By Cliff Corcoran
The fires of the hot stove will officially be lit on Tuesday, the first full day this offseason that free agents will be allowed to sign with new teams. To honor the occasion, and provide readers with a guide to this offseason's free agent market, I've assembled below my list of this fall's top free-agent pitchers.
Listed are 2018 playing age (age as of June 30, 2018) and the team on which he might best fit -- those are not predictions but rather my suggestions.
Not included on this list is 23-year-old Japanese two-way stud Shohei Ohtani, who was expected to be posted by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters this winter and would arguably be the best player available if and when that occurs. However, the existing posting agreement between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball expired at the end of October. The two leagues must now agree upon a new posting system in order for Ohtani to join an MLB team, and there's no guarantee that the Fighters will still be willing to post Ohtani if the rules change significantly. Beyond that, Ohtani's contract offers would be subject to international spending limits (which is one reason an agreement has been slow to emerge), and thus not competitive with the true free agents listed below.
5. CC Sabathia, LHP
- Has rejuvenated his career since getting sober after the 2015 season, placing an emphasis on the cutter he learned from Andy Pettitte, halting the decline in his velocity, bringing his home run rate back down and posting 116 ERA+ over the past two seasons
- Veteran who has seen it all and is comfortable in big games; rose to the occasion in this postseason and has 22 postseason starts under his belt
- History of lower-body injuries due to his size (6-foot-6, 300 lbs); hasn't thrown 180 innings in a season since 2013
- Has a ton of mileage on his arm; leads all active pitchers with 3,317 innings pitched, not counting 126 in the postseason, that's more than the career totals of Pettitte, Kenny Rogers, Mark Buehrle, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, Tim Wakefield, Chuck Finley and Whitey Ford, just to name a few he passed in 2017.
- Strikeout and walk rates both worse than league average; 4.49 FIP and 4.52 DRA suggest he wasn't as good as his surface numbers (14-5, 3.69 ERA) looked this season.
Best fit: Angels
4. Lance Lynn, RHP
- Workhorse; rebounded from Tommy John surgery to tie for NL lead with 33 starts in 2017, giving him 31 or more starts in four of last five seasons
- Over last three healthy seasons, posted 3.06 ERA and 129 ERA+ while averaging 32 starts and 188 innings
- Ample postseason experience with seven starts and 17 relief appearances over five seasons; pitched for two pennant winners and the 2011 World Series champions
- Possibility for improvement in second year back from TJ surgery
- November 2015 Tommy John surgery
- Peripherals all headed in the wrong direction in return from TJ, walk and home-run rates up, strikeout rate down, resulting in lousy 1.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio
- Velocity down slightly in return from TJ, with four-seamer averaging below 93 mph for first time in career
- Inferior performance in 2017 masked by .248 BABIP; actual level of performance suggested by 4.82 FIP and 4.54 DRA
Best fit: Twins
3. Wade Davis, RHP
- Elite high-leverage reliever over last four years; in 241 1/3 innings over that span posted a 1.45 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 11.7 K/9 with 313 strikeouts, 79 saves, 23-6 record, and just nine home runs allowed
- Converted 94 percent of save opportunities over last three years, including 32 of 33 in 2017
- Crucial part of dominant bullpen on Royals team that won consecutive pennants and 2015 World Series; allowing just two runs (one earned) in 25 innings over those two postseasons while striking out 38 against five walks and no home runs
- Drop in velocity and increase in walk rate each of last two seasons
- Twice hit the disabled list with a strained forearm in 2016
- After allowing just three home runs in a three-year span from 2014-16, allowed six in 2017, plus two more in the postseason
- Appeared worn down in the postseason, even before being extended over 40 pitches in his last two appearances
Best fit: Cardinals
2. Jake Arrieta, RHP
- 2.67 ERA (150 ERA+), 1.03 WHIP over last four seasons, with 30 or more starts in each of last three seasons
- Won 2015 NL Cy Young Award, received votes for 2014 and '16 awards
- Battle-tested with 3.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 11.3 K/9 in nine postseason starts
- Outstanding conditioning, no arm issues since early 2014, only arm surgery was for bone spurs in 2011; also less mileage on arm than would be expected at his age due to late blooming
- Strikeout rate has decreased and home-run rate has increased each of last three seasons
- Above-average walk rate and NL-high 30 wild pitches over last two seasons
- Ground-ball rate has decreased each of last two seasons
- Drop in velocity each of last two seasons
- Beneficiary of excellent Cubs defense with .255 BABIP last three years
- Record-setting dominance in second half of 2015 likely still skewing estimates of his value
Best fit: Rangers
1. Yu Darvish, RHP
- Potential rotation ace; four-time All-Star in five Major League seasons; Cy Young runner-up in 2013; career rate of 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings
- Deep repertoire of eight pitches ranging in speed from a 70-mph slow curve to a 95-mph fastball, the latter of which can spike to 99 mph
- His velocity and control, two things that can suffer as a result of Tommy John surgery, have actually been better since his return from the surgery
- His disastrous World Series performance might suppress his value, but it may have been the result of easily correctable pitch-tipping (he was excellent in his first two starts this postseason), and his embarrassment over those failures appears to have given him a new sense of purpose
- March 2015 Tommy John surgery
- Has spent time on the disabled list with minor back and neck injuries in each of his last four "healthy" seasons.
Best fit: Cubs
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.