The starting pitching options in this year's free agent market are the weakest I have ever seen. It's true that not as many great players reach free agency anymore since teams have gotten smarter about signing their young studs long term. However, the extreme lack of star power in this class is an anomaly. While last year's free agency featured aces such as David Price, Zack Greinke, and Johnny Cueto, this year has nobody who can come close to resembling the production those three had put together before getting signed. This could mean pitching hungry teams will have to resort to the trade market or pay up for the two dominant closers that will be available. Let's take a look at who will be available:
Rich Hill, SP, Age: 36
Yup, you're reading this correctly. The best free agent starting pitcher this off-season might actually be 36-year-old journeyman Rich Hill. The journeyman label is a little unfair as Hill had a good season despite having it shortened due to injury. He had a remarkable September with the Red Sox in 2015 and that success carried over this year. In 20 starts between the Oakland Athletics and LA Dodgers Hill went 12-5 with a 2.12 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 110.1 innings pitched. Due to his age, recent injury history, and short track record of success it seems unlikely that any team would give him more than a two or three year deal. But with the options being as poor as they are a team that wants him might have to overpay.
Hisashi Iwakuma, SP, Age: 35
A quick glance at Iwakuma's 2016 season would scare off any team considering investing in the 35-year-old. His ERA has risen ever year since 2013. His K/9 ratio has been on a steady decline. His walk rate has increased. The pitcher he resembled this past season is a far cry from the one who finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2013. However, there is one stat that suggests a rebound year could be in line for him as Iwakuma's .315 batting average on balls in play this year was much higher than his career average of .283. Now that could be a product of Iwakuma becoming more hittable as he ages, but could also make him a potential bargain in a weak crop of other options.
Clay Buchholz, SP, Age: 32
It's important to note that the Red Sox have a $13.5 million club option on Buchholz that could prevent him from reaching free agency this off-season. Midway through the 2016 season it seemed extremely unlikely that they would be picking it up. Then, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, Buchholz did what he has done so many times before and pitched well for a stretch when everyone had given up on him. We know that Buchholz is inconsistent. That's not the problem anymore. It's now that his ceiling hasn't been reached in three and a half years. In the first half of 2013 Buchholz was as good as he has ever been. In 16 starts that year he went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA. Despite having ERAs of 5.34, 3.26, and 4.78 over the past three years, getting someone of his caliber at essentially a one year deal is worth doing. If they decide to part ways Buchholz will be in play as a high risk, high reward signing for a team looking to roll the dice on him.
Bartolo Colon, SP, Age: 43
When you first hear Colon's age you figure he's likely to retire instead of entering free agency. But the guy just had his best season since 2013. In 2016 he was an all star and went 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA. Despite the impressive results from this past year it seems unlikely Colon can repeat them going forward. The likeliest outcome here is he re-signs with the Mets for a year since he has such a good relation with the team and is a fan favorite. The ability to mentor the Mets young pitching is an added factor with re-signing him. The Mets' priorities should be focused on Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker but Colon is important to re-sign as well.
Aroldis Chapman, RP, Age: 28
Chapman, along with Andrew Miller and Zach Britton, is one of the three best relief pitchers in baseball right now. He has been one of the best since he first take over as closer for the Reds in 2012. It's unclear if Theo Epstein would be willing to pay a closer what it would cost to re-sign him. Although he missed the first 25 games of the season Chapman had another dominant year saving 36 games with a 1.55 ERA and 90 strikeouts in just 58 innings. One red flag is that while his 14.0 K/9 rate in 2016 is still very good, it marked the lowest of his career. Regardless of what happens this postseason the Cubs will still be in win now mode next year and they gave up a ton to acquire him. The other likely suitor for his services are the LA Dodgers depending on what they do with the guy below.
Kenley Jansen, RP, Age: 29
Jansen is right outside the top tier of closers and in most peoples' eyes considered the fourth best reliever in baseball right now. He doesn't have as good of strikeout numbers as Chapman, as low of an ERA as Britton, or the flexibility in usage of Miller. However, he has been really good for the past half decade. Since 2012 he has yet to save less than 25 games or have an ERA under 2.76. In 2016 he rode the lowest BB/9 rate of his career to post career bests in ERA (1.83) and WHIP (0.67). The Dodgers obviously have the money to re-sign him and without an in house replacement a return to LA is the likeliest outcome for Jansen. It's important to remember though that Chapman was almost traded to the Dodgers in the off-season. Expect LA to wind up with one of the two premier free agent closers.