Five Realisitic Starting Pitching Options

Brandon McCarthy

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With Free Agency set to begin now that five days have passed since the World Series ended, it’s time for teams to start putting the puzzle pieces together for the 2015 picture. Jon Daniels and the Texas Rangers have already let it be known that starting pitching is going to be their biggest priority as they start cooking things up in the Hot Stove, and there certainly are a lot of them to choose from. I’m not expecting Texas to look for back end starters, though. There’s more Chris Capuano, Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm types available this year than there are of the caliber of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, but look for the Rangers to try to fill that three or four spot.

New manager Jeff Banister will almost certainly lead off with Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, and Nick Tepesch and Nick Martinez figure to fill either that fourth or fifth spot. The middle spots are something of a black hole right now though. Martin Perez isn’t slated to come back from Tommy John surgery until the middle of next season, but as has been proven by many a pitcher, that’s not always an exact timetable. Even if he does come back on time, who’s to say he’s the same lefty that was on fire before the operation? I’ve taken the opportunity to look at the list of free agent starters (thanks MLB Trade Rumors), and I came up with five realistic** options for the Rangers to pursue as they look to bounce back from a mostly dreadful season (Odor was a bright spot, right?) and reclaim the AL West crown.

**Realistic means: No starting pitcher deals more than 5 years, nothing coming close to Kershaw AAV, and really, this assumes that NO QUALIFYING OFFERS (1-year, $15.3mm) have been tendered to these five pitchers. I don’t expect JD to go down that road of sacrificing a draft pick for any player tendered a QO, especially since he’s not offering any of his free agents one.

Colby Lewis – It seems almost “Josh Hamilton” like with Colby, doesn’t it? He was a stud for Texas during the first “Glory Year,” turning in some memorable postseason performances, and after his rough times (and you know, that little series of surgeries that kept him out a year and a half), the Rangers were there to back him up and support him. Basically, he scratched our back, we scratched his. Now, it comes to free agency, and Colby seems as healthy, if not healthier, than ever. I’m not saying that either side owes anyone anything, but it certainly seems to be a logical fit.

Colby’s initial performances coming back from the DL didn’t surprise anyone, save for the fact that he was actually pitching after his hip resurfacing. He went 6-6 with a 6.54 ERA in 16 games, totaling 84 innings. In the second half, whether it was because he was trying to show the younger kids the best point of attack or just because he got comfortable with the kind of pitcher he was, he pitched more to contact and was more successful. He may have gone 4-8, but he pitched in the second half with an ERA of 3.86. That was with three less games and two more innings. Pitching to contact netted him a higher home run allowance (1st half – 11, 2nd half – 14), but a lower WHIP (1.821/1.228) and K/9 (7.8/6.3).

Down the stretch, Colby said after every performance that absolutely nothing was bothering him with the hip. The argument could be made that the resurfacing made him a worse fielder, but let’s face it, you weren’t ever going to get Gold Glove-caliber defense from Lewis. The important part is that he feels more comfortable in his delivery, which results in him knowing where he wants to put the ball, which results in his guys making plays behind him. Barring a freak accident (and one knows the Rangers have had their share of that), Colby could return to the team as its 4th starter. With Lewis’ agent being Alan Nero, the same guy that is having to deal with a little something up on the North Side of Chicago, a big stink was raised that the Rangers weren’t able to strike a deal with Colby three days after the World Series ended. Give it time people. I’m going to guess that wasn’t the Rangers’ last effort at trying to retain the big righty from Bakersfield and it really should be a point of focus.

Brandon McCarthy – McCarthy’s case is an interesting one. Here’s a guy that has just suffered from a rash of bad luck, from being hit by batted balls to playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Brandon seemed doomed for a career defined by humor on Twitter and mediocrity on the mound. When he got traded by Arizona to New York for Vidal Nuno, eyebrows were raised, then shoulders were shrugged. What was Brandon McCarthy, the tall, lanky, righty with a penchant for getting lit up, going to do for the Yankees besides be a (shockingly) healthy body?

He went 7-5 with a career-low ERA of 2.89. Over 14 games, 90.1 innings, Brandon posted some of his best numbers since his first year with Oakland in 2011. This has been the first year he has pitched more than 170 innings, and down the stretch for the Yanks, in games that did mean something, there was no sign of fatigue, wear, shoulder problems, forearm problems or anything that looked like it was going slow him down. Is Brandon McCarthy back? Or really, has he arrived?

At 31-years of age, it’s a serious question and the Rangers are going to have to guess at the answer. His previous stint with the club from 2007-2009 is forgettable, but that’s a good thing – you need to forget that era of the Rangers. This is a different team. The league is a different league. If the Brandon McCarthy of the Yankees surfaces in Texas, could he be a really nice number three behind Darvish and Holland? MLB Trade Rumors is pegging McCarthy at 3-years, $36mm. That seems like a nice contract amount that Jon Daniels and crew could dole out without feeling guilty. That signing would fit the type of “big splash” the Rangers want to make in the free agent starting pitching market without breaking the bank or burdening themselves with another albatross. If the biggest questions you have with McCarthy are “Can he stay healthy” and “Can he sustain a career performance stretch,” well…aren’t those the questions you ask about every player going into a new year?

Justin Masterson – Before the 2014 season got started, extensions were being thrown around left and right. The Braves extended their core, the Cardinals dropped cash on Matt Carpenter, Oakland on Coco Crisp, the Yankees on Brett Gardner, Tigers and Miggy, and the list goes on. One of the big questions was whether Cleveland Indians GM Chris Antonetti was going to extend their at-the-time-Ace, Justin Masterson. It seemed like a no-brainer. Masterson had come off of four straight seasons where he pitched in more than 30 games, and in 2013, had been an All-Star for the first time, pitched 3 complete game shut-outs with a 14-10 record and a 3.45 ERA as Cleveland went to the postseason. Extending him would be a smart move, right?

The bottom fell out from under the Jamaican born 29-year old. Whether it was the pressure of a contract year or misplaced feelings after not being tendered an extension, Masterson suffered his worst season, by far. Before the middle of 2014 was removed by injury, Masterson struggled with command (56 walks, 5.1 BB/9) and allowed too much hard contact over 19 games to allow him to repeat his great 2013. As he was ready to come off of the disabled list, the Cardinals wanted to take a chance on him, hoping he just needed a change of scenery and competition on a playoff bound team. It didn’t help. Masterson made six more starts and three appearances out of the bullpen and was crushed with a 7.04 ERA. Why would the Rangers want to take a chance on that?

Masterson doesn’t have to pitch under the pressure of needing to earn a contract. If his track history is more indicative of his future performance, Masterson will be just fine and 2014 will be viewed as a fluke. In fact, the poor performance of 2014 might be leverage that the Rangers could use to pull off a team-friendly deal. Even if it’s just a two-year deal with a third-year option, Masterson, going into his age-30 season, could be a great bridge to the pitchers that are coming up in the farm system. If Maddux and Hawkins can work some magic again, Masterson could exceed expectations for the Rangers, and that could help him earn a bigger payday in the future. It doesn’t look like a bad idea to offer Justin the aforementioned shorter deal at an AAV of around $7-8.5mm. If he ends up being a bust, or if 2014 looks like it was the beginning of a downward trend, the contract length would be easy to trade and the loss would be easier to swallow. Even though it was just one really bad year, Masterson could be viewed by some as a reclamation-type project for the Rangers. That’s something that’s usually right up their alley, and if you can get a good Justin Masterson, I think that’s reason enough to pursue him.

Francisco Liriano – Out of all the names on this list, this is probably the least sexy. Because of that, it’s probably a name that JD and company are looking into heavily. Liriano is a big enough name that it fits the big starting pitching move the team wants to make, but he’s not so big that he would be a huge detriment in the payroll department. Liriano struck something of an internal gold mine while pitching with Pittsburgh, which is something he hasn’t seen since his banner year in 2010 with the Twins. The gaudy numbers from 2011-2012 are more a product of being a part of some bad Minnesota and White Sox teams.

Even though he started his first year with the Pirates on the disabled list, Liriano adjusted his mechanics and was able to place 9th in the NL Cy Young voting with a 16-8 record and a 3.02 ERA. He gave up one run over seven innings in the first Pittsburgh playoff game in decades. Liriano followed this season up with an equally impressive 2014, pitching one more inning and three more games with an ERA of 3.38. His win-loss record doesn’t show it, but as you who read this know, win-loss records aren’t the be-all, end-all of determining pitching success. If you’re counting on Martin Perez coming back in the middle of the year, sliding Liriano in as your second lefty in the 4-spot for the first half of the season doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Going into his age-31 season, Liriano could be a guy you could tender either a shorter (2 year, 3rd option), higher AAV  contract to or go with a moderate (read: 3-4 year) lower value AAV contract.  Don’t forget the rapport Liriano has with Jeff Banister as well. Familiarity could play a factor in the pursuit of Liriano.

James Shields – The title of this column is “Realistic Ranger Starter Options.” James Shields is right on that line of realistic and fantastical for Texas. Of the three extremely high-profile starters, Shields is probably the one that is most attainable for Jon Daniels’ group. At age 33(in December), Shields is the oldest of the three, but that means that he can come at a shorter term deal. Shields is still going to command a high-dollar amount, and that might be the biggest obstacle to signing him for Texas. Elvis Andrus’ big contract extension is kicking in this year and they’re still paying the big dollars on Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder. If ownership can scrounge up enough for one more expensive free agent, James Shields seems to be the guy that they should spring for. Sure, “Big Game” may have hurt his free agent value by not living up to his nickname, but in the regular season, Shields was durable, dependable, and dirty.

After his rookie campaign with Tampa Bay in 2006, Shields rattled off 8 straight years of double-digit wins, well over 200 innings pitched, and an ERA hovering around 3.70. He hasn’t been an Ace in the traditional sense of the word, but if you apply those numbers to a number two or three starter, he’s a lethal weapon. On the Rangers’ staff, Shields would be a number two or three (probably three, if we’re alternating right-left). That’s the kind of dependability and strength you want coming out of that spot. With the youth that is going to be occupying the Rangers bullpen in 2014 (without Neal Cotts, Michael Kirkman is your elder statesman at age 28 as the longest tenured Ranger), having a number 3 that can eat innings like Pac-Man is huge.

With all of that said, Shields is entering his age-33 season, and you saw the worst he had in this post-season run with Kansas City. Even with that, he’s going to demand and seek a career-ending deal. With that kind of length in mind, it’s unlikely that the Rangers end up giving that out to a starting pitcher. Keep in mind also that Prince Fielder was one of the most consistently durable position players in the last four years before he missed all but two months of 2014. Still, if enough time passes by where the righty hasn’t reached an agreement with a club, don’t be surprised if JD figures out a lower price point to obtain Shields.

That’s my analysis. What’s yours? Thinking of the realistic options on the market this year, who do you think the Rangers should pursue? Would you rather see them trade away more of their farm system to get a starter? Let’s hear some of your names, years and dollars for the next member of the 2015 Texas Rangers’ rotation.

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Matt Fisher
Matt Fisher is an Editor/Staff Writer for ShutdownInning. He is a baseball lifer, preferring to use the eye test and rely on the knowledge and analysis of baseball minds greater than his, while using relevant stats to encourage situational discussions. He is also co-host of The Most Valuable Podcast on the NextWave Radio Network, talking sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment.

While Matt's favorite team will always be his hometown Texas Rangers, he knows the ongoing story lines of every team in Major League Baseball. If you sit next to him at a game, be prepared to hear him try and do play-by-play. If you're famous and reading this, just know that he's not afraid to drop names.

Matt Fisher. ShutdownInning Editor/Staff Writer

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