12/2/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Starting rush: Clubs eye short-term pitching options
Teams trending toward second-tier free-agent starters over lengthy deals for top arms
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
No sales flyer decorated with glistening photos or spectacular sales prices greeted baseball's general managers when they opened up that first Sunday paper after the World Series.
But like the many hungry shoppers who tabled Thanksgiving dinner and lined up instead for deep discounts, the folks trusted with roster construction have certainly shown an appreciation for value -- or, at the least, purported value -- in the starting-pitcher market.
That's what has led to what would have once been an unlikely scenario: The second tier of starters has proven to be a much hotter commodity than the supposed pick of the litter.
Several reasons for this topsy-turvy way of doing business exist, not the least of which is the simple fact that the so-called pick of the litter includes Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Matt Garza, none of whom, given their relatively recent ineffectiveness or injury issues, would have been the pick of any litter just one short year ago.
Draft-pick compensation is, of course, another pressing matter at hand for Jimenez and Santana, in particular, because possibly overpaying and forking over a first-round pick for the right to latch long-term onto a guy with an adjusted career ERA slightly better (112 for Jimenez) or right in line with the league average (100 for Santana) is dangerous business.
There is also the wild card that is Masahiro Tanaka, whose possibly pending posting by the Tohuku Rakuten Golden Eagles presents the market another option untied to a Draftpick. One who, as a pertinent point to a club like the Yankees, would have a less punitive impact on the luxury-tax threshold, given that a significant percentage of the outlay -- the posting fee itself -- wouldn't count toward the player payroll.
Oh, and did I mention there's a good chance David Price is going to be dealt? Because that's definitely a top-of-the-market consideration that has to leave several teams a little more gun shy in the free-agent scheme.
All of which is to say that it is little wonder guys like Tim Hudson (two years, $23 million with the Giants), Dan Haren (one year, $10 million with the Dodgers), Josh Johnson (one year, $8 million with the Padres) and Ryan Vogelsong (one year, $5 million with the Giants) -- aging arms available for short-term tenure -- flew off the shelves.
And given the market conditions, perhaps it should have been unsurprising to see the first three contracts of three years or more -- Ricky Nolasco's four-year, $49 million pact with the Twins, Jason Vargas' four-year, $32 million deal with the Royals and Phil Hughes' three-year, $24 million deal with the Twins -- go to guys who don't profile as aces but who could eat innings without totally breaking the budget.
"A lot of teams have looked to find efficiency in the market," an American League executive said. "To the extent that it does exist, it doesn't last long."
That search for some semblance of efficiency will continue as we approach next week's Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. When you consider all of the above, it's possible that the likes of Bronson Arroyo, Bartolo Colon and maybe even Roy Halladay will come off the board before Jimenez, Santana or Garza do.
After all, though each of those guys has his share of warts, each can be had for three years or less.
"People would rather overpay for short-term," said an NL exec, "than go long."
The Red Sox won a World Series on that very principle, and it seems to have become the backbone of this free-agent market, in general. Even the two-year, $16 million Marlon Byrd contract that garnered the Phillies much media criticism was seen by some executives as a worthwhile risk in an outfield market in which Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury are both seeking more than $100 million.
There were early reports that Santana was seeking a five-year guarantee worth nine figures. In an industry flush with cash, it makes sense to aim high, and Santana might very well come closer to that total than one would expect. But suffice to say there has not been a rush to dole out any five-year deals.
The rush, rather, has come on the lower rung of this thin market, and we have every reason to expect that to continue the next couple weeks.
The durable 36-year-old Arroyo is getting heavy interest from the Mets, who are scheduled to meet with him this week, and the Angels have also been known to have interest.
Colon's performance-enhancing drug history (he tested positive for synthetic testosterone in 2012) clouds his continued success, but the movement on his two-seamer makes him a potentially valuable commodity to the likes of the A's, Angels, Pirates or Blue Jays. It's actually not out of the realm of possibility that he'll get a two-year commitment, as Hudson did.
Kazmir is left-handed and just 29, two factors that, in the wake of his comeback campaign in Cleveland, will inevitably carry more weight than the questions about his past problems in Anaheim or his ability to go deep into games.
And Halladay remains an interesting case simply because, well, he's Roy Halladay. He returned from shoulder surgery last August and had neither the velocity or the command that once made him one of the game's greats. But as was the case with Johnson, Halladay will probably get a one-year look somewhere on the basis of his profound past, to say nothing of his work ethic and intellect. Of course, Halladay's free-agent status will probably linger a little longer as teams assess his medicals and his offseason workouts.
Santana, Jimenez and Garza aren't going to go hungry this winter. The financial flexibility currently afforded the likes of the Yankees (who, after signing Brian McCann have little reason to worry about Draft-pick compensation), Mariners or perhaps even the Astros or Marlins means the colossal contract is not completely out of the question.
But an array of issues -- the wait on Tanaka, the Price possibility and the Draft compensation tied to Santana and Jimenez -- have complicated the top of the market, and GMs have been wise to pounce on the best of the rest.