Last offseason’s free agent class was the best we’ve seen in years. This upcoming free agent class is the exact opposite. It’s shaping up to be one of the worst free agent classes we’ve seen in quite a while, especially since Stephen Strasburg took himself off the market by signing an extension with the Nationals a few weeks ago.
This is a good winter to be a second tier free agent. Teams still have tons of money to spend and they’re going to spend it, and with so few elite players available, that money is going to go to the second tier players. I expect to see a bunch of shockingly big contracts this winter. Lots of good but not great players are going to get great player money.
There are five weeks left in the regular season now, and while teams are smart enough to make their free agent decisions based on large amounts of data, these five weeks are going to help make some players money. Look at Rich Hill last year. The career journeyman turned four great starts with the Red Sox into a guaranteed $6 million contract.
Here are the seven impending free agents with the most to gain the rest of the season. These are the players with a chance to set themselves up for a really nice payday should they finish the season strong and at the top of their game. The players are listed alphabetically.
|AVG/OBP/SLG: .217/.322/.390||HR: 9||WAR: 1.2|
Quality catching is always hard to find. Nationals backstop Wilson Ramos as already established himself as the top free agent catcher, though Castro has a chance to emerge as the No. 2 option. It’s either him or Matt Wieters, who is having a poor season (78 OPS+) but has a strong track record. (Wieters accepted the qualifying offer last year to remain with the Orioles last offseason, remember.)
Castro, 29, is now four years removed from his huge 2013 season (18 HR and 130 OPS+), though this year’s 96 OPS+ is nothing to sneeze at. Not when the average catcher has a 91 OPS+ in 2016. Castro also has a reputation for being a top notch gloveman — StatCorner rates him as an elite pitch-framer — which teams love. Francisco Cervelli’s three-year, $31 million extension with the Pirates seems like the benchmark for Castro.
|AVG/OBP/SLG: .292/.338/.469||HR: 21||WAR: 3.2|
Last winter Desmond had to agree to change positions before a team was willing to forfeit their first round pick to sign him, and even then he had to take a one-year contract worth $8 million. The transition to the outfield has worked great, so great that Desmond will probably never play the infield again. He’s was a deserving All-Star this year
Now, that said, Desmond has slipped in the second half, hitting only .228/.257/.353 (65 OPS+) since the All-Star break. That is a little too close to last season’s .233/.290/.384 (82 OPS+) batting line for comfort. Slumps happen, everyone knows that, but Desmond knows firsthand how much a strong finish to the season will help his earning potential. He wants clubs to see him as a top tier outfielder. Not as a reclamation project who had a good first half.
|ERA: 2.92||WHIP: 1.05||WAR: 1.3|
The one area this upcoming free agent class is deep is the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman, Mark Melancon, and Kenley Jansen are all scheduled to become free agents after the season, so if you’re looking for a high-end closer, you’ll have some options. Feliz, the former AL Rookie of the Year, is among the next tier of bullpen arms. He’s a setup man or a low-end closer at this point.
The Pirates have done a nice job getting the still only 28-year-old Feliz back on track this season, as his strikeout (10.0 K/9) and walk (3.4 BB/9) rates are back where they were early in his career. Home runs (1.5 HR/9) have been an issue, though that seems true for pretty much everyone nowadays. The ball is flying this season. Both Ryan Madson ($22 million) and Joakim Soria ($25 million) signed lucrative three-year contracts last offseason. You can be sure Feliz has his eye on a similar deal.
|AVG/OBP/SLG: .203/.263/.319||HR: 6||WAR: -1.0|
At this point Gomez’s free agent stock may be beyond repair. He was dreadful with the Astros, hitting .221/.277/.342 (71 OPS+) in 126 total games with Houston before being released a few weeks ago. Gomez hooked on with the Rangers recently and hasn’t been much better: 1 for 15 (.067) with seven strikeouts, though the one was a homer.
Whichever team signs Gomez will look at the first half of last season, during which he hit .262/.328/.423 (104 OPS+) with great center field defense for the Brewers, and hope they get that player. Gomez is still relatively young, he’s only 30, and that electric athleticism still exists. These last few week could be the different between a one-year deal worth, say, $3 million or $8 million.
|ERA: 2.09||WHIP: 1.07||WAR: 3.2|
Hill’s late season performance with the Red Sox last year (1.55 ERA in four starts) earned him that $6 million contract with the Athletics, which is more than he’d made in his entire big league career up to that point. Hill has carried over that performance to this season, pitching to a 194 ERA+ with 93 strikeouts in 82 total innings for the A’s and Dodgers.
The problem? It’s only 82 innings. That’s not much. Hill has made only four starts since May 29 due to groin and blister problems, and one of those starts lasted five pitches. Simply put, Hill has to show teams he can stay healthy and be effective these last five weeks. I don’t think he’ll have much of a problem landing a contract, but staying on the field in September could put the 36-year-old southpaw in position to demand a two-year contract in the thin free agent market.
|AVG/OBP/SLG: .251/.318/.477||HR: 22||WAR: 1.8|
This feels like two different seasons for Moreland. He struggled mightily out of the gate, hitting .229/.296/.408 with 11 home runs in his first 78 games and 274 plate appearances. In the 40 games and 129 plate appearances since, Moreland has hit .299/.364/.624 with 11 home runs. It all adds up to a 105 OPS+ with 22 homers, one short of his career high with a month still to play.
Unless you’re prepared to pay huge dollars for Edwin Encarnacion, who is more of a DH than a first baseman anyway, the free agent first base market is not all that appealing. Moreland will be competing against guys like Brandon Moss and Mike Napoli for those big free agent dollars. He’s several years younger than those two, which works in his favor. Adam LaRoche signed a two-year, $25 million contract two years ago. I wonder if that’s within reach for Moreland with a strong finish.
|ERA: 4.41||WHIP: 1.27||WAR: 1.5|
This past winter J.A. Happ, another Pirates reclamation project/trade deadline pickup, turned 11 great starts with Pittsburgh into a three-year contract worth $36 million with the Blue Jays. Nova is surely looking to do the same. He has a 2.87 ERA (146 ERA+) in five starts and 31.1 innings with the Pirates after pitching to a 4.90 ERA (88 ERA+) in 97 1/3 innings for the Yankees.
Pirates pitching coaching Ray Searage has a history of getting the most out of live-armed yet erratic hurlers (A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, etc.), and Happ’s continued success in Toronto shows Searage’s magic can be long lasting. Nova is still only 29 and he had some fine seasons with the Yankees before having Tommy John surgery in 2014. A strong finish this year could put him in line for a Happ-like contract. The market is that thin on pitching.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Seven upcoming MLB free agents with most to gain in last weeks of the season