10 Free Agents Set to Improve Their New MLB Club the Most in 2016
With so many impact MLB free agents still available—a group that includes Yoenis Cespdes, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Davis, Yovani Gallardo and Justin Upton—a list of the 10 free agents set to improve their new club the most figures to look drastically different a month from now.
The amount of unsigned talent speaks to the depth of this offseason's free-agent class, as the players that found their way onto this list will each have a major impact on their new clubs in 2016.
Without the help of a crystal ball, it's impossible to know exactly how these players will take to their new surroundings. But past performance certainly gives us some insight as to the impact they could have. How they'll perform over the course of their new contracts is of no concern here—only how they'll help their teams find success this coming season.
Aside from their individual production, this list also takes into account the impact their arrival could have on other parts of a roster—a big-time starter's arrival should lead to less work for a team's bullpen, for example—and the additional depth it helps to create.
Which players from this free-agent class are poised to help their new teams the most? Let's take a look.
OF Nori Aoki, Seattle Mariners
One of Seattle's biggest issues last season was its maddening inability to put runners on base in front of its big bats. Former manager Lloyd McClendon used 13 different players in the leadoff spot, a group that combined for a woeful .307 on-base percentage, the seventh-lowest in baseball.
That helps to explain why, despite finishing the 2015 season fifth in home runs (198), the Mariners finished 21st in runs (656). Owner of a career .353 on-base percentage—and a nearly identical .354 mark from the leadoff spot—signing Nori Aoki to a one-year, $5.5 million deal wasn't a difficult decision to make.
"The element of on-base ability and speed to keep our lineup moving with traffic on the basepaths that feed the middle of that lineup has a chance to be pretty good for us," general manager Jerry Dipoto told reporters at Aoki's introductory press conference.
A .287 hitter over parts of four seasons, Aoki is the reliable table-setter the Mariners desperately needed. With Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz hitting behind him, Aoki is going to see plenty of pitches to hit—and could put up career-best numbers as a result.
SP's Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, San Francisco Giants
While San Francisco's addition of starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija were separate transactions, the two together are lumped together here because they're both high-risk, high-reward additions to a rotation that lacks significant depth.
Both Cueto (entering his age-30 season) and Samardzija (entering his age-31 season) are capable of providing quality innings for the Giants, with Cueto having eclipsed the 200-inning and 30-start marks in three of the past four seasons, while Samardzija is coming off his third consecutive such campaign.
Sure, neither one had what you'd call a great season in 2015—in Samardzija's case, it was downright horrible, with him leading the American League in earned runs—while Cueto embarked on a two-month disappearing act down the stretch for Kansas City before re-emerging in the World Series.
But Giants general manager Bobby Evans believes they're both the right fit for a rotation that needed an injection of life after ace Madison Bumgarner, as he explained to the San Francisco Chronicle's Ann Killion.
“The environment they’re coming into is a winning ballclub,” Evans said. “With Buster Posey behind the plate, Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner supporting the staff, Bruce Bochy, the infield that’s behind them. It gives an opportunity for each one of these guys to pitch to their strengths in the ballpark.”
If nothing else, their ability to eat innings will give a breather to a Giants bullpen that was overworked in 2015, a group that finished second to Colorado in relief appearances (557).
“They’re going to give us five to seven (innings), even eight,” Giants reliever Sergio Romo told Killion. “Or they’ll give us the night off."
Either outcome will leave the Giants in significantly better shape than they were a season ago.
SP Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks
While it'd be great if Zack Greinke is able to replicate his otherworldly numbers from 2015, when he went 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA and 0.84 WHIP for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he doesn't need to in order to make his new team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, markedly better than they were.
After all, Greinke joins a rotation that was among baseball's least effective a season ago, ranking 11th in the National League (23rd in baseball) with a 4.37 ERA and failing miserably when it came to eating innings, logging a total of 887.1 that ranked 14th in the NL (29th in MLB), ahead of only Colorado.
Greinke, along with fellow newcomer Shelby Miller (acquired via trade with Atlanta) and a healthy Patrick Corbin, should have Arizona's rotation delivering far better results in 2016. But Greinke's impact goes beyond his ability to deal on the mound.
He's also a tremendous fielder who makes it difficult for the opposition to steal bases, and no pitcher swings a better bat than Greinke, as FanGraphs' Dave Cameron noted.
"Over the last three years, he’s hit .249/.300/.357, good for a .292 wOBA, 22 points better than Madison Bumgarner, and relative to a replacement-level hitting pitcher, he’s added +2.8 WAR with his bat during that stretch," Cameron wrote.
Consider how remarkable that is. Over the past three seasons, 565 players—including pitchers—have logged at least 200 total plate appearances. Greinke's 2.8 WAR sits 222nd on that list, ahead of players like Chris Carter (2.6), James Loney (2.1) and Kendrys Morales (1.5), among others.
It also speaks to the kind of impact he'll have not only on Arizona's rotation, but its offense as well.
OF Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs
Offensively, there's little difference in the career numbers of Jason Heyward, Chicago's new leadoff hitter, and Dexter Fowler, who occupied the top spot in the Cubs lineup last season.
Heyward may be the younger and more productive player, but those numbers are far closer than anyone would have guessed they'd be. Defensively, however, there's no comparison—Heyward is on a completely different level than Fowler.
Granted, Fowler has played almost exclusively in center field, while Heyward has spent the bulk of his time in right field, so it's not necessarily fair to compare the two defensively.
But there's little doubt that Heyward has the speed and athleticism to handle himself in center, and that's a significant improvement for the Cubs, especially when you take into consideration how mediocre the team's corner outfielders—Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler—have been thus far in their young careers.
Heyward's ability to get to balls that Fowler couldn't will result in a handful of extra wins for the Cubs, and that could be all the difference in what figures to be a hotly contested three-team race for the National League Central once again between Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
SP David Price, Boston Red Sox
With all due respect to Zack Greinke, the Boston Red Sox couldn't have made a better choice for their new ace than David Price, who has spent the bulk of his career laying waste to the (typically) high-powered lineups of the American League East.
“He’s a bonafide No. 1 starter, Cy Young Award winner,” reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson told the Boston Herald's Scott Lauber. “He’s the kind of pitcher that affects the team for three or four days because he’s going to save your bullpen. He’s going to go up there and eat up innings for you the entire time. And in the clubhouse, he’s a great player but an even better person.”
None of that was lost on Red Sox manager John Farrell, whose bullpen added a pair of big-time arms via trade in closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Carson Smith, taking pressure (and more importantly, some of the workload) off aging star Koji Uehara (40) and Junichi Tazawa.
“His pedigree goes a long way for not only the players on our team, but the fans,” Farrell told NESN.com's Ricky Doyle. “He’s proven that over time. You have the luxury to manage a bullpen differently because of him.
But as Donaldson alluded to, Price's impact goes far beyond his ability to eat innings and keep a bullpen fresh. "I think every pitcher will be able to benefit from him, and I think every teammate will," Farrell told Doyle. "I think what guys are going to come to know very quickly is how engaging David is, how giving he is of his experiences and his knowledge."
With young southpaw Eduardo Rodriguez already part of Boston's rotation and prospects Brian Johnson and Henry Owens both waiting in the wings for an opportunity, Price's willingness to serve as a mentor is invaluable—and will pay dividends in Boston for years to come.
RP Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
Forget about the incentives for games started and innings pitched that MLB Network's Jon Heyman tweeted about when Joakim Soria agreed to return to Kansas City, the team he began his career with in 2007. He was signed to bolster the Royals' biggest strength—their bullpen—and nothing else.
Even without former All-Star closer Greg Holland, who remains unsigned after undergoing Tommy John surgery that will cost him all of the 2016 season, and Ryan Madson, who signed with Oakland as a free agent, the Royals can follow their usual formula for success thanks to Soria's arrival.
That is, get five to six innings out of their starters before turning things over to a shutdown trio of relievers. Kelvin Herrera returns to familiar territory in the seventh inning, with Soria handling the eighth and Wade Davis the ninth.
Soria's experience as a closer (202 career saves and a pair of All-Star appearances in the role) also gives the Royals insurance should Davis suffer an injury or need a night off, with Luke Hochevar and a healthy Tim Collins still around to offer additional depth.
OF Denard Span, San Francisco Giants
Denard Span might be flashing more gray in his beard than Giants fans would care to see, but San Francisco's decision to sign the 31-year-old outfielder was, as B/R colleague Jacob Shafer recently wrote, a "savvy impact move."
Span immediately becomes San Francisco's leadoff hitter and starting center fielder, shifting the oft-injured Angel Pagan to left field, where the wear and tear on his body should be significantly lessened.
Yes, Span missed significant time due to injury in 2015 and comes with his own set of risks. But he's a superior defender to Pagan in center field and is far more adept at consistently getting on base, things that weren't lost on general manager Bobby Evans.
"When you invest in pitching as we did this winter, it’s important to invest in the defense behind him,” Evans told Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News. “And we think this makes us stronger and deeper and better prepared to enter 2016 with the strongest defense and lineup possible.”
Not only is Span an upgrade in center field, but his arrival adds much-needed depth to the Giants' outfield mix. With Pagan in left field, Gregor Blanco once again becomes the team's primary fourth outfielder, a role in which he provides significant value.
It also allows the Giants to continue developing youngsters Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson down on the farm, with career journeyman Kyle Blanks also capable of filling in when needed.
SP Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit Tigers
After losing Max Scherzer as a free agent before last season and trading away David Price at last year's trade deadline, Detroit needed to add a legitimate front-of-the-rotation arm to complement Justin Verlander and the talented but oft-injured Anibal Sanchez.
New general manager Al Avila found that arm in 29-year-old Jordan Zimmermann, who finished 2015 with a 3.66 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over 33 starts for the Washington Nationals.
While those numbers were a step back from the combined 2.96 ERA and 1.08 WHIP he delivered from 2013 to 2014, they're still more than respectable—and he continued to prove durable, logging 201.2 innings of work, his fourth consecutive season with more than 195 innings under his belt.
Per ESPN's Katie Strang, "his 4.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the past seven years ranks fifth among starters who have amassed at least 1,000 innings in that span, exceeded only by Cliff Lee, Dan Haren, Madison Bumgarner and Greinke."
He might be viewed as having been on the second tier of available free-agent starters behind the likes of Cueto, Greinke and Price, but Zimmermann is the durable, reliable arm the Tigers sorely needed.
UTIL Ben Zobrist, Chicago Cubs
Don't tell Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon that Ben Zobrist, 34, isn't the same player he had at his disposal during his time at the helm of the Tampa Bay Rays. The bespectacled skipper understands that Zobrist's value and impact go far beyond the box score.
"To get 'Zo' to walk in the door right now among the young players and be able to exhibit or exude this kind of influence, not only the work ethic, but how to play the game, play the game properly, show up every day, be ready to play — that's something we haven't had," Maddon told Joe Rodgers of Sporting News. "The veteranship has been more among the pitching staff."
While Zobrist is set to be Chicago's everyday second baseman, the Cubs also value his versatility, something general manager Jed Hoyer told Rodgers he believes will come into play over the course of the regular season.
"It was really important for Ben to have a spot on the diamond," Hoyer said. "We were intrigued by the possibility of having him and being able to move him around the diamond, and I think Joe still will."
Zobrist gives Maddon and the Cubs options—and he'll certainly help in the development of Javier Baez, a player Chicago seems intent on turning into a Zobrist-like hybrid, capable of playing multiple infield positions as well as a corner outfield spot.
Hit me up on Twitter to talk the Hot Stove League and all things baseball: @RickWeinerBR.
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