Underrated MLB Free-Agent Signings Who Will Have Biggest Impact on 2023 Season

Zachary D. RymerJanuary 10, 2023

Underrated MLB Free-Agent Signings Who Will Have Biggest Impact on 2023 Season

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    The Dodgers were the perfect landing spot for J.D. Martinez.
    The Dodgers were the perfect landing spot for J.D. Martinez.David Berding/Getty Images

    Major League Baseball's free-agent market has thus far paid out $3.7 billion, a hefty chunk of which has gone to just a handful of players. All eyes will be on them in 2023.

    And yet some of the market's lesser splashes may steal the show.

    We specifically want to talk about eight deals that we think have the potential to pay off in a major way during the '23 season. In some cases, a team got a very good player at a surprisingly affordable rate. In others, a player has upside beyond what he's going to be paid. In others still, the player is overqualified for the role he's about to play.

    It seemed silly to try to rank these eight deals, so we opted to simply list the players in alphabetical order.

LHP Tyler Anderson, Los Angeles Angels

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    SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 15: Tyler Anderson #31 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during the first inning against the San Diego Padres in game four of the National League Division Series at PETCO Park on October 15, 2022 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
    Harry How/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    2022 Stats: 30 G, 28 GS, 178.2 IP, 145 H (14 HR), 138 K, 34 BB, 2.57 ERA

    The Deal: 3 Years, $39 Million

    Given what he had done for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2022, the Los Angeles Angels' deal for Tyler Anderson looked good even at the time it was announced in November. Then the market exploded, making it look even better.

    Of course, there is the question of how likely Anderson is to revert to the player who struggled to the tune of a 5.09 ERA from 2019 to 2021. Yet that shouldn't happen so long as he's able to carry over the primary keys to his success in '22.

    Generally, those included a chase rate in the 95th percentile and a hard-hit rate in the 98th percentile. And more specifically, greater trust in one of the game's better changeups.

    Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

    Tyler Anderson, Nasty Changeups. 👌 <a href="https://t.co/BwNfK6mmV1">pic.twitter.com/BwNfK6mmV1</a>

    As Anderson isn't much for missing bats, there will be pressure on the Angels defense to do its part on whatever soft contact he induces. That's where there's room for concern, as the Halos weren't quite as efficient on defense as the Dodgers were last year.

    On the plus side, the Angels nonetheless tied for fifth in efficiency even though they shifted their infield significantly less frequently than the Dodgers. As such, they should be prepared for MLB's looming post-shift era.

RHP Chris Bassitt, Toronto Blue Jays

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    NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 17: Chris Bassitt #40 of the New York Mets pitches during the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citi Field on September 17, 2022 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
    Adam Hunger/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    2022 Stats: 30 GS, 181.2 IP, 159 H (19 HR), 167 K, 49 BB, 3.42 ERA

    The Deal: 3 Years, $63 Million

    At $21 million per year, Chris Bassitt's deal with the Toronto Blue Jays carries one of the highest average annual values of any contract signed this offseason. So, yeah, perhaps it's cheating to treat the pact as an overlooked gem.

    What nonetheless excites about it is how Bassitt fits onto the Blue Jays.

    He may be making Yu Darvish money, but the veteran right-hander doesn't figure to bear Darvish-like responsibility. Bassitt is at best Toronto's No. 3 starter behind Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman. If José Berríos teases in spring training that he's ready to put a rough 2022 campaign behind him, Bassitt may enter the season as Toronto's No. 4 starter.

    Either way, he'd be overqualified. Your standard No. 3 starter just doesn't do what Bassitt has done in pitching to a 125 ERA+ (i.e., 25 percent better than the average pitcher) over the last five seasons.

    Having a deep rotation is a good thing under any circumstances, but it figures to be especially crucial when the Blue Jays go up against two American League East foes that likewise have deep rotations: the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. Sans Bassitt, the Jays would have much less of a chance to end up on top of both of them.

DH Matt Carpenter, San Diego Padres

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    NEW YORK, NY - JULY 31: Matt Carpenter #24 of the New York Yankees at bat against the Kansas City Royals during the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium on July 31, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
    Adam Hunger/Getty Images

    Age: 37

    2022 Stats: 47 G, 154 PA, 15 HR, 0 SB, .305 AVG, .412 OBP, .727 SLG

    The Deal: 2 Years, $12 Million

    What if the best hitter of 2022 wasn't Aaron Judge? What if it was actually Matt Carpenter?

    We don't actually mean this, of course, but we couldn't help ourselves after drawing up last year's OPS+ leaderboard and setting the minimum to 150 plate appearances. There was Carpenter on top at 217, followed by Judge at 211.

    That Carpenter had to settle for a $12 million deal indicates that the market deemed him unlikely to come anywhere close to that performance again. The Padres are clearly bullish, however, and not without good reason.

    Lest anyone think they were all Yankee Stadium cheapies, the 15 home runs that Carpenter hit in '22 were exactly as many as Statcast expected based on the quality of his contact. That was largely the result of him pushing back against the notion that age had slowed his bat down, as he did the bulk of his damage against fastballs. The broken foot he suffered in August, meanwhile, was a freak injury.

    Further, Carpenter should benefit from the new shift regulations after seeing infield shifts on 84.1 percent of the pitches he saw last year. If all goes well, he'll stand out even in a lineup that will also feature Manny Machado, Juan Soto, Xander Bogaerts and Fernando Tatís Jr.

RHP Zach Eflin, Tampa Bay Rays

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    HOUSTON, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 05: Zach Eflin #56 of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch against the Houston Astros during the seventh inning in Game Six of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 05, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
    Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

    Age: 28

    2022 Stats: 20 G, 13 GS, 75.2 IP, 70 H (8 HR), 65 K, 16 BB, 4.04 ERA

    The Deal: 3 Years, $40 Million

    If anyone's been wondering why the Rays made a guy with a career 4.49 ERA the largest free-agent signing in their history, well, fair enough.

    But while we also have our doubts, we can also grant that A) the Rays usually know what they're doing and B) precisely how Eflin could become a difference-maker for them is no mystery.

    His results for the Philadelphia Phillies may not have reflected as much in 2022, but Eflin obviously continued to throw strikes while also turning a corner with his contact management. His hard-hit rate ended up in the 94th percentile.

    That mostly traces back to his pitch selection, wherein he basically scrapped his slider and made his curveball his primary breaking ball. Batters hit .155 against it, but it really only takes one look at the pitch to understand why throwing it more often was a good idea.

    Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

    Zach Eflin, Wicked 79mph Curveball. 🤢 <a href="https://t.co/cHjaGAmoA3">pic.twitter.com/cHjaGAmoA3</a>

    Whereas there's some question as to whether Anderson is right for his new surroundings in Anaheim, that's less of a question with regard to Eflin in Tampa. The Rays were a much better defensive team than the Phillies in 2022, and Tropicana Field isn't nearly as friendly to hitters as Citizens Bank Park.

2B Adam Frazier, Baltimore Orioles

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    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 02: Adam Frazier #26 of the Seattle Mariners runs to first base during the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics at T-Mobile Park on October 02, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
    Steph Chambers/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    2022 Stats: 156 G, 602 PA, 3 HR, 11 SB, .238 AVG, .301 OBP, .311 SLG

    The Deal: 1 Year, $8 Million

    If there are any Orioles fans out there who are feeling annoyed that the team hasn't done more this winter, that's fair. Following a season that effectively marks the end of a rebuilding phase, this should be a time to spend.

    Still, don't discount the impact that Adam Frazier could have on the O's in 2022.

    He hit .305 amid an All-Star campaign in 2021, and he frankly deserved better than to tumble all the way to a .238 average in 2022. He made plenty of contact, ranking in the 95th percentile for strikeout rate, and his expected average came out to .262.

    On the other side of the ball, Frazier seems ticketed to play second base full-time in Baltimore. That should suit him better than the utility role he played for the Seattle Mariners in 2022, as second base has traditionally been Frazier's best defensive position.

    To be sure, none of this makes Frazier MVP material. But if he hits up around .300 while forming an effective double-play combination in tandem with either Gunnar Henderson or Jorge Mateo, he'll be an important part of an Orioles team that should be in playoff contention this year.

J.D. Martinez, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - SEPTEMBER 11: J.D. Martinez #28 of the Boston Red Sox runs to first base against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 11, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
    G Fiume/Getty Images

    Age: 35

    2022 Stats: 139 G, 596 PA, 16 HR, 0 SB, .274 AVG, .341 OBP, .448 SLG

    The Deal: 1 Year, $10 Million

    The Boston Red Sox got more than their money's worth out of the five-year, $110 million deal they agreed with J.D. Martinez after the 2017 season. But the returns definitely diminished over time, culminating in him posting a modest .701 OPS in the second half of 2022.

    All the same, the chance the Dodgers are taking on Martinez is worthwhile for at least one reason: he still crushes left-handed pitching.

    Whereas he managed only a .729 OPS against right-handers in '22, his OPS against lefties was a sturdy .998. The latter amounted to a 175 wRC+, which notably placed Martinez slightly ahead of Aaron Judge (174) in that department.

    Then there's the other reason that the Martinez signing is worthwhile for the Dodgers, and it relates to the presence of hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc. Martinez's work with Van Scoyoc was instrumental in formulating a swing that made him the best hitter this side of Mike Trout between 2014 and 2019.

    At worst, Martinez could be for the Dodgers what Albert Pujols was for the St. Louis Cardinals last season. At best, he'll enjoy a reawakening that would be powerful enough to make up for the losses of Trea Turner, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner.

LHP José Quintana, New York Mets

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    ST LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 17: Jose Quintana #62 of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers a pitch against the Cincinnati Reds in the first inning during game two of a doubleheader at Busch Stadium on September 17, 2022 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    2022 Stats: 32 GS, 165.2 IP, 154 H (8 HR), 137 K, 47 BB, 2.93 ERA

    The Deal: 2 Years, $26 Million

    The most prominent member of the Mets' $800 million free-agent haul isn't exactly José Quintana, but now is hardly a good time to underestimate him.

    Following a nice run with the Chicago White Sox in the early-to-mid 2010s, Quintana seemed to charter a course out of the majors in pitching to a 4.51 ERA between 2017 and 2021. Yet now here he is after a triumphant return to form in 2022, and it's all thanks to fairly simple adjustments.

    Namely, Quintana threw more curveballs as the year went along and ultimately took on a whole new approach with his fastball. He aimed high with it. As in, very high:

    Graph via Baseball Savant

    For opposing hitters, making contact against Quintana wasn't the problem. Making good contact was, as his average exit velocity was in the 89th percentile and he ended up with the lowest home run rate of any qualified hurlers.

    In virtually any other rotation, Quintana would be a shoo-in to slot somewhere between No. 1 and No. 3. But on the Mets, he's potentially only a No. 4 behind Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Kodai Senga and maybe even a No. 5 behind Carlos Carrasco. If there's a perfect distillation of how loaded the Mets are, this is it.

C Christian Vázquez, Minnesota Twins

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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 02:  Christian Vázquez #9 of the Houston Astros looks on during Game 4 of the 2022 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday, November 2, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
    Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

    Age: 32

    2022 Stats: 119 G, 426 PA, 9 HR, 1 SB, .274 AVG, .315 OBP, .399 SLG

    The Deal: 3 Years, $30 Million

    Because they still have a shot at re-signing Carlos Correa, the best move of the Twins' offseason may not have happened yet. For now, though, they deserve more credit for landing Christian Vázquez.

    If nothing else, the Twins scored a winner when they signed Vázquez. He's been a key part of two World Series champions, first as a starter for the Red Sox in 2018 and more recently as a reserve-turned-postseason-standout for the Houston Astros last season.

    As far as skills go, Vázquez is less spectacular. He puts the ball in play well enough (i.e., 82nd percentile for strikeout rate in 2022) as a hitter, but without much power. As a defender, he rates well for his throwing but is about average when it comes to framing.

    Look a little closer, though, and you'll see that Vázquez remains one of the best at framing pitches at the top of the zone. Twins pitchers lived up there more than most in 2022, and especially with their fastballs.

    It's likely that by the end of 2023, Vázquez's individual numbers won't jump off the page. But the Twins clearly already believe that he's a good guy to have around, and they won't have much reason to change their minds if he elevates them like he did the Red Sox and Astros.

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.