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2018-19 MLB Free Agency Preview: Starting Pitchers

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Will the Brewers spend big on the starting rotation? We’ll see!

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

MLB Free Agency has officially begun, and without a top-ranked farm system in place, it’s likely that our Milwaukee Brewers will have to survey the open market if they want to make any truly impactful additions this offseason. The Brewers treated us to their best season in a generation in 2018 and have quite an array of talent under control for next year, but there are still a few spots around the diamond where the team could use an upgrade or additional depth. With close to a projected $110 mil on the books already for 2019, Slingin’ David Stearns and company may have to get creative in their dealings this winter.

In the coming days we’ll be surveying the free agent market to get an idea of who the strongest available players are and at what positions. We’ve already taken a look at the players available on the infield and in the outfield, as well as the bullpen arms on the open market. Today, our focus will be on the starting pitchers:

Like last winter, this year’s free agent market has two starting pitchers that are considered to be ahead of everyone else out there. Last year it was a couple of righties in Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, this time around we are looking at two southpaws: Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel.

Corbin, who will turn 30 next summer, had an up-and-down career with the Diamondbacks before breaking out in a big way this past season. He missed all of 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and looked more the part of a back-end starter for the next few years leading up to the 2018 season. Corbin’s velocity dipped to a career-low 91.3 MPH, but he increased his reliance on his sinker, doubled down on his slider usage, and all but nixed his changeup in favor of a new curveball that was added to his arsenal. That helped him produce one of the top swinging-strike rates in baseball this year (15.6%), leading to a career-high in strikeouts. All-in-all, Corbin put together a 3.15 ERA across an even 200.0 innings for Arizona, with FIP- (60) and DRA- (61) rating him as one of the league’s top pitchers. He whiffed 246 batters while walking only 48 and kept the ball in the park to the tune of a 0.68 HR/9. Corbin received and rejected a Qualifying Offer on his way out of Arizona, but he is the only pitcher projected to receive more than $100 mil in free agency this winter by MLB Trade Rumors.

Dallas Keuchel, who turns 31 on New Year’s Day, previously won the Cy Young with the Houston Astros back in 2015 after turning in a 2.48 ERA across 232.0 innings. He dealt with some injuries in the years following that, however, before finally crossing the 30-start threshold once again in 2018. Keuchel’s results the past few years haven’t matched up with that stellar 2015 season, and his lack of bat-missing ability serves to limit his upside just a touch. He posted a 3.74 ERA along with an 88 FIP- and 86 DRA- in 204.2 innings in 2018, and makes his bones by keeping the ball on the ground (58.8% career GB rate) and limiting hard contact (25.3% career) with good control of the strike zone (2.60 BB/9 career). He has a QO to deal with, too, and is projected for a four-year deal in excess of $80 mil.

Unlike the 2017 free agent market, however, that “next-tier” of pitchers offers a lot more interesting names this time around. There’s postseason hero Nathan Eovaldi, who the Brewers are already said to have expressed interest in. There’s veteran JA Happ, who only seems to get better with age and is coming off a 177.2 inning, 3.65 ERA performance with the Blue Jays and Yankees. Despite his advanced age at 36, Happ should be able to score a multi-year deal this winter. There’s the high-octane Charlie Morton, who remade himself as an outstanding starter with the Astros during the last two seasons (55 starts, 3.36 ERA) and is looking for a short-term deal, albeit with a preference to be close to his family home in Delaware. Then, there’s perhaps the most compelling arm available this winter: Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi.

Kikuchi’s NPB club, the Seibu Lions, still need to officially post their hurler through the new system that was agreed upon by Nippon Professional Baseball and MLB last year. But once he is posted, he is free to negotiate with all 30 teams, and the “posting fee” required to be paid out to the Lions will be based on the amount of money Kikuchi ultimately signs for. The 27 year old (28 next June) is the owner of a 2.81 ERA across 1,035.1 innings in Japan. He has dealt with some shoulder issues, but can be electric when fully healthy, featuring a mix that includes a low-90s fastball that can top out around 96 that is typically paired a devastating slider, along with a curveball and occasional changeup. Most scouts seem to agree that his profile will translate to that of a good #2 or #3 pitcher once he comes stateside, and he compares favorably to two other recent NPB imports who have found success in the US - Kenta Maeda and Miles Mikolas. MLB Trade Rumors predicts a $42 mil guarantee for the prime-age pitcher, which would come to a total outlay of around $50 mil when factoring in the release fee based on a deal of that magnitude. There’s is expected to be widespread interest in Kikuchi’s services, and the Brewers were reported to be among the teams scouting him back in late September.

And still, appealing options remain even beyond the names already mentioned. Old - and recent - friends Gio Gonzalez and Wade Miley will be looking for new deals after terrific performances with the Crew. The Brewers were connected to Matt Harvey throughout the summer, and they’ve already been linked to Anibal Sanchez this offseason. Trevor Cahill and Derek Holland are looking to build off bounceback years, while Lance Lynn now needs to bounceback himself. Garrett Richards won’t pitch in 2019, but could be a candidate for a two-year deal similar to the ones signed by Eovaldi, Drew Smyly, and Michael Pineda in recent years. Ervin Santana and Drew Pomeranz will both be trying to come back from injury-plagued seasons in 2018, and Pomeranz specifically could be an appealing target based on his stellar stretch from 2014-17 (499.1 IP, 3.24 ERA).

The Milwaukee Brewers are going to seek out pitching help this offseason. Every team does, every winter, because as the old adage goes, “you can never have to much pitching.” What remains to be seen is how much money Slingin’ David Stearns and company will be willing to sink into the pitching, after their deep and cheap stable of out-getters performed so admirably in 2018.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus