Since coming over Japan in 2008, Hiroki Kuroda has been an extremely consistent and well-above average starter. His 2013 season marked his third straight year of 200+ innings and an ERA more than 15 percent better than league average. The last two seasons, he has achieved those numbers pitching for the Yankees and playing home games in one of the most difficult environments for pitchers in the game. Even though he will be 39-years-old at the start of the 2014 season, Kuroda is one of the best arms available this off-season and even with the added draft-pick expense from a qualifying offer from New York, the Japanese righty should have no trouble finding suitors
Apart from his advanced age, it is difficult to find negative signs in Kuroda's numbers. His velocity on his sinker- his primary fastball grip- was slightly down in 2013, clocking in at 91.5 mph after averaging 92 mph in 2012 and 91.8 mph in his career, but there was no noticeable effect on his numbers and his peak velocity and slider velocity remained unchanged. His ground ball rate was also slightly down but he maintained his career swinging-strike rate and home run rate, leaving his ERA at almost exactly where it was in 2012 with slightly improved FIP and xFIP numbers. While Kuroda's age will limit the length of his deal, his earning power on a one or two year deal should be at the very top of the market for free agent pitchers for 2014.
The Yankees were able to hang around in the 2013 AL East race as long as they did because of their pitching. They will likely lose Andy Pettitte to retirement and let Phil Hughes walk in free agency, so keeping Kuroda is essential for them. He led the New York rotation in fWAR and rWAR and his ERA was second only to Ivan Nova. The Yankees will extend Kuroda a qualifying offer giving them an advantage in re-signing him, but given his consistency and the lack of other options on the market, they will probably have to do even better than that to retain him. A two-year deal with a vesting option or a significant buyout makes sense for both sides and the Yankees have never been overly concerned with a few million here or there when it comes to retaining one of their star players.
Kuroda is the exact type of player that the Angels lacked in 2013 and that hole left them in third in their division with a losing record. They have a fortune invested in players who should be at or just past their peak and a potentially record-setting deal with Mike Trout looming on the horizon. To replace Jason Vargas, who will be a free agent, and keep starts away from guys like Joe Blanton, Garrett Richards, Tommy Hanson and Jerome Williams, Los Angeles needs to bring in someone who can take the ball after Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson and give them 200 innings of better-than-average pitching. Kuroda's age actually makes him an excellent fit, since the Angels will not need to make as long a commitment to him as they would Matt Garza or Ervin Santana.
Giants starters Tim Lincecum, Chad Gaudin and Barry Zito are hitting the free agent market this off-season, taking approximately $36 million in salary off the books in San Francisco. The Giants could also decline their $6.5 million option on Ryan Vogelsong and save a few million more. Some of that freed-up cash has already gone to re-signing outfielder Hunter Pence and some more could be spent keeping Lincecum around, either with a new deal or a qualifying offer. The rest of the money would be well spent on the revamping the back of the rotation.
San Francisco has Madison Bumgarner at the top of the rotation and they have no choice but to hope for a bounce-back season from ace Matt Cain after a disappointing 2013. After that, however, the rotation is much less set in stone. Yusmeiro Petit appears to have earned himself a place but the soft-tossing righty is hardly a guaranteed source of production. Kuroda would represent a major upgrade over Vogelsong, Zito and Gaudin and add some reliability to a rotation that suffered a sharp decline this past season. The added cost of a draft pick could keep the Giants from going hard after Kuroda since San Francisco's 14th spot in the first round in unprotected, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Brian Sabean shun the distant future in favor of a quick return to the playoffs.
Gone are the days of the Phillies unbeatable starting rotation. Cliff Lee is still the ace he was during their 102-win 2011 season, but Cole Hamels struggled to start the season and Roy Halladay is heading to free agency after a miserable, injury-plagued season that saw his velocity drop down to the mid-80's during a regrettable September start. The Phillies rotation had the second highest starter ERA in the NL in 2013 and arbitration-eligible starters Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan have a well-established track record of below-average performance, making them strong non-tender candidates. Kuroda is likely to be an expensive stop-gap solution, but the clocking is running out on the Phillies window to win and they need to improve their pitching in 2014 without making more long-term commitments.
Potential Dark Horse Bidders
Seattle has one of the best one-two combinations with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of their rotation, promising youngsters Brandon Maurer and Taijuan Walker just breaking into the majors and several more high-upside arms in the minors. They need to upgrade their offense with an impact signing like Jacoby Ellsbury far more than they need to add a pitcher, but Kuroda is one name that could still entice them.
Because of his age, Kuroda will not command a long-term deal and that makes him perfect for a Mariners team hoping to compete in 2014. With GM Jack Zduriencik in the final year of his current deal and less than $40 million committed to the club before arbitration, the Mariners could turn to Kuroda to help put them in the hunt while keeping the pressure of their prospects at the start of the season.
Washington tried Dan Haren as a stop-gap solution for the final starter's spot in 2013 and while his second half was respectable, there was no way he could recover from the 5.61 ERA he posted prior to the All-Star break. Despite their disappointing second-place finish this season, the Nationals should be contenders again next year and a few upgrades could go along way. They will be hit hard with arbitration raises this off-season and for the next several off-seasons so if they hope to keep their payroll in the same $120 million range swapping Haren for Kuroda is an extremely viable option.
What will he get paid?
Few pitchers in the history of the game have remained healthy and successful into their 40's and that will keep the soon to 39-year-old Kuroda limited to mostly one-or-two year offers. If the bidding becomes heated, there is also the remote possibility of a third year, which would likely come in the form of an option of some kind, adding a buyout price to his guaranteed money. Kuroda has yet to give any indication as to how long he wishes to continue pitching, but since he is still a premium talent there will be market for his services for a few more years at least. Despite the limitations associated with his age, the presence of the qualifying offer sets the floor for any one-year deal for the righty at just over $14 million.
Given his consistency and strong numbers, most of the teams above (and possibly many more) would be willing to risk that sum to have him in the rotation next year. However, since he can simply accept New York's qualifying offer, he will only hit the market if his agents believe there is a two-year deal out there at close to that average annual value. The Yankees will be hard pressed to watch him walk away and he can almost certainly use that leverage to secure at least something slightly above the two-year/$26 million deal the Red Sox gave Ryan Dempster last off-season. Two-years and $30 million is certainly within reach for Kuroda, especially if he is able to entice someone to bid with the Yankees for an extended period.