Free-agent starting pitching: who's left?

Rakuten Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana - David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest hole left on the Diamondbacks this winter, according to Kevin Towers, is the need for a top-tier member of the rotation. Let's see who is still available on the market.

There has been an uncommonly little amount of movement at the top end of the free agent market. Of the top 25 players listed by MLBTR's Tim Dierkes when the off-season began, ten were starting pitchers. As we head in to the festive break, when odds are against much getting done, a full 60% of those are still out there. For comparison, of the 15 non-starters in the same list, only 20% at most - Shin-Soo Choo, Stephen Drew and Nelson Cruz - might find themselves homeless for Christmas.

The reason is obvious: uncertainty about top free agent Masahiro Tanaka, currently with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. He wants to play in the majors somewhere next season. However, his team are disgruntled about new rules, capping the posting fee they'll get at a maximum $20 million - contrast that with the $51.7m received for Yu Darvish, by the marvelously named Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters [not actual pork abusers: they're owned by the "Nippon Ham" company. They did, however, have a mascot called "Fighty" at one point.] The Eagles are deciding whether to hang on to Tanaka for another season, since it probably won't affect their return for him.

This paralyzes the decision-making process on both sides. Now, it's no longer just whoever bids the highest posting fee that gets the chance to negotiate: any team which can offer the $20 million (refundable if they don't land him) would be in with a chance, and that includes a lot more teams. No-one wants to spend their spare cash on a starter, when there's a younger (Tanaka turned 25 last month), probably better alternative still available. And the remaining pitchers on the market don't want to accept offers either, knowing that the rules of economics dictate that, once Tanaka is taken, demand for their own services will increase.

And so, we sit, leafing through magazines like "Better Homer Baileys and Ron Gardenhires" in the free agent waiting-room. The LA Times reported that Tanaka "is expected to learn his fate Tuesday," but if that happened, no word has yet leaked out from Japan. and it's now Thursday morning there. If he is posted, then we can probably expect the deadlock to last well into the New Year. Darvish was signed by the Rangers on January 18, but by this date, he had already been posted and bids closed. Given the month-long negotiating window beyond that, it's quite possible we could be in to February before Tanaka signs, almost to pitchers and catchers reporting.

Here are the stats for the six starters that could (more or less generously) be described as "top-tier" - sorry, in advance, to Mrs. Maholm for excluding her son, Paul. And Mrs. Arroyo should consider herself lucky, I was pretty borderline about her son. I've also not included South Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon, because no-one seems to know much about him - he may be bullpen rather than rotation quality. Reports last month said six teams were interested, but one of those with the Twins, who appear since to have signed about every other free-agent pitcher inked this winter. Yoon is also a Scott Boras client, with all that entails.

2013 Team W L G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Masahiro Tanaka Eagles 24 0 28 212.0 7.77 1.36 0.25 N/A 1.27 N/A N/A N/A
A.J. Burnett Pirates 10 11 30 191.0 9.85 3.16 0.52 .305 3.30 2.80 2.92 4.0
Ubaldo Jimenez Indians 13 9 32 182.2 9.56 3.94 0.79 .304 3.30 3.43 3.62 3.2
Ervin Santana Royals 9 10 32 211.0 6.87 2.18 1.11 .267 3.24 3.93 3.69 3.0
Matt Garza - - - 10 6 24 155.1 7.88 2.43 1.16 .290 3.82 3.88 3.73 2.2
Bronson Arroyo Reds 14 12 32 202.0 5.52 1.51 1.43 .267 3.79 4.49 3.97 0.8
Career (age)
W L G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Masahiro Tanaka (25)
99 35
175
1315.0 8.47 1.88 0.45
N/A 2.30
N/A N/A N/A
A.J. Burnett (36)
147 132 375 2353.2 8.34
3.65 0.89 .291 3.99 3.87
3.66
37.5
Ubaldo Jimenez (29)
82 75 212
1275.2 8.27
4.04
0.73 .292 3.92 3.78 3.93 23.6
Ervin Santana (31)
105
90
268
1686.2
7.09
2.81 1.22 .282 4.19
4.36
4.24 19.6
Matt Garza (30)
67
67
194
1182.1 7.62 2.99 1.03 .288 3.84 3.98 4.00
18.1
Bronson Arroyo (36)
138 127 391 2278.1 5.84 2.46
1.24
.281 4.19 4.54 4.39
23.4

We've already discussed Tanaka enough: we'll save further debate for when/if he is actually posted! But here's the current state of the other five on the list, in alphabetical order.

A.J. Burnett. He certainly pitched well, being a key component on the Pirates' staff, and his FIP suggested he was even better than his ERA. But will he even play next year? There have been persistent suggestions Burnett will retire, especially if the team are not willing to pay him market value to remain in Pittsburgh. With them signing Edinson Volquez, they may have decided to go in a different direction instead, GM Neal Huntington telling Bucs Dugout, Volquez represented "a nice Option B for us." Latest report: the Orioles have Burnett as their top target.

Matt Garza. He may be Exhibit A in regard to Towers' reluctance to commit to long-term deals, with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune saying there is anxiety "around the league about giving Garza a four- or five-year deal because of injury concerns." Garza was out from July 2012 through May this year with a "stress reaction" in his throwing elbow. While Tommy John surgery was mooted, this wasn't actually done, and fears of a recurrence may be dampening the market for Garza. Latest report: the Angels and Diamondbacks, are among those interested.

Ubaldo Jimenez. Over at Beyond the Box Score, there's an interesting piece looking at whether Jimenez can continue the significant improvement shown late last season - he had a 1.82 ERA in the second half. It concludes "He’ll never have the velocity or pitch mix that he had during his run with the Rockies. But he has a chance to become a well above average pitcher again if he can carry over the things that made him successful near the end of the 2013 season." One downside: Ubaldo will cost the signing team a draft pick. Latest report: as a result of that, may end up back in Cleveland.

Ervin Santana. Santana set his bar at $100 million earlier this winter. Even in a market where a career ERA+ 94 like Nolasoco gets $12.25m AAV, that seems over-excessive for a guy like Santana, even coming off his career lowest ERA of 3.24. It's especially true, as he will also cost his new team a draft choice. The same piece said Nolasco was looking for $16m AAV, so scaling Santana's price back by the same amount would give Santana around $15 million per year. Latest report:

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