We continue our series of looking at the free agent market for starting pitchers who could help the Mets, who still need rotation help even after Marcus Stroman accepted the qualifying offer. In Part 1, we started looking at the market for starters, running down the list with the first six pitchers by fWAR since the start of the 2019 season, and we continue now with the next five. Kevin Gausman, who also accepted a qualifying offer, would have been in this group had he opted for free agency.
The Canadian lefty had a mixed two-year stint with the Yankees. Though he went 15-6 in his first year in The Bronx in 2019, a lot of his peripheral stats, like a 3.86 FIP and a decreased strikeout-to-walk rate, suggested a significant regression from his excellent 2017 season in Seattle. His 2020 season was basically a wash, with injuries limiting him to just five starts and 20 innings pitched.
Because of his injury history and the depressed free agent market, Paxton could likely come cheap for a contending team, like, say, the Mets. And though his recent injuries might scare suitors away, his relatively short time in the league for a 32-year old starter might mean he has a lot more to offer than what initially appears. Paxton probably shouldn’t be anyone’s top priority, but there’s plenty of upside to signing him.
Up until last season, Jose Quintana had been one of the most consistent left-handed starters in baseball. Starting in at least 30 games every year between 2013-19, Quintana finally broke through in 2016 with an all-star season with the White Sox before being traded to the Cubs the following year.
The upside to Quintana is his durability. Though he only pitched ten innings in 2020, much of that had to do with a freak dishwashing injury at the beginning of the season and not from recurring problems like Paxton’s. Quintana’s last full season of pitching in 2019 also ranges from slightly above average (1.4 bWAR) to excellent (3.5 fWAR), depending on whether you prefer to measure starters via ERA+ or FIP. But unlike Paxton, Quintana has a lot of mileage on his arm, and it’s possible he may pay for it earlier than other 32-year-olds on the market. If he remains healthy, however, he would make a solid signing for the Mets and would easily slot in as an effective fourth starter.
Porcello wasn’t anyone’s idea of a solid starter in 2020, but he was not nearly as putrid for the Mets as his 1-7 record indicates. Four of Porcello’s twelve starts last season were quality starts, two of them resulting in losses, one in a no-decision, and only one resulting in a win. He had two particularly bad outings, but on the whole it can be argued that the Mets failed Porcello much more than he failed the Mets.
But that doesn’t mean they should re-sign the New Jersey native. Porcello’s durability makes him an attractive candidate for any team looking for a back-of-the-rotation veteran, but with so much variability in his outings over the past few seasons, it’s hard to see re-signing Porcello as anything more than a compromise for the Mets. Perhaps some home cooking and a full season under new ownership can turn his career around, but it’s likely the organization has seen enough of Porcello to pass on his services.
I imagine even the thought of signing Wainwright elicits similar violent reactions amongst Mets fans to the thought of signing Yadier Molina, once again for very understandable 2006 NLCS Game 7 reasons. But aside from injury-shortened blips in 2011, 2014, and 2018, it’s hard to argue that Wainwright has been anything other than very good for a very long time.
2020 was no exception. In 65 innings pitched, Wainwright put up an impressive 1.051 WHIP and gave up just nine home runs, all while tying for the league lead with two complete games in his advanced age. But that last point should be highlighted: Wainwright is 39 years old and probably won’t command much beyond a 1-year deal with any team besides St. Louis. If the Mets are looking for a multi-year strategy, it’s probably best to steer clear of Wainwright.
Much like Wainwright, Lester has also been very good for a very long time, and is also quite old, turning 37 in January. Unlike Wainwright, however, Lester had a subpar 2020, posting a 5.16 ERA in 12 starts for the Cubs. Instead of paying Lester for the final year of his contract, Chicago exercised a $10 million buyout, making their once-ace a free agent.
If Lester has his way, he’ll be back with the Cubs next season. That might be best for the Mets, as well, as Lester provides the same potential downsides as does Wainwright minus the 2020 production that makes Wainwright a still somewhat attractive free agent. Of the big name free agent lefty starters, Paxton, Quintana, and Mike Minor all provide bigger upside and greater long-term potential. The likelihood we see Lester in Queens seems slim.