Next offseason, the Rangers will go through what is quickly becoming an annual ritual of losing an important starting pitcher to free agency. Colby Lewis, a rotation mainstay for the past couple years, will be a free agent. Unfortunately, the Rangers’ top pitching prospects like Martin Perez, Neil Ramirez, and Robbie Ross have yet to have a full, successful season at Triple-A, and consequently may not be ready to replace Colby Lewis in the rotation come 2012. The only other in-house option is to move Ogando back into the rotation again. However, if he has a successful season relieving in 2012, he may prefer to remain in the bullpen. Since the FA pitching class is quite strong in 2013, the Rangers may elect to acquire an ace starting pitcher to form a one-two punch with Darvish for years to come, or they might instead choose to pick up a cheap filler pitcher to tide them over while their bumper crop of strong young arms matures.
Here’s a list of the 2013 SP FA class. Within each tier, I ranked them in order of preference from left to right.
The first thing that strikes me about this collection of pitchers is that it is an incredibly deep FA class. However, there are a few names here who may not be available or worth getting in 2013. For example, Shaun Marcum was an absolute disaster his last few starts of the season, which carried over into the playoffs. Best case scenario, he is simply unable to handle more than 180 innings in a season; worst case scenario, he is no longer a useful starter, period. Cain, Hamels, and Greinke are all extension candidates, but odds are at least one will go unsigned. My guess is its Cain; Hamels seems willing to cut the Phillies a reasonable deal, while Greinke is the staff ace for the Brewers. The more cost conscious Giants, meanwhile, might decide it isn’t worth it to have both Lincecum and Cain. Some of the older pitchers, such as the 37 year old Hiroki Kuroda, might decide to retire. Nevertheless, if most of these pitchers make it to free agency intact, 2013 should be a great year to pick up some cost-effective starting pitching.
In terms of long-term deals, the Rangers should look to any of the Tier 1 “Ace” pitchers, or Anibal Sanchez. The pedigree of the Tier 1 pitchers speaks for itself; Cain, Hamels, and Greinke all have several seasons of excellent seasons under their belt. In Greinke’s case, there’s even an utterly dominant season in there (2009). These guys will all be nearly 30 when they hit FA, and are virtual locks to have at least a few highly productive seasons after signing a contract. Anibal Sanchez does not have the same track record, but he has had two solid seasons in 2010 and 2011, and has managed to increase his strikeouts (7.25 to 9.26 K/9) and reduce his walks (3.23 to 2.93 BB/9). With a strong 2012, Anibal might be a bargain if the Rangers can wait out the feeding frenzy on the bona fide “ace” pitchers, and discreetly pick up an unheralded ace of their own.
If the Rangers are looking for a short-term “bridge” deal instead, they could look at Hiroki Kuroda, who has been moderately effective in the past and might be willing to go one-year to play for a contender, the way he did this year with the Yankees. If they want to go even cheaper, its possible Colby Lewis would be willing to sign on, but I think if he has a strong 2012, he would be able to command at least 2, if not three years in FA. I don’t think Edwin Jackson or Brandon McCarthy would be willing to sign just one year deals, and I have my doubts about Marcum.
That leaves Tier 3 as the best place to look for a bridge player. Of these, my personal favorite is Ryan Dempster, who has been a solid mainstay of the Cubs rotation for the last four seasons, producing at an acceptable rate. His xFIP, which looks at his defense independent production, has been within .1 of 3.70 for each of those seasons, which is somewhat better than league average. I also think Jeremy Guthrie would be a great option; although his results have been slightly worse than Dempster’s, he’s been pitching at Camden Yards, which is not pitcher-friendly, and against stiff competition in the A.L. East. At any rate, both starters have been reliable, consistent, and relatively immune to injury. The rest of Tier 3 is a bit more of a gamble. Jeff Francis has struggled with injury and inconsistency but did have a good year in 2011, so I want to wait and see what 2012 holds before I’m comfortable adding him. Joe Blanton is like Jeff Francis, but with the last good year happening back in 2009. Liriano is just…Liriano. I’m not interested. He can be great, and he can be worthless. Unless somehow the coaching staff can mold him into something workable, just no.
Ultimately, this may end up being more of a daydream than a useful analysis. Given that both Neil Ramirez and Martin Perez will start the year at Triple-A, there is a good chance at least one of them is available opening day 2013 after a great 2012 in the Minors and a successful call-up in September. Either way, the Rangers may not even have enough financial resources to pursue a front of the line starter, or even a “best of the rest” type starter. I think if Perez and Ramirez needed an extra year of development, the best bet for the Rangers would be to nab Ryan Dempster on a 1-year deal, and then use one of the youngsters in 2014. Anibal Sanchez is an attractive option who may be available at an excellent price, but a multiple year commitment may not be worth it with Perez and Ramirez on their way.