Kuroda tops list of free-agent hurlers

A few new truths have come to light in Major League Baseball this offseason. Such as:

Hank Steinbrenner is a budding quote machine. The Los Angeles Angels are dead serious when they say they're tired of falling short in the postseason. And in the quest for pitching, the definition of "extravagant" is changing by the day.

While the Alex Rodriguez and Torii Hunter deals have been the early highlight, the principal focus this offseason has been on pitching. When Francisco Cordero, Mariano Rivera and Scott Linebrink agreed to contracts worth $110 million in exchange for bullpen cameos, it bodes especially well for the starting pitchers who've yet to sign.

Maybe Gil Meche, Ted Lilly and Vicente Padilla were just a warm-up act for this winter's weak starting crop.

"Last year's sticker shock is this year's reality," said Barry Praver, the agent for free-agent starter Carlos Silva.

With the exception of Tom Glavine and Curt Schilling -- a pair of 40-somethings signed up for farewell tours -- the starting pitching market remains untapped. The Opryland Hotel in Nashville is sure to be buzzing with Johan Santana trade rumors next week as the Yankees and Mets prepare to square off in a Godzilla vs. Megalon-caliber confrontation. But teams in search of pitching have a lot of non-Santana-related options available. We address a bunch of them in a Hot Stove edition of "Starting 9."

Hiroki Kuroda


The Japanese import

1 The pitcher attracting the most attention on the free-agent market is a mystery to American baseball fans. But Hiroki Kuroda is sure getting lots of love from Major League Baseball front offices.

Kuroda, 32, went 103-89 with a 3.69 ERA in 11 seasons while pitching in a bandbox for the Hiroshima Carp. He throws a fastball at 92-94 mph, a plus slider and a changeup that acts like a forkball. He's had some elbow issues in the past, and that could be a concern. But lots of baseball people rank him just a tick behind Daisuke Matsuzaka.

"He's a legit middle- to back-of-the-rotation starter," said a National League executive. "Of all the free agents, I think he's the best one out there."

Kuroda's list of suitors includes Seattle, Kansas City, Arizona, the Cubs, the Mets and definitely the Dodgers, who would love to plug him into their rotation with Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley. If Jason Schmidt can return to form and round out the top five in 2008, so much the better.

Seattle appears to be the front-runner after general manager Bill Bavasi and manager John McLaren traveled to Japan to meet personally with Kuroda. The initial feeling was that Kuroda could expect a three-year deal worth between $33 and $36 million. But the competition for his services could easily push his deal to four years.

The Workhorse

2 Carlos Silva gets a lot of practice pitching out of the stretch. In 945 career innings, he's allowed 1,112 hits, and left-handed hitters have a .311 batting average against him.

But Silva is adept at minimizing the damage. He's good at holding baserunners. He's averaged 1.63 walks per nine innings, the lowest ratio of any active pitcher with 750 career innings. And he ranks third among active pitchers in his rate of double-play groundouts induced.

Last year, Silva recorded 20 quality starts -- the same as Josh Beckett, Mark Buehrle, Aaron Harang and Chien-Ming Wang -- while pitching in the very competitive AL Central. Move him to the National League, with a strong infield defense to swallow up all those ground balls he churns out, and his 4.31 career ERA might take a substantial dip.

So where does Silva land? The Reds need an innings-eating starter -- and general manager Wayne Krivsky knows Silva from his Minnesota days -- but Cincinnati spent a big chunk of money on Francisco Cordero. Houston is in a position to spend and needs help after Roy Oswalt, but GM Ed Wade seems more interested in former Phillies Randy Wolf and Jon Lieber.

The market for Silva is likely to gain momentum once Kuroda finds a home. The Mets and Dodgers might wind up in the mix, but at the moment, they're looking at Silva as more a fallback than a priority.

Kyle Lohse


The Enigma

3 Kyle Lohse ranks somewhere between Brett Tomko and Meche on the tease-o-meter. Scouts and talent evaluators rave about his stuff, but the end result is a 29-year-old guy with a 63-74 record, a 4.82 career ERA and a penchant for making one bad pitch and allowing minor jams to escalate into big messes. "The guy has a hard time with crooked numbers on the scoreboard," said a National League scout.

Agent Scott Boras is pushing Lohse as a more durable version of Meche -- a guy who might suddenly break through in the right environment. Boras has made it known that he's seeking a four- or five-year deal for Lohse, and he's willing to wait until teams get desperate.

The Phillies liked Lohse enough that they might be interested in bringing him back on an Adam Eaton-type deal (three years and $25 million or so). In this market, that's almost certainly not going to cut it.

Livan Hernandez


The Old Standby

4 Livan Hernandez has been teetering on the brink for a while now. The consensus is that he's too old, too heavy and too velocity-impaired to continue performing as a staff anchor.

But Hernandez has a track record for giving clubs their money's worth. He leads the majors with 2,271 innings pitched over the last 10 seasons, and his 333 starts place him third behind Greg Maddux (342) and Tom Glavine (338).

The problem is, Hernandez threw up a lot of red flags on the way to an 11-11 record with Arizona in 2007. His ratio of 3.96 strikeouts per nine innings was a career low, and National League lineups slugged a whopping .499 against him. Do the words "smoke and mirrors" mean anything?

Several executives mentioned Shea Stadium as a natural landing place for Hernandez. But Omar Minaya's first priority is acquiring a No. 1 guy, and he'll focus on Johan Santana and Dan Haren before contemplating Plans B and C. Hernandez might find his way to Flushing, but he'll have to wait for a few other scenarios to shake out first.

The Comeback Guys

5 Rather than overspend for a Silva or Lohse, lots of teams are tempted to take a flyer on a starter who's recovering from injury. The shopping list includes Matt Clement, Kris Benson, Lieber, Jason Jennings, Randy Wolf, Bartolo Colon and Glendon Rusch.

Colon is generally considered to have the highest upside. But the combination of weight issues and a troublesome medical dossier aren't helping the sales pitch.

"I wouldn't touch him with a 10-foot pole," said an American League scout. "I think his lack of conditioning has finally caught up to him."

Several teams find Rusch and Lieber intriguing because their injuries weren't arm-related. Lieber ruptured a tendon in his left foot in July, and Rusch missed all of last season because of a blood clot in his lung. He's left-handed and versatile enough to start or relieve, so his agent -- former Dodgers general manager Dan Evans -- has been fielding a lot of calls.

Clement, who was throwing simulated games in Florida in September in his comeback from shoulder surgery, is also a popular guy these days. The best fit for Clement could be San Diego; the Padres were gearing up to make a run at Curt Schilling before he decided to return to Boston.

Agent Barry Axelrod said he wants to get Clement into a "comfortable situation where he can succeed." Clement pitched for Reds manager Dusty Baker in Chicago, so there's a familiarity factor in Cincinnati. He knows Toronto pitching coach Brad Arnsberg from their days together in Florida, and the Blue Jays already expressed interest during Clement's last free agent go-round in 2004.

Texas, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Colorado, Houston and Kansas City are among the other clubs trolling for help on the rehab bin. And you can never discount Washington GM Jim Bowden, who has a history of jumping in and looking for bargains late in the game.

Mark Prior


The Natural

6 For a while there were indications that the Cubs might decline to offer Mark Prior a contract at the Dec. 12 deadline, thereby rendering him a free agent. But after investing more than $15 million in Prior and getting 42 victories in return, the Cubs are understandably wary that he'll go elsewhere and turn into the second coming of Tom Seaver.

So a trade isn't out of the question, but there are two significant obstacles: (1) The Cubs aren't going to get much in return because of Prior's recent medical history; and (2) Prior's next club would be saddled with the same concerns as the Cubs. Even if Prior comes back strong and goes 14-2 next season, he's eligible for free agency after 2008.

"If you trade for him, you're going to want some protection out of the guy," said a National League official. "Why should you take the leap of faith and move somebody for him, then get left standing there with nothing while he gets big money someplace else?"

The Cubs would like to sign Prior to a one-year deal for roughly the $3.575 million that he earned last season, then add a club option for 2009. But Prior is hesitant to lock himself in at a low base salary when he might have a chance to make a killing on the open market next winter.

Prior's situation is complicated by several years of baggage and an undercurrent of tension. The Cubs think they've invested enough time in his rehab that Prior should show some loyalty to the organization. Meanwhile, Prior's camp points out that he did accept a minor pay cut last year rather than push the Cubs to salary arbitration.

"It seems like there are some hard feelings there," said a baseball insider. "I don't sense that it's all hunky dory."


7 If the Cubs decide to cut Prior loose, the line will stretch around the block. When asked how many clubs would have an interest in Prior if he's suddenly free in December, one NL executive replied, "Twenty-nine."

And it remains to be seen how much Prior will pitch in 2008. The Cubs would love to have him back by May, but Prior, who had shoulder surgery last April, hasn't even begun throwing off a mound yet.

Chris Capuano


Amid speculation that the Brewers might nontender Chris Capuano or Claudio Vargas, general manager Doug Melvin told ESPN.com that he plans to offer both pitchers contracts at the deadline. Capuano went 5-12 last year after a 5-0 start, but Melvin shouldn't have much trouble finding a trade market for him.

Horacio Ramirez is another nontender candidate after contributing 98 innings and a 7.16 ERA in exchange for Seattle's $2.65 million investment. But the market is so thin, the Mariners might decide to bring Ramirez back rather than pursue the gruesome alternatives.

The non-Santana trade market

8 "All the Orioles are available," said a National League executive. That means Baltimore GM Andy MacPhail will listen on Miguel Tejada, Ramon Hernandez, Melvin Mora, Daniel Cabrera and Brian Roberts for the right combination.

Erik Bedard


Baltimore's prime trade chip, lefty Erik Bedard, ranked third in the American League with 221 strikeouts despite missing all of September with a strained muscle near his rib cage. Bedard is a former Tommy John surgery guy, and some teams have concerns about his durability. But the biggest impediment to a deal is the price of acquiring him. When the Orioles talked to the Dodgers about Bedard, they asked for the same package -- James Loney, Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw -- that Florida is seeking for Miguel Cabrera.

Some other names that will be tossed around in Nashville: Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Ervin Santana, Cliff Lee, Capuano and possibly A.J. Burnett.

Jason Marquis


Salary dumps

9 Even if the Cubs don't trade Prior, there have been some rumblings that they're listening on Jason Marquis. After a strong start last season, Marquis posted an unsightly 5.73 ERA after the All-Star break. The Cubs owe him $16.25 million over the next two years, and he didn't exactly ingratiate himself with manager Lou Piniella with his performance down the stretch.

And the Pirates are actively shopping Matt Morris, who has one year left on a three-year, $27 million deal. Competing teams like Morris' professionalism and the positive impact he could have as a veteran mentor on a young staff. It's his declining velocity, $9.5 million salary and 8.17 September ERA that make them gun-shy.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.