Jake Peavy is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis as he makes his first career foray into free agency. That's a strange sensation for a pitcher who competes with passion, routinely speaks his mind and prides himself on being accountable for his performance no matter how he fares.
After 337 career starts, Peavy should be a known commodity to big-league clubs. He's a no-frills country boy and a popular teammate who has shown impressive staying power since his arrival in San Diego in 2002. Peavy looked like a potential flameout candidate early in his career as a 6-foot-1 righty with a maximum-effort delivery, but he won a Cy Young Award in 2007, made three All-Star teams and overcame a serious lat injury with the Chicago White Sox in 2009 to salvage his career. He has surpassed 200 innings five times, including twice in the past three seasons.
Still, a player's "platform year" helps set the tone for free agency, and Peavy's 2014 season was all over the map. After helping the Boston Red Sox win a World Series in 2013, Peavy pitched his way out of the Sox's rotation with a 1-9 record and a 4.72 ERA in 20 starts. In July, they traded him to the San Francisco Giants, where he was a statistical dead ringer for Madison Bumgarner down the stretch. In 12 starts with the Giants, Peavy went 6-4 with a 2.17 ERA and an eye-catching 2.1 wins above replacement.
The good-Jake, bad-Jake routine continued to play out during San Francisco's run to a title. Peavy began his postseason with 5 2/3 shutout innings against Washington in the National League Division Series and ended it with a 1 2/3-inning clunker in a 10-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals in Game 6 of the World Series.
In hindsight, Peavy continues to maintain that his stuff was fine in Game 6. He gave up three broken-bat hits in a nightmare second inning, and the performance wasn't nearly as unsightly as his cumulative 12.79 World Series ERA suggests. Yet he understands that his cameo at Kauffman Stadium that night obscured a lot of positive things that preceded it, and it's up to him to alter the perception.
"I have a lot to prove," Peavy said by phone from his home in Alabama. "If I went out and threw a shutout in Game 6 or pitched the way I did down the stretch, maybe it would have allowed me to relax too much this winter and not play this role I need to play. I need to have people doubting me, because that's when you dig deep and find out what you're made of.
"I like it to a degree, because it spurs you on and kicks you in the butt. I've done that my whole life. I have no problem at 33 proving that I'm not a washed-up 40-year-old."
Finding a niche
Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are the undisputed heavyweights of this winter's free agent crop, with James Shields a notch below and a slew of other starters jockeying for position in the pecking order. Francisco Liriano, Brandon McCarthy, Ervin Santana, Justin Masterson, Edinson Volquez and Chris Young offer varying payoffs depending on how much money teams are willing to invest.
So where does Peavy fall in that spectrum in terms of his portfolio and financial expectations? Two MLB talent evaluators compared him to Tim Hudson, who signed a two-year, $23 million contract with the Giants last winter. Bronson Arroyo, who signed a two-year, $23.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks last February with a third-year option, also springs to mind as a comparable.
While Hudson and Arroyo were both several years older than Peavy upon entering free agency, they brought similar reputations for reliability and durability to the table. Arroyo underwent Tommy John surgery in July and Hudson gave the Giants a 9-13 record, a 3.57 ERA and a 1.5 WAR in 189 innings while coming off a severe ankle injury.
The consensus with Peavy is that he's best suited for a No. 4 starter role on a team with pennant aspirations. If that scenario fails to materialize, baseball personnel people see him as the ideal mentor/babysitter for a young team that's moving up in the world.
"He doesn't have the same stuff that won him a Cy Young, but he still knows how to pitch and he's one of the bigger competitors out there," said an American League scout. "You can't build on Jake. He's not a No. 1 or a 2 by any stretch. But if you have a deep team and you can give him a Hudson type of deal and plug him into the 4 or 5 spot, I think he's worth that."
Peavy's profile suggests he's best-suited for a big park that leaves some margin for error. His 42 percent fly ball ratio was the eighth highest in baseball in 2014, and he allowed 20 homers in 124 innings in Boston (compared to three in 78 2/3 innings with the Giants). But his average home run distance was 111th among 133 qualifying starters, which suggests that he gave up his share of wall-scrapers at Fenway.
Although Peavy's velocity dipped from 92.5 mph in 2007 to 90.0 last season and his 7.02 strikeouts per nine innings in 2014 were a career low, he still logged a higher "K" rate than Justin Verlander, Matt Garza and Yovani Gallardo, among others. It helps that Peavy has five pitches in his repertoire.
"He can flip you a good breaking ball," said an NL senior advisor. "He can change the angle on a breaking ball. He can throw you the cutter and go to both sides of the plate with it. He's not the Jake Peavy he was four or five years ago because of what he's endured over time with injuries, innings and all that. But his pitchability and his command make up for everything else. I think he still has more left in him."
Waiting his turn
So where could Peavy land? A return to San Francisco to pitch for Bruce Bochy makes sense, but the Giants have some bigger questions to address before they round out the back of their rotation. Pittsburgh, Kansas City and the Chicago Cubs are all dabbling in the starting pitching market, and Peavy would fit nicely in an Atlanta rotation that includes Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Shelby Miller and Alex Wood. But after squeezing 12 wins and 204 innings out of Aaron Harang for $1 million last season, the Braves might be looking for a more cost-efficient route.
One intriguing possibility is Miami, where the Marlins are looking to add several pieces in the aftermath of the big Giancarlo Stanton signing. The park is a good fit for Peavy, the rotation is young and promising and, as an added bonus, general manager Dan Jennings is a fellow Alabaman. Baseball sources said the Marlins have already had some dialogue with Peavy's camp this offseason.
While Peavy waits for market updates from his agent, CAA's Jeff Berry, he basks in rural heaven 30 minutes outside Montgomery, Ala. He bought a 50-acre plot about 10 years ago, and it's since expanded into a 5,000-acre recreational paradise with a Fenway Park replica, a bowling alley, volleyball court, dude ranch, amphitheatre and ample hunting ground with every critter imaginable. He named the complex Southern Falls, and he has used the venue to entertain friends, family and even his former Red Sox teammates.
While visitors spend their days at Southern Falls communing with nature and tooling around in all-terrain vehicles, Peavy works out two hours a day five days a week in anticipation of his next stop. He approaches the drudgery of offseason prep with a zeal that money can't buy.
"I can't wait to know what team I'm going to be with," Peavy said. "I start breathing it. Once I know, I'll start drinking that team's color Gatorade."
"He's not the Jake Peavy he was four or five years ago because of what he's endured over time with injuries, innings and all that. But his pitchability and his command make up for everything else. I think he still has more left in him."A National League senior advisor
This is no idle assertion. Peavy was stoked during Game 1 of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium when the Royals stocked San Francisco's team cooler with orange Gatorade. When Peavy checked the cooler before Game 2 and it was filled with blue Gatorade -- Kansas City's color -- he nearly had a "heart attack."
"I threw a fit," Peavy said, laughing. "I said, 'Give me some orange Gatorade -- now!"
It would be an understatement to say Peavy and Hudson were a hoot during their time together on San Francisco's self-proclaimed "redneck row" late this past season. Hudson, an Auburn diehard, has made it his personal mission to wean Peavy off the Alabama Crimson Tide and buy into the War Eagle sports program. Although that effort has yet to bear fruit, Hudson still talks wistfully of coaching the Auburn baseball team one day and bringing in Peavy as his pitching coach and David Ross as his bench coach.
For now, post-baseball career plans will have to wait. Hudson is still gainfully employed as a member of San Francisco's rotation, and Peavy's free-agent job search is under way.
"I have no agenda," Peavy said. "I'll play anywhere. All I need is a reason to believe that it's a good place for me and that I'm wanted, and I'm coming. And I'm going to do everything I can to help the other 24 guys believe and pull in the same direction."
Peavy makes that claim with the Messianic fervor of a man with two World Series rings in his collection. Some baseball people might question whether he has enough left to make a significant contribution to another title team. He has the doubters right where he wants them.