As expected, free agency has started off extremely slow. I expect it to remain that way until organizations receive a better idea of how things will shape out next season regarding the coronavirus. So, for the most part, don’t expect any blockbuster names to sign a long-term deal anytime soon. It could be until February or March before we see guys like Trevor Bauer and Marcell Ozuna off the market.
However, today, we saw the first substantial domino fall in the starting pitching market. Former All-Star, Marcus Stroman, signed his one-year qualifying offer with the Mets. For Braves fans hoping he might end up in Atlanta, this is disappointing, but it really isn’t surprising. Stroman is coming off a year in which he didn’t pitch, and with so much financial uncertainty among teams — he wasn’t going to receive the $100 million contract he desired. Few teams — if any — would have offered him $20+ million on a one-year deal, so accepting his QO made the most sense.
Missing out on Stroman is no reason for Braves fans to be discouraged. I’ve said all along that signing a high-priced starting pitcher in this market was going to be unlikely. Atlanta is much more likely to shop for veterans with postseason experience that can fill out the back-end of their rotation. Thankfully, there are plenty of those guys out there, and that is who I will be focusing on with this list.
After the Cole Hamels experiment failed miserably in 2020, I’m sure Braves fans rolled their eyes when they saw Jon Lester on this list; and I understand. However, the Braves could do much worse than adding Lester to their rotation as their fourth or fifth guy. He’s not the pitcher he once was, but he hasn’t had any health issues. From 2015-2019, he posted 3.54 ERA. I still think Lester has some stuff left in the tank, and his 2.51 postseason ERA over 26 appearances makes him even more appealing on a one-year deal in the $5-10 million range.
The Braves have already been linked to Wainwright early this offseason. And yes, like Lester, he is far from the sexiest option. However, he could be just what the Braves need to fill out their rotation at a low-cost. The 39-year-old can still bring it, as he posted a 3.15 ERA this past season — including two complete games in ten starts. Braves fans should also remember how he shut down Atlanta’s lineup in Game 3 of the 2019 NLDS.
3. Corey Kluber
Kluber carries a little more risk than the previous two names on this list, but when you’re talking about veteran pitchers over the age of 35, all of these guys come with a significant amount of risk. Kluber has battled injuries over the last two seasons, limiting him to just eight starts. However, in the five years before, he won two Cy Young awards and never finished outside the top 10 in voting. Assuming he passes the test physically and will be ready for next season, he could prove to be a huge lottery ticket for a team like the Braves. I don’t expect him to cost too much, given his recent injury history, and he still possesses a ton of upside.
2. James Paxton
Paxton barely played for the Yankees last season after suffering multiple setbacks during rehab. That doesn’t set up well for him in free agency, but that should be good news for a team like the Braves, who typically could not afford him. The 32-year-old lefty still has electric stuff and has a combined 3.60 ERA combined over his last four seasons. He’s an ideal candidate to take a one-year, ‘prove it’ deal that the Braves love to hand out and hit free agency again next offseason.
The Rays, who had the best record in the AL and went to the World Series, somewhat shockingly turned down Charlie Morton’s $15 million option for 2021. That should tell you all you need to know about the free-agent market this year. Morton wasn’t amazing in the shortened season (4.74 ER) but the sample size of nine starts was minuscule. In the previous two seasons, he was an All-Star and he finished third in the AL Cy Young award race in 2019. Morton would be an excellent addition for a team like the Braves on a one or two-year deal.
As you can see, I pretty much stuck to the trend of veterans who wouldn’t require anything more than a two-year deal at most. The Braves have so many young and talented arms on the horizon; they don’t need to spend big on a marquee starting pitcher, and frankly, they probably can’t following a season with no fans. They will be shopping in the bargain bin, but luckily for them, so will most everyone else. There should be plenty of talented starting pitching willing to take one-year deals this offseason.