Pitching, pitching, pitching. It’s important. So much so, there’s an old saying that goes, “There’s no such thing as too much pitching.”
And that’s true. There is no such thing as too much pitching. The problem, though, is that it seems like there’s never enough pitching. Or, maybe since there’s no such thing as too much of it, it always seems like there’s not enough.
Either way, this winter’s starting pitching market is very interesting. It isn’t deep, but it’s not shallow. There are some recognizable names that will hit the free agent market. There will also be a few names floated around as potential trade candidates.
That being said, with plenty of teams looking to add to their respective rotations this offseason, there will be a lot invested into the position of starting pitcher. I won’t cover every single available option, but will touch on a good amount of them below, starting with the best free agents available.
Top Of The Free Agent Market
Again, the market isn’t deep. So when trying to figure out who is at the top, it’s rather difficult.
Instead of trying to figure it out myself, I used FanGraphs’ handy Roster Resource page. I sorted the 2024 free agent class by 2023 wins above replacement and found five starting pitchers that fit into the top-of-the-market category.
Now, wins above replacement is just a number. It’s also not the greatest number to use when evaluating pitchers, especially since there are different sites that use different statistics to determine their own wins above replacement for pitchers.
Since I’m using FanGraphs’ version of WAR, or fWAR, it’s important to note their pitching WAR is FIP-based, as opposed to Baseball References’ WAR, or bWAR, which is more RA9-, or runs-allowed-per-nine-innings-pitched, based.
With that now out of the way, let’s get back to talking pitchers.
Ohtani isn’t going to pitch in 2024 after undergoing elbow surgery in late September. He will be ready to hit come Opening Day, though. His next contract is going to be interesting. He’ll turn 30 in the middle of next season and has now undergone two major elbow surgeries on his throwing elbow. It’s possible his new deal includes incentives based on pitching performance, innings pitched/starts made, or both.
As a pitcher, Ohtani has been one of the better ones over the last three seasons. Per FanGraphs, there have been 60 starters who have made 70-plus starts in that time frame. Ohtani is one of them with 74.
Among those starters, he’s third with a 2.84 ERA and seventh with both a 3.23 FIP and 1.05 WHIP. The right-hander’s strikeout rate, 31.4%, is second-best in that time frame, while his 8.3% walk rate is 13th-highest among those 60 starters.
Over the last three years, hitters slashed .199/.275/.332 against Ohtani. That’s the second-, ninth-, and third-lowest batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage among the group.
Ohtani won’t get paid as just a pitcher this winter. He’s going to get paid as the two-way player that he is. Whether or not he returns to form on the mound in the future is unknown. How organizations feel about his pitching ability and durability moving forward will impact both their interest and how much they’re willing to spend on the Japanese-born superstar this winter.
His is going to be a fascinating situation to follow.
This isn’t a ranked list. So I’m not naming Ohtani as the best available pitcher on the market this winter. Nor am I declaring Gray as the second-best available starter.
His 5.3 fWAR in 2023 was the best of all the free agent starters outside of Ohtani, though. The 33-year-old veteran made 32 starts this past season, the second-most of his 11-year career, with a 2.79 ERA in 184 innings. His 2.83 FIP and 0.4 HR/9 were the lowest among qualified starting pitchers in the majors.
One of the reasons for Gray’s success this year was his sweeper. He threw it 20.4% of the time and held batters to a .097 batting average and .118 slugging percentage when throwing it. According to BaseballSavant, the 19 run value of Gray’s sweeper had it tied for the seventh-most valuable pitch in 2023 in that category.
Gray made two postseason starts for the Minnesota Twins in October. He gave up five runs overall, four earned, while striking out 12 hitters and allowing two home runs. For his career, he has a 3.26 ERA in six postseason starts.
Like Ohtani, Gray appears on the list of pitchers to have made 70 or more starts over the last three seasons. In his 82 starts during that time frame, the right-hander held opponents to a .225/.293/.348 slash line and .283 wOBA. He has a 3.30 ERA in that period with a 25% strikeout rate and 7.8% walk rate. His 3.34 FIP is 11th-best among such starters.
Gray has pitched in parts of 11 seasons now. He’s had his fair share of ups, along with some downs. He’s entering his age-34 season next year, so his new contract will be impacted when it comes to its length. Still, he’s had more ups than downs in recent years, so he’ll make good money this winter.
To repeat, this isn’t a ranked list. But Montgomery has been a pretty good pitcher over the last few years and could arguably be the third-best starter available this offseason.
The left-handed Montgomery pitched for two teams in 2023 — the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers. As a Cardinal, he made 21 starts and pitched to the tune of a 3.42 ERA. With the World Series champion Texas Rangers, the lefty made 11 regular season starts and six postseason appearances. During the regular season, he posted a 2.79 ERA and 3.27 FIP with Texas. In the playoffs, he posted a 2.90 ERA in 31 innings of work.
Montgomery is entering his age-31 season in 2024 and is one of just 20 starting pitchers to have pitched 500-plus innings since the start of 2021. In that stretch, the southpaw has made 94 appearances and pitched 524 1/3 innings with a 3.48 ERA, 3.62 FIP, and 1.18 WHIP. He held hitters to a .244/.294/.386 slash line and 30.5% Hard-Hit rate in those outings.
He doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts — he posted 8.3 K/9 over the last three years — and will walk hitters, but he keeps the ball in the yard. Between 2021 and 2023, he averaged giving up one home run for every nine innings pitched.
Since he’s proved to be durable over the last several years, while also being a solid run preventer, Montgomery will be sought after this winter. He’s not a top-of-the-rotation arm, but he’s a top-market free agent in this class. The left-hander may sign for the same amount of money per year as Gray, but could get more years, and subsequent money, because he’s younger.
Snell is an interesting case. Ohtani aside, the soon-to-be 31-year-old might be the biggest question mark in this free agent group of starting pitchers. He’s an eight-year veteran who has had two great seasons and six respectable years, never pitching more than 180 2/3 innings in a single season.
During his career, he’s made 30-plus starts twice (2018 and 2023) and pitched 180-plus innings twice (2018 and 2023). He won the AL Cy Young Award in 2018 as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays and is a finalist for that award in the NL this season.
Snell put together a 21-5 record in 2018 with a 1.89 ERA, 2.94 FIP, and 0.974 WHIP in 180 2/3 innings across 31 starts.
This year, he led the majors with a 2.25 ERA and 5.8 H/9. He also struck out a fair amount of hitters, punching out 234 in 180 innings. The lefty did walk a major-league-leading 99 hitters, though, and had a 4.06 SIERA. However, his 4.1 fWAR and 3.44 FIP this past season were sixth in the NL among starters.
The biggest knocks on Snell are his durability and walk totals. He’s dealt with a number of injuries over the years and hasn’t always had the best command. Despite that, he’s always been at least a league-average arm in whatever innings he has pitched. There’s only been one season in which the left-hander has posted a sub-100 ERA+. That year was 2021 when he had a 4.20 ERA, resulting in a 92 ERA+. For reference, the league-average ERA in 2023 was 4.33. Snell’s career ERA+ is 127.
Since the start of 2021, batters facing Snell have hit .201/.300/.330. That’s the second-lowest batting average allowed among starters with at least 400 innings pitched in that period.
Again, Snell is an interesting case. He’s never been very durable but has pitched well when he’s on the mound. The question moving forward is whether or not he can, at the very least, somewhat mirror his 2018 and 2023 seasons, especially from an innings standpoint.
Snell feels high-risk, high-reward. But, then again, most free agents are. He may not be a true No. 1 starter, but has the potential to pitch like one.
It’ll be fun to see the figures on whatever deal he does get this offseason and whether or not he was worth it once it expires.
Even though I’m not ranking these starters, Nola would likely be at the top of the list if I was. He’s the most accomplished starter available via free agency this winter and dating back to 2018, he’s never not been durable. Outside of the shortened 2020 season, the right-hander has made five consecutive 32-plus start, 200-plus strikeout seasons.
Nola’s 175 starts since the start of 2018 rank first in all of baseball. His 1,065 1/3 innings of work are second and he’s one of just four pitchers to have compiled 1,000-plus innings during that stretch. On top of that, Nola’s 1,209 strikeouts since the start of 2018 are third-most.
Staying in that stretch of games, hitters hit .224/.280/.374 against Nola with a .283 wOBA. He also has a 3.65 ERA over the last six seasons.
The overall downside to Nola is not knowing what you’re going to get from him on a year-to-year basis. He had the best year of his career in 2018, finishing third in NL Cy Young Award voting with a 2.37 ERA, 3.01 FIP, and 224 strikeouts in 212 1/3 innings. He wasn’t as sharp in 2019 and sandwiched a good 2022 between okay years in 2021 and 2023.
The biggest issue for Nola two years ago and this past one was the amount of homers he allowed. He gave up 26 in 2021 and a career-high 32 in 2023.
It’s also important to note his strikeout rate in 2023 dipped to 25.5%, the lowest it’s been over the last six years. His walk rate (5.7%) jumped when compared to 2022 (3.6%), but was still much better than most other pitchers.
Nola can pitch like an ace. We’ve all been witnesses to it. We just don’t know when we’re going to witness it. He’s had good years. The right-hander has also had not-so-good years.
Nola turns 31 next June and the amount of mileage on his arm is rather high. He’s still going to be coveted this winter, however. So much so that he may sign a contract with an average annual value in the $30 million range. He’s valuable. Just how valuable he is to big-league front offices is still a mystery. But it won’t be a mystery for much longer.
The following pitchers have been good of late, but had options for the 2024 season that they or their clubs declined. These guys help make up most of the middle of the free agent market when it comes to starters.
Stroman declined his $21 million player option for next season. The right-hander is coming off back-to-back serviceable years with the Chicago Cubs. He made 52 appearances, 50 of which were starts, between 2022 and 2023 with a 3.73 ERA and 3.67 FIP across 275 1/3 innings. In that same workload, the right-hander allowed just 25 home runs and struck out 238 hitters, while also holding them to a .233/.296/.356 slash line. Stroman turns 33 in May and is a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm for a team that already has an ace.
The right-handed Lugo declined his $7.5 million player option for 2024. The soon-to-be 34-year-old made 26 starts this past season with a 3.57 ERA in 146 1/3 innings for the San Diego Padres. He’ll be a good fourth/fifth, or maybe even third, option in a rotation for a contending club next year.
Wacha, 32, has had back-to-back good years with the Boston Red Sox and Padres, respectively. With San Diego looking to cut payroll for next year, they declined the right-hander’s two-year, $32 million club option. Over the last two years, the former first-round pick has made 47 starts, finishing 261 2/3 innings with a 3.27 ERA, while holding opponents to a .228 batting average. He kept the ball in the yard during that period (1.1 HR/9) and struck out 21.3% of the batters he faced, while walking 6.8%. Wacha is just like Lugo — a good back-end-of-the-rotation arm for a contending team to pursue.
The left-hander opted out of his contract with the Detroit Tigers with three years and $49 million remaining on it. Rodríguez is coming off a good year, making 26 starts, pitching 152 2/3 innings, and finishing with a 3.30 ERA. Rodríguez allowed just 15 home runs in 2023, too.
One interesting trend for the lefty, however, is his strikeout numbers. In 159 career appearances with the Red Sox, he posted 9.4 K/9. With the Tigers, that number is 7.9 K/9 in 43 starts.
That’s not going to keep teams away from him, though. He’s entering his age-31 season and will likely have multiple teams interested in his services for 2024 and beyond. He could be a good option for a team that already has an ace and wants to find a good second/third option for their rotation this winter.
Another left-hander, Manaea declined his $12.5 million player option for 2024 and will seek a new contract this offseason. Manaea spent 2022 with the Padres and 2023 with the San Francisco Giants after spending the first six years of his career with the Oakland Athletics. The 31-year-old made most of his appearances, 27 of 37, this year out of the bullpen as a multi-inning reliever.
Since the start of 2021, Manaea has made 70 starts and 29 relief appearances. As a starter, he has a 4.49 ERA and 4.15 FIP in that period, with hitters batting .256/.311/.437 against him. Out of the bullpen, the lefty has a 4.03 ERA and 3.38 FIP.
Manaea’s second-half numbers this year were rather strong. After posting a 5.49 first-half ERA, the southpaw made 17 appearances post-All-Star break, putting together a 3.43 ERA in 60 1/3 innings. His final four outings of the year were as a starter, where he pitched 24 innings, held opponents to a .220 average, and posted a 0.92 WHIP, along with a 2.25 ERA.
While he was a reliever for most of 2023, it feels like Manaea is probably looking to be a starter again moving forward. He’d be a nice option for a team looking to shore up their 2024 rotation.
I don’t want to get too far into the weeds in this section when it comes to names that could be traded this winter. There are a lot of players that are available in trades during the offseason as organizations look to improve their rosters for the upcoming season. That doesn’t mean they will be traded, though. What is does mean is that there could be moves made not many people see coming. Or, it’s possible that doesn’t happen at all.
Bieber’s name isn’t new when it comes to being involved in a potential trade. He’s been named multiple times in recent years as a guy the Cleveland Guardians and other teams have discussed during trade conversations.
Bieber is entering his final year of arbitration and age-29 season in 2024. Since making his debut in 2018, he’s pitched 824 1/3 innings as a starting pitcher, making him one of 20 guys to have done so. His statistical ranks on the list are pretty good, too.
The right-hander’s 3.22 ERA on that list is third-best and his 3.10 FIP and 28% strikeout rate are both fourth. Meanwhile, Bieber’s 5.5% walk rate, 1.0 HR/9, and 1.11 WHIP are all tied for fourth-lowest. He won the 2020 AL Cy Young Award by posting a 1.63 ERA in 12 starts with 122 punchouts.
There is one issue when it comes to the two-time All-Star, though. His health. He dealt with a shoulder issue that limited him to 16 starts in 2021 and an elbow problem that only allowed him to start 21 games this past season. Between those injury-plagued years was a 200-inning season in 2022, where Bieber pitched to the tune of a 2.88 ERA with a 2.87 FIP in 31 starts.
The injury history has seemingly taken a toll on him. He’s had a significant drop in his strikeout rates since 2020, along with a decrease in his fastball velocity and overall whiff rates.
Bieber has shown flashes of brilliance before. His down year in 2023 consisted of a 3.80 ERA in 128 innings with an average four-seam fastball velocity of 91.3 mph. He’d be a risk to trade for, but if he can stay healthy, it’d be worth it.
Glasnow is like Bieber in a way, but to more of an extreme. When healthy, he’s good. It’s just that he usually isn’t healthy. It always feels like he’s dealing with some type of ailment.
Glasnow dealt with a right forearm strain in 2019 that limited the right-hander to 12 starts. Two years later, Glasnow made 14 outings before being shut down with a right elbow injury that eventually led to Tommy John surgery. Then, after missing nearly all of 2022, the former fifth-round pick missed the first few months of 2023 with a left oblique issue.
Since the beginning of 2019, the now 30-year-old has made only 60 starts, finishing 332 2/3 innings. His numbers in that small sample are more than solid. He has a 3.03 ERA in those innings, with a 2.89 FIP, and 1.01 WHIP. Of the 1,319 batters he faced, 35% went down on strikes and 7.7% walked. Those batters hit just .194/.256/.335 against him.
The hard-throwing righty made a career-high 21 starts this past season and pitched a career-high 120 innings to the tune of a 3.53 ERA with 162 strikeouts and 37 walks.
The biggest reason Glasnow is thought of as a trade candidate this winter is his salary for 2024 ($25 million). We know the Tampa Bay Rays usually don’t spend that kind of money on a player. However, the team’s rotation for next season may need Glasnow. At the moment, Zach Eflin and Aaron Civale are the only two proven, healthy starters heading into 2024 for the Rays. Of course, they could look somewhere else for a starter if they do move Glasnow.
Glasnow’s situation isn’t perfect. He’s injury-prone, so any team acquiring him will certainly need depth behind him as insurance. The Rays may need him, but may not want to pay his salary. He’s a good pitcher when on the mound, though, so whoever he pitches for next season will certainly reap the benefits of that. And if he stays healthy, while also pitching to his potential, he may be able to lead a rotation.
The final name on the list of trade candidates is the 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner. Burnes has led the Milwaukee Brewers pitching staff each of the last three years. In 2023, he made 32 starts with a 3.39 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 193 2/3 innings. Since the start of 2021, the right-hander has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, making 93 starts and pitching 562 2/3 innings with a 2.94 ERA, 2.92 FIP, and 0.99 WHIP.
Over the last three years, Burnes has held opponents to a .199/.262/.315 slash line. He allowed 0.8 home runs every nine innings and struck out 30.3% of the batters he faced while walking 6.7%.
Burnes isn’t just good. He’s great. He’s a proven ace.
So why would the Brewers trade him after winning their division this past season?
Burnes is entering his final year of arbitration and is set to become a free agent after 2024. He voiced his issues with how the club dealt with his arbitration process last year during spring training, saying his relationship with the club was damaged as a result. How that relationship is right now is unknown.
Either way, Burnes is going to want a lot of money in the near future. And he’s deserving of it. How the Brewers see themselves moving forward will likely impact what they’d like to do with Burnes. They should extend him to continue competing, but if they don’t want to pay him what he’s worth, or are looking to enter a retool phase, it makes more sense to trade the 29-year-old sooner rather than later to receive a better package of players.
It’s also possible Burnes doesn’t want to remain in Milwaukee long-term given how the organization treated him last winter. Maybe it’s best for both sides to move on this offseason as a result. But as previously stated, where his relationship is with the Brewers right now isn’t known.
Any team acquiring Burnes would be getting a proven ace still in his prime as 2024 will be his age-29 season.
Yamamoto is in a section all by himself because his process this winter will be different from other starting pitchers and he’s never pitched in America before. He’s been posted by the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, which will bring him stateside for 2024 and beyond.
Teams have a designated period to negotiate with the right-hander and whichever team he signs with will then have to pay a fee to Orix.
There’s going to be a lot of interest in Yamamoto. He recently turned 25 and has one of the best arsenals in the game. He features a mid-90’s fastball that can top out even higher and a plus-plus splitter, along with a curveball, slider, and cutter.
The righty’s numbers speak for themselves. During the NPB’s 2023 regular season, he made 23 starts and pitched 164 innings. Yamamoto finished with a 16-6 record, 1.21 ERA, 169 strikeouts, 28 walks, and allowed just two home runs.
Overall, he’s made 172 NPB regular-season appearances and has a 1.82 ERA in 897 innings.
The talent is there. The potential is there. It’s just a matter of if Yamamoto can put it all together in the majors. My bet is that he will.
As for his contract, having plenty of teams vying for his talents will only drive up the price it will take to sign him.
Kodai Senga signed a five-year, $75 million contract will the New York Mets last offseason after being posted. Senga wasn’t the same level of prospect as Yamamoto and was entering his age-30 season.
A better comparison for Yamamoto might be Masahiro Tanaka, who was 25 when he inked a seven-year, $155 million contract with the New York Yankees nearly a decade ago. Both right-handers reached similar levels of dominance in their early 20’s while pitching in NPB.
Yamamoto being viewed in the same light as Tanaka means he’s going to become a very rich man this offseason, likely signing a nine-figure deal.
No matter what, Yamamoto’s presence in the majors is going to be a very exciting thing.
The Other Guys
There are other free agent starting pitchers this offseason outside of those mentioned above. Some of them had options for next year that were declined and some became free agents at the conclusion of 2023.
Right-handers Lucas Giolito, Luis Severino, and Kyle Gibson are available. Giolito and Severino are both coming off bad campaigns, but have been good in the past. They are two “buy-low” options for clubs. Gibson provided the Baltimore Orioles with a durable, 192-inning year in 2023. He’s a veteran presence to add to a staff.
Another right-hander that’s available is 28-year-old Jack Flaherty. Once a promising young starter, injuries have been a big part of his career in recent seasons. After starting 61 games between 2018 and 2019 that consisted of a 3.01 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 29.8% strikeout rate and .195/.271/.339 opponent’s slash line, the righty has made 64 appearances since the start of 2020, posting a 4.42 ERA. Opponents also have a .754 OPS versus Flaherty over the last four seasons. He made 20 starts for the Cardinals in 2023 with a 4.43 ERA across 109 2/3 innings before being traded to the Orioles. Post-trade, the right-hander struggled, pitching to the tune of a 6.75 ERA in nine appearances. He’s another “buy-low” option that could provide decent upside in 2024.
Southpaws Hyun-Jin Ryu, Martín Pérez, Alex Wood, and James Paxton are all free agents. Of those four, Pérez is the only one to have finished more than 100 big-league innings this past season. They’re all depth options for the 2024 campaign.
Free agent Michael Lorenzen was an All-Star for the Detroit Tigers in 2023 and threw a no-hitter in his second start with the Philadelphia Phillies after being acquired at the trade deadline. He then started to struggle, finishing the year with a 4.18 ERA. The right-hander is a good back-end rotation option.
Frankie Montas is also available for all 30 teams to sign. He has a career 3.90 ERA in 593 2/3 innings, with most of his success coming in a season-and-a-half stretch as an Athletic between 2021 and 2022. He was recovering from right shoulder surgery for most of 2023 and made just one appearance for the Yankees late in the year.
Right-hander Mike Clevinger and left-hander Wade Miley are free agents after their 2024 options were not picked up. Clevinger declined his player option after making 24 starts with a 3.77 ERA for the Chicago White Sox this past year. Meanwhile, the left-handed Miley declined his part of a mutual option with the Brewers. He struck out just 5.9 hitters per nine innings in 2023, but posted a 3.14 ERA across 120 1/3 innings. Miley did have a 4.69 FIP, though.
Lancy Lynn is also a free agent after the Los Angeles Dodgers declined his $18 million club option for 2024. Lynn struggled with the White Sox in 2023, putting together a 6.47 ERA in 21 starts. After being acquired by the Dodgers in a trade, he made 11 regular-season starts, posting a 4.36 ERA. The veteran was knocked around by the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the NLDS, allowing four home runs in 2 2/3 innings. Lynn, 36, isn’t getting any younger, but did show flashes in 2023, meaning there could still be something left in the tank.
Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urías are both unrestricted free agents. Kershaw recently announced he underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder and hopes to return to play next summer. I doubt he signs with a team that isn’t the Dodgers this offseason. As for Urías, he was put on administrative leave by Major League Baseball in early September after being arrested on suspicion of felony domestic violence. This isn’t the first time the 27-year-old left-hander has dealt with off-the-field issues. He was suspended for 20 games in 2019 after being arrested for alleged domestic battery. Urías’ MLB future is unknown at this time and could possibly be over as a result of his most recent arrest.
Outside of the previously mentioned Yamamoto, there will be other international players posted for MLB teams to pursue this offseason. One of them is expected to be left-hander Shōta Imanaga. The southpaw recently turned 30 and has a 3.18 ERA in 1,002 2/3 career innings in NPB.