Over the last couple of weeks, the hot stove has heated up. No position has had more activity so far this offseason than pitchers. Without further ado, let’s dive into some of the recent major free agent starting pitcher signings.
Contract: 1 year $22 million with the Los Angeles Angels
Before COVID-19 shut down the world and baseball in 2020, Noah Syndergaard experienced discomfort in his elbow during Spring Training. A couple of weeks after Spring Training was shut down, Syndergaard underwent Tommy John Surgery. Before undergoing Tommy John surgery, Syndergaard was one of the best starting pitchers in all of Major league Baseball. From his rookie season in 2015 to his last season pre Tommy John season in 2019, Syndergaard had a spectacular 3.31 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 3.17 xFIP, 3.37 SIERA, and 18.8 fWAR. Syndergaard was pretty durable during this stretch as he pitched at least 150 innings in every season but 2017 (30.1 innings as a result of a torn lat muscle in his right arm). During these five years, it’s important to note that Syndergaard had the highest average four-seam fastball velocity (98.1 mph) among all qualified starting pitchers. Syndergaard was able to return at the end of last season, and there was a noticeable dip in his velocity. Albeit it he only pitched two innings, Syndergaard’s average four-seam fastball velocity was 94.4 mph. Additionally, Syndergaard’s average sinker velocity was down 2.8 mph, his average changeup velocity was down 2.0 mph, and he didn’t throw his slider or curveball at all. It’d probably be foolish to think his velocity remains this low and that he stops throwing his slider and curveball altogether, but there is a reason to at least be a little bit concerned. I would give the Angels a B+ for signing Syndergaard. While there are definitely safer and better value options available, only a select group of pitchers have a ceiling near Syndergaard’s. If the Angels can continue adding more quality rotation pieces (preferably to have a six-man rotation which would likely benefit Syndergaard and Shohei Ohtani) and stay healthy, they can be a sleeper playoff team in 2022. If Syndergaard can’t stay healthy or he just isn’t good, the Angels won’t have to worry long term as the contract is just for a year.
Contract: 2 years $50 million with the Houston Astros (player option for the second year worth $25 million)
Like Syndergaard, Justin Verlander underwent Tommy John surgery in 2020. Verlander started Opening Day in 2020 for the Astros and pitched 6 innings while allowing two runs. That was Verlander’s only start of the season after he reported forearm discomfort, which led to Tommy John surgery. Unlike Syndergaard, Verlander was not able to pitch at all in 2021 which is important to note for a potential big reason. 2021 was the first season MLB began to actively try and cut down on “sticky stuff.” In an article published by Sports Illustrated a few months ago, Verlander was among those mentioned using substances made by former Angels employee Bubba Harkins. Verlander has been a great pitcher over the last decade+, but the combining factors of not being able to use substances (we’ll see how true this is once he starts pitching in games again) and that he’ll be 39 years old coming off of Tommy John surgery show that there is definitely some risk moving forward. While the risk is apparent, so is the reward. In his last full season pitching in 2019, Verlander pitched 223.0 innings to a 2.58 ERA, 2.50 xERA, 3.27 FIP, 3.18 xFIP, 2.95 SIERA, and 6.4 fWAR winning the AL Cy Young. The Astros saw firsthand how badly they needed to improve their starting pitching throughout the Postseason. Across their 16 Postseason games, the Astros starting pitchers were able to pitch at least five innings just four times. If Verlander — who led all of Major League Baseball in innings pitched in his two full seasons with the Astros from 2018-2019 — stays healthy, he could be a huge boost to the Astros rotation that will now likely consist of himself, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy. I would give the Astros an A- for bringing back Verlander. While we don’t have any information of how he looked in a game this season, Astros general manager James Click spoke highly of him recently saying: “He’s been great about letting us know when he’s going to be throwing so we can get in there and get an eye on him, see how he’s doing. The videos I’ve seen have been awesome.” Considering the financial commitment the Astros have given to Verlander, Click’s comments indicate Verlander is in a good position to perform like the Astros ace in 2022 and 2023.
Contract: 3 years $36 million with the San Francisco Giants
After an underwhelming end to his six-year tenure with the Cincinnati Reds in 2020, Anthony DeSclafani signed a one-year $6 million contract with the San Francisco Giants. This turned out to be a great decision for DeSclafani as he had a career-best 3.17 ERA across 167.2 innings pitched to go along with a 3.95 xERA, 3.62, 3.95 xFIP, 4.11 SIERA, and 3.0 fWAR. By betting on himself taking a one-year deal last offseason, DeSclafani was able to double his average annual value over three years after his successful 2021 campaign. While DeSclafani isn’t a front-line rotation piece, he is a sold starter. Despite some injuries over the past few years, DeSclafani has pitched at least 120 innings in every full season besides 2017 and 2018 (he missed the entire 2017 season due to a UCL injury and his 2018 MLB season started in June because he was still recovering from his injury) since establishing himself in the Major Leagues in 2015 and has had an ERA of 4.05 or below in four of these five seasons. I would give the Giants an A- for resigning DeSclafani, but only under the condition that they can bring in a true ace/number two starter to pair with Logan Webb. If the Giants are unable to bring in another top-tier starter, I won’t like this signing as much because I don’t think DeSclafani is a good number two starter on a team trying to contend for the World Series. However if the Giants can bring in another top-tier starter, I’d feel very confident in DeSclafani as their third/fourth starter. While his peripherals from last season and preseason 2022 projections don’t see him as a 3.17 ERA type pitcher, DeSclafani will likely be a solid and reliable 3.5-4 ERA type pitcher barring any significant injuries.
Contract: 2 years $20+ million (still not confirmed) with the San Francisco Giants
Once he became primarily a full-time starter in 2014, Alex Wood was a very solid pitcher for the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers from 2014-2018. Over these five seasons, Wood had a 3.31 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 3.53 xFIP, 3.70 SIERA, and 12.2 fWAR across 725.2 innings pitched. Wood pitched at least 150 innings in each of these seasons besides 2016 (he only pitched 60.1 innings due to a posterior impingement in his left elbow which sidelined him for the majority of the season) and had an ERA under 3.75 in each of these seasons besides 2015 (3.84). After the 2018 season, Wood was traded to the Reds in the same package as Yasiel Puig. In his lone season as a Red, Wood had a 5.80 ERA and only pitched in 35.2 innings due to a back injury. Wood returned to the Dodgers in 2020, but he was mainly used as a reliever after suffering a shoulder injury and posted a 6.39 ERA in just 12.2 regular season innings. Although he struggled in the regular season, Wood did pitch 6.1 scoreless innings in the Postseason helping the Dodgers win the World Series. In a somewhat similar position to Anthony DeSclafani, Wood signed a one-year deal with the San Francisco Giants worth $3 million before the 2021 season. Like DeSclafani, Wood’s one-year bet on himself paid off. In 138.2 innings pitched, Wood had a 3.83 ERA, 3.90 xERA, 3.48 FIP, 3.44 xFIP, 3.60 SIERA, and 2.5 fWAR. Wood’s great 2021 earned him more than triple his annual average value from 2021 over two years. I would give the Giants an A for resigning Wood, but only under the condition that they can bring in a true ace/number two starter to pair with Logan Webb (for the same reasoning as above). While Wood certainly has injury risk, only paying him around $10 million a year for two years has low risk and high reward if he can repeat (or perform better than) his 2021 season.
Contract: 4 years $44 million with the St. Louis Cardinals
In his first two seasons in the Major Leagues, Steven Matz looked like he was on his way to becoming a good starting pitcher for years to come. In his first 168.0 Major League innings with the Mets in 2015 and 2016, Matz had a 3.16 ERA, 3.44 FIP, 3.35 xFIP, 3.54 SIERA, and 3.0 fWAR. Matz’s 2017 campaign started in June as a result of elbow inflammation and he pitched horribly to 6.08 ERA over just 66.2 innings. Matz was able to bounce back in 2018 and 2019, but not to the extent of how well he pitched from 2015-2016. Although progress was made in the seasons prior, 2020 was an absolute nightmare for Matz as he had a 9.68 ERA in 30.2 innings pitched. Following the worst season of his career, Matz was traded to the Blue Jays before the 2021 season. With the Blue Jays, Matz completely revived his career as he pitched 150.2 innings to a 3.82 ERA, 4.09 xERA, 3.79 FIP, 3.94 xFIP, 4.12 SIERA, and 2.8 fWAR. Matz’s turnaround in 2021 earned him a four-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals. Although they made the Postseason last season, the Cardinals only had one starting pitcher who pitched at least 100 innings (Adam Wainwright who pitched 206.1 innings). Beyond Wainwright, the Cardinals rotation also has Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Miles Mikolas who all dealt with injuries last season. I would give the Cardinals a B+ for signing Matz. There was a glaring need to add another starter, so I like that the Cardinals did not hesitate to sign Matz. While I do think Matz’s $11 million annual average is fair for both sides, I’m not a huge fan of the Cardinals giving him a four-year contract. On top of being 31 years old when the 2022 season starts, Matz has dealt with his fair share of injuries and inconsistencies in the Major Leagues. However, what makes me like this deal is that the Cardinals were the best defensive team in baseball last season and with their core pretty much set into place, there is no reason to believe their defense will all of a sudden turn bad. The Cardinals were in desperate need of adding a starter, and adding one of Matz’s caliber with their defense behind him has a great ceiling.