The doors of the Great Free Agent Starting Pitching Megamart haven't opened yet. But when they do, sometime in mid-November, let's just say the scene won't resemble 8 a.m. on Black Friday.
There won't be any CC Sabathias on these shelves. That was last winter. There won't be any Roy Halladays or Cliff Lees on these shelves, either. That'll be next winter.
But in between, we'll have this winter. And this winter, one GM said, "I don't think there's one pitcher in this entire group I'd invest a lot of money in. Not one."
I don't think there's one [starting] pitcher in this entire group I'd invest a lot of money in. Not one.
”-- A GM on the upcoming free-agent class
Ah, but that's him. One thing we've learned in life is that nobody -- nobody -- has enough starting pitching. Not the Yankees. Not the Dodgers. Not the Hanshin Tigers. Not the Chula Vista Little League World Series champs.
So there will be starters in this market who make some money -- John Lackey, for instance. And Randy Wolf. And maybe even Joel Pineiro and Jason Marquis. But it won't be money America's finest GMs seem to be real enthused about spending.
We played a fun little game of word association this week with a bunch of club officials. The question we asked was: "If you could pick one word to describe this winter's free-agent starting-pitching crop, what would it be?" Here were some of the inspirational words -- or quasi-words -- we got back:
"Risky" "weak" "terrible" "mediocre" "thin" "roll-of-the-dice" "one-year-contract" and "fortunate" -- because "these guys are going to get overpaid."
Sheez, we've heard more upbeat talk than that at a tax audit.
"When you look for pitching, there are three things you have to keep in mind," one GM said. "One is ability. One is health. And one is character. Most of this cast has one of three. Some have two of three. But nobody has three of three, the way Sabathia last year had three of three."
"There are some guys in this group who are dependable," an AL executive said. "Except they're dependable to give you 5.00 ERAs and 180 innings. And that's not what you want to build a staff around."
Nevertheless, you can fill your shopping cart only with the canned goods on the shelves. So for all the GMs about to wheel those carts through the offseason aisles, we present our handy-dandy shopping guide to the top 10 starting pitching options in the free-agent class of 2009-10:
1. John Lackey
Here's the one and only guarantee we can make about this market: Lackey will be depositing more bucks in his money-market account between now and spring training than any other pitcher out there. The Angels' ace will be entering his age-31 season. He has the ninth-best ERA in baseball over the last five seasons (and second-best, behind Roy Halladay, among pitchers who have worked only in the AL). And he's heading for his sixth straight winning season. But that doesn't mean he doesn't scare some teams, after spending more than 100 days on the disabled list the last two years with forearm and triceps issues. "He's the best name on the list," one exec said. "But if Anaheim shies away from this guy or doesn't make a serious attempt to sign him, I'd have concerns. They know him better than everyone else. So that would send out some serious red flags for me."
2. Randy Wolf
Wolf's stock has risen faster this year than IBM's. He'd be 18-6 if the Dodgers' bullpen hadn't blown eight saves for him. He's ripped off 14 straight starts of six innings or more. And only four pitchers in the whole sport can beat his 19 starts of no more than two earned runs allowed. So one season after the Astros pulled a three-year, $28.5 million offer off his table before he could say yes, it appears that Wolf's turn has finally arrived to get a multiyear free-agent deal -- although, since he's 33, it almost certainly wouldn't be longer than three years. He's "durable, dependable and left-handed," one GM said. And he's also "two 190-plus-inning seasons removed from any health issues." Oh, and he's also driven in more runs this year (11) than Dewayne Wise or Cameron Maybin. So look for this man to stay in the National League -- just so he can keep swinging the old Louisville Slugger.
3. Joel Pineiro
How many times have we heard this story? Down-and-out pitcher hits rock bottom, signs with Cardinals, revives career. Well, that's Pineiro's tale. Less than three years after getting dumped by the Mariners and Red Sox, he's one of the hottest pitchers in baseball. He's 8-0 since July 1. And if it weren't for a blown save last Sunday, the Cardinals would have won 12 straight games he's started -- the longest streak of any pitcher in baseball. Nevertheless, many clubs are completely unsure what to make of Pineiro and his miraculous resurgence, on the eve of his 31st birthday. One GM called him "maybe the most interesting guy out there." But another said: "I'd have interest in Pineiro, but I'd never invest multi-years in that guy. Just too inconsistent a track record."
4. Jason Marquis
Here's another fellow who has done wonders for his marketability with an excellently timed career year. His 15 wins notwithstanding, Marquis isn't an ace. But he's got a better ground game than Michael Turner. He just turned 31 two weeks ago. And you can't beat his health report. He's missed one start because of injury in the last six seasons put together. "He's having a great year," said an official of one team. "But I'm just not sure how to look at it. Was this a turning point in his career? Or do you look at it as somebody who turned it up and figured it out when he had the most to gain? I really don't know." Neither do we. But we bet you'll hear his name a lot this winter.
5. Rich Harden
If we were making out this list based on stuff alone, Harden might rank No. 1. He has a better strikeout rate (10.88 per 9 IP) than Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, or any other starter in baseball with 130 innings or more this year. It's just tough to know what to make of him. If he makes six more starts, it would be only the second time in his career (and first since 2004) that he's gone to the post 30 times. He's visited his friendly neighborhood disabled list five years in a row. And he's never won more than 11 games in any season. "I'd be scared to death to commit years to this guy," one AL execs said. "He's been used kind of like Pedro [Martinez] was used in the past, where they're always trying to build in an extra day's rest. And he's just a five-inning guy, in the National League. He might strike out 10, but he'll only go five innings, so he still kills your 'pen. He'll get some money. I just don't see anybody giving him more than a year."
Does the world overvalue Pettitte because he's a Yankee? Or does the world undervalue him because everybody takes his steadiness for granted? Whatever the case, Pettitte ought to be higher on this list. He's the answer to the trivia question: Which free-agent starter has thrown the most innings over the last three seasons? He's also the answer to the trivia question: Who's the only active pitcher who has gone 15 straight seasons without having a losing record? So who in this free-agent crop has been more dependable than this man? And the answer is: nobody. But Pettitte also is a fellow who turns 38 next season. And right or wrong, the rest of the sport perceives him as a guy who, in the words of one executive, "will probably either stay in New York or shut it down." Well, don't be so sure. The Yankees lowballed him last winter, and it worked. But he's had a big year, and he might not be so amenable to working for a discount this time around. Would he go pitch for Joe Torre in L.A.? We forecast you'll hear that rumor at some point.
For a left-handed pitcher who is 10th in the American League in ERA and is one of only six active pitchers who has made at least 25 starts for nine straight seasons, it was astonishing how little buzz Washburn generated among the folks we surveyed. Of course, his ugly stint as a Tiger (6.61 ERA in six starts) hasn't helped him. Plus, one GM said, "he's 35 years old, and [before this year] his last winning season was ." So we predict that, if Washburn doesn't head back to Seattle, whence he came, he'll be bouncing around the old Rumor Central page for a long time this winter.
8. Jon Garland
He's pitching for his fourth team in the last 24 months. And he just danced the free-agent hip-hop last winter and got only a one-year contract out of it. So clearly, nobody seems to view Garland as a difference-maker these days, even though he still hasn't turned 30. But he's almost a human referendum on the worth of one of the most underrated qualities in modern pitching: durability. He's heading for his eighth straight season of 190 innings or more. And even though it's probably going to be attached to a 4.50-ish ERA, at least he goes out there. "He doesn't have the stuff the other guys on this list have, but he's proven he's durable, and durability counts," said an official of one team. "It's like they say in golf: Most putts that you hit short don't go in. Well, most pitchers that don't make a start don't win. This guy at least makes his starts."
9. Doug Davis
Is it OK to say Davis is Garland's mirror image? He's left-handed. He's breathing. He gets to the mound every five days. And outside of that, he's the kind of guy nobody seems to muster any enthusiasm for -- but every team needs to fill out a rotation. So about all we can say for sure about him is: He'll be employed next year. But he sure won't be making Johan Santana money. When we brought his name up to one GM, he replied, succinctly: "He's 88-95 lifetime." When we brought his name up to another, the answer was: "made for the NL West." Get the picture? Pencil him into the No. 4 spot for some NL West team to be named later, on a one-year deal.
10. Brad Penny
So what do we make of this guy? He's started an All-Star Game. He's won two World Series games. He was last seen throwing 98 miles an hour for the Giants in his second straight dominating start since he was scarfed up off the waiver wire. But his previous two teams -- the Dodgers and the Red Sox -- couldn't wait to boot him out the door. And hardly anybody we polled had a good word to say about him. Among the comments: "What he's doing now in San Francisco, I don't think he could do for a whole year." "Guys who always have to pitch with a chip on their shoulder to succeed -- you can't count on those guys." "He's the kind of guy who, if you give him a multiyear deal, he'll crush your franchise. Is somebody going to sign him for four years and expect 120 starts? Good luck." So about the best Penny can expect is exactly the kind of short-term, incentive-packed deal he signed this year with the Red Sox.
Brandon Webb: Has an $8.5 million club option for next year. Hasn't pitched since Opening Day because of persistent shoulder issues. And it will be months before the Diamondbacks know whether he'll be healthy by the spring. Logic still tells you they almost have to pick up his option. But if they don't, what does that tell other clubs about how healthy he is?
Erik Bedard: He'll have exploratory shoulder surgery in two weeks. So theoretically, we'll know more about him then. But if there's any chance Bedard will be healthy, he'll be every bottom feeder's favorite free-agent attraction. In between the aches, pains and pouts in Seattle, Bedard did remind us he can still pitch (11-7, 3.24 ERA, 162 strikeouts in 164 innings). But he's got more baggage than an Airbus.
John Smoltz: He's said he wants to pitch again. And the St. Louis portion of his comeback has gone way better (1-1, 3.27) than the Boston portion (2-5, 8.32). But we don't sense a whole lot of interest at the moment. Personally, we'd never bet against John Smoltz. But he'll be a 43-year-old power pitcher next year, with questions about age, health, role and money demands. So depending on how September and October unfold, this could be it.
Randy Johnson: Tried to make it through this year with a torn labrum -- and didn't. Doesn't have that 300th-win carrot dangling anymore. And turned 46 years old this week. So is there any reason to think he'll pitch again? Not that we can think of.
Brett Myers: Does anyone have any idea what to make of Myers anymore? He's started on Opening Day three years in a row -- but ended two of those seasons in the Phillies' bullpen. He's been a huge strikeout machine as a reliever (10.5 per 9 IP), but not so much as a starter (7.45 the last two years). So one GM asked: "Does he even want to start again? I'm not so sure he does. I know we don't like him as a starter at all. But we like him in the 'pen." If he stays in the bullpen, though, he's looking at a huge pay cut from the $12 million he's raking in this year -- unless someone views him as a closer. So he'll be a fascinating guy to keep an eye on this winter, no matter where the heck it leads him.
Vicente Padilla: He's dialed up the quality-control meter and made sure to behave himself since the Dodgers scraped him off the floor of the unemployed-pitchers office. But we can't even begin to publish some of the stuff said about him. So expect him to land a heavily incentivized deal, because -- in one exec's words -- "he can still pitch, but the shorter the leash, the better the effort."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.