The starting pitching free-agent class is headlined by names like Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, and James Paxton, but there are some cheap starting pitchers that could provide better value. These names may not be making headlines, but they are viable options for teams looking to make upgrades in their rotation at a low price.
The market for starting pitchers has not been as team-friendly as it was expected to be, as pitchers like Drew Smyly, Mike Minor, and Kevin Gausman have landed favorable deals. Also, some player-friendly deals have been signed as reclamation projects, namely Anthony DeSclafani to the Giants and Michael Wacha to the Rays.
A couple of honorable mentions go out to Trevor Williams and Julio Teheran, cheap starting pitchers who given the right circumstances, have the potential to succeed. Teheran throws a sinker as his primary pitchers, and pitchers who drop their sinkers for four-seamers have a tendency to succeed. Williams was an above-average pitcher in 2017 and 2018, and he has shown the ability to be a solid arm.
Corey Kluber and Jake Odorizzi were also candidates for this, but their market value is likely around $10M, which isn’t as club-friendly as these options for cheap starting pitchers.
Cheap Starting Pitcher: Chris Archer
Archer was traded from Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh in 2018 in the infamous trade that sent Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow to the Rays. Moving from one of the best pitching development systems to one of the worst was not favorable for the 2x all-star, whose ERA inflated to 5.19 in 2019. Despite this, Archer is still a great, cheap starting pitcher for teams to target; here’s why.
Archer missed all of the 2020 season due to an arm injury but is projected to return in 2021. The Pirates declined his $11M option for this upcoming season, making him a free agent available on the open market. His market value probably sits around a one-year, $4-6M contract, making him a great option for teams looking for a cheap starting pitcher.
In 2019, Archer ranked 17th in K/9 among pitchers with a minimum of 100 IP. Since his top-five Cy Young finish in 2015, Archer has struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings and 27.8% of the batters he faced. He has had control issues throughout his career, especially in 2019 (4.14 BB/9, 10.5% BB%), but he still maintained a low ERA with great peripherals for five years.
In Archer’s past three seasons, he has a 19-29 record and a 4.43 ERA, which may not look great at surface value. However, he has a 3.92 FIP, 3.69 xFIP, 27.5% K%, and 3.34 SIERA in 469 IP. His inconsistencies as a Pirate have come from an increase in walks and homers, with his HR/9 increasing from 1.15 in 2018 to 1.88 in 2019. His 20.12% HR/FB rate was the highest of his career, which could be the explanation of his poor 2019 season.
The Pirates also love throwing sinkers, the least effective pitch in baseball. From 2012-2017, in Tampa Bay, 0% of the pitches Archer threw were sinkers. Since 2018, the year he was traded to the Pirates, 10.4% of his pitches were sinkers. If Archer signs with an analytically-driven team, he could become one of the steals of the offseason.
He may never replicate his 2013-15 success (3.26 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 9.1 fWAR), but his strikeout numbers have gone up significantly, which is a great sign moving forward. He is an option as a cheap starting pitcher, and a resurgence from Archer looks very promising, as his career 3.61 SIERA and 25.9 K% would indicate.
Archer missed the 2020 season due to injury, so there is obviously some concern, but that was the first time he missed significant time due to injury in his career. His injury has a tendency to be tough to recover from but there is minimal risk in signing him to a one-year contract, possibly with a club/vesting option for 2022, and many contenders should be lining up to bid for Archer’s services next season.
Cheap Starting Pitcher: Alex Wood
Wood was a part of the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020, but he is a free agent following a season that he threw just 12.2 innings, mainly out of the bullpen. Wood is possibly the biggest boom or bust of these cheap starting pitchers, but when he is healthy, he is a very good starting pitcher.
Although Wood had a 6.39 ERA in 2020, he was a solid option out of their bullpen in the playoffs and even threw pivotal innings in the World Series. Wood probably won’t return to Los Angeles in 2021, as they already have a plethora of options to use to fill out their rotation.
Wood dealt with injuries in 2019 and 2020, but his first six healthy seasons were great. From 2013 to 2018, Wood threw 803.1 innings and had a 3.29 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 3.49 xFIP, and 3.46 SIERA. He also has a 22.1% K% in his career and has shown that he can be an above-average pitcher when healthy.
The past two seasons have been bad for Wood, but injuries and a lack of innings are likely the reason for his struggles, and teams should look at Wood as an option as a cheap starting pitcher on the open market if they don’t want to break the bank. Wood signed a $4M contract with the Dodgers entering 2020, and his 2021 contract projects to be similar, with plenty of incentives.
Cheap Starting Pitcher: Jose Quintana
Quintana is the safest of these options, but he might also come at the steepest price. He made just two appearances in 2020, but it was a freak injury and he should be back healthy for 2021. Since being traded for Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez at the 2017 trade deadline, he has a 4.24 ERA as a Cub.
From 2014-2017, Quintana had an 18.2 WAR (6th among pitchers), 3.50 ERA, and 3.30 FIP. Since being traded to the Cubs, he hasn’t been the same player, but he has been consistently in the 4-4.5 ERA range, a solid fourth or fifth option at the back-end of a rotation.
He will likely never be the same pitcher he was as a member of the White Sox, but you know exactly what you’re getting with Jose Quintana. He has been a good, not great, pitcher for the past four years, but his 3.95 FIP, 4.01 xFIP, and 15.2% K-BB% display his ability to be a top starter.
Quintana will probably get a two or three-year deal, around $7-9M a year, which is a sneaky good option for a great price. He will be a solid back-up plan to Paxton as a lefty, and he is another cheap starting pitcher, that could fit on teams like the Phillies, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, among others.
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