Departed MLB Free Agents Teams Will Miss the Most in 2015

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2014

Nov 20, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN;  Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin (left) receives his jersey from general manager Alex Anthopoulos after being introduced at a press conference at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, free agency is still alive and well as a viable method for a team to go out and add talent to its roster.

You might not realize that given the eye-popping, mind-blowing number of trades that have been completed in MLB over the past seven days—21 swaps involving more than 50 players, per—but some pretty good players have changed allegiances as free agents this winter.

Which of those defections will most find a player's former employers yearning for the good ol' days, the time when Player X was a member of their club?

Let's take a look.

OF/DH Nelson Cruz (Baltimore Orioles)

Nelson Cruz has taken his powerful right-handed swing—the one that produced a MLB-best 40 home runs in 2014 and helped power Baltimore to its first AL East crown since 1997—to Seattle, coming to an agreement on a multiyear deal with the Mariners in early December.

With Cruz, the Orioles led baseball with 211 regular-season home runs. Take his 40 blasts out of the equation, though, and the club still would have had one of the game's premier power-hitting lineups with 171 home runs, finishing third behind Colorado (186) and Toronto (177).

So what's the big deal about him leaving the inner harbor?

Cruz making one of his round trips in front of the Baltimore faithful.
Cruz making one of his round trips in front of the Baltimore faithful.Rob Carr/Getty Images

Cruz was a known commodity before he arrived in Baltimore, a player who could be counted on for at least 20 home runs and 80 RBI a season. The Orioles are now relying heavily on Chris Davis and Steve Pearce to pick up the slack, neither one a sure thing.

Davis followed up his MVP-caliber 2013 season by hitting .196 with 26 home runs and 72 RBI. He had a costly 25-game suspension at the end of the year for taking Adderall.

Pearce, who broke out in 2014 by hitting .293 with 21 home runs, 49 RBI and a .930 OPS, was a career journeyman with 17 home runs and 91 RBI over 290 career games from 2007-2013.

Is it possible that Davis will revert to his 2013 form and that Pearce will build upon his career year? Sure.

But it's just as possible that the pair falls back into the realm of irrelevance. Cruz, on the other hand, may never hit 40 home runs in Seattle, but he'll continue to be as consistent a run producer in the middle of a lineup as he's been for the bulk of his career.

C Russell Martin (Pittsburgh Pirates)

You have to give Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington credit. As he explained to Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review before the regular season ended, he knew that keeping Russell Martin in a Pirates uniform was not only important for the team's continued on-field success but off it as well.

While there's been some criticism hurled in the team's direction, nobody could have reasonably expected the Pirates to contend with the five-year, $82 million deal that the Toronto Blue Jays bestowed on the Canada native.

Pittsburgh moved quickly to try and replace him, acquiring Francisco Cervelli—a former Martin understudy—from the New York Yankees, but the 28-year-old has appeared in more than 50 games only once over parts of seven major league seasons and has had trouble staying healthy.

Replacing Martin's production at the plate—he averaged 13 home runs and 61 RBI a year for the Pirates—won't be nearly as difficult as replacing his impact on a team's pitching staff. Martin is one of the premier game-callers and pitch-framers in the game. 

Take a look at the impact Martin's arrival has had on his last two teams.

Team ERA's With and Without Russell Martin
TeamYearTeam ERA
New York Yankees (w/o Martin)20104.06
New York Yankees (w/Martin)20113.73
Pittsburgh Pirates (w/o Martin)20123.91
Pittsburgh Pirates (w/Martin)20133.27

While there are a number of factors that go into those numbers, the one constant is Martin—pitchers perform better with him behind the plate than they do with other catchers. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage have built a reputation for working magic with pitchers.

It will be fascinating to see just how much magic they have left in their wands without Martin as their primary magician's assistant.

3B Pablo Sandoval (San Francisco Giants)

Not all bears go into hibernation for the winter.
Not all bears go into hibernation for the winter.Stephan Savoia/Associated Press/Associated Press

Nobody really believed that the Panda would leave his habitat this winter, but that's exactly what Pablo Sandoval did, taking his freakish athleticism (for a man his size) to Boston on a deal that could be worth more than $100 million by the time it's complete.

San Francisco reportedly offered Sandoval a five-year, $95 million pact—nearly identical to what he received from the Red Sox—but ultimately, Sandoval wanted to find out for himself if the grass really was greener elsewhere.

“He said it was a really difficult decision and he was spending a lot of time with his family trying to contemplate what was best,” Giants assistant general manager Bobby Evans told Alex Pavlovic of the Bay Area News Group. “He felt like he needed a new challenge, and he wanted to try something new.”

In his place, the defending World Series champions went out and acquired veteran Casey McGehee from the Miami Marlins. While nobody believes that McGehee is a better defender than Sandoval, you might be surprised to see that advanced metrics don't have the pair too far apart, at least in Ultimate Zone Rating/150:

Advanced 3B Defensive Metrics from 2009-2014
PlayerInnings at 3BUZR/150DRS

That 25-run difference in defensive runs saved, however, is significant, especially when you consider that the Giants don't exactly have one of the game's most high-octane lineups.

It's when the Giants step to the plate that Sandoval's absence will really be noticeable. While its true that his OPS has steadily declined since 2011, he was a major part of their offense, and the Giants don't win either of their last two World Series titles without his bat in the middle of the lineup.

Owner of a career .344/.389/.545 slash line over 39 career playoff games, Sandoval has hit a combined .455 (20-for-44) with seven extra-base hits (three home runs), eight RBI and nine runs scored over the team's run to postseason glory in 2012, when he was named World Series MVP, and in 2014.

McGehee doesn't have nearly as extensive (or impressive) postseason resume, mustering only one hit in six at-bats for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011.

SP James Shields (Kansas City Royals)

"Big Game James" won't be easily replaced in Kansas City.
"Big Game James" won't be easily replaced in Kansas City.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press/Associated Press

While he's yet to sign a contract with a new team, which technically means he could wind up back in Kansas City, James Shields is likely going to be pitching elsewhere in 2015. 

The Royals know this and have acted accordingly, signing free-agent starters Kris Medlen and Edinson Volquez to bolster a rotation that will be without its ace of the last two seasons.

During his tenure in Kansas City, no pitcher in baseball has made as many quality starts—a game in which a pitcher throws at least six innings and allows no more than three earned runs—as Shields has:

MLB Quality Starts Leaders Since 2013
PitcherTeamNo. of QS
Clayton KershawLAD51
James ShieldsKC51
Adam WainwrightSTL51
Cole HamelsPHI50
Felix HernandezSEA49
Baseball-Reference Play Index

That's some pretty impressive company.

How does Kansas City's expected 2015 rotation measure up to Shields over the same period of time?

No. of Quality Starts by KC Starters Besides Shields Since 2013
PitcherNo. of QS
Jeremy Guthrie34
Jason Vargas32
Edinson Volquez31
Kris Medlen22
Yordano Ventura22
Danny Duffy15
Baseball-Reference Play Index

Medlen's numbers are a bit skewed since he missed the entire 2014 season after going under the knife for the second Tommy John surgery of his career, but you get the picture. Effectively replacing Shields atop the rotation is going to be nearly impossible for the Royals to accomplish.

Unless otherwise linked/noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Find me on Twitter to talk all things baseball: @RickWeinerBR


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