It might be that the market is oversaturated with power hitters and undersaturated with quality starting pitchers. It might be that in this post-steroid era, when players get older, they don’t magically stay as productive as they did in recent memory. Or it might just be that in the age of analytics, front offices are finally getting smarter at recognizing trends in career arcs and in the marketplace. Or, alternatively, they’re buying into these trends too much and not seeing a good opportunity when they have one.
All of the above or none of it, the 2017 off-season has been stamped with big names staying on the market far longer than expected and/or unexpectedly being on the market in the first place. Chris Carter, for instance, became the first man ever to lead his league in home runs (pacing the NL with 41 for the Milwaukee Brewers) only to be non-tendered by his team. And he was just signed, finally, by the New York Yankees for a pedestrian one-year, $3.5 million deal. Mike Napoli, the middle-of-the-order slugger for a team that went all the way to the World Series, the Cleveland Indians, also just landed only a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers.
And we haven’t even mentioned the guys who are still out there looking.
Actually, let’s go ahead and do that… here are the Top 15 MLB Players Who Are STILL Free Agents And Where They Might Sign.
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15 Angel Pagan: Baltimore Orioles
Angel Pagan may not be good for 30 stolen bases in a season like he was in his prime, but the 35-year-old has not, as of yet, lost any of his strength as a hitter, with both his on base percentage and slugging percentage last season hovering right about his career average. In other words, sign Pagan to a one year deal and you can expect about 500 at bats, 60-70 runs scored, 25 doubles, and 15 stolen bases, which is plenty if you are looking for someone at the end of your line-up or possibly a fourth outfielder. His recent switch to left field makes him slightly less valuable, but much as he has lost a step on the base paths, it was probably time to move him over from center, and as a result, he ended up slightly above average last season on defense.
The Baltimore Orioles are a team that could use a steady performer with a bit of speed to flush out their outfield, and provide some right handed platoon balance with Hyun Soo Kim and Seth Smith (who are both also inferior defenders.) With middle-of-the-order skill sets on their infield and in center, they can also afford to plug in a turn the lineup over type like Pagan to keep opposing pitchers honest as well.
14 Henderson Alvarez: Pittsburgh Pirates
When a 26 year old former All-Star starting pitcher is a free agent and remains unsigned going into mid-February it brings two opposing thoughts to mind. 1. There must be something seriously wrong with his arm. 2. He might just be the steal of the off-season.
Either way, its hard to believe Henderson Alvarez is just two seasons removed from finishing sixth in the National League in ERA and eighth in WAR, and even earning Cy Young votes. He has pitched only four big league games since. In April of 2015, he landed on the disable list with inflammation in his elbow and shoulder, before opting for season ending shoulder surgery in late July. After being signed by the Oakland Athletics to pitch towards the front of their rotation last season, he rehabbed to throw 33 innings in the minors, but then opted for another operation in September.
The good news and the bad is that Alvarez has always been a low-strikeout, location-type ground-ball pitcher. In other words, he doesn’t have to throw 95 to be effective, but his performance in 2014 is probably the best one can hope for in his career. Recent reports have him available by May, and with very little mileage thus far on his arm, its possible he could come back healthy enough to finish a full season from there. We like him as the next Pittsburgh Pirates reclamation project, a nice insurance plan should one of their young studs Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon falter early.
13 Colby Lewis: Oakland Athletics
Yes, Colby Lewis is 37 years old, but if his 2016 performance is any indication, he may be adjusting his game to the near-inevitable loss in velocity that seems to have come his way as he's aged. While his strikeouts per nine innings had fallen from 8.8 to 5.6 from the first year he became a regular starter for the Texas Rangers in 2010, his hits per nine innings have held steady at 8.0, and his WHIP (walks and hits per nine innings) was even better than his younger self, below his career average at 1.126.
Lewis was even on the way to possibly even being an All-Star last season when an oblique injury cost his two months, and he ended up coming back rather ineffectively, including a horrendous ALDS start against the Blue Jays, who smoked him for 5 runs over 2 innings. Originally from Bakersfield, California, he strikes us as an interesting fit for the Oakland Athletics, who recently lost primary fifth starter candidate Daniel Mengden to right foot surgery, causing him to at least not be ready for in time opening day. Lewis has also historically tortured the Athletics to the tune of a .210 batting average and a .320 ERA over 27 starts, so they would be happy to have him on their side instead.
12 Chase Utley: Kansas City Royals
After a subpar first half of 2015 in which his performance completely collapsed, he suffered ankle injuries, and a narrative began that he was probably done, Chase Utley saw a rebound late in the season and in 2016. However, his 2016 stat line was still rather pedestrian, hitting .252 with 14 home runs over nearly 600 plate appearances with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and finishing with a miserable 3-32 performance in the postseason. Logan Forsythe, acquired earlier this offseason from the Tampa Bay Rays, is entrenched in Utley’s position in LA now, so odds are he will have to go elsewhere to find work. He has some, albeit limited, experience at 1B and 3B, so some team could see him as a utility man, and recent rumors say the Cleveland Indians may be that crew.
For stat-heads though, reading between the lines on Utley shows a man who is trending towards his former All-Star status once again after his return from injury. Since that time, he is 23rd in the majors with a 38.7 percent hard contact rate, ahead of such names as fellow 2016 free agents Yoenis Cespedes and Mark Trumbo, who both signed big contracts this off-season. Two teams for whom Utley could still be an upgrade for as a starter at second are the Arizona Diamondbacks and Kansas City Royals. We will go with the latter, who with half of their starting lineup heading to free agency this off-season, we believe would absolutely take a flier on throwing his veteran leadership into the mix for one last run with a squad that has proven World Series credentials.
11 Tim Lincecum: Seattle Mariners
A two-time Cy Young Award winner, four time all-star, and holder of three World Series rings, who is only 32, normally wouldn’t have much of a problem finding bidders to line up for his services. But Tim Lincecum is no ordinary case. He got his second Cy Young when he was just 25, his final All-Star appearance came years ago when he was 27, and he barely appeared in the San Francisco Giant’s latest postseason run in 2014, when he was 30. Already in a steep decline by that point, he hasn’t even appeared in a full season since, and bottomed out last year allowing 68 hits in just 38 innings to the tune of a 9.16 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels.
And yet, Lincecum’s agent Rick Thurman recently announced that he “is throwing and getting ready for the season.” Odds are likely that if he gets an offer, it will be out of the bullpen, at least at first. And its hard to predict where Tim will end up, given that whoever does sign him, will probably do so on a minor league contract only, so it could really be anyone. We will go with the Seattle Mariners for now, as the Washington native would be a popular option for them, and with the recently faulty Yovani Gallardo currently slotted in the fifth spot on their rotation, you wouldn’t blame them for looking for a security blanket.
10 C.J. Wilson: San Diego Padres
Sure, southpaw C.J. Wilson was never as good with the Los Angeles Angels as he was in his final season with the Texas Rangers in 2011, before signing a five year free agent contract. But he also wasn’t that bad either if you remove the lofty expectations, pitching to the tune of a 3.87 ERA over three and a half seasons, and acting as a workhorse who made over thirty starts annually until he had surgery to remove bone spurs from his pitching elbow mid-way through 2015. He also ended up missing all of 2016 through a number of related complications, but is said to be possibly holding a showcase for teams in a few weeks to prove his progress with his health.
Looking at Wilson’s advance stats, his numbers in 2015 prior to being injured reflect most of his career norms. There nothing besides health standing in the way of thinking he can be that pitcher again, but the 2011 performance is most likely (and literally) a thing of the past. The San Diego Padres seem like a natural fit, as the rebuilding club would welcome a veteran innings eater, and Wilson, a Southern California native, could rehab his arm in familiar sunny weather.
9 Jake Peavy: Atlanta Braves
Speaking of Padres starters, Jake Peavy won a Cy Young Award in 2007 in San Diego after accomplishing the pitching triple crown, leading the National League in wins (19), ERA (2.54), and strikeouts (240). His stuff took a dive however shortly thereafter, with brief revivals in 2012 with an All-Star appearance with the Chicago White Sox, and 2013 and 2014 when he earned a reputation for being a gutsy veteran on postseason staffs for the World Series winning Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants respectively.
Peavy is 35 now and looked overmatched last year in what was clearly his worst season, with a career worst 5.54 ERA and allowing 10.2 hits per 9 innings. An easy narrative to paint would be Peavy returning to the site of his former glory in San Diego, but the team reportedly “is not sure it wants to give him the innings that could go to another starter,” according to Fox’s Ken Rosenthal. We’ll take a flier on Peavy landing with the Braves, this time as a bullpen piece, with the Alabama native providing southern fried mentorship to young relievers as a compliment 40-somethings Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey on the starter end.
8 Justin Morneau: Toronto Blue Jays
There was a lot of recent talk of Justin Morneau reuniting with the Minnesota Twins, for whom he won an MVP award as a young first baseman in 2006, but it was recently reported that the club informed him that there was no room for him on the roster. Instead, the 35-year-old Canadian native will be gearing up to play for his country in next month’s World Baseball Classic, while still awaiting an offer from a major league club. Morneau’s power stroke has dropped as he’s reached his mid-30s, but he had rebuilt himself late in his career by regaining his high on base percentage. Last season however, he suddenly began striking out at an extremely high rate and his the balls he did hit didn’t seem to be falling, which would mostly explain why he is currently without a job.
If he showcases a return to pre-2016 performance this March in the WBC, it might be finally time for him to return to Canada for good, where the Blue Jay line-up seriously lacks a strong left handed hitting presence after the loss of Michael Saunders. We could see Morneau platooning at-bats with Kendrys Morales at DH or spelling Justin Smoak at 1B if he proves once again ineffective. A return to a high OBP would also go a long way with a lineup still loaded with power, even with the loss of Edwin Encarnacion.
7 Franklin Gutierrez: Texas Rangers
Once a Golden Glove winning center fielder, Franklin Gutierrez has slowed down in his 30s, fading into a average corner outfielder. But somehow simultaneously, a man who only slugged over .400 twice in six big league seasons from 2006-2011, has now done so in every year from 2012 on. He hit 15 home runs in 2015 in just about 200 at bats, and followed that up with a less astounding but still solid 14 homers in 300 at bats last year.
Rumors have Gutierrez heading to Tampa Bay, and he would certainly fit the club’s recent strategy to load up on power and platoons, as the right handed hitting outfielder particularly kills lefties. But its hard to see the Rays having room in their outfield after signing Colby Rasmus, even if Steven Souza is their only righty currently in that mix. Our money is on the Texas Rangers, who like working with major depth going into a season, and have high split left handed hitters Nomar Mazara and Shin-Soo Choo currently slotted in at the corner outfield positions for 2017.
6 Ryan Howard: Chicago White Sox
After Ryan Howard’s farewell ceremony at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia last September, fans would come up to him and say things like “great career” to him. He and his wife had a bet whether they meant simply to congratulate him on his time with the Phillies or if they actually thought, incorrectly, that he was retired. They decided to ask people “what do you mean?” when they would approach, to determine who was right. When asked who won, Howard said “I think I did.”
Howard has been a lot of things in his career, Rookie of the Year, NL MVP, and World Series winner, but he has never been a free agent. So after 13 seasons all with the Philadelphia Phillies, he finds himself now in unfamiliar territory. Unfortunately, he appears to be suffering from extremely bad timing, in a year saturated with home run hitting first base/designated hitter types. Despite finishing the second half of last season with a very good .924 OPS and smacking 25 dingers in only 331 at bats, he finds himself still unemployed only weeks away from spring training.
An interesting fit for Howard could be the Chicago White Sox, who are expected to be quite active with mid-season trade bait in the midst of their rebuild, and thus could offer the 37 year old vet a chance to prove he has something left to offer as a DH without too much of a risk. It would be admittedly fun at times and miserable at times to watch a middle of the order threesome of Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier, and Ryan Howard hitting moon shots and striking out together respectively.
5 Joe Blanton: Washington Nationals
The question for so many mid-30s starters who remain unsigned this offseason as spring training approaches seems to be “yeah, but they can handle a transition to the bullpen?” What makes Joe Blanton such an attractive option therefore is that this particular question has already been answered and it is a resounding… YES. Between 2015 and 2016, Blanton only started four times but appeared 107 times as a reliever. As a result, he has enjoyed a spike in his strike-outs per nine innings stats to over 9.0, and has performed to the tune of around a 2.65 ERA. In other words, he has been a premiere set-up man, though he ended 2016 with a thud when he allowed 7 runs in just 3 innings in the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs.
The Washington Nationals seem like a natural fit for Blanton, as their bullpen remains their biggest need, and between pitching for the Pirates in 2015 and Dodgers in 2016, he seems to have found a home with NL contenders. He might even get another shot at defeating the Cubbies on the road to the World Series this year.
4 Doug Fister: Detroit Tigers
Doug Fister is only two years removed from finishing eighth in the National League Cy Young voting with the Washington Nationals, but it feels worlds away. He was completely beat up last season over 32 starts with the Houston Astros, with a career low in strike out to walk ratio and career highs in WHIP and ERA. In fact, the only thing Fister offered was consistently was taking the mound every five days, but teams may no longer desire that from him. Like Joe Blanton was able to do successfully, it may be time for Fister to switch to the bullpen.
Indeed, the only inning Fister was above league average in last year was the first, which he handled to the tune of a 2.81 ERA, a promising stat for a transfer to reliever. A natural fit for Fister could then be a return to the Detroit Tigers, who seemingly are always looking for another arm for their bullpen, and holding a fanbase who still have a fondness for a man who gave them three quality years from 2011-2013, as they hope for a return to the World Series he helped provide in 2012.
3 Pedro Alvarez: Colorado Rockies
“The Bull” is a 30 year old masher who it might surprise you to learn is coming off a career high .826 OPS with 22 home runs in just 376 at bats. He strikes out a lot and doesn’t walk much yes, but he positively kills right handed pitching over the course of his career and last year in particular, and can still play in the field, which sets him apart from other remaining 1B/DH types left on the market. It might be argued even that he is actually in his prime.
Because there is still some ability to play the field and some potential years of success to come to boot, its Alvarez, not Chris Carter who was often rumored, who may just end up with the Colorado Rockies. While was pretty bad in his one year at first in 2015, the former third basemen has an infield skill set, and there’s some reason to believe with some additional reps he can at least be adequate there. He could spell Ian Desmond against some righties allowing him to become more of a Kris Bryant super utility type, and would also be a killer late inning pinch hitter for a club who plays in the most offensive friendly stadium in baseball and that many think could make a run at the postseason this year.
2 Travis Wood: New York Yankees
The New York Yankees badly need a left handed starter, and there are very few good options left in that category for them this season. They reportedly have recently “checked in on” Travis Wood, and its easy to see why. Wood is a 30 year old with only 900 innings of mileage on his arm that as recently as 2013 was an All-Star pitching for the Chicago Cubs to the tune of a 3.11 ERA. He was beat up pretty badly the next year however, and the Cubbies moved him to the bullpen as a result, where last season he played a crucial role in their run to best record in the National League with a 2.95 ERA in relief, and matched it with a near identical performance in their miraculous postseason run.
There is nothing much to lose for New York, as the worst case scenario is that the slow tossing Wood could just return to his new home in the pen and provide some late inning contrast to Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard from a set-up position (and possible mid-season trade bait as they continue their farm system revival). He does give up a lot of home runs, which should be a red flag in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, but with a young line up poised to make an impact, and Wood conceivably available for a discount, it seems to be a no-brainer to bring him on.
1 Matt Wieters: Milwaukee Brewers
When it comes to this list, there’s Matt Wieters and then there’s everybody else. How exactly is a four-time all-star at the premium position of catcher, who is in the prime of his career at 30 years old, still available in February? The perception is that Wieters walk year was remarkably below average, while truthfully his on base and slugging percentage were just about in line with his career norms. Perhaps most importantly, he was able to play in more than 100 games for the first time in three seasons, and its that element, staying on the field, that might worry teams the most.
Still, Wieters has the talent to be a major impact and at this point, and at this point may be available for a relatively low risk one year deal. Look for Wieters to sign on with the Milwaukee Brewers, who could use an upgrade at the position after trading Jonathan Lucroy mid-season last year. Expect that trend to continue in 2017, with the Brew Crew unloading him to whatever contender feels they need a mid-season upgrade to a catcher with 20 homer potential, maybe even the team that let him go in the first place, the Baltimore Orioles.
In this year of undervaluing power hitting veterans, there would be poetry in that somehow.
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