With names like Zack Greinke, David Price and Jordan Zimmermann, this offseason’s free agent pitching class is one of the best in recent memory. There are a lot of teams in need of pitching upgrades, and a lot of free agents are going to get paid very well.
The San Diego Padres are one of the teams in need of pitching help going forward. With all the names on the board, the Padres front office has no shortage of options. However, Wei-Yin Chen represents the best option for the team and should be the front office’s top priority in the coming weeks.
For those who don’t know already, Chen is a 30-year-old free agent who spent the first four seasons of his big league career in Baltimore with the Orioles. Following the completion of the 2011 season, Chen became the first Taiwanese player to sign with the Orioles after he opted out of his contract with the Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball League.
He signed a three year contract in Baltimore worth $11 million dollars with an option for a fourth year, which was eventually exercised by the club. Chen declined the Orioles qualifying offer this offseason and elected to become a free agent.
In his four seasons in Baltimore, Chen was a measure of consistency for the Orioles. He combined for 9.6 wins above replacement (WAR) over his four year career with the Orioles, with at least 2.0 WAR in every season. While he struggled with ERAs over 4.00 in his first two seasons with the team, Chen got better every season and finished last season with his best mark to date, 3.34. Chen also started over thirty games for the Orioles in three out of four seasons, and showed himself to be a very durable pitcher.
According to Fangraphs Steamer projection, Chen is projected to pitch 190 innings next season and finish with a 3.63 ERA with a WAR of 2.6. Given these projected numbers, Chen’s value can be projected based on his projected contract. Based on the fact that he is below the caliber of pitchers mentioned above, such as Greinke, Price, and Zimmermann to name a few, Chen is likely to be had for a somewhat discounted price. A contract in the four/five year range for $60-80 million does not seem entirely out of the realm of possibility and would put him at an average annual value of about 14-16 million per year. For a pitcher who pitches consistent innings as a two or three starter this represents a pretty decent long term value.
For a team that just gave out a four year, $75 million contract to James Shields, the Padres may be wary about making this kind of long term commitment to another pitcher. Especially given Shields decrease in performance on the field last season and thus his overall value. Shields is actually projected for only a slightly better 2016 season, and Chen may be a better option for the Padres. This is obviously all contingent on whether the Padres keep Shields or find another team to take on all or most of his contract.
While Chen may be a significant upgrade over the Padres current staff, it is unclear whether the Padres want to make another long term financial commitment to a pitcher who is not a bona fide ace. While Chen may be the best option for the Padres, it appears more likely they will look for even cheaper, reclamation-type projects rather than signing another long term arm. However, with A.J. Preller in charge of business, truly anything can happen.