Why are so many free agent starting pitchers still unsigned?

Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

Just two weeks before training camps open, several starting pitchers are still looking for a contract. Here's why.

With just two weeks left before training camps open, there are a substantial number of free agent starting pitchers still without a team to report to. Why is that?

The list of some of the names still on the free agent market includes Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, A.J. Burnett, Bronson Arroyo, Jason Hammel, Tommy Hanson, Aaron Harang, and Paul Maholm.

Well, there are several factors at play. One, I believe, is that some of these starting pitchers just are not worth what it would cost to sign them. Free agent compensation is another factor in a couple of cases.

Compensation

Two of the starting pitchers remaining, Santana and Jimenez, were given a qualifying offer of over $14 million for one season to remain with their former clubs, and declined those offers. That means that any team signing them would have to give up their highest unprotected draft pick in next June's amateur draft. So far, no team is willing to do that.

Santana or Jimenez could lessen the damage to their new club by signing with either their former club -- who then essentially gives up the compensation pick that they would receive if the pitcher were to sign with a new team -- or they could sign with a team that has a protected pick.

The top ten draft picks are protected. The Indians took full advantage of having a protected first round pick last year by signing free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. The Tribe only had to give up lower round selections for signing the pair, whereas another club with an unprotected first round pick would have had to give up a first round selection.

Some have suggested that the delay in getting the pitchers signed was caused by the market waiting to see where Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka would sign. Several clubs were said to be interested in Tanaka, who eventually signed a seven year, $155 million deal with the New York Yankees, but that does not explain everything.

Another team that might be willing to throw some money at Santana or Jimenez could be the Yankees. Having already given up their first couple of draft picks, including the compensation they would have received for losing Robinson Cano, the Yankees do not have a first round pick to lose. The Bombers have added Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Jacoby Ellsbury, while retaining Hiroki Kuroda and signing Masahiro Tanaka. The compensation system never seems to have an adverse effect on the Yankees.

Not all free agent pitchers remain unsigned. Matt Garza, who could not be extended a qualifying offer because he was traded during the 2013 season, signed a four year, $50 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers. That works out to $12.5 million per year. Ricky Nolasco got $49 million for four seasons with the Minnesota Twins. So far, that looks to be about where the top of this year’s free agent market is for starting pitchers.

In the case of A.J. Burnett, there was apparently some indecision on whether he would retire, or continue pitching. He has only recently announced that he would like to play at least another season and has begun his search in earnest.

Bronson Arroyo has said that he has not received a single offer from any team. This is somewhat surprising, as Arroyo went 14-12 with an ERA of 3.79 in over 200 innings for the Cincinnati Reds last season. He is by no means an ace, but he has pitched at least 199 innings in each of the past five seasons, with an ERA under 4.00 in four of those five years. Plenty of teams could use his services, and he would not require any compensation to sign.

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported in November that Santana was looking for a five year contract worth $112 million.

Over the past three seasons, Santana has an ERA of 3.85, including a solid 3.24 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 161:51 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 211 innings for Kansas City in 2013. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported last week that Santana was now looking for a four year deal in the range of $60 million. The Royals appear to have moved on, signing Jason Vargas to a four year, $32 million deal once Santana rejected their qualifying offer.

As for Jimenez, Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the Indians’ right hander was looking for a four year deal worth $17-20 million per season. The 29-year-old Jimenez had a 3.30 ERA and 194:80 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 182 2/3 innings in 2013. He was one of the game's most effective starter in the second half, posting a 1.82 ERA after the All-Star break.

However, it has not always been so rosy for Jimenez. After the Tribe dealt their two top prospects to Colorado for him in 2011, he promptly tanked, posting ERAs of 4.68 and 5.40 the next two seasons. He had put up a league-best WAR of 6.5 and an ERA of 2.88 for the Rockies in 2010. Needless to say, the Rockies sold high, and now Jimenez is looking to sign high, but teams are not biting.

Awarding teams compensation in the form of supplemental draft picks is one thing, but the fact that teams have to pay compensation to sign free agent players is obviously a big deterrent for players who are not truly elite players. It is intended to be a deterrent, and is something that the MLBPA should never have agreed to, in my view. When the current collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2016 season, the compensation scheme will also end. That day can’t come soon enough for certain players who are still looking for work.

In terms of top level starting pitching, this year's free agent market has not had much to offer. There are no aces who were free agents this winter, other than maybe Tanaka. In fact, the best major league pitcher to change teams over the winter is probably Doug Fister. But there are several second tier, durable starting pitchers with solid numbers who could help teams in the 2014 season. As the season approaches, prices tend to drop, and these pitchers will find new homes, but they won't be getting the big payday that they were expecting.

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