Matthew Pouliot

Strike Zone

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Top 111 Free Agents

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Presented today is a look at this winter’s top 111 free agents. I’m excluding players whose options are expected to be exercised and also international players who would have to be posted.   

Players are ranked based on how I expect teams will view them, not on how I view them myself. Essentially, they’re listed from predicted biggest contract to smallest, using my own patented adjustments for multiyear deals.

All ages are as of April 1, 2019.

1. Bryce Harper (26, OF, Nationals): While he picked it up nicely in the second half (.300/.434/.538 in 223 AB), Harper wasn’t at his best in his walk year. Besides hitting worse than his career norms, his defensive numbers were awful in both right and center. Maybe it was a fluke, but it still seems like he can be ruled out as a full-time center fielder at this point. Harper is still very much on a Hall of Fame pace, even if he’s only played like a superstar two of the last five years, and at 26, he should have several prime years left. He’s going to receive either the biggest contract ever (overtaking Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million deal) or the highest annual salary ever (overtaking Zack Greinke’s $34.417 million). The only real question is whether he’ll get both ($350 million for 10 years?).

2. Manny Machado (26, SS-3B, Dodgers): Harper and Machado enter free agency at the same age. Harper has played 927 career games, while Machado is at 926. Harper has the better career OPS by 78 points, but considering defense, there’s a good argument that Machado has been the more valuable player to this point. He’s certainly been the most consistent one; he’s turned in four five-WAR seasons, while Harper has just the one from his MVP campaign. We’re already knee-deep in think pieces regarding Machado’s on-field behavior hurting his value in free agency, but his teammates seem to like him fine and he’s never had any off-field issues that we know of. He really helped himself with his fine defensive play in L.A. after his poor numbers at shortstop in Baltimore, and while he’s probably not going to be playing shortstop in his 30s, it looks like he’ll be able to handle the spot for a couple of more years anyway. He probably won’t get quite as much as Harper, but there’s a good argument that he’d be the better bet on a 10-year deal.

3. Clayton Kershaw (31, SP, Dodgers): After another round of back problems left him with diminished velocity, Kershaw might be taking something of a risk in opting out of the final two years and $65 million left on the his seven-year deal. He’d be worth trying at $30 million for 2019 alone, but given the questions about his health for the long haul, it’d be too much of a gamble to give him a lengthy contract at that price. The best-case scenario here would be for the Dodgers to add a couple of years to the current deal and settle at around $110 million for four seasons. If they’re not currently interested, then Kershaw could just finish out the contract as is.

4. Patrick Corbin (29, LHP, Diamondbacks): Corbin’s exceptional 2018 season was something of an odd case. He topped his previous high in strikeouts by a whopping 68 this year, fanning 31 percent of the batters he faced. He got his best results ever with his fastball, even though his velocity was well down for a good chunk of the year. He walked just 48 in 200 innings, even though he threw fewer pitches in the strike zone than anyone else to qualify for the ERA title. I don’t entirely trust him going forward, but he’s stayed healthy since returning from Tommy John surgery, he’s not old and he just struck out 246 batters; he’s probably getting at least $80 million for four years.

5. Josh Donaldson (33, 3B, Indians): Even after missing two-thirds of the 2018 season and falling far short of his usual standards while in the lineup, Donaldson still has the second-best WAR of any position player in MLB the last six years (Machado is seventh and Harper 30th on Baseball Reference’s list, while Fangraphs has Machado seventh and Harper 13th). Donaldson did turn in a nice September for Cleveland after overcoming his calf injury, which should help him out in free agency. Sure, he’s in decline, but if he can stay healthy, he could well have a couple of more All-Star campaigns in him anyway. It’s hard to say whether anyone will ante up and pay him $20 million or more for three or four years. He might be better off going year to year at this point.

6. Dallas Keuchel (31, SP, Astros): With four strong seasons and a Cy Young Award on his mantle, Keuchel boasts the second-best five-year track record of this year’s starter class. Still, the peripherals haven’t been quite as strong since 2015 and teams should wonder if they’ll be able to get as much out of him as the Astros have now that Houston is apparently done with him. He does seem like a reasonably safe choice, given his strong groundball rate and the absence of any arm woes in his history. It’s just that he’s probably more of a mid-rotation guy going forward, and he’s still going to cost a whole lot.

7. Nathan Eovaldi (29, SP, Red Sox): No one helped his free agent stock more in October than Eovaldi, who was exceptional both starting and relieving on his way to a 1.61 ERA in 22 1/3 innings. Whether any of that actually made him a better bet for 2019 is up for debate. Eovaldi has a career 96 ERA+. In his two best seasons in terms of ERA, he made 18 and 21 starts (2013 and 2018). As much as it looks like he figured something out for Boston, he’s still a major health risk going forward. Someone is probably going to give him a three-year deal in the $50 million-$60 million range in the hopes of two healthy seasons and at least one more strong postseason run. I suspect it won’t pay off.

8. A.J. Pollock (31, OF, Diamondbacks): Whether it’s entirely the injuries or not, Pollock has faded after strong starts each of the last two years, finishing as little more than a league-average hitter. Particularly disturbing was that his usually impressive strikeout rate took a huge jump last season, and he settled for a .316 OBP in his 113 games. Pollock is still solid in center in spite of all the missed time, but at 31, it’s worth wondering how much longer that will last. In a way, his profile is similar to Lorenzo Cain’s from a year ago, and we know how well that worked out in year one. The team that signs Pollock could also get an All-Star initially, but there’s a whole lot of downside, too.

9. Craig Kimbrel (30, RP, Red Sox): Even before the roller coaster postseason, Kimbrel showed some dents in the armor last season; his velocity finally dropped some after increasing steadily previously and he gave up more flies and homers than ever. That said, he was still throwing 97 mph, and he struck out 96 in 62 innings. Kimbrel’s career 1.91 ERA is the lowest mark of anyone to pitch 100 innings in the last 100 years. It doesn’t make him a sure thing going forward, but he’s proven plenty resilient thus far. His deal should rival the three-year, $52 million contract that Wade Davis got last winter.

10. J.A. Happ (36, SP, Yankees): An average-at-best starter through age 31, Happ has sported ERAs of 3.61, 3.18, 3.53 and 3.65 the last four years, with all but the first of those seasons coming in the tough AL East. He’s not slowing down, either; his 26.3% strikeout rate last season was the best of his career by nearly 15 percent and his velocity is better today than it was in his 20s. Since his age likely means he’ll have to settle for a shorter deal than the other top SPs available, he could rate as one of the better investments here.

11. Daniel Murphy (34, 2B, Cubs): Murphy overcame knee surgery to post a solid .299/.336/.454 line in 91 games last season. Of course, his numbers pale in comparison to what he did the previous two years (.985 OPS in 2016, .928 in 2017), but that’s understandable given the circumstances. Murphy should be considered a first baseman going forward, but that’s not so bad; it works in his favor that it’s a lousy free agent market for first base (and a pretty deep one at second). If Murphy can accept that, then he might be worth a two-year, $40 million contract. If he insists on playing second, he’d be someone to avoid.

12. Michael Brantley (31, OF, Indians): A healthy Brantley was back to his old tricks last season, hitting .309/.364/.468 with 17 homers. He’s never been as good defensively as his speed would suggest, but he’s still decent in left field and likely will remain so for a couple of more years. On a two-year deal, he’d be worth close to $20 million per year as someone who can hit first, second or third on a strong offensive team.

13. Andrew McCutchen (32, OF, Pirates): McCutchen appears done as an All-Star candidate, but he’s still a fine hitter, he never gets hurt and he receives points for leadership. His defense in the corners has proven adequate, but he’s not really an option in center at this point of his career. He seems like the ideal final piece for a contender needing outfield help, though it’s quite possible a few of the outfielders further down this list could provide similar production for significantly less money.

14. Charlie Morton (35, SP, Astros): One of the AL’s best pitchers for 4 ½ months, Morton lost steam in the end and struggled in his lone postseason assignment for the Astros. Morton has always battled injuries, and his 30 starts last season were a new career high. It’s part of why he’s talked about retirement even while enjoying the best stretch of his career. One wonders if he’d consider going the old Roger Clemens route and re-signing with the Astros on June 1. If he opens up his free agency, he’d probably be a candidate for a two-year deal in the $35 million range. However, he’s quite content in Houston and might take a cheaper one-year deal as a result.

15. Mike Moustakas (30, 3B, Brewers): That Moustakas struggled to secure a multiyear pact in free agency a year ago was in part due to concerns about his glove; he posted the worst defensive numbers of his career after returning from the torn ACL that ended his 2016. Fortunately, he bounced back there some last season, grading out as average or slightly above at third, depending on the numbers used. He’s likely to move to first base at some point, but he should be fine at third for a couple of more years. He’s still not going to get that $80 million deal he wanted last winter, but $15 million per season for two or three years wouldn’t be bad.

16. Wilson Ramos (31, C, Phillies): It seemed likely that Ramos’s 2016 would go down as his career year, particularly after he tore his ACL at the very end of it, but he was even better offensively in 2018, hitting .306/.358/.487 in 382 at-bats. Durability is an issue and he’ll never be considered anything more than solid behind the plate, but he’d be enough of an upgrade for a bunch of teams to justify a $15 million-per-year contract.

17. Marwin Gonzalez (30, INF-OF, Astros): Gonzalez fits everywhere; he’s at least competent at five positions and he’s a switch-hitter to boot. It’s doubtful that he’ll ever have another season like his 2017, when he hit .303/.377/.530, but he’s been at least an average hitter four of the last five years and he’s an awfully valuable piece for as long as he can keep doing that. He has a much better chance of getting a four-year deal than several of the players ahead of him on this list.

18. Hyun-Jin Ryu (32, SP, Dodgers): With no real expectations after two lost years, Ryu bounced back to post a 3.37 ERA in 127 innings in 2017. Last season, he had an incredible 1.97 ERA in his 15 starts. He came in at 5.21 in the postseason, but even so, he had a 20/3 K/BB ratio and allowed just one homer in his 19 innings (it didn’t help that Ryan Madson twice relieved him with men on base and allowed four of five inherited runners to score). His situation now seems similar to Rich Hill’s when Hill signed a three-year, $48 million with the Dodgers in free agency. Ryu probably won’t receive quite as much in a deeper pitching market, but given what he can do when he’s healthy, some team will take the chance.

19. Yasmani Grandal (30, C, Dodgers): Grandal’s stock took a hit in a postseason in which he went 4-for-29, struggled defensively and again lost his gig to Austin Barnes. Still, this is a player with obvious positives: he’s hit 73 homers and posted a 113 OPS+ the last three years and he’s an excellent framer. He’ll have stretches in which he looks absolutely hopeless at the plate and he’s one of the league’s weakest catchers when it comes to blocking pitches, but he’s a valuable player anyway and the best long-term solution at catcher among the free agents this winter.

20. Jed Lowrie (34, 2B, Athletics): Lowrie had the best season of his career at age 33 in 2017 and then one upped by hitting 23 homers and driving in 99 runs at age 34 (while listed at 34 here, he turns 35 in April). Once considered one of the game’s most injury-prone players, he’s now played in 150 games in back-to-back seasons (he topped 100 games just twice in his first nine seasons). This isn’t the time to give him a long-term contract, but given that he’s still a perfectly fine defender, $26 million for two years seems fair.

21. Andrew Miller (33, RP, Indians): The Indians went into last season knowing there was little chance they’d be able to retain either Miller or Cody Allen beyond 2018. They certainly didn’t imagine both amassing 4.00+ ERAs and perhaps pitching themselves back into their price range. Miller figures to depart anyway. While everything was off for him last season, it will likely be chalked up to injuries, and there will still be large-market teams champing at the bit to add him as late-game reliever. After all, we’re talking about a guy with a 1.09 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 33 career innings in the postseason.

22. Nelson Cruz (38, DH, Mariners): Cruz’s production finally fell off some last season, as he hit for his lowest average (.256) since 2007 and finished with his worst OPS (.850) since 2013. He still had a 135 OPS+ that topped Harper’s mark and ranked 18th among the 141 players to qualify for the batting title. Given that he turns 39 in July, one-year deals make the most sense at this point. He won’t have a wide market as a DH, but he’s worth $15 million for 2019 alone. Perhaps the Mariners could retain him for less by offering a two-year deal.

23. Brian Dozier (31, 2B, Dodgers): If he had been a free agent a year ago, Dozier would have been looking at a four- or five-year deal worth at least $18 million per season. After a miserable 2018 in which he hit just .215/.305/.391 and posted his weakest defensive numbers to date, he’s a big question mark. It seems likely that he’ll take a one-year deal in an attempt to rehabilitate his value. He should still do pretty well salary-wise, given his upside; he totaled 76 homers with an .871 OPS between 2016 and 2017.

24. Jeurys Familia (29, RP, Athletics): Familia was something of a question mark going into last season after missing much of 2017 with a blood clot in his shoulder and struggling upon returning, but he was able to return to old form, striking out 83 and allowing just three homers in 72 innings. The domestic violence arrest and subsequent suspension from two years ago won’t prevent him from being pursued and landing a strong two- or three-year deal.

25. DJ LeMahieu (30, 2B, Rockies): LeMahieu has reverted to previous form offensively since winning a batting title in 2016, but he’s not a liability there and he’s still about as strong defensively as any second baseman in the game. While he has plenty of competition in free agency this winter, he’d be the safest choice on a three-year deal of any of the second basemen available.

26. Adam Ottavino (33, RP, Rockies): Ottavino had the best 2018 of any reliever on the market, finishing with a 2.43 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings for the Rockies. The previous few years weren’t so kind; he missed much of 2015 and 2016 after Tommy John surgery and he was a complete mess in a 2017 season in which he walked 39 in 53 innings. The stuff is legit, though, and since he’s not going to insist on closing, like some other free agents might, he should have a huge market.

27. David Robertson (33, RP, Yankees): Robertson got a four-year, $46 million contract last time he was a free agent, and he really hasn’t lost anything since then; his velocity is as good as ever, he fanned 91 batters last season and he’s topped 60 innings in nine straight years now. Age and the changes to the market mean he won’t get another four-year deal now, but $20 million for two years seems fair.

28. Gio Gonzalez (33, SP, Brewers): Apart from his stellar 2017, Gonzalez hasn’t been much above average lately; his ERA+s the last five years are 105, 104, 93, 152 and 100. He’s also losing some velocity, and he just posted the worst strikeout rate of his career. Still, he’s been remarkably durable, making 31 starts eight of the last nine years (and 27 in the other), and he shouldn’t command as long of a deal as some other starters. He might even slip through the cracks and settle for a one-year contract, as Lance Lynn did next year.

29. Nick Markakis (35, OF, Braves): Before coming in at 117 in making his first All-Star team last season, Markakis averaged a 99 OPS+ from 2013-17. He’s well respected around the game and he earns points for durability and consistency, but there’s a good chance he’ll be a below average regular for the team that signs him this winter. He’ll probably get a two-year deal anyway.

30. Brett Gardner (35, OF, Yankees): The Yankees hold a $12.5 million option with a $2 million buyout on Gardner’s contract. That might be more than he’s worth to them in his current role, but one imagines they could pick up the option and trade him if they wanted (alternatively, they could reward him for his service by declining the option and allowing him to seek a multiyear deal elsewhere). Gardner was a disappointment offensively in hitting .236/.322/.368 last season, but he hasn’t lost much defensively. He should have a couple of more years of regular play in him.

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Matthew Pouliot is the Executive Editor of 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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