Beginning today at 5PM, baseball’s free agents will be eligible to sign with any team they want. Unlike football and basketball free agency, baseball free agents don’t all sign in a rush. Some of them may sign soon, but others will be looking for work for weeks, so don’t cancel your evening plans or anything.
As has been the case for a few years now, the free agent class is lacking in franchise players. Clubs are super aggressive about locking up young, promising players to long term deals before they reach free agency and, in some cases, before they even get to arbitration. As a result, most of the players who are on the market this winter are over 30 or past their prime or are one-dimensional or are role players or are some combination of all of the above. Next year could prove to be exciting because of a couple of exceptions to this rule — Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will be free agents — but for now clubs will have some tough calls when it comes to the free agent market.
There are a lot of people who are ranking the top available free agents, but obviously every team values players differently based on their needs and where they are on the continuum of rebuilding and contending, so let’s just break them down by position, with some special attention paid to the top guys at each spot:
What’s available: Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Jhoulys Chacin, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Andrew Cashner, Tyler Chatwood, Bartolo Colon, CC Sabathia and lots and lots of back-of-the-rotation guys and dudes with injury histories.
Analysis: Darvish was a far more interesting name before he imploded in the World Series, but I doubt any club will put too much weight on those starts. For fans of teams courting him, it’s far more important to know that he’s fallen off over the past couple of years and is not the sort of number one ace he was before he had Tommy John surgery. He’s good to be sure, but not a guy who will single-handedly change your team’s fortunes. Arrietta is similar, though without the injury history. He’s unlikely to pitch like he did in 2015 going forward, but he’s still a guy who can help a winning team. Tyler Chatwood could be an intriguing choice for a team that does not call Coors Field home. Lance Lynn may be a better signing for a lot of teams, at least pro-rata, than Darvish or Arrieta if he continues to show post-Tommy John durability.
What’s available: Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Pat Neshek, Brandon Morrow, Juan Nicasio, Brandon Kintzler, Tony Watson, Bryan Shaw, Addison Reed, Mike Minor, Anthony Swarzak, Jake McGee, Steve Cishek, Joe Smith, Tyler Clippard, Fernando Rodney and a gabillion other guys because teams now carry, like, 14 relievers at any given time, almost none of them on long term deals.
Analysis: There were several big time closers on the market. This year it’s basically Wade Davis and, if you think he’s not breaking down, Greg Holland. It’s still a pretty good relief pitcher market, though, as teams generally get good value from the guys who aren’t big time closers. Bryan Shaw and Pat Neshek were super valuable as setup/middle inning guys and could work in higher-leverage situations. The converted starters — Morrow, Nicasio, Minor — all have made a nice transition into relieving, though it’ll be interesting to see how Minor and Morrow adapt to pitching multiple times a week beyond one season. Overall, the hot stove season has turned into “a new reliever signs someplace every day” season, so expect the most acton with relievers.
Analysis: Lucroy is the big name here and would’ve gotten a big deal if he were a free agent a year ago but took a step back with a poor 2017, both on offense and defense. Avila and Iannetta had really nice 2017 seasons, but both seemed like outlier years. This is a bad market for anyone looking for an everyday catcher, with Lucroy standing out above them all, even following his poor year.
Analysis: Hosmer picked a good time to have a career year and, at 28, is one of the few younger free agents available. The question for any buyer is whether they think the big spike in average and on-base percentage he experienced in 2017 is sustainable or a one-year fluke. Carlos Santana, in contrast, has been consistent, even if he didn’t have the kind of 2017 Hosmer had. Figure whoever is in on one will be in on the other as a backup option, though Santana will likely come cheaper due to his age (he turns 32 in April). Alonso had a breakout season but fell off in the second half. There are so many 1B/DH guys available these days. Most of these guys, with the exception of Hosmer, Santana and Valencia, who has played other positions, should probably be DHs.
Analysis: Second and short are outrageously thin positions. Cozart is far-and-away the best available — probably one of the top 5 free agents available at any position — as he’s coming off a career year. He’ll do well even though, at 32, it’s unlikely that he’ll replicate his 2017 numbers several times. Walker is OK when he’s healthy, but he hasn’t been for two years running and may not rate as a plausible second baseman anymore, defensively speaking. Everyone else is . . . not someone you want your team to sign unless you’re more interested in rooting for a team with good name recognition than one that wins baseball games.
Analysis: Moustakas, like Hosmer, is in a great position this winter, as he’s coming off a big year and he’s one of the few top free agents under 30. Frazier has settled in to the “lots of homers, low average but good-on-base-percentage” mold of hitters that seems to proliferate these days, but he’s still an above average defender, so that’ll get him some good offers. Nunez could profile as someone’s Ben Zobrist/Marwin Gonzalez-esque utility player. After that it’s a lot of chaff.
Analysis: Cain is, somehow, about to turn 32 but he’s still a solid defender, an above-average hitter coming off a really nice year and he’s great on the base paths. That makes you a star if you can play center. He is likely to slow down over the next couple of years, of course, but he’s also going to be the top center fielder on the market. Everyone else is a big step down from him, but could be had far more cheaply. Gomez is an interesting case as he had a fairly decent bounce back campaign. Dyson is still speedy and flashes good leather, even if he’s not a plus-bat. John Jay is a platoon guy, but he’s pretty good in a platoon.
Analysis: Martinez has the best bat, by far, on the free agent market and made himself millions with the power surge he exhibited after his trade to Arizona. He’s not a good defender, so don’t be surprised if he’s pursed by clubs who need a DH more than a right fielder (cough) Boston (cough). Bruce raised his stock in a major way in Cleveland and is healthy again after battling various ailments for a couple of years. He could likewise DH and/or serve as the lefty half of an amazing corner platoon. My guess, though, is that he’ll get signed to play the outfield full time. Granderson is getting up there in years and was terrible after being traded to L.A. It looked like he aged five years between August and October. Two big, big names — Carlos Gonzalez and Jose Bautista — might have to settle for one-year deals heavy on incentives. If you looked ahead to this offseason’s market back in, like, 2013, you’d think they’d be in line for $100 million deals. Alas, time remains undefeated.
So those are the highlights. They’re not particularly high, but hopefully there will be enough heat in that hot stove to get us through the winter.