2021 FA class is STACKED with HOF arms

November 28th, 2020

We’ve expended lots of oxygen on next winter’s gargantuan free-agent shortstop class (Javier Báez, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Trevor Story) and how it could influence team approaches to this Hot Stove season. But there’s another element of the 2021-22 free-agent class that’s loaded in a much different way:

The Hall of Fame starter market!

A free-agent pool featuring Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander obviously won’t propel the kind of long-term investments that we’re likely to see with the aforementioned star shortstops under the age of 30. But it is intriguing to think about where these highly accomplished arms might wind up come 2022.

Just for fun, let’s rank these four prominent pitchers based on a complete guess as to how their post-2021 value will be viewed in the industry. And while we’re at it, we’ll take a stab at their eventual landing spot.

Note: Ages listed will be as of Opening Day 2022.

1) Clayton Kershaw, LHP, 34

Why he’s Cooperstown-bound: Three National League Cy Young Awards (and two second-place finishes), an NL MVP Award, eight-time All-Star, five ERA titles and a pitching Triple Crown. Among those with at least 1,500 innings, his 158 ERA+ is the best all-time. And did you know Kershaw has a World Series ring and, therefore and ergo, is not a postseason failure? It’s true!

Why he still has value: Kershaw is the youngest pitcher on this particular list. And after showing diminished fastball velocity from 2017-19, he participated in the Driveline player development program prior to the '20 season and came out with a 1.3 mph jump in velo (from 90.3 to 91.6). Kershaw also showed the ability to mix and match speeds with his slider to keep hitters off-balance. Kershaw has a lot of weapons, and chief among them is the ability to adjust and adapt.

Potential red flags: Kershaw will enter 2021 with 2,333 career regular-season innings prior to his age-33 season. The only other pitchers in this century with as many innings that young were CC Sabathia, Mark Buehrle and Félix Hernández, and their cumulative ERA+ marks from age 33 onward were 101 for Sabathia (or 1 percent better than league average), 107 for Buehrle and 68 for Hernández (or 32 percent worse than league average). Sabathia and Buehrle managed to have effective individual years after that heavy workload, but it will be asking a lot of Kershaw -- who has dealt with chronic back issues -- to deliver above-average performance on his next deal, however long it is.

Way-too-early prediction: While it’s always interesting to speculate about Kershaw going back home to pitch for the Rangers (in the ballpark where he won his first World Series, no less), if he doesn’t spend the entirety of his career with the Dodgers, something is seriously wrong. So that’s my prediction. Then again, Tom Brady is now the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so who knows?

2) Max Scherzer, RHP, age 37

Why he’s Cooperstown-bound: Three Cy Young Awards (two in the NL, one in the AL as well as a second-place finish), two no-hitters, seven-time All-Star and 2019 World Series champ. Scherzer is closing in on 200 wins (175) and 3,000 strikeouts (2,784), and his 48.4 WAR7 (the sum of his seven best WAR seasons) is higher than that of 30 Hall of Famers.

Why he still has value: Though Scherzer's overall numbers weren’t up to his usual standards in 2020, they were still solid (3.74 ERA, 123 ERA+), and he continued to possess a whiff percentage in the 82nd percentile, fastball spin in the 91st percentile and curveball spin in the 80th percentile. You won’t find a more dogged competitor, so if there are outs to be eked from Scherzer’s right arm, he will find them.

Potential red flags: Despite the inherent risks going into his 30s, Scherzer’s seven-year, $191.4 million contract has to be the rare blockbuster pitching pact that has worked out wonderfully for the signing team. However, the neck and back issues that pestered him in 2019 (and famously tweaked his World Series schedule) are a reminder that even workhorses have their limits. The only pitcher with more regular and postseason innings than Scherzer dating back to '09 is Verlander, and Verlander finally broke down in '20.

Way-too-early prediction: You can’t hang that huge, imposing image of Scherzer and his mismatched eyes above the Shake Shack at Nationals Park and not do everything possible to have him finish his career in Washington. Scherzer will stay with the Nats.

3) Zack Greinke, RHP, age 38

Why he’s Cooperstown-bound: Two ERA titles, one AL Cy Young Award (along with a second-place and fourth-place finish), six-time All-Star and, among those with at least 1,500 innings since 2008, his 3.14 ERA ranks third (behind only Kershaw and Chris Sale). His career WAR of 67.1 is virtually identical to that of Kershaw (67) and just shy of the average for a Hall of Fame pitcher (69). Greinke might not strike you as a certainty in the vein of Kershaw, Scherzer and Verlander, but you can’t tell the story of the 21st century in this sport without him.

Why he still has value: It appeared Father Time might be catching up with Greinke when he posted essentially league-average numbers in 2016. But in the past four years, he’s had an adjusted ERA+ of 140, or 40 percent better than average. Even when his ERA elevated to 4.03 in the shortened '20 season, Greinke had a fielding independent pitching mark of 2.80, indicative of poor batted-ball luck. Greinke still rates above average in fastball spin, whiff rate and opponent’s quality of contact.

Potential red flags: Greinke’s four-seam velocity in 2019 (89.9 mph) was already 2.5 mph below where it sat in his extraordinary '15 season with the Dodgers (92.4), and then it dropped another 2 mph in '20 (87.9). Greinke has proven adept at mixing and matching and missing bats (sometimes with an extraordinary eephus), but can he continue to deliver that magic in his late 30s?

Way-too-early prediction: The Royals will be looking to more seriously compete in 2022 and will bring back their '09 Cy Young Award winner on a short-term deal.

4) Justin Verlander, RHP, age 39

Why he’s Cooperstown-bound: Two AL Cy Young Awards (and three second-place finishes), an AL MVP Award, a World Series ring, an AL Championship Series MVP Award, 3,013 strikeouts, three no-hitters, eight All-Star selections, a pitching Triple Crown and a 72.3 career Baseball Reference WAR that ranks 30th all-time, just behind the immortal Old Hoss Radbourn (73.2).

Why he still has value: We only saw six innings from Verlander in 2020 before he had to shut it down with a right elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery. But in his Cy Young Award winning season of 2019, he defied age both in terms of the results (2.58 ERA, 0.80 WHIP) and the raw stuff (elite fastball velocity and fastball and curveball spin), continuing a late-career renaissance.

Potential red flags: He’ll be a 39-year-old coming off two lost seasons and major arm surgery. That’s not a “potential” red flag, it's a glaring one. Which is why we’ll rank Verlander last on this list. But it will be easy to root for a comeback.

Way-too-early prediction: Verlander will continue his tour of teams that wear orange by signing a one-year, post-surgery, prove-it deal with the Giants. (Next stop: Mets. Final stop: Orioles.)