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MLB offseason free-agent trend: Giving love and money to old starters

MLB free agents
Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In dissecting the first several newsworthy signings of the Major League Baseball offseason, two commonalities stand out:

One, starting pitching is and remains king. Two, old guys have value, especially on the mound and in the clubhouse.

It’s been a slow start to baseball’s Hot Stove season, and that’s not surprising. Typically, things heat up in December, with the annual winter meetings beginning next week in Nashville.

So far, most of the early free-agent signings have been starting pitchers in their mid-30s. It’s a group of steady performers, not necessarily superstars. But these guys know how to pitch and what it takes to survive for years in the majors.

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Veteran starters being signed early in MLB free agency

Given what we saw play out during the 2023 season, the market is becoming kind again to the old standby: the veteran starter.

The largest free-agent contract this winter was landed by 30-year-old right-hander Aaron Nola, who re-signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for seven years and $172 million. Nola’s the typical, widely coveted free agent; he’s entering his 30s and his first chance at the open market with six-plus years of strong performance on his resume. He was always gonna get paid.

However, the other starters who have already inked big-league deals are longer in the tooth: 34-year-old Sonny Gray; Kenta Maeda, 35; and a pair of 36-year-olds in Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn.

The Detroit Tigers, still in rebuilding mode, signed Maeda to a two-year, $24 million deal. The other three are now St. Louis Cardinals, with Gray getting three years (with a fourth-year option) and $75 million guaranteed and the other two signing one-year pacts with 2025 options (Gibson for $12 million and Lynn, $11 million).

NameAgeOld TeamNew Team2023 StatsNew Deal
Sonny Gray34TwinsCardinals8-8, 2.79 ERA, 32 starts3 years, $75M
Kenita Maeda35TwinsTigers6-8, 4.23 ERA, 20 starts2 years, $24M
Kyle Gibson36OriolesCardinals15-9, 4.73 ERA, 33 starts1 year, $12M
Lance Lynn36DodgersCardinals13-11, 5.73 ERA, 32 starts1 year, $11M

The St. Louis Cardinals aggressively sign veteran starting pitching

The Cardinals were the most notable franchise with the most obvious rotation holes, losing Adam Wainwright to retirement at season’s end, dealing pending free agents Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty at the summer’s trade deadline and non-tendering Dakota Hudson and Jake Woodford this month.

They needed to add at least two starters – three, if possible – heading into the spring. That’s a tall task in MLB these days. Being hyper-aggressive, though, the Cardinals added three by the end of November while most other teams were still kicking tires.

Instead of targeting a top starter for $150 million or more, they bought three for less than $100 million total. And they added 34 seasons and 920 combined games of pitching experience.

I love it. What the Cardinals did was add three players who know how to pitch. They know how to set up hitters, be efficient with their offerings, and keep their team in games.

The win statistic has been devalued over the years as a determination of success – and I understand why – but those three pitchers have combined for 338 victories in their careers. That’s a product of taking the ball and getting through five innings in most of their appearances – and those things still mean something in today’s game.

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Why the St. Louis Cardinals’ signings were brilliant

Their appeal goes beyond statistics, though. They’ve all survived a decade in the majors, and that’s exceptionally difficult to do. With it comes experience and leadership.

St. Louis Cardinals 2023 projected starting pitching

  1. Sonny Gray RH
  2. Miles Mikolas RH
  3. Kyle Gibson RH
  4. Lance Lynn RH
  5. Steve Matz LH

Gibson, for one, is one of the best veteran leaders in the game. He joined a young and inexperienced Baltimore Orioles staff last year and arguably was its most invaluable member. He posted a pedestrian 4.73 ERA but tied the AL lead with 33 starts and threw 192 innings, his most since 2018.

More importantly, the Orioles’ inexperienced starters, including Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez, raved about Gibson’s tutelage. It helped lead the Orioles to 101 wins, their most since 1979.

Gray, who finished second in AL Cy Young voting, and Maeda were key components in the Minnesota Twins’ divisional championship. Lynn won seven of 11 starts after being dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the deadline.

All have had to tweak their arsenals as they have aged, and each has learned to be more pitcher than thrower after entering the league with high expectations (Gray, Gibson and Lynn were all first-rounders; Maeda signed an eight-year deal out of Japan).

Now, they are among the first free agents off the board, partially because they won’t break the bank. Mainly, though, because teams are valuing the combination of pitching acumen and veteran leadership.

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Why signing veteran MLB pitchers is important

It was on display this postseason. Last winter, Nate Eovaldi was 32 and signed a two-year deal worth $34 million with the Texas Rangers that fell primarily under the radar. In the playoffs, Eovaldi won five games and posted a 2.95 ERA, helping the Rangers win their first World Series title in franchise history. During their run, several Rangers gushed about Eovaldi’s presence and leadership.

It’s all tough to quantify, of course. And not every aging pitcher is going to be a good buy as a free agent. Their value as a group is rising, however, as evidenced by the quick purchase of the four 30-somethings. Only Gray was considered a top 10 free agent in this class by Major League Baseball Trade Rumors (ninth overall, seventh pitcher). Maeda clocked in at 25th and Gibson and Lynn weren’t in the Top 50. Those are the kind of players teams usually view as Plan Bs or Cs.

Yet the Cardinals and Tigers jumped early into the seasoned pitching market. That should only escalate the expense for other veterans such as Seth Lugo, Wade Miley and Hyun Jin Ryu. Plenty of teams need pitching and now fewer veterans with recent success are available in December.

The talk for the rest of the winter is going to be about the big fish, such as Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell and Josh Hader – all currently 30 or younger.

For now, though, in November, the old guy pitchers have gotten a little love and a lot of money.

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