It is very, very hard to express just how miserable the 2016-17 Major League Baseball free agent class is. Let’s say you’re the general manager of a team like the Phillies, with money coming off the books, a big-market budget, and the foundation of a successful pitching staff. Is it possible to fill in the gaps with some super free agents?
It is not. Let’s figure out if there’s a way to put this into words:
- The top three position players on the market who will be younger than 30 next year are Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus, and Logan Morrison.
- There were exactly three pending free agents worth more than four wins above replacement last year, according to Baseball-Reference.
- None of the pending free agents were worth more than five WAR.
- If Doug Fister isn’t a top-five starting pitcher on your list, that’s probably because Colby Lewis and Derek Holland beat him out.
- There are as many Colbys in this list of top-40 free agents than hitters who deserve anything longer than a three-year deal.
If that last one is off by a player or two, I’m keeping it in because it’s close enough.
This is a bad free agent class.
However! Last year was a notably exciting class, and it turned out to filled be secret roster salmonella. Instead of signing one Zack Greinke, the Diamondbacks should have signed Daniel Murphy, Rich Hill, Dexter Fowler, J.A. Happ, and David Freese, and coasted to a dozen extra wins or so, saving about $100 million in the process. Live and learn. Do that next time, teams.
Here are the top-40 MLB free agents of 2016-2017. You’ve been warned.
1. Kenley Jansen
For the first time in the history of free agency, the best available player is a closer. For the first time in the history of baseball, that’s a sentence that makes sense, too. We all got to watch the power of a dominant reliever who was applied to a nine-inning game with a sense of desperation. It wasn’t just Andrew Miller, either, because the Dodgers used Jansen in the postseason as if he were one of the best pitchers in baseball. Which he is.
Now the other teams are going to want a Miller of their own, and this is the closest they’ll come. It’s hard to imagine the Dodgers letting him go, but the rest of baseball will at least make them pay a very hefty premium.
2. Yoenis Cespedes
He should have been the toast of the offseason last winter, but there were other premium free agent outfielders, like Justin Upton and Jason Heyward.
[re-reads last sentence]
Well, it made sense at the time, I promise you. And not only did Cespedes prove that his 30-homer power wasn’t a fluke (or that the homer-happy baseball came at the perfect time to mask any power regression), but he’s a free agent in a market that’s mostly bereft of power. He’ll get his nine-figure deal this year, which means his risk in re-signing with the Mets paid off.
And for the Mets’ part, they were some better injury luck away from breaking hearts in the postseason again, and Cespedes was a smart play. Just don’t expect it again this year.
3. Aroldis Chapman
His off-field concerns are well documented, and we already know that teams don’t necessarily care. Or, at least, they know that winning cures any discontent.
YOU: Don’t sign Aroldis Chapman! Take a stand against domestic abuse!
TEAM: What? I can’t ... there are literally five million people screaming right now, what was that? Text me later, I’m at a parade.
It’s sobering, it’s unfortunate, it’s life. All I can do is point it out every time it comes up.
Think of Chapman as a pitcher, then, because you know that’s what the team that signs him is going to do. Is he an automatic force of nature, a calming presence in every ball game that features him? Dunno. He was kind of stressful in the postseason. Merely mortal and almost the goat of a new century, he was.
Still one of the best arms in baseball, and someone will pay him as such. He’s a talented world champion, after all, and that’s all that matters, right? Right?
4. Justin Turner
There’s a part of me that feels bad for players like Turner who enter baseball late and become excellent players much later in life, which allows them to become merely multimillionaires instead of multi-multimillionaires. Then another, larger, part of me re-reads that sentence carefully and stops feeling bad.
Still, while we’re just getting used to Turner as a force of fuzzy nature (four wins or better over the last three seasons), he’ll already turn 32 next season, which is a little older than the typical free agent. He’s clearly one of the best hitters on the market, and a fine, versatile fielder in his own right, but are teams really going to be comfortable with five years for an older player without a long track record?
If it’s three or four years, it’s hard to see how the Dodgers let him get away. Turner would be the most interesting player of the offseason, if not for ...
5. Rich Hill
Hill keeps his No. 5 spot on the list from last year, and ... huh, that’s weird, looks like a rogue editor took Hill out of my rankings entirely last year, but trust me, I had him fifth. Probably.
Hill will be 37 next year, and his 110 innings were the second-most of his career. I wrote that sentence, yet I can’t stop staring at it. Those are numbers that would suggest he’s in line for a one-year deal, at most. But he’s also one of the only pitchers on the open market that a team would want to start in a postseason game on purpose. That would suggest he’s in line for an eleventy-year deal.
I’ll guess a three-year deal and general disappointment for his new team, just based on the age and injury history. It’ll be exciting for a while, though, as Hill really is a fun pitcher to watch, and he’s an exceptional curveball warlord when healthy.
6. Mark Melancon
Just about as effective as the top two relievers on the list, but without quite as many strikeouts. He’s also the only premium reliever who won’t cost his new team a first-round pick because he was dealt at the deadline.
Melancon is pretty alright, though. His average season over the last four years: 72 IP, 67 K, 11 BB, 1.80 ERA, 2.25 FIP. If he struck out 13 batters per nine, he would be bumping against the nine-figure contracts that Jansen and Chapman might be. As is, he’ll be a relative bargain -- merely looking for obscene closer money instead of the contract that will make your eyes pop out of your head like a cartoon wolf.
7. Edwin Encarnacion
Can he play the field every day? Probably wouldn’t advise it, which means that limits the pool to 15 suitors. And of those, how many are capable of paying big money to their DH? And of those, how many of them are willing? It could be a five- or six-team market.
Those five or six teams will sure get violent over Encarnacion, though, so you won’t miss the abstaining teams. He’s the surest 30-homer hitter in the league, hitting 30 or more in each of the last five seasons. Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz haven’t had more than four 30-homer seasons in their careers, for perspective, and they both cashed in on the open market.
The difference is that Encarnacion will be 34 before next season, which will make teams wary. Still, if you’re going to pick one player to have David Ortiz’s late-career steadiness, it would be the player who most matches his skill set.
8. Dexter Fowler
The best outfielder of last year’s outfielder-saturated market, apparently, and the one who had to wait the longest. That won’t be the case this year, as not only did Fowler have the best year of his career, but he did so in a very, very visible way.
The Cubs will be able to afford just about anyone and everyone ...
Mmm-hmm. But will they want Fowler around for three, four, or five years? Hard to see that, but we’ve seen championship teams get attached to the players who helped them win.
9. Ian Desmond
Is Desmond a shortstop or an outfielder learning on the fly? You would think the former, but look how many teams are satisfied with their shortstops in both the short and long term, and that doesn’t include all of the teams with shortstops in the wings (including the Nationals, who have Trea Turner at short if they want). I’m not sure just how many open shortstop gigs there are right now, especially for a player in his 30s who will get multiple years.
So an outfielder, then. Except he’ll be a 31-year-old outfielder with 20-homer power and an OBP between .300 and .330. That’s not a player with a huge margin for error. Most likely, Desmond will get interest from a team looking for a neo-Zobrist, with dingers swapped in for a couple dozen points of OBP. There should be more than a couple of those out there.
10. Jose Bautista
Did he seem like a hitter that was easy to get out in the postseason? It wasn’t just your imagination. August Fagerstrom did a deep dive on the Indians’ strategy against him:
The scouting report against Bautista went like this: a steady diet of breaking balls, and nothing on the inner-half.
Cleveland’s pitchers never went away from it the entire series. Bautista never gave them a reason to. He went 3-for-18 in the series, striking out seven times in 18 plate appearances with just one extra-base hit to show for it.
That’s not a player who fills you with $100 million worth of comfort, especially when you realize he’ll be 36 next year. He lost about 100 points off his OPS and his home run total was nearly halved in the Year of the Dinger. He’s up this high on brand alone, but there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical.
He was also a tremendous slugger for the two previous years, too, so it’s also possible that Bautista could be a relative bargain if enough teams are scared away.
11. Josh Reddick
Boy howdy, was Reddick terrible for the Dodgers, with an adjusted OPS of 76 in 167 plate appearances. He’s a platoon player at this point, and his career line of .255/.316/.430 line (put up mostly in pitcher’s parks, mind you) seems to be a good guideline of what to expect from him as his bat slows.
In the right ballpark, though, he might be one of 2017’s biggest surprises. Considering that he’s not going to get the big, $75 million contract he looked like he was heading for, he might even be a bargain. Assuming you have a bounty of right-handed hitters behind him, of course.
12. Jeremy Hellickson
It’s Game 3 of the ALCS. Your team is tied, 1-1, and a win would give you the crucial advantage. Coming up in your rotation on regular rest is Hellickson. How excited are you?
Yeah, pretty much.
Hellickson most certainly did have a fine year, though (3.71 ERA, 3.98 FIP, with a career high in innings in strikeouts) and he’s almost certainly the second-best starter on the market. His curveball remains impressive, and it’s possible that another team will get him to throw it more and Rich Hill the place up. Could happen.
And yet you’re not sure if you want him starting in Game 3 of the Championship Series. Good luck. Oh, and don’t forget that the Phillies are going to extend the qualifying offer to him, which means he’ll cost a draft pick.
This market, man ...
12a. Jason Hammel
Ohhhh, hello, surprise entrant into the free agent rankings. Not sure if you’ll ever see something like this again: a rich, contending team willingly surrendering a pitcher who was going to make below-market wages in the next season. They could have traded him, but they had a quasi-handshake agreement ... sort of.
I understand the Cubs feeling reticent about trading Hammel when his explicit fear was this exact situation, and that the goodwill that comes with word-of-mouth and industry reputation might have more value than whatever A-ball prospects they could have picked up for Hammel. It’s good ethics and good business sense, and it’s always a delight when those two aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s not the surprising part.
The surprising part is ... wait, don’t they want Hammel? To win baseball games? I suppose Mike Montgomery could start, and Duane Underwood, Jr. is one of their better prospects, or they could make do with a couple different Triple-A starters if needed. It just seems odd that the Cubs are willing to punt their fifth starter in this market. Maybe they have a trade cookin’.
Cubs righty Jason Hammel was scratched from his final regular-season start, which was scheduled for Friday, because of tightness in his right elbow, but he said it was a precautionary move so he is ready for the postseason.
Or maybe the Cubs weren’t comfortable counting on Hammel at all, and they wanted him to reap the rewards of a weak market. Caveat emptor, everybody.
13. Wilson Ramos
He could be off the list entirely if he can’t catch anymore, but he’s still looking for a four- or five-year deal, so we’ll assume he’s planning to play behind the plate after his second major knee surgery.
The promise of a league-average hitter with superlative receiving skills is going to make some teams take the risk, with a ceiling of him hitting as well as he did last year. But if he has to move to first, even for a portion of his games, that .269/.313/.430 career line is more Justin Smoak than Joey Votto. Ramos could still be a wise signing, but it will come from a team that has a lot of faith in their ability to parse medical data.
14. Mark Trumbo
Teams sure keep playing him in the outfield, alright. His metrics at first base are confusing and erratic, but the eyeball test and aggregate numbers suggest that he might be acceptable there, so he doesn’t have to be a DH to keep his value. Plus, 47 dingers are 47 dingers, and there isn’t a team in baseball that can’t use them.
Were those dingers a product of his home park and a rabbit ball that might go away next year? Perhaps. But if you’re looking for raw, Kingman-like power and are willing to overlook the Kingman-like contact and Kingman-like defense, this is the best bet on the free agent market.
Note that Trumbo appears to be a nice feller, which is very un-Kingman-like. That’s a point in his favor.
15. Carlos Gomez
Oh, the teams that would have lined up to offer him $150 million just a couple years ago. Still, his 33 games with the Rangers totally changed his offseason, and there might be more than a couple teams that think the post-All-Star Gomez is for real, whereas the Astros version was the mirage.
It’s just that he was so very bad with the Astros. Completely lost. You can’t be excited for a 31-year-old free agent who posted a .277 OBP in 486 plate appearances in his second-to-last-stop, even if he looked like the old version in his last stop.
16. Neil Walker
Remember when he was mostly interchangeable with Daniel Murphy? Simpler times. What Walker is, though, is one of the most consistent players in baseball, with a WAR between 2.0 and 2.6 in five of his seven full seasons. The other two years saw a bump up from that, and he was on his way to another bump before injuries claimed him last season.
His defense is average, at best, and that’s if you’re being generous. As a switch-hitting infielder with 20-homer power, though, he’s something of a rare creature, and it’s possible that I’m underrating him.
17. Brad Ziegler
If a reliever’s ERA is the only factor you’re looking at, here’s the best bargain of the entire offseason. Ziegler has a career ERA of 2.44 in his nine-year career, including a sweet 136-inning stretch of 2.05 ball over the last two seasons.
It’s just that he’s a 37-year-old weirdo who relies on deception and command instead of stuff, and he hardly strikes anyone out. That’s not a pitcher who would normally excite the baseball world. He’s just so danged effective, though, and a team with a solid defense should definitely scoop him up as a low-cost alternative to the top of the closer market.
18. Bartolo Colon
What a marvelous example of what baseball can be. He’ll also be 44, and it’s not like we can just forget about the vast chunks of his 30s that he missed with injury. Still, his age is more of a feature than a bug, as he’ll entertain one-year deals that someone like Hellickson wouldn’t, making him a perfect stopgap for a contending team.
Two years for Colon? Sure, hey, why not, sounds fine, this offseason is going to kill us all anyway, down the hatch.
19. Matt Wieters
Excellent backstop. We should, uh, probably retire the hopes of him morphing into an MVP candidate, though. He’ll be 31 next year, and he’s clearly established as a Pretty Good For a Catcher hitter, not anything more.
A PGFAC hitter is still pretty nifty, especially when the player actually is a catcher. A plus defensive one, at that, so he’ll make plenty of that sweet, sweet Boras nectar.
20. Koji Uehara
Why are all of these players so olllllllld? I can’t even imagine what Madison Bumgarner would get on this market. He was scheduled to be on it you know.
Anyway, Uehara will be 42, and he’s not a candidate to be the next Andrew Miller, pitching multiple innings in back-to-back postseason games. But he’s still excellent, still effective.
21. Michael Saunders
First-half Saunders is the prince of this market. Second-half Saunders basically stole $75 million from him, though, and dropped it all at the track. The numbers even out to a fine outfielder who responded well to the boosted homer rates around the league. He was finally healthy again, too, and that sure came at the right time.
That second-half slump, though. That, combined with his iffy defensive reputation, injury history, and turning 30, will dampen the market considerably. Still a top-10 outfielder in this market, even if he might not have made the top 20 last year.
22. Luis Valbuena
We’re three years into the idea of Valbuena as a power-hitting Swiss Army knife, and he’s not going away. He can play everywhere but short, but he’s limited by his struggles against lefties.
A team with a right-handed version of Valbuena, like the Giants and Eduardo Nuñez, or the Cardinals with Jhonny Peralta, could make a pretty nice infield Voltron with Valbuena’s help. He’s probably stretched a little thin as a full-time player, but what do you expect from one of the best free agent hitters available?
23. Ivan Nova
By law, we’re required to mention J.A. Happ in this spot. Last year, Happ was the random pitcher who had a miraculous career resurgence after a midseason trade to the Pirates. This year it’s Nova. That 52-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 starts is pretty danged compelling, after all.
Still 11 starts, though. He had two seasons of injury-marred ickiness before 2016, and he was unimpressive with the Yankees before he was traded. He’s probably worth a risk for a desperate contender with a closing window in this market, though, and he’ll make millions and millions because of it. Good for him.
24. Hisashi Iwakuma
Iwakuma had his first below-average ERA+, he’ll be 36, and he’s a year and 199 innings removed from a failed physical. One of the best pitching options on the market, everyone!
He was quite good for the three seasons before that, though. Here’s a chance for that low-risk upside a team might get with Colon, except with a higher ceiling over two years. Not sure if I’d be geeked if my team were the ones to do it, but there are more dangerous pitfalls this offseason.
25. Colby Rasmus
He won’t get the qualifying offer this time, because that .206/.286/.355 line last year was just repugnant. But also because it took a post-July 1 slump of .098/.171/.232 to drag his numbers down that much. It’s one of the worst sustained slumps in recent baseball history, really.
He’s still just 30, and he won’t require a huge, multi-year deal, so this is a good buy-low situation for someone. Just know that if there’s a moderately high ceiling, there’s also an impossibly low floor, and it was one of the hardest things to watch in the majors last year.
26. Mike Napoli
The cleanup hitter for a pennant-winning team, all the way down here? Well, I never. Except Napoli’s 34 homers came at the cost of a .335 OBP, and there’s reason to think that the oddly offensive Progressive Field helped him disproportionately (.958 OPS at home, .643 OPS on the road.) That would explain why his adjusted OPS was only 104.
Still, as a lefty masher with more defense than you remember, Napoli’s going to fit well somewhere. And he’ll host the party wherever he goes, of course.
27. Greg Holland
He hasn’t pitched since 2015, when he was only intermittently effective, but he was just as dominant as Jansen and Chapman in his prime. He’s holding a showcase on Monday, and he could storm up these rankings with a lively fastball. Until the reports trickle out, though, he’s more of a curiosity.
28. Derek Holland
No relation. Ol’ Dutch Oven has about one or two really good seasons out of his eight in the majors, with a bunch of putrid-to-fair seasons mixed around a pile of injuries. His strikeout rate is cratering, and he doesn’t seem like the kind of pitcher who can make up for that with improved command.
Still, his peak was 213 innings with a 120 ERA+ in 2013, which would be about a $140 million pitcher in this market. If you chalk up his struggles to an uncooperative body and expect him to be healthy, he might be the steal of the offseason.
(I’m not sure why you should expect that, but ...)
29. Carlos Beltran
Beltran will be 40 in April, and he pulled a reverse-Gomez, not hitting very well after joining the Rangers in the summer. He also can’t field much, which should limit him to the AL. But there aren’t a lot of switch-hitters with power, and he would be a fine addition to just about any roster as a 350-PA super-fourth outfielder.
The question is if he still sees himself as an unqualified starter. If that’s the case, he might end up with a weird team, like the Braves or the Twins. Considering his championship-free streak, though, I’m thinking he’ll end up with a contender.
30. Steve Pearce
Almost certainly a platoon player at this point, and he’ll be 34 without much of a defensive pedigree. He can sure hit, though, and he played all over the diamond, too. Don’t sleep on those 121 innings at second in each of the last two years. That makes a difference if a team is looking at him as a super-utility player.
31. Doug Fister
Remember when he was an important part of a vaunted Tigers rotation? We’re two years removed from that, and his walk rate correlates with his struggles with run prevention:
By raw walk percentage, he’s walking twice as many batters as he was in his last excellent season. It’s not that he can’t throw strikes, most likely, but that he doesn’t want to. As a one-year reclamation project, though, he’ll make a ton of sense for a lot of teams, especially in this market.
32. Andrew Cashner
Just not very good, apparently. He still throws hard, alright, but his days of touching 100 are over. What you’re left with is a pitcher with sketchy command and an average strikeout rate. Oh, and a miserable injury history.
That written, he’ll get the Darren Dreifort spit-out-your-drink contract of this offseason just because he does throw harder than anyone else on the market, with far more upside than anyone other than Hill. There’s almost no way that this will work out well for that team, but in the off chance that it does? It will work out very, very well.
33. Colby Lewis
Like a less cuddly Colon, the 37-year-old Lewis had an ERA below 3.00 on June 16 after 14 starts. Then he missed three months, and was uninspiring in his four starts at the end of the regular season and a disaster start in the postseason.
It’s hard to expect much more than that out of Lewis at this point, but it was hard to expect what the Rangers wrung out of him last year. If the choice is between him for a few million or whatever a team’s lackluster minor league system might cough up under pressure, you can see the argument for Lewis.
That’s top-10 free agent starter Colby Lewis to you.
34. Jason Castro
A poor man’s Matt Wieters, but with tempered expectations and without the switch-hitting. He’ll make someone happy, and he’ll probably be far cheaper than Wieters for roughly the same value.
One of my favorite fun facts is that Jason Castro is from Castro Valley.
One of my other favorite fun facts is that someone once stole a school from Castro Valley. The entire school.
I’m filled with fun facts. You just need to get to know me.
35. Kendrys Morales
Thirty dingers! Nudge nudge. Eh? Thirty of them!
It comes with hacking, negative speed, and zero defense in a 34-year-old body, though, and all of the caveats about limited places for a DH to land apply here, too. Morales’ defense has always graded out well enough at first, though, so maybe he can stick with a National League team after all.
Just don’t ask about his 37 innings in the outfield, though.
36. Sean Rodriguez
If you buy Rodriguez’s power surge last year, maybe he’s the player you pair Valbuena with. More important than the power, though, were his average and OBP, both career highs by a bunch.
He played every position but pitcher and catcher last year, though, and he won’t get a monster deal, so you can see how he would fit on just about every team in baseball.
37. Matt Holliday
Hey, look, an aging veteran with a slight chance to return to his old ways in a dead-cat bounce, that’s odd. Holliday did hit 20 homers, and he’s just a couple years removed from being the reliable force that we were used to every single year.
His defense is almost untenable now, though, and it’s not like it was good back in the day. Do you remember this?
That was eight years ago. Things have not improved with age.
38. Chase Utley
Utley is like Neil Walker with a better Wikipedia page, and he won’t require a contract nearly as long. He was absolutely a godsend for the Dodgers last year, emerging from a crowded second-base picture to post two wins above replacement.
He faded mightily, though (.236/.292/.381 after May), and he was 3-for-28 in the postseason.
39. Brett Anderson
It turns out that accepting the qualifying offer and hitting the market again this year was an incredibly wise decision. Anderson’s body just didn’t hold up its part of the bargain, because that’s just not what it does.
As a potential bargain of bargains in this miserable free agent class? I’d listen to an argument that he’s one of the three or four best starting pitching options of the offseason, just from a risk vs. reward perspective. That’s assuming he’s not making $15.8 million again, which he won’t be.
I mean, maybe ...
40. Edinson Volquez or Seth Smith or Joaquin Benoit or Sergio Romo or Mark Reynolds or Brandon Moss or Santiago Casilla or David Hernandez or Jason Grilli or Fernando Rodney or Adam Lind or Rajai Davis or Angel Pagan or Jon Jay or Pedro Alvarez or Mitch Moreland or Aaron Hill or Logan Morrison or Jon Niese or ...
Seems like a jumble of uninspiring names, except you know one of those players up there will have an exceptional year on the cheap for a team that does good things. I’ll guess it’s Reynolds, who showed off a new contact-friendly (or contact-friendlier, at least) approach with the Rockies, and might need just a little more time to mix it into a slurry with his raw power.
Volquez legitimately might get a three-year deal for a lot of money. He led the world in earned runs last year, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio dipped to where it was when he was bouncing around from the Dodgers to the Padres in 2013. Godspeed, new team.
My word, this hot stove league is going to stink. Long live the hot stove league.