2012 Free Agent Primer: Top 20 Starting Pitchers

There isn’t a ton of depth to the 2012 starting pitcher market and even some of the names toward the top carry some noticeable risk. However, there looks to be a few names that have the potential to provide production on the cheap for clubs willing to look past their 2011 struggles.

1. CC Sabathia (31)It seems as though the Yankees will try to extend Sabathia before he hits the open market. If Sabathia does decide to have a look around there would be a few teams with the funds available to bid for his services. Could he be the first big move for Theo Epstein’s Cubs? (NOTE: Sabathia announced yesterday on Twitter that he’d be staying with the Yankees)

2. Yu Darvish (26) – The hype surrounding the possible posting of this Japanese superstar is already igniting the hot stove. He won’t turn 26 until August of next season and is coming off of a season in which he posted a 1.88 ERA and 208 strikeouts to only 44 walks in 200.2 innings. The only thing keeping him from being ranked number one on this list is the fact that we can’t truly know how he will adjust to pitching in the major leagues. If he does post, he is sure to set a record posting bid, possible upwards of $100M. Look for just about every major league team to have interest.

3. C.J. Wilson (31) – Despite a poor performance in the postseason, Wilson should still end up with a handsome payday this offseason. He may not reach the $100M mark, but something in the realm of $16-18M per year should be within reach.

4. Roy Oswalt (34) – The Phillies declined Oswalt’s $16M option, so he’ll hit the open market for the first time in his career. He comes with some injury risk due to a history of back problems, but he also comes with a tremendous history of excellent performance. He has only posted one season with an ERA over 4.00 and has never posted an xFIP of over 4.00.

5. Hiroki Kuroda (37)Kuroda is a ground ball specialist that has performed exceptionally well since coming over from Japan. He’s getting up there in age, but there is sure to be demand for his services on a two-year deal.

6. Edwin Jackson (28) – Despite seemingly never living up to high expectations as a young prospect, Jackson has posted xFIPs right around 3.70 for the past two seasons while improving his K/BB ratio each of the last four seasons. At 28, he’s the youngest free agent starting pitcher worth a sizable contract.

7. Javier Vazquez (35) – Talk about the tale of two halves. Vazquez posted a 5.23 ERA in the first half of 2011, but exploded in the second half to post a 2.15 ERA with almost one strikeout per nine innings pitched. It’s no surprise that his dominance returned along with his once lost velocity. Though Vazquez has hinted at retirement, a one-year deal topping $10M might be more than enough to bring him back. Look for National League teams to have peak interest.

8. Erik Bedard (33) – I hate Aerosmith, but the lyrics to the song “Same Old Song and Dance” ring true with regard to Bedard. When healthy enough to toe the rubber, Bedard is a fantastic pitcher. However, he has never thrown 200 innings in a major league season and he hasn’t topped 130 innings since 2007. Teams will be looking at Bedard as a possible bargain if he’s willing to sign a one-year incentive laden deal.

9. Hisashi Iwakuma (31) – The A’s won the bid to negotiate with Iwakuma last season ($19.1M), but could not come to an agreement on a major league contract. Iwakuma returned to Japan where he posted a 2.42 ERA in 119 innings with 90 strikeouts and only 19 walks (4.74 K/BB ratio), but he did miss some time with shoulder soreness. His 6.86 career K/9 is likely to fall against major league batters, so he’ll have to rely on command and defense. Still, teams will once again be lined up for his services.

10. Mark Buehrle (33) – What Buehrle lacks in swing-and-miss stuff, he makes up for in command and just flat out knowing how to pitch. Since becoming a full-time starter a decade ago, he has never thrown less than 200 innings in a season. Buehrle has long been linked to the Cardinals, having been born in St. Charles, MO and having stated that it was his dream to one day pitch for the Redbirds. Look for the World Series champs to explore a home town discount deal.

11. Joel Pineiro (33) – His 2011 numbers are ugly, there’s no getting around that fact, but they can be explained to some extent due to a right shoulder that had bothered him since spring training. This ranking is based on him being 100 percent healthy in 2012. If that happens, he should see a progression in his ground ball and strikeout rate, which would make him quite capable of a 4.00 ERA and xFIP or better.

12. Aaron Harang (34) – 2011 was a nice bounce-back season for Harang, but he may have been helped a bit by his carnivorous home park in San Diego. His 2.14 K/BB ratio was almost identical to that of his last season in Cincinnati, but he was able to post the lowest HR/9 of his career in his first year with the friars. That makes him a risky acquisition for any team not boasting deep outfield fences.

13. Chris Capuano (33)Capuano posted an excellent 3.2 K/B ratio in 2011, but his career-long problems with the home run ball negated that positive aspect of his numbers. Still, he could be a valuable 4-5 for any team as long as his pre-2011 elbow problems don’t return.

14. Paul Maholm (30) – Despite posting the best ERA of his career as a full-time major league starter, the Pirates did not pick up his $9.75M club option. Maholm has always had decent command and very good ground ball rates, but he doesn’t generate many strikeouts. Only 11 percent of his innings pitched while with the Pirates hcame in the seventh inning or later.

15. Jeff Francis (30) – A 6-16 record and 4.81 ERA are nothing to gloat about, but Francis has some skills that could still result in a very valuable season in 2012. He rarely puts runners on via a base on balls (BB/9 under two for the past two seasons) and he gets hitters to pound the ball into the ground with some frequency (47 percent ground ball rate over the last two seasons). 2011 was the first season since 2008 in which Francis did not have to be shut down due to a shoulder injury. Should he stay healthy once more, there’s upside to be found on a deal similar to the $2M he signed for last season.

16. Jason Marquis (33) – Once know for being able to eat up innings, Marquis had his 2010 season end with elbow surgery and his 2011 season end with a leg fracture from a batted ball. He has posted excellent ground ball rates for the last three years and could be a valuable back-end starter for a team with a good infield defense.

17. Freddy Garcia (36) – Garcia was a $1.5M bargain for the Yankees in 2011 and, if it weren’t for a kitchen accident in August, his numbers would have been even better. While he isn’t likely to post an ERA in the mid threes again, he still has the stuff to be a back end starter. Teams must keep in mind, however, that from 2007 to 2010 he dealt with shoulder and back injuries, so expecting more than 150 innings out of him in 2012 is unwise.

18. Bruce Chen (35) – Chen has produced beyond people’s expectations for the past two seasons. There is nothing that stands out about his stuff or his numbers, but he has somehow managed to post BABIPs in the .270 range for two straight seasons. Given his fly-ball tendencies, teams with deep fences should be the ones calling.

19. Brad Penny (34) – This past season, Penny put up the worst K/BB ratio of any major league starter with a minimum of 150 innings pitched (1.2 K/BB). He also posted the worst strikeout rate in the bigs, beating out Carl Pavano and Jeff Francis for that undesirable title. He has dealt with shoulder issues for years now, so it’s hard to say whether he can rebound or whether he’ll simply never return to form. Still, there are sure to be teams willing to take a low-risk one-year flier.

20. Bartolo Colon (39) – Overall, the Yankees were thrilled with the season they got from their 900K investment in Colon. That being said, he faded miserably in the second half of the season, posting a 4.96 ERA, including a 5.96 ERA in September, and saw his velocity drop off as the season progressed. He’ll be 39 in May of 2012 and his “roundness” could certainly catch up with him at any point.

The crafty Livan…

Livan Hernandez (37) had the second lowest average fastball velocity of any pitcher to throw at least 150 innings in 2011. His “heater” velocity topped only one man, knuckleball veteran Tim Wakefield, so, yeah, it’s slow. Livan won’t get may strikeouts, but he’ll show enough command and guile to be a low-cost fifth starter capable of 175-200 innings.

About that Rich Harden fella…

I know that Harden will pop up on a lot of top 20 starting pitcher free agent lists, but I’m not buying in. He hasn’t thrown over 100 innings for two straight seasons and while his strikeout rates have been robust, so too have his HR/9 rates. At this point, Harden is basically a two-pitch pitcher with constant shoulder problems and only so-so command. My opinion is that he should be moved to the bullpen, where his fastball/changeup combination could flourish and his workload reduced.