We’ve been covering the upcoming free agent class at MLBTR, going through each of the non-pitching positions. But now it’s time to take the mound, beginning with the starters. Though it can be debated whether there’s a true ace in the mix, there’s plenty of arms here that would upgrade the rotation of any team.
Note: only players who have been on an MLB roster in 2023 are included. Ages listed are for the 2024 season.
As recently as a few months ago, Ohtani was gliding on a path towards the greatest free agent platform in history. He was in the midst of his third straight season of double duty, providing the Angels with an elite bat and simultaneously serving as their staff ace. Over the 2021 to 2023 periods, he hit 124 home runs and stole 57 bases. His .277/.379/.585 batting line translates to a wRC+ of 156, indicating he’s been 56% better than league average. He also threw 428 1/3 innings with a 2.84 earned run average. He earned MVP honors in 2021, finished second in the voting for that award last year and seems likely to win it again this year.
He was guaranteed to set a record-setting contract of some sort, the only question was the degree to which he would surpass previous benchmarks. The $365MM guarantee of Mookie Betts and the $43.33MM average annual value of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander both seemed to be in jeopardy.
But the picture has changed in the last few months. Ohtani was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in August and was shut down from pitching. He continued serving as the club’s designated hitter but was eventually shut down due to an oblique injury. That oblique issue isn’t a long-term concern, but since it stopped Ohtani from hitting, it allowed him to go undergo surgery a few weeks earlier than he might have otherwise.
He went under the knife this week and it’s unclear if it was a full Tommy John procedure or a lesser internal brace option. Either way, his surgeon released a statement saying that he expects Ohtani to be able to hit by Opening Day of 2024 and pitch by 2025.
Ohtani is still likely to get a record-setting contract based on his bat alone, but the questions surrounding his future pitching abilities will likely tamp it down somewhat. He already underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018 and now has another significant elbow surgery to work through. Ohtani is already in uncharted waters in terms of his double workload with the surgery now another factor. The clubs around the league will likely have differing opinions on what kind of performance they think he can maintain from this point forward.
Though he seemingly won’t pitch at all in 2024, it seems fair to expect that the club with the most faith in Ohtani’s return to the mound would be the most willing to put a financial bet on him. Similarly, Ohtani would likely be drawn to whichever club will give him the most runway to keep pitching in the future. Even if he has to leave the mound down the line, he has strong speed and outfield experience, giving him a path forward even in the scenario where his arm doesn’t come back to previous levels. He will receive and reject a qualifying offer from the Angels.
Who is the real Giolito? Over 2019 and 2020, he made 41 starts for the White Sox with a 3.43 ERA and 32.7% strikeout rate. In 2021, his strikeouts dipped to a 27.9% rate, though he was able to keep his ERA at a respectable 3.53. His punchouts dipped again last year, slipping to 25.4%, as his ERA jumped to 4.90.
Here in 2023, he seemed to get back on track somewhat. Through 21 starts with the Sox, he had an ERA of 3.79, though his strikeout rate ticked up only gradually to 25.8%. He was traded to the Angels at the deadline and things went off the rails again. He had an ERA of 6.89 in his six starts for the Halos and wound up on waivers, landing with the Guardians. His first start for the Guards was a disastrous outing, as he allowed nine earned runs in three innings against the Twins. But two starts later, he tossed seven shutout innings against the Rangers with 12 punchouts.
All that makes him one of the most difficult pitchers to peg. Is he the borderline ace that we saw a few years ago? Or the inconsistent back-end guy we’ve seen more recently? Perhaps some club is willing to dismiss his most recent results as a small sample size that was caused by strange circumstances as he bounced around the league. But his combined ERA for the season is now up to 4.60, not too far from last year’s mark. He is ineligible to receive a qualifying offer due to changing teams midseason.
Gray is the oldest of this group but is having arguably the best platform season. He’s tossed 174 innings over his 30 starts for the Twins with a 2.84 ERA in that time. He has struck out 23.9% of opponents, walked just 7.6% and kept batted balls on the ground at a 47.4% rate. Snell’s ERA of 2.33 is half a run better than Gray’s, but the former has benefitted from a .255 batting average on balls in play and 86.2% strand rate, leading to a 3.48 FIP that is significantly higher than Gray’s 2.85.
After a rough 2018 season in which he had an ERA of 4.90 with the Yankees, Gray was traded to the Reds and signed a contract extension that ran through 2022 and had a club option for 2023. By signing that deal, he locked in some significant earnings but also pushed off his free agency until now. He will still get paid on the heels of his excellent season but he will be limited in terms of length. Last winter, Chris Bassitt got three years and $63MM from the Jays going into his age-34 campaign, with his track record and platform year both less impressive than Gray’s. Gray could look for four or five years as a result. He will receive and reject a qualifying offer.
Unlike some of the mercurial options in this bucket, Montgomery brings consistency and reliability to the table. He debuted with the Yankees in 2017, posting an ERA of 3.88 over 29 starts. Six more starts the following year produced an ERA of 3.62 before he required Tommy John surgery. He wobbled a bit in 2020 but has been incredibly steady over the past three years, producing ERAs of 3.83, 3.48 and 3.38. His FIPs are even tidier, going from 3.69 to 3.61 and 3.57 in the past three campaigns.
Overall, he has tossed 742 innings with an ERA of 3.74. His 22.5% strikeout rate isn’t especially eye-popping but he’s limited walks to a 6.6% rate and kept the ball on the ground at a 43.7% clip. He may not have flashy ace upside but is a solid #2 and perfectly acceptable playoff starter. He’ll top the four-year deals of Jameson Taillon and Taijuan Walker, the former of whom got $68MM and the latter $72MM, and has a strong case for a nine figure deal. Montgomery is ineligible to receive a qualifying offer due to being traded from the Cardinals to the Rangers midseason.
Nola’s track record isn’t as inconsistent as Giolito’s, but he is also experiencing an ill-timed down year. From 2015 to 2022, he made 203 starts with an ERA of 3.60 along with a 27.5% strikeout rate, 6.5% walk rate and 47.9% ground ball rate. He produced 30 wins above replacement in that time, according to FanGraphs, a mark topped only by Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.
Though he was one of the game’s best pitchers for years, that hasn’t been the case in 2023. His 31 starts have produced 187 innings of 4.57 ERA ball. His 25.2% strikeout rate is a four-point drop from last year and his worst mark since 2016. He is being victimized somewhat by a 65.7% strand rate that’s a bit unlucky, but his 4.08 FIP is still the worst of his career, as is the 31 home runs he’s allowed this season. If any club is willing to look past this year as a blip, Nola could be in line for a nine-figure deal, but time will tell if that’s in the cards. He will receive and reject a qualifying offer.
Like many of the pitchers in this category, Snell has huge upside but hasn’t been able to produce it consistently. He produced a 1.89 ERA over 31 starts for the Rays in 2018, winning the American League Cy Young award in the process. But the next four years were a bit more middling, as he put up an ERA of 3.85 in 85 starts, never reaching 130 innings in any of those season. One of them was the shortened 2020 campaign, but he struggled to stay healthy in the others.
He got out to a terrible start this year with a 5.40 ERA through his first nine outings. But he’s been the best pitcher in the league since then, posting a minuscule 1.26 ERA over his past 22 outings. Overall, he has logged 174 innings over 31 starts with a 2.33 ERA, 31.7% strikeout rate and 43.8% ground ball rate. The 13.5% walk rate is a concern and Snell can’t keep stranding 86.2% of baserunners, but he could hardly have asked for a better platform year and could even nab a second Cy Young. He’ll receive and reject a qualifying offer en route to a contract that could exceed $150MM.
Urias would have been in the previous group based on his career ERA of 3.11 and hitting free agency just after his 27th birthday. But he’s currently on administrative leave as he’s being investigated for a violation of the league’s domestic violence policy. He already received a DV suspension back in 2019 and could potentially be the first player get a second. It’s unclear what kind of punishment he’s facing or if he will pitch in the majors again.
Yamamoto is putting the finishing touches on his seventh season for the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and it may be his best yet. Over 170 games dating back to 2017, he has an ERA of 1.84 in 883 innings. Here in 2023, he’s got that ERA all the way down to 1.32 over his 21 appearances, striking out 25.2% of batters while walking just 4.4%. Yamamoto will need to be posted by his current club, but it is widely expected that they will do so.
The transition from Japan to North American doesn’t always go perfectly, but there are reasons to expect Yamamoto might be the most significant NPB transfer in years. For one thing, his performance in Japan is just stronger than some others that have recently made the jump. Kodai Senga had an ERA of 2.42 before crossing the Pacific, Kenta Maeda 2.39 and Ohtani 2.55. The other factor is his age, as Yamamoto just turned 25 in August. Senga came over for his age-30 season and Maeda for his age-28 campaign, while Ohtani came over when he was still an amateur and couldn’t secure a true open market deal.
As you can see with the other guys listed in this post, most MLB players don’t reach free agency until around their 30th birthday. The ability for a club to sign a dominant pitcher for their late 20s just doesn’t happen, making Yamamoto a very interesting case. There’s a decent chance he gets a bigger contract than everyone else here except for Ohtani. Yamamoto won’t be eligible for a qualifying offer but the signing club will have to pay a posting fee to the Buffaloes, which will be relative to the size of the contract.
Imanaga isn’t quite as exciting as Yamamoto, but should draw plenty of interest in his own right. Over his eight NPB seasons, the left-hander has appeared in 163 games with an ERA of 3.17. That mark was 2.26 last year and is at 2.71 this year. He is striking out 30% of batters faced this year while walking just 3.8%. It was reported earlier this month that the Yokohama DeNa Baystars will post him for big league clubs.
Given his age and performance, his earning power will clearly be less than that of Yamamoto, but he could still draw interest from clubs who view him as a serviceable big league starter. Like Yamamoto, Imanaga won’t be eligible for a qualifying offer but the signing club will have to pay a posting fee to the Buffaloes, which will be relative to the size of the contract.
Potential Mid-Rotation Wild Cards
Flaherty once seemed to be a burgeoning ace with the Cardinals, posting an ERA of 3.34 in 2018 and then 2.75 in 2019. But that figure jumped to 4.91 in the shortened 2020 season and he battled injuries in the next two years, tossing just 114 1/3 frames combined over those two seasons.
This season, he’s been healthy but nowhere near his form from a few years ago. He made 20 starts for the Cardinals with a 4.43 ERA, decent enough to get him flipped to the Orioles at the deadline. His first start with the O’s saw him throw six innings against the Jays while allowing just one earned run, but he had an 8.42 ERA over his next six starts and got moved to the bullpen.
Overall, he has an ERA of 4.96 on the year, along with a 22.7% strikeout rate, 10.2% walk rate and 42.5% ground ball rate. His 4.37 FIP indicates a bit of bad luck in his ERA, likely due to his .354 BABIP. Flaherty has been injured or middling for a few years now, which could temper his market. But he’s been healthy this year, has shown tremendous upside in the past and still has youth on his size. Like the rest of the names in this section, his market could go a number of different ways.
Lorenzen spent much of his career working out of the bullpen for the Reds, but made it clear upon reaching free agency that he wanted a rotation job. He got one with the Angels in 2022, signing a one-year deal with a $6.75MM guarantee, and posted a decent 4.24 ERA. He was limited by injury to just 18 starts but it was enough for him to get $8.5MM plus incentives from the Tigers for this year.
He started the year on the IL due to a groin strain but was back by mid-April and took the ball 18 times for Detroit. He posted an ERA of 3.58 and got flipped to the Phillies prior to the deadline. His tenure in Philly couldn’t have started much better, as he threw eight innings of two-run ball against the Marlins before throwing a no-hitter against the Nationals. However, he posted a 7.96 ERA in his next five starts and got bumped to the bullpen. Despite the rough run of late, he has a 4.29 ERA on the year and has stayed healthy enough to log 149 innings, which should get him plenty of interest in free agency.
Maeda’s first full season back from Tommy John surgery has been better than it might look at first glance. The right-hander’s 101 innings of 4.28 ERA ball seem solid enough on the surface, but that’s skewed by a 10-run drubbing at the hands of the Red Sox, after which Maeda hit the injured list due to a triceps injury. Maeda missed nearly two months, but since returning he’s rattled off 16 starts of 3.39 ERA ball, striking out 28.7% of his opponents against a 6.7% walk rate. The extent to which that injury impacted his one true meltdown of the year can’t be fully known, but since returning, he’s looked close to the version of himself that finished second in American League Cy Young voting back in 2020. He should find a multi-year deal at a healthy annual value this winter, although his age might limit it to a two-year term.
The Twins traded three prospects to acquire Mahle for a year and a half, but he wound up pitching just 42 innings for Minnesota due to a shoulder issue and, in 2023, a torn UCL that required Tommy John surgery. It turned into a rotten trade, considering the Twins parted with Spencer Steer and Christian Encarnacion-Strand to acquire Mahle.
Mahle pitched well for the Twins when healthy, however, and he has a strong overall track record dating back to his 2020 breakout: 374 innings, 3.90 ERA, 27.1% strikeout rate, 8.5% walk rate. The right-hander’s biggest problem with the Reds was home runs, though the vast majority of the long balls he surrendered were at Cincinnati’s homer-happy Great American Ball Park. Mahle has good command, can miss bats and will be 29 for all of next season. He probably won’t pitch until the end of the 2024 season, but teams have generally been willing to sign quality arms like this to two-year deals while they rehab, with an eye toward the second year of the contract.
Speaking of deadline acquisitions that didn’t pan out, the Yankees got just 39 2/3 innings out of Montas after trading JP Sears, Ken Waldichuk and Luis Medina to the A’s for Montas and Lou Trivino in July 2022. Shoulder surgery wiped out all of Montas’ 2023 season, and he’ll now hit the market in search of a bounceback opportunity.
Prior to his shoulder woes, Montas had stepped up as the top starter on a strong Oakland staff, logging 291 2/3 innings of 3.30 ERA ball with a 26.3% strikeout rate, 7.1% walk rate and 44% ground-ball rate. Whoever signs him this winter will be hoping for a return to that form. Montas will pitch all of next year at 31, and a deal that allows him to return to the market next winter after reestablishing both his health and productivity makes sense.
After barely pitching from 2020-22, Paxton returned to the mound with 19 starts and 96 innings for the Red Sox in 2023. He posted a pedestrian 4.50 ERA, although it seems the lefty just wore down late in the season after such a lengthy layoff from pitching. Up through Aug. 16, Paxton was sporting a 3.34 ERA, but that number ballooned after he yielded 16 runs in his final 9 2/3 frames (three starts).
There’s never been much doubt about the quality of Paxton’s stuff. He posted a 3.50 ERA over his first 733 big league innings from 2013-19, peaking with a 2.98 ERA and premium strikeout/walk rates with the 2017 Mariners. Health has been a major issue, however, as he’s dealt with shoulder and forearm injuries in addition to undergoing Tommy John surgery and back surgery. Paxton turns 35 in November and has one of the highest ceilings in this class but also poses one of the greatest injury risks.
Much of what was written of Paxton holds true of Ryu as well. The 36-year-old southpaw (37 in March) has a career 3.24 ERA in 1048 big league innings and is an ace-caliber arm at best — evidenced by his runner-up finish in 2019’s NL Cy Young voting, when he posted a 2.32 ERA in 182 2/3 innings (during the juiced-ball season, no less). Ryu doesn’t have Paxton’s velocity or strikeout rate, but he has standout command and misses bats at a roughly average rate. He’s pitched 44 2/3 innings with a 2.62 ERA in his 2023 return from Tommy John surgery. It’s hard to imagine Ryu commanding anything more than two years, and his age/injury history might relegate him to one-year offers. If that’s the case, however, he should net a relatively hefty price.
Severino looked like a budding ace with the Yankees in 2017-18, but injuries have limited him to just 209 1/3 innings over the past five seasons combined. A strained rotator cuff, two lat strains and Tommy John surgery are among the many injuries he’s incurred since that breakout. Severino has always pitched well when healthy — until this season, when he posted a 6.65 ERA in 89 1/3 frames. An exasperated Severino candidly acknowledged in July that he felt like “the worst pitcher in the game” as he tried to get to the root of this year’s struggles. He’ll turn 30 next February, so there’s plenty of time for him to turn things around. A change of scenery seems likely, and Severino will likely have to settle for a short-term deal.
Short-Term Options If They Decide To Keep Going
One of the American League’s best pitchers from 2014-20, Carrasco was traded to the Mets alongside Francisco Lindor and has had an up-and-down tenure in Queens. His 2022 campaign was solid, but he’s pitched to an ERA over 6.00 in each of his other two years with the team. That includes a grisly 6.80 mark in 90 innings this season.
Greinke got a standing ovation from Royals fans as he exited his most recent start, and it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll want to come back for a 21st big league season at age 40. The future Hall of Famer is just 28 punchouts shy of becoming the 20th pitcher to ever record 3000 strikeouts, but his effectiveness has waned. Greinke’s 5.37 ERA is his highest since his age-21 season in 2005, and while his 1-15 record is largely a reflection of the disastrous team surrounding him, it underscores what a difficult season he and the Royals have had on the whole.
Kershaw is working on the 13th sub-3.00 ERA of his 16-year career, sporting a 2.52 mark in 121 2/3 innings. He’s still among the best in the NL when he pitches, but injuries have limited him for the eighth straight season. Kershaw hasn’t made 30 starts since 2015, but he has a 2.56 ERA in 1091 innings during that span. If he keeps pitching, it’ll likely be with the Dodgers, although his hometown Rangers tried to sign him last winter and could do so again. For any older player with a young family, there’s some allure to pitching 15 to 20 minutes from your year-round home.
The second act of Miley’s career has arguably been better than the first. Since turning in consecutive mid-5.00 ERAs in 2016-17, he’s pitched 571 2/3 innings with a 3.48 ERA between the Brewers, Astros, Cubs and Reds. His second stint in Milwaukee has been sharp, with a 3.20 ERA in 115 1/3 innings. His 16.4% strikeout rate is among the lowest in the game, but Miley has above-average command and regularly ranks among the game’s best at minimizing hard contact. A team looking for a steady fourth or fifth starter at the back of the rotation can bank on him to get the job done.
The 2023 season has been a bounceback for Clevinger, who’s posted a 3.42 ERA in 122 2/3 innings as of this writing. Tommy John surgery limited him to just 41 2/3 innings from 2020-21, and he logged a pedestrian 4.33 ERA with a middling strikeout rate in 114 1/3 innings in the 2022 season. Clevinger has upped that strikeout rate a bit in 2023 (from 18.8% to 21.1%) and is sporting a nice 7.4% walk rate. His 94.7 mph average fastball is back up to pre-surgery levels as well. Durability is a concern, as this year’s 22 starts are tied for the second-most he’s ever made in a season.
The Orioles gave Gibson $10MM to eat innings at the back of the rotation, and that’s what he’s done, piling up 180 frames with a lackluster 5.00 ERA. Gibson has solid command and ground-ball tendencies, but he misses bats at a below-average level and his hittable arsenal leads to lots of traffic on the bases. This would be his third ERA of 5.00 or more in the past four seasons.
Hill has already said he hopes to continue pitching in 2024. His effectiveness has taken a hit, particularly following a trade to the Padres, but Hill will take the ball every fifth day and was a respectable innings eater for much of the season in Pittsburgh. He’s 11 wins why of 100 in his career, 81 strikeouts away from 1500 and 97 2/3 innings from the 1500 mark. He could serve as a veteran mentor for a young staff and eat innings, just as he did in Pittsburgh this year.
Keuchel has plenty of good years on his résumé, including a Cy Young-winning season in 2015. But his results haven’t been great recently. After posting an ERA of 1.99 in the shortened 2020 season, that number ballooned to 5.28 the following season and a disastrous 9.20 last year.
He did some work with Driveline to restore some velocity and movement and the results have been a bit better this year. He got back to the big leagues with the Twins and has an ERA of 5.67 over a small sample of 33 1/3 innings. His 63.7% strand rate suggests a bit of bad luck, leading to a 4.25 FIP and 5.21 SIERA. It’s not a superstar performance but he seems more viable as a veteran innings eater than he did just a few months ago.
Perez posted an out-of-the-blue 2.89 ERA in 32 starts for the 2022 Rangers and accepted a qualifying offer at season’s end. It hasn’t worked out for the Rangers, as he pitched to an ERA just a hair shy of 5.00 in 20 starts before being moved to a low-leverage role in the ’pen. Texas is moving him back to the rotation for the final stretch of the season after a strong run of relief work. This year’s 4.49 ERA is more or less in line with where fielding-independent metrics have pegged Perez for the past five years (4.38 FIP, 4.50 xFIP, 4.72 SIERA). He won’t come close to this year’s $19.65MM salary but could land a deal similar to those commanded by Gibson and Jordan Lyles in recent years.
Boyd probably won’t pitch in 2024 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in late June. He can miss bats at average or better levels and pairs that ability with solid command, but injuries have regularly derailed him. A low-cost two-year deal with an eye toward a 2025 return could be on the table.
Flexen was a durable and effective member of the Mariners’ rotation in 2021-22 before his performance dropped off this year. He’s been hit hard in 10 starts with the Rockies but demonstrated good command. He could be signed to compete for the fifth or sixth spot in a rotation, with the team knowing he’s experienced in a long relief role if he doesn’t win a starting gig.
Junis has had a couple nice years as swingman in San Francisco, notching a 4.21 ERA in 196 2/3 innings (21 starts, 41 relief appearances). His 23% strikeout rate is about average, but his 5.5% walk rate is outstanding. If he doesn’t return to the Giants, another club could look to deploy him in a similar role. He should have a big league deal awaiting him on the open market.
Wood’s first year with the Giants was a clear success (3.83 ERA in 26 starts after signing a one-year, $4MM deal). The subsequent two-year, $25MM deal hasn’t gone as well. Last year’s 5.10 ERA in roughly the same number of innings could be downplayed as fluky; his excellent strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates all pointed to better results. Unfortunately, Wood has seen a drop in velocity even as he’s spent some time in the bullpen, and his rate stats have all trended in the wrong direction. Hamstring and back injuries have surely played a role in that decline. Wood has a 4.60 ERA in 92 innings and fielding-independent marks to match.
An excellent 2020 season increasingly looks like an outlier. Davies has at times been a passable fourth or fifth starter, as he was with the D-backs in 2022, but he’s posted an aggregate 5.38 ERA over the past three seasons.
Keller’s run with the Royals from 2018-20 (360 innings, 3.50 ERA) was one of the best by a Rule 5 pick in recent memory. It’s been downhill since, however, and he’s been limited to 45 1/3 innings this year. The Royals recently shut him down due to symptoms associated with thoracic outlet syndrome.
Odorizzi missed the 2023 season due to shoulder surgery. He posted a 4.31 ERA in 211 innings with the Astros and Braves from 2021-22, rarely being asked to pitch beyond the fifth inning. Odorizzi posted a 3.88 ERA in just shy of 1000 innings from 2014-19.
Syndergaard has never been the same since undergoing Tommy John surgery. His power arsenal has deteriorated across the board. The Dodgers flipped him to the Guardians in exchange for Amed Rosario prior to the deadline — a swap of underperforming veterans on underwater contracts. Cleveland released Syndergaard after six starts. It’s possible he could land a low-cost big league deal, but the Angels, Phillies, Dodgers and Guardians have all been unable to get him back to his pre-surgery form.
Teheran followed a terrific run of six starts to begin his Brewers career with a stretch of five ugly outings. He’s sitting on a 4.74 ERA with the best walk rate (4.3%) but slowest fastball (89.1 mph) of his career. Teheran logged a 3.64 ERA in 1334 innings with the Braves from 2013-19 but has a 6.27 mark in 99 innings over the four year since.
Urena had some effective seasons with the Marlins earlier in his career but has been in journeyman mode since. He started this year with the Rockies but allowed 20 earned runs over 18 1/3 innings in five starts before being released. He’s currently eating innings for the White Sox as that club plays out the string. He has a 5.55 ERA dating back to the start of 2019 and a mark of 7.27 this year.
Velasquez has long had potent stuff but has struggled to produce strong results, with his ERA hovering around 5.00 for most of his career. He showed some positive steps with the Pirates this year, posting an ERA of 3.86 in eight starts, but unfortunately required elbow surgery that will keep him out of action until the middle of 2024. He should find a short-term deal of some kind, though the injury will limit the commitment from the team side.
The Reds gave Weaver a surprisingly long leash, in part because they didn’t do anything to address their rotation depth in the winter and incurred several injuries. The former top prospect has posted an ERA north of 6.00 in three of the past four seasons (6.09 overall), including a 6.77 mark in 114 2/3 innings this year. He’ll likely have to take a minor league deal.
Minor League Depth Options
Players With Opt-Outs/Player Options
- Andrew Heaney (33), $13MM player option with no buyout, which jumps to $20MM at 150 innings pitched in 2023
After years of middling results, Heaney seemed to take a step forward with the Dodgers last year. He dragged a career ERA of 4.72 into 2022 but then posted a 3.10 ERA that year. He was limited by injury to just 72 2/3 innings, but it was still strong enough for the Rangers to guarantee him $25MM over two years along with incentives and an opt-out.
Here in 2023, he hasn’t quite been able to maintain last year’s momentum. He has stayed healthy and has thrown 138 1/3 innings but his ERA has ticked up to 4.42. Last year’s 35.5% strikeout rate has dropped all the way to 24% this year, with his walk rate also going from 6.1% to 9.4%.
Heaney’s last three outings have come out of the bullpen, which is partly due to his results but also reflects a financial motivation for the move. The second year of his contract is a $13MM player option, but the value jumps to $20MM if he throws 150 innings this year. He might have already been over that line if he stayed in the rotation but might now come up just short. Given his uninspiring season, he surely would have accepted a $20MM salary but it will be more of a borderline call if it stays at $13MM.
- Seth Lugo (34), $7.5MM player option with no buyout
Lugo had been mainly working out of the Mets’ bullpen for his career until he reached free agency after last year. He got widespread interest from clubs who thought he could move back to the rotation and eventually signed with the Padres on a two-year, $15MM deal, with the second year being a $7.5MM player option.
The move to a starting role has gone about as well as anyone could have hoped. He made one trip to the IL due to a calf strain, missing just over a month, but has otherwise stayed healthy. He has logged 137 2/3 innings over 25 starts with a 3.79 ERA, 23.3% strikeout rate, 5.8% walk rate and 45.7% ground ball rate.
Lugo should be a lock to turn down his player option and return to free agency. He’s one year older than his last trip to the open market, but now has proof of his ability to handle a starter’s workload while maintaining his effectiveness.
Manaea had some strong years with the A’s but his platform season with the Padres was arguably the worst of his career. He had a 3.86 ERA at the end of 2021 but then posted a 4.96 figure in 2022. The Giants decided to bank on him anyway, giving him a two-year, $25MM deal with an opt-out after the first season.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to return to his previous form. He has made 35 appearances, only eight of which are considered true starts thanks to creative pitcher usage in San Francisco, logging 104 2/3 innings with a 4.82 ERA that’s closer to last year’s performance than earlier seasons. His 26.1% strikeout rate is one of the strongest of his career but his 9.3% walk rate is easily the highest he’s ever had.
It’s possible there’s some bad luck in here, with his 62% strand rate being on the low side and leading to a 4.05 FIP and 3.87 SIERA. Manaea got a decent guarantee coming off a weak season and could perhaps find a similar deal if he opted out, but there might be more hesitancy from clubs after a second straight underwhelming campaign.
Rodriguez parlayed his years of rotation work in Boston into a five-year, $77MM deal with the Tigers. His first season in Detroit didn’t go especially well, as he missed time both due to injury and personal issues. He made 17 starts with a 4.05 ERA as his 27.4% strikeout rate from 2021 dropped all the way to 18.4%. His looming opt-out after 2023 didn’t even seem to be worth considering but he has flipped the script this year. He’s taken the ball 24 times and has a 3.57 ERA, pushing his strikeout rate back up to 23.5%.
E-Rod is still young and effective enough that he should be able to easily top the $49MM left on his deal, especially since he’s already received a qualifying offer and won’t be eligible for another one this time around. What perhaps complicates the situation is that he used his limited no-trade clause to block a deadline deal to the Dodgers and later explained that he was “thinking about my future and my family.” His agent added that the southpaw’s family are “comfortable living in the Detroit area and have adjusted well.”
Would those same reasons lead to him declining the opt-out, even if it makes financial sense to do so? “If I had a magic ball and I could tell you what was going to happen in the future, I’d probably tell you right away,” he said a couple of months ago. “But right now I’m here, I’m with this organization. I’m signed here for a long time. I feel happy with everything. My family feels happy in Detroit. I feel happy with the teammates and everything, the organization. I’d really love to stay here, and that’s why I made that decision.”
- Drew Smyly (35), can opt-out of deal with $8.5MM salary for 2024 and $10MM mutual option for 2025 with $2.5MM buyout
Smyly’s career has been up-and-down but he had a strong 2022 with the Cubs, posting a 3.47 ERA in 106 1/3 innings. The club liked him enough to bring him back via a two-year, $19MM guarantee but he hasn’t been able to come close to last year’s results. He had a 5.40 ERA as a starter and got moved to the bullpen, where his 3.04 ERA as a reliever has improved his season-long line somewhat. He has a combined ERA of 4.99 over his 137 innings, with his walk, ground ball and home run rates all going in the wrong direction.
Combining the 2024 salary and buyout on the mutual option, Smyly essentially has to decide whether or not he wants to walk away from $11MM in order to return to free agency. Based on his struggles this year, it seems more likely that he stays.
Stripling had typically been limited to a swing role with the Dodgers and Blue Jays, which was often due to strong rosters more than anything about Stripling specifically. He had a well-timed breakout with the Jays last year, tossing 134 1/3 innings with a 3.01 ERA. That allowed him to secure the same contract as Manaea, a $25MM guarantee over two years with an opt-out halfway through.
But his first year in San Francisco hasn’t gone well. He’s missed time due to injury and has an ERA of 5.40 in his 81 2/3 innings. He candidly admitted earlier this month that he “hasn’t pitched well enough to opt out” and seems destined for another year as a Giant.
A few months ago, Stroman seemed to be making this decision very easy on himself. Through his start on June 20, he had an ERA of 2.28 on the year. Based on those strong results and his career track record, topping $21MM on the open market would have been a slam dunk, especially since he’s already received a qualifying offer and is ineligible for another.
But the picture has changed since then. His next seven starts resulted in 30 earned runs in 30 innings, bumping his ERA all the way up to 3.85. He was then diagnosed with a rib cartilage fracture in mid-August, which sent him to the injured list for more than a month. With the season winding down and the Cubs in a tight playoff race, he was recently activated from the injured list to work out of the bullpen instead of going on a rehab assignment.
Assuming Stroman is healthy, he should still be able to beat that $21MM in free agency, but the opt-out decision isn’t quite as obvious as it was in the peak of the summer.
Players With Club Options
- Alex Cobb (36), $10MM club option with $2MM buyout
Cobb signed a two-year deal with the Giants after 2021 and has been giving them some of the best seasons of his career. He posted a 3.73 ERA last year and is at 3.87 here in 2023. Between the two campaigns, he’s struck out 22.1% of hitters, walked just 6.3% and kept 59.4% of balls in play on the ground.
Cobb was placed on the IL this week due to a hip impingement. As long as that’s a minor issue, it seems like a lock that the Giants will trigger their net $8MM decision and bring him back for another year.
Cueto has a lengthy track record of effective pitching that goes all the way back to 2008, but he had some rough seasons lately. He got back on track in 2022 with 158 1/3 innings for the White Sox with a 3.35 ERA.
He was able to parlay that into a one-year, $8.5MM deal with the Marlins with an option for 2024. Unfortunately, the results haven’t been there this year, as Cueto has spent significant time on the IL and only tossed 47 innings with a 6.32 ERA. Given his ineffective season and the fact that the Marlins have lots of intriguing young pitching, it seems likely they will turn down this net $8MM decision.
Hendricks has been a reliable mainstay of the Cubs’ rotation for a decade now, but he hit some choppy waters of late. He had a career ERA of 3.12 through 2020 but saw that number jump up to 4.77 in 2021 and 4.80 in 2022. He was then diagnosed with a capsular tear in his throwing shoulder in August of last year.
That shoulder issue kept him out of action until late May of this year but he seems to be healthy and back in good form. He has now made 23 starts this year with a 3.66 ERA. His 16.3% strikeout rate is definitely on the low side but his 4.3% walk rate is excellent and his 45.2% ground ball rate solid. Based on his bounceback season, it seems like there’s a decent chance the Cubs trigger their $14.5MM decision and bring him back, especially with Stroman’s likely opt-out and the struggles of pitchers like Jameson Taillon and Smyly.
Kluber is a legend and has two Cy Youngs to prove it, but he hasn’t been at that level in a while. He hardly pitched over 2019 and 2020 due to injury, then signed with the Yanks for 2021. He was able to make 16 starts and post a decent 3.83 ERA, then signed with the Rays last year. He got his innings total up to 164, but with his ERA ticking up a bit to 4.34.
The Red Sox took a chance on him, giving him a one-year deal with a $10MM guarantee and club option for 2024. But it’s been a dismal year for Kluber, who was shelled in nine starts before being moved to the bullpen. He logged 55 innings with a 7.04 ERA before landing on the IL in June due to shoulder inflammation. He suffered a setback in July and was shut down from all baseball activities. He tried to begin a rehab assignment last week but was shut down and is done for the year. The Sox will turn down this option and send Kluber back to free agency.
- Lance Lynn (37), $18MM club option with $1MM buyout.
Lynn has been an effective starter for over a decade now, having debuted in 2011 and been a mainstay in the big leagues since. But he’s grinding through the most challenging season of his career at the moment, going from the White Sox to the Dodgers at the trade deadline. Between the two clubs, he had an ERA of 5.92 over his 30 starts, the worst rate of his career by more than a full run. His 23.8% strikeout rate and 7.9% walk rate are both solid, but he’s allowed an incredible 42 home runs on the year.
The net $17MM decision will be a difficult one for the Dodgers, as they will have to decide whether they believe more in the track record or the recent results. He has at least been better since the trade, with a 6.47 ERA before and a 4.67 ERA after, so perhaps they feel they have a plan for how to work with him next year. Another factor might be the general uncertainty in the Dodger rotation, with Kershaw and Urias set to depart via free agency and injury question marks around Walker Buehler, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin.
- Nick Martinez (33), team has two-year, $32MM option; if declined, Martinez has two-year, $16MM player option
Martinez had a solid season as a swingman with the Friars last year and was re-signed with a similar role in mind. He has tossed 101 1/3 innings this year over seven starts and 54 relief appearances. He has an ERA of 3.73 along with a 22.3% strikeout rate, 8.2% walk rate and 53.5% ground ball rate.
Although Martinez has generally done good work, $32MM over two years would be a high price to pay if they still considering him to be primarily a reliever. But they do have many questions in their rotation, with Snell set for free agency and Lugo and Wacha possibly following him. As of right now, only Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish are locks for next year’s rotation. Perhaps the openings give the Padres enough motivation to consider Martinez for a starting role again.
Morton’s late-career renaissance has continued this year, even though he’s approaching his 40th birthday. He has an ERA of 3.66 over 29 starts this year, striking out 25.6% of opponents while walking 11.4% and keeping the ball on the ground at a 43.3% clip.
He and Atlanta seem to have a good relationship, as he signed a one-year deal with them for 2021 and then twice signed one-year extensions to keep things going. The two sides could likely work something out for 2024, either that $20MM option or another price point, but the question is whether or not Morton wants to keep going. He recently spoke to Justin Toscano of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his future, admitting that he still hasn’t decided about whether to come back or retire to spend more time with his family.
- Michael Wacha (32), team has two-year, $32MM option; if declined, Wacha has $6.5MM player option (with successive player options for 2025-26)
Wacha hung around in free agency until February, then signed a convoluted deal with the Padres. He’s making $7.5MM this year, after which the club will have to decide whether or not to trigger two club options, essentially a two-year, $32MM deal. If they decline, Wacha can trigger a $6.5MM player option and will also have $6MM player options to decide on again in 2025 and 2026.
He’s having a solid year in 2023, having made 22 starts with a 3.44 ERA, 22.2% strikeout rate, 8.2% walk rate and 35.8% ground ball rate. It’s debatable as to whether that performance merits a two-year, $32MM investment but the Padres have many question marks on their pitching staff. They are set to lose Snell to free agency, with Lugo and Martinez possibly following him out the door. That could perhaps incentivize to Padres to just take the proverbial bird in the hand by triggering Wacha’s option, a situation that Anthony Franco of MLBTR explored in depth this week.