Best Free Agent Starting Pitchers
1. Carlos Rodon, 29 years old
13-5, 2.37 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 34.6K%, 6.7 BB%, 132.2 IP, 4.9 fWAR, 5.0 bWAR
There are plenty of good and bad flooding Rodón’s profile. He has a serious injury history which includes Tommy John surgery (May 2019), arthroscopic shoulder surgery (September 2017) and a litany of other left arm issues like shoulder bursitis, fatigue and elbow inflammation. That laundry list has him pitching just 232.1 innings from 2017 to 2020 and the White Sox didn’t pitch him last winter.
But he came back with a vengeance and was one of baseball’s best pitchers for most of last season while playing on a one-year, “prove it” type contract. His 35.2K% was the fourth highest in baseball from Opening Day through July 31, behind Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes and Tyler Glasnow. His 28.6 K-BB% was also fourth this time behind deGrom, Burnes and Gerritt Cole. Additionally, its 0.96 WHIP was tenth and 3.8 fWAR was seventh. Rodón was the elite of the all-around.
However, I set this very arbitrary deadline around mid-season because Rodón was much less efficient in August and September. He went to the IL with shoulder fatigue soon after and pitched just 28 total innings the rest of the regular season. Only 1.7% of his fastballs were 98 mph or more on his stretch. That number was down from 12.7% from April to July.
Rodón ran out of gas, but that was to be expected after such limited availability over the past few years. His talent and ceiling are huge while workload issues make him an imperfect option for some teams looking for guaranteed innings.
2. Clayton Kershaw, 33
10-8, 3.55 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 29.5K%, 4.3 BB%, 121.2 IP, 3.4 fWAR, 2.4 bWAR
Another sustainability-minded southpaw, Kershaw comes to the open market at a strange crossroads. For one thing, it’s still very effective. His 29.5K% and 25.2K-BB% were the best since 2017 and his 3.00 FIP was seventh lowest in the league.
On the other hand, it would be foolish to expect a constant workload from the veteran. He hasn’t pitched 200 innings since 2015 and I highly doubt he’ll do it again. Last year, he had two separate IL stays: one for elbow inflammation and another for forearm discomfort.
The latter knocked him out of the playoffs and he hasn’t taken the pitch yet. However, he recently told Dan Patrick that he was ‘Ready to go’for what it’s worth.
Still, Kershaw remains flexible. 2021 marked the first season of his career where his fastball wasn’t his most frequent pitch as he opted for more sliders. In addition, its forms of height remain ideal. This less-used fastball still has an above-average ride despite losing a few ticks. The control and drop on its patented 12-6 curveball remains perfect. I even have an eyewitness who saw him at Driveline last winter.
Kershaw can still be great. He might only give 100-130 rounds, but they’ll be incredibly strong. It is however difficult to see it outside of Los Angeles; Southern California or Texas seem to be the only places he would end up.
3. Zack Greinke, 38
11-6, 4.16 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 17.2K%, 5.2 BB%, 171 IP, 1.3 fWAR, 1.2 bWAR
Our first right-hander (and second senior) on the list! Greinke’s current skills are the antithesis of Kershaw’s: he will give a lot of innings but their effectiveness remains to be seen. Last season’s strikeout rate was his lowest mark since 2005 and a massive pullback from the 23% range he has sat in for the past few seasons. The skill drop is obvious.
That being said, he achieved 171 IP last season. This followed 67 IP in 2020 (it was near the top of the league) and at least 200 IP in every season from 2017 to 2019. Greinke can be very valuable for the right rotation that needs innings and can sustain a ERA at four.
4. Yusei Kikuchi, 30 years old
7-9, 4.41 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 24.5K%, 9.3 BB%, 157 IP, 1.1 fWAR, 1.7 bWAR
Kikuchi’s free agency is a bit of a surprise. He signed a seven-year contract with Seattle ahead of the 2019 season after dominating the NPB for eight seasons. The deal included a team option that would have paid him $66 million over the next four seasons, but the Mariners turned it down. This triggered a one-year, $13 million option for Kikuchi which he also declined.
Of course, the Mariners’ decision to dismiss Kikuchi is a direct result of his poor performance. His ERA was well over five in his rookie season and results have only slightly improved since then.
Shaken by his own game, Kikuchi spent the winter before the 2020 season at Driveline to clean up his mechanics and hopefully find more speed. His fastball went from 92.5 mph in 2019 to 95.0 in 2020. Those gains carried over last season and Kikuchi was at 96 through June. He slipped back a bit in the second half, both in speed and efficiency, but didn’t have a month where his fastball averaged below 94 mph.
This profile is much more intriguing with a 94-96mph fastball to go along with its slider and split finger. There’s reason to believe the 30-year-old has his best season ahead of him.
5. Michel Pineda, 32 years old
9-8, 3.62 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 19.2K%, 4.6 BB%, 109.1 IP, 1.4 fWAR, 1.4 bWAR
Overall, Pineda is known more for his misdeeds than his performances on the mound. The former mega-prospect never realized his potential and may have been caught up in the worst hidden sticky incident during the 2010s. So it’s easy to miss the fact that it’s been useful lately.
He had an impressive 4.01 ERA (4.30 xFIP) on 146 IP during the offensive mayhem of 2019 with a 23.3K% and 4.7 BB% (97th percentile) to boot. His production was similar last season despite fewer strikeouts and a jump in Hard Hit % (37.4 to 47.4).
There’s reason to believe the tandem decline could signal the end for the soon-to-be 31-year-old, but it’s possible a few key tweaks could help Pineda find a second wind.
His fastball is one of the worst in baseball. It has lost speed over the past few seasons and now sits at just 90-91 mph with no ride. He used to deal with such bad ground form because he had a bit of heat. Those days are over.
Now that’s significantly slower than league average with the lowest vertical approach angle in baseball. Still, for some reason, he threw that flat, slow fastball 54.2 percent of the time last season and it was hammered for a .372 xwOBA. yuck.
Likewise, its cursor is incredibly benign. It travels half an inch horizontally with a moderate drop and may very well be just a poorly marked curveball.
Appearances can be deceiving, however, as the pitch has had an odor rate hovering around 40% since 2020. A pitch that effectively establishes a useful floor.
There’s a world where Pineda can better optimize those heights and create a more cohesive mix of heights with his change. His conditioning also seems to have taken a hit over the past few seasons, which could have contributed to his durability issues. A team could do worse for eight or nine million dollars.
6. Tyler Anderson, 31
7-11, 4.53 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 19.1K%, 5.4 BB%, 167.0 IP, 2.1 fWAR, 1.6 bWAR
Last season’s deep league darling, Anderson is the poster boy for boredom. To steal a phrase from Eno Sarris and Derek Van Riper, this man is oatmeal. He will give a team little to no advantage while throwing as many innings as his efficiency will allow. This floor seems high, but there is a world where the ERA continues to sink and it is unusable.
There’s still a lot of good with his profile: he allows almost no steps, very few hard contacts and forces hitters to hunt. Perhaps more importantly, he also found ways around his incredibly ordinary fastball. He threw it less frequently than ever last season and seems to be rerouting it in favor of a more effective cutter and a new sinker.
Leaning into those two pitches could help him get his rushing ball rate above 40%, which would be significant given his low batting totals. Otherwise, a very large park would suit him.
7. Johnny Cueto, 35
7-7, 4.08 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 20.0K%, 6.1 BB%, 114.2 IP, 1.5 fWAR, 0.8 bWAR
Of course, Cueto is prehistoric. He pitched over 2,000 innings in his career and under-delivered during his 6-year, $130 million contract with the Giants. It’s almost comical to say that they had the option to decline a team option that would have paid Cueto $22 million for 2022.
However, take that exorbitant contract out of the equation, and here’s a guy who was effective last year for a good chunk of innings. His change and fastball each had smell rates of around 28% and his profile reminds me of Michael Wacha from last offseason. A team could extract a lot of value from the current version of Cueto
He hasn’t been close to durability in the last five seasons, so that’s a blow. Another for leaving the Giants because of the park and the masterminds behind the scene there, but he can still give a team a relatively high floor on moderate innings.
8. Zach Davies, 28
6-12, 5.78 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 17.1K%, 11.2 BB%, 148.0 IP, 0.1 fWAR, -0.9 bWAR
This list got very boring very quickly. Davies was generally awful last year, but he can still probably eat innings. Think of it as the nerfed version of Anderson: a healthy dose of moderately effective rounds and nothing else. Not a sexy option, but a necessity for some teams.
The rest of the launchers on this list are sort of less exciting than Davies while offering the same innings-eating abilities for what is probably a bad team.
9. Martin Perez, 30
10. Wily Peralta, 32 years old
11. Brett Anderson, 33
12. JA Happ, 39
13. Chase Anderson, 37
14. Matt Harvey, 32
15. Matt Moore, 32
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Shawn Palmer (PalmerDesigns_ on Twitter)