The Sneaky-Good MLB Free Agents Primed to Make Big Contributions in 2023

Zachary D. RymerDecember 11, 2022

The Sneaky-Good MLB Free Agents Primed to Make Big Contributions in 2023

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    Don't think Jean Segura's best days are behind him.
    AP Photo/Matt Slocum

    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 guysโ€”two of whom will be covered in a two-for-one specialโ€”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

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    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 16: Michael Fulmer #52 of the Minnesota Twins delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals in the eighth inning of the game at Target Field on August 16, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Royals 9-0. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
    David Berding/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    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.

    The good? A 128 ERA+ that tabs him as 28 percent better than the average hurler. The less good? A rate of 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings that's merely middling for a reliever.

    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

    Fulmer's thorough domination of right-handed batters mostly traces back to his slider. He threw righty batters the slider 69.4 percent of the time and the pitch held them to a .186 average.

    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

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    MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - OCTOBER 02: Taylor Rogers #25 of the Milwaukee Brewers throws a pitch against the Miami Marlins at American Family Field on October 02, 2022 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images)
    John Fisher/Getty Images

    Age: 31

    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:

    Image via Baseball Savant

    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

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    TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 01: Ross Stripling #48 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches in the first inning of their MLB game against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre on October 1, 2022 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)
    Cole Burston/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    2022 Stats: 32 G, 24 GS, 134.1 IP, 117 H (12 HR), 111 K, 20 BB, 3.01 ERA

    Ross Stripling went into 2022 with a career ERA+ of 105. He proceeded to post a 129 ERA+, putting himself on the same level as Brandon Woodruff and Triston McKenzie.

    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.

    Image via Baseball Savant

    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

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    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 27: Starting pitcher Michael Wacha #52 of the Boston Red Sox pitches at the top of the first inning of the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on September 27, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
    Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

    Age: 31

    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.

    Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

    Michael Wacha, Dirty 86mph Changeup. ๐Ÿ˜จ <a href="https://t.co/k91tRs6HLz">pic.twitter.com/k91tRs6HLz</a>

    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

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    Seattle Mariners second baseman Adam Frazier (26) reactors after a base hit during the second inning in Game 1 of an American League Division Series baseball game against the Houston Astros in Houston,Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox)
    AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox

    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.

    Philadelphia Phillies @Phillies

    A reminder: this is a Jean Segura Stan Account <a href="https://t.co/zclTwH3urG">pic.twitter.com/zclTwH3urG</a>

    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

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 21: San Francisco Giants third baseman Evan Longoria (10) looks on during the MLB game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 21, 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: 37

    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

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    BOSTON, MA - JULY 10:  J.D. Martinez #28 of the Boston Red Sox hits a two-run home run in the fifth inning during the game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sunday, July 10, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
    Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

    Age: 35

    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

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    CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 29: David Peralta #6 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates hitting an RBI single during the first inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field on September 29, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
    Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

    Age: 35

    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.

    Arizona Diamondbacks @Dbacks

    Choo choo baby! <a href="https://twitter.com/DPFreightTrain6?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@DPFreightTrain6</a> for the lead! <a href="https://t.co/ZuRqAwvcRL">pic.twitter.com/ZuRqAwvcRL</a>

    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.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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