Finding the Right Starting Pitchers in Free Agency


Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

After stumbling through the last couple of weeks, only three Twins games remain until a merciful, albeit early, offseason.  The winter always brings hope for a better showing next year, but after another 90 loss season, keeping up to date with Twins’ offseason moves will be even lower on fans’ priority lists.  However, when it’s all said and done, the Twins have upwards of $25 million to spend just to return to the salary levels of the 2013 team and should be a lock to sign at least a few interesting free agents this winter.  Although there have been some mixed signals about the need to spend now (team owner Jim Pohlad) and play it safe in free agency (GM Terry Ryan), it would be hard to sell the 2014 Twins as competitive, or even a worthwhile team to follow if the starting rotation looks the same as it did in 2013.  You could chalk up the 2011 losing season to significant injuries to key players, but most of the blame for the awful 2012 and 2013 seasons falls on the dreadful starting pitching.

If the Twins are going to compete before the end of Joe Mauer’s prime, they need to bring in impact starting pitchers right away.  They tried the trade route last year with the Denard Span and Ben Revere trades, bringing in two pitching prospects with high ceilings (Alex Meyer – Very High ceiling, Trevor May – Semi-High ceiling) and a big league starter whose ceiling mostly collapsed on him (Vance Worley).  The current Twins roster lacks the same kind of talented trade bait and hot prospects Oswaldo Arcia, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario are too important for the Twins’ future to be traded for starting pitching.  Barring a drastic, out of the blue trade, free agency is the most direct route to adding new arms to the 2014 rotation.

Unfortunately, the Minnesota Twins have a less than stellar recent record in bringing in starting pitchers through free agency.  Since 2007, Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Rich Harden, Jason Marquis, Livan Hernandez and Ramon Ortiz have all signed cheap deals with the team.  This rag-tag group’s performance ensured that the “team friendly” deals (a favorite quote of Terry Ryan) never really equaled “fan friendly” deals, as most of them pitched more bad games than good.  The Twins’ frugality certainly prevented them from signing the best pitchers on the market, but recent free agency years have seen fewer and fewer can’t miss starting pitchers available for hire.  Last year’s market was especially lowly and the Twins made a big deal of signing Correia and Pelfrey.  They weren’t any fans’ top choice but check out this chart for pitchers who the Twins were rumored to be talking with.  Correia had the third best WAR of them all this season, technically making his signing a “win” for Terry Ryan.

The chart shows the fickle nature of free agency and certainly proves that previous pitching stats don’t point to future success or that average stats translate to an average future.  Francisco Liriano, the second best WAR on the list, didn’t have any of the numbers to suggest that he would dominate for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but look at him now as he is lining up to start the Wildcard playoff game.  Much like the Stock Market, with free agency all you have to go on is the past, which is no indication of the future.  With that being said though, smart free agency moves and a little luck can turn around the rotation, especially when you have a freer checkbook.

The starting pitchers on the market this offseason are far from sure bets, specifically when you remove James Shields, Jon Lester and a few other top-end starters who have a club option for 2014.  But when you consider who the Twins currently have ready to fill in starting spots, the free agency list is filled with attractive names.  Unfortunately the problem with free agency is that most pitchers are approaching the wrong side of 30 years old, meaning that the multi-year deals that are needed to attract the best names come with quite a bit of risk as well.  Furthermore, the increased chance of injury and decreasing velocity that comes with advanced age makes it hard to evaluate how effective free agents could be for the Twins.  Nonetheless, here are some names to toss around that would be newsworthy pickups this offseason.

Big Money Class

Matt Garza, the biggest starting pitcher prize during the Trade Deadline, has pitched well enough for the Rangers to expect that he will lock down a huge contract somewhere, though probably not the Twin Cities.

Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez and Dan Haren all seem past their best days as elite starters but they still proved they could strike batters out with 9.18, 8.79, 9.26, 8.08 K/9 rates respectively in 2013.  Strikeouts don’t completely equal pitching success but with the Twins starters’ strikeout famine this year, these guys could provide some electric starts in 2014.  They also won’t come cheaply and could command 4+ year deals.

Aces Returning from Injuries

Roy Halladay and Johan Santana are returning from shoulder surgeries and big falls from best pitchers in baseball status.  This could mean they are available for cheap but we’ve seen what cheap signings have accomplished for the Twins in the past.  The Twins unsuccessfully tried this returning from injury strategy with Rich Harden this season but with the right incentive-laden deal these could be low risk, high reward signings.

Other Potentials

– Left-handed pitcher Scott Kazmir can strike people out (8.94 K/9) and has kept his walks low enough (2.66 B/9) to warrant some offseason attention.  He’s only 30 too.

– Although he struggled so mightily that he finished the year in the bullpen, Yankee pitcher Phil Hughes is the youngest pitcher on the market at 28 years old and might be well served with a change of scenery in the roomier Target Field.

Hopefully the Twins will make at least one move this offseason, though you could justify making up to three moves for new starters.  It might be business as usual and the biggest news would be a resigning of Mike Pelfrey, but the Twins simply can’t stand pat and claim they are trying to compete in the improving AL Central.  These free agents have legitimate numbers that would keep the team in games a whole lot longer than the 2013 staff did.  If it was announced that the Twins signed a starting pitcher that I had actually heard of and didn’t need to research, than my optimism for the future would immediately shoot up.  The offseason is about creating hope and hype and shoring up the starting rotation would be the perfect building block.