Still on the Shelves, Part I: Top Remaining Free Agent Position Players

With the players’ union rejecting Major League Baseball’s proposal to delay the start of the 2021 season by a month in hopes of winter coronavirus rates declining, the start of spring training is less than two weeks away, and from a logistical standpoint, so much remains undecided. Will there be a universal designated hitter? Will last year’s experiments with seven-inning doubleheader games and man-on-second extra inning rules carry over? What will the playoff format be? From a personnel standpoint, more than 150 free agents are still looking for work.  

The ice has begun to thaw for some of the top free agents, particularly in the past two weeks as the likes of George Springer, J.T. Realmuto, Michael Brantley, Brad Hand, Marcus Semien, Nelson Cruz, Kolten Wong, Joakim Soria, and Alex Colomé have found homes; news of the last three doing so broke while I was working on this very piece. That still leaves 14 members of our annual Top 50 Free Agents list in limbo, as well as numerous other players outside the 50 who could fill substantial roles.

What follows here is a quick trip around the diamond to note the best players still available at each position, whether they’re in our Top 50 (as six of the following were) or not; admittedly, the cupboard is better stocked in some spots than others. I’ll have a companion piece on the starters and relievers in the near future.

Catcher

Though Yadier Molina (31st on our list) drew interest from the Angels, Mets, Padres, and Yankees earlier this winter, he couldn’t find a fit to his liking. Now it appears almost certain that the 38-year-old backstop will return to the Cardinals on a one-year deal, likely once the Caribbean Series wraps up. With Realmuto and James McCann, the other catchers who cracked our Top 50, both off the board already the most notable catcher still looking for work is 35-year-old Tyler Flowers. After four years of very solid work in a job-share role for the Braves — a span during which he tallied 11.5 WAR while making 1,301 PA thanks in part to elite pitch framing — Flowers was supplanted by Travis d’Arnaud last year. He made just 80 PA, and didn’t hit very well (.217/.325/.348, 86 wRC+) while striking out 42.5% of the time, but even so, his framing was again above average (1.7 runs in 22 starts and 184 total innings). Per our Depth Charts, he’s projected to produce 0.9 WAR in just 211 PA, which is better than most backup types, not to mention McCann, in roughly twice the playing time. Opportunity as well as salary are the likely reasons he’s still available; one would presume he’s hoping for something more akin to a job share than a true backup role, and holding out for something closer to last year’s $4 million salary (before proration), but in this market, that could be a tall order.

Other familiar names still available include Robinson Chirinos, Jonathan Lucroy, Jeff Mathis, and Matt Wieters. In February and March, everybody needs catchers, so expect a lot of activity in the coming days.

First Base

Carlos Santana, the only true first baseman in our Top 50, signed with the Royals nearly two months ago. The best still available in that category — as opposed to corner infielders and utilitymen who can play first — are probably Mitch Moreland and C.J. Cron. The lefty-swinging Moreland, who’s now 35 years old, hit a robust .265/.342/.551 with 10 homers in just 152 PA split between the Red Sox and Padres in 2020. His Depth Charts projection is pretty grim (93 wRC+, 0.1 WAR in 420 PA), particularly given that he’s hit for a 110 wRC+ over the past three years. His defense, once enough of an asset that he won a Gold Glove, has trended towards average according to multiple metrics.

Cron, now 31 years old, played in just 13 games for the Tigers before tearing a ligament in his left knee and undergoing season-ending surgery. There’s little doubt about his power; he’s hit 59 homers over the past three seasons, including four in 52 PA in 2020, driving a very lopsided .190/.346/.548 line, but his inability to take a walk limits his value. Already having passed through four teams in four seasons, he’s the poster boy for fungibility, but he manages to find work.

Second Base

With Wong (26th) and Cesar Hernandez (32nd) both signed, the best second baseman still available is 29-year-old Jonathan Schoop, who had a very solid season with the Tigers, hitting .278/.324/.475 with eight homers, a 114 wRC+, and 1.4 WAR — his best season since 2017. He was even a Gold Glove finalist, though his metics are down from his 2014-18 heyday. With a 1.3 WAR projection, he’d be an upgrade for several teams dedicated to going nowhere in 2021; the Nationals, who with Starlin Castro and a not-yet-ready Luis Garcia rank 27th in our Depth Charts, stand out as a potential contender that could use the help.

Most of the other second basemen (as opposed to utility types) still available are players whose recent performances suggest they’re well past their sell dates; nobody’s viewing Brian Dozier, Logan Forsythe, or Joe Panik as starting material. Jason Kipnis, who turns 34 on April 3, does stand out, as he turned in a better-than-average offensive performance (103 wRC+) for the first time since 2016, hitting .237/.341/.404 for the Cubs.

Shortstop

Top-50 denizens Semien, Andrelton Simmons, and Didi Gregorius came off the board in a flurry in the past week, and while Jonathan Villar has played more second base than shortstop in recent year, he’s the closest thing to a plausible everyday shortstop still out there. That should be of interest to the Reds given that they’re otherwise going to need somebody like Barry Larkin or Dave Concepcion to suit up. Villar, who turns 30 on May 2, hit a miserable .232/.301/.292 (66 wRC+) in 207 PA split between the Marlins and Blue Jays, but he’s just one season removed from a 4.1 WAR campaign with the Orioles, during which he hit 24 homers and finished with a 109 wRC+ while splitting time between second and short. His defensive numbers at the more difficult position are subpar but playable (-5 DR and -0.6 UZR in 981 innings over the past three seasons) so long as he’s hitting.

After that, the pickings grow even slimmer, with guys like Zack Cozart, Jordy Mercer, and Eduardo Núñez, who have played themselves into utility roles and a fringe existence in the majors.

Third Base

Justin Turner (10th on our list) rates as the second-best bat still available, and while his defensive metrics have slipped into the red, he spent the postseason showing he can still play the hot corner better than he can follow COVID protocols. As of last week, the 36-year-old redhead reportedly had interest from the Dodgers, Blue Jays, Braves, and Brewers, though it’s unclear whether Milwaukee’s addition of Wong has any bearing on the team’s pursuit of Turner.

Of the rest, the stock here might be the deepest at any position, though full-time duty might be a stretch. Jedd Gyorko bounced back after a dreadful 2019 campaign, hitting for a 119 wRC+ with nine homers in just 135 PA; he brings some versatility to the table, though his opportunities in the middle infield have dwindled in the past couple years. Maikel Franco is coming off a solid season with the Royals (.278/.321/.457, 1.3 WAR) and is still just 28; he’s worth a flyer from somebody. Marwin Gonzalez is a switch-hitting superutilityman who spent more time at third during his two-year stay in Minnesota than anywhere else but is coming off a 66 wRC+. Asdrúbal Cabrera is a better fit at third than any other infield position, and likewise for Brad Miller, who was 49th on our list. Todd Frazier, Jake Lamb, and Travis Shaw all fit the bill as backup corner infielders at this stage.

Left Field

Marcell Ozuna (fifth on our list) is the top-ranked free agent position player still available, coming off a monster of a season in Atlanta. He’s unlikely to return there, however, and of the other teams that have shown interest in him, the Twins are likely out after re-signing Nelson Cruz, and likewise the Yankees given how close they are to the Competitive Balance Tax threshold. The Dodgers, Mets, Giants, and Red Sox have all been linked to him as well, and so, as of Tuesday, have the Rays, though one would figure that their interest is via a short-term deal, and Ozuna just did that. He spent most of last season DHing for the Braves, and while his defensive metrics in left field have generally been positive, his throwing did suffer in the wake of October 2018 shoulder surgery. The lack of clarity over the universal DH could be cutting into his market significantly.

Brett Gardner (38th on our list) has never played for a team besides the Yankees, whose asymmetrical ballpark he fit well as a center field-capable left fielder. He can still get on base and defend well enough to spot in center, and while he’s likely to wind up back in the Bronx, he’d be a solid fourth outfielder for several teams. Adam Duvall has shown considerable pop in his career; in 2019-20 with the Braves, he homered 26 times in 339 PA. Shin-Soo Choo is 38 and coming off an injury-wracked season in which he played just 33 games and slipped to replacement level. The Phillies have shown interest, though if there’s still life in his bat, he’d make more sense for a team that could use him as DH.

Center Field

Jackie Bradley Jr. has earned a strong reputation with his defense, though his metrics suggest he’s not the magician that he once was. Coming off a strong season with the bat (120 wRC+, with a career-high .364 OBP), he’s rightly in search for a multiyear deal. He’d make sense for the Mets, who have been faking center field since Yoenis Céspedes hit town in mid-2015. The Giants have been connected to him as well, and have a lot more payroll flexibility, including only about $25 million committed towards next year. He’d also make sense for the Astros, who need to replace Springer.

Beyond Bradley, the market is chockfull of glove-only guys like Jarrod Dyson, Billy Hamilton, Juan Lagares, and Jake Marisnick, some of whom have passed through Queens but couldn’t hit enough to justify full-time play. One intriguing name is that of Albert Almora Jr., who hit for a 96 wRC+ and was worth 2.9 WAR in 919 PA with the Cubs from 2016-18. He’s been sub-replacement level since, but he’s still young enough (27 on April 16) that he might be worth a look, particularly given a change of scenery.

Right Field

In terms of quality, this is the thinnest position aside from shortstop, with 32-year-old Kevin Pillar topping the projections at 0.8 WAR. Once defensively elite in center field, he’s compiled -14 DRS there over the past three seasons, and now fits better in right, though the question is whether his bat can carry the position. While he hit for a 106 wRC+ last year, 12 points better than his previous career best, his projection for a 91 wRC+ suggests an imminent return to earth.

Yasiel Puig, who split 2019 between Cincinnati and Cleveland, didn’t play at all last year after a one-year deal with Atlanta was scuttled by a positive test for COVID-19. He’s second among the remaining right fielders in terms of his projections (0.7 WAR), and he’s drawn interest from several teams this winter, that despite his being sued in October by a woman alleging he sexual assaulted her in 2018. Ick.

Nomar Mazara was highly rated as a prospect, with raw power like Iggy and the Stooges, but his inability to elevate the ball with consistency led to the Rangers and then the White Sox giving up on him. He’s still just 25 (26 on April 26), and perhaps one swing doctor away from unlocking his potential.

Designated Hitters

A free agent for the first time at age 37, Ryan Braun is probably better suited to full-time DH duty given the string of injuries that has limited him to playing 77% of Brewers games over the past five seasons. The lack of a universal DH may rule out a return to Milwaukee.

Renato Núñez followed up a 31-homer 2019 season with a 12-homer, 120 wRC+ showing, and his reward for that was being designated for assignment and then released in November when the Orioles couldn’t find a trade partner. His defensive abilities at the infield corners make him a DH candidate in the first place, he doesn’t have great on-base skills, and his Statcast profile isn’t impressive on the whole, but he did rank in the 80th percentile in barrel rate in 2020, and in the 75th percentile the year before. There’s something to be said for that, and a smarter team than the Orioles might capitalize.





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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Wally
1 year ago

Ryan Zimmerman re-signed with the Nationals two weeks ago.

tomerafan
1 year ago
Reply to  Wally

And I’m curious as to why the Nationals are “dedicated to going nowhere.” Adding Jon Lester as the #4 starter gives them a formidable rotation with Scherzer, Corbin and Strasburg ahead of him. Brad Hand joins a bullpen with the underrated Tanner Rainey,
Daniel Hudson and Will Harris. Josh Bell isn’t what he was in the first half of 2019 but is an upgrade over every-day Zimmerman. The OF is better with Soto playing RF and Schwarber in left, and Eaton gone. Robles was once a top prospect and Stevenson has done nothing but hit well in two small MLB samples.

They do indeed need a viable 2B (folks are raving about Yasel Antuna but he still has to be a little ways away even if he is now on the 40-man roster) and one more bullpen arm, but given the number of options still out there, I expect the NL East to be a true three team race with the Phillies in 4th but still competitive and the Marlins being pesky and frisky.

stever20member
1 year ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Or 3b really. 2b isn’t exactly a position of strength in the NL. Castro can be at least a decent 2b. 3b on the other hand- Kieboom has been nothing short of awful so far.

achidester
1 year ago
Reply to  stever20

Kieboom’s defense was surprisingly decent last year, and he showed good plate discipline. Something needs to be done about his power, though; IIRC he produced a solitary fly ball and ranked in the bottom 5% for barrel rate/exit velo.

stever20member
1 year ago
Reply to  achidester

his defensive numbers were boosted by 1 fluke game with the Orioles. He also got a few gift scoring calls.

He had no power at all. He’s a huge question mark right now.

achidester
1 year ago
Reply to  tomerafan

I’d love to see the Nats bring back Cabrera, he could be competent at the corners and a warm body at 2B while hitting pretty well. I was pretty happy with Castro last year prior to his injury, it was a real shame to see him go down. If they do decide to get a “true” 2B, Schoop would be a great option.

cartermember
1 year ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Agreed with your general point, but Lester isn’t a formidable #4 IMO. He should not be getting anything but a minor league deal at this time.

Lanidrac
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

Don’t forget that you should throw 2020 out the window for most underachievers. Lester was worth 1.4 bWAR in 2019 and 3.0 the year before that.

Jason Bmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I don’t know if it’s quite that simple, particularly for a pitcher who may be on the downside of a (long, very good) career. I think whatever he showed in 2020 (good, bad, or otherwise) is a lot more useful in projecting 2021 than the 3.0 WAR he posted in 2018; that’s getting pretty far in the rearview now…

Anon
1 year ago
Reply to  tomerafan

RE: “dedicated to going nowhere”. My initial read was the same as yours, however, on re-reading it I think he was trying to set the Nats apart from the teams that are going nowhere since he did mention they are a contender.

frankmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Anon

You are right. I had to reread it too in order to get it right.

kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago
Reply to  tomerafan

I think it’s Mets and Braves, then Nats and Phillies. But I hope your right.