5 free-agent starters who could be sneaky-good adds

January 18th, 2024

With Spring Training rapidly approaching, all eyes are on the top remaining players on the free-agent market.

On the pitching front, and are the headliners, as frontline starters who appear likely to garner a nine-figure contract. With and several quality starters already off the board, there aren't many attention-grabbing names still available beyond Snell and Montgomery.

That doesn't mean there aren't some potential hidden gems, though. Given the volatility of pitching today, there might be free-agent pitchers who perform well beyond their expectations in 2024. That holds especially true for pitchers with a strong track record who have dealt with recent injuries.

With this in mind, here's a look at five under-the-radar free-agent starters who could have a big season in 2024.

Hyun Jin Ryu, LHP
While Ryu's peak years are assuredly behind him, there's hope of a strong starter still in his profile. After Tommy John surgery in June 2022, Ryu returned last August and produced 11 solid starts for the Blue Jays for the rest of the season. In 52 innings, Ryu ran a 3.46 ERA (123 ERA+) that was backed by a 3.85 expected ERA -- which is based on the quality and quantity of contact against a pitcher. It's a far cry from his stretch of dominance from 2018-20 (2.30 ERA in 56 starts), but he still has the tools of a good starting pitcher.

The elephant in the room is Ryu's injury history. In addition to his surgery in 2022, Ryu also missed the entire '15 season and most of '16 due to left shoulder surgery and elbow tendinitis. Since '17, the left-hander has only exceeded 100 innings in three of seven seasons. He'll also turn 37 before Opening Day and saw his four-seam fastball velocity drop to a career-low 88.4 mph -- which placed him in the third percentile for fastball velocity. Still, Ryu has all of the tools to churn out a quality season in '24 (the projections agree), if he can just stay healthy.

James Paxton, LHP
Speaking of veteran lefties with an extensive injury history, Paxton might have the most extreme high-risk, high-reward profile of any remaining free-agent starter. After making just six MLB starts from 2020-22, Paxton returned with 19 starts for the Red Sox last season. Paxton's 4.50 ERA was largely based on his ugly 1.69 HR/9 rate, but his 3.77 expected ERA signaled that he was much better than his raw numbers. Paxton combined an above-average whiff rate with an ability to throw strikes in nearly 100 innings.

Like Ryu, Paxton's health woes have been frequent and date back to the beginning of his career. The lefty pieced together four straight seasons with at least 120 innings from 2016-19, but there have been a barrage of injuries in practically every other season. Even in his resurgent '23 season, Paxton started the season on the injured list with right hamstring discomfort and ended it there with right knee inflammation. Whenever Paxton has been on a mound, he's been wildly effective (career 112 ERA+ and 3.46 FIP). The biggest issue has been keeping the 35-year-old lefty on the field.

Michael Lorenzen, RHP
If you were told that a 32-year-old starter who made his first All-Star team and tossed a no-hitter in the previous season was a free agent, you'd probably guess that he would be one of the hottest names on the market. Instead, Lorenzen has received little buzz and could be looking at signing a modest short-term deal for the third straight winter. The past few seasons have been a bit of a whirlwind for the veteran right-hander, who transitioned back to the rotation with his hometown Angels in 2022, pitched in the All-Star Game for Detroit in '23 and finished the year in the Phillies' bullpen after pitching poorly following his memorable no-hitter in his first home start in Philadelphia.

Despite Lorenzen's volatility as a starter, there's enough to like in his profile. The righty was essentially a league-average pitcher (101 ERA+) across 250 2/3 innings the past two seasons, a performance largely supported by his underlying numbers. Lorenzen has shown above-average control of a five-pitch mix and has been able to prevent quality contact to make up for a subpar strikeout rate (18.9 K% since '22). He may not be an exciting option, but he could prove valuable by eating innings at the back of a contender's rotation and possibly pivoting to the bullpen come October.

Jakob Junis, RHP
Junis was just one of many Giants swingmen who operated both in the rotation and multi-inning relief roles the past few seasons. While Junis doesn't bring the same name value as recent teammates , and , the 31-year-old right-hander showed plenty of promise for teams to take a shot on him as a starter. Like Lorenzen, Junis was essentially a league-average pitcher (97 ERA+ and 3.69 FIP) in nearly 200 innings over the past two seasons.

Teams could still use Junis in a similar swingman role, but there might be a market for a club willing to let him throw 100-plus innings next season. Similar to last offseason, Junis could pull off the full-time jump back into the rotation -- he made 30-plus starts for the Royals in 2018 and '19 -- and reward his new team with a bulk of quality innings. Despite making just four starts last season, Junis essentially operated as a quasi-starter with 23 multi-inning outings, including a dozen outings of three-plus innings. Notably, Junis had a career-best 93.7 mph average fastball velocity, generated a 32% whiff rate on his slider and changeup and had a strong 5.7% walk rate.

Carlos Carrasco, RHP
Nothing went right for Carrasco with the Mets in 2023. The right-hander posted a 6.80 ERA that was fourth highest among pitchers with at least 90 innings, and that figure was backed up by a 6.77 expected ERA. It's hard to look at that kind of season by a 36-year-old and remain optimistic for a bounceback. However, Carrasco is not that far removed from a strong '22 season in which he made 29 starts with a 3.97 ERA and was worth 2.5 Wins Above Replacement (per FanGraphs).

It's not inconceivable that we could see a rebound from Carrasco in 2024, but his recent track record makes him a difficult pitcher to project. Carrasco has dealt with a number of injuries in recent years, not to mention his courageous battle with leukemia in '19. Between that and the shortened '20 season, he has averaged only 89 innings over the past five years. On top of the injuries, Carrasco has seen his production wildly fluctuate each season. Since '18, Carrasco has posted an ERA below 4.00 in his even years, while his odd years have produced ERAs north of 5.00.