Welcome to the new year! Do you know where your free agents are? Never before have we seen so many significant free agents unsigned into January. Heck, spring training is just over a month away. With 11 of Keith Law’s top 15 free agents still out there, let’s take a look at where they might land and some of the risks involved with each player.
Yu Darvish, RHP (Law rank: 1)
Best bet: Chicago Cubs
Don’t be surprised: Houston Astros
With the Dodgers and Yankees seemingly sitting out the market for a high-priced starter in order to remain under the luxury tax, the bidders for Darvish are limited. The Cubs have added starter Tyler Chatwood and relievers Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow, but they have room for one big signing, especially after 2017 closer Wade Davis went to the Rockies. Their current estimated payroll of $155 million is about $17 million less than last year’s Opening Day payroll, so Darvish slots in. The Astros aren’t desperate for Darvish for 2018, but he would give them a long-term rotation anchor if Dallas Keuchel departs after 2018 and Justin Verlander after 2019.
Buyer beware: Darvish will be paid like an ace, but he’s more of a six-inning starter these days. His wOBA (weighted on-base average) allowed was .289 through pitch 50 but .334 from pitches 51 to 100, and he lasted fewer than six innings in 11 of his 32 starts.
Lorenzo Cain, CF (2)
Best bet: San Francisco Giants
Don’t be surprised: New York Mets
The Giants are the obvious fit for need, though they might end up with a cheaper option such as Jarrod Dyson or trading for Billy Hamilton. Those two, however, don’t provide the offensive production of Cain, and the Giants need big improvements -- not incremental adjustments -- to contend. The Mets have an elite defender in Juan Lagares, but his career OPS+ (on-base plus slugging percentage adjusted for league and park factors) is an anemic 84, and if the Mets actually operated like a big-money team, adding Cain and receiving better health in the rotation would make them wild-card contenders.
Buyer beware: Cain still grades as a plus center fielder, but he turns 32 in April. Since 2010, only two players 34 or older have played at least 100 games in center field in one season (Coco Crisp in 2014 and Andres Torres in 2012). If you give Cain a five-year contract, he might not spend all of it in center.
Jake Arrieta, RHP (4)
Best bet: Texas Rangers
Don’t be surprised: Washington Nationals
Scott Boras has a history of waiting out the free-agent market, as Max Scherzer’s $210 million deal with the Nationals in 2015 and Prince Fielder’s $214 million deal with the Tigers in 2012 both came in January (among others). Is this a case of Boras waiting? Or are teams simply not interested in Arrieta after seeing his WAR dip from 8.7 in his Cy Young season in 2015 to 3.4 in 2016 to 1.9 in 2017? If the Rangers miss out on Darvish, Arrieta makes a lot of sense, and he’d be returning home. (He went to high school in Plano, a Dallas suburb.) The Nationals, of course, have their own history of signing Boras clients and have been kicking the tires on adding another starting pitcher.
Buyer beware: Arrieta averaged 6.9 innings per start in 2015, but that went down to 5.6 in 2017. We all know about his conditioning and injury-free history, but his fastball velocity has dropped from 94.6 to 92.1 during that span.
J.D. Martinez, OF (6)
Best bet: Boston Red Sox
Don’t be surprised: Atlanta Braves
A six-year, $150 million deal for Martinez isn’t unreasonable given his projected production over that time. Still, that’s a lot of money to give a guy who is already considered a below-average defender and would be in his age-35 season in Year 6. Maybe that’s why the rumors with Martinez have been minimal this offseason. The Red Sox are still his logical landing spot, even after they re-signed first baseman Mitch Moreland (Hanley Ramirez would be the DH right now). Long shot: How about the Braves? They need a hitter, they’ve cleared Matt Kemp off the roster, and they have a young roster that has room to add a big salary.
Buyer beware: Martinez’s most similar comp at age 29 was Jason Bay, who had a great run from 2005 to 2009, averaging 31 home runs per season while hitting .279/.378/.515. His last big season came with the Red Sox at age 30. Then he signed with the Mets as a free agent and hit just 37 home runs over the last four seasons of his career. Granted, Bay had some injuries, but like Bay, Martinez could be described as a player with “old player’s skills.” Let’s see how he ages.
Eric Hosmer, 1B (7)
Best bet: Kansas City Royals
Don’t be surprised: San Diego Padres
Do you have Eric Hosmer fatigue? I sure do. As has been covered here and elsewhere, there just aren’t many great team matches for Hosmer. Barring a complete shocker, such as the Mariners or Angels, if he’s going to maximize his money, it probably means returning to Kansas City or taking a chance on the Padres, who seem willing to sign Hosmer and move Wil Myers to the outfield.
Buyer beware: Hosmer was much better at the plate in 2017, but that was mostly because of an improved line-drive rate (22.2 percent in 2017 vs. 16.5 percent in 2016), not because he hit more fly balls (his ground ball rate remained high). That might be real improvement, but line-drive rate fluctuates the most from year to year.
Alex Cobb, RHP (8)
Best bet: Philadelphia Phillies
Don’t be surprised: Cubs
Don’t take that best bet too seriously: Cobb could land in a dozen places. The Carlos Santana signing and immense flexibility in payroll, however, mean the Phillies could emerge as Cobb’s top suitor as they continue to build for 2019 and beyond. If the Cubs consider Darvish’s price too steep or if he signs elsewhere, Cobb provides an alternative plan at about half the price.
Buyer beware: Cobb had a nice return after missing nearly two full seasons, going 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA for the Rays. His strikeout rate, which peaked at 23.2 percent in 2013, was down to 17.3 percent, however, and his ground ball rate was down 8 percent from his pre-surgery numbers.
Todd Frazier, 3B (9)
Best bet: New York Yankees
Don’t be surprised: Mets
There isn’t much of a market for third base, especially after the Giants acquired Evan Longoria to shore up a hole bigger than Crater Lake. If Frazier is willing to take a one- or two-year deal to return to the Yankees, that makes a lot of sense. The Mets currently have Asdrubal Cabrera at third base on their depth chart, but Cabrera could slide over to second to make room for Frazier.
Buyer beware: Frazier hit just .213 in 2017 but drew 83 walks to post a respectable .344 OBP. That was a huge spike in his walk rate, and though that isn’t unprecedented for an older player, if his walk rate reverts back to his career norms and his defense slips (he’ll be 32), he’s a one-dimensional player without much value.
Carlos Gomez, OF (10)
Best bet: Rangers
Don’t be surprised: Toronto Blue Jays
Gomez has played well for the Rangers since coming over late in 2016 and while his defense has slipped in center from a few years ago, he’s still a better option than Delino DeShields (plus Willie Calhoun could be an adventure in left field, so the Rangers need outfield depth). The Blue Jays’ corner guys are Teoscar Hernandez and Steve Pearce, plus maybe Anthony Alford.
Buyer beware: Gomez hit .298/.366/.573 in Texas and just .216/.317/.358 on the road and hasn’t been completely healthy since 2014.
Logan Morrison, 1B (11)
Best bet: Colorado Rockies
Don’t be surprised: Los Angeles Angels
Morrison had a huge power breakout at a relatively late stage in his career -- and not just because of the rabbit ball. He was one of those players who focused on his launch angle, and as a result, his fly ball rate increased from 32 percent to 43.4 percent. The Rockies need to give Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon some help on offense, and handing first base to untested Ryan McMahon and bad Ian Desmond isn’t going to help.
Buyer beware: Morrison slugged .564 in the first half before fading to .452 in the second half.
Jay Bruce, RF (12)
Best bet: Blue Jays
Don’t be surprised: Giants
Bruce has hit 69 home runs the past two seasons, but he’s a tough player to evaluate. He doesn’t walk, so his OBPs are low, and his defensive metrics are all over the board (bad in 2016, above average in 2017). Anyway, the Jays and Giants need a corner guy, and Bruce fits for either team. He’s the kind of player teams don’t seem to overpay these days -- the slugging, low-OBP corner outfielder/DH -- so a two-year, $30 million deal might be enough.
Buyer beware: Aside from being another corner guy with old player attributes, he has hit just .222/.276/.422 against lefties the past two seasons, so you’re looking at what could be an expensive platoon corner guy with below-average defense.
Mike Moustakas, 3B (13)
Best bet: Chicago White Sox
Don’t be surprised: Royals
He’s younger than Frazier but looking at the same limited market for third basemen. With his dead-pull swing, he’s a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium, but he's also less likely to take a shorter-term deal. Teams that need a third baseman, such as Atlanta or Philadelphia, might prefer to wait for 2018 to join the Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson sweepstakes. In other words: Moustakas could end up anywhere. Maybe the White Sox will sign him to join their youth movement, or maybe he'll end up back in K.C. with his pal Hosmer.
Buyer beware: Moustakas had an interesting 2017, slamming a Royals-record 38 home runs. Of the 37 players to hit at least 30 home runs, only Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rizzo and Arenado had lower strikeout rates. Despite those positives, Moustakas' OBP was just .314, and his defensive metrics weren’t good (minus-8 defensive runs saved), perhaps as a result of the knee surgery he had in 2016.
Next 10 unsigned: RHP Lance Lynn (16); C Jonathan Lucroy (18); 1B/DH Lucas Duda (19); LHP Jaime Garcia (21); 2B Neil Walker (24); OF Austin Jackson (27); RHP David Hernandez (28); OF Jon Jay (30); RHP Greg Holland (32); IF Eduardo Nunez (33).