Even though two-way star Shohei Ohtani was unable to take the mound in 2024 due to elbow surgery, this is a star-filled free agent starting pitcher class.
Each had an argument as the best starter entering free agency at the top of a talent pool this also includes Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery, Eduardo Rodriguez and others. To help break down this saturated starting pitcher market, we tapped three MLB.com writers – ahead of the Nola news – to answer five key questions.
How happy should the Phillies feel about their deal? Is the best free agent starter still available on the open market? Let the debate begin.
1. Which pitcher would you most want in your rotation in 2024?
David Adler as 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 simply better than Nola. And Yamamoto is better than Senga. In Senga’s final season in Japan, he had a 1.94 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 144 innings. Those numbers translate to a 2.98 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 166 1/3 innings in his first season with the Mets. Yamamoto? He just posted a 1.21 ERA and 169 K in 164 innings. And he’s just entering his prime.
Anthony Castrovince as Aaron Nola
In 2024, precisely? I’m taking Nola. Pitchers, unfortunately, are born to break, so his aforementioned durability could end up working against the club that signs him in the long run. But it’s still a reasonable bet to give you 200 good innings in the short term, and I’ll take that into account for Snell’s volatility, the transition Yamamoto is undertaking, and the various X-factors of the other board members.
Snell had a tremendous Cy Young Award-winning season, but he also led the Majors with 99 walks – he was able to walk the tightrope of erratic control with great success, but that might not be sustainable in the future. Nola is one of the best starters in the game when he’s on the line, but the problem is he hasn’t been consistent over the last two seasons.
I’ll go with Yamamoto, who has completely overwhelmed his NPB opponents in recent years with a fastball that reaches near triple-digit velocity to accompany a Clayton Kershaw-type curveball that is just one of the secondary pitches he ‘he can use to finish. off the hitters.
2. Which pitcher do you think will provide the most value over the next five seasons?
David Adler as Shohei Ohtani (or Yamamoto)
If you’re talking about a Big Three starting pitcher 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 in NPB. He could be better than them from day one in the big leagues.
But the Big Three is actually a Big Four, because Ohtani is also a starting pitcher. And over the next five years, four seasons of Pitcher Ohtani are better than five seasons of Yamamoto, Snell or Nola. Forget his punches. Once he is back on the mound in 2025Ohtani will be nastier than any one-way pitcher in this free agent class.
Anthony Castrovince as Yamamoto
With the necessary caveat: like the vast majority of people reading this, I’ve never seen him present in person, there are enough videos, and I’ve heard enough reviewers talk about his work and blood -cold to think it will be, or even worse, a reliable arm in mid-rotation. That in itself would be a valuable addition over the next five years, which will cover his age 25-29 seasons. And if he hits his upside down ace, watch out.
Ohtani has been absolutely incredible, but over a five-year time horizon, especially with the two elbow surgeries he’s had, I just don’t know if he’ll be able to maintain the type of dominance he’s enjoyed on the mound during his first six seasons in MLB. The torch will therefore go to his compatriot, Yamamoto, who is only 25 years old and has the kind of stuff that could allow him to succeed in the big leagues for years to come.
3. Which pitcher do you consider the riskiest investment?
Nola has been a mainstay of the Phillies’ rotation for a long time, but seven years and $172 million is a big commitment. How many of these years will Nola be able to throw like an ace? He’s in his thirties now, and while he’s been a great workhorse who regularly approaches 200 innings, his ERA has also been well above four in two of the last three seasons, and perhaps all of those sleeves will have harmful consequences on his arm. And what happens if his stuff falls out as he gets older? Nola’s velocity is already on the lower end for our time (her fastball is “only” 92-93 mph). If he loses a tick or two over the next few seasons, will he be able to continue to effectively throw 30 starts per year?
Anthony Castrovince as Snell
It pains me to say this, because I like the guy, but the inconsistency of Snell’s track record would make me uncomfortable with the award he’s likely to command after his second Cy Young season. His two Cy wins came in seasons in which he pitched approximately 180 innings, and those two seasons are the only full seasons in which his ERA+ was significantly better than league average. And of course, walks aren’t a problem until they’re a real problem.
I am with Castro on this point. The size of the contract Snell will likely get after his second career Cy Young Award, coupled with the inconsistency he’s shown throughout his career and even last season, when he had a walk rate north of 13 percent, will make it the riskiest investment.
4. Which pitcher would you most want on the mound in a big postseason game?
Honestly, it’s a tough decision. Nola has had big playoff wins for the Phillies this year and last year, but he’s also been knocked down in big playoff losses, like Game 6 of this year’s NLCS and Game 4 of the World Series 2022. Snell is usually solid in the postseason, but he doesn’t go deep in the game — he’s never completed six innings early in the season. Yamamoto has obviously never pitched in an MLB playoff game, and he actually had a rough start 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 one-point, one-goal masterpiece. 14 strikeouts in what could be his final start in Japan. Give me this guy.
Anthony Castrovince as Nola
Been there, done that, won that. (Not every time, of course, but enough that I could get the ball into his hands and feel confident.)
What’s interesting here is that Yamamoto may very well have the best pieces among this year’s starting free agents (aside from Ohtani), but Nola and Snell have similar levels of playoff experience, so which Yamamoto obviously didn’t pitch at all in the Majors. Nola and Snell each pitched the exact same number of innings in the postseason – 48 2/3. But while Snell has the lowest ERA (3.33 to 3.70), Nola has gone deeper into games with better control. These are premium traits in the playoffs.
5. Who do you think is the best free agent outside of this trio?
David Adler as Jordan Montgomery
Montgomery is a bit like an Aaron Nola Lite southpaw: a consistent innings eater who commands the zone and can finish off a hitter with his fastball, curveball or changeup. And you have to love what Montgomery did in the postseason, when he and Nathan Eovaldi led the Rangers through several rounds en route to the World Series. You don’t retire Yordan Alvarez three times in a playoff game by accident.
Anthony Castrovince as Ohtani
Does it count? If so, put me down for him. Among the health entries, it is Montgomery. But if we know anything about free agency, there’s a very good chance the best value is much lower down the list. Maybe with a 28 year old Jack Flaherty? It obviously didn’t work during a short stint in Baltimore, but I’m still curious to see if a club can fix it.
Manny Randhawa as Sonny Gray
Of course, Montgomery is younger and has the cachet of simply helping the Rangers win the World Series. But Gray has a longer history that, while certainly not without its ups and downs, has seen an upward trend of late. During his two-year stint with the Twins, the right-hander pitched to a 2.90 ERA in 303 2/3 innings, leading the Majors last year with a 2.83 ERA. PIF and a ratio of 0.4 HR/9. His embrace of the sweeper, particularly against right-handed hitters, has been an important part of his success, showing he can adapt as he enters his 34-year-old campaign.