Nothing satisfies baseball teams and fans quite the same way as a bargain free-agent starting pitcher, given the high prices these moundsmen generally command.
(The pitcher himself, over-performing his compensation, might feel less satisfaction.)
Where would the Mets be, for instance, if Taijuan Walker hadn’t lingered until February, at which point he signed for $20 million over two years? Yet Walker, whose scheduled start Thursday night against the Pirates at Citi Field got washed out, faces stiff competition for the Bargain of the Half-Year title. Probably thanks to the pandemic and resulting austerity kick of our most recent Hot Stove campaign, the 2021 season features a number of pitchers rewarding the clubs who showed faith in them amid a market that didn’t.
Let’s rank them, shall we? Remember, this is “Top bargains,” so Walker’s Mets teammate Marcus Stroman and the Giants’ Kevin Gausman, both making good money just for this year (and both shining) after accepting the qualifying offer, don’t fit. Trevor Bauer, meanwhile, didn’t come cheap for the Dodgers, who are now paying with their reputation as well for ignoring the red flags that surrounded the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner.
1. Carlos Rodon, White Sox (one year, $3 million)
A non-tender of all things, the No. 3-overall pick of the 2014 amateur draft returned to his original club for a highly reasonable sum. He is one of the approximately 340 pitchers who have thrown a no-hitter this year, but one of the few to surpass three wins above replacement (3.2) before the All-Star break, teaming up with Lance Lynn, Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease to give Tony La Russa perhaps the best starting rotation in the American League.
2. Robbie Ray, Blue Jays (one year, $8 million)
He didn’t show much (besides a loud grunt, heard well without fans in the stands) when the Blue Jays acquired him at last year’s trade deadline, yet Toronto committed to him very early last offseason (Nov. 7) and has seen that aggressiveness rewarded with a 3.36 ERA in the brutal American League East, his 5.17 strikeouts-to-walks ratio dwarfing the 1.51 he put up in 2020.
Signed by the Mets only after they luckily whiffed on Bauer, the 28-year-old is on pace to put up his best full major league campaign. He gets extra points, New York bias time, for excelling while so many around him went down to lengthy injuries (Walker did miss 10 days with left side tightness). If he’s the priciest guy on this list, he might prove the best investment if he can keep this level of success (a 158 ERA-plus) going through next season.
4. Chris Flexen, Mariners (two years, $4.75 million)
The right-hander certainly got people talking when he returned from a year abroad (in Korea) to these terms, given the 6.92 ERA he had compiled in 27 games for the Mets from 2017 through 2019. Yet Flexen has made the Mariners look savvy, tallying a 3.80 ERA in 15 starts totaling 85 innings. While most pitchers approach the second half with some trepidation after last year’s COVID-shortened schedule, Flexen goes forward on the foundation of throwing 145 innings last year.
5. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (one year, $8 million)
The whole world knew that the soon-to-be 40-year-old (next month) wanted to return to the only club for which he has ever pitched in the major leagues, his debut occurring in 2005, so that hindered his leverage. Of course, this deal put him on the verge of $150 million in career earnings (thanks, Baseball-Reference.com) so that can ease the pain of providing St. Louis with a 3.58 ERA as he already has surpassed the 100-innings mark for the 11th time.
Honorable mention: Rich Hill (Rays, one year, $2.5 million) has kept Tampa Bay in games at age 41, and Charlie Morton (Braves, one year, $15 million) would rank higher if he earned lower.