5 Thoughts: Top-30 free agent starting pitchers for the Twins to consider, Part 1 (narrated)
Max Scherzer is at the top of the list, and that highlights the need for some basic assumptions when making a list for 2022.
Welcome to the offseason, Twins fans. This column presents the first 5 free agent starting pitchers that I’d consider if I was the Twins. Future installments will round out our wishlist.
To create a list like this it’s important that we make a few basic assumptions. If any of these answers were to change or differ from these following expectations, well, we’d need to change our whole list. Or maybe just throw it out. Let’s agree on the following things as our starting point for this starting pitcher wishlist.
a) The Twins will keep Byron Buxton this winter in an honest attempt to compete for the postseason (and a World Series) next year.
b) A competitive team in July can add a starter before the trade deadline — and a Kenta Maeda, possibly, after it — but to get to that point the Twins will need outside reinforcements. In this exercise we can’t let the Twins go into the year with a plan to start 5 rookies from their system because they believe in their ability.
c) The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December but in this exercise there will be no concerns, no work stoppages, and a new CBA ratified that will not dramatically change the landscape for current free agents. (Changing the structure of free agency in general is fine by me, although I suspect it will have a bigger impact on the younger players than on many of the names on this list.)
And d) If the Twins are willing to put up the money for such a player, that player would agree to play for the Twins. As we’ve seen in recent years, that’s not always the case. But I personally find no fun or entertainment in crossing off the top-30 names on the free agent list and saying, ‘Nobody will come pitch here anyway! Might as well just sign Michael Pineda!’ Hopefully with this newsletter we can allow ourselves a bit more fun than that.
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1. Max Scherzer, age 37
Scherzer made 11 starts for the Dodgers after the blockbluster trade had Mad Max trading coasts. He’s pitched brilliantly for the Dodgers down the stretch in games that they needed to win. Around the trade deadline the popular rumor was that Scherzer preferred a west coast landing spot if he was going to leave his home in the nation's capitol. I would also assume that any free agent of his caliber will need to be convinced that Minnesota is a place that can bounce back immediately and win. He certainly hasn't shown any signs this year he’s cooked but I always wonder what superstar players will prefer given their limited number of opportunities to make career choices. (Would he sign back with the Dodgers? Would they be up for it?) Since joining L.A.’s rotation, he’s pitched 68 1/3 innings with a 1.98 ERA in the pressure-cooker of a great pennant race between the Dodgers and the Giants. He sported a typical-Scherzer 33.6% strikeout rate and a video-game level 3% walk rate. And while I don't spend much time assessing pitcher wins as a stat, I do find it notable that a great Dodgers team is 11-0 when Scherzer has taken the mound. MLB dot com’s Mike Petriello pointed out that he’s radically improved his opponents’ barrel rate, from 11.4% in Washington to 3.1% with the Dodgers, perhaps in part because he’s throwing more sliders, curves and changeups in the strike zone now.
Even at 37 years old, Scherzer should be expensive. I have no idea how many years the open market will give to the future Hall of Famer. If you're the Twins and you're keeping Byron Buxton and you believe that you're a contender for the foreseeable future -- and you can convince free agents of that fact as well -- would you be willing to go to 3 years at close to the highest ever annual contract value for a starting pitcher?
2. Kevin Gausman, 31
Once a top prospect, Kevin Gausman was getting to the stage of his career where people wondered if he would materialize into the ace that many projected him to be when he made his debut in 2013 for the Orioles. I covered that Baltimore team and I remember how electric Gausman seemed even when his numbers were not good. He finished that year with a 5.66 ERA, and if you flash forward through his time with Baltimore, he also spent time with the Braves, Reds and eventually landed with the Giants, where he pitched this year on the 1-year, $18.9 million contract. And he's been a certified bargain. Gausman made the all-star team for the first time in his career, posted a 2.81 ERA, which was 10th in the Majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings, or 45% better than league average. Don’t forget the 29.3% strikeout rate and 6.5% walk rate. When Gausman debuted, he threw a four-seam fastball, splitter, slider, sinker and changeup. This season, his best one yet, he was primarily a fastball-splitter pitcher, and only threw the occasional slider and changeup. More than half his offerings are heaters and the split represents nearly 40% of his total pitches thrown, too. What I’m saying is that he’s really trimmed his arsenal. That’s been one lingering question, following Gausman even through his great season: can you sustain your place as a top-flight starter at the top of a rotation while relying on only two pitches?
If you're looking for further nitpicking, which you have to before offering a contract of this magnitude, Gausman's ERA started with a 1 after his first 19 starts. In his final 14 outings, it was up to 4.36. That includes 7 innings of 1-run ball in the second-to-last night of the season vs. the Padres, as the Giants fought to hold off the Dodgers and win the hotly contested NL West. We can poke holes but Gausman had an impressive year at a great time and is likely about to become very rich. As with Scherzer, I don’t know what the open-market value will be for Gausman, and I expect that the postseason just might play into how we think about him this winter.
3. Clayton Kershaw, 34
The Future Hall of Famer is unfortunately dealing with an injury at the worst possible time. After rewriting his early-career narrative that accused him of crumbling under postseason pressure, Kershaw won a World Series with the Dodgers in 2020. His track record barely needs outlining. We’ll just agree he’s one of the very best pitchers of his generation, and submit to evidence his MVP award, 8 all-star teams and 3 Cy Youngs, plus the other 3 seasons in which he didn’t win the Cy but finished in the top-3 in voting for the award. Still, you won’t need me to tell you the danger in paying for past performance in free agency, dear reader. Making the case against Kershaw and spelling out the details of his current injury at length can make a guy feel sad, so we’ll just relay here the news from the weekend that Kershaw’s forearm injury is likely to force him from this year’s postseason, according to USA Today. “Chances are it’s not looking great for October,” Kershaw told reporters after he left his final start last week.
The lefty’s credentials pre-injury in 2021: a 3.55 ERA with a 29.5% strikeout rate and another low walk rate, putting free runners on just 4.3% of the time. Between his forearm and history of back issues, I do wonder how the open market will treat Kershaw, the second living legend on this list. Not for nothing: what will his personal preferences favor? Considering he’s already made more money in salary alone than most of us could spend in a lifetime. In any case, you won’t catch me arguing against his capabilities when he’s healthy and back on the mound.
4. Carlos Rodón, 29
The 2021 breakout pitcher led the Majors this year in ERA among those with at least 100 innings to their name. But at the end of the year he hit the Injured List with shoulder fatigue, and coupled with his extended injury history this high-upside signing would not be without its own risk. The latest I’ve read as of the publication of this newsletter is that Chicago GM Rick Hahn expects Rodón will pitch once in the A.L. Division Series, and they’re “optimistic” that he can contribute “over the course of the next month.”
They’ve been careful with him over the final 2 months of the season, and you might expect that to continue given that his velocity was down in his first start back from the IL. He was the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2014 and made his debut in 2015 with an impressive season. Since then, injuries to his wrist, biceps, shoulder and elbow (Tommy John surgery) had defined his up-and-down track record on the South side of Chicago. This year he was great for the A.L. Central champs, posting a 2.37 ERA, career-high and AL-leading 34.6% strikeout rate and helping to power the Sox to the postseason. How do you square that with his checkered injury history and current shoulder soreness? That’s the tens-of-millions-of-dollars question.
5. Robbie Ray, 30
Anyone who predicted that Ray would carry his top-shelf strikeout rate to his new team while cutting his walk rate by more than 60%, please raise your hand. I need a new assistant and I'd like to bring you aboard my newsletter staff! There've been some incredible stories in baseball this year: Rodón, Shohei Ohtani, the world-beating San Francisco Giants, the late-charging Cardinals -- Robbie Ray is firmly on that list. It's unclear if he'll win the A.L. Cy Young over Gerrit Cole this season but it's on the spectrum of possibilities. And unlike the $324 million man who pitches in New York, the Blue Jays ace is a free agent this offseason, making him a great target for this list. Ray finished 7th in the Majors in ERA this year. His 32.1% strikeout rate as a starter was bested only by the incredible Corbin Burnes, Scherzer and Cole.
Ray has always had that ability to punch out opposing hitters, but this year he set a new career best with a single-digit walk rate for the first time since 2016. He also led the A.L. in innings pitched this year, 1 1/3 innings ahead of new teammate José Berríos. Add all that up and Ray — signed last winter to a 1-year, $8 million deal in Toronto — is a huge reason the Jays were competitive down to the final day of the regular season. And it’s the reason he’ll get paid handsomely this time around. (This final note is not intended as Twins bashing but rather as an indication of how unlikely the industry saw this season from Ray: the Twins signed J.A. Happ for 1 year and $8 million in the same offseason.)
What do you think is the percent chance that Twins get in the mix for one of these 5 starters? Given some other pitching-hungry teams and the uncertain state of the market right now, let’s just say that I’ve got the rest of my list selected and ready to go.
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