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Astros and the 2015 free agent class: Starting Pitchers

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If the Astros were to spend money on the starting rotation, here is a list of interesting candidates, with varying levels of probability for Astro-hood.

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What lieth herein is yon parte trois of my series on the current free agent crop, and how such characters might appeal to a steadily improving Astros club.  Tuesday we led off with a look at infield free agent possibilities, and followed Wednesday with a exposé on the outfield.

And now we come to the pitchers.  During the 2014 season and offseason, GM Jeff Luhnow committed a total of $40.3 million to Scott Feldman, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Jesse Crain, Jerome Williams, Tony Sipp, and Kyle Farnsworth.  These signings show the risk inherent with signing other clubs' free agents, but also the benefits to be found.

It seems likely that pitching is one area where the Astros won't hesitate to allocate at least a portion of their claimed $20 million payroll increase, and below are some possible starting pitcher candidates.

Too rich for my blood (or anybody not named Warren Buffet, really)

Max Scherzer: Scherzer wants to come back to the Tigers, but he reportedly passed on a 6Y $144M contract extension.  Somebody's going to give him $175 million or more, and that won't be the Astros.  Though he'd be a great fit, as he's reportedly a fan of sabermetrics.

Jon Lester:  While Lester won't make "Scherzer money", he is left-handed, and LHP aces are as common as albino rutabagas.  He's also durable - he's pitched more than 190 innings in each of the last seven seasons, and has a couple World Series rings, to boot.  He could get as much as 6Y $140M from whatever team is second place in the Scherzer sweepstakes.

James Shields:  Fans can argue all they want over whether Shields is an ace or "merely" a good #2 who hasn't pitched fewer than 200 innings since his rookie season.  Front offices know that such details don't matter.  Shields will get his, and considering his existing contract is a mere pittance in terms of annual value, expect "his" to be in the neighborhood of 5 years and $20+ mil per.

Interesting and possibly affordable fellows

Francisco Liriano: Liriano's 4.07 career ERA doesn't quite jump off the page, but during the past two seasons it sat at 3.02 and 3.38.  He's not quite the pitcher we thought he was after twirling a 2.16 ERA in 2006, but the fact that he's proven to be human may actually help a GM land him at a palatable contract.  He won't be cheap, but he shouldn't kill a payroll either.  Now, if he could just limit those walks and homers...

Justin Masterson: Masterson is one of those guys who just never pitched quite as well as the hype generated as a Red Sox prospect coming to the big leagues.  He's coming off the worst season of his career -- bad timing for him, good for his next GM.  He'll get a big payday, but it probably won't be as good as he and his agent would like.  A smart GM will know that his 15% HR/FB rate last season was not sustainable, nor was his .339 BABIP.  Still, he may best profile as a "strong back-of-rotation starter," and the Astros probably aren't shopping for that variety of produce.

Brandon McCarthy:  McCarthy receives lots of love from the Astros hopefuls around TCB, probably due to his non-existent walk rate and 80-grade Twitter presence.  He's good - his FIP hasn't dipped below 3.75 since getting hit in the face in 2012 - obviously a market inefficiency rife for exploitation by a savvy GM.  Yours truly prefers pitchers who generate more whiffs, but somehow he's reinvented himself from an extreme fly-ball pitcher early in his career to a strong ground-ball pitcher.  I have mixed feelings.  A GM is going to fall in love with him and pay big.  Or, he may linger in the market and settle for a short deal.  A real head-scratcher to project.  Like Masterson, his HR/FB and BABIP from 2014 were complete jokes.  He's a good pitcher.  Real good.

Ervin Santana: I've been taken to task for not explicitly stating who I think the Astros should sign during the past two days.  Fair enough.  So here you go:  I want the Astros to sign Ervin Santana.  Badly.  He won't get Scherzer/Lester money.  His career has upped-and-downed.  But he doesn't walk batters.  He strikes batters out a decent clip.  He's durable.  He's 31, so not young enough for people to pay for upside, but not old enough to be near an expected decline phase.  He won't top $15 million per season.  And 3 of the last 4 years, he's been just shy of 3 WAR.  I'm all in. He won't be cheap per se, but whoever signs him will be happy with what they're getting for their cash.

Erstwhile-broken reclamation types

Brett Anderson: Sometime around 2009 or 2010, Baseball Prospectus ranked Anderson as one of the Top 25 players of the next decade.  Five trips to the 60-day DL later, he now qualifies for the "Poor guy!" list, with a sad head shake thrown in for good measure.  But at only 26 years old and with no shot at having his $12M option exercised, there's a chance he could sign for the minimum and (once he recovers from back surgery), show why he has a career FIP of 3.51.

Brandon Morrow:  Poor Morrow has been on the 60-day DL three times during his short career.  It seems unlikely that the Blue Jays will exercise his $10 million option, but that's no sure thing.  He's only 30 years old, but it's not the years baby, it's the miles.  High, high upside here for a team that wants to catch lightning in a bottle. A lot of risk, too.  He could go cheap and be an ace.  He also might not pitch much at all.

Chad Billingsley: It'd be easy to understand the Astros' aversion to a player currently recovering from major elbow surgery.  But Billingsley is only 30 years old, should be ready by Spring Training, and on the rare occasions he's not undergoing physical therapy for random injuries, he's been incredibly effective.  His career ERA stands at 3.65, but there's no way the Dodgers pick up his $14 million option, especially with savvy GM Andrew Friedman now leading the charge.

Elder statesmen

Chris Capuano: Capuano's heyday came way back in 2005, but his return the major leagues after a three-season layoff is one of the under-reported stories in baseball.  Since his return, he has been plenty effective, particularly by limiting walks - something he struggled with prior to his disappearance to Weiland Island.  He hasn't had a FIP higher than 4.00 since 2011.  At 36 years old, he'd be a good veteran presence and a good pitcher besides...on a one-year contract.

Jake Peavy: Peavy would probably object to the "elder" label and will be looking for a longer contract than most teams should be willing to offer.  He hasn't been the Cy-Young-winning Peavy of the early 'aughts, but he still gets it done with regularity.  It would be fun to see him pitching for his good buddy Roy Oswalt's old team.

Ryan Vogelsong: It may seem that Vogelsong burst onto the scene with the Giants recently, but in reality he's 37 years old.  But he's still effective and, like Capuano, is an interesting short-contract option to bring some gray-haired gravitas to any rotation.

Might not be a free agent.

Yovani Gallardo: It's hard to imagine the Brewers being happy about Gallardo's $13MM option for 2015, but he picked a good year to have one of his best seasons, and the option isn't totally outrageous for a pitcher of his ability.  If he does become available to the market, Gallardo will have many suitors.  After all, he's only 28 years old and boasts a career ERA of 3.69.