Let’s Find Homes for a Few More Unsigned Free Agents

On February 1, I checked in on the 10 players who made our Top 50 Free Agents list in November but had yet to sign contracts, attempting to match them up with teams still in need of that missing piece. Since then, the much-anticipated J.T. Realmuto trade has gone down, and the first camps have opened to pitchers and catchers, but none of those 10 players has come off the board. Instead we’re left with an endless swirl of rumors and rationalizations. Bryce Harper has talked to the Padres and Giants, but they don’t want to pay him $300 million! The Yankees have continued to check in on Manny Machado, but won’t improve upon an offer termed “low” by a source close to the player! Mike Moustakas may return to the Brewers! This is quite a party.

Alas, not really. It’s frustrating to watch this broken system playing out, and it has to be even more so for the players — not only the aforementioned ranked ones, but the dozens upon dozens beyond them who are being frozen out as well. These are real people who don’t know yet where they (and their families, in many cases) are going to spend the better part of the next year, and they’re being squeezed to the point of accepting a fraction of the money they might have reasonably expected just a couple of years ago. In many cases, the fates of these unranked, unsigned players are interconnected with the pricier options; a team in the market for rotation help, pursuing the likes of Dallas Keuchel (No. 4 on our list) or Gio Gonzalez (No. 33) might wind up going for one of the starters below if they don’t land their top choice.

As with my previous roundup, what follows here is an attempt to match the best of the rest of those currently unemployed with teams in need, using a combination our projected standings and Depth Charts, MLB Trade Rumors, Roster Resource, Cot’s Contracts, and some imagination. Consider it prescriptive, rather than predictive; the further down the pecking order one goes, the more one may as well be throwing darts.

Some Unsigned Free Agents Outside FanGraphs’ 2019 Top 50
Player Pos Prev Team Age Prev WAR Proj WAR Med Years Med Total
Clay Buchholz SP ARI 34 1.9 1.0 1 $6.0M
Carlos Gonzalez RF COL 33 1.7 1.3 1 $7.0M
Josh Harrison 2B PIT 31 0.3 1.2 2 $15.0M
Ryan Madson RP LAD 38 0.2 0.1 1 $6.0M
Logan Morrison 1B/DH MIN 31 -0.7 0.7
Denard Span LF SEA 35 1.5 0.6
Ervin Santana SP MIN 36 -0.5 0.7
Tony Sipp RP HOU 35 0.9 0.0 1 $5.0M
Matt Wieters C WSN 33 0.9 1.3
Med(ian) Years and Med(ian) Total contract values from our crowdsource balloting (https://blogs.fangraphs.com/contract-crowdsourcing-2018-19-ballot-1-of-7/).

The averages of this representative-but-hardly-complete group explain a lot; this is a bunch of aging players who are feeling the pinch of the industry’s contracting middle class. The average age of this bunch is 34.0, nearly four full years older than the 10 unsigned players from among our top 50 (30.3). They were collectively less productive than that group in 2018, averaging 0.7 WAR to the top shelf’s 2.4, and as far as our Depth Charts projections go, the same will likely be true in 2019 (0.8 WAR versus 2.3), though it should be noted that those projections do not yet include ZiPS, and thus are subject to some change. Projections are not destiny, however, and the right situation or better health could yield much larger returns than those forecasts. Anyway, on with the show; the players are listed alphabetically.

Clay Buchholz: Mets

Limited to just two starts in 2017 due to a partially torn flexor pronator mass, the 34-year-old Buchholz is still without a 30-start campaign to his name despite spending the better part of 12 seasons in the majors. Last year, after opting out of a minor league deal with the Royals, Buchholz resurfaced with the D-backs and assembled a half-season performance not unlike his tantalizing 2013 and ’15 ones: 16 starts, 98.1 innings, 15.0% K-BB%, with a 2.01 ERA and a 3.47 FIP. Alas, he suffered another flexor strain on September 13, and he was shut down for the year after receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection.

Obviously, Buchholz isn’t going to provide anyone with 200 innings, but he’s capable of being an average-or-better starter if healthy, and thus rates as being worth a flier. He was in contact with the Rangers earlier this winter, but no deal panned out. To these eyes, he’d make more sense for a contender like the Mets — and with 85 projected wins, it’s fair to call them that. On the strength of a front four of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler, their rotation is projected to be the majors’ seventh-best, but while that group was healthy enough to combine for 116 starts last year, it’s worth remembering that in 2017, they were available for just 68. What’s more, their fifth starter right now remains Jason Vargas, who was torched for a 5.77 ERA and a 5.02 FIP in 20 starts last year. Even if he can’t match last season’s performance, Buchholz should be able to outdo whatever Vargas and nominal sixth starter Hector Santiago can provide, without breaking the bank.

Carlos Gonzalez: Orioles

His home/road splits in Colorado — where he’s played since 2009 — are undeniably bleak; limiting our input to the past three seasons, he’s hit .319/.380/.566 for a 118 wRC+ at Coors Field and .243/.301/.374 for a 78 wRC+ elsewhere. Still, the chance for a change of scenery, away from the effects of altitude and the high concentration of offense-suppressing parks that round out the NL West, could close that gap some. Even if such a change doesn’t yield much more than a league-average hitter, CarGo could still be a boon to some outfields. Cleveland’s is one of them, but after pointing Adam Jones in their direction in this article’s prequel and suggesting another alternative below, I’ve got to find a new trick. Playing for the Orioles probably isn’t anyone’s first choice, but if the 33-year-old Gonzalez can’t outplay the likes of D.J. Stewart, Joey Rickard, and Trey Mancini (their top projected corner outfielders) until the trade deadline makes him a desirable pickup, well, his days as a regular are probably numbered.

Josh Harrison: Brewers

Circa 2014, Harrison was the Pirates’ answer to Ben Zobrist, a super utilityman who hit .315/.347/.490 with 13 homers, 18 steals, and 4.8 WAR. As recently as 2017, he was still quite a plus (.272/.339/.432, 104 wRC+, 2.6 WAR). Last year, Harrison suffered a fractured fifth metacarpal in mid-April — the same injury that ended his 2017 season — and hit a meager .250/.293/.363 with 0.3 WAR. The Pirates declined his $10.5 million option, and as of January 20, he had interest from the Dodgers, Giants, Angels, Phillies, and Rays, but still, he’s got no deal.

Maybe one of those teams will yet come through, but looking over the depth charts, one contender with a glaring hole at second base (where Harrison spent the bulk of last year) is the Brewers, who have the uninspiring likes of Hernan Perez, Cory Spangenberg, and Tyler Saladino keeping the keystone warm for top prospect Keston Hiura, a 2017 first-round pick who profiles as a future All-Star but spent the second half of last season at Double-A, and thus he isn’t likely to be in Milwaukee without another half-season or more in the high minors. If he does make a beeline for Cream City before the end of 2019, Harrison’s versatility will serve the Brewers well, as he’s got plenty of experience at third base and can also cover both outfield corners and shortstop without burning down the ballpark.

Ryan Madson and Tony Sipp: Red Sox

The estimated population of the United States is something like 329 million, and roughly one-quarter of that total — really, do the math yourself — consists of unemployed relievers waiting for the phone to ring. Beyond Craig Kimbrel (No. 12 on our list), there’s a considerable drop-off in quality, and at some point, most of the available relievers are fairly interchangeable, at least within their sub-groups of handedness. I’ve highlighted this pair because they were included in our crowdsourcing exercise, but I could have easily listed righties Bud Norris, Sergio Romo, or Adam Warren, and lefties Jake Diekman and Aaron Loup. They’re all more than serviceable when healthy, but at this stage, they’re not necessarily reliable bets to string together 40 or 60 fantastic innings that will change the fate of their new teams.

Madson split his 2018 season between the Nationals and Dodgers, and the overall numbers were ugly (5.47 ERA and 3.98 FIP in 52.2 innings) even before he wound up overexposed in a couple of key World Series moments. Still, the battle-tested 38-year-old was outstanding as recently as 2017 (1.83 ERA, 1.99 FIP in 59 innings for the A’s and Nationals), and his velocity improved from year-to-year even as his performance declined. Sipp, on the other hand (literally), has spent the past five seasons in Houston, where he was very good in 2018 (1.86 ERA, 2.41 FIP in 38.2 innings) after being lousy in 2017 (5.79 ERA and 5.22 FIP in 37.2 innings), though he’s been exceptional in both postseasons (two hits allowed in 6.2 total innings).

With their payroll well past the Competitive Balance Tax threshold, the Red Sox haven’t made much effort to re-sign Kimbrel, and in fact, their only addition from outside the organization in this area is Erasmo Ramirez, whom they signed to a minor league deal. Headed by, uh, Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, and Heath Hembree – their only relievers with positive WAR projections — their bullpen is currently ranked 21st. They need more help than this pair can provide, but their addition would be a couple of steps in the right direction.

Logan Morrison: Marlins

Two years ago, LoMo broke out and hit .246/.353/.516 while bashing 38 homers, not just a career high but more than he’d ever hit in any two consecutive seasons; that year, he also set a career best with 3.2 WAR. Squeezed like so many other sluggers last winter, he didn’t sign with the Twins until February 28, and he proceeded to hit .186/.276/.368 before undergoing surgery to alleviate an impingement in his left hip. Though he DHed in 35 of 82 starts, Morrison is a competent enough first baseman (0 DRS and -1.8 UZR over the past three seasons) not to rule that path out. While I generally wouldn’t wish a return to the Marlins on any player, their Peter O’Brien/Neil Walker/Garrett Cooper trio projects for a dead-last -0.1 WAR. Morrison obviously wouldn’t get a windfall for returning to a team that’s throwing nickels around like they’re manhole covers, but playing regularly and proving he’s healthy again could turn him into some other team’s desirable midseason acquisition.

Ervin Santana: Angels

After totaling 392.2 innings and 6.2 WAR for the Twins in 2016-17, Santana was limited to five starts last year by a right middle finger injury that required capsular release surgery and, after inflammation sidelined him again, a PRP injection. Though the Yankees have expressed interest, Santana’s flyball tendency requires a bigger ballpark. If the Angels don’t land Keuchel — which I suggested in my previous piece — a reunion with Santana, who pitched for them from 2005-12, would make sense. His ability to provide bulk innings would be a boon to a rotation that currently features just one pitcher (Andrew Heaney) who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title last year.

Denard Span: Indians

He’s not really a relative of my wife, but I feel inclined to keep looking out for “Cousin Denard” nonetheless. Literally a graybeard, he’s about to turn 35 (February 27), and he’s played his way out of center field (-44 DRS and -19.4 UZR from 2015-17), but in a 2018 season split between Tampa Bay and Seattle, he shifted to left field and was better than average offensively (.261/.341/.419, 112 wRC+), if not exactly Gold Glove material defensively (-1 DRS, -4.9 UZR). A lefty swinger, he’d fit well in a platoon with Jordan Luplow, a pull-happy 25-year-old righty who’s hit just .194/.274/.371 in 190 PA over the last two seasons. Projection-wise, the Indians’ outfield ranks 29th in left field (0.8 WAR, largely from Luplow, Tyler Naquin, and Greg Allen) and 26th in right field (the same trio plus Bradley Zimmer), so they need all the help that they can get, and Manny Ramirez ain’t walking through that door.

Matt Wieters: White Sox

Once upon a time, Wieters and agent Scott Boras could dream of a contract in excess of $100 million, but those days are long gone. Since returning from 2014 Tommy John surgery, Wieters has hit just .241/.306/.385 for an 83 wRC+, though he was a bit better than that (.238/.330/.374, 89 wRC+) last year. Likewise, he’s been in the red in five of the past six seasons as far as pitch framing is concerned, though last year (-3.7 runs, via Baseball Prospectus) was at least an improvement on a dreadful 2017 (-11.2 runs, to go with a 62 wRC+). The state of catching being what it is these days, the switch-hitting Wieters would still be an upgrade on many a backstop.

When this piece was first published, I suggested that the A’s would be a decent fit for Wieters, as the tandem of Josh Phegley and Chris Herrmann has totaled 0.1 WAR (without framing) and -8.3 Fielding Runs Above Average (BP’s framing-inclusive metric) over the past two seasons. The team reportedly considered him as an option. But unlike their signing of Brett Anderson to a minor league deal, which I caught before publication, I missed the news that they also inked Nick Hundley, lessening their need for Wieters.

Instead, I’ll send him to the White Sox, whose tandem of Welington Castillo (who succeeded Wieters in Baltimore in 2017) and James McCann (with bit contributions from two other backstops) ranks 12th in our depth charts. Castillo, who spent last year on the South Side, is forecast for 2.0 WAR but delivered just 0.7 in 181 PA last year, a contribution that does not include his -5.5 runs on the framing front. He’s been below average in eight out of nine seasons, and roughly speaking, last year he was about twice as bad as Wieters on a per-called strike basis. McCann, who spent last year with Detroit, was 0.1 wins below replacement in 457 PA and -2.3 runs below average in framing, his fourth year out of five in the red. Whether or not they sign Machado, the Sox might at least be interesting, and like CarGo above, if Wieters can’t outdo this pair he’s probably no longer everyday material.

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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.

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I hope Michael Lewis writes a book about the A’s deploying the 4-man catching corps of Wieters, Hundley, Phegley, and Hermann.