The Sneaky-Good MLB Free Agents Primed to Make Big Contributions in 2023
With Aaron Judge, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom and several others off the board, Major League Baseball's 2022-23 free-agent market has a reached a place where teams are going to have to dig deeper to find value.
So, let's look at some lesser free agents who have the goods to make an impact in 2023.
What we've come up with isn't exactly a list of unrecognizable names. But if not more money, the nine guys—two of whom will be covered in a two-for-one special—we like for next season deserve more credit for certain specific skills that they possess.
The list is split evenly between pitchers and hitters. Going in alphabetical order, we'll begin with the former.
RHP Michael Fulmer
2022 Stats: 67 G, 11 GF, 63.2 IP, 59 H (4 HR), 61 K, 28 BB, 3.39 ERA
The trajectory of Michael Fulmer's career has taken him from award-winning starting pitcher in the mid-2010s to a good, but seemingly unspectacular reliever over the last two seasons.
And yet, Fulmer was quietly dominant about 60 percent of the time this past season. Check out his platoon splits:
- vs. RHB: 167 PA, .544 OPS
- vs. LHB: 109 PA, .930 OPS
Adam Ottavino offers a potential model for what Fulmer could be in 2023. Ottavino employed a slider-heavy approach in throwing 70 percent of his pitches against righties in 2022, benefiting to the tune of a 188 ERA+ that has him in line for big money this winter.
LHP Taylor Rogers
2022 Stats: 66 G, 40 GF, 64.1 IP, 57 H (7 HR), 84 K, 19 BB, 4.76 ERA
Taylor Rogers had some good years with the Minnesota Twins, notably saving 30 games in 2018 and making the American League All-Star squad in 2021.
This past season was more of a struggle, and particularly after Rogers landed with the Milwaukee Brewers by way of a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres. Rogers pitched to a 5.48 ERA the rest of the way, notably giving up six home runs in only 23 innings.
Through it all, however, he remained an excellent source of whiffs (84th percentile) and strikeouts (90th percentile). It was crucial that his slider didn't lose much after he achieved a career-high whiff rate with it in 2021:
Simply on these grounds, Rogers is a sensible buy-low candidate for a team in need of a late-inning reliever.
Failing that, Rogers could at least be useful as a specialist. Whereas he gave up seven home runs to right-handed batters this past season, he silenced left-handed batters in holding them to a .511 OPS and three extra-base hits.
RHP Ross Stripling
2022 Stats: 32 G, 24 GS, 134.1 IP, 117 H (12 HR), 111 K, 20 BB, 3.01 ERA
We can nonetheless presume a couple of reasons for why nobody has tabbed Stripling for a big payday. His age and injury history, for sure, but probably also the possibility that his recent success is not sustainable.
For our part, we're intrigued by the two things that Stripling unequivocally did well this year. Not walking guys was clearly one of them. Getting batters to chase outside the strike zone (93rd percentile) was the other, and it points to less of a fastball-centric approach.
All those swings outside the zone may not have led to more strikeouts for Stripling, but he can vouch that such swings often produce soft contact if nothing else. Batters got to him for a .269 average within the zone, but only a .139 average outside of it.
As long as Stripling sticks to the tricks that worked for him in 2022, he'll have mid-rotation upside in 2023.
RHP Michael Wacha
2022 Stats: 23 GS, 127.1 IP, 111 H (18 HR), 104 K, 31 BB, 3.32 ERA
After he broke out as a postseason hero in 2013 and made the National League All-Star team in 2015, Michael Wacha subsequently faded as he faced injuries and pitched to an 89 ERA+ between 2016 and 2021.
Yet Wacha began turning a corner even before this past season. Factoring in his strong finish to 2021, his last 30 starts have yielded a 3.29 ERA.
As far as what's driven this return to form, suffice it to say that Wacha's changeup always has been and still is nasty.
What Wacha has yet to truly figure out is how to properly set up his changeup. He's mostly tasked his four-seamer for the job, and it's mostly backfired. Per its plus-33.6 run value, the four-seamer has been by far Wacha's least effective pitch since 2019.
It's thus a credit to Wacha that his ineffective four-seamer didn't keep him from otherwise pitching effectively in 2022. If a team can convince him to scrap it in favor of more sinkers and cutters, there may be even better things to mine from his right arm.
2B Adam Frazier and 2B Jean Segura
Frazier's Age: 30
Frazier's 2022 Stats: 156 G, 602 PA, 3 HR, 11 SB, .238 AVG, .301 OBP, .311 SLG
Segura's Age: 32
Segura's 2022 Stats: 98 G, 387 PA, 10 HR, 13 SB, .277 AVG, .336 OBP, .387 SLG
Let's begin our tour of undervalued position players with the promised two-for-one special, brought to you by way of Adam Frazier and Jean Segura having similar profiles.
Though both of them have spent time at other positions, second base is where they belong. The two of them have combined for 32 defensive runs saved at the position since 2016.
This is important, of course, because the upcoming limitations on defensive shifts should reestablish a more traditional style of defense at second base in 2023. Guys who can actually play the position figure to stand out more.
On the other side of the ball, both Frazier and Segura are good guys to have in a lineup because of all the contact they make. The latter was in the 88th percentile for strikeout rate in 2022, while the former landed in the 95th.
Frazier obviously didn't get as much out of his bat-to-ball skill as Segura, but let's grant that he hit .305 in 2021 and that he also stands to benefit from shift regulations as a hitter. Though he's not a dead-pull hitter, he has lost his share of hits on ground balls and line drives to right field over the years.
3B Evan Longoria
2022 Stats: 89 G, 298 PA, 14 HR, 0 SB, .244 AVG, .315 OBP, .451 SLG
Evan Longoria has done it all except win a World Series, so it's no wonder that he's open to continuing his career with "any competitive team."
No matter where he ends up, the three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glover's principal challenge will simply be to stay healthy. He's been banged up for much of the last two seasons, playing in a grand total of just 170 games.
The silver lining throughout it all is that Longoria's bat has enjoyed a resurgence to the tune of a 119 OPS+ and 27 home runs. He's hit the ball plenty hard, averaging a sturdy 92.6 mph in exit velocity.
If these numbers don't do enough to vouch that Longoria's bat is aging well, consider his productivity against four-seam fastballs. He's done the bulk of his damage against them over the last two seasons, which is the opposite of what one would expect of a guy his age.
If not a quality regular, Longoria profiles as an even more dangerous hitter in a platoon role. He's typically crushed left-handed pitching, posting an .868 OPS against them compared to .782 against right-handers.
DH J.D. Martinez
2022 Stats: 139 G, 596 PA, 16 HR, 0 SB, .274 AVG, .341 OBP, .448 SLG
The older J.D. Martinez is not the J.D. Martinez of old. Though he does lead MLB with 85 doubles since the start of 2021, his over-the-fence power has diminished to a point where he went yard only 16 times in 2022.
Martinez's batted-ball metrics further underscore the downfall of his slugging prowess. None more so than exit velocity, for which he averaged a career-low 89.1 mph this past season.
On the plus side, those who threw from the left side still had ample reason to fear the righty-swinging Martinez in 2022:
- vs. RHP: 459 PA, .729 OPS
- vs. LHP: 137 PA, .998 OPS
One catch is that Martinez's sample size against lefties from this past season isn't exactly large. However, it does jibes with his career track record.
Another catch is that there isn't much call for right-handed platoon hitters, much less ones that don't offer much in the way of defense. But, hey, if Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals can make it work, then so might Martinez and an enterprising contender.
LF David Peralta
2022 Stats: 134 G, 490 PA, 12 HR, 1 SB, .251 AVG, .316 OBP, .415 SLG
At his peak, David Peralta was a Silver Slugger in 2018 and a Gold Glove recipient in 2019. To call him underrated was underselling it.
The last three years have been more of a hit-or-miss experience. He's generally hit well in posting a 103 OPS+, but with fewer home runs (25) than he hit just in his '18 season (30). The quality of his defense, meanwhile, has varied depending on the metric.
Similar to Martinez, however, Peralta remained a threat when he had the platoon advantage in 2022. The lefty swinger's OPS opposite righties was 316 percentage points higher than it was against lefties.
If that's one reason for teams to give Peralta a look, the shift regulations are another. He was shifted on a career-high 42.9 percent of the time in '22, and he felt the effects by way of a lower-than-expected .340 average on pulled line drives and ground balls.
If the new rules help lift that number in 2023, Peralta may not even need to be a platoon guy to have a good year.