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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Ranking the top 5 free agent starting pitchers available to the Twins

The Twins finished with 85 wins last year and their days of losing appear to be behind them. That turnaround happened rather quickly under CBO Derek Falvey and GM Thad Levine – although it’s fair to say that it was mostly with a roster of talent acquired by Terry Ryan and even Bill Smith. Last winter Falvey and Levine slow-played things after they took over in Minnesota; catcher Jason Castro signing a 3-year deal was the highest wattage move that the Twins made. There’s an argument to be made that with a promising young core of position players and the flexibility to spend some money – plus a team hovering around the brink of contention – that this winter is the time to be aggressive and spend in free agency to upgrade the roster.

The universal opinion is that the highest priority in Minnesota should be pitching. Even after a postseason in which you’ll remember the bullpen performances as much or more as the starters, the game still values good starting pitching above all else. The Twins finished fourth in the American League in runs scored (815) and Weighted On-Base Average (.329). Their bats kept the club afloat.

Their pitching staff on the other hand combined for a 4.60 ERA, which ranked 9th in the A.L. The team ERA was much closer to last-place Detroit (5.36) than first-place Cleveland (3.30). Furthermore, the Twins used a remarkable 36 pitchers if you count Chris Gimenez – and I do – which was in large part a result of the fact that the team didn’t have enough quality depth. We shouldn’t need to dig into advanced metrics to illustrate that pitching ought to be Priority 1A this winter for the Twins. So let’s just get right into one way of fixing it.

Free agency.

The Twins aren’t reputed as being big spenders in the winter, but this is the first winter in which Falvey and Levine and in control of a team that’ll be expected to contend. I have no idea how they’ll treat this offseason. I just know that dismissing big spending as “not something the Twins do” would seem like a big error in judgment – overconfidence in the face of little information.

Here I’ve ranked the 5 guys I believe to be the best available starting pitchers on the free agent market, and I’ve order them in terms of preference assuming cost was no issue. Each of these guys deserves a full column on his own. Except Yu Darvish. Darvish probably deserves 10 columns. The rest of this column, then, provides 5 abbreviated thoughts on the 5 best free agents available to the Twins.

(Note: I’ve excluded Shohei Otani – Japan’s supposed Babe Ruth – from consideration for this list, since he’s not a free agent in the classic sense. For those curious, I’ve written about how the Twins and Otani could be a fit.)

1. Yu Darvish (Rangers, Dodgers)
MLB Trade Rumors guesstimate: 6 years, $160 million

Darvish was a great ace, got rocked in the World Series, and you could make the case that he’s the reason that the Dodgers didn’t win the whole thing. That argument gets pretty granular, but the short version is that the Dodgers traded for him to be the co-ace to Clayton Kershaw and he was not even close to that in the Fall Classic. Darvish in the World Series pitched 3 1/3 innings and got rocked for 9 runs (8 earned) on 9 hits, 2 home runs and 2 walks. Those 22 batters he faced at the end of L.A.’s run probably cost him some money this winter.

I’m fascinated by the argument that the baseballs used in the World Series were different – slicker – than the ones used during the regular season. Just to simplify things for the purpose of this column, let’s ignore what seems to be a growing belief that the manufacturing of the baseball might be leading to a power spike across Major League Baseball. The contention that the baseballs were more slippery and had a significant impact on the way sliders were thrown – that could have hurt Darvish more than other pitchers. Only 15 qualified starters threw a higher percentage of sliders in 2017.

Maybe the slider-proof baseball cost Darvish in the postseason and in the World Series, but either way, this was his second-worst season since joining the Major Leagues according to ERA+, an ERA-based stat that also adjusts for ballpark and opponents.

His strikeout rate dropped but was still strong; he’s 31 years old and may require a long-term commitment; his fielding-independent numbers were the worst of his career in 2017; he hit the disabled list with a back injury in August; then there are the playoff performance questions.

There are very real reasons to shy away from committing more than $100 million to Darvish. And with all that being said, I still think he’s the best pitcher available on the free agent market.

2. Jake Arrieta (Cubs)
MLB Trade Rumors guesstimate: 4 years, $100 million

Arrieta is more accomplished and probably better than any current Twins starting pitcher. He’ll get a lot of money in free agency. He also had a relatively down year this season after winning the 2015 N.L. Cy Young Award and 2016 World Series for the Cubs.

The former-Oriole-turned-Cubs-ace posted a 3.53 ERA, his worst mark since become the top-of-the-rotation force we know him as today. In his Cy Young year, that was a microscopic 1.77 ERA in 229 innings. This year he pitched 168 1/3 innings during the regular season, and was his best in the second half. A hamstring injury meant he only pitched three times in September, but over his final 14 starts of the year he had a 2.26 ERA before pitching just twice in the postseason for the Cubs.

His strikeout rate went down slightly. So did his swing-and-miss rate – into the realm of mortals, at 8.7%, which is worse than the rates of Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson and J.O. Berrios from 2017. Arrieta’s fielding-Independent numbers this year were as bad as they’ve been since 2013, and so was his groundball rate and home run rate.

He’s still a quality starter and he’d make the Twins better even if his best days are behind him. There’s also the upside that the dominant ace is still in there and the Twins and their new pitching coach Garvin Alston can rediscover that magic and unlock the Arrieta of old.

3. Alex Cobb (Rays)
MLB Trade Rumors guesstimate: 4 years, $48 million

Cobb has a good backstory and that counts for a little in this analysis, but not much. He’d know new Twins bench coach Derek Shelton from the time both spent with the Rays from 2011-16, and Shelton and former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey are apparently great friends. The Twins could have an inside track on a Cobb scouting report.

He made No. 3 on my list because he posted a 3.66 ERA despite a pedestrian 17.3% strikeout rate (think Hector Santiago and Kyle Gibson). Cobb has a 3.50 ERA in exactly 700 career innings, despite never being an eye-catching strikeout artist. He used to rely on mostly ground balls, but this year that ability went down a bit in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.  His career groundball rate of 54% is real good, and it would have ranked second among A.L. starters in 2017.

That rate went down to 47.8% this year, and that could be due to more or less ditching his splitter after his surgery. Cobb had TJ surgery in May of 2015 and returned in September of 2016, so it basically wiped out two seasons for the former highly regarded pitching prospect.  Last year he became more of a sinker-curveball pitcher, after years of relying on the splitter more than one-third of the time. Last season that splitter usage was down to about 6% in August and September, according to Brooks Baseball.

So Cobb’s career numbers might not even be a great measuring stick. He’s a different kind of pitcher now. But I’d think it’s encouraging that he’s adaptable, and with another year beyond his ligament replacement surgery, maybe his stuff gets even better next year. Who knows. Or perhaps it could stay the same and his ERA could gravitate to his 4.24 xFIP and suddenly Cobb wouldn’t look all that special. Really, who knows?

I’m not here to make the argument that Cobb is a better pitcher than Arrieta. But he is a year younger and if MLB Trade Rumors is close in their contract projections, I think I’d rather have Cobb and an extra 52 million bucks to spend in another area.

4. Lance Lynn (Cardinals)
MLB Trade Rumors guesstimate: 4 years, $56 million

The Twins have made contact over Lynn, according to a report from our friend and 1500ESPN contributor Darren Wolfson. Of the 5 guys on this list, I have the most trouble assessing what I think of Lynn. On one hand, the longtime Cardinals starter posted the best ERA+ in 2017 among these 5 starters (124 ERA+). On the other hand, his 4.82 FIP and other peripheral stats are a lot worse than you’d expect to see from a guy who has never posted an ERA higher than 4.00.

Lynn is 30 years old and had Tommy John surgery at the end of 2015, wiping out his 2016 season. So 2017 is the only year we have to go off of if we’re trying to capture who the new Lynn is – an important first step if we’re to project the future Lynn’s value.

The good news is that he ran a 3.43 ERA in 186 innings, and he’s the proud owner of a 3.38 ERA in almost 980 career innings with the Cardinals in the National League. If you’re looking to poke holes in his candidacy to become the next rich starting pitcher, you’d point out that his strikeout rate dipped to below average this year (19.7%), to go along with his league-average groundball rate. He also walked batters more often than he had any year prior – his 10.1% walk rate is up from a pre-surgery career mark of 8.9%.

There are red flags. He’d make the Twins’ starting rotation better. Right now I’m not sure how to reconcile those two facts.

5. C.C. Sabathia (Yankees)
MLB Trade Rumors guesstimate: 2 years, $24 million

Sabathia’s career resurgence in New York has me intrigued. Maybe I’m weird; I’m more interested in the 37-year-old than I am in Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner or Tyler Chatwood. Michael Pineda might be more interesting if not for mid-summer Tommy John surgery. Maybe that’s a future play.

As for Sabathia, after a couple of down years in his mid-30s, the former Indians ace got his ERA back under 4.00 in 2016 in New York. He followed that up this season with his best year by ERA since 2012. Sabathia is about average when it comes to strikeout rate and walk rate, and he’s not the flamethrower he was back in the day. His fastball now is more 91-92 mph as opposed to the 94-95 you saw when he was with Cleveland. But he’s also gone through a bit of reinvention, trading his four-seamer for a two-seam sinking fastball. In fact, in 2017, Sabathia featured different stuff than we’d grown accustomed to: he was a sinker-cutter-slider guy who threw almost as many changeups as 2-seam fastballs, according to Brooks Baseball.

I was curious to see his name near the top of the leaderboard for weakest average exit velocity in 2017.

I don’t know what to expect from the former staff ace as he enters his late-30s. I don’t know if it’d require a multi-year contract to sign him. I don’t know if he’d like the idea of pitching in Minnesota.

The other four appear to be somewhat of a consensus as the best four names on the board. I’m tossing Sabathia in the conversation as the fifth-best staring pitcher available on the free agent market.

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