Next Year’s Free-Agent Hitters Offer More of the Same

While the free-agent march of the offseason continues to crawl along — due in no small part to the lack of appealing options — it might be helpful to look ahead to next winter. The starting pitching of next offseason’s free-agent class is set to mark a vast improvement over the present class. This year’s collection of free-agent hitters, meanwhile, seems to be composed mostly of corner outfielders, first basemen, and designated hitter-types, with few up-the-middle options. Next year’s class appears likely to include plenty of bat-first options available, but the group does have a very good catcher, a very good center fielder, and quite a few third baseman from which teams can choose, as well. Ultimately, however, next year’s crop of position players is going to look an awful lot like this one.

One of the reasons next year’s free-agent hitting class will so closely resemble the current one is that a number of players on the market this offseason figure to appear there again next season. Here are the players who’ve agreed to a one-year deal of one sort or another:

Free-Agent Holdovers for 2017-18
Name 2016 WAR 2017 Age 2017 WAR Projection
Neil Walker 3.7 31 2.4
Carlos Gomez 0.9 31 2.2
Matt Holliday 0.7 37 1.9
Welington Castillo 1.7 30 1.7
Carlos Beltran 2.3 39 0.9
Mitch Moreland 0.4 31 0.7
Jon Jay 1.1 32 0.6

That’s already seven players of some relevance. Nor does that include current free agents like Jose Bautista, Brandon Moss, Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo, and Matt Wieters who could sign one-year deals if a satisfactory market fails to develop for them before the end of this offseason.

The top names in the table above, Carlos Gomez and Neil Walker, will seek to re-establish their value in 2017. Gomez had a good run at the end of this past season with the Rangers, and while many thought he might get a multi-year deal, he opted to go back to Texas to take a run at a bigger paycheck in a year. Neil Walker chose to accept the qualifying offer extended to him by the Mets, largely due to an injury that ended his season in August and hurt his appeal to clubs at the same time. If he has a healthy 2017 season, he should be in line for a solid multi-year deal. If Matt Holliday hits the two-win mark like his projection estimates, he’ll likely be in line for another similar deal, not unlike how Carlos Beltran parlayed a solid season into a nice one-year deal with the Astros. Castillo’s value might dependent on his reputation defensively, while Jay and Moreland will have to outperform expectations to have a real market next year.

Before the Kansas City Royals traded away Wade Davis, they had a lot of potentially desirable players headed to their final year before free agency. Even after trading Davis, the club continues to possess a number of potential free agents.

Royals’ Free-Agent Position Players for 2017-18
Name 2016 WAR 2017 Age 2017 WAR Projection
Mike Moustakas 0.7 28 3.2
Lorenzo Cain 2.4 31 3.1
Eric Hosmer -0.2 27 1.8
Jarrod Dyson 3.1 32 1.5
Alcides Escobar 0.4 30 0.9

Lorenzo Cain is a talented center fielder who put together a solid 2016 campaign, if not as impressive as the two he produced during Kansas City’s World Series years. The projections look for a little bounce back for Cain. As an up-the-middle defender, he should be in position to get the Dexter Fowler contract, if not more. For those looking for a solid fourth outfielder who plays plus defense, Jarrod Dyson will also be an option.

While Cain’s 2016 season might have ultimately been a bit of disappointment, it wasn’t as troublesome as the years experienced by the club’s principal corner infielders, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. Moustakas missed most of the season with a torn ACL, and Hosmer recorded just a league-average offensive season, which is well below average for a first baseman.

Both Hosmer and Moustakas are young and could rebound. If they do, they might represent– along with Cain — the top position-player free agents of the 2017-18 offseason. As it stands right now, though, one other player is likely to garner the most interest next season.

Top Free Agent Position Player for 2017-18
Name 2016 WAR 2017 Age 2017 WAR Projection
Jonathan Lucroy 4.5 31 3.5

After a rough 2015 season, Lucroy re-established himself as one of the game’s best catchers and re-established his trade value, as Milwaukee moved him and the remaining year and a half on his contract to Texas for prospects Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz. If Lucroy has another solid season, he’ll be the best catcher to hit free agency since Russell Martin signed a five-year, $82 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays two years ago.

At third base, Justin Turner was the head of the third-base class this winter. In the 2018-19 season, that distinction will likely belong either to Josh Donaldson or Manny Machado. In the meantime, however, clubs shouldn’t have trouble identifying potential replacements. There might not be much quality, but the group certainly does have quantity on its side, as the free-agent list courtesy MLB Trade Rumors suggests.

Top Free-Agent Third Basemen for 2017-18
Name 2016 WAR 2017 Age 2017 WAR Projection
Mike Moustakas 0.7 28 3.2
Todd Frazier 2.4 31 2.6
Yunel Escobar 1.6 34 1.6
Eduardo Nunez 2.7 30 1.5
Jhonny Peralta -0.5 35 1.5
Jose Reyes 1.3 34 0.9
Brett Lawrie 0.9 27 0.5

Moustakas was mentioned above, and Todd Frazier has been mentioned in trade talks as the White Sox rebuild. Those players head the class, but then we get a trio of players who profile just a tick below average. Solid 2017 seasons could increase their market, but any of these players could also be one-year stopgaps in the run up to the chase for Donaldson and Machado. Lawrie is technically a second baseman until Frazier gets traded, and its really just his age that gets him on this list, as his performance has yet to justify a commitment.

This year’s free-agent market has been defined, to some extent, by a glut of hitters who lack defensive value. The 2017-18 might suffer from a similar identity. The qualifying-offer system shouldn’t hinder the market like it has in the past, but there are still a bunch of players from which teams can choose. We’ve mentioned Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Eric Hosmer — and more holdovers could join them. They will hit free agency with the group of players below.

Free-Agent COF/1B/DH for 2017-18
Name 2016 WAR 2017 Age 2017 WAR Projection
Carlos Santana 3.7 31 2.7
Justin Upton* 1.4 29 2.4
J.D. Martinez 1.8 29 2.0
Lucas Duda 0.1 31 2.0
Curtis Granderson 2.6 36 1.7
Carlos Gonzalez 1.9 31 1.7
Seth Smith 0.5 34 1.3
Howie Kendrick 0.9 33 1.2
Melky Cabrera 1.6 32 1.0
Cameron Maybin 2.0 30 0.9
Jayson Werth 1.1 38 0.8
John Jaso 0.6 33 0.7
Chris Young 1.1 33 0.6
Jay Bruce 0.9 30 0.6
Melvin Upton Jr. 1.2 32 0.2
*Player Option: 4 years/$88 million

If you are wondering why the Reds have had trouble trading Jay Bruce before unloading him on the Mets — and why the Mets have subsequently had trouble moving him — it’s likely because he doesn’t have that much to offer, especially when compared to alternatives. Not all of these players are the slugging types, and a few of them aren’t terrible at defense, but we will again see a bunch of adequate players at hit-first positions. Justin Upton might decide that four years and $88 million remaining on his contract is better than what he’d receive on the open market. Santana has great on-base skills and Martinez is a fantastic hitter, but their overall value is kept down by defense. Carlos Gonzalez was once a star, and Lucas Duda missed most of last season, but the market for bat-first players is still likely to be saturated a year from now.

The only other potential free agents with projections of at least one win next season play on the same team.

Free-Agent Reds for 2017-18
Name 2016 WAR 2017 Age 2017 WAR Projection
Zack Cozart 2.5 31 1.4
Brandon Phillips 0.9 36 1.1

Phillips isn’t going to have too much value, but for those looking for a glove-first shortstop whose hitting puts him above replacement level (unlike Alcides Escobar, who’s also available), Cozart could be a nice fit. While he doesn’t have quite the glove of Cozart, Danny Espinosa will also be available as a middle-infield option.

Overall, next year’s class is probably slightly better for position players. Cain, Frazier, Lucroy, and Moustakas — along with Hosmer, Martinez, and Santana — present more upside and production than Bautista, Cespedes, Encarnacion, Fowler, Reddick, and Turner. After this year’s deep freeze in free agency — perhaps complicated by CBA negotiations — we can probably expect to see deals occur a bit more swiftly a year from now, but the glut of first basemen, designated hitters, and corner outfielders isn’t going away just yet.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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v2micca
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Member
v2micca

Free Agency is looking less and less appealing each year as a viable option for filling holes on your roster. I guess at times teams don’t have much of a choice, but paying 18 million a year for barely above league average talent feels like a measure of last resort.

iBEGuRGaRDeN
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iBEGuRGaRDeN

Aging curves have gotten younger, peak is now 24-27 instead of 27-32. All of the value to be found is in having young guys produce for tiny contracts (3 of the top 5 position player WAR last year earned $600,000 or less).

Major FA signing and retaining star players only makes sense for about 10 teams, and for everyone else is a gamble only to be undertaken if you are basically positive you’re an 85+ win team before a signing. Some teams refuse altogether.

What we’re seeing is cycles of teams sacrificing their future to compete for 3-4 years at a time at most, then selling everything off and biding their time until some young guys pan out positively, aka provide tens of millions of dollars of excess value which can then justifiably be spent on older proven players.

Everyone knows FA are a waste of money, but a necessary and sensible waste if you want to win while you’re in a good spot.