2021-22 MLB Free Agency: Where will the best starting pitchers land?

Max Scherzer. Clayton Kershaw. Kevin Gausman. In 2021-22 MLB free-agency, there is no shortage of talent in the pitching game. Championships will be decided by what moves are made. Buster Olney and Jesse Rogers as well as Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, and Bradford Doolittle will be discussing the current state of the starting-pitching landscape.
What free-agent starter would you prefer to be on the pitch for your team's Opening Day 2022?

Olney: I don't think anyone can choose Scherzer, if we separate this question from the financial commitment and the value over the contract's duration. He was a dominant player for the Nationals last season, and then he did it again for the Dodgers, winning the division series against the Giants. But Max and his team need to come to an agreement. No more relief in the postseason. Please.

Rogers: If we assume that 2022 is our only concern, it's difficult to argue against Scherzer. He still has at least one year of dominance. Robbie Ray, however, was in a class by itself among lefties. His numbers aren't a fluke, unless he loses control and returns to Ray. Ray would be my pick if Scherzer seemed to slow down. Justin Verlander will be the comeback player award winner. It's a tough call, but Scherzer has money in the bank.

Doolittle: If we mean "Game 1" of a postseason series, then Scherzer is the one to blame. This is because it's what elite teams who sign a free agent starter are looking for. Although Scherzer was unable to make the playoffs after the Dodgers/Giants series, his dominance in the final weeks of the season was evident. This group of free-agent pitchers is what I see as a starter and a finishing piece to a championship team.

Gonzalez: Scherzer's nine first starts with the Dodgers (all against teams that are in contention) were 58 innings long, with five earned runs and seven walks. There were 79 strikeouts. He's undoubtedly the right choice. That's why I believe he will get the three-year, high dollar contract many believe he wants, even though he turns 38 next year. There was some uncertainty in the way that the 2021 season ended. Scherzer was pushed back one day after his relief appearance in Game 5 in the National League Division Series. He then stated that he had a tired arm and needed to be pushed back for his second start. This did not happen. Is he simply exhausted or does something more serious exist?

Which contract do you believe will bring the most money to a starting pitcher in this winter's season?

Olney: Total dollars will go to Gausman who turns 31 in January. He is pure gold, and no one doubted him. But now that he appears to have turned the corner with the Giants, he will be the generation's Charlie Morton.

Rogers: I would like to see Gausman throw in three parks again, each one being more friendly for hitters than Oracle Park in San Francisco. This is what Ray did in 2021 playing for the Blue Jays. He or Gausman will be the most lucrative, but teams may want a dominant lefty to push Ray over.

Doolittle: Scherzer will be the winner by average annual value but it could also be him by total value even though he is unlikely to get more than two or 3 years. Maybe Ray or Gausman can get a fifth-year contract, and that would make Scherzer's total contract value a little more competitive. However, I can see Scherzer earning at least $40,000,000 per year over three years. That is hard to beat.

Gonzalez: Buster may be right about Gausman, but I wonder about the market for Ray, who has the raw material and put it together in time for what could be a Cy Young season 2021. While Gausman's track record in elite pitching is slightly more impressive, Ray's upside is likely to be slightly greater. There are many teams that can help Ray replicate his dominance with Toronto Blue Jays. He posted a 2.84 ERA with 248 strikesouts and 52 walks in 193 1/3 inning.

Which of these starting pitchers would you target in this offseason, if any are not under-the radar?

Olney: Eduardo Rodriguez's underlying metrics provide a better view of his season that his inflated ERA of 4.74. Boston's inefficient and erratic defense caused him significant harm. The Red Sox witnessed this firsthand so I believe he will end up negotiating a deal to remain in Boston for what'll be a high-value contract.

Rogers: There is something special about Michael Pineda. In 2021, he was hampered by injuries and managed a 3.62 ERA over 21 starts for a poor Minnesota team. Although his peripherals were not great, his strikeout rate dropped and his ERA was 3.62, it seems like there is more. He can be a good back-end pitcher if he has fresh scenery and a healthy spring. Pineda has only thrown 136 innings in the last two seasons. This is due to injuries, his suspension of 60 games in 2019, and the pandemic. His arm is still strong.

Doolittle: If the price is right, more than half the free-agent pool consists of pitchers. I would take a chance on Doolittle as an injury or performance bounce-back candidate. James Paxton is a guy who bats when healthy but you don't know much about him. However, it's difficult to predict how much you can count on him for next year. Danny Duffy is my pick: He still misses the game of bats, and he hasn't pitched in any major league game except for the Royals. So he might be open to tweaks. Even though he's not in the rotation, I believe Duffy has a lot to offer as a long-leverage reliever and high-leverage player. He was great last season, even though he was hurt.

Gonzalez: Jon Gray, who had a tough 2020 season, posted a 4.59 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 149 inning. He should be eligible for a multi-year contract. Although Gray, a 30-year-old right-hander, is not as good as Ray, Gausman and Carlos Rodon, he is one that you could see taking another step forward with a smart organization. Gray's strikeout percentage nearly doubled from last year and his hard-hit rate dropped from 46% down to 38%.

Which team needs the most ace in this offseason?

Olney: The Mets don't know what they will get from Jacob deGrom next year -- and if anyone in the organization wants to paint a more optimistic picture, remind them of the many times they suggested that deGrom might return last summer. Except for Sandy Alderson's mention of a partial tear in deGrom’s right ulnar collateral, which deGrom dismissed in days that followed, the Mets have not explained where deGrom is or why he didn’t pitch after July 7. They don't know what they would get from Noah Syndergaard (assuming the right-hander accepts their qualifying offers), and Stroman is still looking for free agents. They will need a solid starter if the Mets are to compete with the Braves in the NL East.

Rogers: I'm going throw a curveball at the Angels pick, because the Angels require more than an ace. This would be a good idea, but the Seattle Mariners are closer to the playoffs and have no championship experience in the rotation. They need an ace who has been there and done that if they are to move on from the PR disaster they suffered at their trade deadline. Each contender-ish team has to make that leap at one point. It should be Seattle.

Doolittle: The Angels. It's always the Angels.

Gonzalez: The Angels. It's a constant need, especially with Shohei Ohtani currently under contract for just two years, Mike Trout still in his 30s, and Anthony Rendon well into his second half of his career. Nez Balelo is the agent for Ohtani. He said, "They're close to being a truly dynamic team." They just need to do a few things to help. They need elite starting pitching and starting pitching. Perry Minasian, Angels General Manager, acknowledged that fact. Although Minasian cautioned that it was difficult to find top-level starters, the truth is that Minasian must get it done. If Ohtani is their third starter, the Angels will be able to contend. It's difficult to imagine it otherwise.

Which top-rated starting pitcher do you believe could be traded this offseason?

Olney: After an outstanding season, the Reds had Wade Miley placed on waivers. This was a clear sign that Cincinnati wants to reduce its payroll. The Reds can move Luis Castillo or Sonny Gray to make this happen.

Rogers: While it's easy to choose any hurlers for the A's or Reds because they're dumping their salary, why would the Cubs not listen to offers to Kyle Hendricks'? They don't have to pull the trigger but they are rebuilding the team so why waste two years of his contract? He'd fit in any team. His personality is Grade A. He's not a high-risk player and has had success in big games. If they traded him, the Cubs would have reached their maximum offseason. In a year, they won't be able to say the same. They might listen to the offers made for Willson Contreras, his batterymate.

Doolittle: The Reds are waving the white flag just before Thanksgiving. I'm calling every hour to inquire about Castillo. While he had a inconsistent 2021, his velocity/changeup combination was insane. He is a chaser, keeps the bat from the barrel, and could be challenging for the Cy Young. Sign me up.

Gonzalez: The A’s are clearly in cost-saving mode and Chris Bassitt is an obvious trade option. He's just a season away free agency. Bassitt, 32 was 12-4 with a 3.15 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. He also had a 4.08 strikeout to walk ratio. This was in an All Star season where he also took a linedrive to the face. However, he somehow managed to return to play for the stretch.

Clayton Kershaw: Are you a Dodger for the rest of your life, or are you heading somewhere new in this offseason?

Olney: He'll pitch for the Dodgers if he needs to pitch again. He is a family member of that team; he is a legend player. He's been through enough physical problems that it's inevitable that one day he will surprise the baseball world by announcing his retirement, like Sandy Koufax. Then he'll be on the path to unanimous selection (presumably) into the Hall of Fame.

Rogers: It's likely the Dodgers, on a smaller contract. If he is reasonable, are they going to say no? What about a sleeper squad? St. Louis is seeking pitching talent, but they don't necessarily need any front-end players. His playoff rival would be a great story, and he could get his ticket to October today by signing there. It could be a winning combination of a friendly pitching park, a loyal fan base, and a veteran catcher like Yadier Molina.

Doolittle: It will either be the Dodgers, or retirement. Even with his Dallas roots, I don't see him playing in any other organization, not even the Rangers. Kershaw is still a good player, but I can see Kershaw looking back at his injuries last season, his contract expiring, and his entire career and deciding enough is enough. If he does decide to play, it is not with the Dodgers. I would be surprised if he didn't sign with the Rangers.

Gonzalez: There have been two reasons why Kershaw would not pitch for the Dodgers beyond the expire extension. Either he retires suddenly or the Texas Rangers call. While I still support Kershaw signing with the Dodgers for the offseason, I am not prepared to rule out one of the other possibilities. Kershaw's health is a concern, as the Rangers appear determined to spend this winter.

What do you think Justin Verlander's market looks like after this strong showcase?

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Olney: Evaluators compared Verlander's current situation to Corey Kluber last winter when the Yankees paid $11.5 million to Kluber despite his recent history of injuries. Verlander's medical history is much more clean than Kluber's, so I believe he will be able to do better. Verlander's work ethic is something I would wager on. He might land a three-year deal worth $55.2 million. Verlander may prefer to take a one year bet on himself so that he can go back into the free agent market next winter. There is a consensus among teams that Verlander wants the best chance of winning next year. Houston? The Yankees? The Dodgers? We'll be watching.

Rogers: It will be strong among the contending teams on a one-year or two-year contract. Houston should still consider a move, even if the qualifying offer is declined. If Scherzer is not available, the Dodgers would be very interesting. Could AJ Hinch convince him to return to Detroit, where the Tigers are rising and live in a weak division? Another good story. As a bounce-back candidate, he's very attractive and can't get too big of a paycheck.

Doolittle: Those reports suggest it's pretty solid. I don't think a team would give him more than two years unless there is an option year. You have to be aware that Verlander is hitting 97 already. He is one of the greatest pitchers of all time and is eager to continue his career. This pursuit should be pursued by the Tigers.

Gonzalez: Verlander is a highly sought-after free-agent starting agent. His desire, his health and the things he showed in a recent exercise should make him one of the most desirable among competing teams. He will be less expensive than Scherzer and Kershaw, but he will require no long-term commitment.