Even before this week’s polar vortex hit the Midwest and the Northeast, the hot stove had failed to generate adequate heat. It’s the second winter in a row that this has happened, this time with a much stronger free agent class. With less than two weeks to go before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, more than 100 free agents remain unsigned. According to The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, 16 teams haven’t signed a free agent to a multi-year deal, and 23 haven’t done one longer than two years. This isn’t just a matter of teams waiting out a handful of players in order to get a slight or even steep discount to fill that last need; it’s yet another sign of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the union and the league. As if in concert, big-spending teams such as the Dodgers, Yankees, and Cubs are suddenly turned austere, as if the goal were to fly tidier balance sheets over their ballparks, instead of championship banners.
Even some of the winter’s best free agents have yet to find a home. It’s not just Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, who ranked first and second on our Top 50 Free Agents list, who remain unsigned. Even after the Astros inked Wade Miley to a one-year, $4.5 million deal on Thursday, a total of 10 players within the top 50 are still without a home — setting the three pitchers on that list aside, that’s almost enough to fill out a makeshift lineup if the versatile Marwin Gonzalez can play two positions at once. Here’s the list, with the previous and projected WAR totals and crowdsourced contract information taken from our big board:
|Rk||Name||Pos||Prev Team||Age||Prev WAR||Proj WAR||Med Years||Med Total|
|12||Craig Kimbrel||RP||Red Sox||31||1.5||2.1||4||$64.0M|
This isn’t an especially aged group or one facing imminent declines. Aside from the top two players, none of them projects to wind up anywhere close to a nine-figure deal, and while some of this group may still be unsigned specifically because certain teams are waiting for the biggest dominoes to fall, that explanation only goes so far.
What follows here is one scribe’s attempt to find homes for these 10 players, using a combination of our projected standings and depth charts, MLB Trade Rumors, Roster Resource, Cot’s Contracts, and peyote-induced vis— er, let’s just say some imagination. Consider it prescriptive, rather than predictive. I’m not here to listen to excuses why billionaires and faceless corporations won’t make these moves; I’m here to spend their record revenues. I’ll work from the bottom of the list to the top, because not everything has to be about Bryce and Manny. Since our crack squadron has already written about these players in the free agent context just a few short months ago, and we can assume that their skills haven’t changed appreciably since then, I won’t belabor my descriptions of these players except where relevant.
Jose Iglesias: Brewers
Nobody will ever confuse him for Machado, but Iglesias is strong enough in the field — averaging 9.3 UZR over the past three seasons, with a career UZR/150 of 9.9 — that even with his wet noodle of a bat (90 wRC+ last year, 83 for his career), he’s managed to be a very competent regular, averaging 2.1 WAR in 131 games per season over the last three years. Just about every contender is set at shortstop, but the one that stands out in terms of a particularly grim projection is the Brewers, whose starter, Orlando Arcia, is forecast for just 1.1 WAR in 2019, his age-24 season.
Highly touted as a prospect, Arcia has produced just 0.6 WAR in 327 games over the past three seasons. Last year, he hit .236/.268/.307 for a 54 wRC+, with 0.0 UZR and -0.4 WAR. As Dan Szymborski pointed out, his ZiPS projection system, which once loved Arcia as a prospect, has lost hope. At the very least, Iglesias would provide some insurance at an affordable price, though realistically, he’s more likely to wind up with a non-contender unless a spring injury strikes a bigger-named player.
Martin Maldonado: Phillies
An excellent pitch-framer (+5.9 runs last year according to Baseball Prospectus, after +27.2 in 2017) with a good arm as well, Maldonado doesn’t hit much (74 wRC+), but the package would still be an upgrade on many a backup. The Phillies’ lefty-swinging Andrew Knapp does fit into some kind of platoon with righty-swinging starter Jorge Alfaro, but that hardly matters when you can’t hit (68 wRC+ last year, 81 in 419 PA spread over two seasons), and Knapp isn’t much of a framer (-9.6 runs over two seasons) either. Pairing Maldonado with Alfaro (+12.3 runs) would give the Phillies an excellent strike-snatcher behind the plate every day, which can’t hurt given the quality of their defense, which admittedly is receiving some upgrades.
Adam Jones: Indians
It’s fair to raise an eyebrow regarding the brutal defensive metrics (24.1 UZR and -30 DRS over the past two years) that suggest Jones’ days as a regular center fielder are over. According to Statcast, he’s now just about the slowest one around, and deeper positioning hasn’t helped (hat tip to Mike Petriello for the pointers to that data). His offense is heading in the wrong direction, too, but there are teams for which he’d still be an upgrade. One look at the Indians’ outfield, which ranks 29th in left field (0.8 WAR) and 28th in right field, with Jordan Luplow and Tyler Naquin the primaries in some combination, suggests that Cleveland is among them; they have the legitimately above-average Leonys Martin in center field, so Jones wouldn’t be needed as much in that capacity.
Gio Gonzalez: A’s
He walks too many guys for most peoples’ tastes — 10.7% last year, 9.8% for his career — but Gonzalez is a durable mid-rotation lefty who over the last four seasons has averaged 32 starts, 181 innings, and 3.0 WAR, with a 3.85 ERA and 3.73 FIP. While he would make sense as a rotation stabilizer for the Padres, who have just one starter who’s ever thrown more than 150 innings in a season (Luis Perdomo, who missed much of last year with a shoulder strain), he could similarly add certainty for the A’s, for whom he pitched from 2008-2011.
Oakland’s rotation currently projects as 28th in baseball, that after a year in which it resembled the dwindling cast of a horror movie, with four pitchers succumbing to Tommy John surgery (Jharel Cotton, Kendall Graveman, Daniel Gosset, and A.J. Puk), one to thoracic outlet surgery (Andrew Triggs), and one to arthroscopic shoulder surgery, which could sideline him all season (Sean Manaea). Yes, they have a glut of guys without minor league options, including Chris Bassitt and Daniel Mengden, but Gonzalez would be a significant upgrade nonetheless.
Mike Moustakas: Padres
A victim of the freeze-out for the second straight winter, Moustakas is a solidly above-average player — particularly given that his 2017 defensive numbers look like an aberration — at a time when the hot corner abounds with stars. He’s positioned as the fall-back option for the Phillies, White Sox, and perhaps even the Padres if they don’t get Machado, which has to be a nerve-wracking situation for him as spring training approaches. Since San Diego seems like the least likely of those three teams to land Manny, they’re a sensible choice here, and I’ll further that by stating that the Moose will provide a better return on investment than his fellow ex-Royal, Eric Hosmer, who managed just a 95 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR in the first season of his eight-year, $144 million deal.
Marwin Gonzalez: Rockies
There aren’t many teams who couldn’t find room for this versatile switch-hitter, who’s been above-average against both righties and lefties over the past two seasons. While the defensive metrics suggest he’s stretched at shortstop, he can handle the other three infield positions and left field quite adequately. A return to the Astros still appears to be possible, and he’d be a worthwhile addition to the Indians, who need help in the outfield and at second base, where Jason Kipnis is a shadow of the player he was from 2012-16. To these eyes, however, he makes more sense as a National League player who can move around mid-game to help accommodate double switches. For the Rockies, he would provide insurance at second base, where Ryan McMahon and Garret Hampson are trying to fill DJ LeMahieu’s shoes, and he’s likely to outplay both current left fielder and potential returnee Carlos Gonzalez, whom the Rockies can’t seem to quit.
Craig Kimbrel: Braves
Given that only one season of his past four (2017) has been up to the standards of sheer dominance he established from 2011-15, it’s fair to suggest Kimbrel is in decline, which makes it a difficult time to be seeking a five-year deal in the $80 million-plus, Kenley Jansen/Aroldis Chapman stratosphere. With the Red Sox already well beyond the CBT threshold, a return to Boston is probably out, and while general manager Alex Anthopoulos has downplayed the possibility of a return to Atlanta, the Braves are currently projected by Cot’s Contracts to have an Opening Day payroll about $4 million below last year’s $118.3 million. That’s a conspicuously ridiculous way for a team that’s a playoff contender in a relatively new ballpark and within a competitive division to act, particularly one whose bullpen was below-average last year and who hasn’t made a substantial addition beyond waiting for Darren O’Day — acquired as part of the Kevin Gausman trade — to heal from last year’s season-ending hamstring surgery. Add to it the fact that the Braves just got a big bargain with the return of Nick Markakis and have considerable cash coming off the books after 2019 (O’Day, Josh Donaldson, Julio Tehran) and… c’mon already. Just. Pay. The. Man.
Dallas Keuchel: Angels
Until Miley signed, a return to Houston didn’t appear to be out of the question for Keuchel, who’s coming off his best season since his 2015 Cy Young-winning campaign. But according to MLB Trade Rumors, the 31-year-old southpaw has been linked to the Angels, Blue Jays, Braves, Brewers, Nationals, Padres, Phillies, Rangers and Reds at various points this winter, so he’s presumably still got more lucrative options that a discounted return to Houston. He could still conceivably land in many of those spots, but even given that he’s not the most durable pitcher on the planet — he made just 49 starts in 2016-17 due to shoulder and neck woes — he would stabilize and improve an Angels rotation that even after the free agency additions of Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill has just one pitcher (Andrew Heaney) who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title last year. So long as Mike Trout can see the horizon of his contract (he’s signed through 2020), an aggressive approach has to be the order of the day for the Angels’ front office.
Bryce Harper: Dodgers
Look, I have come here to chew bubblegum and spend other people’s money, and unless somebody hands me an unopened pack of baseball cards by the end of this sentence, I’m all out of bubblegum. Five weeks ago, when the Dodgers traded Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Alex Wood to the Reds for nothing in particular, they appeared to be clearing their outfield and their payroll to accommodate a major free agent signing. Many people believed it would be Harper, who as a Las Vegas native might understandably want to play closer to home, in the West Coast’s largest market. Last week’s signing of A.J. Pollock, a true center fielder, to a four-year, $55 million deal, suggested that the door might be closed, particularly once team president Stan Kasten fumfered his way through a FanFest appearance by trying to justify the team remaining under the $206 million CBT threshold.
“There are a lot of advantages to being under [the threshold],” said Kasten, but when pressed to elaborate, he added, “I’m not going to go into that because that’s real inside baseball economic stuff,” as though such matters were beyond the comprehension of Dodgers fans who have spent nearly seven years watching the Guggenheim Baseball Management Group’s spending. From the late-2012 Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford acquisition through record-setting payrolls and a series of accounting-voodoo trades — three of them involving Kemp, as well as the Mat Latos/Hector Olivera dump — fans and the entire industry have become highly attuned to the team’s balance sheet, particularly as the Dodgers’ stated goal after their near-miss in 2017 was to reset their marginal tax rate, presumably to position themselves for this winter’s big free agency class.
So yes, I’m calling BS. Harper has his warts, that’s true, but he was able to shake his problems with the shift in the second half last year, and his defensive woes don’t seem unsolvable given his above-average speed and athleticism. Even if one disregards his 2015 MVP season in an attempt to forecast him going forward, as Craig Edwards did, he’s got a very good chance of living up to his end of a mega-deal. As Edwards summarized upon examining how the comps to Harper’s age-23-to-25 production fared over their next 10 seasons:
“The bare-bones look might examine the average and see a projected contract of close to $200 million. There’s also, based on this group, a little bit better than a one-in-five shot at Hall of Fame-level production with a roughly 50% chance at being worth a $300 million contract over the next 10 years.”
Edwards conceded that opt-outs might drop that value some, and we should expect Harper’s deal to contain some bells and whistles. But if any team can afford the risks that come with signing Harper, it’s the Dodgers, and if they have to make some payroll room by bundling, say, Joc Pederson and Rich Hill in a trade, and still pay some amount of tax (via Cot’s, they’re at $7.8 million under right now), that’s doable. Harper was built for the Tinseltown spotlight, the Dodgers need more production from their outfield, and any explanations that try to minimize their ability to spend, particularly when Kasten is bragging about the likelihood of the team leading the league in attendance again, just don’t wash.
Manny Machado: Phillies
If I’m pushing the Dodgers to sign Harper despite a roster crunch, it’s reasonable to expect me to demand the same of the Yankees, and call for Machado’s services in the Bronx, right? Indeed, it’s a fair expectation, despite all of the obstacles on their roster — from keeping Miguel Andujar to adding LeMahieu and Troy Tulowitzki as a means of covering for Didi Gregirius’ Tommy John surgery-related absence. Still, the Phillies have money burning a hole in their pockets, and they arguably have a greater need given their current 79-win projection (versus the Yankees’ 96-win one). They’re well equipped to add a $30 million AAV to their payroll, and they can just as easily put Machado at shortstop if that’s a sticking point, slide newly-acquired Jean Segura back to second base (where he played with the Diamondbacks in 2016), and trade Cesar Hernandez, as they can deal third baseman Maikel Franco. As opposed to Harper to the Dodgers, I do think this one is actually likely to happen, mainly because I can’t see White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, MLB’s resident collusion and 1994 strike hard-line veteran, paying top dollar for the top free agent (and no, you can’t talk about Albert Belle without noting that he was able to opt out after two years of his industry-shaking deal).
Will it all unfold this way for these 10 players? Hell no, and there are other plausible paths that make sense, such as Harper back to the Nationals, and Moustakas and Keuchel to the Phillies instead of Machado, who goes… to San Diego? Whether or not we need to break out the flamethrower, we should be able to do more than dream of a thaw to this frustratingly frigid market.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.