By Cliff Corcoran
The already glacial pace of the baseball offseason has slowed to a near stop amid the frigid temperatures of the final week of 2017. Indeed, while it once seemed that the signing of Shohei Ohtani would motivate further movement in the starting-pitching market, six of the top seven domestic free-agent starters remain unsigned as we head into New Year's weekend, while none of the top trade targets have been dealt. To this point, the richest contract landed by a free-agent starting pitcher this offseason has been the three-year, $38 million deal the Cubs gave to Tyler Chatwood earlier this month.
The good news is that the lack of action thus far should make for an unusually busy January. Here's the latest on the top free-agent starters and the two most frequently mentioned rotation trade targets.
Yu Darvish, RHP
Of the remaining free-agent pitchers, Darvish is the only one with ace potential going forward, in my opinion. Another year removed from his March 2015 Tommy John surgery, free from the uncertainty of his current free agency and with the pitch-tipping that undermined his World Series performance corrected, Darvish could have a huge impact with his next team. Indeed, Darvish is so clearly the top arm available that his continued availability may be why the top of starting-pitching market remains at a standstill.
Perhaps the most compelling of Darvish's known suitors is Minnesota. The Twins entered the offseason determined to go hard after the best pitchers on the market, but they have thus far landed only aging relievers Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke and injured starter Michael Pineda, the last of whom likely won't pitch until 2019 due to July Tommy John surgery. Minnesota is hoping that Darvish's relationship with former Rangers assistant general manager and current Twins GM Thad Levine will give it an inside track to the right-hander. Darvish, meanwhile, has reportedly been peppering former Rangers catcher Chris Gimenez, who spent 2017 with the Twins, with questions about playing for the Twins and in Minneapolis, conversations which suggest that Darvish is as serious about the Twins as they are about him.
Still, there have been no developments in Darvish's market since he met with the Cubs and Astros early last week. Word is the Rangers, Yankees and Dodgers are all keeping tabs on him, as well, though none of those three is likely as motivated as the Twins or Cubs. The Yankees have competitive-balance tax concerns. The Dodgers have considerable rotation depth already, and the Rangers have already added Doug Fister, Matt Moore and Mike Minor to their rotation and will give Matt Bush a chance to join, as well, in Spring Training.
Jake Arrieta, RHP
Arrieta is the one pitcher whose market is most impacted by Darvish, as the general sense is that he is considered the consolation prize for whichever team goes hardest after Darvish but doesn't land him. There are numerous things that worry me about Arrieta, including decreasing strikeout and ground-ball rates, an increase in home runs and wildness, a drop in velocity each of the past two seasons and his heavy reliance on the Cubs' excellent defense.
I see him as a No. 3 starter going forward. The Twins, Cubs, Astros and Rangers have all been mentioned as possible landing spots for Arrieta, while the Blue Jays, Rockies, Brewers, Cardinals, Phillies and Nationals have also been reported to have some level of interest. That's a third of the league. Again, Darvish may have to sign for there to be clarity about Arrieta's market.
Chris Archer, RHP
Archer has disappointed since an apparent breakout season in 2015, which saw him make his first All-Star team, notch 252 strikeouts in 212 innings and finish fifth in the American League Cy Young Award voting. Archer and his nasty slider have continued to rack up the strikeouts (482 in 402 1/3 innings over the past two years), but an increase in his home run rate and an inability to clamp down his occasional wildness have prevented him from staking his claim as a true front-end starter. Still, his stuff is undeniable, as is his character and star potential, should he ever make that leap to become a true ace. Time may be running short for that leap, as he turned 29 in September, but his team-friendly contract would allow a new club to control him for just $33.75 million over the next four years.
Unsurprisingly, interest is widespread, with the Cubs (who traded Archer away as a prospect seven years ago), Yankees, Astros, Twins, Nationals, Cardinals, Brewers, Phillies and Braves among those reported to have shown interest in a trade. Archer won't come cheap, however. The Rays traded Evan Longoria in part because of his looming five-and-10 rights, but they have no specific motivation to deal Archer now. The prospect-rich package the White Sox received from the Cubs for Jose Quintana, who is Archer's age and on a similarly team-friendly contract, is likely the Rays' reference point for any offers they might field for Archer.
Gerrit Cole, RHP
Like Archer, Cole appeared to have a breakout year in 2015 but has struggled to build on it. In 2016, he was limited to 116 innings by triceps and elbow injuries. This past season, he stayed healthy and matched his '15 strikeout rate but with an uptick in walks and home runs, resulting in a middling overall performance. He can still pump his fastball into the triple-digits, won't turn 28 until September and has two team-controlled years remaining, but his status as a future ace is looking increasingly uncertain.
Cole's upside on the mound and pre-free-agency salary have drawn heavy interest from the Yankees, who drafted Cole 28th overall in 2008 but failed to sign him. A week ago, a trade sending Cole to the Yankees was reportedly "a matter of when rather than if." Since then, some reports have suggested that trade could be expanded to include infielder Josh Harrison, with multiple top prospects from the Yankees' rich system going the other way (though not top prospect Gleyber Torres, who is said to be untouchable). The Pirates could certainly shop Cole elsewhere, though few teams can offer as many high-end prospects as the Yankees. That said, the Yankees could potentially land Archer for a similar package, provided the Rays are willing to trade inside their own division.
Lance Lynn, RHP
Lynn is the starting-pitching market equivalent of a safety school. He's a mid-rotation innings-eater who threw 186 1/3 innings in 33 starts in his return from November 2015 Tommy John surgery. No team considering Lynn is dreaming on any sort of uptick in his performance, though some might be ignoring some red flags from his 2017 season (his velocity and his peripherals all moved in the wrong direction) in the hope that he'll pitch better another year removed from his surgery. As such, there hasn't been much mention of Lynn in the rumor mill. Most likely, he'll sign with a team in obvious need of rotation help that fails to land a pitcher with more upside.
Alex Cobb, RHP
Earlier this offseason, the Cubs, who employ former Rays manager Joe Maddon and former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, were believed to be the likely landing spot for former Rays righty Cobb. However, a rumor that Cobb is seeking a four- to five-year contract with an average annual value near $20 million has reportedly cooled the Cubs' interest. Returning from May 2015 Tommy John surgery this season, Cobb didn't pitch nearly as well as Darvish, whose Tommy John surgery was performed just two months earlier. Cobb's next season of 30 starts will be his first, and his 179 1/3 innings pitched in 2017 was a career high. There seems to be more optimism about Cobb's future around the league than I have myself (Cobb didn't crack my top 20 free agents in early November). The Yankees, Rangers, Blue Jays and Orioles are among the teams reportedly interested, but Cobb's asking price will likely have to come down for a deal to get done.
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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.