Matthew Pouliot

Strike Zone

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Top 111 Free Agents

Thursday, November 2, 2017


Presented today is a look at this winter’s top 111 free agents. I’m excluding players whose options are expected to be picked up, a group that includes Jose Altuve, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner, Andrew McCutchen, Craig Kimbrel, Logan Forsythe and Asdrubal Cabrera. Also excluded are Johnny Cueto, since he seems unlikely to opt out of the four years and $84 million left on his contract, and Shohei Otani, who isn’t a free agent and who wouldn’t get a fair contract anyway if he’s posted and signs with an MLB team.

Players are ranked based on how I expect teams will view them, not on how I view them myself. Essentially, they’re ranked from predicted biggest contract to smallest.

All ages are as of April 1, 2018.

1. Yu Darvish (31, SP, Dodgers): It was an inconsistent regular season for Darvish in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, but he rebounded at the very end and initially kept it going in the postseason, only to turn in two disastrous outings in the World Series. His strikeout rate was still the lowest of his career, but he jumped back up to 11.1 K/9 IP with the Dodgers after coming in at 9.7 with the Rangers. While he’s not at all a sure thing, he’s the biggest talent available in free agency and the one guy worth giving $30 million per year, though preferably on a three- or four-year deal rather than a lengthier pact.

2. Eric Hosmer (28, 1B, Royals): Hosmer picked a great time to have the best offensive season of his career, finishing up at .318/.385/.498 in his walk year. He went from striking out 132 times in 2016 to 104 times in practically the same number of plate appearances. The danger, of course, is that Hosmer has been a league average hitter (and a below average regular) two of the last four years. His career 111 OPS+ is worse than that of fellow free agents John Jaso, Adam Lind and Seth Smith. Defense isn’t a strength, either, although some would beg to differ. On the plus side, at 28, he’s younger than most free agents and still very much in his prime. He likely has some quality offensive seasons still in front of him. Unfortunately, it’s going to take at least $22 million and maybe $25 million per season for six years to sign him, and it’s highly unlikely that he’ll live up to that kind of deal over the long haul.

3. J.D. Martinez (30, OF, Diamondbacks): Martinez’s homer barrage will make him maybe this winter’s riskiest free agent, at least on the position player side. He was a great hitter from 2014-16, too, slugging from .535 to .553 each season, but he took it up a couple of notches after returning from a foot injury last season, hitting .303/.376/.690 with 45 homers in just 119 games. No one with 200 plate appearances had slugged .690 since Barry Bonds came in at .812 in 2004. The issue here is that Martinez is a bad defensive outfielder who has had difficulty staying healthy of late. Since the production would seem to guarantee that he gets at least a four-year contract, he makes a lot more sense for an AL team with the DH available than an NL squad. He’s probably looking at $25 million per season.

4. Justin Upton (30, OF, Angels): Upton ended up with new career highs in homers, RBI and OPS, so he’s expected to opt out of the final four years of a six-year deal that’s paid him $22.125 million annually. He’s not necessarily looking at a big raise in free agency, though. While he’s coming off a better season now than last time around, the simple fact that he’s 30, rather than 28, makes him a weaker bet going forward. Still, a four-year, $100 million contract seems reasonable. He can’t match his ex-teammate Martinez homer for homer, but he’s a better defender and he’s stayed exceptionally healthy in his career, playing in 149 games in seven straight seasons.

5. Masahiro Tanaka (29, RHP, Yankees): Tanaka’s poor season made his opt out a tough call; he can earn $67 million over the next three years or take his chances in free agency. One of the AL’s best pitchers in 2016, Tanaka wound up with a 4.74 ERA last season, though he did strike out a career-best 9.8 batters per nine innings. He also really impressed at the end of the year, striking out 15 in his final regular-season start and allowing just two runs over 20 innings in the postseason. That final burst, combined with him making 30 starts for the second year in a row, should ensure that he can do at least a little better as a free agent, even if teams are still going to be worried about his long-term health.

6. Jake Arrieta (32, SP, Cubs): Since winning a Cy Young in 2015, Arrieta has seen his effectiveness wane; his ERA jumped from 1.77 to 3.10 to 3.53 and his FIP simultaneously increased from 2.35 to 3.52 to 4.16. His velocity dropped by about two mph last season, though he was stronger at the end of the year than at the beginning. The team that signs him this winter might be getting a No. 3 starter, rather than someone capable of leading a team’s rotation into the postseason. He’ll probably command a higher annual salary than a couple of the players above him here, but it would be a bad idea for anyone to offer up more than three years.

7. Mike Moustakas (29, 3B, Royals): Back from a torn ACL that limited him to 27 games in 2016, Moustakas set a Royals franchise record by hitting 38 homers last season. He was largely a bad hitter his first four years in the league, but his 117 OPS+ in 322 games the last three seasons isn’t far off what Hosmer (119) and Upton (120) have done. Still, one big concern here is that his defense didn’t come back all of the way back after the knee injury. If he was permanently robbed of some quickness, he might have to make the move to first base in a couple of years. Regardless, a four-year contract seems likely, and he’s probably due in the neighborhood of $20 million per year.

8. Lance Lynn (30, SP, Cardinals): Without ever getting a lot of credit for it, Lynn has pretty remarkable career numbers, going 72-47 with a 3.38 ERA. He and Darvish are nearly the same age, and both had Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago. Lynn has a 129 ERA+ in 97 starts since the beginning of 2014, while Darvish is at 125 in 70 starts over the same timeframe. Lynn, though, had rather ugly peripherals to go along with his nice 3.43 ERA in his first year back from surgery; his strikeout, walk and homer rates were all career worsts, leaving him with a 4.82 FIP. Maybe some of that was rust, and he’ll be stronger next year. He’s remained exceptionally healthy aside from the Tommy John. He seems like a safer bet on a four- or even a five-year contract than most of the other top pitchers available.

9. Lorenzo Cain (31, OF, Royals): Among all position players, Cain ranks 16th in rWAR the last three years. The next highest free agent is Upton at No. 34. Still, as a long-term bet, Cain seems pretty shaky. While he hit above his career average at age 31 last season, finishing at .300/.363/.440, his defensive numbers continued their steady decline. He graded out as an elite center fielder from 2013-15, but he’s trending toward average now and he might not stop there for long. Look at how quickly Denard Span went from being a quality center fielder to a big-time liability. If Cain is forced to settle for a two-year deal, he could still be a good get. Since he’s clearly the best center fielder available, someone still might go four years at $20 million per season or more.

10. Carlos Santana (31, 1B, Indians): Santana offers a steady bat and a fair glove at first base, but his offense never blossomed after he was moved out from behind the plate; he had a 129 OPS+ while acting primarily as a catcher his first 3 1/3 years in the majors and a 115 mark in four years since. He’s also about to turn 32, so some decline should be expected these next few years. He’s finally due to earn the $20 million per year he’s always been worth just as he’s due to cease being that kind of player.

11. Wade Davis (32, RP, Cubs): Davis put in a full season in 2017 after missing time in 2016 with a flexor tendon strain, and he was very effective, even posting the second best strikeout rate of his career, but his velocity was down some and he gave up six homers, twice as many as he had allowed in 183 innings the previous three seasons combined. Davis’s cutter is good enough that he could likely withstand some additional velocity loss and remain a quality closer. He’s not going to reach Aroldis Chapman heights with his contract, but three years for about $50 million could get it done.

12 Alex Cobb (30, SP, Rays): Cobb wasn’t quite the same pitcher he was in 2013 and ’14 in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, but he was an above average starter while achieving new career highs with 29 starts and 179 innings pitched. His strikeout rate was well down early, but in the second half, he was throwing as hard as ever and getting some more strikeouts as a result. He’s the fifth of six starters here who seems like solid bets on multiyear contracts, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t get at least $45 million for three years.

13. Zack Cozart (32, SS, Reds): Despite being limited to 122 games, Cozart was 12th in the NL in rWAR last season. Of course, he was a lifetime .246/.289/.385 hitter before surprising everyone with a .297/.385/.548 line at age 31. Still, he’s always been a strong defender, and if one averages everything out, he’s basically been a 3 WAR guy in his career, even if had never topped that mark in a season before 2017. For 2018 anyway, he’s worth at least the qualifying offer amount of $17.4 million. If he wants a three-year deal, he should have to settle for a smaller annual salary.

14. Jonathan Lucroy (31, C, Rockies): If it were just the off year offensively, Lucroy would still look like a pretty good investment this winter. Unfortunately, his defense -- or, more specifically, his pitch framing -- has also become a big issue, and unless he can recover there, he’ll likely be a bad regular going forward. He was once one of the game’s best framers, so maybe he can get it back, at least to an extent. The team that signs him to a three-year contract will be betting he can be fixed or is just ignoring framing numbers.

15. Todd Frazier (32, 3B, Yankees): Frazier’s tumbling batting averages will hurt his case in free agency -- he’s hit .225 and .213 the last two years -- but he might be one of the better value picks. He remains above average defensively at third base, and he doesn’t strike out as much as the poor averages suggest. One imagines there’s been some bad luck in him posting .236 BABIPs in consecutive years; he was at .288 in his five years with the Reds. There’s some talk of him perhaps settling for a one-year contract, but he’s not at an age where it makes sense for him to try to “rebuild his value” and he’s worth $45 million for three years anyway.

16. Jay Bruce (30, OF, Mets): No one was much interested in acquiring Bruce last winter even though he was coming off a year in which he posted a 113 OPS+ and was due $13 million for one season. This winter, though, there will likely be considerable demand for him, even though he had a similar 115 OPS+ and he’ll require a multiyear deal. It’s partly because he struggled down the stretch with the Mets in 2016, yet he played well down the stretch for the Indians last season. Although he’s a 10-year veteran, Bruce is one of the younger position player free agents (he turns 31 on April 3). He’s not a big OBP guy and his defense in right field draws mixed reviews, but he’ll probably have a few more 30-homer seasons before he’s done.

17. Addison Reed (29, RP, Red Sox): Because he was traded to the Red Sox, Reed didn’t finish last season as a closer, and he has recorded just 24 of his 125 career saves since the beginning of the 2015 season. Still, he figures to be treated as a closer this winter. He’s been far more effective these last two years than he ever was saving games for the White Sox and Diamondbacks, amassing a 2.40 ERA with a 167/28 K/BB ratio in 154 innings. He also has youth on his side, and he’s never been on the disabled list in his career. If any reliever is going to get a four-year contract this winter, Reed would make the most sense.

18. Tyler Chatwood (28, SP, Rockies): Here’s the toughest call in free agency. A 28-year-old starter with a 119 ERA+ over the last five years sounds like the recipe for a $150 million contract. Chatwood, though, has made just 76 starts in those five years. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 and missed all of 2015. He was really good in his first year back, going 12-9 with a 3.87 ERA for the Rockies, but he was less effective last season and found himself shipped to the pen for a time, though he still finished with a solid 107 ERA+. Away from Coors, he had a 3.49 ERA in 77 innings. In 2016, he had a 1.69 ERA in 13 road starts. So, Chatwood is a fine starter, albeit one who has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. Given the price of pitching, I think it would be a great gamble for some team to sign him to a three-year deal at $30 million-$40 million, if that’s possible. But if Chatwood feels good about himself, he could stand to make a whole lot more money in the future by signing a one-year contract now.

19. Eduardo Nunez (30, INF-OF, Red Sox): It’s going to be easy to sell Nunez this winter: he can play a bunch of positions and he’s been a good hitter three years running, amassing a 106 OPS+ in 1,208 at-bats over that span. The flip side is that Nunez doesn’t play any one position well, and he’s batting average dependent to the point at which he’s a weak regular if he’s only hitting .270 or so. He’ll get a three-year deal and a starting job, but he might find himself back in a utility role come year two.

20. Greg Holland (32, RP, Rockies): Despite an August hiccup, Holland led the NL with 41 saves in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, and he’ll head back into free agency after declining his $15 million player option for 2018. While it hasn’t cut into his effectiveness, Holland’s velocity isn’t what it was before he got hurt, leaving him without much hope of success when he doesn’t have his slider, which was the root of his difficulties in August. He’s a perfectly fine bet for 2018, but any contract for longer than two years would be too risky here.

21. Andrew Cashner (31, SP, Rangers): Cashner somehow coaxed a 3.40 ERA out of an 86/64 K/BB ratio and a somewhat above average groundball rate last season. His FIP was 4.61. His xFIP, which factors in a league-average HR/FB rate, was 5.30. Cashner has managed to stay relatively healthy three years in a row, which is a nice change. Still, his stuff is getting worse by the year, and he had previously shown no ability to outpitch his peripherals. He should take the $17.4 million qualifying offer if the Rangers give it to him. As pitching starved as several teams are, he’s still going to be a really tough sell on a multiyear deal.

22. Neil Walker (32, 2B, Brewers): Walker missed about a quarter of 2016 with a back injury that required surgery and a quarter of last season with a hamstring tear, but when he’s been in the lineup, he’s done his usual thing. In eight seasons as a regular, he’s never posted worse than a 106 OPS+. He’s come in at 121 and 111 the last two years, putting his career mark at 114. Walker’s defense was never great and he figures to be solidly below average going forward, but he should still be viable at second for two more years, which is probably how long his contract will be anyway. $13 million-$15 million per year should get the job done.

23. CC Sabathia (37, SP, Yankees): Only 13 pitchers have made at least 25 starts and posted sub-4.00 ERAs the last two years, and Sabathia is one of them (the other free agent in that group is Arrieta). Of course, Sabathia is 37 and has bad knees. He also finished with a 4.49 FIP to go along with his 3.69 ERA last season. One imagines a bunch of contenders would love to have him on a one-year deal anyway. It’ll probably take two years to have any chance of luring him away from the Bronx.

24. Carlos Gonzalez (32, OF, Rockies): Gonzalez struggled mightily for four months last season before finally showing signs of life in August (.279/.333/.419) and really putting it together in September (.377/.484/.766). Even so, he still finished with an 87 OPS+. He hit 40 homers in 2015 and finished with an .855 OPS in 2016, but he’ll enter 2018 five years removed from his last outstanding offensive season. I think many would guess he’s in his mid-30s, rather than having just turned 32 in October. Gonzalez is still decent in right field, and despite all of those injuries as a youngster, he’s averaged 146 games the last three years. It might make more sense to sign him to a one-year, $15 million deal than to sign Bruce or Santana for three years.

25. Carlos Gomez (32, OF, Rangers): Coming off a rough year, Gomez bet on himself last winter, taking a one-year, $11.5 million contract to stay with the Rangers. There will be a payoff, though it should be modest. The problem here is that Gomez hasn’t played in more than 120 games since 2014; he missed time with hamstring, shoulder and ankle injuries last season. Fortunately, Gomez did perform well when healthy, hitting .255/.340/.462. He’s probably not getting a long-term contract this winter, but two years at a slight raise from $11.5 million is realistic. Alternatively, he could take another one-year deal.

26. Michael Brantley (30, OF, Indians): The Indians are trying to decide whether it’s worth it to pick up Brantley’s $12 million option for 2018 after he underwent ankle surgery that might sideline him for Opening Day. I imagine they’ll ultimately end up keeping him; Brantley might never get back to what he was before these last two years of injuries, but he was still effective when healthy last season and he’s just 30 years old.

27. Welington Castillo (30, C, Orioles): Not only did Castillo turn in his best ever offensive performance in 2017, but he graded out as an average pitch framer after years of languishing at the bottom of the league. He was limited to 96 games by a few different injuries, but he batted .282/.323/.490 in his 341 at-bats, even though it was essentially his first stint in the AL (he played in six games for the Mariners in 2015). Now he’ll surely turn down his $7 million player option, and he should be in line for at least a two-year, $20 million contract to serve as some team’s starting catcher.

28. Jason Vargas (35, SP, Royals): Vargas made his first All-Star team and led the AL in victories last season, but those things aren’t going to count as much in the eyes of bidders as his 6.38 ERA in the second half. He opened the year on a surprising strikeout binge, but over the final five months, he fanned a modest 6.2 batters per nine innings. As a flyball pitcher with a below average strikeout rate, his market should be limited to a handful of teams that play in big ballparks. He’ll probably still get $10 million-$14 million on a one-year deal.

29. Bryan Shaw (30, RP, Indians): The secret weapon in the Cleveland pen, Shaw has led the AL in appearances three of the last four years. Dating back to 2013, he has a 3.11 ERA while averaging 72 innings per year. He’s also been excellent in the postseason, amassing a 2.45 ERA in 22 innings. Maybe the workload will begin to catch up to him at some point, but he’ll get at least three years and maybe four from a team looking to beef up its setup corps. It will be interesting to see if the Indians try to keep him; they have both Cody Allen and Andrew Miller eligible for free agency after next season and Shaw should be significantly cheaper to retain than either of those two.

30. Mike Minor (30, SP-RP, Royals): Minor rebounded from years of shoulder problems to serve as one of the AL’s most valuable relievers last season, finishing with a 2.55 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings for Kansas City. Now he has to decide whether he wants to try a return to the rotation or carry on as a reliever. The former scenario has the potential to be more lucrative over the long haul, but he could secure a nice multiyear deal now if he wants to stick with relieving. Considering that he’s already earned $19 million in his career and can probably get around $10 million on a one-year deal, he could afford to roll the dice if he prefers starting.

31. Yonder Alonso (30, 1B, Mariners): Alonso was at best an average regular previously and simply a bad one in 2016 before busting out and making the All-Star team at age 30 last season. Still, the greatness lasted a mere 2 1/2 months; after June 15, he hit .239/.342/.403 with 11 homers in 268 at-bats. My opinion is that he belongs in the crowd of one-year options at first base, but someone might believe in the breakout and give him two years. He did revamp his swing to hit more flyballs, and while that strategy obviously paid dividends in Oakland, it could work out even better in a big home run park.

32. Brandon Morrow (33, RP, Dodgers): There was nothing fluky about Morrow’s 2.06 ERA; he’s throwing 98 mph with a 92 mph cutter that gets in on the hands of left-handers. It’s just a matter of health for him, as this was the first time he’s been able to put in a full season since 2011. The Dodgers can afford to give him a two-year, $16 million contract in the hopes that he’ll be healthy when it matters. Most teams can’t.

33. Jaime Garcia (31, SP, Yankees): After 11 seasons in the Cardinals organization, Garcia played for three teams last season, going 5-10 with a 4.41 ERA in 27 starts. Oddly enough, the bad results have come with better health; an oft-injured Garcia had a career 3.31 ERA through 2015, but he’s come in at 4.55 while avoiding the DL the last two years. Garcia’s stuff seems intact and he still offers a strong groundball rate to go with a league-average strikeout rate, so he’s not a bad bet on a one-year deal. I’d take my chances with him over Cashner next season.

34. Jake McGee (31, RP, Rockies): With his velocity well down, McGee struggled to a 4.73 ERA in his first year in Colorado in 2016. He got his fastball back last season and posted a 3.61 ERA with an impressive 2.93 FIP. McGee never has come up with a legitimate complement for his mid-90s fastball, but it hasn’t stopped him from posting a 3.15 ERA as a major leaguer. He’s even more effective against righties than lefties, so he can be a true eighth-inning guy for a team, rather than a matchup play. He should be in line for the biggest contract among lefty relievers this winter.

35. Logan Morrison (30, 1B, Rays): Morrison finally decided to just cut loose and swing for the fences last season. It worked. His strikeout rate was about 50 percent higher than his marks from a couple of years back, but his home run rate doubled. He also avoided any big slumps; his worst OPS in any month was .798 in July. How he’ll be rewarded is anyone’s guess; it’s a crowded market for first basemen and Morrison’s track record is spotty overall. He also doesn’t have Alonso’s defensive reputation at first base, though the numbers say there’s little separating them. My guess is that he ends up on another one-year deal, though I think $20 million for two years would be fair.

36. Juan Nicasio (31, RP, Cardinals): The Pirates’ decision to cut Nicasio after five months with a 2.85 ERA was one of the surprises of the season. He ended up with the Cardinals after a waiver claim and a trade and allowed just two runs in 11 innings down the stretch. Overall, he had a 2.61 ERA in an NL-high 76 appearances. He was just about as good after moving to the pen in 2016, finishing with a 2.96 ERA in 54 2/3 innings. Teams might not view him as a closer this winter, but he’s in line for an ample contract as a dynamic setup man. At worst, he should get $14 million for two seasons.

37. Francisco Liriano (34, SP, Astros): Liriano was a big flop in Toronto’s rotation, amassing a 5.88 ERA in 18 starts before being traded to Houston, where he finished out the year as a reliever. An ugly August followed, but Liriano did a nice job in September, just not nice enough to get any run as a late-game option in October. One assumes Liriano will market himself as a starter this winter. Outside of a strong finish in 2016, he’s really struggled these last two years. Still, his velocity hasn’t gone anywhere and the right pitching coach could have some luck with him. He has as much upside as any of the potential one-year rotation options.

38. Matt Holliday (38, DH, Yankees): For nearly three months, Holliday gave the Yankees everything they hoped for from the DH spot, hitting .275/.379/.536 in 65 games. At that point, Holliday began struggling with a viral infection, and though he returned right after the All-Star break, he never regained his stroke and hit just four of his 19 homers in the second half. A healthy Holliday still seems like a perfectly suitable DH, but given that he’s 38 and has made more than $150 million in his career, he might be content to hang up his spikes if the right offer doesn’t come along.

39. Jhoulys Chacin (30, SP, Padres): A $1.75 million bargain for the Padres, Chacin quietly went 13-10 with a 3.89 ERA for one of the league’s worst teams. He had a 2.93 ERA in his final 20 starts. It’s not at all likely that Chacin will take it up another notch, and he’s had trouble staying healthy in his career, so he’s not a good idea on a multiyear deal. Still, he should be in line for a far more significant one-year deal this time around.

40. Howie Kendrick (34, 2B-OF, Nationals): Injuries helped limit Kendrick to 305 at-bats last season, but he made the most of his playing time, hitting .315/.368/.475. Kendrick seems finished as a starting second baseman, but he proved adequate in left and the fact that he can slide to second when needed is still a nice bonus. He’d work nicely on a one-year, $8 million deal on an AL team with lots of moving pieces, like the Yankees or Orioles.


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Matthew Pouliot is the Executive Editor of RotoWorld.com and has been doing the site's baseball projections for the last 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @matthewpouliot.
Email :Matthew Pouliot



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