*While Bartolo Colon is technically still a part of this list -- and many would be delighted with his return -- he is 47 and hasn’t been with an MLB team since 2018. So we’re excluding him here.
These veterans also have their warts, of course. Their best days are behind them. But could they manage to recapture some past success in 2021? It’s not out of the question.
Let’s review these seven accomplished free agents and see what each might be able to offer a team next season. Pitchers are listed with their 2021 seasonal age.
Corey Kluber, RHP (age 35)
Glory days: With Cleveland from 2014-18, Kluber won two American League Cy Young Awards and finished third twice. He led the AL in wins, ERA+ and FIP two times apiece, going a combined 83-45 with a 2.85 ERA (151 ERA+) while averaging 218 innings and 246 strikeouts. Earning the nickname “Klubot” for his stoic demeanor, the righty posted 31.7 WAR over those five seasons, trailing only Max Scherzer among pitchers.
What have you done for me lately? Kluber sustained a fractured bone in his right arm via a comebacker in early May 2019 and missed the rest of the year. After Cleveland traded him to Texas last offseason, he threw one inning before a torn teres major muscle in his right shoulder ended his tenure there.
2021 outlook: Kluber put on a well-attended showcase event for MLB teams on Wednesday, and the results were encouraging. Health is obviously a big question here, and it’s worth wondering what sort of workload Kluber could handle after barely pitching for two years. Still, clubs figure to be lining up to take a low-risk, high-reward chance on a Klubot Renaissance.
Cole Hamels, LHP (age 37)
Glory days: Hamels has never finished higher than fifth in the Cy Young voting, but he’s a four-time All-Star who’s been a reliable performer. From 2007-19, he averaged 197 innings and posted a 124 ERA+, going below the league-average 100 mark just once. Only four likely Hall of Famers (Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Scherzer) rank above Hamels (58.4) in career WAR among active pitchers. He also owns MVP Awards from the 2008 NL Championship Series and World Series.
What have you done for me lately? Hamels was solid for the Cubs in 2019 (141 2/3 innings, 114 ERA+) but managed just one start for the Braves last year while dealing with triceps tendinitis and left shoulder fatigue.
2021 outlook: Hamels intends to pitch this year, per MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi, and he could interest a team like the Giants that’s looking for a lefty. The ceiling isn’t high here, but if Hamels can return to being the 3-WAR pitcher he was from 2017-19, he would help a lot of clubs.
Adam Wainwright, RHP (age 39)
Glory days: One of the greatest pitchers in the history of a proud franchise, Wainwright has racked up more starts (326), wins (167), strikeouts (1,830) and pitching WAR (36.9) than any Cardinals hurler since Bob Gibson. He logged four top-three NL Cy Young Award finishes between 2009-14 while leading the NL in starts, innings, wins and shutouts twice each.
What have you done for me lately? It looked like Wainwright might be on his way out a few years ago, but he rebounded to post a 109 ERA+ in 41 starts for St. Louis from 2019-20. Wainwright completed at least six innings in eight of his 10 outings last year. For good measure, he won the 2020 Roberto Clemente Award for his off-the-field contributions.
2021 outlook: Wainwright has expressed interest in remaining in St. Louis, but it’s not clear if the two sides will work something out. If they don’t, Wainwright could end up with a different organization for the first time since the Braves traded him as a prospect in December 2003. Given how many teams will need innings in 2021, he should find a home somewhere.
Félix Hernández, RHP (age 35)
Glory days: Félix was a beloved franchise fixture in Seattle, with his own “King’s Court.” The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner also finished as the runner-up twice, making six All-Star teams, winning two AL ERA titles and throwing MLB's most recent perfect game. From 2009-14, Kershaw was the only MLB starter with a lower ERA or a higher WAR.
What have you done for me lately? Hernández’s decline became steep in 2018-19 (5.82 ERA, 5.44 FIP over 227 1/3 innings). After an emotional exit from Seattle, he signed a Minor League deal with Atlanta but then opted out of the 2021 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
2021 outlook: Hernández is reportedly likely to pitch this year, and while his recent track record doesn’t inspire great confidence, he was looking good prior to last spring’s shutdown, with a 1.98 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 13 2/3 Grapefruit League innings.
Jon Lester, LHP (age 37)
Glory days: Lester’s best stretch was in Boston from 2008-11, when he went 65-32 with a 135 ERA+ over 128 starts. But the southpaw has been a reliable arm for most of his 15-year career, including an NL Cy Young runner-up finish for the 2016 Cubs. Plus, he’s a celebrated postseason pitcher, with a 2.51 ERA over 154 innings, three championships, and an NLCS MVP Award.
What have you done for me lately? Lester remained an innings eater over the past two seasons with the Cubs, but with declining effectiveness (94 ERA+, .805 opponent OPS). He was touched up for five or more earned runs in five of his 12 starts in 2020.
2021 outlook: Lester needs seven more wins to reach the 200 mark, but it’s unclear if he will be able to hit that milestone in a Cubs uniform. While he doesn’t miss bats or rack up many K’s at this point, he still could be a good fit as a source of veteran innings in an inexperienced rotation.
Jake Arrieta, RHP (age 35)
Glory days: It wasn’t long after his July 2013 trade from the Orioles to the Cubs that Arrieta ascended from a disappointing prospect to a dominant ace who won the 2015 NL Cy Young Award and two games in the ‘16 World Series. Over one jaw-dropping, 35-start stretch between June ‘15 and June ‘16, Arrieta went 27-3 with a 1.21 ERA, as opponents batted .160 against him.
What have you done for me lately? The three-year, $75 million deal that Arrieta signed with the Phillies prior to 2018 turned out to be something of a disappointment. His ERA now has climbed in five consecutive seasons, including to 4.64 in 2019 and 5.08 in ‘20, and he missed time during that stretch with a bone spur in his right elbow and a hamstring strain.
2021 outlook: There hasn’t been much Hot Stove chatter about Arrieta, whose Statcast expected ERA last year ranked in just the 14th percentile, due in large part to a lack of whiffs. Arrieta can still keep the ball on the ground, but the way opponents pounded his sinker in 2020 (slugging .634) will probably give prospective employers some pause.
Rick Porcello, RHP (age 32)
Glory days: Porcello can’t boast the same sort of sustained success as the other pitchers on this list. But he did capture the AL Cy Young Award for the Red Sox in 2016, when he went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA and 5.9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which was enough to edge out Verlander in a tight race. Porcello ranks in the top 10 among active pitchers in starts, innings and wins.
What have you done for me lately? In four seasons since that Cy, Porcello has been durable (110 starts) but at a below-average clip (93 ERA+). After signing with the Mets last offseason, he allowed 74 hits in 59 innings, and the team won just two of his 12 starts.
2021 outlook: Perhaps better than it seems. The .373 BABIP against Porcello last year was the highest for any pitcher with at least 50 innings, as was the gap between his ERA and 3.33 FIP. Porcello is also the youngest pitcher on this list, and his lack of an injury history means he’s a good bet to provide innings.