We’ve taken a position-by-position look at the upcoming free agent class at MLBTR in recent weeks. With the position players now all covered, we turn our attention to the starting pitching market.
Each winter, free agency offers a wide variety of starting pitching tiers. There are usually top-of-the-rotation stars, innings-eating types for the middle and back end, and reclamation projects who have shown well in the past but disappointed in their platform seasons. This offseason will be no exception.
Here are the rotation options slated to hit the open market in the coming weeks:
A Tier Unto Himself
Max Scherzer (37 years old in 2022): The most dominant pitcher of the current generation, Scherzer could potentially win a fourth Cy Young Award after tossing 179 1/3 innings of 2.46 ERA ball with a huge 34.1% strikeout rate against just a 5.2% walk rate — the third-lowest mark of his storied career. Scherzer is as dominant as he’s ever been, and the only thing that will cap his market this offseason is his age. Justin Verlander signed a two-year, $66MM extension with the Astros for these same age-37 and age-38 seasons, and Scherzer can justifiably look to eclipse that mark in both years and average annual value. He, somewhat incredibly, has a shot at a second nine-figure deal in free agency this winter. He’s ineligible to receive a qualifying offer (both due to being traded midseason and having previously rejected one in his career).
Other Top of the Market Options
Robbie Ray (30): Back on Aug. 13, I took a look at how the Jays had struck gold on their decision to jump the market and re-sign Ray right out of the gate in free agency. In the 10 starts he made after the time I published that piece, Ray pitched 63 innings of 2.71 ERA ball with a 36% strikeout rate, solidifying himself as the AL Cy Young favorite. Ray’s success is largely driven by heretofore unseen levels of command; after walking 12.9 percent of his opponents from 2017-20, Ray walked just 6.9 percent of the batters he faced in 2021. His 32.1% strikeout rate is the second-best of his career. His AL-best 193 1/3 innings were a career-high. Some clubs will be skeptical about his ability to maintain that vastly improved command, but Ray has positioned himself for a nine-figure contract of five or six years in length after he rejects a qualifying offer.
Kevin Gausman (31): Gausman’s decision to accept a qualifying offer last year looks quite shrewd. The right-hander might’ve been able to command a two- or three-year deal on the heels of his 2020 breakout, but he bet on himself with that one-year deal and improved across the board. Gausman’s 192 frames and 2.81 ERA were both sixth-best among qualified starters, while his 29.2% strikeout rate and 22.8 K-BB% both ranked eighth. Over his past 251 2/3 innings, Gausman carries a flat 3.00 ERA and 30.0% strikeout rate against a terrific 6.5% walk rate. The former No. 4 overall draft pick now looks like the ace Orioles fans might’ve hoped for when he debuted in 2013. He’s ineligible to receive another qualifying offer and will vie with Ray for the largest overall contract of any starter this offseason.