Ranking the top 20 free-agent starting pitchers in a deep, question-filled class

Ranking the top 20 free-agent starting pitchers in a deep, question-filled class

If you’re looking for former Cy Young Award winners and future Hall of Famers, this is a fantastic, all-time crop of free-agent starting pitchers.

If you’re looking for in-their-prime starting pitchers without any major injury risk attached on a long-term contract, this offseason class is a bit lacking.

It’s a fascinating mix of past greatness and future question marks, meaning front offices in search of impact arms will have to take some big gambles, while teams needing mid-rotation help can choose from a deep group of appealing options.

Below is The Athletic’s guide to the biggest names, the best and worst bets, and the potential diamonds in the rough among free-agent starting pitchers.

(Note: All listed ages are as of June 30, 2023.)

1. Jacob deGrom, RHP

Age in 2023: 35
Last team: Mets

Jacob deGrom’s free-agent market is capped only by aging and injuries, because when healthy enough to take the mound he’s been the best pitcher in the world for five years and one of Major League Baseball’s top half-dozen pitchers for nearly a decade. He won back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019, and placed third in the abbreviated 2020 season, but was limited to 26 starts the past two seasons.

Elbow and shoulder injuries sidelined deGrom from July 2021 to August 2022, but he returned with his high-90s fastball and power slider intact, striking out 102 in 62 innings. Among all starters in MLB history with at least 60 innings, his 2022 strikeout rate of 14.3 per nine innings is tied for first … with himself from 2021. His career ERA is 2.52, including 2.05 since 2018.

DeGrom was a late bloomer, making his MLB debut at 26, and he’s somehow gotten better with age while maintaining his otherworldly raw stuff despite the injuries. His average fastball velocity led all starters in 2022 (98.9 mph), 2021 (99.2) and 2020 (98.6), and it’s not even deGrom’s best pitch. That honor goes to his low-90s slider, which is one of the great breaking balls of all time.

Opponents have hit .170 versus deGrom’s slider in the past five years, including .139 with a 54 percent swing-and-miss rate in 2022 and .096 with a 58 percent whiff rate in 2021. Oh, and he also occasionally uses a low-90s changeup that’s as good as many All-Stars’ best pitch. He’s like a video game’s create-a-pitcher with all of the ratings maxed out. Except for health. Had to skimp somewhere.

DeGrom seems certain to join Max Scherzer ($43 million) and Gerrit Cole ($36 million) as the only pitchers making more than $35 million per season, but how many years will even the biggest-payroll teams be willing to hand a soon-to-be 35-year-old with 156 innings the past two seasons? No one compares on a per-start basis, so we’re about to find out how front offices weigh risk versus reward.

2. Carlos Rodón, LHP

Age in 2023: 30
Last team: Giants

Shedding an “injury-prone” label takes time and it never fully goes away. Carlos Rodón was the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft and reached the majors 10 months later, but shoulder problems kept him from being the front-line starter everyone expected. Then elbow surgery knocked him out for most of 2019 and 2020, and the White Sox cut him. Two months later, he re-signed for just $3 million.

Rodón’s long-awaited breakout came in 2021. He threw an April no-hitter, and had a 2.38 ERA with 160 strikeouts in 110 innings through early August. Then more shoulder issues limited him to just 23 innings in Chicago’s final 50 games. He was a free agent again last offseason, but teams weren’t willing to make him a big long-term offer, so Rodón settled for a short-term deal with the Giants.

This time Rodón was dominant and healthy all season, posting a 2.88 ERA in a career-high 31 starts and striking out 237 in a career-high 178 innings. Among pitchers with at least 50 starts in the past two years, he was first in strikeout rate (12.2/9), second in OPS against (.567) and fourth in ERA (2.67). Back on the market at age 30, will past injuries again keep him from being paid like an ace?

There’s no doubt Rodón’s injury history carries major risk on a multi-year deal, but that’s not unique in this class. DeGrom is five years older and just returned from a 13-month absence. Justin Verlander is 10 years older and spent two of the past three seasons recovering from elbow surgery. Clayton Kershaw is five years older and hasn’t made 30 starts in a season since 2015. You get the idea.

Rodón is a 30-year-old lefty with a mid-90s fastball and a filthy slider coming off back-to-back Cy Young-caliber seasons, and if anything he’s been healthier recently than many free-agent starters. Last offseason, Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman got five-year deals worth $115 million and $110 million, respectively. That should be the baseline for Rodón unless the injury-prone label intercedes.

3. Justin Verlander, RHP

Age in 2023: 40
Last team: Astros

Justin Verlander won his second Cy Young Award in 2019 and then missed all but one start of the next two seasons following Tommy John surgery, returning in 2022 to likely win his third Cy Young, at age 39. With an MLB-leading 1.75 ERA in 175 innings, he produced the most Wins Above Replacement by a 39-year-old pitcher since Joe Niekro five years before Verlander was born.

It’s remarkable, on every level, further solidifying Verlander’s place as an inner-circle Hall of Famer and one of the greatest pitchers of all time. But now he’s a soon-to-be 40-year-old looking for what may be his final contract. Last spring, when Verlander hadn’t pitched in 20 months, the Astros gave him a two-year, $50 million deal with an opt-out. So what’s he worth after a third Cy Young?

From a stuff standpoint, Verlander is as overpowering as ever, throwing harder than he did 10 years ago and holding opponents to sub-.200 batting averages on each of his three main pitches. His mid-90s fastball, thrown about half the time and mostly up in the zone, was the second-best four-seamer used by a starter in 2022, and his hard slider and slower curveball were elite, bat-missing weapons.

Verlander relentlessly attacked hitters, with just 29 walks versus 185 strikeouts, and he allowed only 12 homers after serving up an average of 30 a season from 2016-19. His strikeout rate dipped last season, going from great to very good in what could be a potential red flag, but that’s also something that often improves further from surgery. If any 40-year-old can get a three-year contract, it’s him.

4. Clayton Kershaw, LHP

Age in 2023: 35
Last team: Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw was a free agent last offseason and flirted with his hometown Texas Rangers before re-signing with the Dodgers in mid-March, agreeing to a one-year deal worth $17 million plus incentives. It’s hard to envision the future Hall of Famer not ending up back with the Dodgers again, because he’s played his entire 15-year career in Los Angeles and because he’s still damn good.

Kershaw avoided the elbow problems that ended his 2021 season early, but he was limited to just 22 starts by the back issues that have plagued him on a near-annual basis for almost a decade. He hasn’t thrown 180 innings since 2015 and hasn’t topped 130 innings since 2019, and his fastball is down almost five mph from his peak, averaging just 90.7 mph in 2022.

And yet Kershaw still posted a 2.22 ERA with a sparkling 137-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 126 innings, numbers most starters would call a career year. It’s a credit to his pitching genius that the diminished health and velocity can’t stop him from sub-3.00 ERAs. Kershaw has thrown his fastball less than 40 percent of the time in back-to-back seasons, rebranding as a slider-first pitcher.

On a per-start basis the three-time Cy Young winner remains elite — his 2.76 ERA since 2020 ranks seventh in MLB — but the goal is now 125 innings and playoff readiness. Verlander left Detroit at 34 and became a late-career legend for a second team, so perhaps Kershaw doing the same shouldn’t be dismissed, but another one-year deal with the Dodgers makes sense for everyone involved.

5. Kodai Senga, RHP

Age in 2023: 30
Last team: Hawks (Japan)

One of the elite pitchers in Japan for the past decade, Kodai Senga is the wild card of this free-agent class. Regardless of the country or league, there’s rarely certainty that star-level performances elsewhere will translate to MLB, and in this case the price to find out figures to be substantial given Senga’s impressive resume through age 29 and his status as an outright free agent.

Senga has a 2.42 ERA and 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings across 11 seasons in Japan, including a 1.96 ERA and 159 strikeouts in 148 innings last season. His relatively high walk rate is a potential red flag, but Senga’s raw stuff is billed as excellent, with a high-90s fastball that reaches triple digits, a very good forkball and two usable breaking balls.

Some scouting reports on Senga suggest his best chance to dominate in MLB could be as a two-pitch reliever, and perhaps that will become a fallback plan if his control issues are difficult to overcome, but enough teams likely view him as a starter to receive big long-term offers. He recently signed a five-year extension with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, but included an opt-out to pursue MLB.

6. Nathan Eovaldi, RHP

Age in 2023: 33
Last team: Red Sox

Nathan Eovaldi followed up 2021’s fourth-place Cy Young finish by carrying a 3.16 ERA into mid-June, but the rest of his 2022 was wrecked by shoulder and back injuries. He started just eight of Boston’s last 105 games, allowing 27 runs in 41 innings as his average fastball velocity dipped from 96.8 mph in April and May to 94.1 mph in August and September.

Eovaldi has always been one of MLB’s hardest-throwing starters, so it’s unclear if he can remain a front-line arm throwing 93-95 instead of 96-98. He’s become a strike-throwing machine in his 30s, with just 1.6 walks per nine innings since 2020, but command lapses within the zone have turned into homers. If the velo doesn’t return, his splitter and curveball will need to do a lot of heavy lifting.

Like many of the starters listed above him, health is the biggest key for Eovaldi, who ranks 20th in FIP and 27th in ERA+ since 2020 for pitchers with 50-plus starts. If healthy and throwing 96-98, he’s a good No. 2 starter, but his second-half struggles can be traced directly to injuries that have the potential to linger and he’s never been known for durability.

Age in 2023: 34
Last team: Mets

Chris Bassitt totaled just 191 big-league innings in his 20s, but since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2018 he’s quietly been one of MLB’s best starters, posting a 3.29 ERA in 594 innings. Over that span, his 124 ERA+ ranks 19th among pitchers with 75-plus starts, sandwiched between Zack Wheeler (127) and Luis Castillo (123).

Bassitt lacks high-end stuff, instead relying on a deep pitch mix led by a 92-94 mph sinker to generate grounders while his four-seam fastball, cutter, slider and curveball each miss a fair amount of bats. His walk and strikeout rates are good, not great, but he limits damage by being hard to square up, allowing fewer than one homer per nine innings each of the past three seasons.

Traded from the A’s to the Mets after the lockout, Bassitt set career-highs with 30 starts and 182 innings, showing that his approach still works away from the pitcher-friendly dimensions in Oakland. Bassitt straddles the line between No. 2 starter and mid-rotation starter, and he’s older than his résumé would suggest, but few pitchers have been as consistently competent for the past five seasons.

8. Tyler Anderson, LHP

Age in 2023: 33
Last team: Dodgers

Tyler Anderson came into 2022 with a career 4.62 ERA, including a 4.49 ERA the previous two years even after leaving Colorado. Far from a hot commodity last offseason, he signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Dodgers after the lockout and made his first All-Star team at age 32, going 15-5 with a 2.57 ERA in 179 innings, including a 2.01 ERA after July 1. And yet, skepticism abounds.

Los Angeles has led the NL in ERA every year since 2017. No team reinvents more scrap-heap finds like Anderson with coaching and analytics. And no team more optimally positions its defense to aid pitchers by turning an absurdly high percentage of balls in play into outs. They tweaked his changeup, turning it into a weapon, and they allowed a .257 batting average on balls in play behind him.

Only five NL starters had a lower BABIP than Anderson and two of them were rotation mates Julio Urías and Tony Gonsolin. It’s not a coincidence. As a staff, the Dodgers had a .256 BABIP. No other NL team was below .280. Anderson is better than he was before joining the Dodgers, but he’s unlikely to be as good anywhere else. How much of his improvement can stick is the big question.

9. Jameson Taillon, RHP

Age in 2023: 31
Last team: Yankees

After spending the majority of 2019 and all of 2020 on the Pirates’ injured list, Jameson Taillon turned in back-to-back healthy years in the Yankees’ rotation, starting 29 and 32 games. Taillon no longer has the high-octane raw stuff from his prospect days, which is understandable after multiple elbow surgeries and a bout with testicular cancer, but he’s settled in as a solid mid-rotation starter.

Taillon’s control took a big step forward two years removed from elbow surgery, with just 32 walks in 177 innings for the AL’s fifth-lowest rate. He’s got a deep pitch mix led by a mid-90s fastball, using curveballs (versus righties and lefties) and sliders (versus righties) to get swinging strikes. Dialing back his sinker has turned Taillon into a fly-ball pitcher susceptible to homers.

Given his non-linear career path and demonstrated ability to alter his approach, Taillon seemingly has more potential for upside than most 30-year-old veterans, but he’s also a league-average starter as is. In recent offseasons, starters like him have tended to get two- or three-year deals worth around $12 million per, but it wouldn’t be surprising if some teams value the former No. 2 pick a bit higher.

10. Taijuan Walker, RHP

Age in 2023: 30
Last team: Mets

Needing to reinvent himself after several years wrecked by arm injuries, Taijuan Walker developed a splitter that can be the key to the second half of his career. Playing off his mid-90s fastball, Walker’s high-80s splitter tricks hitters before falling off the table, inducing some pitiful-looking swings and misses. He threw 28 percent splitters in 2022, but the pitch ended 41 percent of his strikeouts.

And when contact was made against Walker’s splitter it had a negative average launch angle, meaning hitters pounded it directly into the ground, producing a .195 batting average and just two homers. That pitch, and back-to-back healthy seasons topping 150 innings for the first time since 2017, have Walker looking like a viable multi-year investment again. And he’s still just 30 years old.

Walker lacks a second above-average pitch, and his fastball got knocked around too often last season despite good velocity, but he has a deep repertoire of usable offerings and generally throws strikes. Two offseason ago, when injuries were a much bigger worry, Walker got a two-year, $20 million deal from the Mets that included a $6 million 2023 player option that became a no-brainer to decline.

11. José Quintana, LH

Age in 2023: 34
Last team: Cardinals

José Quintana was one of MLB’s best left-handers during six seasons with the White Sox, but his performance declined after a mid-2017 trade to the Cubs, and he was so bad in 2021 that the Pirates were able to sign him for $2 million last offseason. Pittsburgh got Quintana back on track and then shipped him to St. Louis, where he posted a 2.01 ERA in 12 starts after the trade deadline.

Quintana’s strikeout rate was just 20.2 percent, below the MLB average and his worst mark since 2013. His walk rate was average-ish and nearly identical to his career mark. So how did he turn things around and throw 166 innings with the first sub-3.00 ERA of his career at age 33? By not allowing homers. He gave up an MLB-low 0.4 homers per nine innings, including just one for the Cardinals.

While he’s generally done a good job limiting homers in the past, eight homers in 32 starts simply isn’t sustainable, especially attached to a neutral ground-ball rate. That doesn’t mean Quintana hasn’t legitimately resurrected his career, but rather that expecting him to be more than a quality mid-rotation starter would probably be a mistake requiring his low-90s fastball to remain damage-proof.

12. Andrew Heaney, LHP

Age in 2023: 32
Last team: Dodgers

Andrew Heaney was one of the first free agents to sign last offseason, getting a one-year, $8.5 million deal from the Dodgers in early November despite a 5.73 ERA in 2021 and a career 4.72 ERA. As usual, the Dodgers were right. He had an age-31 breakout, posting a 3.10 ERA and 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings by all but ditching his changeup and relying almost solely on fastballs and sliders.

His raw stuff was legitimately on another level in 2022, as Heaney’s fastball was up 1-2 mph and his slider was 3-4 mph harder than the curveball that served as his primary breaking ball previously. However, he also gave up 14 homers in 73 innings, a near-match for his bloated career rate, and Heaney was limited to 14 starts by shoulder problems that required two lengthy injured list stints.

Clearly the Dodgers were able to unlock something in Heaney, but interested teams must now decide how much they believe in his overall improvement and how much they trust his shoulder. Reintroducing his once-decent changeup to go with the souped-up fastball-slider combo may be intriguing, although suitors betting on his breakout probably don’t want to stray far from the Dodgers’ plan.

13. Noah Syndergaard, RHP

Age in 2023: 30
Last team: Phillies

Noah Syndergaard’s full-season return from Tommy John surgery was a success in that he stayed off the injured list and posted a decent-looking 3.94 ERA, but it was otherwise pretty discouraging. Once the majors’ hardest-throwing starter, Syndergaard’s fastball was missing 4-5 mph, and as a result his go-to changeup lost effectiveness when paired with a pitch that was 93-95 instead of 96-98.

Syndergaard whiffed at least a batter per inning in each season with the Mets, but his strikeout rate plummeted to 6.3 per nine innings last season, well below the MLB average of 8.2 for starters. He totaled just 31 strikeouts in 55 innings after a midseason trade to the Phillies, abandoning his four-seam fastball and nearly doubling his sinker usage in search of grounders rather than strikeouts.

That version of Thor lacks upside beyond a mid-rotation starter, but pounding the strike zone and keeping the ball on the ground is certainly a viable recipe for success in that realm. Syndergaard got a one-year, $21 million contract from the Angels last offseason and that level of annual salary is surely out of the question now, but some teams may still be willing to bet on his velocity returning.

14. Martín Pérez, LHP

Age in 2023: 32
Last team: Rangers

One of last offseason’s great values, Martín Pérez signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Rangers after the lockout and became a first-time All-Star at age 31, logging 196 innings with a 2.86 ERA following eight straight seasons with an ERA over 4.00. Pérez has had plenty of successful stretches before, but this was the first time he sustained it for an entire season.

Now the question is how much his improvement can be trusted as teams weigh whether to value Pérez as the 2022 All-Star or as the journeyman with a career 4.71 ERA coming into 2022. Pérez ditched his four-seam fastball and threw 60 percent sinkers and cutters, leading to a large increase in ground-ball rate. And his changeup remained an effective weapon versus right-handed hitters.

Pérez made enough clear approach changes to avoid labeling his 2022 purely a fluke, but ultimately his improvement can be traced almost entirely to allowing just 11 homers in 196 innings. His strikeout and walk rates were middling, and similar to career norms, but he gave up just 0.5 homers per nine innings, down from 1.3 the previous five seasons. That’s unlikely to be sustainable.

15. Sean Manaea, LHP

Age in 2023: 31
Last team: Padres

Sean Manaea’s go-to changeup failed him in 2022, turning his lone season with San Diego into a mess after six solid years in Oakland. As usual, the left-hander used the pitch nearly a third of the time versus right-handed batters, but instead of neutralizing them, his changeup got clobbered for a .528 slugging percentage compared to .305 the previous three years. He had a 4.96 ERA in 158 innings.

Within his overall struggles, Manaea’s sinker-slider combo was still effective as he held lefties to a .185 batting average and posted a strikeout rate in line with career norms. Teams convinced they can fix Manaea’s changeup likely view him as a solid mid-rotation option, but below-average velocity and middling control leave little margin for error if they’re wrong.

Manaea has benefited from pitcher-friendly home ballparks in both Oakland and San Diego. His career ERA is 3.68 at home and 4.45 on the road, with a 20 percent increase in homers and a 25-point jump in batting average on balls in play explaining the difference. He also hasn’t been quite the same since his 2019 shoulder surgery, looking much more like a No. 4 starter than a No. 2 starter.

16. Zach Eflin, RHP

Age in 2023: 29
Last team: Phillies

Zach Eflin is the youngest pitcher on this list, reaching free agency five months before his 29th birthday, but knee surgeries in multiple seasons mean he carries injury risk like many older starters. He missed three months in mid-2022 with knee pain, returning as a reliever in September and throughout October to post a 2.45 ERA and 21-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 innings.

Eflin has been an average-or-better starter in five straight years, but he’s thrown more than 130 innings just once, in 2019. He throws strikes with a 92-94 mph sinker that limits homers and a slow curveball that got a whiff on 44 percent of swings in 2022, giving Eflin a bit more upside than standard mid-rotation fare. It’s possible some teams will prefer him as a reliever if they don’t trust his knee.

17. Ross Stripling, RHP

Age in 2023: 33
Last team: Blue Jays

He’s spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, first in Los Angeles and then in Toronto, but when given extended chances to start Ross Stripling has more than held his own. He began 2022 as a long reliever, but ended up making 24 starts for the Blue Jays with a 2.92 ERA and 100-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123 innings.

Stripling’s low-90s fastball and lack of a swing-and-miss breaking ball are why he hasn’t been handed full-time rotation spots, but he’s got a 3.86 ERA in 104 career starts, including a 3.77 ERA in 45 starts for Toronto and a 3.93 ERA in 59 starts for Los Angeles. His mistakes tend to get crushed for homers, but he throws strikes and keeps left-handed hitters off balance with a good changeup.

18. Mike Clevinger, RHP

Age in 2023: 32
Last team: Padres

Mike Clevinger seemed to run out of gas in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, allowing 34 runs in his final 54 regular-season innings before two awful playoff starts. However, before things unraveled he was looking a lot like his pre-surgery self, averaging 94.1 mph on his fastball and posting a 3.13 ERA with 59 strikeouts through 60 innings.

Clevinger turns 32 in December and this was his second Tommy John surgery, so the front-line, bat-missing starter with a 3.20 career ERA for Cleveland may be gone for good, but it seems natural to think he could be a solid mid-rotation option another year removed from surgery. He feels like a prime candidate for a one-year deal to reestablish his value and re-enter the market next offseason.

19. Michael Wacha, RHP

Age in 2023: 31
Last team: Red Sox

Micheal Wacha struggled for most of 2021 with Tampa Bay, but he finished on a high note with a 45-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 39 innings to earn a one-year, $7 million deal from Boston last offseason. Building on that success in 2022, he started 23 times with a 3.32 ERA and 104-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 127 innings for his best season since his lone All-Star year in 2015.

Wacha never became the front-line starter many expected based on his excellent first few years with the Cardinals, posting a combined 4.62 ERA in 673 innings from 2016 to 2021. However, he’s still just 31 years old and, while his fastball is far too hittable, Wacha has relied on it less and less recently while leaning more on his great changeup. His last 30 starts show some upside remains.

20. Johnny Cueto, RHP

Age in 2023: 37
Last team: White Sox

Multiple contending teams with rotation holes bypassed Johnny Cueto after the lockout, preferring other low-cost veterans. He waited until after the season was underway to get a minor-league contract from the White Sox and wasn’t added to the active roster until May 16, at which point he started every fifth game for the next five months and finished with a 3.35 ERA in 158 innings.

Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber and Framber Valdez were the only AL pitchers with more innings than Cueto after mid-May, which is remarkable for a 36-year-old who hadn’t topped 150 innings since 2016. His velocity tank is empty, but he’s a master at keeping hitters off balance with a five-pitch mix and varied deliveries, avoiding walks and hard contact while getting chases outside the strike zone.

(Top photo of Jacob deGrom: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

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