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Philles free agency; targeting mid-tier starters

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If the Phillies decide to eschew the big-name, high-priced free agent starters, here are the mid-tier guys they could target.

Is Francisco Liriano a viable candidate for the Phils' 2015 rotation?
Is Francisco Liriano a viable candidate for the Phils' 2015 rotation?
John Sommers II

The Phillies' starting rotation for 2015 could probably best be described as "in flux."

Will Cole Hamels, the team's unquestioned ace, be traded during the off-season? Will Cliff Lee manage to make it back from an elbow injury to be the team's #2? Will A.J. Burnett decide to retire or will he return as the team's #3? Will the Phillies re-sign Kyle Kendrick to be the #4 once again? Will mediocre vet Jerome Williams or the surprisingly effective David Buchanan be the #5?

Many of these questions will be answered in the coming weeks. Burnett has to decide on whether he'll activate the $12.75 million player option soon, and it seems unlikely the Phils are going to re-sign Kendrick. Buchanan did enough to pretty much guarantee himself a spot in the rotation for next season.

Regardless of what happens, however, it's possible the Phillies will be looking at adding a starting pitcher or two this winter, both to fill rotation spots and/or act as insurance against a Lee implosion or Hamels trade.

Last week,

The Phils already have two starters under contract at more than $20 million next season, and with big money deals still on their bloated books for 2015, it would be difficult to see them adding another big-money starter.

So, what do the mid-tier options look like? Happily, there appear to be some good arms out there, most of whom shouldn't require more than a two or three-year deal to bring to Philadelphia.

FRANCISCO LIRIANO:

Liriano will turn 31 next year is probably going to be the most expensive of the mid-tier free agents, possibly costing a four or five-year deal. He went 7-10 for the Pirates this year, but posted a 3.38 ERA and a FIP of 3.59, good for an fWAR of 1.6. He struck out 9.70 batters per nine innings, his highest K-rate since 2006. And most importantly, he was healthy, making 29 starts, the most since his 5.8 fWAR season of 2010.

He was particularly good in the second half of the season, with a 2.20 ERA in 86 innings pitched. In September, with Pittsburgh battling for a spot in the postseason, he posted an ERA of 1.16 with 35 strikeouts in 31 innings. And even though he would be the third left-handed starter in the Phils' rotation (assuming Hamels and Lee come back), he would be my first choice, if the price and length of the contract were right.

EDINSON VOLQUEZ:

Pittsburgh has done a remarkable job in recent seasons with pitching reclamation projects. Volquez is another. He went 13-7 this year with a 3.04 ERA, after posting ERAs of 5.71, 4.14 and 5.71 the last three seasons. While his strikeout rate of 6.54 was below his career average (8.07), he decreased his walk rate by a wide margin as well, walking just 3.32 batters per nine (career mark is 4.49). His FIP of 4.15 indicates he wasn't quite as good as his ERA would indicate.

Still, Volquez is among the youngest of the available free agent starters, turning just 30 next season. If he can be had on a two-year deal, he'd be an interesting option.

JASON HAMMEL:

Hammel went 10-11 with a 3.47 ERA between the Cubs and A's this season, generating an fWAR of 1.7 in 176.1 innings. He struck out 8.01 batters per nine this year with a FIP of 3.92. The right-hander is 32 years old, coming off one his best seasons.

BRANDON MCCARTHY:

McCarthy had an eye-opening season for the Diamondbacks and Yankees this season, particularly after joining New York. In 14 starts for the Yanks he went 7-5 with a 2.89 ERA, after posting a 5.01 ERA in 18 starts for Arizona. However, his FIP in both spots (3.82 for Arizona, 3.22 for New York) wasn't a whole lot different.

McCarthy turns 31 next year and may have played himself into a bigger contract than the Phils might be willing to spend. His 3.0 fWAR could net him a deal of three years at around $21-24 million. Would the Phillies do that? Should they?

ERVIN SANTANA:

Santana had a solid season for Atlanta, going 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA and a 3.39 FIP in 31 starts, striking out 8.22 batters per nine, his highest K-rate since 2008. His fWAR of 2.8 helped keep Atlanta afloat for a while as his team's offense floundered. The Braves disappointed in 2014, but it wasn't because of him. He turns 32 next year.

JUSTIN MASTERSON:

After being an All-Star in 2013, Masterson struggled this season with the Cardinals and Indians, going 7-9 with a 5.88 ERA in 25 starts. He walked 4.83 batters per nine this year, the highest total of his career, and posted a WHIP of 1.63. If Masterson can be gotten on the cheap (I assume he can), and the Phils feel confident they can turn him around, he might be worth a look. He will be just 30 years old next year.

JAKE PEAVY:

We just watched Peavy shut the Nationals down in Game 1 of the NLDS, after a season in which he went 7-13 with a 3.73 ERA and 4.11 FIP in 32 starts for the Red Sox and Giants. He caught fire once he re-joined the National League, with the former Cy Young Award winner posting a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts for San Francisco. He'll be 34 next year, so anything more than a one-year deal would probably not be worth doing.

J.A. HAPP:

The first of two Blue Jays starters with team options, it's possible neither of these next two will hit the market. The former Phil had an adequate season as the team's #5 starter, going 11-11 with a 4.22 ERA and a 4.27 FIP, striking out 7.58 per nine and walking 2.91. That was the lowest walk rate of his career, which is one of the reasons he was able to make 26 starts for Toronto this year.

The Blue Jays hold a $6.7 million option for 2015, which isn't crazy money for a #4 or #5 starter. Of course, they'll also have to make a decision on...

BRANDON MORROW:

Morrow has shown terrific stuff in the past, posting a 2.96 ERA in 2012. He also struck out 203 batters for the Jays in 2011, leading the league in strikeouts per nine at 10.2. However, despite his strikeout-quality stuff, he has posted an ERA under 4.00 just twice in his eight big league seasons, and the last two years has posted an ERA of 5.63 (2013) and 5.40 this year.

Injuries have also hurt him, although few of them have been of the shoulder/elbow/arm variety. Since 2011, he's missed time because of an injured finger, strained forearm and strained oblique. He turns just 30 next year and averaged 94 miles an hour on his fastball this season. He made just six starts, but if Toronto decides to decline his $10 million option, he could be a cheap, high-upside gamble the Phils might want to take.

General manager Ruben Amaro also recently flew to Japan to watch Kenta Maeda pitch, and most scouts think he's a #4 starter in the Majors. However, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe says the Yankees or Red Sox could make him an offer exceeding $100 million, which is probably too rich for the Phils' blood. Especially if they want to target Yasmani Tomas.

All of these options have their drawbacks, and of course, some of these starters could receive qualifying offers, making them even less palatable for the Phils. Sure, the Phillies have a protected first round pick, but for a team that is many pieces away from returning to the playoffs, spending even a second-round pick on these pitchers may not be all that smart.

Still, the Phils are going to need pitchers next year and these are some arms that could provide stability and, in a few cases, some cheap-ish upside, for 2015.