Here’s Part Two of my online browsing for free-agent starting pitchers. In my first piece, I looked at an assortment of right-handers. There are a few more out there who should be mentioned and I hope to get to that.
Today is reserved for a scan of lefty free-agent starters. Are the Cardinals eyeing a left-handed starter? I can’t rule it out. But they’ll certainly slot lefty Steven Matz into their 2024 rotation. And young left-hander Zack Thompson could emerge as a No. 5 starter for the big club. I’m assuming LH Matthew Liberatore will be in the mix, but a relief role seems more plausible.
Blake Snell, age 31. FanGraphs contract projection: 5 years, $140 million. An average value of $28 million.
The debates continue. In 2023, was Snell the top starting pitcher in the National League? Or is he an example of a pitcher who isn’t quite what he seems? It depends on what you choose to look at.
The good stuff: Snell led all MLB starters with a 2.25 ERA in 2023, and his strikeout rate (31.8%) was second overall to Spencer Strider. He’s stingy about allowing home runs; only 0.87 per nine innings over the last three seasons. Since 2021 Snell has MLB’s second-best strikeout rate among starting pitchers (31.5%), ranks 17th in ERA (3.15), 18th in FIP (3.36), and 18th in WAR. And in 2023 Snell’s 1.30 GB/FB ratio was the best of his career. As FanGraphs noted, “Snell’s career-average 3.6 WAR per 32 starts are those of a top-30 starting pitcher.”
The questionable stuff: Too many walks. Over the last three seasons Snell’s 12% walk rate is the highest by a qualifying MLB starter. This past season his MLB-worst walk rate was 13.3 percent, and that would be the highest ever for a Cy Young award winner in either league – provided that he wins it this year. And while Snell made 32 starts and logged a respectable innings count (180) in 2023, he averaged only 25.5 starts and 128 innings across 2021 and 2022. Snell’s 2.25 ERA this season was quite impressive, he benefited from a .256 average on balls in play, third-lowest in the majors. That isn’t sustainable. The same can probably be said of his runners-stranded rate of 86.7 percent. That’s reflected in his 3.44 FIP in 2023. Then again – there’s nothing wrong with a 3.44 FIP, and that matches his career average. Snell’s 2023 season was his finest since he led American League starters with a 1.89 ERA in 2018.
Jordan Montgomery, age 31. FanGraphs contract projection: 5 years, $140 million for an average annual value of $28 million.
We’re familiar with Monty in St. Louis. An underrated starter finally got some overdue attention by pitching to a 2.90 ERA over 31 innings during Texas’ postseason run to the World Series championship. The Rangers went 4-2 in Montgomery’s postseason gigs. Over the last two seasons Monty has averaged 32 starts and 184 innings while pitching to a 3.34 ERA. Montgomery is trending in a positive direction, and the team that signs him can expect to receive quality work and solid durability.
According to FanGraphs, Montgomery’s ZiPS forecast projects him to equal Snell’s production going forward. Montgomery isn’t a big strikeout guy, but he gets a ton of ground balls, gets hitters to chase pitches out of the zone, and limits walks.
Montgomery posted his most impressive MLB season in 2023, delivering his career bests in innings (188.2), ERA (3.20), FIP (3.56), WAR (4.3) and homers-allowed rate. His strong performance with the Rangers not only raised awareness – it also increased his value as a free agent. Montgomery will likely command a much larger contract than what we assumed four or five months ago. The talk of a St. Louis reunion might be fun to talk about … but it’s also unrealistic.
Eduardo Rodriguez, age 31. FanGraphs projected contract: 4 years, $92 million for an average annual value of $23 million.
Rodriguez strengthened his free-agent candidacy with a career-best 3.30 ERA for the Tigers in 2023, and he had a couple of good years for the Red Sox in 2018 and 2019. But he missed a month last season with a finger injury and made only 26 starts for the year. He missed the 2020 season a Covid-related illness. In 2022 he was away from the Tigers for two months to deal with a family matter and made only 17 starts. Last season, Rodriguez vetoed a trade that would have sent him from the also-ran Tigers to the Dodgers, and interested teams may wonder about that.
He has a solid strikeout rate of 24 percent but walks can be a problem at times. There’s a lot to his arsenal including an improved changeup that’s made his lively fastball more effective. But the hard-hit rate against Rodriguez raises concerns.
Rodriguez came through in his walk-year season to position himself for a better contract. But during his MLB career he’s been sidelined eight times by injuries or illness, missing 301 in-season days, with his teams paying him a total $9.1 million during his down time. But when healthy and available he’s an above-average starter. What makes Rodriguez tick, and what can a new employer expect from him? That’s a big question and the answer is somewhat elusive.
Shota Imanaga, age 30. FanGraphs projected contract: 4 years, $88 million for an average annual value of $22 million.
He had a very good career in Japan, emerging as one of the top starters in the NPB. He was impressive in his two-inning stint against the U.S. in the WBC Championship Game back in March. In his most recent season in Japan, he cranked a strikeout rate of 29.4 percent and walked only 3.4% of hitters faced. But he has a huge fly-ball rate (58%) that could lead to home-run vulnerability in MLB.
Here’s a scouting report from the informed Keith Law of The Athletic: “Imanaga works at 91-94 mph with very high spin rates that help generate both ride and run on the pitch, while he has a potential out pitch for guys on both sides with his splitter, a slow but huge-breaking curveball, and a slider that’ll probably be his primary breaking ball against big-league hitters.”
Law added: “There’s No. 3 starter potential here, especially if this new level of control holds, and he should aim for more than Kodai Senga’s five-year, $75 million deal, which was a screaming bargain for the Mets in year one.”
Our friend Ben Clemens at FanGraphs admires Imanaga’s fastball velocity and overall talent but included this in his assessment: “Imanaga has given up double digit home runs in each of his last four full seasons, and that’s in the relatively tame power environment of NPB. He didn’t exactly quell those fears in his WBC stint, where he surrendered two homers in six innings. That’s a tiny sample, but it serves to highlight my worries: His fastball is pretty hittable in the strike zone, and he likes to spin his loopy curveball for a strike, a dangerous proposition in the majors.”
Wade Miley, age 37. FanGraphs projected contract: 2 years, $20 million for an annual average value of $10 million.
When Miley is physically capable of pitching, he does fine work. In recent seasons he was good for the Astros in 2019, very good for the Reds in 2021, a virtual non-factor with the Cubs in 2022, and did a nice job for the 2023 Brewers when healthy. But injuries have dogged Miley; over the last three seasons he’s been sidelined six different times and missed 187 in-season days. He made only eight starts for the Cubs in ‘22. Back and elbow problems limited him to 23 starts (and a 3.14 ERA) for the Brewers last season. His cutter evolved into a dandy pitch. But can Miley stay on the mound? Since the start of 2018 he has a 3.43 ERA and is one of the best starters in MLB in limiting hard contact. The price point for Miley will be reasonable, so it’s up to interested teams to decide if the relatively low cost limits his liability in a way that appeals to them.
James Paxton, age 35. FanGraphs contract projection: 1 year, $10 million.
He has obvious talent, but injuries – including multiple problems with his elbow – sidetracked his career. He pitched 20 innings in the Covid season, got on the mound for just 1 and ⅓ innings in 2021, and did not pitch at all in 2022. During his big-league career Paxton has been sidelined 12 different times and missed 720 total in-season days – with his teams paying him $21.5 million in sunken costs while he mended from injuries.
Paxton returned to action for the Red Sox in 2023 and attracted notice with a 95.4 mph fastball and a 3.34 ERA in his first 16 starts … before getting walloped for a 14.90 ERA in his last three outings. And he didn’t pitch after Sept. 1. In his younger and more viable days, Paxton had immense strikeout power, a low walk rate, and held opponents to a relatively harmless slugging percentage. He did enough in 2023 to make teams think he’ll be even stronger in 2024. OK, so who will step to the table and spin the roulette wheel?
Alex Wood, age 33. FanGraphs contract projection: 2 years, $16 million for an average annual value of $8 million.
The Giants turned Wood into a hybrid pitcher in 2023. That worked OK on the relief-pitcher side of things; Wood had a 2.68 ERA in 50 and ⅓ innings – but also had a poor strikeout rate (16%) and a high walk rate (8%). In 12 starts he was popped for a 6.08 ERA in 47 and ⅓ innings. If we go back to the start of the 2022 season Wood has a 5.36 ERA in 38 starts that covered 178 innings. The Cardinals seem to want a hybrid – the right-hander Nick Martinez is a pitcher of interest – but Wood seems like a reach.
Other lefties of note:
— Clayton Kershaw: Not much to write about here. The sure-thing Hall of Famer, 35, is having offseason shoulder surgery. If he returns for a 17th big-league season it will be with the Dodgers or his hometown Rangers. In his 422 starts and 2,712 MLB innings, Kershaw has only pitched for the Dodgers. And over the last three seasons injuries have limited him to an average of 23 starts per year.
— Sean Manaea: Here’s another potential hybrid for teams interested in a dual-role pitcher. Last season he made 10 starts for the Giants and came out of the bullpen 17 times. The grand total was a 4.44 ERA in 118 innings. I also should note that Manaea generated a 28 percent strikeout rate as a reliever for the ‘23 Giants, and his fastball velocity increased by nearly three miles per hour. Manaea had a 3.91 ERA in 32 starts for Oakland in 2021, but collapsed to a 4.96 ERA in 28 starts for the Padres in 2022. He has talent, and seems to be over his left-shoulder concerns. Manaeah may profile as a reliever going forward. As FanGraphs informs us: “The first time facing hitters, whether Manaea started or relieved, he held them to a .210/.289/.289 line, pointing to value in a swingman or spot-starter role. I don’t think he’ll return to full-time starter duty again, between his platoon splits and history of arm trouble.”
— Andrew Heaney: Here’s another swingman candidate. Heaney had a 4.08 ERA in 28 starts for the Rangers in 2023, but a bad bout of wildness prompted Texas to move him to the bullpen. Heaney was a valuable tool for manager Bruce Bochy in the postseason. In six appearances – three of which were starts – he had a 3.86 ERA in 14 innings. And when the Rangers clinched the World Series in Game 5, Heaney came through with a superb five-inning, one-run start. There’s a long history of injuries but he stayed healthy in 2023. Heaney has an enticing 25 percent career strikeout rate overall – and it’s 28% when he pitches in relief. There are some red warning lights; over the last three seasons right-handed hitters walloped Heaney for a 4.90 ERA, .467 slugging percentage and an average of 1.9 home runs per nine innings.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online, Spotrac or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.