample size, but a dominant display that shows promise for the soon-to-be 30-year-old.
Cons: If a new team wants to sign Jimenez, it will have to give up a high draft pick, as he declined a qualifying offer from Cleveland.
Despite his strong finish to the 2013 campaign, he has been largely inconsistent the past few years. From 2011-13, he went a combined 32-39 with a 4.45 ERA, 1.45 WHIP and 8.5 K/9 ratio, numbers that would make any team second-guess a big contract commitment.
Ervin Santana, RHP
Pros: Ervin Santana picked a good time to have a solid season as he entered free agency. In 2013, he was a rock in an impressive Kansas City Royals rotation, going 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 6.9 K/9 ratio. He's also averaged 194 innings in each of the past eight seasons, making him one of the more durable starters on the market.
Cons: Santana has three 15-win seasons on his resume and other quality campaigns, but he's also capable of putting up ugly numbers. On three different occasions, he has finished the year with an ERA higher than 5.00 (2007, 2009, 2012).
Santana and his negotiating team had an exorbitant asking price of five years, $112 million earlier this offseason, not to mention he declined a qualifying offer from the Royals. The big expected contract is one risk, but the first- or second-round pick attached makes him even less desirable.
Stephen Drew, SS
Pros: Shortstop is a premium defensive position, and Stephen Drew is slick with the glove. Not to mention he has some pop in his bat that is hard to find for a shortstop. In 124 games for the Boston Red Sox this past season, he batted .253/.333/.443 with 13 homers and 67 RBIs, making him one of baseball's most productive hitters at his position.
Cons: In recent years, injuries have severely limited the once-reliable Drew. He's missed a combined 197 contests the past three years after averaging 147 games played from 2007-10.
With Scott Boras as his agent, you have to assume Drew will command top dollar, in addition to the high draft pick it will cost a new team to sign him after he declined Boston's qualifying offer. That's a lot to ask for a guy who has trouble staying on the field.
Grant Balfour, RHP
Pros: Grant Balfour is arguably the top closer option available after he has been a solid force at the back end of the Oakland A's bullpen the past two years. He's converted 62-of-67 saves in that span, including a franchise-record stretch of 44 straight save conversions at one point. Balfour also has a long track record of success, as he's been an elite reliever since 2008, posting a 2.74 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and a 9.7 K/9 ratio.
Cons: Balfour reportedly had a two-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles fall through at the 11th hour due to shoulder problems. While many have been critical of Baltimore's front office for fabricating medical reasons to void the contract, the episode appears to have hurt his market value. He would be a big risk when combining his health issues with the fact that he will soon be 36 years old.
Kendrys Morales, 1B/DH
Pros: Kendrys Morales would serve as a solid middle-of-the-order force for virtually any team in MLB. He was one of baseball's best sluggers before he went down with a freak leg injury in 2010, but he has still been a consistent hitter the past two seasons. In 2012 and 2013, he batted a combined .275/.329/.457 with yearly averages of 22 HRs and 76 RBI as a switch-hitter.
Cons: Morales is a solid offensive contributor but limited defensively and not worth the big payday he's seeking after turning down a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Seattle Mariners. It didn't make much sense for him to decline the offer at the time, and he's still looking for work. Now that he'll cost a team a draft pick, too, he could be waiting a while for that phone call.
A.J. Burnett, RHP
Pros: The veteran right-hander has been a consistent winner throughout his career. In each of the past nine seasons, Burnett has put together double-digit win campaigns. He tied his career best with a 3.30 ERA in 30 starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates this past season, along with a 10-11 record, 1.22 WHIP and NL-best 9.8 K/9 ratio among starters.
Cons: Reliable as he's been the past decade, Burnett is about to turn 37 and reportedly contemplating retirement. He is a respected veteran who is still producing at the end of his career, but the baseball season is a grind and he has to be sure he won't burn out down the stretch in 2014.
Bronson Arroyo, RHP
Pros: If you want an innings-eater this winter, Bronson Arroyo is your guy. The right-hander with the big leg kick has averaged 33 starts and 207 innings pitched in the past 10 seasons. He's had bouts with inconsistency before, but has been a consistent contributor to the Cincinnati Reds rotation the past two seasons. In that span, he has gone 26-22 with a 3.76 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 5.6 K/9 ratio.
Cons: Arroyo has had a sense of humor about the free-agent process as he awaits a new team. Perhaps the biggest thing working against him is his age, as he is set to turn 37 in February. Though he's been solid lately, he has a 4.19 career ERA and is a question mark going forward.
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