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Warming up: A look towards Hot Stove - Starting Pitching edition

Posted by John Olson , 23 October 2017 · 1,094 views

twins starting pitching free agents
Continuing in the off-season series, today looking at the free agent market for starting pitching: who's available and which members of the current class the Twins could target in the free agent market.

The Twins, as most other teams in the league, are in need of starting pitching. They are one of the few teams that consider themselves legitimate postseason contenders - and need to make significant upgrades to the current rotation if they want to make a serious push towards a World Series birth.

The returning staff, presumably, for 2018 has essentially three rotation spots locked with Ervin Santana, Jose Berrios and the resurgent Kyle Gibson. Ervin Santana had very solid 2107 season, posting a 3.28 ERA and 211.1 Innings pitched and pitching his way to an All Star game appearance. Not a typical team "Ace", Santana was the most consistent - and consistently good - Twins pitcher during the 2017 season.
Jose Berrios emerged after a disappointing 2016 season, to be good for number 2 on the staff in ERA with a 3.89 mark over 145.2 innings. The burgeoning youngster stepped into a rotation spot and lead the team in both K% (22.6%) and FIP (3.84) marks for the staff.
Kyle Gibson, on the other hand, played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and was a tale of two halves. His 2017 ERA was a very underwhelming 5.07 ERA over 158 Innings, he was demoted in May to AAA, before being called back to the big league club. Upon coming back, however, Gibson seemed revitalized and pitched to a much improved 3.76 ERA in the second half, a dramatic improvement on a terrible 6.31 ERA in the first months of the year.

There are some internal candidates for the other two rotation spots, Adelbuerto Mejia and Trevor May ( depending on his Tommy John surgery recovery timetable) may be two options, as well as the up and coming prospects Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero, and others competing for the spots during Spring Training.
For the purposes of the article however, we're going to cast aside the notion of filling the spot with internal candidates and see which starting pitchers in free agency the Twins could consider.

The 2017-18 Free Agent Starting Pitching Class

In an attempt to separate the pack, I have segmented into 3 different "tiers" of pitchers available that i have cleverly named Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 pitchers.
  • Tier One - The "Ace" Type
The headlining free agents this off-season will be Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, and if they decline their player options, Masahiro Tanaka and Johnny Cueto. Cueto, coming off a sub-par season and with a lucrative $130 Million dollar contract in hand with San Francisco, is widely considered to be less likely to exercise his option while Tanaka's future is a bit more questionable in New York.

Despite Thad Lavines' prior relationship with Yu Darvish in Texas, it is unlikely the Twins as an organization will pay the gargantuan salary due for a pitcher of Davish's caliber, probably approaching or exceeding Zack Greinkes 6 year, 206 million dollar mark.

The same holds true of Arrieta and Tanaka, who will more than likely command less than Darvish, but their pedigree will undoubtedly put them in the "Johnny Cueto contract" territory. So, this is befittingly a fairly brief breakdown of the only reason why the Twins - whose 4 year $55 million dollar contract given to Ervin Santana constitutes the largest free agent signing in club history - are probably not in play for the big names in this list.

* I will say, as a quick note, the Twins should be in on these pitchers - important to distinguish that. Pitcher contracts being what they are and the ownership in Minnesota's track record - I think its unlikely. The Twins also do not have a TV deal like many other clubs, but - the Twins payroll (which I'm sure I'll discuss at some point this winter) has to increase to accommodate contracts larger than, I'll say, the ownership is comfortable with at this time.
  • Tier Two - The "2/3" Type
  • CC Sabathia
The 37 year old lefty is coming off another pretty successful season, posting a 3.69 ERA over 148 Innings. While I'd be surprised to see him get anything more than a 2 or 3 year deal for his remaining years, the annual value of his contract should surpass what the Twins likely would be willing to pay for the aging veteran. All signs signal that he would like to remain in Yankee pinstripes, and the club may be willing to oblige considering his strong postseason performance in 2017. He has been nothing but a consistently strong performer, albeit a few personal issues he's had to overcome in recent years, with stronger-than-you'd-think peripheral numbers (4.11 xFIP and 1.9 fWAR).

2. Lance Lynn

The right handed Lynn is another popular name on the free agent market, and for good reason. His 3.43 ERA in 2017 is good enough for second in the '17 free agent class, and while he's not young for a starting pitcher at 30 years old, he's certainly got plenty of productive innings left in the arm. MLB Trade Rumors recently reported he has multiple clubs interested in his services and is seeking a contract in the $110 million dollar range. He will certainly he highly sought after, and the Twins may not be able to keep up with the ensuing bidding war for his services. He could be the most in need of a change of division, with his 5.15 FIP away from Busch Stadium, which might make a transition to the much more pitcher friendly parks in AL Central a good choice, with 2 (or 3) likely rebuilding teams. However, with Lynn's name being very visible and large market (read: Big Spending) teams looking for starting pitching, while I would predict him to be a good fit for the Twins, he is an unlikely sign due to the contract he will likely command.

3. Alex Cobb

The 30 year old Cobb is coming off of a very solid '17 campaign, posting solid standard and advanced stats to the tune of a 3.66 ERA, 4.16 FIP and an 86 ERA-. Durability is the major concern with Cobb, as he is yet to complete a MLB season without a trip to the disabled list. However, there is a lot to like about Cobb. He has pitched, very well at times, in the very competitive AL East. He would not be making league switch, as would be the case with Lynn, so familiarity with lineups, parks and the DH would be a positive point for the Twins to consider. He also pitched with much less of a Home/Away FIP split ratio (3.62/4.65 FIP split) than Lynn (4.45/5.15 FIP split). The Rays have attempted - twice - to resign Cobb (reported by Jon Heyman) for $30 million and $40 million respectively in his first two years of arbitration. Cobb should easily surpass these offers this off-season, and it would not surprise me if Lynn and Cobb use each other as benchmarks for the others contract - although Cobb may well be offered less years and dollars because of his injury history. That said, I would expect him to be comfortably (if not exceeding) in the 4-5 year, 65-85 million dollar range (16.25 - 17 Million annually) - both hefty, but perhaps not unreasonably Twins-like numbers.

  • Tier Three - The "3/4/5" Type
Its worth prefacing that this is the largest group available, with many names that could be broken down and analyzed as good fits for the Twins. Obviously for the sake of brevity and readability I couldn't include each one, as well as a brief but detailed breakdown of each. Of the players available, I created a table comprised of varying statistics (ERA/ERA-/FIP/FIP(H)/FIP(A)/IP/K%) and weighted them. The pitchers who outperformed their ERA- minus were given the most weight, while those who under performed where given less, etc.

The resulting names, while an argument can be made for all of them, just missed the cut -
Michael Pineada - Andrew Cashner - John Lackey - Miguel Gonzalez - Doug Fister - Scott Feldman
  • Jhoulys Chacin
Chacin, at age 29, had a very good, under the radar 2017 season for the San Diego Padres. He posted a 3.89 ERA over 180.1 IP, and was one of only 7 free agent pitchers to throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Very durable, Chacin didn't just pitch well at PETCO park, with a respectable FIP Away of 4.89 in a very tough division (with bandbox parks in ARI, high altitude in COL, and the World Series appearing LA Dodgers lineup to contend). Chacin is one of the youngest pitchers on the free agent starting pitcher list, and while he doesn't have the established pedigree or upside of the Tier 2 pitchers listed above, he could make a fine addition to the Twins staff.
While he has expressed a desire to sign with the Padres, there is very little noise surrounding Chacin. For the sake of transparency, however, he has been up and down in his career. Prior to signing with the Padres, Chacin was pitching in the previously mentioned thin air of Colorado and the desert in Arizona, less than ideal conditions. Chacin has the ability to be a solid number 4 or 5 guy - or, he could be Ricky Nolasco. Luckily, it will probably cost less than the $12 million annually the Twins gave Nolasco, to find out. He would be a calculated gamble, a low ceiling/high floor type signing.

2. Jason Vargas

If Kyle Gibson was Jekyll and Hyde, Vargas exemplified this concept by turning it up to "11". His 2.62 ERA in the first half had many arguing that he should start the All Star Game, with 78 K's under his belt when mid-July rolled around, he was widely considered to be contending for a Cy Young, perhaps behind Cory Kluber and Chris Sale.
But, then they played more baseball after the All Star break, and boy was it not good for Jason Vargas or his impending free agency.
His ERA inflated to 6.38 during the second half, leaving him with a fairly deception 4.16 ERA on the year. His 4.94 xFIP number probably more indicative of the real Jason Vargas, the KC pitcher cannot be viewed as anything more than a number 4 or 5 starter, but in fairness to Mr. Vargas - no one expected him to be Chris Sale in the first place. His poor second half likely killed the hope of a large free agent contract, and at age 34 I would be surprised to see him get a deal longer than 3 years. For the right contract, Vargas is intriguing, but there are better and younger options on the board with more upside and less risk. The Twins already have a younger Jekyll and Hyde.

3. Tyler Chatwood

Chatwood has gotten a lot of chatter (excuse the pun) around Twins Territory, I think, because he fits the mold of a type of pitcher the Twins should gamble on. Chatwood, out of all the Tier 3 pitchers, has the most ability to be in the next tier. He is the youngest free agent pitcher, at 27 years old, after what feels like a lifetime pitching at Coors Field.
His 2016 season was more impressive than his 2017 season, with ERA at 3.87 in '16 and a 4.69 in '17, but his xFIP ERA estimator suggests that his 2017 season was better if you factored out the unluckiness of FB% for HR (largely outside of a pitchers control, especially in Coors Field).
He outperformed league average ERA- , the park adjusted ERA modifier, to put up a 94, a very impressive feat. (For perspective, Chacin and Vargas also had 94 ERA- marks in much friendlier pitching conditions). Chatwood's K/9 is also trending in the right direction, improving from 6.66 K/9 to 7.31 K/9 in 2017.
This is Chatwood's first taste of free agency, and while he will be sought after by clubs looking for a high upside bargain, I don't know that he will get the type of contract offers that would price him out of Minnesotas range. Chatwood could conceivably look to establish more value for a second look at free agency by signing with a team that has a (A) pitcher friendly park, (B) a good defense and © up and coming contender with postseason aspirations. All boxes that could be checked with the Minnesota Twins.

Final Verdict

From a spectator's point of view, its hard to see Ace pitchers hit the market and immediately know that your team is not going to be competitive to try to sign them. That said, if Yu Darvish is pining for a reunion with Mr. Lavine AND Mr. Lavine can pry open the Pohlad piggy bank enough to make that happen, stranger things have happened I suppose.

Ultimately, though, the Twins may be in the position to do something they haven't done since Ervin Santana, which is sign a free agent starter as a difference maker. After pouring through numbers, which I do - every time i write these - I would stand by the assessment that Alex Cobb and Tyler Chatwood would be ideal targets in the current market for the Twins. While Cobb will be more expensive, and perhaps more prone to time on the disabled list, he also has an good track record in the American League, with good peripheral numbers without being as expensive as a Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta.

On the other hand, Tyler Chatwood is the most intriguing name on the board if you're willing to gamble on change of venue and league. He will be a cheaper option than even Cobb, but less of a "sure thing." Purely speculation, I believe Chatwood is a guy the Twins should roll the dice on, if you can get him for 3 to 4 years at a reasonable annual salary of around $12 - 14 million or so. Whether or not he is offered a more lucrative or enticing deal to play elsewhere is always the unknown question. I would expect the Twins to be in on him, though.

All things considered, this off-season should include a free agent starting pitcher signing with the Twins. They are on the cusp of making several deep, competitive runs into the postseason, and the old adage always holds true:

Good Pitching beats Good Hitting

On Deck:
The final segment of this series will conclude with a more targeted look at position players the Twins could look to sign in free agency.

I agree with you that the Twins should sign a Tier One pitcher, my choice is Davish.Of the rest Chatwood is on my short list, cheaper than some of the rest, though higher than most tier 3 pitchers and you could possibily only pay for 4-5 years (this is doable at his age).

Many clubs are trying to get under the luxury tax penalty before 2018 postseason when many great players will be in Free Agency and prices will be very high as the sucessful clubs at resetting the luxury tax clock could be all in on that class. (read Yankees).

No mention of Phil Hughes. What is the status of his recovery?