MLB Free Agents 2017: Predicting Landing Spots for Top Players Still Available
These are hard times for MLB free agents. With spring training fast approaching, roster spots and money are in shorter supply than they were at the beginning of the offseason.
This much is certain, though: The top free agents still standing won't be unemployed forever. They're going to land somewhere.
So, let's go ahead and predict where these somewheres will be.
Since the free-agent market has largely been picked clean, we're only going to focus on the 10 best players still looking for work. We'll find homes for them by speculating about what's spinning around the rumor mill and on where their talents fit.
Let's start with the best free agent remaining and go from there.
Mark Trumbo, OF/INF
It's the middle of January, and last season's leading home run hitter is still looking for work.
Trouble is, Mark Trumbo is tied to draft-pick compensation and is also a bat-only player in a market overrun by bat-only players. And while his power looks better than ever coming off his 47-homer season with the Baltimore Orioles in 2016, power isn't hard to find anymore.
The 30-year-old's situation isn't hopeless, though. The Colorado Rockies and Texas Rangers have been linked to right-handed sluggers. And as Steve Melewski of MASN sees it, the Orioles' recent acquisition of Seth Smith shouldn't take them out of Trumbo's orbit.
That's not stopping O's general manager Dan Duquette from being coy. "We like some of the other options, some of the shorter-term options on the market," he said in a recent MLB Network Radio interview (via Mark Polishuk of MLB Trade Rumors).
However, it didn't help Trumbo's market value when fellow slugger Edwin Encarnacion signed a surprisingly cheap $60 million deal with the Cleveland Indians. The Orioles can probably bring Trumbo back for even cheaper without having to worry about also surrendering a draft pick.
The Rockies, on the other hand, may not have the funds after dropping $70 million on Ian Desmond. The Rangers are a different story. But as we'll get to later, their attention seems fixed on someone else.
Jose Bautista, OF/DH
Jose Bautista misjudged his market when he rejected a qualifying offer from the Toronto Blue Jays. That tied him to draft-pick compensation, adding additional risk to signing a 36-year-old coming off a rough 2016.
It seems like we're all just waiting for Bautista and the Blue Jays to get back together. Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported in late December that Bautista and Toronto were in "active" contract negotiations. The latest from TSN's Steve Phillips is that he's now atop the club's list of preferred outfield options.
It's not as perfect a fit as it was at the start of the winter. The Blue Jays filled their designated hitter role by signing Kendrys Morales, effectively barring Bautista from coming back as a full-time or part-time DH. If the Blue Jays sign him, they'll need him to play right field.
Still, there's a deal to be made.
As Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet reported, Bautista is most likely to accept a one-year deal that would allow him to re-enter the market next winter. And he wouldn't be risking another qualifying offer if he returns to Toronto. The new collective bargaining agreement states players can get only one.
Bautista does fit in Baltimore, but not if the O's re-sign Mark Trumbo. He also fits in Texas, but that's not happening for obvious reasons. The Philadelphia Phillies are an intriguing fit but would be hard-pressed to lure Bautista away from the familiarity of Toronto in a battle of one-year offers.
Destination: Blue Jays
Matt Wieters, C
Matt Wieters has also struggled with a slowly developing market after an unimpressive 2016, and yet there do appear to be several homes for him to go to.
Even if the Orioles tap themselves out by re-signing Trumbo instead of Wieters, rebuilding clubs like the Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves could look to him to fill needs at catcher. There are also needs on contending teams, such as the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Angels.
The Angels are generating all the buzz on Wieters right now. According to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, they've been "considering making a run" at the 30-year-old.
That indicates the Angels aren't satisfied with their catching tandem of Martin Maldonado and Carlos Perez. Wieters would indeed be an upgrade. He's a steady presence behind the plate. And despite managing just a .711 OPS in 2016, his 17 home runs stand out for an Angels team that finished 14th in the American League in homers last year.
Although Wieters would be the Angels' first big signing of the winter, they can fit him in. Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, their payroll is short of brushing up against this year's competitive balance threshold.
The Nationals could decide they need Wieters more. But with Derek Norris to hold down catching duties in a deep lineup, they don't need to do that.
Michael Saunders, OF
Despite a second-half slump, Michael Saunders still finished 2016 with an .815 OPS and 24 home runs. He's also useful in the outfield and isn't tied to draft-pick compensation.
So, who wants him?
Judging by how updates to his MLB Trade Rumors page have been few and far between, seemingly nobody. And while there's a painfully obvious fit for him on the San Francisco Giants, they're already in competitive balance tax territory.
Further, the Orioles' re-signing Mark Trumbo or the Blue Jays' re-signing Jose Bautista would not help the 30-year-old's market. Per a report from Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, that could mean an easy rebound for the Phillies. Presumably, their idea would be to sign Saunders only to flip him later.
Another team that could do that is the Chicago White Sox, whom MLB Trade Rumors listed as a possibility for Saunders in November. They could use him in right field and at DH and then flip him this summer for more prospects to add to their growing farm system.
The White Sox are the more off-the-board pick for Saunders. However, it's easier to see them signing him to play over Avisail Garcia and Matt Davidson than it is to see the Phillies signing him to share time with Howie Kendrick and Roman Quinn.
Destination: White Sox
Jason Hammel, SP
Given the lack of quality pitching on this winter's market, you'd expect there to be more interest in a guy with a 3.68 ERA over the last three seasons.
Instead, the market has looked at Jason Hammel and said "meh."
Since it's hard to imagine the 34-year-old settling for less than the $22 million the Miami Marlins gave Edinson Volquez, Hammel's best bet is catching on with a contender willing to pay to deepen its rotation.
Hammel's old haunts in Baltimore are an option, and Dan Duquette didn't rule him out when speaking to MLB Network Radio. He could also land elsewhere in the AL East with the New York Yankees, who MLB.com's Bryan Hoch says have checked in on the right-hander.
Or, Hammel could head west. According to Morosi, the Rangers have shown an interest in him. The Angels and Houston Astros could also use some starting pitching depth.
Best guess? Here, it's that the Rangers will emerge from the pack.
Although they're the two-time defending champs of the AL West, they're looking at serious competition in 2017 from the Astros, Angels and Seattle Mariners. In the face of that, it would behoove them to have another reliable starter alongside Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish.
Mike Napoli, 1B/DH
Mike Napoli gave the Indians 34 home runs last season, but they decided to upgrade by going with Edwin Encarnacion's 42 homers instead. Can't blame them for that.
Since Napoli can't return to Cleveland, he'll just have to return to Texas.
Napoli's reuniting with the Rangers does seem to be a matter of "when" and not "if." T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com reported in late December that the sides were working on a two-year deal. There's been no update since then, but it's easy to believe Sullivan's assertion that they're "highly motivated" to finish it.
The Rangers have question marks at first base and DH that would be answered by inking the 35-year-old slugger. Relative to Mark Trumbo, he would also be a much more affordable answer to these questions.
For Napoli, going back to Texas would mean going back to a place he knows well. He's already done two tours in Texas, where he's put up a .929 OPS and made one of his three World Series appearances.
If the Rangers do indeed land Napoli and Jason Hammel, they'll be good to go for 2017.
Brandon Moss, OF/1B
Brandon Moss has averaged 25 homers per year since 2012, and there should be more where that came from. Per Baseball Savant, he had the league's highest average launch angle in 2016. Catch the fever.
But like with Michael Saunders, rumors about Moss have been few and far between. And if the Orioles, Blue Jays, White Sox and Rangers go elsewhere for bats, that's four fits for his talents that would be off the table.
That basically means we could finally have a guy for the Phillies.
According to the previously mentioned Rosenthal report, Moss is another hitter the Phillies have on their wish list. He suits them well, too. As a left-handed hitter who fits in the corner outfield spots and at first base, the 33-year-old could share time with Howie Kendrick, Roman Quinn and Tommy Joseph. Moss also comes free of draft-pick compensation and should be relatively cheap.
For the man himself, not having anywhere else to go wouldn't be the only reason to sign with Philadelphia. The playing time would be there, and he'd have a chance to build his value at a park that's very friendly to left-handed power hitters.
Chris Carter, 1B/DH
Although Chris Carter co-led the National League with 41 homers last season and was slated to make less than $10 million in 2017, he was still non-tendered by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Which is actually understandable. Carter has loads of power, but he strikes out a ton and doesn't come with speed or defensive skills. Even when flanked by other hitters who rely heavily on their power, the 30-year-old stands out as a guy who relies too much on his power.
By now, it's clear Carter will be a cheap plan B for a team in need of some right-handed pop. If the Orioles, Blue Jays and Rangers fill their needs with more expensive options, that narrows his list of suitors down to...
Well, basically just the Rockies.
As Thomas Harding of MLB.com reported in December, the Rockies were looking at Carter, Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo. Their signing of Ian Desmond upset that pursuit but didn't necessarily take them out of the market for a right-handed slugger who fits at first.
According to Harding, they're still in contact with Trumbo. That's likely not happening, but it's not hard to imagine Colorado pivoting to Carter. He's essentially the off-brand version of Trumbo, and signing him would allow them to move Desmond from first base back to the outfield, where his athleticism fits a lot better.
Luis Valbuena, 3B/1B
Luis Valbuena is in a tough spot this winter.
For one, he mainly plays third base. That's a position in low demand due to how many star third basemen there are in today's MLB. For two, his good-not-great bat (.776 OPS since 2014) doesn't loom large in a market where there are still some really good bats available.
Thus, it's no surprise Valbuena's corner of the market has been about as noisy as a campus library during finals week.
The Boston Red Sox might have tabbed Valbuena to play third base, but their going with Pablo Sandoval and Valbuena doesn't work as a platoon partner for him. He also could have fit on the Oakland A's, but they've since gone for Trevor Plouffe, per Rosenthal.
As such, I'll echo Connor Byrne of MLB Trade Rumors in saying that the best place for Valbuena is in Atlanta.
The Braves are going with Adonis Garcia at third base. He's a right-handed swinger with far better numbers against southpaws (.829 OPS) than against righties (.701 OPS). As a lefty swinger with the opposite platoon split, Valbuena is the perfect guy to share time with Garcia at the hot corner.
Greg Holland, RP
With Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon spoken for, the relief pitching market now revolves around this guy.
And the interest is there, according to Heyman. Greg Holland is drawing looks from the Nationals, Rockies, Brewers, Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds, to name just a few.
Holland may be coming off Tommy John surgery, but it clearly hasn't been forgotten how dominant he was in his heyday with the Kansas City Royals. The 31-year-old was especially lethal in 2013 and 2014, putting up a 1.32 ERA and striking out 13.4 batters per nine innings.
Holland does want a usual deal: two years with an opt-out after one. That's a deal for a win-now contender in need of options at closer to make. Among the teams listed above, that narrows the list down to one: Washington.
The Nationals were in play for Chapman, Jansen and Melancon before the three went in other directions. They've let the situation lie ever since. Either they're comfortable going with Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen in the ninth inning, or they're posturing.
I'm calling their bluff. And with some space between their payroll and the competitive balance tax, they have a window to add possibly the final puzzle piece of a championship team.