The free-agent market for hitters this offseason was very weak. However, the starting pitching market is flush with good-to-excellent options. Here's a look at the top pitchers remaining and how they might affect MLB futures odds next season.
Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers
Scherzer isn't just the top pitcher on the market, he's the No. 1 overall player and could well command a $200 million deal after turning down a six-year, $144 million extension before this past season from Detroit. Scherzer bet on himself and won. After winning the 2013 Cy Young Award, Scherzer was just as good in '14, going 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA and a career-high 252 strikeouts in a career-high 220.1 innings. Teams are generally terrified of giving long-term deals to pitchers nowadays with the rash of Tommy John surgeries, but Scherzer is only 30 and has made at least 30 starts in six straight years. His agent is Scott Boras, so don't expect Scherzer to pick a team anytime soon. Boras always seems to get one club to overpay late in the game. He will not let Scherzer set the market. Of course all 30 teams would love to have Scherzer. It seems unlikely that he heads back to Detroit. Realistically only the big-money teams can afford him. So you are looking at the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Nationals and Dodgers. The Cubs might really go hard after him if they lose out on Jon Lester to Boston.
MLB free pick: The Yankees are sitting back and watching the Red Sox load up. The Bombers will counter with Scherzer. That will get New York closer on MLB odds to Boston. Probably no other free agent short of Jon Lester does that.
Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
Lester is the clear No. 2 to Scherzer and No. 2 overall player. Lester is also 30 (soon 31) and has proven a big-time playoff performer. Some teams prefer him to Scherzer because he will be a bit cheaper and the fact that Lester is left-handed. With Boston and Oakland last season, Lester was 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA. He has made at least 31 starts in seven straight years and his pitching style would seem to help his chances to avoid possible Tommy John surgery compared to Scherzer's. The Cubs and Red Sox already have made offers. The Cardinals and Giants also are looking at Lester.
MLB free pick: Boston. Lester loved it there, and he sees that the Sox added offense in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. Team owner John Henry already has said he is willing to exceed the luxury tax to bring Lester back home. If the Sox get Lester, they probably become second-favorites at sportsbooks to win the AL pennant behind Detroit.
James Shields, Kansas City Royals
Shields will be a consolation prize to teams that don't land Scherzer or Lester. Shields is 32 and will cost less than the other two guys. He was 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA last season for the AL champions, who would love to re-sign Shields but probably can't afford him. Shields isn't really dominant, but he's a workhorse. He has thrown 200-plus innings eight consecutive seasons, including at least 227 the past four. Shields leads the majors with 932.2 innings over the past four seasons. The market for Shields is huge, from the Red Sox (if lose Lester) to both Chicago teams to the Giants to the Marlins to the Diamondbacks.
MLB free pick: Cubs, assuming they lose out on Lester to Boston. Shields is reunited with his former Rays manager Joe Maddon. Adding Shields could make Chicago the second-favorite at sportsbooks in the NL Central to St. Louis.
Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates
The lefty looked done in the majors after a terrible 2012 season in Minnesota, which followed an equally bad 2011 season. The Pirates took a low-cost flier on him, and boy did it pay off. To the tune of about $7 million guaranteed, Liriano was 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 2013 (NL Comeback Player of the Year) and then 7-10 with a 3.38 ERA last year. He started 2014 slowly but really pitched well in the second half, going 6-3 with a 2.20 ERA. Pittsburgh definitely wants him back but won't get a discount this time. About 10 teams are in on Liriano.
MLB free pick: The NL agrees with Liriano so he stays in that league and heads to Miami.
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Ervin Santana, Atlanta Braves
Santana rejuvenated his career in 2013 with Kansas City, going 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA. The Royals extended Santana a qualifying offer, but he rejected it figuring on getting a huge free-agent deal somewhere. For whatever reason no team wanted to give him one and relinquish a draft pick. So late in the spring the Braves signed him to a one-year deal. Santana was 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA. He may have run out of gas at the end, going 1-3 with a 6.51 ERA in September. The guy is durable (30-plus starts the past five seasons) and would make a great No. 3 starter on a contender.
MLB free pick: Santana heads back to Kansas City to replace Shields. The Royals already were long shots on MLB odds to repeat as AL champions and will get longer.