Welcome to TOC's offseason primers! We haven't officially reached the offseason yet, but it's never too early to look at the best players on the free agent market. Today, we take a look at the best free agent left-hander starting pitchers available.
Lefty starters have always been a coveted component to building a winning team. One of those lefty studs, Jon Lester, dominated the Cardinals in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday. But when looking for a left-handed starter this offseason, teams in search of one might find that task just a little difficult unless they're willing to break the bank trading for David Price of the Rays.
1. Scott Kazmir. Don't laugh – that's how bad this class is. In my opinion, Scott Kazmir is the best left-handed starter on the market. That's the same Scott Kazmir who didn't pitch at all in 2012 and threw just 1 2/3 innings in the majors in 2011. Angels fans, commence your wincing. But Kazmir was actually quite good this past year, throwing 158 innings (his most since 2007), striking out 162, and walking 47 while posting a 4.04 ERA for an Indians team that outperformed all expectations. Kazmir really got into a nice groove in the second half, striking out 82 and walking 17 in 72 innings while pitching to a 3.38 ERA. Kazmir will be 30 in January, and he finally looked like the guy who kicking ass and taking names for the Rays a few years ago.
2. Jason Vargas. You generally know what you're getting out of Vargas, though he did miss two months of time in the summer thanks to surgery to remove a blood clot in his shoulder. After returning from the surgery, Vargas was a different pitcher, as his strikeout rate increased and his walk rate decreased while his velocity dropped a tick. This was the first real injury Vargas has had in years, as he came into 2013 making 30+ starts in three straight seasons. Is he going to take control of a game like someone like Price? Of course not. Vargas is more of a back-end starter, but really, that makes up one of the most options on the left-handed free agent market this winter.
3. Paul Maholm. Maholm looked like he was in line for a nice payday after his start to the year, but his performance in the second half raised serious questions about his value and the health of his left wrist, which put him out of action for a little over a month of time overall. Red flags were also raised by his performance against right-handed hitters, who smashed Maholm to the tune of a .294/.367/.478 line. That line gets bumped to .306/.399/.515 outside of Turner Field, which is something that should definitely be taken into account.
4. Chris Capuano. Capuano was a bit of a swing man in the Dodgers rotation this year, making 20 starts and four appearances out of the bullpen thanks to the health of the Los Angeles rotation. Like with Maholm, righties pounded the tar out of Capuano (.305/.350/.508), indicating that the bullpen might be in his future for the rest of his career. If there's one possible benefit to signing Capuano, it's the fact that away from Dodger Stadium, he allowed just a .247/.290/.370 line to hitters. I don't think the Dodgers will exercise their mutual option for Capuano for 2014, but it wouldn't shock me if they did with Ricky Nolasco scheduled to test the free agent market and Josh Beckett's health always being a question following surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.
5. Bruce Chen. Chen's been quietly effective over the last five seasons in Kansas City, which has pretty much been the story of his career after washing out as a top pitching prospect for the Braves. Chen is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and his 51.9% fly ball rate in 2013 was the highest among any pitcher with at least 100 innings pitched. He also doesn't strike hitters out, so any team looking into signing Chen should have a good outfield defense behind him and a solid pitchers park for him to pitch in or things could get ugly. The Royals had both of those last year, and Chen thrived once again.
6. Erik Bedard. Bedard is another guy that pretty much brings the same thing to the table every year – lots of strikeouts, lots of walks, lots of injuries. In 2013, Bedard made 26 starts, six relief appearances, and threw 151 innings – his most since 2007, when he was still an Oriole. Bedard will likely come cheap, and will be like a glass cannon for a team – you'll get ten or 15 decent starts out of him, and everything after that is just gravy. Think of him as a placeholder if your team has someone banged up.
7. Joe Saunders. This is another guy who has an established track record of mediocrity. 2012 was the only season of Saunders' last six where he didn't make all of his starts, and he still logged 28 for the Diamondbacks and Orioles. But past his inning-eating ways, Saunders is incredibly mediocre. He's had a strikeout to walk ratio north of two just twice in his career, and one of those seasons came in an 18 start 2007. Like Capuano, he's not a free agent quite yet, but I'd expect the Mariners to decline their end of a mutual option for 2014, leaving him free to negotiate with other teams.
8. Johan Santana. I fully expect the Mets to buy out Santana's option for 2014 after he didn't throw a pitch at all in 2013, and I also fully expect another team to take a chance on him following shoulder surgery. He's not going to be the dominant, otherworldly pitcher that he once was, but he could still wind up as an acceptable back of the rotation arm for a team – if he's healthy, which is the real question with him.
9. John Lannan. There are a couple of things I like (comparatively speaking) heading into the offseason. First, he'll come cheap after making just $2.5 million to make 14 starts for the Phillies. Second, his injury issues had nothing to do with his arm, as a strained quadriceps tendon and tendonitis in his left knee caused him to miss 98 games. Lannan isn't a rotation cure-all, as he doesn't strike out a lot of hitters and relies on a solid defense behind him to make plays. But really, a team would probably be better off paying $500K to a random pitcher from AAA than going with Lannan at this point in his career.
10. Barry Zito. Stop laughing. Seriously, stop that. Zito is one of the biggest free agent busts in baseball history, and the Giants will be tripping over themselves to buy him out once the season ends. But the 35-year old has stayed pretty healthy over his career, with his only DL stints coming in 2011 thanks to a sprained foot. His velocity is in the can, but while his arm has a lot of mileage on it, he's never injured it. Zito didn't have an ERA under 4.00 after signing with the Giants and never crossed 200 innings with the club either. OK, so maybe Zito's not worth signing to a contract. But let's be honest for a minute: if your team is weighing the costs and benefits of signing Barry Zito, you're probably not going to be contending in 2014.