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Your 2017-2018 Free Agent Preview

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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:

 

Starting Pitchers

What’s available: Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex CobbJhoulys 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.

 

Relief Pitchers

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.

 

Catchers

What’s available: Jonathan Lucroy, Alex Avila, Chris Iannetta, Nick Hundley, A.J. Ellis, Miguel Montero and lots of dudes who will likely roam MLB forever, because backup catchers never die.

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.

 

First Basemen

What’s Available: Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana, Yonder Alonso, Logan Morison, Mitch Moreland, Lucas Duda, Mark Reynolds, Adam Lind, Danny Valencia

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.

 

Middle Infielders

What’s available: Zack Cozart, Neil Walker, Brandon Phillips, Chase Utley, Alcides Escobar J.J. Hardy

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.

 

Third Basemen

What’s available: Mike Moustakas, Todd Frazier, Eduardo Nunez, Yunel Escobar and . . . uhhh . . . Pablo Sandoval?

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.

 

Center Fielders

What’s available: Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Jon Jay, Austin Jackson, Cameron Maybin, Rajai Davis

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.

 

Corner Outfielders

What’s available: J.D. Martinez, Jay Bruce, Howie Kendrick, Curtis Granderson, Seth Smith, Andre Ethier, Nori Aoki, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista

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.

Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph: meet Juan Marichal and John Roseboro

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Last night the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Cleveland Browns. No one is gonna be talking nearly as much about the outcome today, however, as they are the carnage.

Specifically, the carnage that led to Browns defensive end Myles Garrett getting ejected from the game after ripping Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet off, swinging it at him and connecting with Rudolph’s skull as the game came to a close. Things were already chippy as all get-out, but that obviously led to a brawl which will lead to a ton of suspensions, including a possibly record-breaking one for Garrett. For all your analysis on that, check out PFT, obviously.

The incident will dominate the sports shows today because malicious attempts to injure another player with a piece of equipment are pretty rare in professional sports. There was at least one incident in baseball history, however, that was analogous to what went down in Cleveland last night.

It took place on August 22, 1965 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco during a Dodgers-Giants game. That’s when Giants ace Juan Marichal, playing the role of Garrett, took a baseball bat to the head of Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, standing in for Rudolph.

The Dodgers and Giants are rivals, of course, and in 1965 the two teams were in a pitched battle for the N.L. pennant, with the Dodgers leading San Francisco by a game and a half as the day began.

Pitchers in 1965 were a bit more aggressive about claiming the inside part of the plate than they are today, and on that day, everyone seemed cranky. Marichal knocked Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills down with some chin music in the top of the second for, it appears, committing the terrible transgression of bunting for a single in his first at bat of the game. In response Koufax fired a fastball over Willie Mays’ head, sending the ball to the backstop. So everyone was even, yeah?

Nah. Marichal responded in the top of third with an inside fastball that sent Dodgers first baseman Ron Fairly sprawling to the dirt. At that point home plate umpire Shag Crawford issued a warning, indicating that that the next close pitch from either team would result in an ejection. Walter Alston’s Dodgers, though, were a clever bunch. Sure, maybe a close pitch was going to get an ace ejected in a pennant race, but there are other ways to buzz someone’s tower, right?

Pitchers batted in every game back then, of course, and Marichal came to bat in the bottom of the third. Koufax didn’t throw at him, though. Instead, Roseboro, catching for L.A., threw the ball back to Koufax in such a way as to have it sail close to Marichal’s head as he stood in the batter’s box. He later admitted in his autobiography that it was no accident, he was trying to intimidate Marichal.

Marichal flipped out, clubbing Roseboro with his bat, after which all hell broke loose (all photos, and the original caption from 1965, are from Getty Images):

 

Juan Marichal holding bat, John Roseboro attacked, and Sandy Koufax closes in.

 

Roseboro throws a punch at Marichal while latter swings bat and Koufax comes in to try and break it up.

 

On deck batter Giant Tito Fuentes pulls Roseboro away while Marichal wields bat at Koufax while umpire Shag Crawford and Giant coach Charlie Fox try to break it up.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford wrestles with Marichal while Dodgers Jim Gilliam (19) and Koufax come in. Rear is Giants coach Charlie Fox. Marichal falls to the ground on top of Shag Crawford while Giants Orlando Cepeda joins the melee.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford is shown here wrestling with Marichal as Dodgers Jim Gilliam (#19) and Sandy Koufax join in. In the rear is Giants’ coach Charlie Fox.

 

Identifiable L-R: Dodger Jim Gilliam (19); John Roseboro (with chest protector); Giants Orlando Cepeda (30); Cap Peterson (17); Warren Spahn; and Mgr. Herman Franks (3).

Willie Mays was credited with keeping the brawl from getting worse. Roseboro had military and martial arts training and, as you can see in the second photo, he was not slowed by his head injury — an injury that would require 14 stitches — from trying to take Marichal apart. Mays was the one who ultimately pulled Roseboro away and out of the fracas. He even held a towel to Roseboro’s head which by then had begun to bleed profusely. The fight eventually ended, with several players sustaining injuries due to kicks and accidental spikings of hands and legs and stuff.

The incident delayed the game for 14 minutes but the fallout beyond that was pretty tame compared to today’s standards. Marichal got an eight day suspension which, because of scheduled doubleheaders, caused him to miss ten games. He was also fined $1,750, which is around $15,000 today. Roseboro only missed two games due to his injury. The Dodgers would lose this game thanks to a big homer from Mays off of Koufax, but the Dodgers would go on to win the pennant and defeat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series.

There was additional fallout: Roseboro sued Marichal for $110,000 in damages. They’d eventually settle, with Roseboro receiving $7,500 from Marichal.

But there was no lingering bad blood. In interviews after the incident both players admitted that there was much more on their minds in 1965 that might’ve contributed to their aggression on that day. There was the rivalry, of course, and the pennant race. But Marichal had been much more personally distracted by a civil war in his native Dominican Republic that raged in 1965 and would not end until September. Roseboro had been, understandably, affected by the Watts Riots in Los Angeles which had taken place just over a week before this game. When you feel helpless about situation A, you often channel your feelings into situation B and both men said that something like that was probably simmering.

Marichal would play for the Dodgers for two games in 1975, the final year of his career. Roseboro had already retired, but Marichal’s cup of coffee with L.A. allowed them to meet up at a Dodgers old-timers game in 1982. There they posed for this photo: 

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“There were no hard feelings on my part,” Roseboro told the L.A. Times in 1990. Roseboro died in 2002. Marichal was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.

Let’s check in with Garrett and Ruldolph in 37 years to see how they’re doing.