A look at the free agent starting pitching market

According to Dejan Kovacevic at the PPG, the Pirates have made contact with free agent starting pitcher Braden Looper (blurb can be found at the bottom of the page). While this information doesn’t necessarily mean the Pirates will sign Looper, or even that they’re talking to Looper about a deal, it does bring up a question on the starting pitching market: where does the market currently stand?

At the Winter Meetings we saw C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett go to the Yankees in mega deals (Good one Tim, make us think those links lead to profiles of Sabathia and Burnett, only to shamelessly promote your AccuScore articles on Yahoo from December), and the starting pitching market looked strong. From that point forward we saw Derek Lowe get a big deal, Randy Johnson get a one year deal with the Giants, and a lot of pitchers left in limbo as teams suddenly tucked their wallets away with the economy in shambles.

All through this time we have heard two things: the Pirates are looking for a veteran starting pitcher, and they have a $54 M budget. According to my 2009 payroll estimate, the Pirates have about $4-5 M left to spend, assuming the $54 M budget covers the entire 40-man roster, and the buyout of Matt Morris. We’ve seen them miss out on Daniel Cabrera, Rocco Baldelli, and Derrick Turnbow so far this season, but have heard reports that the Pirates had a better offer for Cabrera, and offered more guaranteed money for Baldelli.

Cabrera received $2.6 M from the Nationals. Baldelli received $500 K guaranteed. Turnbow will receive over $900 K if he makes the major league rosters. Combining these salaries, it’s safe to assume that the Pirates were willing to spend at least $4 M on these players, and probably more considering Baldelli would have received performance bonuses. Now the Pirates have a choice: spend that money on a starting pitcher, spend it on small parts, or keep the money. I think any Pirates fan would rank their preference of those choices in that order.

Assuming the Pirates have $5 M to spend, would there be a starting pitcher available to them? To determine this, let’s look at the top remaining starters on the free agent market, in no specific order:

Ben Sheets

The Market: Surprisingly, Sheets is still on the market, despite making 31 starts last year, with a 3.09 ERA for the Brewers. Injury concerns are holding Sheets back, especially at 30 years of age. He made 31 starts last year, but only 24 in 2007 and 17 in 2006. Signing Sheets would be a lot riskier to most teams than going after a guy like Randy Wolf or Oliver Perez. Sheets probably doesn’t want to accept a one year deal, which reduces his options.

Teams Interested: Rangers, Mets, Brewers

Pirates Outlook: Despite the lack of interest, Sheets is probably going to cost about $8 M a year, putting him out of the $4-5 M price range. He could be the ace pitcher that the Pirates lack at almost every level of the system, but the high cost and the injury risks will probably make that signing just a dream for Pirates fans.

Oliver Perez

The Market: The Mets seem to have Ollie on their radar as their number one target. Other teams have been mentioned, but I can’t really see a way he ends up outside of New York.

Teams Interested: Mets

Pirates Outlook: Will probably sign with the Mets for about $10 M a year.

Randy Wolf

The Market: The Dodgers, Mets, and Diamondbacks are interested in him. The Mets have him as a backup plan if Ollie doesn’t work out. The Diamondbacks are hoping someone will take their one year, $5 M offer, and Wolf is one of those pitchers that has been offered this contract. The Dodgers are interested in three pitchers, and reportedly have intensified their talks with Wolf, although no deal is close. Wolf also made a comment a month ago that he wants to play for a contender, leaving the Pirates chances non-existant.

Teams Interested: Dodgers, Mets, Diamondbacks

Pirates Outlook: Wolf will probably sign with the Dodgers.

Andy Pettitte

The Market: Pettitte has a $10 M offer from the Yankees, but is holding out for a better offer. I’m surprised that, in this market, he’s not taking the money and running. Fortunately for him, the Yankees favor him over all other starters. I don’t see Pettitte signing anywhere else, and he will probably fill the Yankees’ last rotation spot, taking them out of the running for a starter.

Teams Interested: Yankees

Pirates Outlook: Pettitte will probably end up with the Yankees.

Jon Garland

The Market: Garland has drawn interest from the Dodgers, and is one of the pitchers that has seen an offer from the Diamondbacks. He seems to be the top target for Arizona, and a backup target for Los Angeles. Garland is an innings eater, combining for 96 starts and 616.1 IP in the last three years. His 4.55 ERA over that span may improve with a switch to the NL.

Teams Interested: Dodgers, Diamondbacks

Pirates Outlook: Garland isn’t a power pitcher, with a 4.39 K/9 in the last three years. However, during that time span he also has a low 2.30 BB/9 and a decent 0.99 HR/9. The best part is that he is one of the better ground ball pitchers in the game. Last year, 49.9% of Garland’s batted balls were ground balls, which ranked 13th in the majors. The only Pirate to do better was Paul Maholm. With an infield defense that still includes Jack Wilson, Garland would be a valuable addition. Unfortunately right now he’s not willing to accept a $5 M deal, as shown with the Arizona offers.

Pedro Martinez

The Market: We heard rumors that a myster AL team was offering Pedro $7 M, but he turned that down. I would think that if any team offered Pedro $7 M, he would be on that team’s roster right now. Cleveland was reportedly thinking about a $7 M offer, but signed Carl Pavano instead. Florida was linked to Pedro, but said he is not a fit. Arizona is also linked to Pedro, as is the case with any starter in his price range. The Pirates showed interest in him, but nothing beyond that.

Teams Interested: Pirates, Mets, Diamondbacks

Pirates Outlook: You would think the Pirates hold an advantage with Pedro. They have Joe Kerrigan, his former pitching coach in Montreal and Boston. They also have his cousin, Denny Bautista, signed to a minor league contract. Pedro comes with a risk, as he has dealt with injuries the last few years. In 2007 he made just five major league starts, and a combined 14 starts at all levels. In 2008 he made 20 major league starts, but posted a 5.61 ERA (But Tim, that would have given the Pirates an upgrade last year!).

2005 was Pedro’s last full season, and he didn’t disappoint with a 2.82 ERA in 31 starts. The Pedro of old may be gone, but the current Pedro represents a decent risk for the Pirates. If he returns to even 75% of the pitcher he was in 2005, the Pirates would easily have the ace of their staff. I don’t expect much from Pedro next season, but I think a 7.50 K/9 and at least 20 starts is reasonable. That type of power is something the Pirates lack at the major league level. Plus, Pedro would be a big draw at PNC, helping to pay off any investment the Pirates make in him.

B

raden Looper

The Market: Looper hasn’t been talked about much, probably because of the other names listed above. Aside from the Pirates, the Dodgers have him on their list, but I believe he’s a backup behind Wolf and Garland. Other than that, not a lot has been said leading up to the Pirates contacting him.

Teams Interested: Dodgers, Pirates

Pirates Outlook: Looper is kind of an older version of Jon Garland. He had a 48.4 ground ball percentage last year, and a 4.16 ERA. He doesn’t provide a lot of power, with a 4.88 K/9 last year. The Dave Duncan factor scares me too. Is he a product of St. Louis, or is his 4.16 ERA legit? He had a 4.94 ERA the year before, and was a reliever the previous eight seasons, so nothing really indicates that Looper can repeat his 4.16 ERA, or even improve on that.

I believe Sheets will go to Texas, Ollie will go to the Mets, Pettitte will take the Yankees out of the hunt for a starter, and Wolf will be the Dodgers’ choice. That leaves the Diamondbacks as the only team aggressively looking for a starter, unless I’m forgetting someone, and three starters remaining. That puts the Pirates in good shape to not only bring in help for the rotation, but to do it at an affordable price.

Of the remaining pitchers, my preference would be Garland first, Pedro second, and Looper third. Garland is the only sure bet. He wouldn’t exactly lead the staff, but he would be almost a guarantee to go six innings every start, and would give the Pirates close to 200 innings. He’s also 29 years old, and fits well with the Pirates infield as long as Jack Wilson is around. Unfortunately right now the Pirates aren’t talking about Garland, and if they are, they aren’t doing it publically.

That leaves Pedro and Looper. Both pitchers are a risk. Pedro is a risk due to his health. Looper is a risk as his 2008 success is no guarantee to repeat. Both pitchers are also older, with Looper checking in at 34, and Pedro at 37. My opinion is that Pedro provides the most upside. Looper’s lack of power numbers make him an older version of Zach Duke, who had a 48.2 ground ball percentage last year, just 0.2 percent less than Looper. If Pedro can get over the injury issues, he would provide the Pirates with something they don’t have an excess of: a power arm. He may not be the Pedro of old, but if he’s even close, the Pirates would have a top of the rotation starter to pair with Paul Maholm, and a great draw for PNC Park.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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