Top 5 Free Agent Starting Pitchers & Projections Where They May Land

It’s not a deep class of free agent pitchers this season, but that’s not to say that there aren’t options.  Let’s take a look at the best ones and where they may land:

5) Roy Oswalt
The Phillies hold a $16 million option, which is a stretch for them to pick up given his back problems.  That said, his strong performance over the final two months of the season does bring that into question.  He posted ERAs of 3.71 and 3.51 in August and September and at least showed signs of being able to strike people out (51 K over 67.2 IP).

Still, there’s a huge risk involved in Oswalt at this point.  Now 34-years old, he does have 2,154 innings under his belt and threw just 139.0 in ’11. 

My guess is the Phillies turn down the option and instead look to sign him to a more reasonable contract.
Prediction – 2 years, $20 million from the Phillies

4) Mark Buehrle
He’s not going to blow anyone away, though there’s a lot to be said about consistency.  Buehrle has thrown over 200 innings each season since 2001.  While he’s had various success over his career (which has been spent entirely with the White Sox), he is the owner of a 3.83 ERA and 1.28 WHIP.

One of the biggest negatives is his inability to generate a significant number of strikeouts, but he makes up for that with elite control (2.05 career BB/9) and being a workhorse.  Of course, that doesn’t factor in that he’s a southpaw.

He’ll be 33-years old before the start of the 2012 season and given his track record I wouldn’t anticipate him getting more than a two or three year contract.  However, would $10 million per year be a surprise?  However, there have been rumblings that the Missouri native would like to go home to St. Louis to finish off his career.  A hometown discount could get the deal done.
Prediction – 3 years, $24 million from the Cardinals

3) Edwin Jackson
It was an interesting season for Edwin Jackson, splitting time between the White Sox and Cardinals.  He posted a solid ERA (3.79), despite being plagued by poor luck (.330 BABIP).  However, no matter where he pitched opposing hitters were teeing off on him.  Jackson posted a league worst 24.9% line drive rate, telling us that the BABIP was not unreasonable.  The question is, was it poor skill or an aberration?

Jackson owns a 20.3% career line drive rate and had been between 18.4% and 20.7% the previous four seasons.  There is a good reason to think that his poor showing in that regard is a one-time thing.  However, he hasn’t posted a big strikeout rate (6.68 K/9), or posted stellar ERAs (4.46) or WHIPs (1.48) over the course of his career.

His positives for teams around the league are that he is a 28-year old pitcher who finds the strike zone (BB/9 of 3.35 or better each of the past three years).  He is also extremely durable, with at least 31 starts each of the past five years.

In this day and age that’s enough to earn him plenty of cash, especially given the rather weak free agent market for starting pitchers in 2011.  However, he shouldn’t be considered a tremendous fallback option.

While I expect the Rangers and Yankees could be options for Jackson, other teams that could get into the bidding include the Cardinals, Red Sox, Royals and Nationals, among others.  Whoever coughs up the cash is going to take an A.J. Burnett type risk in hoping that he can finally realize his potential.
Prediction – 4 years, $44 million from the Nationals

2) C.J. Wilson
I’ve already given my thoughts on where he’ll land.  The bottom line with Wilson is that over the past two years he’s transformed himself from end-game reliever to one of the better starting pitchers in the game.  We’ve heard about starting pitchers transitioning to a closers role in the past (Dennis Eckersley, John Smoltz), but how often does it go the other way?

It could help Wilson’s cause, as he doesn’t have the same innings on his arm that the majority of 31-year old starting pitchers do.  He also has pitched in a tough AL ballpark, yet has gone 31-15 with ERAs of 3.35 and 2.94 over the past two years.  He does a good job a generating groundballs (49.2% and 49.3%) and flashed great control (2.98 BB/9) and above average strikeout potential (8.30 K/9) in ’11.

While it’s hard to imagine him receiving more than a 4-year contract (maybe with an option for a fifth year), it’s clear that he is in the top tier of starting pitchers available this offseason.  That is going to work in his favor and a team in dire need of an ace may be willing to guarantee that extra year to sway him.

As I’ve said before, it would be surprising to see him not land back in Texas, though the Nationals will likely make a strong play for him.
Prediction – 5 years, $85 million from the Rangers

1) CC Sabathia
It’s a foregone conclusion that he is going to opt out of the remaining portion of his contract, putting him in the driver’s seat.  He will far and away be the elite starting pitcher on the market having proven that he can excel in both the NL and AL.

He’s coming off a year where he went 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 230 K over 237.1 innings.  He’s also the owners of a career 3.51 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over 2,364.1 innings.

Of course, that’s not to say that he doesn’t come without his own red flags.  His weight is always in question.  He also has thrown at least 230 innings in each of the past five years bringing into question how much mileage he has left in his 31-year old arm.

The suitors will be almost unlimited, but the second he opts out of his contract he puts the Yankees in an unbelievable bind.  For a team that is in desperate need for starting pitching to begin with, they will be forced to cough up the cash and retain their ace.
Prediction – 6 years, $160 million from the Yankees

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