Behind the velvet rope
This free agent class is headlined by three elite players we just saw in the World Series.
If you like those holiday commercials in which people buy cars for their spouse and put the world’s largest bow around the vehicle, then Gerrit Cole is the gift for your team. Cole had a Cy Young Award-worthy season for the Astros, and counting the playoffs struck out a sublime 373 batters, the fifth-most ever. He pitched more innings than anybody else in the postseason (36⅔) and posted a 1.72 ERA in October. At 29, Cole is younger than every other free agent pitcher who ever signed for $30 million a year, and will probably set records with whatever contract he signs this winter.
7 years, $245 million
If you’re not able to have the luxury of adding Gerrit Cole to your rotation, a solid backup plan would be the other former No. 1 overall pick who dominated this postseason. Stephen Strasburg opted out of the four years and $100 million remaining on his contract with the Nationals, and will surely blow past that in free agency. Strasburg is 31, so he probably won’t get as long a contract as Cole, but aces are hard to come by. He led the National League in innings pitched, set a career high with 251 strikeouts, and was undefeated with a 1.98 ERA in the postseason while winning World Series MVP. Strasburg picked a perfect time to fully realize his promise, and now it’s time for him to cash in.
6 years, $186 million
Nolan Arenado has been the gold (glove) standard at third base, but Anthony Rendon has been right there with him the last three years, leading Arenado (19.9 to 17.4) in fWAR, with Rendon ranking fourth in the majors during that span. Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million contract with Colorado last year before even hitting free agency, so get this relatively clearance price on Rendon while you still can.
Asked during the postseason what he would be doing at age 36, Rendon laughed and said, “Hopefully not playing baseball. Probably sitting on the couch hanging out with my kids.” So be sure to cram the hundreds of millions of dollars in his contract offer to just six years.
6 years, $204 million
If you miss out on Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, there are several starting pitchers out there for the taking. A team like the Angels, which needs roughly an entire staff, could upgrade by buying in bulk here.
With Cole and Strasburg about to cash in on their postseason (and regular-season) excellence, now’s the time for Madison Bumgarner to cash in on his October magic, just five years later. This year’s playoff darlings brought into focus how ridiculous Bumgarner’s 1.03 ERA in a postseason-record 52⅔ innings in 2014, leading the Giants to their third championship in five years.
After two injury-plagued seasons, Bumgarner was back to being a horse atop San Francisco’s rotation, topping 200 innings and 200 strikeouts. Bumgarner played a key role in all three Giants titles, and while that seems so long ago he’s only 30 years old. There’s plenty left in the tank for a team that needs to stabilize its rotation.
4 years, $76 million
The right-hander was traded by the Giants to the Mets at the trade deadline in 2011 for Carlos Beltran, so it’s only fitting that Zach Wheeler is now leaving New York as a free agent just as Beltran is back to manage in Queens. Wheeler doesn’t turn 30 until May, and with 60 starts and an above-average 3.65 ERA the last two seasons, he qualifies as an innings eater. Nathan Eovaldi got $68 million over four years last offseason with nowhere near the durability of Wheeler, who has only one Tommy John surgery in his history compared to two for Eovaldi. Look for Wheeler to beat the Eovaldi contract.
4 years, $74 million
After missing nearly two entire seasons with shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, Hyun-jin Ryu’s rebound (Ryubound?) has been nothing short of remarkable. His 2.21 ERA since the start of 2018 is the second-best in baseball among pitchers with at least 250 innings, and there’s the rub.
Ryu missed three months in 2018 with a torn groin, and spent time on the injured list again in 2019 with a groin strain. He was still durable enough to lead the majors in ERA (2.32) and led the NL in walk rate (3.3 percent), and was a Cy Young Award finalist. Ryu has no qualifying offer attached so his market should be robust, though turning 33 the day before opening day might limit him to shorter deals.
3 years, $57 million
Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel were the poster boys for the withered free agency last year, when their attached qualifying offers killed their markets. Both waited to sign until after the draft so their signing teams didn’t have to give up a draft pick. Keuchel helped stabilize the Braves rotation with a 121 ERA+ in 19 starts, and without draft pick compensation should be able to find a contract before spring training. What a novel concept.
3 years, $46 million
Jake Odorizzi picked a great time to have his best season, setting career bests in FIP (3.36), ERA+ (131), strikeout rate (27.1 percent) and wins (15). But though he’s one of just 21 pitchers to make 90 starts over the last three seasons, he’s averaged barely over five innings per outing during that time.
He should consider accepting the $17.8 million qualifying offer from the Twins.
2 years, $30 million
After averaging 208 innings and 4.3 fWAR for a decade, Cole Hamels has settled into “only” solidly above average for the last three years, averaging 160 innings and 2.1 fWAR with a 117 ERA+ from 2017-19. Hamels turns 36 in December so long-term contracts are a thing of the past. But Hamels could still give a team 25 competitive starts.
2 years, $26 million
Sure, Rick Porcello had a 5.65 ERA in 2019 and has a 4.79 ERA from 2017-19. But he also has a Cy Young Award, which has to be worth something, right? Porcello, while he was getting his head handed to him on the mound last year, still managed to answer the bell. He’s one of only two pitchers to make at least 32 starts in each of the last four years, along with Justin Verlander. So you’re basically getting another Verlander by signing Porcello. It’s science.
2 years, $23 million
Around the end of August, Wade Miley sure looked like he was going to cash in this winter. He was third in the American League with a 3.06 ERA — behind only his Astros teammates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole — and showed postseason success the year before allowing just two runs in 14 innings for Milwaukee. But then the wheels fell off, with a 16.68 ERA in five September starts knocking Miley out of Houston’s playoff rotation. A single, ineffective relief appearance in the ALDS was followed by Miley getting left off the Astros’ roster for both the ALCS and World Series. Miley is a value play only, probably only getting a small, two-year deal or a one-year contract with an option.
1 year, $11 million
After Anthony Rendon, there are still a few impact players on offense just waiting to be signed.