The Biggest Boom-or-Bust 2022-23 MLB Free Agents

Zachary D. RymerNovember 28, 2022

The Biggest Boom-or-Bust 2022-23 MLB Free Agents

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    Both literally and figuratively, Aaron Judge is a huge boom-or-bust free agent.
    AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

    Nobody ever accused any Major League Baseball free agent of being a wholly safe bet, so it's perhaps fair to say that any player in any given market is a boom-or-bust type.

    Still, we'd naturally prefer to focus on the ones in the 2022-23 market who match that description more than most.

    We only considered players who haven't yet signed, as we otherwise would have been all over Edwin D铆az. We ultimately identified eight free agents who have three things in common: tremendous talent, obvious pitfalls and projections for multi-year deals worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

    Many of those will be given out, but not all of them will be overloaded with risk. Not to name names, but...well, hitters like Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson and Brandon Nimmo don't have much in the way of downside, and it bodes well for pitchers like Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker and Jameson Taillon that they don't need power stuff to be effective.

    In any case, we'll check off our eight biggest boom-or-bust targets in ascending order of likely earning power.

8. 1B Josh Bell

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    San Diego Padres' Josh Bell tosses his bat as he walks with the bases loaded during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in San Diego. San Diego Padres' Brandon Dixon scored on the play. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
    AP Photo/Gregory Bull

    Age: 30

    2022 Stats: 156 G, 647 PA, 17 HR, 0 SB, .266 AVG, .362 OBP, .422 SLG

    B/R Projection: 4 years, $64 million


    Why He Could Go Boom

    Generally speaking, Josh Bell can hit.

    His career 120 OPS+ means he is 20 percent better than the average hitter, and that's without even getting into specific highs such as his 37 home runs from 2019 or his 81 walks from this past season.

    The switch-hitting Bell has also typically offered a solid bat-to-ball skill, and never more so than in 2022. His 15.8 strikeout percentage landed him in the 83rd percentile. At least in theory, such things make him an ideally well-rounded hitter.


    Why He Could Go Bust

    Trouble is, anyone who's watched Bell closely throughout his career will know that he's maddeningly inconsistent.

    Take, for example, his first- and second-half splits. They've varied widely over the last three full seasons, with an average difference of 221 points' worth of OPS. Most recently, his OPS dropped 288 points from the first half of this year to the second.

    On top of this, prospective suitors for Bell should also fret about what befell his contact quality in 2022. His exit velocity, for example, went from being safely above 90 mph between 2019 and 2021 to just below 89 mph.

7. RHP Koudai Senga

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    YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - AUGUST 07: Pitcher Kodai Senga #21 of Team Japan is seen after the sixth inning against Team United States during the gold medal game between Team United States and Team Japan on day fifteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Yokohama Baseball Stadium on August 07, 2021 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
    Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    2022 Stats (in NPB): 23 GS, 148.0 IP, 104 H (7 HR), 159 K, 50 BB, 1.89 ERA


    Why He Could Go Boom

    It's a "whoopsie" that we don't have a contract projection for Kodai Senga, but rest assured he's going to get paid. Predictions for his first major league deal run as high as five years, $75 million.

    Senga's latest performance was typical of what he did in 11 years with the SoftBank Hawks. At work was an arsenal of quality pitches, the best-looking of which are his high-90s fastball and a forkball known as the "Ghost Fork."

    Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

    Kodai Senga, 98mph Fastball and 83mph Ghost Fork, Individual Pitches + Overlay (synched at release/tails). 馃懟馃嵈<br><br>And Kodai Senga's Ghost Fork Grip. <a href="https://t.co/iWmjhyGWue">pic.twitter.com/iWmjhyGWue</a>

    With a slider and a cutter also in his bag of tricks, Senga would seem to have everything he needs to function as a top-of-the-rotation starter in MLB.


    Why He Could Go Bust

    Senga nonetheless comes with real red flags, one of which concerns how he wasn't always healthy throughout his career in Japan.

    There's also a question of whether his fastball will play in the majors. Jim Allen covered how Senga doesn't have a great command of the pitch, while Ben Clemens of FanGraphs highlighted how the pitch isn't overpowering up in the zone.

    Granted, the fastball doesn't play as large of a role in today's MLB as it used to. Yet that doesn't make it easy for a pitcher to be entirely fastball-free, so Senga may end up having a low ceiling if he doesn't at least get his fastball command up to par.

6. RHP Justin Verlander

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    PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - NOVEMBER 03: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros looks on against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning in Game Five of the 2022 World Series at Citizens Bank Park on November 03, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
    Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

    Age: 39

    2022 Stats: 28 GS, 175.0 IP, 116 H (12 HR), 185 K, 29 BB, 1.75 ERA

    B/R Projection: 2 years, $88 million


    Why He Could Go Boom

    If our projection for Justin Verlander's next contract ends up being on the high side, it might not be by much.

    He frankly has every reason to shoot for Max Scherzer's average annual value of $43.3 million after the season he just had. To wit, his 1.75 ERA was the lowest full-season mark by an American League hurler since Pedro Mart铆nez in 2000.

    That's at least one data point to support an argument that Verlander's latest effort was the best of his three Cy Young Award-winning seasons. And while you wouldn't expect as much from a 39-year-old coming off Tommy John surgery, his fastball is still an elite pitch.


    Why He Could Go Bust

    How good was Verlander in 2022, really? It's a fair question if for no other reason than his strikeout rate was down to 9.5 per nine innings from a peak of 12.2 across 2018 and 2019.

    Another concern, of course, is that Verlander is going to turn 40 on Feb. 20. Even setting aside quality concerns, history doesn't bode well for the quantity of his upcoming work:

    Graph via Google Sheets

    The takeaway is that pitchers who logged as many as 175 innings in their age-39 seasons generally had a hard time doing so again. For teams in need of a workhorse, this is a "buyer beware" label on Verlander.

5. LHP Carlos Rod贸n

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    San Francisco Giants' Carlos Rod贸n between pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers during the fourth inning of a baseball game in San Francisco, Thursday, July 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. V谩squez)
    AP Photo/Godofredo A. V谩squez

    Age: 29

    2022 Stats: 31 GS, 178.0 IP, 131 H (12 HR), 237 K, 52 BB, 2.88 ERA

    B/R Projection: 5 years, $120 million


    Why He Could Go Boom

    With respect to Max Fried and Framber Valdez, Carlos Rod贸n is the best left-hander in baseball right now.

    His 2.42 FIP over the last two seasons leads all pitchers who've logged at least 300 innings. That points to his mastery of the three true outcomes, including strikeouts with a rate of 12.2 per nine innings.

    There's nothing too fancy about how Rod贸n has been going about his business since the start of the 2021 season. He mostly dares hitters to hit his fastball, and they clearly can't, as its minus-47.2 run value across the last two years is the best of any pitch.


    Why He Could Go Bust

    The injury bug has historically liked the taste of Rod贸n, notably laying him low with shoulder surgery in 2017, Tommy John surgery in 2019 and shoulder fatigue in 2021.

    That Rod贸n came back from all this to pitch a career-high 178 innings this year is a triumph from one perspective, but he wasn't able to get there without powering down his fastball:

    Graph via Google Sheets

    This coincided with his run prevention shifting from great to merely good, with his ERA going from 2.66 in the first half to 3.21 in the second.

4. RHP Jacob deGrom

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    NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 08: Jacob deGrom #48 of the New York Mets walks out of the fourth inning against the San Diego Padres in game two of the Wild Card Series at Citi Field on October 08, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Age: 34

    2022 Stats: 11 GS, 64.1 IP, 40 H (9 HR), 102 K, 8 BB, 3.08 ERA

    B/R Projection: 3 years, $135 million


    Why He Could Go Boom

    When healthy, Jacob deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball today. There's even an argument that he's the best all-time, the purveyors of which include Mookie Betts:

    SNY Mets @SNY_Mets

    "He's pretty much the best, maybe the best to ever pitch."<br><br>- Mookie Betts on Jacob deGrom <a href="https://t.co/BRXpz4geZS">pic.twitter.com/BRXpz4geZS</a>

    There's some statistical support for this notion, including the 193 ERA+ that deGrom has put up across the last five seasons. Even Sandy Koufax didn't go that high in his legendary run between 1962 and 1966.

    As for more aesthetic matters, it's just plain unfair that deGrom has walked fewer than two batters per nine innings while throwing a fastball that touches triple digits and a slider that gets into the mid-90s.


    Why He Could Go Bust

    So, about that "when healthy" part.

    Courtesy of a bad elbow in 2021 and a bad shoulder this year, it's no secret that deGrom hasn't been healthy for much of the last two seasons. If he was a younger man, this could be easily shrugged off. But by baseball standards, 34 is not young.

    Let's also not overlook that deGrom wasn't his usual dominant self the last time anyone saw him. He was initially throwing darts upon his return on Aug. 2, but then his fastball velocity began to fade, and he was hit hard to the tune of a 6.00 ERA over his last four regular-season starts.

3. SS Xander Bogaerts

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    Boston Red Sox's Xander Bogaerts runs towards first base after walking against New York Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes during the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh)
    AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh

    Age: 30

    2022 Stats: 150 G, 631 PA, 15 HR, 8 SB, .307 AVG, .377 OBP, .456 SLG

    B/R Projection: 8 years, $240 million


    Why He Could Go Boom

    Shortstop isn't an offense-first position, but anyone who's grown accustomed to watching Xander Bogaerts over the years can be forgiven for thinking it is.

    He's one point shy of a .300 average across the last eight seasons, the last five of which have seen him go no lower than 128 with his OPS+. That makes him one of a kind among shortstops.

    Bogaerts is also a solid baserunner who was a finalist for a Gold Glove in 2022, so he might be more attractive now than he was at any point in his career.


    Why He Could Go Bust

    To call the year that Bogaerts had on defense in 2022 "atypical" would be an understatement. Before this season, it was common for his metrics to be in the red:

    Graph via Google Sheets

    If Bogaerts was younger, it would be fair to read this as a turning of the corner. But as he's now north of 30, the smell here is one of unsustainability. Perhaps to a point where he'll eventually have to move off shortstop to a position where his bat would count for less.

    To this end, what could really make things dire is if Bogaerts' power doesn't recover from the hit it took as he played through shoulder and wrist pain in 2022.

2. SS Trea Turner

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 12: Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner (6) reacts after striking out during the NLDS Game 2 between the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers on October 12, 2022 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Age: 29

    2022 Stats: 160 G, 708 PA, 21 HR, 27 SB, .298 AVG, .343 OBP, .466 SLG

    B/R Projection: 8 years, $272 million


    Why He Could Go Boom

    Regardless of position, Trea Turner is the most dynamic offensive player in baseball today.

    He's a .316 hitter across the last three seasons, for which his 162-game averages include 27 home runs and 31 stolen bases. To the latter, that he was caught stealing only three times in 30 tries this year shows that he's as wise as he is fast on the bases.

    Going forward, Turner should be able to mine even more from his excellent baserunning. Per what happened during experimental trials in the minors, the bigger bases, pitch clock and limitations on pick-offs coming to MLB in 2023 will make things easier for base stealers.


    Why He Could Go Bust

    Alas, speed doesn't age well. Perhaps this doesn't require further elaboration, but it'll do to note that Statcast's sprint speed leaderboards are typically dominated by 20-somethings.

    Turner will no longer be one of those come June 30 of next year, so whoever signs him will do so knowing that his defining tool is likely on borrowed time. The more his speed diminishes, the more he'll have to uphold his value by other means.

    As such, it's not a good look that he's been better at second base than at shortstop or that his power took a turn for the worse in 2022, both in theory and in actuality.

1. RF/CF Aaron Judge

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    NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 22: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees reacts after striking out against the Houston Astros during the fourth inning in game three of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 22, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    2022 Stats: 157 G, 696 PA, 62 HR, 16 SB, .311 AVG, .425 OBP, .686 SLG

    B/R Projection: 8 years, $300 million


    Why He Could Go Boom

    What Aaron Judge did in 2022 was bonkers. To hit 62 home runs and lead the league in dozens of other categories? Just. Bonkers.

    Even if Judge never again rises to that level, he'll still be worth a lot if he so much as defaults back to his 2017-21 output: a 154 OPS+ and a 162-game average of 46 home runs.

    Far from a bat-only brute, Judge also racked up 59 defensive runs saved as a right fielder in that span. And given how often he's been burned by bad calls, he stands to benefit more than most from the inevitable introduction of an automated strike zone.


    Why He Could Go Bust

    At the risk of jinxing the guy, the likelihood of Judge having frequent battles with the injury bug in the future seems strong.

    He's already had his share of such battles, missing 142 out of 384 possible games between 2018 and 2020. At 6'7" and 282 pounds, there's always been a lot of him that can get hurt. And with his 31st birthday due on April 26, he's not getting any younger.

    As his sprint speed has slipped from the 80th percentile to the 50th percentile in just three years, Judge's athleticism is already losing something in the meantime. Whoever signs him to a long-term deal had thus better plan on not getting much out of it after the first few years.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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