The disturbing reality of buying high in free agent pitching – Twins

If you look at the data around aging curves for premier league pitchers, it’s in line with what you’d expect: As a group, they’re most effective between the ages of about 24 and 28 before they inevitably experience a decline on several scales.

This of course makes sense. As pitchers age, their innings increase, their bodies wear out, and the league learns all their tricks. We see the cycle play out over and over again. Of course there are some jars that manage to evade the test of time, but they are rare and extremely prized.

For every Jacob deGrom, who continues to trudge into his mid-thirties, or even for every Justin Verlander, who is at the top of his game at 40, there are many examples of fleeting greatness. Sometimes the drop-off is quite abrupt.

Madison Bumgarner was one of the greats of the game in his twenties as a Giant, but completely unraveled at age 30 after signing with Arizona. Hyun-Jin Ryu had a brief run of pure excellence for the Dodgers, but has faded in Toronto in his mid-thirties.

The Twins are grateful to have avoided this kind of free landmine – pitchers who entered the market with relatively high stocks and made money, only to fall victim to the curve, putting their new clubs in a difficult position with lingering consequences. (The D-backs owe Bumgarner $23 million next year after a 4.88 ERA; the Blue Jays owe Ryu $20 million after he posted a 5.67 ERA in 27 at bats.)

Slam dunk pitchers like deGrom and Verlander do pop up in free agency, but because of their rarity, they have their pick of big market titans that can outshine the field. These guys are just out of reach for the Twins and most other teams.

The more common and accessible free agents are those of the Bumgarner and Ryu type: pitchers in the early phase of the declining trendline of the aging curve, who want to be paid for what they did in their prime.

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Robbie Ray is a prime example from a year ago. The definition of a buy-high candidate, he was coming off a 29-year breakaway season that saw him win the Cy Young while leading the league in ERA and strikeouts. The Mariners bought high with a $115 million contract that only eclipsed Max Scherzer’s $130 million deal with the Mets.

During his freshman year in Seattle, Ray was… meh. Certainly not a disaster, but a shining example of the dangers of overpaying for assets that are likely to fall in value quickly. Ray posted a 3.71 ERA, 4.16 FIP and 1.8 fWAR in 189 innings. He was an average mid-rotation starter, earning $21 million, and would earn $44 million over the next two years.

In addition, Ray’s player-friendly contract includes an opt-out after 2024, meaning that if his performance continues to evolve this way, Seattle will owe him another $50 million for his age of 33 and 34 seasons. But when he is back in shape, he can re-enter the market after another two years. Seattle has already been robbed of many of the benefits of this deal because of Ray’s mediocre first season.

The fact that Ray landed such a favorable contract after his one stellar season speaks to the influence high-end free agent pitchers enjoy during Hot Stove negotiations. Which brings us to the focus of today’s discussion: Carlos Rodón.

The parallels between Ray’s situation last year and Rodón’s this year are not to be missed. Both are left-handers who enter the market at the age of 30, after their career season. Both had highly suspicious records prior to their star changes, which for that reason came about during short-term engagements.

The insecurities that shrouded these two players were not of the same sort – Ray’s more performance-oriented, Rodón’s more health-related – but both players carried clear and remarkable risk.

Last off-season, Ray wasn’t the best free agent starter. Not in a class with future Hall of Famers like Scherzer, Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. But he was perhaps the best starter realistically felt available to mid-market teams like Seattle or Minnesota. And this year, Rodón is in a similar position, albeit with less competition at the top level. (Chris Bassitt is a far cry from Kevin Gausman.)

Rodón was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball the past two seasons, a true standout in every sense of the word. He’s been mostly healthy except for a shoulder scare in late 2021. There’s a lot to like about it.

But the magnitude of the risk in handing out a mega deal to Rodón weighs heavily on a team with spending constraints (however they impose themselves). The shoulder issues have resurfaced time and time again, wiping out most of his apparent best years. He comes from a career-high workload and is approaching his thirties.

As Twins fans know all too well, shoulder injuries are devastating. The downside to Rodón is not that he will follow Ray’s route and return to mediocre performance levels, but that he will not be able to pitch at all. Or he gets caught up in protracted cycles of starts, stops, and setbacks, while accounting for about a fifth of the payroll year after year.

That’s undeniably a terrifying specter, and knowing what we know about the Twins front office and their particular aversion to these kinds of flexibility-busting scenarios, it’s easy to see why they tend to stay away.

But this low season is different. If the Twins miss out on Carlos Correa, it almost feels like they MUST find a way to sign Rodón so that the winter can be considered a resounding success and build widespread excitement for the 2023 product. Most of the other big splash-type moves within their reach would be somewhat underwhelming as a major headliner, at a time when they just lost a leading superstar, and had unprecedented buying power as a result.

This is not just a matter of optics and PR. It’s hard to imagine a single move other than signing one of the top four shortstops that could have such a huge impact on the team’s quality and advantage. Adding Rodón to the rotation would change the outlook for that unit and the pitching staff as a whole.

Coming off back-to-back seasons of Cy Young caliber, Rodón would be a worthy centerpiece of the off-season from any point of view.

So how much would this gamble cost? If we assume that Rodón is open-minded and just looking for the best deal, it becomes a straightforward bidding war – albeit one with high stakes and some imposing competition. The southpaw is reportedly getting early interest from the Dodgers, Mets and Rangers, among others.

The Rangers would be one of them most serious suitors, and they illustrate the kind of uphill battle facing the Minnesota front office in this pursuit. Texas spent over half a billion on free desks last season alone. With such a free mindset, enabled by operating in a top-five market, it’s easier for them to throw big bucks into shaky investments — like, say, signing Corey Seager for $32 million a year through 37 years — and worry worry about the consequences later.

For the Twins, it’s a different ball game. The stakes are bigger, the downside is bigger. And depending on Rodón’s personal preferences, it may take a significant overbid to take him away from more attractive destinations.

It’s hard to know exactly where the southpaw’s contract figure might land, when you factor in all the risks and all the rewards. An article in The Athletic predicted five years and $160 million, which is higher than I’ve seen elsewhere, but certainly within reason. For the Twins to succeed, they may have to get creative with a contract framework that leans heavily in the player’s favor – a Scott Boras specialty.

Again, you can make a good case for saying “fuck it, just get the deal done, whatever it takes.” But then I come back to this front office and what we know about them. As much as they may like Rodón and his fitness, it would be very unusual to outsmart a bunch of heavy hitters in a large-scale auction for a top signing.

What seems much more likely is that they will turn to other pitchers near the top of the remaining free agent starter pool looking for real advantage without the extreme buy-high dynamic.

One name that really stands out in this group is Nathan Eovaldi. He’s got the credentials, the big stage experience, the power fastball. In 2021, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting with 5.7 fWAR, placing him in the premier class of MLB starters. In 2022 he took a step back, with a production that was more or less Robbie Ray-esque.

Unlike Rodón and Ray, Eovaldi is not a buy-high target. Unfortunately for him, the right-hander’s free agency date came a year too late for that. He will still be paid well, but the proposal should be much less daunting for a team like the Twins.

How much less realistic advantage does Eovaldi bring to the table compared to Rodón and Ray, relative to the chasmic cost difference? If you look at 2022 in isolation, much less, but the results are not as reliably consistent from year to year. To prove that, look no further than all the dudes we’re talking about here.

In some ways, the signing of Rodón feels like a move the Twins should take should they miss out on Correa. But if you turn away from the food frenzy and focus on an arm like Eovaldi, that would be much more on-brand, while still displaying a touch of daring. He would very likely be the most expensive free agent pitcher to sign in franchise history, and a plausible upgrade from Sonny Gray in the No. 1 rotation spot.

This course would also allow the Twins to save some coins and distribute more of it to other needs, while still addressing the rotation in a meaningful, emphatic way.

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