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Debating the best free-agent starting pitchers

Even with two-way star Shohei Ohtani unable to take the mound in 2024 due to elbow surgery, this is a star-studded class of free-agent starting pitchers. 

Each had an argument as the best starter entering free agency at the top of a talented pool that also includes Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery, Eduardo Rodriguez and others. To help break down this jam-packed starting pitcher market, we enlisted three MLB.com writers — prior to the Nola news — to answer five key questions.

How good should the Phillies feel about their deal? Is the best free-agent starter still out on the open market? Let the debate begin.

1. Which pitcher would you most want in your rotation in 2024?

David Adler: Yoshinobu Yamamoto

If Kodai Senga can do it, Yamamoto can do it. Keep in mind that Senga was a Cy Young Award contender alongside Snell in 2023, and straight up better than Nola. And Yamamoto is better than Senga. Senga’s last season in Japan, he had a 1.94 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 144 innings. Those numbers translated to a 2.98 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 166 1/3 innings in his first season with the Mets. Yamamoto? He’s coming off a 1.21 ERA and 169 K’s in 164 innings. And he’s just entering his prime.

Anthony Castrovince: Aaron Nola

In 2024, specifically? I’ll take Nola. Pitchers, unfortunately, are born to break, so his aforementioned durability might wind up working against the club that signs him long-term. But he’s still a reasonable bet to give you 200 good innings in the near-term, and I’ll take that over the volatility of Snell, the transition Yamamoto is undertaking and the various X-factors of others on the board.

Snell had a tremendous Cy Young Award-winning season, but he also led the Majors with 99 walks — he’s been able to walk the tightrope of erratic control very successfully, but that may not be sustainable moving forward. Nola is one of the very best starters in the game when he’s on, but the trouble is, he hasn’t been on consistently the past couple of seasons. 

I’ll go with Yamamoto, who has utterly overwhelmed NPB opponents the past few years with a fastball that reaches near triple-digit velocity to go along with a Clayton Kershaw-like curveball that is just one of the secondary pitches he can use to finish off batters.

2. Which pitcher do you think will provide the most value over the next five seasons?

David Adler: Shohei Ohtani (or Yamamoto)

If you’re talking about a starting pitcher Big Three of Yamamoto, Snell and Nola, it’s Yamamoto. He’s five years younger than Snell and Nola, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be great in MLB just like he was great in NPB. He might be better than them from Day 1 in the big leagues.

But the Big Three is really a Big Four, because Ohtani is a starting pitcher, too. And over the next five years, four seasons of Pitcher Ohtani will be better than five seasons of Yamamoto, Snell or Nola. Forget about his hitting. Once he’s back on the mound in 2025, Ohtani will be nastier than any one-way pitcher from this free-agent class.

Anthony Castrovince: Yamamoto

With the necessary caveat that I — like the vast majority of people reading this — have never seen him pitch in person, there’s enough video and I’ve heard enough from evaluators about his stuff and poise to think he’ll be, at worst, a reliable mid-rotation arm. That itself would be a valuable add over the next five years, which will cover his age 25-29 seasons. And if he reaches his ace upside, look out.

Ohtani has been absolutely incredible, but over a five-year time horizon, especially with the two elbow surgeries he’s undergone, I just don’t know that he can sustain the type of dominance he’s enjoyed on the mound over his first six MLB seasons. So the mantle will fall to his countryman, Yamamoto, who is only 25 years old and has the type of stuff that could make him successful in the big leagues for years to come.

3. Which pitcher do you see as the highest-risk investment?

Nola’s been the rock of the Phillies rotation for a long time, but seven years and $172 million is a big commitment. How many of those years can Nola pitch like an ace? He’s in his 30s now, and even though he’s been a great workhorse who routinely approaches 200 innings, his ERA has also been well over four in two of the last three seasons, and maybe all those innings will take a toll on his arm. And what happens if his stuff drops off as he ages? Nola’s velocity is already on the lower end for this day and age (his fastball is “only” 92-93 mph). If he loses a tick or two in the next few seasons, will he be able to keep pitching effectively for 30 starts a year?

Anthony Castrovince: Snell

It pains me to say this, because I love the guy, but the inconsistency of Snell’s track record would make me uncomfortable with the price tag he’s likely going to claim after his second Cy Young season. Both of his Cy wins came in seasons in which he pitched around 180 innings, and those two seasons are the only full seasons in which his ERA+ was significantly better than league average. And of course, the walks are a non-issue until they are an actual issue.

I’m with Castro on this one. The size of the contract Snell will likely secure following his second career Cy Young Award, coupled with the inconsistency he’s shown both throughout his career and even last season, when he had a walk rate north of 13 percent, will make him the riskiest investment.

4. Which pitcher would you most want on the mound in a big postseason game?

Honestly, this is a tough call. Nola had some big playoff wins for the Phillies this year and last year, but he’s also gotten knocked around in some big playoff losses, like Game 6 of this year’s NLCS and Game 4 of the 2022 World Series. Snell’s usually solid in the playoffs, but he doesn’t go deep in the game — he’s never completed six innings in a postseason start. Yamamoto has obviously never pitched in an MLB playoff game, and he’s actually had some rocky starts in the NPB playoffs. But in the biggest game of his career — Game 6 of this year’s Japan Series, with Orix facing elimination — Yamamoto pitched the best game of his life: a complete-game, one-run, 14-strikeout masterpiece in what might be his final start in Japan. Give me that guy.

Anthony Castrovince: Nola

Been there, done that, won that. (Not every time, of course, but enough for me to put the ball in his hand and feel confident.)

What’s interesting here is that Yamamoto may very well have the best stuff among this year’s free-agent starters (outside Ohtani), but Nola and Snell have similar levels of postseason experience, whereas Yamamoto obviously hasn’t pitched in the Majors at all. Nola and Snell have each thrown exactly the same number of playoff innings — 48 2/3. But while Snell has the lower ERA (3.33 to 3.70), Nola’s gone deeper into games with better control. Those are premium traits in the postseason.

5. Who do you think is the best free-agent starter outside of this trio?

David Adler: Jordan Montgomery

Montgomery is kind of like a lefty Aaron Nola Lite: a consistent innings-eater who commands the zone and can finish off a hitter with his fastball, curveball or changeup. And you have to like what Montgomery did in the playoffs, when he and Nathan Eovaldi carried the Rangers through multiple rounds on their way to the World Series. You don’t strike out Yordan Alvarez three times in a playoff game by accident.

Anthony Castrovince: Ohtani

Does he count? If so, put me down for him. Among healthy starters, it’s Montgomery. But if we know anything about free agency, there’s a very good chance the best value resides much lower on the list. Maybe with a 28-year-old Jack Flaherty? It obviously didn’t work in a short stint in Baltimore, but I remain curious to see if a club can fix him.

Manny Randhawa: Sonny Gray

Sure, Montgomery is younger and has the cachet of just having helped the Rangers win the World Series. But Gray has a longer track record that, while certainly not without its ups and downs, has been on the upswing lately. In his two-year stint with the Twins, the right-hander pitched to a 2.90 ERA over 303 2/3 innings, leading the Majors last year with a 2.83 FIP and a 0.4 HR/9 ratio. His embrace of the sweeper, particularly against right-handed hitters, was a huge element to his success, showing he can adapt as he enters his age-34 campaign.