January 24, 2017
Best of the Rest
It’s been three long months since Michael Martinez grounded out against Mike Montgomery and thankfully we're just one more long month from real, live baseball games being a thing again, but quite a few prominent free agents remain unsigned in what has been an offseason light on typically big spending. Each of the first 19 names on BP’s annual top 50 free agent rankings have found homes for 2017, but 11 of the other 31 players are still on the open market and are placing increasingly agitated calls to their agents.
Everyone has their personal favorites, of course, and which remaining free agents are the “best” depends largely on team-specific needs, but here’s a deeper look at five names that stand out to me and an attempt to understand why they’re each looking for work with spring training around the corner.
Cleveland’s party at Napoli’s was fun while it lasted, but the Indians signed Edwin Encarnacion as their new, upgraded right-handed slugger and a month later Napoli would probably be happy to take the same one-year, $7 million deal that he landed last winter (January 5, to be exact). He led the AL champs in homers (34) and RBIs (101) last year, setting career-highs in both categories at age 34, but his .262 True Average was below the overall MLB mark of .278 for first basemen and Napoli slumped badly down the stretch and into October.
Identifying a fit for Napoli is tricky, because superior right-handed sluggers like Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo found the market somewhat lacking, a return to Cleveland isn’t an option, and other 30-something, bat-only free agents like Chris Carter, Pedro Alvarez, Brandon Moss, and Adam Lind remain unsigned as well.
Even if you prefer Napoli’s defense or particular brand of veteran-ness enough to view him as the best of that above bunch, the five players are pretty damn similar. Encarnacion, Trumbo, and Kendrys Morales all inked multi-year deals, but based on supply and demand it’s easy to imagine the rest of the bat-only club having to settle for one-year contracts and modest guaranteed money. Solid platoons could be formed at first base and designated hitter by pairing the righties (Napoli, Carter) with the lefties (Alvarez, Lind, Moss), but the roster space isn’t there for that and teams aren’t paying a premium for standalone power right now.
In early November when the Cubs declined their $12 million team option on Hammel it was portrayed as doing him a favor in the afterglow of the World Series, but those multi-year offers never arrived. Hammel posted a sub-4.00 ERA in each of the past three seasons, starting 90 total games during that time, but the Cubs’ defense did him a lot of favors and late-season elbow soreness likely scared potential suitors away. Still, in a shallow free agent pool for quality starting pitching you’d think a few contending teams would be willing to toss a sizable one-year offer Hammel’s way.
Two months ago Atlanta gave $12.5 million to 44-year-old Bartolo Colon and $8 million to 42-year-old R.A. Dickey, and the most appealing remaining non-Hammel options for rotation-hungry teams include Brett Anderson, Doug Fister, Jake Peavy, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson, Jon Niese, Jorge De La Rosa, Bud Norris, and Scott Feldman. It’s hard to blame teams looking for better recent performances and durability than Hammel, but they aren’t going to find it in this free agent class.
It’s possible that Rich Hill (three years, $48 million), Ivan Nova (three years, $26 million), and Edinson Volquez (two years, $22 million) will be the only free agent starters to sign multi-year deals in a winter filled with relievers getting much bigger money. Last offseason saw high-end starters David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, and Jordan Zimmermann sign $100 million-plus deals, but even Mike Leake, Wei-Yin Chen, and Ian Kennedy got five-year contracts in the $70-80 million range. Hell, we’re just 10 months removed from Mike Pelfrey getting a two-year, $16 million deal. Hammel picked the wrong open market to hit, apparently.
It’s not often that a 30-year-old free agent catcher coming off an All-Star season has trouble generating interest, but then again most teams are probably smart enough to view it as an “All-Star” season. Wieters was barely above average offensively for a catcher last year and rated below average defensively thanks to poor pitch-framing numbers. He’s a former top-five draft pick and elite prospect who showed a lot of promise early in his career—and still has the 20-homer power and arm strength to look impressive at first glance even now—but Wieters’ performance has been that of a mediocre starter since 2013.
Of course, when it comes to free agent catchers beggars can rarely be choosers. Minnesota acted quickly to sign Jason Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million contract based largely on his pitch-framing excellence, Tampa Bay snagged the rehabbing Wilson Ramos with an incentive-laden pact, and Baltimore moved on from Wieters by inking Welington Castillo to a one-year, $6 million deal. Wieters and agent Scott Boras may be holding out for offers that teams deem unreasonable by comparison, but the next-best free agent options are Nick Hundley and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
At age 35 he’s no longer a capable center fielder defensively, but last season Pagan graded out very well in left field and offensively his .274 True Average was above average for corner outfielders. In fact, he’s produced above-average offense for a corner outfielder in six of the past eight seasons. Last year’s dozen homers were a career-high, his strikeout rate was the fifth-lowest among qualified MLB outfielders, and he added baserunning value. He’s at the point where any further decline means the end of his usefulness, but if Pagan can hold that off for 2017 plenty of teams could use the switch-hitter as a semi-regular.
The rest of the free agent outfield selection is pretty thin. Chris Coghlan and Coco Crisp are also available with somewhat similar profiles to Pagan as corner options. Among center fielders the best bets are Austin Jackson and Peter Bourjos, neither of whom are likely to be everyday assets. Franklin Gutierrez thrived in a part-time role for the Mariners during the past two years, batting .265/.339/.520 with 29 homers in 472 plate appearances after coming back from nightmarish injuries, but at age 34 and given his health history it’s unclear if he’s more than a platoon option.
Holland hasn’t been healthy and effective since early 2015, missed all of last season following Tommy John surgery, and is no sure thing to be ready for Opening Day. But man was he good before breaking down. Holland posted a 1.86 ERA in 246 appearances from 2011-2014, striking out 358 batters in 256 innings while holding opponents to a .189 batting average and .536 OPS. He also tossed 11 innings of one-run ball during the Royals’ pennant-winning trek in 2014, saving seven of their dozen playoff wins before ceding the closer role to Wade Davis for their 2015 title run.
Holland is a lottery ticket, but it’s possible to envision a scenario in which he’s a late-inning force once healthy. The same can’t really be said of any other unsigned relievers, although if the standard is dropped to “solid middle man” there are useful pieces available. David Hernandez, Sergio Romo, Joe Smith, and Joe Blanton from the right side and Jerry Blevins, Boone Logan, Travis Wood, and J.P. Howell from the left side all look capable of being inexpensive assets at a time when teams are spending more than ever on relievers and even the small-payroll A’s have devoted a huge chunk of their resources to the bullpen.