Commentary

The market for starting pitchers

After ace left-hander Cliff Lee, there's Carl Pavano and everyone else

Updated: December 1, 2010, 4:23 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The New York Post confirmed Wednesday what everyone in baseball has long understood:

The Texas Rangers are not going to just send Cliff Lee a thanks-for-the-memories note and let him cruise into the Bronx unobstructed this winter.

No, the Rangers are going to at least make Lee think about this. And if they're willing to throw a five-year deal at him, as the Post report suggested, that ought to get those brain cells churning.

And then, after he's finished thinking, the New York Yankees will do what everyone in baseball also has long understood:

Ring the cash register -- and hand Lee his pinstripes.

Now maybe we have this wrong, but if we do, we're not the only ones. We surveyed a couple of longtime baseball executives Wednesday morning. And they mostly got a good chuckle out of the latest Cliff Lee blockbuster.

"When it's all said and done," one said, "he's gotta go to New York."

"I think it's all [baloney]," said another.

Asked whether he thought even a five-year offer by the Rangers would keep the Yankees from getting a player they've been pretty much obsessed with for months, the same exec retorted, pithily: "Just look at history."

And by that, he doesn't mean: Go take a tour of Monument Garden.

What he means is: When the Yankees decide they have to sign any free agent, do they ever not get their man?

Excellent point. So, sometime this month, we're predicting once again, the Yankees will hand Lee his Powerball check. At that point, the free-agent starting pitcher market can officially be declared a complete disaster area.

But then, come to think of it, for all teams not known as "The Yankees," it already is.

There's Carl Pavano -- who seems positioned to get a three-year deal for at least the Ted Lilly-esque money (three years, $33 million) he's seeking. And then there's everyone else -- the One-Year Contract Good Luck With This Group All-Stars.

"What you've got," said an executive of one team that's still fishing in this lake, "is just a bunch of guys where you hope you strike lightning in a bottle."

Other than Pavano -- and Andy Pettitte, who could do his annual Swallow Returns to Yankee-strano thing within the next week -- all the Best of the Rest starters are gone. Lilly … Jon GarlandJorge De La RosaHiroki KurodaJake WestbrookJavier Vazquez. All signed up and off the shelves.

So what's left? A bunch of guys with, well, issues. Some of those issues, the same exec said, "are stuff-related. Some are injury-related. Some are makeup-related. But they're there. And that's why these guys are where they're at."

Of course, we should point out that some teams actually kind of like shopping in this sort of market -- because at least the deals, even if they turn into debacles, are short.

"So there are really two ways to look at it," said an official of one of those teams. "Say you have young pitching coming, but you're not sure if it's going to be ready at the start of the year. Then you go out and sign one of these guys for one year, and it makes the decision for you. And there are enough reclamation projects, rebound guys and inning-eater types left that you should be able to sign one of them to a shorter-term deal."

Ah, but which pitchers in this group should you be taking a chance on? Here are five who seem to inspire the most interest in the people we've surveyed:

Brandon Webb
Webb

Brandon Webb -- The baggage: He has pitched just four innings in two years and never did make it back last season from his August 2009 shoulder-debridement surgery. The reason for inspiration: The three previous years, he ripped off three straight top-two finishes in the NL Cy Young voting. So there's a lot of lightning in that bottle. "There's a whole lot of medical reports you have to look at," one exec said. "But if the medicals say he's healthy, I mean, the guy won 22 games the last year he pitched. So he'd have to be near the top of anybody's list."

Chris Young -- The baggage: He has spent 276 days on the disabled list the past two years with shoulder trouble. The reason for inspiration: He came back in September and made four excellent starts (2-0, 0.90 ERA, 20 IP, 10 H, 2 ER, 15 K). "Unlike a lot of these guys," said one of the execs quoted earlier, "at least he was pitching at the end of the year." His home/road splits (2.85 career ERA at Petco Park, 4.31 everywhere else) are a concern. "But there's also some deception there," another exec said. So Young could be gobbled up by one of the half-dozen teams chasing him within a week.

Kevin Millwood
Millwood

Kevin Millwood -- The baggage: Coming off an ugly 4-16, 5.10 season in Baltimore, with a 1.51 WHIP that was the second worst (next to Aaron Harang) of any free-agent starter. The reason for inspiration: At least he's durable. He and Vazquez were the only starters on this market who have started at least 20 games in 13 straight seasons. "If he goes someplace as a No. 4 or 5 starter -- and not as a No. 1, which the Orioles wanted him to be -- he looks a lot better," one exec said. "And never discount the fact he was pitching last year in the AL East."

Jeremy Bonderman -- The baggage: Has never made it all the way back from his battle with thoracic outlet syndrome. Had the highest ERA (5.53) of any free-agent starter last year and, in fact, is one of only 24 starting pitchers who has had more than one season with an ERA of 5.50 or higher. The reason for inspiration: Still only 28 years old. "He's a guy with a chance to step forward because of his age," one scout said. "And he's starting to learn an appreciation of the art of pitching. I saw more velocity in the second half, and occasionally better life on his fastball." And, as one NL exec pointed out, "he's always been in the American League. I think there's a chance his stuff could play up in the National League. So you could do more dreaming on him."

Kevin Correia -- The baggage: Had a 5.40 ERA as a Padre and even had a 5.36 ERA in Petco last year. The reason for inspiration: He, Lee, Pettitte and Pavano are the only remaining free agents who racked up double-figure wins in each of the past two seasons. And he had to pitch while dealing with a crushing family tragedy last season. "Obviously, he's been somewhat inconsistent for a lot of his career," one exec said. "But he did a good job there for a long stretch. And everyone is aware of what he was going through last year. So you have to factor that in."

Other names who got votes: Freddy Garcia, Vicente Padilla, Jeff Francis, Scott Olsen, David Bush, Bruce Chen, Rodrigo Lopez, Brandon McCarthy.

Names on the Let Somebody Else Take a Shot List: Harang, Rich Harden, Brad Penny, Erik Bedard, Brian Bannister.

Ready to Rumble

• The industry was buzzing early this week with rumblings that the Angels were trying to zero in and get Rafael Soriano signed before the winter meetings. But clubs and agents who have spoken with them in the past 24 hours report they've now put their closer hunt on the back burner and have made Carl Crawford their No. 1 target.

"I didn't get any indication that [signing Soriano] is about to happen right now," one source said. "That's not the priority."

The Angels' M.O. under owner Arte Moreno has been to home in on players they want, try to get a deal done fast and move on. But Soriano is a Scott Boras client, so he doesn't fit the classic Angels drive-thru signing mode.

The Crawford negotiations also are expected to drag into winter meetings week. But if it becomes a circus or an auction, the Angels won't wait around for him, either. Meanwhile, indications are that they've shown very little interest in Jayson Werth -- at least so far.

• The Chicago White Sox continue to say they're not "shopping" Carlos Quentin. But teams that have kicked the tires say they are listening.

With the potential departure of A.J. Pierzynski, their lineup is in danger of becoming way too right-handed. So to move Quentin, they've told other clubs they would want a young left-handed bat with similar "high-ceiling talent" -- and someone they could hang on to for more than the two years they can control Quentin.

In the case of a team such as the Philadelphia Phillies, who we hear have talked themselves out of making a run at Quentin, that would translate into a package led by left-handed thumper Domonic Brown. So you can scratch the Phillies off the White Sox list. But Quentin remains a name to keep an eye on this winter.

Boston Red Sox

• You can decide for yourself what this means about how likely the Boston Red Sox think they are to bring back Adrian Beltre or deal for Adrian Gonzalez, but we're hearing that Kevin Youkilis plans to spend his offseason working out mostly at third base.

According to one friend of Youkilis, he told the Red Sox last season that he's happy to play third or first -- but that if he's going to play third, he would want a whole offseason to gear up to do it. So "he's preparing himself if they go in that direction."

And the increasing sense we get is that even the Red Sox aren't sure yet what that direction is. Their game plan, according to one AL executive, is clearly to "keep as many balls in the air for as long as they can" -- until they get a better feel for where they are on Beltre, Gonzalez, and their usual array of Plans B, C, D and E-F-G-H-I-J-K.

Philadelphia Phillies

• Don't look for the Phillies to make any quick outfield strikes, either to sign or to replace Jayson Werth. They're waiting or the Werth drama to play out and for the non-tender-free-agent list to clarify their options. But in the meantime, we're hearing they're bearing down hard on left-handed relievers.

The guy who appears to top their list is Arthur Rhodes. But Rhodes just turned 41, has already spent one disastrous season in Philadelphia (0-5 in 2006, with a 5.32 ERA, followed by Tommy John surgery) and has a bunch of teams pursuing him now that the Cincinnati Reds have opted not to offer him arbitration.

Right behind him, from all indications, is Pedro Feliciano. One of Feliciano's main selling points would be simply that Ryan Howard and Chase Utley wouldn't have to face him anymore. Those two are hitting a combined .208 against him in 80 (yep, 80) plate appearances over the past five seasons.

Nishioka
Nishioka

• If the Minnesota Twins can sign the much-ballyhooed Tsuyoshi Nishioka after winning his bidding rights, they still haven't committed to whether they'd play him at shortstop or second base. He has played both -- and won Japan's version of the Gold Glove award at both. So they have options. But if they're looking for advice, one international scouting director casts a decisive vote for second base. Here's his report on Nishioka: "He's a second baseman. At shortstop, his arm is a little short for me. I look at him as a little better version of Kaz Matsui. I like him as a leadoff guy. He's got a good feel for the strike zone. I actually think he can be an impact guy at the top of the order. I just don't think he's a shortstop."

Houston Astros

• The Houston Astros have been quietly poking around for a low-budget left-handed-hitting outfielder. And that's an indication they're leaning toward moving Carlos Lee to first base to give Brett Wallace a chance to go back to Triple-A and get more big-league-ready. But here's the question people are asking about that scenario: Are they prepared to move Lee back to left field when Wallace gets it all together? They'd better be because Lee has $18.5 million coming in 2011 and 2012, so he isn't particularly tradable.

• A Mets official used the word "energy" three times in a minute and a half while describing what qualities most appealed to them about their new manager, Terry Collins. And that isn't a word you'd have used to describe the Mets for much of last season, so if Collins can infuse his clubhouse with that energy, it sure can't hurt.

But Collins has major work to do to persuade his players to look past what they've already heard about him from guys who played for him in the past. Here's what one of those ex-players told Rumblings: "I hope he learned from his mistakes, from what he went through his first two times. He was very uptight, screaming F-bombs in the dugout, that sort of thing. Just a really, really high-strung guy."

Contract Clause of the Week

As loyal reader Brian Hamilton reports, the Phillies just included a $25,000 Silver Slugger incentive clause in Jose Contreras' new contract. They can't be too nervous about having to pay off that one. Contreras' lifetime "offensive" numbers: 0-for-29, with 18 strikeouts.

Rumblings Scouting Bureau

A scout who spent some time in the Dominican Republic this winter gives us this report on the resuscitated Bartolo Colon:

"Can he still pitch? No question? And is he still going to last about six games? No question. Somebody's going to sign him. But I'd rather have him in August and September than at the beginning of the year because he is going to break down."

Headliner of the Week

In the wake of the Big Ten's decision to allow Northwestern and Illinois to use only one end zone in their football game at Wrigley Field last month, this just in from our favorite goofballs at theheckler.com:

CUBS TO BAN HITS TO LEFT FIELD IN 2011

Tweet of the Week

Finally, here's this blast from the Twitter account of the late, great workhorse, @OldHossRadbourn, who hasn't let the fact that he's been deceased for 113 years deter him from tweeting away incessantly -- in this case about that football game at Wrigley:

A team from Illinois will be the victor at Wrigley Field today. This is not usually the case.

Shameless Book Plug of the Week

In other news, if you're in the Philadelphia area Friday and you're in one of those gift-acquisition moods that folks tend to fall into this time of year, the place to be is the first stop on our fourth annual Philadelphia Sports Book Signing Extravaganza. It all starts at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble Oxford Valley store in Langhorne, Pa. Among the luminaries: Ray Didinger, Glen Macnow, Merrill Reese, Chris Wheeler, Greg Cosell, Todd Zolecki, Randy Miller, Reuben Frank and yours truly. Here's more info. See ya there!

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com