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Wetmore: Should the Twins be interested in any of the ‘Big 4’ starting pitchers at the rumored asking price?

The Twins report to Fort Myers for spring training in about 5 weeks and it’s reasonable to guess that their bidding is not complete. At a time of year when, historically, most good baseball players have found their place of employment for the upcoming year, this year looks a little different. Most of the premier free agents this time around are still stuck on the sidelines waiting to cash in.

That includes the consensus four best starting pitchers available in free agency.

Two months ago I wrote about the 5 best starting pitchers available to the Twins in free agency. Four out of those 5 are looking for work as of this writing. They won’t struggle to find a job this month. They all belong in a big league rotation. It’s just that they must not have found the salary that they’re looking for, and the new baseball season looms.

I’ve tracked the rumors and ramblings this winter as it pertains to the Twins and the pitching market as a whole. The team basically sat out the bullpen derby that took place with good relievers at the winter meetings. Then they got Fernando Rodney on a cheaper, less risky contract than other late-inning relievers got in December. Then they added lefty Zack Duke to the fold. But the starting pitching market – especially at the top – remains untapped.

This column asks a simple question: Would you take Pitcher X at his highest rumored asking price?

For each pitcher, I’ve also included the highest rumored asking price or the longest term.

Yu Darvish … ???

I haven’t seen a specific dollar figure floated in the media billed as Darvish’s asking price. I’ve read reports that he’s seeking 5 or more years, and even read speculation that he’ll look to get 7 or 8 years. The website MLB Trade Rumors in November guessed that Darvish would sign for 6 years and $160 million ($26.67 per season).

It’s easy to get itchy about that price tag. Darvish has logged a lot of innings, got shelled twice in the World Series, and has a history of arm troubles and injuries. He’s also the best starting pitcher available on the free agent market. That’s why you get a high price tag. With a lot of good teams reportedly interested in his services for next year and beyond, you could imagine a bidding match unfolding. But I’m also left wondering about these reports that the financial giants of the sport are interested in remaining in line with the luxury tax limitations – at least for this season. How does the math on Darvish jibe with that line of thinking?

The Twins aren’t in any danger of clearing the luxury tax threshold of $197 million, not even close. Still, that’s a significant financial risk for a mid-market team for a 31-year-old ace, especially if you’re not sold on Darvish as one of the premium aces in the game.

On the flip side, when will be your next best chance to roll out a rotation of Darvish, J.O. Berrios and Ervin Santana? And unlike the other three pitchers on this list, Darvish won’t cost a draft pick as compensation for his signing. So in that way, it’s like saving a prospect if a team signs him rather than one of the other three on this list.

If you put this deal in front of me and said sign it or leave it — $160 million for 6 years of Yu Darvish – I would leave it.

Jake Arrieta … 6 years, $160 million?

Bruce Levine of Chicago’s 670 The Score reported that Arrieta will look for 6 years and $160 million. Ken Rosenthal has reported that it could be as much as $200 million in asking price. The Cubs reportedly would do $27.5 million per year, but only if it was a 4-year deal ($110M).

Let’s take the median value there. Would you sign Arrieta for 6/$160M?

I wouldn’t. I think there are enough concerns about his diminished control that I wouldn’t feel good about a bet that he’ll even return to his Cy Young form of 2015. More and more, teams pay for future performance in free agency, as opposed to yesteryear when you’d frequently see an aging veteran paid for his past contributions.

The former-Oriole-turned-Cubs-ace posted a 3.53 ERA and got hurt last 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. His 23.1% strikeout rate ranked 24th among qualified starters. His swing-and-miss rate dropped 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. Will that be a leading indicator for his strikeout rate in the future? Arrieta’s fielding-Independent numbers this year were as bad as they’ve been since 2013, and so was his groundball rate and his home run rate.

I think that Arrieta is a good pitcher and will make his next team better. I just think that if I was the Twins I wouldn’t want to pay him like a great pitcher.

If you’re the Twins, would you rather have Jake Arrieta or Chris Archer?

Alex Cobb … 5 years, and ???

Cobb’s agent denied a report that his client was seeking $20 million annually. More recently the reports on Cobb have been that he’s in the $17 million to $19 million asking price. He’ll also cost his next team a compensatory draft pick because he turned down Tampa Bay’s Qualifying Offer.  (So will Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn; Darvish has no compensation tied to his signing.)

The compensation plus the reported contract requests make this possibility a significant investment for the mid-market Twins.

I like Cobb a lot. When I saw the MLB Trade Rumors projection in November that guessed he’d make $48 million over 4 years on his next contract, I thought the Twins should be in on that in a second. What if it’s $90 million over 5 years, though? That gets harder to swallow.

I like Cobb’s back story, I like what I’ve read about his character and his ability as a teammate, and I also like what he represents on the mound. Here’s a guy who got hurt — 2017 was his first full year back from Tommy John surgery – and came back to pitch well. And that’s only part of the story. Cobb posted a 3.66 ERA in about 180 innings with a middling 17.3% strikeout rate – and he did it without one of his biggest weapons. Whether it was injury or some other reason, Cobb ditched his split-changeup during the season. I wonder if that hurt his career-long ability to get a lot of groundballs. His ground ball rate dropped from 54% to 47.8% last year, a meaningful difference that in theory should have really crushed a starting pitcher who doesn’t hang his hat on strikeouts. Only for Cobb, it didn’t crush him. It’s possible that he’ll continue to be more of a sinker-curve ball pitcher now. And it worked for him last year.

The Twins also hired former Rays assistant Derek Shelton and pitching analyst Josh Kalk, the latter of whom should be a terrific source of knowledge on who Cobb is as a pitcher, and more importantly, what he could be over the next few years.

The Twins are in a good position with financial flexibility. They’re in need of more quality pitching. And they’ve got the inside track on knowing the most about a guy like Cobb. If it’s 5/$90M, I wouldn’t feel confident about handing out that rich deal for Cobb. But I like Cobb’s ability to reinvent and I think it justifies making him the secondary target behind Yu Darvish this January.

Signing Alex Cobb — or several other choice free agents — would cost Twins a high draft pick

Lance Lynn … As of mid-October, Lynn was seeking more than 5 years, $100 million (report: Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

MLB Trade Rumors guessed in November that he’d earn $56 million over four years. There’s a huge gap between those two price tags. Either way, I think I’m out on Lynn. I don’t see his next four years as being in the same class of Darvish, Arrieta or Cobb.

You’ve read all offseason about the Big 4 starting pitchers available on the traditional free agent market. I think that was being kind to Cobb and Lynn. In my opinion, we’re actually looking at three tiers of pitchers lumped into one. Darvish gets his own tier; Arrieta and Cobb represent tier 2, unless Arrieta can regain his former dominance; and then Lynn is by himself on tier 3.

The Twins have been in contact with Lance Lynn, according to 1500ESPN contributor Darren Wolfson. But Wolfson also tweeted recently that they’ve been in touch with Chris Tillman. My uneducated guess is that if you’re a pitcher without a job lined up for next year, the Twins have tried to contact you.

Lynn would cost you a draft pick and a big contract. I see him as more of a mid-rotation starting pitcher, and there are red flags.

On one hand, the longtime Cardinals starter posted a strong 124 ERA+ in 2017. That’s the best adjusted ERA – which factors in ballparks and opponents – among these four starts last year.

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.

Like Cobb, Lynn has a Tommy John surgery on his medical report. The longtime Cardinals starter had his ligament repaired at the end of the 2015 season and it wiped out his 2016 season. If we’re trying to figure out how good post-surgery Lynn will be, all that we have to go off of is his 2017 performance.

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. But if you want to find a reason to not even think about paying him $100 million, you’d highlight 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%.

Here’s what I wrote about Lynn in early November.

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

I haven’t materially changed that opinion. Toss around that $100 million figure, though, and it helps me make my decision in a hurry.

Note: C.C. Sabathia was the fifth starter on my original list. He agreed to return to the Yankees. It should also be noted that Tyler Chatwood got more than $12.5 million per year over 3 seasons, and all else being equal, the four of these pitchers are more highly regarded.

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