There’s a lot of quality starters in the 2021 MLB free agents class, and you know something every team is going to need in 2021? Pitching. The shortened 2020 season meant greatly reduced workloads across the league, with only three starters tossing more than 80 innings and starting pitchers as a whole averaging fewer frames per start than ever before. Assuming the 2021 MLB season operates on a full 162 game schedule (which is still up in the air), pitchers are going to be asked to throw over twice as many innings as the year before, which is injury city just waiting to happen.
As such, it appears there would be no hotter commodity for MLB franchises right now than a healthy starter who’s fully capable of tossing 150+ innings. While there have been many big trades in the starting pitcher world, with the Padres seemingly making 90% of them, the 2021 MLB free agents market has been a lot drier on that front. The vast majority of the deals signed have been one-year pacts and in general, teams seem to be both penny-pinching and worried about long-term commitments.
Even with starters being less prominent than ever and even with the economic present and future of the sport in doubt, a quality hurler who can give you at least six quality innings every fifth day is still really valuable, and there are quite a few in the 2021 MLB free agents class who will be worth every single penny. Let’s look at the five best ones.
2021 MLB Free Agents: Trevor Bauer
Okay, let’s get the easy one out of the way first. Regardless of how you feel about Bauer’s antics and regardless of how much his milking of the free-agent process annoys you, there’s no denying one thing: the guy can pitch. The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner is coming off a phenomenal 2020 campaign in which he struck out a career-high 36% of batters faced on his way to a 1.73 ERA over 11 starts. His reliability was almost as impressive as his results, as Bauer averaged 6.63 innings per start and threw less than 100 pitches only once. His four-seamer rose more than ever before, his already nasty curveball had more bite than ever, his slider was untouchable… you get it.
In short, this is an excellent 30-year-old pitcher at the peak of his powers. Bauer is filthy and durable, and he’s going to be expensive because of it. He appears to have changed his mind on the whole “I’ll only sign one-year deals” stuff, but how much will he command on the open market and who should be looking to sign him?
The latter question is the easier one: every single team in baseball would benefit heavily from signing Trevor Bauer. That being said, teams looking to contend right now would definitely see the biggest boost, obviously. As far as how much money he’ll get, he’s going to look for around $30-35 million a year, and the length of the contract is anyone’s guess. For reference, Fangraphs’ Crowd Source predictions have him at three years, $87M. I think he’ll beat that.
Best fits: Angels, Blue Jays, Yankees
2021 MLB Free Agents: Masahiro Tanaka
This one is a bit dependent on outside factors. Why? Well, because…
So there’s that. Assuming Tanaka stays in MLB, however, I think he enters the 2021 MLB free agents class as the clear number two starter behind Bauer. The 32-year-old righty just posted the best xwOBA against of his career (.297) and his lowest ERA since 2015 (3.56) this past season, albeit in only 48 innings of work. He’s gradually thrown more sliders and fewer splitters over the past few years and he even saw a very slight uptick in fastball velocity in 2020, which is always good news.
Tanaka is not an ace, but he really doesn’t need to be one. He doesn’t walk guys, gets a solid amount of groundballs, and keeps the game close. He would be a very steady number three or four starter for many teams out there, and he’s going to be a lot cheaper than Bauer. I’d guess a deal in the three or four years, $45-50M range would do it.
Best fits: Mariners, Twins, Angels
2021 MLB Free Agents: Taijuan Walker
This is more of an upside play. Walker basically missed two entire seasons from 2018-19, tossing only 14 innings over the two years, but in 2020 he was healthy and he was good over a sample of 53.1 innings. Now, there was a clear difference between his sparkling ERA of 2.70 and his meh FIP of 4.56, but there’s also a lot to like here, starting with the fact that Walker is only 28 years old and one of the youngest free agents on the market.
Another thing to like about Walker is he tinkered with his repertoire in 2020 and saw better results than in years past as a result, throwing more cutters and curveballs and fewer four-seamers. Now, being that he’s not a proven and stable figure, I think Walker makes sense for an up-and-coming team with a rotation spot available who can guarantee him 30-34 starts over a full season. He’s also mentioned his desire to play for teams that place a lot of value on advanced data and technology, which is something to keep in mind.
Best fits: Reds, Marlins, Nationals
2021 MLB Free Agents: Jake Odorizzi
Odorizzi had a chance to enter the free agent market after a quality 2019 season but decided instead to accept the Twins’ qualifying offer and let’s just say it didn’t work out for him. A year later, he finds himself in the open market again, needing to re-establish his value at age 30.
Let’s begin with the good. From 2018-19, Odorizzi amassed 6.8 fWAR, putting up a 3.78 FIP and striking out just about 25% of batters faced. Those are very good numbers for a middle-of-the-rotation starter. More good news: his terrible 2020 numbers are not to be taken that seriously, as he only pitched 13.2 innings over four starts. He’s also not that old (he’ll be basically 31 years old when the upcoming season kicks off) and his fastball velocity has increased from 91.1 MPH in 2018 to 93 MPH in 2020.
Odorizzi seems like a prime candidate for a bounce-back season. He’s in a similar position to Walker in terms of needing a clean season to establish who he truly is, and his best fits will reflect that. There’s less risk than with Walker, however, because the track record is a lot stronger.
Best fits: Rangers, Phillies, Pirates
2021 MLB Free Agents: James Paxton
This is the wild card. Paxton had a nightmare 2020 that included back surgery, a 6.64 ERA in 20.1 innings, a gigantic drop in velocity, and a season-ending injury in late August. With all that clearly visible in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to forget that 2020 was the first time in Paxton’s career where his ERA climbed over 3.82. Where does that leave him?
Well, it’s complicated. The drop in velocity was alarming, no doubt, with Paxton’s fastball going from 95.4 MPH to 92.1 MPH and the rest of his stuff following suit with a similar drop. However, that drop didn’t result in drastically fewer strikeouts as you might expect: Paxton struck out 28.9% of batters faced in 2020, above average for his career and virtually equal to his really good 2017 and 2019 seasons. There are reasons for concern with Paxton, but I wouldn’t be too worried about the velocity because 2020 and its lack of a real ramp-up process hurt a lot of pitchers.
The real question with Paxton is health and durability. The 32-year-old has never made more than 29 starts or pitched more than 160.1 innings in a single season which, combined with his awful 2020, limits his value quite a bit. He’ll probably be looking for a one-year deal to hopefully have a strong, healthy season and look to enter the free-agent market again to cash in on his efforts after 2021.
Best fits: Any team willing to give him a spot in the rotation.
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