The 2019 offseason may have been the most prolific in the history of Major League Baseball free agency for elite pitchers.
Teams desperate to bolster their starting pitching staffs after the season ended saw unprecedented competition around the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings in December for quality starting pitching. The so-called starting “big five” heated up the free agent market. Gerrit Cole (33), Stephen Strasburg (35), Zack Wheeler (33), Madison Bumgarner (34), and Hyun-jin Ryu (36). Three of them, Cole, Strasburg, and Ryu, were represented by Scott Boras.안전놀이터
At the time, Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the New York Yankees. Strasburg stayed with his original team, the Washington Nationals, for seven years and $245 million, and Ryu landed with the Toronto Blue Jays for four years and $80 million. These are the first and second highest pitcher contracts of all time.
It’s easy to see why they were paid so much, given their performances in 2019. Cole went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts for the Houston Astros, both career highs. He narrowly lost the AL Cy Young Award to teammate Justin Verlander, so it’s strange that Cole, who won the league ERA and strikeout titles, didn’t get it.
Strasburg went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA and 251 strikeouts in 209 innings pitched. His career peaked in Game 2 and Game 6 of the World Series against Houston, where he went 2-0 with a 2.51 ERA and 14 strikeouts, earning Series MVP honors.
Hyun-jin Ryu was virtually a free agent reclamation and became as dominant as both pitchers. In 29 games, he went 14-10 with a 2.32 ERA and 163 strikeouts, making him the undisputed ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers. If not for back-to-back seven-run outings against the Yankees on August 24 and the Arizona Diamondbacks on August 30, he could have won the NL Cy Young Award. In the end, the New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom, who came on strong in the second half, finished behind Ryu with 11 wins and a 2.38 ERA, but swept the 29 first-place votes to win his second career Cy Young Award on the strength of his dominant innings pitched (204) and strikeouts (255).
Of course, Wheeler (11-8, 3.96, 195 K’s) and Bumgarner (9-9, 3.90, 203 K’s) also hit free agency after putting up solid numbers as quality starters. Wheeler signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for five years and $118 million, and Bumgarner signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks for five years and $85 million.
On Aug. 25, Strasburg announced his intention to retire. He’s only played in seven games over the past four years, and the rest has been a long battle with injuries. He’s been on the disabled list (IL) seven times and had surgery.
The final injury that forced him to retire was ‘thoracic outlet syndrome’. It’s a condition in which a structure in the upper ribcage presses on blood vessels and nerves below the collarbone, causing pain, numbness, and swelling in both arms and hands. It is considered the most devastating injury for pitchers. Strasburg underwent surgery in July 2021 to remove one rib and two pieces of neck muscle tissue that were causing him pain. However, the pain returned earlier this year when he was set to take part in spring training, forcing him to miss another season.
In the more than two years since his surgery, he only took the mound for one game, on June 10 last year against the Miami Marlins. He gave up seven runs on eight hits in 4⅔ innings before being placed on the DL again with a rib stress reaction. It was an aftereffect of the surgery he had a year earlier.
Strasburg reportedly struggled to get back on track. It’s no exaggeration to say that Strasburg was one of the many reasons why the Nats fell apart after winning the 2019 World Series: going “all in” on him made it difficult to bring in good pitching and forced the team to rebuild.
Compared to Strasburg, Ryu’s situation has been much brighter. He’s only been on the roster 52.0 percent of the time due to frequent injuries, including four trips to the IL since joining Toronto, but he’s been pitching like he did in his prime since returning from Tommy John surgery last June. If Ryu continues to have a solid season, he’ll likely hit the free agent market again and find a team that will pay him a fairly high price.
On April 24, the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani tore a ligament in his elbow, ending his season as a pitcher. “Pitcher” Ohtani is no stranger to breakdowns. In June, he had a nail and blister issue on his right middle finger, and in August, he developed cramps. The discomfort here and there eventually takes its toll on his elbow and shoulder. He may need to undergo another Tommy John surgery, so it’s no wonder he’s in a “carpal tunnel crisis.
There is a saying that it is foolish to sign a pitcher over the age of 30 to a long-term contract of more than five years. Ohtani will be 30 next year. Strasburg and Ryu have also seen an increase in injury frequency as they hit 30. There are exceptions, like Cole, but the body becomes more fragile in the mid-to-late 30s. It will be interesting to see how Ohtani is treated as a pitcher in free agency later this year.