By Marc Normandin
Masahiro Tanaka has finally signed, meaning the dam has been broken, and the flood of free agent pitcher signings can wash over those teams in need. If the bids for Tanaka are any indication, there are plenty of teams still looking for an arm, despite the late date on the calendar. The Japanese ace was holding up the works, but that's all over now, and the off-season can finally move along as initially planned.
The Yankees ended up with Tanaka, but the Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox, Astros, and Diamondbacks also put in bids for the right-hander. Just because a club wanted Tanaka does not mean they will be bidding on the remaining available free agent starters, though, since Tanaka was believed to be in a class of his own thanks to his youth (he will be just 25 in 2014) and talent. The Astros are unlikely to throw huge money at the likes of Matt Garza* after missing out on Tanaka, the Cubs and White Sox are in the same boat since Tanaka was young enough to fit their own rebuilding plans, and the Dodgers' interest in Tanaka had a lot to do with the fact that he only cost money, a thing they have no problem parting with.
*(Edit note: After this article was published, Garza was nearing a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.)
Even with those teams likely out of the way, there are plenty of clubs who had little interest in Tanaka or the ability to lure him to them. The Angels still need pitching if they want to compete in the American League West, for instance, and the Indians still haven't solved the problem of replacing Scott Kazmir and possibly Ubaldo Jimenez, who remains a free agent. The Royals still have a rotation with Wade Davis penciled in despite playoff aspirations, and the Orioles remain in the hunt for a starting pitcher, even if it costs them a draft pick. There is a whole lot of winter left in that regard, even just a few weeks from the start of spring training, and these five teams need help the most.
The Angels added Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs to their rotation by dealing homer-threat Mark Trumbo earlier this offseason, but with Garrett Richards as the third starter, Jered Weaver coming off of a sub-par season, and C.J. Wilson as possibly the second-best pitcher on the team, another quality arm could go a long way. The Angels' options might be limited, however, as they are not swimming in money thanks to the long-term deals handed out to Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, and their farm system can't afford to sacrifice a first-round draft pick in order to bring in someone like Ervin Santana -- a pitcher the Angels traded just a year ago -- who has his own set of question marks.
Trades might be out of the question at this point, too, as the Angels only have major-league offense to give up, but can't actually deal too much of it, in case the Hamilton/Pujols duo does not rebound enough. Plus, what's available on the market might not be of much help to them, but more on that later.
It depends entirely on what the price ends up being, but Garza is the arm that makes the most sense for the Angels. He doesn't have a compensation pick attached to him, and while he could be costly, it won't be anything near what Tanaka commanded, not at age 30 with a career 108 ERA+. The Angels don't have to sign anyone, but the more distance they can put between themselves and any possibility of another Joe Blanton start, the better.
The D'backs traded Skaggs, then immediately turned around and said they would like to add another starting pitcher. Even though there is plenty of talent there, with Patrick Corbin, Wade Miley and Trevor Cahill, it's not surprising to see that. Brandon McCarthy is a free agent in a year's time and had a poor 2013 on top of that, while Randall Delgado hasn't proven he's an effective major-league starter rather than a bullpen arm yet. If the Diamondbacks can improve on Delgado, they should, and that shouldn't be difficult so long as Arizona is willing to fork over money, a draft selection, or both.
Santana could be dangerous given his proclivity for the long ball, but a move to the National League might also do wonders for his career. Garza might be more of an NL pitcher as well, and won't even cost the pick that Santana will. Jimenez might even make sense back in the National League, as he's barely had any success in the Junior Circuit, and 2013 isn't quite enough evidence to say he's good anywhere just yet. The Diamondbacks are also in a solid position to make a trade, should they want to try to pry Homer Bailey from the Reds, or settle for someone like Ryan Dempster should the Red Sox be willing to separate themselves from a right-hander who right now looks to be an expensive swingman.
The Indians lost Jimenez as well as Kazmir, and are a year away from possibly losing Justin Masterson to free agency as well. They have young pitching to lean on in their absence, with Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco both expected in the 2014 rotation, but their next-best young arm is Cody Anderson, a mid-rotation or back-end starter who isn't expected to be ready for another year.
The problem is that the Indians spent a whole lot of money an off-season ago, so they can't get into a bidding war for Garza or Santana easily. What they can do, however, is attempt to re-sign Jimenez to a reasonable contract, since the qualifying offer they handed him has slowed down his market considerably. It might take some time for Jimenez to cave and go back to Cleveland, but right now, that seems to be the Indians' best chance outside of a trade. If their trade options are for someone like Dempster, then they are likely better off just seeing if the 26-year-old Carrasco can handle a major-league starting role.
It's been a rough winter for Baltimore, with the Orioles watching the Yankees reload, the Red Sox graduate prospects and show off a strong farm system just months after winning the World Series, the Rays still highly relevant, and even the Blue Jays in a position to hope that a new year means their team performs closer to last year's expectations. Their rotation isn't awful by any means, but right now it looks like a bunch of mid-rotation arms followed by Bud Norris -- who is a poor fit in the AL East -- and prospect Kevin Gausman, who is not lacking in talent but is lacking in present-day major-league experience and successes.
This is why the Orioles have been in contact with the likes of Santana, who, while questionable and very up-and-down in his career, has more upside than everyone in the rotation not named Gausman. Hitter-friendly Camden Yards and the AL East would likely be a poor fit for Santana, who has given up 1.2 homers per nine in his career despite pitching all of his home games in canyons, and that could keep him from said upside and make him not worth the cost. That's going to be a similar problem for Garza and Jimenez, though, and is part of the reason the Orioles might just end up using 2014 to see what they have while their other significant young arms, Dylan Bundy and Eduardo Rodriguez, work their way back from Tommy John surgery and through the minor-league system, respectively.
Last up are the Royals, who, as stated, need to upgrade on Davis. Having Danny Duffy return from Tommy John surgery is a start, especially if he recaptures the form that made him an impressive prospect, but you can't ignore that the Royals didn't have enough pitching a season ago when Santana looked like a legitimate number two starter. All they've done since then is add Jason Vargas, and while that will help them avoid the sub-replacement pitfalls in the rotation of 2013, Davis could help send them right back to that. He is, after all, a significant part of said pitfalls from last summer.
The problem is that the Royals are seemingly always tapped out. Are they done spending, or do they just say they are done spending to mask that no one is talking to them? The 2014 season is almost certainly their final one with James Shields, and the peaks of Billy Butler and Alex Gordon will only last so long: the Royals need to get moving and upgrade their rotation if they want to compete in the AL Central in 2014. Whether that's by getting Santana back at a reasonable deal since they won't have to give up a compensatory draft pick for their own free agent, inking Shields' former teammate Garza, or trading some prospects to once again make a splash in the rotation is unknown, but they're likely going to have to do something if they want 2014 to be different than the year before it.
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book The Hall of Nearly Great and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.