We're now a couple weeks into spring training games, and Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn remain unsigned. They are quality veteran pitchers for sure -- all three have ZiPS projections of at least 2.1 WAR, with Arrieta leading at 2.7 -- but they have yet to find the right match at the right price. Keep in mind that each pitcher rejected a $17.4 million qualifying offer from his former team, and the market they expected never materialized.
So what now? Maybe they're waiting for an injury. So far, the only significant injury of spring training for a rotation candidate has been to Rays prospect Brent Honeywell, who went down with season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Still, you have to think these three will find homes soon, even if that ultimately means terms much lower than they expected in November. Let's look at three groups of teams, the state of their rotations with projected WAR figures from FanGraphs and where these three might fit.
Projected WAR: 7.2 (28)
In a glass-half-full scenario, the Orioles can dream of improvement from Gausman and Bundy, another soft-contact, low-BABIP season from Cashner and a healthy Tillman. You don't want to know the glass-half-empty scenario. As is, only Gausman projects to have an ERA under 4.50, and the Orioles are the obvious team selling itself as a contender that needs rotation help. Food for thought: Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo combined for just 2.8 WAR in 2017 -- down from 11.3 in 2016. If those three bounce back, it isn't outrageous to consider the Orioles a sleeper team for the playoffs if the rotation is adequate.
Projected WAR: 11.4 (19)
The Brewers have plenty of options here, especially if Nelson returns from his September shoulder surgery and Burnes, who made 16 starts at Double-A in 2017, proves ready sooner rather than later. What the staff clearly lacks is a No. 1 or No. 2-type starter, but it isn't clear that Arrieta is still that guy. With such a young roster, the Brewers do have the flexibility to take a gamble on Arrieta.
Projected WAR: 11.9 (16)
General manager Matt Klentak told me a couple weeks ago that the Phillies were still considering their options in free agency but also that the club wanted to be careful not to block any of its current young starters. In other words, the Phillies aren't ready to give up on Velasquez as a starter and want to see what Pivetta and Lively can do with more experience. He also suggested that it is important not to rush a rebuilding project a year early. That's all understandable, and jumping from 66 wins to the playoffs is unlikely -- though not impossible. The Phillies have ultimate financial flexibility, and they could sign Arrieta to a long-term deal, similar to what they did with Carlos Santana, knowing that he can contribute in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Projected WAR: 10.8 (21)
Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that the Twins had offered Lynn a two-year, $20 million contract, an offer Lynn's camp viewed as a "nonstarter" and that the club wasn't actively pursuing Cobb. Considering that the Twins will play 57 games against the White Sox, Tigers and Royals, they should be right in the middle of a crowded wild-card race. That means even a one- or two-win upgrade could make the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
Projected WAR: 16.7 (5)
The Nationals are certainly fine with their top four starters, but their depth is among the worst in the majors. Cole's numbers at Triple-A Syracuse were miserable (5.88 ERA), Fedde is starting again after a temporary bullpen stint in the minors, and Jackson might have a chance to make the team as a non-roster invite. The Nationals and Scott Boras are the best of friends, so speculations persist that Arrieta will eventually end up here. The Nationals might not need him to win the NL East, but he could be a boost in the postseason.
POSSIBILITIES, ESPECIALLY IF AN INJURY OCCURS
Projected WAR: 16.4 (7)
The Yankees have five proven starters, and I'd take all five over Lynn. Arrieta and Cobb are better but more expensive, and Brian Cashman wants to keep that payroll under the luxury tax and maintain more room for next year's budget. For now, the Yankees will rely on their Triple-A depth, and they should. That Scranton rotation is probably better than what several major league clubs will throw out. Adams had a 2.81 ERA in 21 starts there last year, Cessa has big league experience, and Sheffield could move quickly with his top-shelf stuff. There's no need for the Yankees to do anything right now. They can re-evaluate things in July, as a trade is probably more likely than a free-agent signing.
Projected WAR: 11.6 (17)
The middle of the lineup -- Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager -- is another year older, the minor league system is barren, you're trying to chase down the Astros, and you have the longest playoff drought of any team in the four major pro leagues. Gonzales has looked good early in spring, as he has re-added the cutter to his arsenal, a pitch he didn't throw last year in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Still, given the fragile health of Paxton and Felix, finding more depth in that elusive search for the playoffs would be beneficial.
Projected WAR: 18.5 (3)
The Dodgers had all kinds of rotation depth last season and needed it, as Scott Kazmir missed the entire season and Julio Urias' shoulder fell apart, and they had to trade for Yu Darvish. The most interesting depth piece the Dodgers have now is Buehler, Keith Law's No. 12 prospect, but he threw just 98 innings last season, so it's unlikely that the Dodgers will want to bump that up to much more than 120 or 130 innings. That means some starts from Stewart and/or Stripling as the Dodgers undoubtedly conserve the innings of the rest of the rotation.
Projected WAR: 15.9 (8)
The Red Sox have five solid starters when healthy, but Rodriguez and Wright are both coming off knee surgery and won't be ready at the start of the season, plus Price has to be considered a potential health red flag, given his DL stint last season.
Projected WAR: 15.7 (9)
There's no obvious need here at the moment, though the Cardinals are counting heavily on a better Wainwright and Mikolas transitioning back from Japan. Mikolas' first two spring outings weren't good, as he allowed 13 hits and 10 runs in 4⅔ innings, so maybe the door remains open for a possible reunion with Lynn. At the minimum, if Mikolas continues to struggle, that should open a slot for Flaherty, who made five starts in the majors last year after posting a 2.18 ERA in the minors. If Reyes is ready by the All-Stark break, even better, and with Martinez, Weaver, Flaherty and Reyes, the Cardinals could be looking at the best young rotation in the game in the near future.
Projected WAR: 17.9 (4)
After signing Darvish and Chatwood, the Cubs would dip into free agency only if a couple of these guys go down for a long period. Even then, they'd probably do something like John Lackey on a one-year deal, rather than shell out for a bigger contract.
Depth/minors: Derek Holland, Tyler Beede
Projected WAR: 12.4 (15)
Unless they blow way past the tax threshold, there isn't room in the budget for one of the big free agents, even if they're a little short on depth. Plus, they're paying Cueto $21.8 million for at least four more seasons and Samardzija $19.8 million for three more seasons, and they'll have to pony up some loose change for Bumgarner in two years.
Projected WAR: 11.6 (17)
The Angels are expected to go with a six-man rotation -- in part to protect Ohtani since he pitched once in a week in Japan but also to limit the innings of a group of pitchers wrecked by injuries in recent seasons. The Angels might have a little room left in the budget to sign another pitcher and remain under the tax threshold, but they'll probably run with this group and see how the six-man experiment unfolds.
Projected WAR: 18.8 (2)
The Indians already have one injury with Salazar battling a tender shoulder. Still, the rotation is strong enough and deep enough. Given their payroll roadblocks, the only way they'd dig into free agency is if Kluber or Carrasco suffered a season-ending injury.
Projected WAR: 9.0 (26)
The Reds churned through 16 starters in 2017, with Castillo emerging as the bright spot and potential ace after posting a 3.12 ERA in 15 starts. After that? The Reds have no idea what they'll get from everybody else, so getting stability from a veteran such as Arrieta or Cobb makes sense. As with the Phillies, it wouldn't be so much for 2018 as for the next few seasons.
Projected WAR: 15.1 (10)
The Diamondbacks have a very good rotation. What they lack is reliable depth if one of the top five suffers a serious injury. Trading Anthony Banda to get Steven Souza provided a necessary upgrade in the outfield, but it chipped away at the potential rotation depth. Still, it would seem that even Lynn or Cobb might be out of Arizona's price range.
NOT GONNA HAPPEN
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