The Most Bizarre Free Agent of MLB Offseason: Where Will Michael Conforto Land?April 1, 2022
Whatever Michael Conforto's expectations were for his first foray into Major League Baseball's free-agent market, they probably didn't include him still looking for a job less than a week from Opening Day.
Yet that's where the 29-year-old outfielder now finds himself, and the explanations for this status are many. His market was slow to develop after he rejected a qualifying offer from the New York Mets in November. Then on Dec. 2, the league went into a lockout that didn't lift until March 10.
Courtesy of his agent, Scott Boras, it also came out on Wednesday that Conforto spent a chunk of the lockout recovering from an injury to his right shoulder that he suffered in January:
In his full report, Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote that Boras clarified the injury as a strain. Conforto resumed hitting five weeks ago and is now back to "his normal swing plane." Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, he has also regained his arm strength.
But even if this adds clarity as to why Conforto is still looking for a job, it suffices to say his situation is not ideal. Whereas the 2017 All-Star ought to be gearing up for Opening Day on April 7 along with the rest of the baseball world, the matters of when, for how much and with which team he will sign are as up in the air now as they were at the outset of the offseason.
It's Been a Rough 12 Months for Conforto
It was around this time last year—on April 14, to be exact—that Conforto landed in the No. 7 spot in MLB Trade Rumors' free-agent rankings for the upcoming winter.
This was by no means a hot take. Conforto had hit a stellar .322/.412/.515 during the shortened 2020 season, and his overall numbers since 2017 included a .265/.369/.495 slash line and a 162-game average of 34 home runs. His 134 OPS+ tied him with Paul Goldschmidt for 17th among hitters with 1,500 plate appearances in this span.
If Conforto remained on this track in 2021, his stay on the 2021-22 market would doubtlessly prove to be a fruitful one. Multiple years? Absolutely. Nine figures? That, too.
Yet his walk year began to unravel before it even started, as he revealed on April 4 that he had tested positive for COVID-19 shortly before spring training. He described his symptoms as "really mild," but also said that the shortness of breath he was experiencing made it so he "just couldn't" do his workouts.
In November, Boras suggested that Conforto's COVID case was actually the underlying cause for his slow start through the first six weeks of the '21 season. Things then went from bad to worse when he suffered a right hamstring injury and had to stay on the injured list for over a month.
Conforto's production did recover after he returned on June 23, but never to a point where he resembled his 2017-20 self. By the end of the year, he had hit just .232/.344/.384 with 14 home runs and a 101 OPS+ over 125 games.
As for whether Conforto was actually that bad, it depends on how you look at it.
One thing that was unequivocally good in 2021 was Conforto's approach. His chase and whiff rates were safely above average, and his combination of a 12.3 walk percentage with a 21.7 strikeout percentage resulted in the best walk-to-strikeout ratio of his career.
It might more so stick out that Conforto's power was worse than ever, in that he slugged under .400 for the first time in his career. There were legitimate causes for this, namely subpar marks for exit velocity and hard-hit percentage, as well as a diminished rate of batted balls within the 8-to-32 degree sweet spot for launch angle.
And yet, Conforto's 88.5 mph exit velo and 39.1 hard-hit percentage were also better than the figures he'd posted in 2020. And when he did hit the ball in the sweet spot, he hit it squarely at an average of 94.5 mph. The leaguewide norm was 93.0 mph.
Perhaps the realest problem that Conforto had in 2021 was the shift. He batted against shifted infields more often than ever before, and it's easy to see why teams did that when looking at the .240 average he had on ground balls and line drives to his pull side. The standard left-handed hitter batted .312 on such balls.
Yet even if this is a real problem now, it could also be one on borrowed time. Major League Baseball is expanding its experiment with regulations on defensive shifts in the minors in 2022. By 2023, the experiment may well come to The Show itself.
All this is to say that Conforto still has substantial upside going forward, whether it be in a one-year deal and perhaps especially in a multiyear deal.
How's Conforto's Market Looking?
At least in theory, you'd nonetheless think that Conforto's market would be in terrible shape right now.
Even at the start of the winter, there was a line of thinking at FanGraphs and elsewhere that Conforto would be wise to accept a qualifying offer if the Mets extended him one. That way, he could look to reestablish his value while earning $18.4 million in 2021, and he'd be barred from ever getting another qualifying offer.
By rejecting it, Boras and Conforto instead signaled their belief that there would be a bettter offer on the open market. This was in spite of not only what had befallen Conforto in 2021, but also the ties to draft-pick compensation that came from rejecting the offer.
To hear it from Boras, though, the fact that Conforto remains unsigned isn't so much because clubs view him as being more radioactive after he injured his shoulder. As he told Rosenthal, it's partially by design:
Ken Rosenthal @Ken_Rosenthal
Boras said that Conforo since has regained his arm strength, and that contract discussions with clubs re-started about a week ago. “Everyone has been wondering if it’s economic,” Boras said. “No, it’s just him getting back to normal (physically).” <a href="https://t.co/SOgILOfsm6">https://t.co/SOgILOfsm6</a>
Conforto might indeed linger on the market past the start of the regular season, but perhaps not for much longer if this is true.
It's certainly hard to imagine him remaining unsigned until after the MLB draft, when his ties to draft-pick compensation will become void. There's precedent for that—i.e., Stephen Drew, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel—but it doesn't necessarily apply in this case. Whereas the draft used to be in early June, it now coincides with the All-Star festivities in mid-July.
Further, it's worth remembering that the draft-pick penalties for signing qualified free agents are not as steep as they once were. Formerly, first-round picks outside the top 10 were in jeopardy. Now, the worst any team loses is its second-highest pick.
Because Conforto is undeniably even riskier now than he was coming into the winter, it would be a surprise if he lands a one-year contract for more than the $18.4 million he would have made from the qualifying offer. If so, his best hope for significant money lies in a team going all-in on his upside with a multiyear deal.
Let's Speculate on Conforto's Landing Spot
Setting aside his current market value, the big question hanging over Conforto's head is which team will finally scoop him up for the 2022 season.
To this end, it's probably safe to count out some of his prior suitors.
For instance, the Miami Marlins were interested in Conforto prior to the lockout and the Colorado Rockies were said to have him on their wish list as the lockout was nearing its end. But both have since made splashes on other players, the Marlins on reigning World Series MVP Jorge Soler and the Rockies on 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant.
The New York Yankees, meanwhile, reportedly had their eye on Conforto before the lockout but don't really look like a home for him now. They filled their need for a left-handed hitter when they re-signed Anthony Rizzo. It's otherwise just plain hard to see how Conforto fits in an outfield that already features an Aaron Judge-Giancarlo Stanton-Joey Gallo rotation for the corner spots.
If it's a question of which team simply needs Conforto's bat the most, the Cleveland Guardians are at the top of the list. Yet they've spent basically nothing all winter, and general manager Mike Chernoff hinted that nobody should be expecting this to change:
Rather, a quick read of the tea leaves suggests that the Tampa Bay Rays could be a more likely small-market landing spot for Conforto. They haven't been linked to him directly, but their unexpected pursuit of Freddie Freeman signals that they have some willingness to spend big bucks and lose a draft pick if it means landing a capable left-handed hitter.
Speaking of spending big bicks and losing draft picks, the Texas Rangers have already done that twice in signing Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. Because having him over Brad Miller in left field would give the team yet another boost in a competitive American League West, perhaps they could do so again for Conforto.
Elsewhere out west, the San Francisco Giants (see here) and San Diego Padres (here) have each been reported to have interest in Conforto.
Perhaps the latter will come to see signing him as a way to soften the blow of Fernando Tatis Jr.'s wrist injury, luxury-tax considerations be damned. The former club doesn't have to worry about those same considerations, but it does need to worry about the persisting need for an impact bat in the middle of its lineup.
Looking for a wild card? Well, how about the Boston Red Sox? They already coughed up their second-highest draft pick to sign Trevor Story. If they'd rather use Jackie Bradley Jr. as their fourth outfielder instead of as their starting right fielder, subsequently signing Conforto would only cost them their third-highest pick.
If we must pick one of these potential suitors, we'll lean toward the Giants. It just doesn't feel like they've fully maximized their offseason, particularly not while they're chasing the Los Angeles Dodgers with nearly $60 million worth of luxury-tax breathing room.
Whatever the case, there's surely nobody who wants the Michael Conforto Sweepstakes to end more than Conforto himself. The guy has been through enough.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.