It's been an odd offseason for starting pitchers. The top name on the market, Zack Greinke, signed the largest contract in history for a right-hander. Middle of the road and back-end options like Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Kevin Correia, Jeremy Guthrie, and Brandon McCarthy have all signed short-term, relatively low money deals. There have been trades for pitchers of various skill level, including Trevor Bauer, Vance Worley, Mark Buerhle, Josh Johnson, and James Shields. Yet, that solid middle tier of starting pitchers remains relatively untouched. Guys like Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Shaun Marcum, Ryan Dempster, and Edwin Jackson remain homeless.
What's going on with this picture? Well, the market hasn't really been set for those pitchers yet, and it's going to take someone biting the bullet and signing one of them that opens the floodgates for the rest to sign. This situation reminds me of last week, when the Greinke domino needed to fall before everything else surrounding that could happen. After he signed with the Dodgers on Saturday night, we've seen the Diamondbacks get their shortstop in Didi Gregorius and pull Justin Upton from the market, seemingly opening the door for Josh Hamilton to re-sign with the Rangers, who now are left scrambling for a potential starting pitching traade after the Rays (who were in talks with Texas and Arizona in a three-team trade) dealt James Shields and Wade Davis to the Rays. Once one domino falls, the rest will start to topple with it, and we can get a clearer picture of what the free agent market will look like for these middle tier pitchers.
At any rate, of the top ten or fifteen starting pitchers on the market coming into the winter, there are probably five or so solid options left for teams out there. Here's a ranking of, essentially, the best of what's left.
1. Anibal Sanchez
When rumors came out that Sanchez wanted a six year, $90 million deal, people got horrified. Personally, I don't think they're that offbase considering the market we're in nowadays. But Sanchez is still the top pitcher left out there, and he'll get paid. He'll be 29 in February, has cut his walk rate in each of the past four seasons, and has thrown 195 innings in each of the last three seasons like clockwork. Over the past three seasons, Sanchez is 16th among all starting pitchers in fWAR, ranking ahead of James Shields, Yovani Gallardo, Ian Kennedy, Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Edwin Jackson, and Madison Bumgarner. His 3.40 FIP ranks ahead of all of those players aside from Bumgarner and Latos. Being stuck on a pitiful Marlins team over the past few seasons hasn't helped his mainstream appeal at all, and Sanchez was overshadowed after getting dealt to the Tigers by Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Doug Fister. Whoever ends up signing Sanchez is going to be very pleased with their investment.
2. Shaun Marcum
Marcum's frailty is destroying his market. He turns 31 on Friday, and has qualified for the ERA title exactly twice in his career (with one of those years not being last year, when he only made 21 starts). When healthy, he's a three win pitcher or so thanks to a versatile arsenal of pitches despite not having a devastating fastball. Marcum has also been screwed throughout his career by pitching his home games in hitters parks: first the Rogers Centre, and Miller Park for the last two seasons. Marcum actually pitched very well in Toronto, but he got shelled in Milwaukee over the last two seasons. In a world where Joe Blanton is getting two years and $15 million, Marcum is worth at least that much, assuming his medicals check out OK.
3. Ryan Dempster
By the time you're reading this, Dempster may have already signed with the Red Sox. And that would be a smart move for a Boston team that needs a healthy, dependable veteran in their rotation to join the inconsistent Jon Lester and fragile Clay Buchholz. Dempster's not the undervalued guy that he was four seasons ago when he re-signed with the Cubs. But since the Cubs moved him to the rotation in 2008, Dempster hasn't had a FIP or xFIP above 4.00, has consistently struck out 20% of batters faced while walking less than 10%, and until 2012, was a lock for 200 innings. He's not going to carry a rotation, especially with him turning 36 in May, but he can be a fine third banana for a team.
4. Edwin Jackson
Eventually, you have to stop thinking about realizing potential, and realize that a pitcher just is who he is. That's where we are now with Jackson, a guy who has flashed brilliance in his career so many times, but has never been able to take the next step. He's been with seven franchises over his career, and everyone has raved about his potential. Jackson is now 29, has yet to post a four win season, and has never been able to strike out three times as many batters as he's walked. He's not an ace, and while he may have "ace potential", I doubt he's ever going to fulfill those expectations at this point in his career. You have to realize what you're getting with Jackson. You're not getting a top of the line starter, you're not getting a number two starter…hell, you're probably not even getting a number three starter. Jackson is a guy who can be a supporting piece in a contender's rotation, but isn't a guy who you want to be a crucial part of your team.
5. Kyle Lohse
I don't like Kyle Lohse. He got a four year, $41 million deal from the Cardinals prior to the 2009 season, and rewarded them by making 40 starts of 5.54 ERA ball in the first two years of the contract. He stayed healthy over the last two seasons and was a solid enough performer for the Cardinals, but 2012's 2.86 ERA was a half run better than his previous career best (set in…2011), his walk rate was a career best, and his strikeout rate was the best mark he's posted since 2006. Warning bells are going off all-around Lohse, and the best possible option for him would be a Blanton/McCarthy-esque contract: short term, relatively low money. I'd look at 2012 as the outlier as opposed to the norm from here on out with Lohse.