Early Thoughts on the Free Agent Pitching Market
The Royals have indicated they won't be too active, but has the early market indicated they should be?
We are roughly three weeks into the 2021/2022 offseason as it pertains to the free agent market, so any sweeping thoughts or generalizations are foolish. That said, there has been a fair amount of movement so far, which goes against what I thought would be the case. That either proves you should completely ignore me at all times or that trying to predict a free agent market in the shadow of a lockout was silly. I’m going to go with the latter for my sanity, but it’s up to you how your proceed. Regardless, we have some data points and how the market might be setting up, at least the market where the Royals might shop.
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So I want to dig in to what we’ve already seen and see how it might impact the Royals, either positively or negatively.
We haven’t seen the big names sign nor have we seen much in the way of rumors. Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, Max Scherzer, Marcus Stroman and even Clayton Kershaw have been pretty quiet on the rumor front. What we have seen is two high-end pitchers coming off injury sign and a few pitchers who are somewhere between the top tier and the bottom tier sign some deals and there might even be more by the time you read this.
Eduardo Rodriguez - 5 years, $77 million
The Tigers jumped the market in a way that might make Dayton Moore blush signing Rodriguez quickly. They also gave up their third pick to make this deal as Rodriguez was offered and declined the qualifying offer from the Red Sox. I wrote in the mailbag last week that the Rodriguez deal reminded me a bit of the Ian Kennedy deal, though I do think Rodriguez is a better investment at this point than Kennedy was at that point.
Looking at the AAV, $15 million isn’t bad for a guy who has shown not-quite-ace peripherals, though hasn’t put it all together. I predicted on Royals Review that he’d get three years and $60 million because I thought a team would be hesitant to give him more years but they’d need to go bigger on the AAV to get him signed. Turns out I was wrong, though I do think that if three years was required, he would have needed at least $51 million and probably $54 million, if not all the way to my prediction.
I think this is a lot of money, but the more I think about it, I think it sets a pretty decent market that any team should be able to play in (every team should be able to play in any market, for whatever it’s worth, but you know how it goes). I think deal means the most for Jon Gray, who I had at four years and $60 million. That feels about right still.
Anthony DeSclafani - 3 years, $36 million
I had him at three years and $42 million, so a miss, but not quite as big. DeSclafani had a down 2020 and went to the Giants on a prove-it deal and then he proved it. He was an ever-so-slightly better version of his 2019 self and that was a solid pitcher. I think this deal makes sense and for a guy a lot of teams would have penciled into their rotation as their number three, this sets a very reasonable market for guys like Alex Cobb (3/$33 million) or Michael Pineda (2/$22 million).
Alex Wood - 2 years, $20+ million
This one isn’t done done, but it’s close enough that I’m going to include it here. The Giants brought Wood back as well, and they needed to with their rotation basically all reaching free agency after their huge year. When he’s been healthy, he’s always been good. Maybe this has some impact on Corey Kluber? I don’t know if there’s another guy quite like Wood out there because Wood never touched Kluber’s ability to be a legitimate guy at the top.
Steven Matz - 4 years, $44 million
There’s Rodriguez’s $15ish million and then it’s $12 million, $10 million and $11 million. So that’s the market. Matz got a year more than I thought he would and a couple million less in AAV, but it’s pretty clear what it takes to bring in a guy like this. I think this deal fits the DeSclafani one.
Noah Syndergaard - 1 year, $21 million
This is where I was surprised, but the number probably isn’t too far off. I figured Syndergaard would take the qualifying offer. We’ve since learned that the disfunction in Queens is so great that they didn’t even talk to him, but he ended up going to the Angels on a deal that I think makes very little sense for either side. The Angels get a guy who has thrown two innings in two years for just one season, and not at a discount by any stretch. And Syndergaard gets to go to a team that has zero stake in his long-term health and badly wants to get their superstars to the playoffs.
The fact that a guy with a 26.4 percent strikeout rate, 5.6 percent walk rate and an ability to keep the ball in the park before the injury got $21 million on a prove-it deal can be seen in two ways. One, it’s either a sign that teams aren’t going to pay that much for pitching because $21 million for one year is sort of chump change if he can be 85 percent of the pitcher he was. Also, if you were to extrapolate that to a longer-term deal, it would likely bring the AAV down to $17 million-ish, which is very reasonable for a potential top-tier starter. But the other way is that this guy has thrown two innings in two years and got $21 million. So, you know, could go either way.
Justin Verlander - 2 years, $50 million
And this is that other way. Though Verlander did get it from the Astros who have been monitoring his recovery, so they clearly are comfortable with what they’ve seen. Outside of Syndergaard and Verlander, there wasn’t anyone on the market like these two, and they sort of set the market for each other, I guess.
I didn’t include guys like Charlie Morton or Adam Wainwright who signed before free agency for $20 million and $17.5 million respectively. And I didn’t include Andrew Heaney who signed for $8.5 million, though maybe I should have. But even with those three, they fit the market pretty perfectly.
This market has been pretty quiet, but may have woken up on Monday. It’s still probably a bit tough to glean anything. What we’ve seen so far is one year and either $2 million or $2.5 million for Jose Quintana, T.J. Macfarland and Joely Rodriguez. Trevor Gott, Drew Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin have also signed one-year deals, but for less than $2 million each. And then there are two pitchers with multi-year deals. These deals are just…more than you’d probably expect. That doesn’t spell anything especially good for the Royals in their hunt to add to their bullpen.
Aaron Loup - 2 years, $17 million
The Angels were desperate for pitching and made no bones about that when the offseason started, and they jumped on one of the best available lefties. But that just feels like a lot of money for him. Maybe it’s not. Drew Pomeranz got four years and $34 million before the 2020 season after one great half-season and Loup has been better for longer. He’s also three years older than Pomeranz was when signing that contract, but got two years fewer. Then at the same time, Blake Treinen got two years and $17.5 million coming off a rough year, but also only a year removed from being one of the best closers in baseball. So I just don’t know. But it at least sets a solid market for relievers that I think benefits the middle class. Think guys like Mark Melancon and Ryan Tepera.
Kendall Graveman - 3 years, $24 million
The White Sox don’t need a reliever, but they are supposedly shopping Craig Kimbrel and Tepera is a free agent, so they went out and got the guy who turned his career around in a way Royals fans are familiar with. This is right in line with the Loup deal and the White Sox probably got away with a slightly lower AAV by adding that extra year to it.
What Does it Mean for the Royals?
Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo seemed to be doing their best to tame expectations when they talked about not being able to bring in an ace via free agency. I think they’d love to and if one fell into their price range, they’d be very happy to welcome a guy like Stroman or Scherzer into the fold. But they gave Mike Minor $18 million last winter and he’ll be off the books after 2022 (if not earlier, though, keep reading for that skepticism). If they decide they want to add Gray, I think he’s affordable. If they want to add Cobb or Pineda, yeah, I think they can do that. It just sort of depends on if they want to add someone who wouldn’t front the rotation.
On the flip side, the trade market might be a little less of an avenue they can look to. You might recall that a few weeks ago, I wrote that I think they trade Minor (and I suggested the Angels). At $10 million for 2022 on what amounts to a one-year deal, some team would likely be on board with getting some innings. And I’ve written a bit on the fact that he wasn’t as bad last season as some thought. He just wasn’t good either. He kept the team in the game most of the time. There’s value there. That said, with free agents maybe signing for a bit more reasonably than maybe expected, I wonder if a team wouldn’t want to give up even a low level non-prospect when they can just spend on someone coming off a better year.
And as for relievers, the Loup deal is maybe a little concerning. He was great in 2021 and good in 2020. Maybe the Angels were just so desperate for pitching that they’ll pay whatever, but when a 34-year old lefty is getting that big of a deal, it says the relief market might not play as friendly as expected. Add in Graveman getting $8 million per year for three years after one year in relief (albeit a very good one) and it makes it a bit tougher to find relief bargains. And that’s where the Royals had said they were likely to shop. In my opinion, the market has shown that a pivot might be the right move.
Starters seem to be going for reasonable rates while relievers are a bit inflated. Given the number of young pitchers the Royals have and the likely close monitoring on all of them in 2022, getting some relief inning from them with some certainty in the rotation seems like the play given the early shape of the free agent pitching market. That might also change, but we’ll see how that progresses for both the game and for the Royals.