For over a month now, the entire free-agent pitching market has been holding its breath, waiting for something to happen with Masahiro Tanaka. First, to see if he'd be posted at all, which was its own minor media frenzy, given the problems MLB and NPB had settling on a new posting agreement. Now, it's a wait to see where he's going to sign, for how much and for how long. Once that's done, presumably, everyone else in line behind him in terms of desirability finally will find a place to land.
It's not a hard and fast rule that the big names have to sign first before down-market action can happen. Robinson Cano wasn't the first middle infielder to sign a major league contract this offseason, for instance. Beyond Tanaka, however, every pitcher on the market is flawed in one or more ways that makes him less a attractive signing than Tanaka, at a position where compensation expectations have spiralled almost out of control over the past few offseasons, at almost every grade of quality. It's only reasonable that teams want to take their shots at the best product before moving on down the line, and it's only reasonable that the pitchers' agents want to see if the Tanaka contract will move the high-water mark even higher, maximizing the deals others reasonably can demand. Here are the pitchers to watch once Tanaka's off the market.
At the beginning of the offseason, when Tanaka's posting was uncertain, Ervin Santana was looking like the main get of the free-agent pitching market. He and his representatives certainly were acting like it, declining the Royals' qualifying offer and floating initial demands exceeding $100 million at MLB's GM and winter meetings.
This is standard practice and not surprising in the least. Edwin Jackson's people floated something in the $70-80 milllion range, after a season where Jackson pitched to a 4.03 ERA over fewer than 200 innings. Many laughed at those demands, but Jackson still got four years, $52 million out of the Cubs. Santana was always going to end up more like Jackson than, say, Zack Greinke, because he's simply not in that top tier. Santana's going be a 31-year-old pitcher next year, coming off of arguably the best season of his career (3.24 ERA, 211 IP, 127 ERA+), and as impressive as that year was, it wasn't really elite. Santana's contention for the Cy Young Award didn't extend past April, and he didn't even receive a downballot vote. While his production certainly was valuable, guys who are mediocre, journeyman starters sometimes put up years like that, and it doesn't necessarily translate into sustained success.
Take Jeremy Guthrie, one of Santana's teammates last year with the Royals. He had two similar seasons (combined 3.66 ERA, 366 IP, 124 ERA+) for the 2007-2008 Baltimore Orioles, at ages 28 and 29. Since then, he's been basically a league-average starter. Guthrie doesn't have the knockout stuff that Santana has shown; part of the reason for Santana's resurgence last year was that he finally got his slider under control. But Guthrie also has more than two pitches and has shown a general ability to command them better. Both have produced ERAs around the league average across their careers -- 100 ERA+ for Santana, 103 ERA+ for Guthrie. (That makes them better than the average starting pitcher, since starting pitchers league-wide tend to have an average ERA+ between 91 and 94, depending on the season, while relievers sit a little bit higher.)
Jeremy Guthrie got his three-year, $25 million deal based on 91 innings with a 3.16 ERA (132 ERA+) for the Royals in 2012, after a disastrous start to the season with the Colorado Rockies. I think reasonable people would agree that the Jackson's deal was more than fair, for a guy who's been inconsistent but is coming off a full season of very healthy production. Considering that Santana has draft-pick compensation attached to him and is no longer the prize of the market, I can't see him being able to negotiate too much higher than that. But stranger things have happened.
Jimenez is in a spot very similar spot to Santana's. He's a guy with a reputation for inconsistency looking for a big contract going into his early thirties. While Santana had the better year in 2013, his best season previous to that was with the Angels in 2005, when he essentially put up a carbon copy of his 2013 numbers (3.49 ERA, 219 IP, 127 ERA+). Jimenez, on the other hand, is still remembered for his amazing (and far more recent) 2010 season, when he threw 221.2 innings of 2.88-ERA ball for the Rockies. Jimenez hasn't been an ace since then, but memories of that season are still fresh enough -- and Jimenez is still young enough -- that even his fairly modest showing last year in Cleveland (3.30 ERA, 182.2 IP, 114 ERA+) should still turn the heads of those GMs who think they can fix him.
That's the problem, of course. Jimenez's mechanics have been all over the place for years now. Like just about every other pitcher in baseball, a large part of Jimenez's success depends on whether or not he can repeat his mechanics, and it's impossible to tell if he's be able to do that on any given day before the first pitch. He's averaged four walks per nine innings for his entire career, something that you simply can't do and find long-term, sustained success, unless you're Nolan Ryan -- and for all his greatness and showmanship, Ryan wasn't a particularly good example of consistent excellence.
Jimenez has the same specter of a declined qualifying offer hanging over his head that Santana has. There's basically no space for Santana to return to, since the Royals have Yordano Ventura to take his spot in the rotation and have signed Jason Vargas to a four-year deal as well. The Indians, on the other hand, haven't really made any big moves of consequence, especially not on the pitching side, and are the only team that wouldn't have to surrender a draft pick to sign Jimenez before June. Considering that Cleveland still very much needs starting pitching, it wouldn't be surprising to see him back with the Indians for 2014 when all is said and done.
Garza had the misfortune of repeating Ryan Dempster's 2012 last season. Garza pitched a strong first half of the season for the Cubs, then got dealt to Texas and immediately tanked his stock for the rest of the year. He didn't even get a chance at any postseason redemption; the Rangers missed the playoffs. Like Dempster, the Rangers let him walk in free agency, and they've shown absolutely no interest in bringing him back, choosing to focus on in-house options.
The good news for Matt Garza is that this is pretty much where his similarities to Ryan Dempster end; he's six years younger and has been a whole lot more consistent over his career. He can point to his numbers in the majors and reasonably claim to be a guy who, when healthy, will give his team 200 innings a year of clearly above-average pitching. His highs aren't as high as Santana's or Jimenez's, but his lows aren't nearly as low.
The bad news is that "when healthy" bit. Garza hasn't reached 160 innings since 2011, due to a stress fracture in his elbow that tanked most of his 2012, and then in 2013 to a spring-training shoulder strain that kept him out of action until late May. Injuries to the pitching arm and shoulder are a great way to sink the value of a guy whose main selling point is consistent success, if not consistent greatness.
That said, Garza is still the best pitcher on the market without a qualifying offer attached to him, aside from Tanaka. Garza and the Angels seem like a match made in heaven, sicne that team woefully needs someone to walk onto the mound and be good-if-not-great for 190-200 innings next season, while not requiring the team to blow picks in the upcoming draft. Given reports that the Angels didn't even meet with Tanaka on his recent tour, it's possible they're already moving forward with Garza, while Garza waits to see what kind of money Tanaka gets before committing. It's also possible they're going to sign Scott Baker and Erik Bedard to minor league deals with spring training invites and call it a day; it's sometimes hard to tell what that organization is thinking from the outside looking in.
Bronson Arroyo and A.J. Burnett
These two guys have essentially identical profiles and are looking for essentially identical things. They're both veteran pitchers who are about to turn 37. Both have been workhorses for the teams that have embraced them over the past couple of seasons, turning in above-average production over a lot of innings. Both credibly are considering retirement if they don't find what they want on the market. Either would be great at the back of a complete rotation. Neither is worth the risk of a deal longer than two years, and the second year should probably be at most a vesting option.
They're the guys who sign after the guys who sign after Masahiro Tanaka. They've still got enough cachet that they didn't have to jump on the first offer to come their way, but they're complementary pieces even more than Garza is. Burnett in particular has floated the idea that he'll either rejoin the Pittsburgh Pirates or retire, but you should never trust what a professional athlete tells the media about his thoughts on retirement. Those thoughts can change from day to day for completely legitimate reasons, and that's without even getting into the tactic of negotiating through the media. The safe money right now is on Arroyo to the Giants and Burnett back to the Pirates, but who knows how things could change once everything else shakes out? Some team could get desperate and offer the same sort of deal Tim Hudson got earlier in the offseason. People sometimes make bad decisions when Plans A and B go sideways, and they have to make up a Plan C on the fly.
Ask any vulture: Patience is a virtue. So we wait.