Which teams might pursue FA Gausman?
With the regular season behind us and the postseason in full swing, we're taking a close look at some of the most prominent players eligible for free agency.
Name: Kevin Gausman
Position: Right-handed pitcher
Team: San Francisco Giants
Age (as of Opening Day 2022): 31
2021 stats: 14-6, 2.81 ERA, 192 IP, 227 K, 1.042 WHIP
When Kevin Gausman was traded from the Orioles to the Braves prior to the Trade Deadline in 2018, the move didn’t create many waves. The right-hander then posted a 2.87 ERA over 10 starts, seemingly benefiting from the change of scenery.
A disastrous first half in 2019 ultimately caused the Braves to place Gausman on waivers, where he was claimed by the Reds, who used him out of the bullpen. He pitched better for Cincinnati, but when he hit the free-agent market that winter, he took a one-year, $9 million pillow contract from the Giants, hoping to parlay a good season into a more lucrative deal.
Gausman did just that, going 3-3 with a 3.62 ERA in 12 outings (10 starts) during the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. That effort -- albeit in a small sample size -- was enough for the Giants to extend an $18.9 million qualifying offer to Gausman, who accepted it and returned to the Bay Area for a second season.
The deal turned out to be a win for both sides. Gausman was selected to his first All-Star team, going 14-6 with a 2.81 ERA in 33 starts to pace a Giants staff that ranked second in MLB with a 3.24 ERA.
Now Gausman returns to the free-agent market for a second time, seeking the multi-year deal that has eluded him to this point. Given the number of teams desperately seeking starting pitching, he should be highly sought after in the weeks and months ahead.
As good as the Giants’ rotation was in 2021, the team has some work to do in order to run it back next season. In addition to Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Johnny Cueto (club option) and Alex Wood are all eligible for free agency, leaving Logan Webb as the lone starter locked into place for 2022. San Francisco will likely try to lock up Gausman, who has thrived in the NL West during his tenure with the Giants.
The Mets need to do some serious work on their rotation this offseason, as Jacob deGrom will be coming back from an arm injury, Carlos Carrasco threw just 53 2/3 innings in 2021 and Taijuan Walker followed up an All-Star first half with a dreadful second half in which he went 0-8 with a 7.13 ERA. Marcus Stroman is a free agent, and with no pitching prospects ready to make an impact in the Majors, the Mets are likely to be in on nearly every starting pitcher of note.
Kyle Hendricks and Alec Mills will fill two spots in Chicago’s rotation in 2022, but a group of youngsters (Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson) make up the next tier of starters behind them. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said recently that he expects to have the resources “to go out and be active in free agency.” The Cubs are unlikely to sign any of the veteran starters in their mid- to late-thirties (Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, etc), but if they plan to undergo a quick rebuild following this summer’s fire sale, adding a top-of-the-rotation arm should be a priority.
Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi will return next season, but Eduardo Rodriguez is a free agent and both Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards have club options. Boston will almost assuredly check in with a number of starting pitchers on the free-agent market, and although Gausman’s recent success has come in the NL, he pitched for five-plus seasons in the AL East while playing for the Orioles.
AL Cy Young favorite Robbie Ray is a free agent, and assuming he signs elsewhere, the Blue Jays will have to fill that spot with a quality arm if they hope to get back to the postseason after missing out by one game in 2021. The lineup is stacked and the rotation includes Hyun Jin Ryu, José Berríos and Alek Manoah, but Steven Matz is also a free agent, potentially leaving two spots for Toronto to fill this winter.
Another offseason means another chance for the Angels to address their ailing rotation. Aside from Shohei Ohtani, no other Angels pitcher threw 100 innings in 2021, leaving plenty of room for improvement. Alex Cobb pitched well in his 18 starts, but he’s a free agent -- as is Dylan Bundy, who did not pitch well -- so GM Perry Minasian has a lot of work to do on the pitching staff. Adding an arm such as Gausman would be a solid start.
Seattle’s surprising 90-win season kept the Mariners in the postseason race until the final weekend, but a closer look at their year shows a lot of room for improvement. The Mariners had a minus-51 run differential, though the offense (tied for 22nd in runs scored in the Majors) and rotation (16th in ERA) shouldered equal blame. Chris Flexen and Marco Gonzales were both solid and will return in 2022, but the James Paxton signing backfired and Justin Dunn missed more than three months on the IL. Adding a frontline starter would help Seattle take that final step, making Gausman a good fit for the Mariners.
If Justin Verlander and Greinke depart as free agents, the Astros will have lost two former Cy Young winners along with Gerrit Cole over a two-year stretch. Lance McCullers Jr. was excellent in 2021 and the Astros’ young starters pitched well, but adding a veteran top-of-the-rotation type makes sense for a team looking to extend its run as one of the AL’s top contenders.
“Gausman backed up a really good 2020 performance with an even better 2021, justifying the Giants’ utilization of the qualifying offer on him. The talented right-hander seems to be coming into his own at just the right time. The plus fastball/splitter combo are his signature offerings, and an improved slider has completed the three-pitch repertoire. The ability to sequence and understanding of how to optimize his pitches that has been refined in San Francisco is the difference-maker for a strike-thrower who possesses more control than command. There is some buyer beware due to a history of right shoulder injuries, but he has demonstrated health by making 33 starts this season. In my opinion, he is arguably a top-three starting pitching option on the market who will be compensated accordingly this winter.”
Gausman’s transformation into a reliable front-of-the-rotation arm over the past two years has been impressive, but is it sustainable? His increased use of his splitter -- he threw it a career-high 35.3% of the time in 2021 -- has helped make his four-seam fastball more effective. On the rare occasion when the four-seamer wasn’t sharp, Gausman also struggled with the splitter, looking more like the pitcher he was with the Orioles. It should also be noted that Gausman’s hard-hit rate has increased in each of the past two seasons, with his 40.9% ranking in the lower third of the league.
FOR COMP'S SAKE
Accepting a qualifying offer can be a risky move, especially if there are multi-year deals out there for the taking. But Gausman’s gamble should pay off, much as it did for Ryu two years ago; Ryu accepted the Dodgers’ QO, then signed a four-year, $80 million deal with the Blue Jays after posting the first All-Star year of his career. Ryu’s contract began in his age-33 season, while Gausman turns 31 in January.