Let’s take a look at the top tier of free agent pitchers available on the market.
A note: This was supposed to be a list of the top five top-tier guys, but the bar is so high for “top tier,” and the talent pool so thin this offseason, that we had to limit it to three.
RHP Shohei Otani
Otani doesn’t really fit in this category or any other. Since he’s 23, coming from Japan and subject to strict signing bonus rules, he will end up signing way below his actual value. He will have the ability to talk with all 30 teams, but won’t have much room to negotiate with any of them. He will have to make his choice based on something other than financial offers. He will get a minor league deal and a signing bonus of no more than $3.5 million (which is what the Rangers have to spend), unless a team is able to add some additional international bonus money (even so, it would not significantly surpass the Rangers’ offer) by trading for another team’s unused slots.
The biggest issue to be settled is whether teams will let him hit when he doesn’t pitch. Over the last two seasons in Japan — a total of 525 at-bats — he hit .326 with 30 home runs. There is legitimate offensive potential there. There is also increased risk because if you lose him to an injury, you essentially lose two players. That is what happened to Nippon Ham this year when he dealt with ankle and thigh injuries in 2017; they lost their best pitcher and best hitter. He ended up limited to only five starts as a pitcher.
Even though he won’t get the biggest contract — far from it — he will be the pitcher who receives the most interest when he is posted and made available.
RHP Yu Darvish
According to MLB Trade Rumors, which does not include Otani in its rankings, Darvish is the top-ranked free agent player on the market this year. Also, the website projects him receiving a six-year, $160 million deal — an average of $26.7 million per season.
Perhaps Darvish did cost himself some money with a pair of poor World Series starts; maybe he would have earned $30 million per year if he had dominated. Either way, teams were either in or out. Either $25 million or more is going to scare you off; or you are all-in, either way. Count the Rangers as not especially scared, but simply unable to consider a pitcher who will receive $20 million annually and who will be approaching his 34th birthday by the time the team may be fully retooled in 2020.
For now, Darvish still has a fastball that ranges up to 97 mph. He still has a wicked slider. And he’s probably worth the most money to a team that is lacking one top-tier pitcher from winning a World Series. The Cubs, who are losing their own top-tier free agent in Jake Arrieta, might be one of those clubs. The Cardinals, who don’t want the Cubs to have anything they don’t, might be another. And don’t count emerging teams like the Minnesota Twins or Milwaukee Brewers completely out of the mix. They are both ready to win now with the right addition.
RHP Jake Arrieta
He has a Cy Young award, a sterling postseason record and has averaged 18 wins and has the fifth most innings pitched (including postseason) in the majors over the last three years. He’s got the best recent-past resume. But that’s also what teams may be paying for — his past rather than his future.
He is the oldest of three and will turn 32 in March, meaning he’d be 37 at the end of the five-year deal he’s likely to command. The age and the wear-and-tear on his arm could definitely have an impact on an accelerated decline. Consider this: Arrieta’s WHIP (1.22) took a serious jump off from his previous three seasons. So did his ERA (3.53). His average fastball dipped to a career low 92.1 mph, down more than two mph from his 2015 Cy Young season.
Not all the 2017 news was bad, though. After missing the first month of the season, he found a groove around the All-Star break and finished by going 6-3 with a 2.28 ERA and .215 opponents batting average in the second half. He remains a top-tier pitcher. The question is: For how long?