Top 5 Low/High Risk 2009/2010 Free Agent Starters

John Lackey
Image by SD Dirk via Flickr

The market for starting pitchers is perhaps the most interesting, and arguably the most important market heading into any offseason. While casual baseball fans were given a crash course on Type A and B free agents last year, as there were some very high-profile free agents leaving mid-budget teams, they received the most in-depth lesson from the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers entered the 2008 offseason with CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets both entering free agency.

But in both circumstances, the Brewers were forced to accept lesser compensation, none in the case of Sheets, as he didn’t sign a contract last year. Sabathia signed with the Yankees, who took a wholesale approach in an uncertain economy, locking up Sabathia, and fellow Type A free agents Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. Teixeira ranked highest among Type A free agents, and rather than receiving the Yankees’ top pick, the Brewers had to settle for their second-rounder. Not many teams have the financial wherewithal to absorb three large, long-term contracts, receiving effectively a compensation discount, albeit one that came with a half-billion dollar price tag.

That wasn’t the only story last offseason. Reclamation projects like John Smoltz, Randy Wolf, Pedro Martinez, and Brady Penny littered the rumor mills, and each pitched to a varying degree of success in their attempt to reclaim past glory. All while a left-handed fire-baller, Oliver Perez, was paraded around the country with super-agent Scott Boras’ hyperbole leading to one of the largest contracts of the offseason.

That stated, as most of the reclamation projects of last year signed on year deals, and with a few additions to that list, starting pitchers will receive two categories: Low Risk and High Risk, in reference to their arms.

Low Risk

1. John Lackey, 31 years old

No surprise, almost every credible media outlet has Lackey atop their list of starting pitcher free agents. Lackey became famous for his World Series Game seven start in his rookie season. He’s since turned into a really good pitcher.

Lackey will come with a price tag likely higher than $100 million, and while he’s the best pitcher available, there are some signs of decline in his production. He hasn’t reached 200 innings in each of the past two seasons, and is on the wrong side of 30 years old.

2. Randy Wolf, 33 years old

One pitcher is 31 years old, one is 33 years old. One pitcher pitched 176.1 innings last season at a 3.83 ERA, the other pitched 214.1 innings at a 3.23 ERA last season. To avoid undue suspense, the better of the two was Wolf.

The two biggest things Wolf has going against him, apart from he and Lackey’s injury concerns, are that he’s pitched his whole career in the National League, which will cause concern for some American League GMs, and that he had his best season in some time, as he’s struggled in recent seasons. However, Wolf will likely sign a far shorter contract than Lackey, at a much lower annual salary.

3. Joel Pineiro, 31 years old

Pineiro comes from a long line of pitchers who owe their career-threatening injuries to former Mariners pitching coach Brian Price. Price coached several Mariners pitchers—now injury-prone pitchers—to throw sliders at higher frequency, and different, more detrimental sliders.

In Pineiro’s last season with the Mariners he threw his slider more than 20 percent of the time. He blew out his elbow, but has since revived his career. Last season he threw his fastball a career-high 71 percent of the time, and his slider 12.4 percent of the time, the lowest since 2003, when he pitched 211 innings at a 3.83 ERA. Pineiro learned a two-seam fastball that has allowed him to throw his fastball more often, and more effectively (Groundball percentage: a career-high 60.5 percent).

4. Vicente Padilla, 32 years old

The biggest concern with Padilla is his alleged poor clubhouse presence. However, he set the NL West on fire when he was picked up by the Dodgers, and has had a lot of success in the National League throughout a career that became productive in Philadelphia.

Padilla struggled before exiting the National League, and continued to struggle in Texas. Arlington has done-in better pitchers than Padilla, as it’s a hitter’s haven. As a Dodger though, he went 4-0 in 39.1 innings,  with a 3.20 ERA spread over eight appearances (seven starts), struck out 39 and had a 1.220 WHIP.

5. Jarrod Washburn, 35 years old

Washburn, with the help of perhaps the best defensive outfield in baseball, had an excellent first half. The same guy who the Mariners had tried to give away as the 2008 trade deadline approached suddenly had some value, and the team was able to acquire his essential clone in Luke French.

However, things went south for Washburn away from the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco Field, and an outfield that included Ichiro Suzuki, Franklin Gutierrez and a combination of rangy left fielders. Buyers should beware of Washburn, but teams with large outfields and rangy outfielders may be able to recreate his first half success.

High Risk

1. Rich Harden, 28 years old

Apart from Aroldis Chapman, Harden is the youngest pitcher on this list. He’s a flame-thrower with a career K/9 ratio of 9.35. In the past two seasons, Harden has posted 11.01 and 10.91 K/9, respectively, in a combined 289 innings pitched and 51 starts.

The risk with Harden, however, is his propensity for injury. From 2006 to 2007, Harden pitched only 16 games at the major league level, starting 12. He averages less than six innings per start for his career, but has really struggled to reach the sixth inning the past two seasons. He pitches too cautiously in almost every outing, but his stuff makes him the free agent with by far the highest ceiling.

2. Brad Penny, 32 years old

Penny’s alleged “injury history” is far overblown. While he pitched only 19 games in 2008, he did so as a result of shoulder tendonitis, not structural damage. Furthermore, in 2009 Penny actually set a career-high for average fastball velocity (94.0 miles-per-hour).

Penny struggled at the start of 2009, then a member of the Boston Red Sox, but after his release he found success in San Francisco. The two home ballparks are fundamental opposites, and Penny’s skill set is much better in San Francisco or a ballpark similar to AT&T Park, than it is in Fenway.

3. Ben Sheets, 31 years old

Early in Sheets career, it appeared he was ready to be one of the league’s top workhorses. He pitched 200 or more innings in each of the three seasons after his rookie season, including a 2004 season when, were it not for the poor Brewers team he played on, Sheets could have made a strong argument for Cy Young Award candidacy (he finished eighth in the voting).

Injuries derailed his workhorse status. His most recent injury, a flexor tendon tear at the end of 2008, kept him out of the entire 2009 season. However, with almost a year-and-a-half off from pitching, Sheets figures to be at full capacity at some point in the 2010 season, as elbow injuries usually require a year of rehab for a return to the game, and another year to return to form.

4. Justin Duchscherer, 32 years old

At one point in 2008, Duchscherer and Cliff Lee were in a close race for the American League Cy Young Award. Duchscherer would suffer an injury, though remain effective, but Lee would go on to post one of the best seasons in history (only to be topped by Zach Greinke in 2009).

Duchscherer has become the “Oh Yeah, I remember him” guy, as several other injured pitchers litter the free agent market. However, Duchscherer was supposed to pitch in 2009, and would have were it not for his diagnosis of clinical depression. Duchscherer’s physical health is presumably adequate, but his mental health will play a large factor in his signing or lack thereof.

5. Aroldis Chapman, 22 years old

Chapman is arguably the most revered Cuban free agent to defect, and come to America since the Cuban Trade Embargo of 1962. He has an electric arm, reportedly reaching triple-digits with his fastball, and is developing off-speed pitches from the left-hand side.

However, Chapman’s contract may be too large for many teams, and many scouts question the impressive lefty’s mechanics. The real question regarding Chapman is this: When it comes to mechanically unsound lefties, is he Randy Johnson or Oliver Perez, and on the injury spectrum, is he Johan Santana or Francisco Liriano ?

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