The market for starting pitchers this winter turned absurd before the offseason even began when the Giants gave Tim Lincecum a two-year, $35 million contract extension at the end of October. The Rays are understandably going to be wanting a haul of prospects for David Price. And now, we've heard what Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco are searching for in free agency – $100 million for Santana and $80 million for Nolasco, both over five years.
Now that you've picked your jaw off the floor, just how absurd are these desires? Santana will turn 31 in December, and in 2012, he had a 5.16 ERA in 178 innings. Nolasco will also turn 31 in December, and has an ERA under 4.00 just once over the last five seasons – last year.
Both players are going to get paid – but just how much will they get? On one hand, teams have been paying for pitching for years – look at what guys like Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and CC Sabathia are making. On the other hand, a lot of those big money contracts haven't exactly worked out very well, and you'd think general managers would learn from those mistakes. Mike Hampton, Derek Lowe, Barry Zito, Johan Santana, and Josh Beckett (among others) are perfect examples of how things can get ugly quickly.
There are more red flags with Santana than with Nolasco, and not coincidentally, Santana has the higher upside. When healthy and at his peak, Santana is a guy who can give you 200 innings and limit his walks. In 2013, Santana upped his groundball rate to a career high mark and had his best year since 2008. But Santana has had elbow problems in his past, missing the first 32 games of the 2009 season thanks to a sprained UCL in his right elbow and 19 more games during that summer with triceps inflammation in that same right arm. There's been no dip in his velocity, but when a pitcher has had arm injuries in the past, you always have to look at him with an eyebrow raised.
As for Nolasco, his career has been one of the most infuriating of any pitcher in baseball since his debut in 2006. Despite a 4.37 career ERA, Nolasco has a 3.75 FIP and 3.76 xFIP, seemingly indicating that there are the makings of a potentially elite guy deep down inside. Nolasco also had elbow problems in the past, but that was way back in 2007 when he was dealing with elbow inflammation. Since then, the only time he's missed was for a torn meniscus in his right knee in 2010. Nolasco is more of a sure thing than Santana, starting 30 games and topping 185 innings in five of the last six seasons. Nolasco is extremely stingy with the walks, keeps the ball on the ground, and gets his share of whiffs. If he can ever get some luck on his side and post a league average or better strand rate, this is a guy that can be one of the best pitchers in the league.
So, will either pitcher be worth the money they're asking for? It's tough to say. Anibal Sanchez got five years and $80 million from the Tigers last year despite never logging 200 innings in a season and undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he was one of the best pitchers in baseball last year. Edwin Jackson got four years and $52 million from the Cubs and posted his worst ERA and lowest innings pitched total since 2007. Zack Greinke got $147 million from the Dodgers and was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half despite missing a few starts thanks to a broken collarbone. You really just don't know what's going to happen with these guys, but in my mind, Nolasco is the much safer bet than Santana going forward.