5 Thoughts: Best free agent starting pitchers for the Twins to consider, #6-10

A Twins coaching staff shakeup is coming, plus the next 5 names on our Starting Pitcher wishlist.

A few quick notes before we get to today’s rankings, 6-10 on our Top-30 Starting Pitchers wishlist for Twins free agency.

*The Rangers have claimed Edwar Colina, a former top relief prospect with the Twins who didn’t pitch in 2021. Colina had two arm surgeries this year and the Twins will have several difficult roster decisions to make this Fall.

*Bench coach Bill Evers is retiring this year after 46 years in baseball, including 2 of the last 3 as Rocco Baldelli’s right-hand mentor.

*Co-hitting coach Edgar Varela will be re-assigned back to a role similar to his minor league development role that he before he was promoted to the big league staff in 2020.

*Major League coach Kevin Morgan, who joined the Twins in 2020 after two decades with the Mets, will likewise be re-assigned to a minor league development role. Morgan had been promoted to the coaching staff following the tragic passing of Mike Bell this spring.

That leaves the Twins with at least 3 vacancies on their Major League coaching staff, following significant coaching losses in recent seasons of Derek Shelton, James Rowson and the late Mike Bell.

One thing I’ve heard from Twins fans in the final months of the season is that if the Twins genuinely had interest in paying $25 million per year for a pitcher, why didn’t they just pay José Berríos? Fair question, and you won’t catch me knocking him. A few possibilities and I genuinely don’t know the answer, I’d just like to consider the whole scope of that argument. For one thing, maybe they didn’t view the next 5-7 years of Berríos as a top-10 starter, which is what he’d be in line to earn, or at least thereabouts. (Zack Wheeler is making $23.6 million per year and currently is the 11th highest paid starter in the Majors.) Another possibility: Maybe the Twins truly believe that they have the pitching talent coming up that will support a “sustainable” winner, and if they need an arm at the top of that rotation for an October run, they can trade for one in July. Or, maybe they really don’t feel they have that financial support to pay a top salary, in which case we can fast forward through several of the names on this list.

Or, maybe they liked Berríos and had the money, but feel that strongly about a player like Austin Martin that they thought they’d take that full step backward, add Martin to the system, then go again in free agency once the CBA dust settles and pay for a different but comparable starting pitcher.

If you’re reading this list with wishful eyes, the hope then would be that final view proves accurate.

Remember a few offseasons ago when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were free agents, and a young boy asked GM Thad Levine at a townhall-style meeting what it would take for the Twins to get off the couch and play ball with those guys? Thad said that the front office first needs to assess if they have the right “when,” and only then can they get into the business of deciding on the “who.” If you’re hoping for a World Series run next year, you’ve gotta hope that the Twins think that right now would be an all right “when,” and this list is just about figuring out the “who.”

If you missed Part I, you can read it here. Or you can glance at this snapshot:

  1. Max Scherzer

  2. Kevin Gausman

  3. Clayton Kershaw

  4. Carlos Rodón

  5. Robbie Ray

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As a reminder, you can read about the assumptions that went into making this list in the first post of the series.

To the list…

6. Marcus Stroman, 30

Here are the basic facts. Stroman will turn 31 in May, meaning that he’s one of the classic free agents in line for that first really big contract. He pitched this year on the Qualifying Offer deal, which he accepted with the Mets, after he’d opted out of the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns. (Stroman hurt his calf during Spring Training No. 2, and then as he was on the comeback trail he opted out in August following several team-wide outbreaks of the virus in St. Louis and Miami.)

He came back this year in part to prove that he’s still Marcus Stroman, and succeeded in doing that. Over the past three seasons, his 3.12 ERA ranks 12th among starting pitchers with at least 200 innings in the big leagues. In the same time window, Stroman ranks 8th among starters in home run rate, one spot behind Mets teammate Jacob deGrom (0.87 homers per 9 innings pitched). He ranked 9th this year, and is the top available free-agent starter in that regard.

Coming off a year in which he didn’t pitch a competitive inning, Stroman pitched 179 innings for the Mets this year, with a 3.02 ERA and a 21.6% strikeout rate. That’s a lower punchout rate than, say, Bailey Ober or Joe Ryan, but it tops someone like 2021 Michael Pineda and is slightly better than the Twins’ starting rotation average. Still, it’s fair to say that’s not an elite mark for strikeouts, whereas Stroman finished 9th in the Majors this year in ERA among starters with enough innings to qualify for leaderboards. In 29 of his 33 starts this year, Stroman allowed 3 or fewer earned runs – and in 24 of those starts he surrendered 2 of fewer. So I thought it was notable that despite the lack of high-end strikeout totals he did give his team the ol’ proverbial “chance to win” quite often. And his innings and ERA are right in line with his 2019 totals that made him a hot commodity at that year’s trade deadline (184 innings, 3.22 ERA that season).

One more note on swings and misses for the sinker / slider / changeup / cutter guy in New York: on an individual pitch level, his swinging strike rate of 11.6% puts him fourth on this list of free agent starters, behind Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman (and approximately the same rate as Joe Ryan in his 5 starts with the Twins). Stroman also had opposing hitters chasing pitches outside the strike zone more often than most starters this year at 34.4%, a top-15 mark in the Majors.

I also appreciate that Stroman appears to agree with my No. 1 overall selection on this top-30 list.

He worked this year under former Twins bullpen coach Jeremy Hefner, and alongside former Twin Trevor May. And I believe he would’ve crossed paths with Kevin Morgan in 2019 in New York. If the Twins are looking for a lengthier scouting report, Stro and Josh Donaldson were teammates in Toronto for parts of 4 seasons, as Donaldson joined the Blue Jay’s in Stroman’s second season in the big leagues in 2015. Twins special assistant LaTroy Hawkins also spent time in that Blue Jays clubhouse in 2015. Fun fact: the Mets traded for Stroman in 2019, sending a young pitching prospect to the Blue Jays, who in turn traded that young pitching prospect, Simeon Woods Richardson, to the Twins.

7. Noah Syndergaard, 29

I had to include him, right? Considering the injury risk (and recent history), Noah Syndergaard might not have risen to the top-15 using my initial methodology, which heavily weighted recent performance and considered outcomes of the past 3 seasons, among a couple of other factors. But this is a case where I felt I needed to intervene with the spreadsheet and get Thor on the list. Especially if the Twins are retaining Buxton and baking in that injury risk, what’s a little more uncertainty on the roster? I wouldn’t personally want this to be the only arm added — and the price tag might dictate the flexibility with the rest of the roster — but if Syndergaard was one of two noteworthy additions by the open market or a trade, I think you’d be happier with the “stable” of arms for 2022.

Now, it’s very much worth noting that he is a candidate for the Qualifying Offer under the current system, and I don’t know if the Mets are going to offer to pay that, and whether he’d accept. It’s definitely worth noting that he’s basically missed two seasons following Tommy John surgery, and a subsequent setback in his recovery process earlier this summer. He did return to the Mets in late-September to pitch a couple of innings to prove some measure of health heading into the winter, and to prove that the 96 mph heater is still in there.

2018-19 combined: 57 starts with a 3.73 ERA, a 24.3% strikeout rate, 6.1% walk rate, and a strong home run rate of 0.84 homers per 9 innings.

8. Alex Wood, 31

Is there an Alex Wood hype train yet? Should there be?

He’s another sinker-slider-changeup pitcher and he’ll turn 31 this offseason. He made 26 starts for the amazing Giants in the regular season, posting a 3.83 ERA and above-average 26% strikeout rate. Strictly for comparison’s sake, the lefty’s strikeout rate and walk rate are pretty similar to Walker Buehler, who is of course great, and to those of teammate Logan Webb, who had a strong year in 2021, too. I just bring up those two as points of comparison. Like Stroman, Wood succeeds by limiting homers. This year opponents hit 14 homers in 138 2/3 innings. Again to make a simple comparison, Berríos allowed that many homers in the 121 2/3 innings before he was traded. Matt Shoemaker allowed one more homer in 78 fewer innings; Griffin Jax gave up 9 more home runs than Wood in 56 2/3 fewer innings. Granted, it’s not exactly fair to compare a free-agent starter in line for big money with a pitcher who was released midseason and a rookie who was forced into a lot more innings than anybody expected coming into the season.

Also worth noting, Wood only pitched 35 innings in 2019, and they weren’t very good. Then he only pitched 12 innings last year, and again, not so good. So he won’t rank highly on many other lists, I’ll bet. But this season Wood re-emerged as part of a storybook Giants season, and the fact that he was the fourth most important starter on the NL West champs says more about the staff than it does about Wood. (After all, he was behind breakout Kevin Gausman, breakout Logan Webb and Anthony DeSclafani; Why did I rank Wood higher here than his teammate DeSclafani, who has better stats on the year? Wood is younger, got more strikeouts and is better at keeping the ball in the park – though to be clear I like both pitchers.)

In moving him up this list, I’m also looking at pre-2019 info, which admittedly can be dangerous. From age 22 when he debuted with the Braves in 2013 through 2018 with the Braves and Dodgers, he’s just quietly had a really solid career. Across almost 1,000 innings he’s been good at pitching innings without giving up home runs, and so he’s earned a 3.50 career ERA and just better than a 3.5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

9. Anthony DeSclafani, 32

DeSclafani is one of 8 free-agent starting pitchers who reached 3.0 Wins Above Replacement this year, according to FanGraphs, which it’s important to note, measures home runs, walks, hit batters and strikeouts to compute their version of WAR. This year he improved slightly on his career marks in strikeout rate (22.5%), walk rate (6.2%), and ran up his career-best 3.17 ERA. If you’re a Twins follower like me, who pays much more attention to the American League, he may have slipped under your radar a bit, since he’s pitched with the Marlins, Reds and most recently the Giants. So I’ll note that in the past 6 seasons, DeSclafani has made 31 starts three times, he’s had two seasons in which he topped 2.0 Wins and two more seasons of at least 3.0 Wins, including 2021. (Only Berríos eclipsed 2.0 Wins for the Twins this year; in 2019 he and Jake Odorizzi both topped 4.0 Wins.)

He turns 32 in April, so I wouldn’t expect he’ll get the same total value in a contract as, say, Kevin Gausman. Given the year he’s had in 2021, though, plus the number of teams that will need representative pitching to advance their chances to compete in 2022, I still think that he’ll get paid. Let’s also note that we’ve reached the portion of the list where solid overtakes the chance at spectacular, and if you’re a Twins fan looking with a skeptical eye at free agency, the names may not excite you. I’ll just ask rhetorically, How much would two Solid arms have helped in 2021?

10. Eduardo Rodriguez, 29

I don’t know exactly what to make of Rodriguez, but I believe that he belongs on this list. A 4.74 ERA in 2021 might not look like a worthy candidate, but I will note that the version of WAR that uses peripheral stats in its calculation, Rodriguez was worth 3.7 Wins in 2019 and 3.8 Wins this year. (He missed all of 2020 after he contracted COVID-19 and later myocarditis.)

At 28 ½, he’s one of the youngest pitchers who was in consideration for this list. His career-high 27.4% strikeout rate was 10th in the American League this season among pitchers with at least 100 innings, one spot below former Twin Lance Lynn. Although one spot ahead of that on the strikeout rate leaderboard was Andrew Heaney, on whom two pitching-needy teams gave up this season headed into his own free agency journey. That fact admittedly has made me skittish over including Heaney.

E-Rod pitches tonight for the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS vs. the Rays.

Others who have not yet appeared on this list but should comfortably make it into my top-30:

Justin Verlander
Alex Cobb
Zack Greinke
Jon Gray
Corey Kluber

Who am I missing?

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