Assessing strong market for pitchers in 2021

The pitching market is off to a furious start this offseason, with four free agents already coming off the board and another starter inking a lucrative extension.

Eduardo Rodriguez, Justin Verlander (according to a source), Noah Syndergaard and Andrew Heaney all agreed to free-agent contracts worth a total of $131.5 million, with Rodriguez’s $77 million accounting for more than half of that sum. Both Syndergaard and Verlander reached one-year deals worth more than $20 million, while Heaney landed an $8.5 million deal despite a poor showing in 2021. Verlander's deal has not been confirmed by the club.

“I think one of the key drivers is the recognition that it will be very tough on clubs and agents to accomplish all of their offseason goals if they wait until a new [Collective Bargaining Agreement] is agreed upon,” a National League executive said. “If there is a work stoppage, then the majority of what remains to the offseason will be limited to a few weeks’ stretch right before the potential start of Spring Training. That outcome would be rough for everyone -- players, agents and front-office personnel.”

The CBA between owners and players is set to expire Dec. 1.

Rodriguez signed a five-year deal to join the Tigers, jumping the market and joining a burgeoning club. Rodriguez’s 4.74 ERA marked the highest of his career, but his peripherals -- a career-best 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio, not to mention a 3.32 FIP -- showed his season was better than his ERA indicated.

Verlander threw six innings in 2020 before Tommy John surgery ended his season, and he hasn’t pitched since. Like Syndergaard, he turned down the Astros’ qualifying offer, though he wasted no time in rejoining Houston, reportedly agreeing to a one-year, $25 million deal with a $25 million player option for 2023, effectively making it a two-year, $50 million contract.

Even Heaney, who pitched to a 5.83 ERA in 30 games (23 starts) with the Angels and Yankees, was able to secure his one-year, $8.5 million pact from the Dodgers, as teams around the league search for the next great bounce-back candidate.

Free agency hasn’t been the sole source of spending, either; the Blue Jays agreed to a seven-year, $131 million extension for right-hander José Berríos, avoiding arbitration in his final year of eligibility while locking him up through 2028.

The number of dollars being handed out hasn’t been nearly as surprising as the timing. Last November, only five free agents signed deals worth at least $1 million, all for one year. The three most notable were Robbie Ray, Drew Smyly ($11 million) and Charlie Morton ($15 million), the latter two each signing with the Braves.

The first deal worth more than $20 million didn’t get done until Dec. 15, when James McCann signed a four-year, $40.6 million contract with the Mets. Ha-Seong Kim’s four-year, $28 million contract with the Padres was the only other deal worth more than $20 million signed before the end of 2020.

“I think there are a few teams and a few guys who are willing to pull the trigger if the right deal is there,” a second NL executive said. “There’s no more stress for them throughout the rest of the winter. Uncertainty isn’t great for some folks. My guess is we’ll get a few more [deals] and then it’ll slow down, then maybe pick up again a day or two before the [CBA] deadline. Then, who knows?”

It wasn’t until Jan. 27 that a player inked a deal worth as much as Rodriguez’s Detroit contract, when DJ LeMahieu signed a six-year, $90 million pact with the Yankees.

Of the 14 contracts handed out last winter worth at least $20 million in guaranteed money, 12 were signed between Jan. 19 and March 8. We’ve already seen three such deals signed within the first two weeks of free agency, a trend that could continue with the CBA set to expire on Dec. 1.

“Because of the pending December 1 date, there’s no reason for players to slow-play an uncertain market,” added an American League executive. “In some ways, I think some players have taken the approach that November is like mid-January in a normal year. It’s time to sign and focus on where you will be come spring.”

That Syndergaard and Verlander scored a combined $46 million in guaranteed money after effectively sitting out the past two years demonstrates the willingness for teams to roll the dice when it comes to pitching.

Heaney wasn’t injured, but he managed to land a guaranteed deal despite his subpar season. Heaney’s 26.9% strikeout rate was in line with the rest of his career, while he ranked in the top 10 percent of the league in fastball spin and chase rate, encouraging signs that he’s better than his 2021 results showed. A number of teams believed in Heaney’s potential, as more than a dozen clubs pursued the southpaw before he signed with Los Angeles.

The blueprint for Heaney’s deal may have been Ray, who hit the open market last year following a dreadful season in which he posted a 6.62 ERA with the D-backs and Blue Jays. Despite the poor results, Ray ranked in the top 20 percent of the league in fastball spin and swing-and-miss percentage, prompting Toronto to bring back the left-hander for one year and $8 million. He rewarded the Blue Jays with a stellar 2021 season and winning the American League’s Cy Young Award.

“That didn’t surprise me much,” the second NL executive said of Heaney’s deal. “The vast majority of clubs are not making decisions based on surface-level stats anymore, so the notion of getting paid on peripherals is fairly commonplace.”

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