Ranking the Best Upcoming MLB Free-Agent Hitters
If MLB's July 31 non-waiver trade deadline offered any indication, the offseason's biggest free-agent hitters will face a frustrating market.
As playoff contenders fixated on pitching, position players fell by the wayside. Some teams failed to find a taker for above-average contributors, and those players who switched places fetched underwhelming returns.
An offensive boom has created a saturation of sluggers and a scarcity of top-tier pitching. Yet interest may shift back to hitting during the offseason since volatile, easily combustible hurlers make risky long-term investments.
Clubs interested in boosting their scoring prowess will find a bevy of options. While some marquee names nosedived during contract years, others perfectly timed breakout campaigns.
One recent champion faces an especially perilous winter, during which it could lose three of its top contributors. Accounting for age, offense, defense and expected future value, let's see where they rank among MLB's top pending batters for hire.
The Wild Card: Justin Upton, OF, Detroit Tigers
Justin Upton can add a major name to the mix by opting out of the remaining four years and $88.5 million of his six-year deal. FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman described the possibility as "beyond remote" in late May, but the odds have since increased considerably.
Upton, who turns 30 later this month, is batting .277/.365/.525 with 21 home runs, 10 stolen bases and 4.3 WAR. He's still unlikely to receive much of a pay raise, but he may prefer to leave the Detroit Tigers as they inch toward a needed rebuild.
If he hits free agency, he easily jumps into the top five with a credible claim to the No. 1 spot.
Too Many 1B
Yonder Alonso, 1B, Seattle Mariners
Lucas Duda, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays
Mitch Moreland, 1B, Boston Red Sox
Mike Napoli, 1B, Texas Rangers (Club Option)
Mark Reynolds, 1B, Colorado Rockies
Three first basemen made the cut, so there was no room for these solid hitters as the need for first basemen will have dwindled. Amid a major power breakthrough (career-high 22 home runs), Yonder Alonso was the toughest exclusion. Another late bloomer with more homers and better defense took his spot.
Strong Track Records
Todd Frazier, 1B/3B, New York Yankees
Neil Walker, 2B, New York Mets
Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Colorado Rockies
Melky Cabrera, OF, Kansas City Royals
Carlos Gomez, OF, Texas Rangers
Carlos Gonzalez has had a successful career in Coors Field, but baseball's worst position player couldn't justify a spot. Power is no longer scarce enough for Todd Frazier to get by as more than an average hitter with a microscopic batting average (.206). Neil Walker and Melky Cabrera are steady hands, but Carlos Gomez is the biggest threat to force his way into the end-of-season top 10.
Old Reliables (Emphasis on Old)
Brandon Phillips, 2B, Atlanta Braves
Howie Kendrick, INF, Washington Nationals
Carlos Beltran, OF/DH, Houston Astros
Curtis Granderson, OF, New York Mets
Matt Holliday, DH, New York Yankees
Continuing to defy Father Time as a productive second baseman, Brandon Phillips is the most valuable of the veteran grouping. Howie Kendrick also continues to pile up hits. Like Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday, Curtis Granderson could extend his career as a designated hitter.
10. Logan Morrison, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays
Teams may face a tougher challenge in projecting Logan Morrison.
Formerly no more than an average hitter, the first baseman has transformed into an elite power source in 2017. He has belted a career-high 28 home runs with a 137 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) that eclipses Anthony Rizzo and Ryan Zimmerman.
He has made tangible changes to his approach, increasing his fly-ball rate to 46.4 percent (over 10 percent uptick). Anyone who believes his alterations will last should vault him into the top five, but what if he's a one-year wonder?
Perhaps more realistically, what if his 23.0 home run/fly-ball rate deteriorates and he's a league-average first baseman rather than an All-Star snub?
That's a fine outcome, as long as the buyer pays for that rather than the full-fledged breakout. Morrison should expect some healthy skepticism with so many other first basemen for hire, but it only takes one team to invigorate his market value.
9. Jay Bruce, OF, New York Mets
The New York Mets are still trying to trade Jay Bruce. That can't be a great sign for his free-agency value.
Thirteen games out of the National League wild card and certainly not in 2017 contention, the Mets still didn't unload the outfielder by July 31. He could still play out the season on a title hopeful. According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, the 30-year-old cleared revocable waivers.
Bruce was a downright poor player in 2014 and 2015, and he spoiled a bounce-back 2016 by hitting .219/.294/.391 if 50 games with the Mets. Yet he has clobbered 29 home runs this season, a tally exceeded by just seven players. Boasting a .528 slugging percentage, 122 wRC+ and 2.1 WAR, he looks like the man who was formerly one of baseball's steadiest sluggers with the Cincinnati Reds.
"I feel like this is the most consistent I've been, which is huge," Bruce said days before the deadline, per Newsday's Marc Carig. "I pride myself on playing every single day, preparing, being ready to go, being the guy you can count on to post and being a quality piece to a winning team. Individually this year, so far I've done that."
Yet teams appear less willing than ever to invest in aging power hitters. Already given a glimpse of how ugly a decline would look, Bruce may elicit less interest than one would expect from a well-known slugger with seven 25-homer seasons under his belt.
8. Eduardo Nunez, 3B/SS/OF, Boston Red Sox
Eduardo Nunez's stock keeps rising by the day.
In nine games since getting traded to the Boston Red Sox, the utility man is hitting 16-for-40 with four doubles, four home runs, three stolen bases and 12 RBI. He's now batting .319/.345/.462 with 21 steals and 2.0 WAR over 85 games.
Paying for speed and batting average is always dicey, especially since he's hitting over his head. According to Baseball Savant, the 30-year-old has a .250 expected batting average based on Statcast data.
Yet he's unlikely to so deeply regress soon with MLB's lowest strikeout percentage (9.4) among all qualified batters. If anything, he'll slide back to last year's .288 clip of his career .281 average. A buyer won't mind if he continues to run wild and offer defensive versatility.
Per FanGraph's value estimations, he has yielded $46.5 million worth of production over the last three seasons, the first of which he was stuck in a limited role. Having proved his worth as a major league regular, he should command an eight-figure annual salary.
7. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Colorado Rockies
Last year's version of Jonathan Lucroy would top this list and make a realistic push to become baseball's highest-paid catcher. Now he's only mentioned as a courtesy to past performance and the position's lack of star power.
A year removed from batting .292/.355/.500 with a career-high 24 home runs, the 31-year-old is now hitting .245/.304/.341 with four long balls, the last of which he smacked June 9. The same guy the Milwaukee Brewers exchanged for Lewis Brinson last summer landed the Texas Rangers a player to be named later from the Colorado Rockies.
He can salvage some value with a strong conclusion to 2017, but skeptics may attribute a rebound to Coors Field. Either way, suitors would be remiss to write off a top contributor after one bad season.
Since 2012, only Buster Posey and Yadier Molina have accrued more WAR than Lucroy at the position. Up until 2017, he offered elite results in the batter's box and behind the plate.
His untimely slide is especially cruel given his production on a six-year, $16.25 million contract. Based on his career resume, he should still make as much as his $5.25 million 2017 salary, if not more next season.
6. Carlos Santana, 1B/DH, Cleveland Indians
Carlos Santana would have been gravely underappreciated in the pre-Moneyball era. Although teams will now properly respect his elite plate discipline, he hits the open market a year too late.
The first baseman would have snagged a hefty contract after registering career highs in home runs (34) and WAR (3.7) for the American League champion Cleveland Indians. This season, his power has regressed close to career norms as he sports a .438 slugging percentage and 16 home runs.
Eighteen first basemen have gone deep more times this year, and his 107 wRC+ ranks 19th at the stacked position. Only a handful of teams will view him as an upgrade, and there are plenty of alternatives in a free-agent class also featuring Alonso, Morrison, Mike Napoli, Lucas Duda and Eric Hosmer.
But remember the walks. Only the king of on-base percentage, Joey Votto, has drawn more free passes than Santana since 2011. Speed, power and bat speed eventually fade, but veterans can maintain a keen batting eye past their physical peak.
Santana thus has a higher floor than other available players. It's 2017, so MLB organizations won't run from a career .247 hitter with a .363 on-base percentage. Inconsistent power at a position that demands pop, on the other hand, creates a legitimate hurdle.
5. Zack Cozart, SS, Cincinnati Reds
If anyone believes in his offensive breakthrough, Zack Cozart will receive a massive payday.
Even as a mediocre hitter, the Cincinnati Reds shortstop was a quality starter based on his glove. Now he's hitting .318/.404/.573 with the position's second-highest wRC+ (151), behind Carlos Correa (158). A strong finish can convince suitors he's one of few two-way shortstop stars.
There's evidence to support his newfound plate prowess, most notably career highs in walk (12.7) and hard-hit percentage (33.1). Although he's still likely to regress, anyone investing heavily on limited offensive excellence has the cushy fallback of an elite defensive shortstop.
He has also, however, missed time for the third consecutive year. This season, a quad injury in late July prevented the Reds from selling him before MLB's non-waiver trade deadline.
That could lower Cozart's salary. Teams are also often skeptical of late-career breakouts, and he turns 32 on Saturday. Those scarlet letters curb him from topping the list, but the class' premier shortstop stands out in a crowded crop of hitting-oriented first basemen and outfielders.
4. Lorenzo Cain, OF, Kansas City Royals
Of the Kansas City Royals' three premier pending free agents, Lorenzo Cain wields the most value. While Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have produced more at the plate, the center fielder leads the lineup in WAR (3.1) because of his baserunning and defense.
In fact, Cain has accumulated more WAR (16.7) since 2014 than either Royals corner infielder has in his career. He's an All-Star talent even as a slightly above-league-average hitter.
So why is he ranked below Hosmer and Moustakas? Age. Whereas both teammates enter the open market below 30, Cain turns 32 next April. That's especially worrisome considering how much value he derives from his legs.
He eventually won't have the stamina to swipe 25-30 bags and gracefully patrol the outfield. That decay could ruin the tail end of his new contract, especially if he lands a long-term deal.
Yet center fielders who can defend and run are far scarcer than sluggers, so he offers a bigger 2018 boost.
3. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals
Perhaps baseball's most compelling Rorschach test, Hosmer is simultaneously viewed as a stud by some and an average big league first baseman by others.
Over the time he notched three straight Gold Gloves (2013-15), advanced metrics painted him as one of the league's most limited fielders. He received his first All-Star nod in 2016, only to finish the season with minus-0.2 WAR.
Jim Leyland frequently started him over Paul Goldschmidt in the World Baseball Classic. That's a huge sign of respect for someone with a significantly worse career wRC+ (109) than Duda (124), who is likely to fall through the cracks while Hosmer gets one of the offseason's biggest deals.
To be fair, Hosmer's .315/.371/.498 slash line finally matches his overblown reputation. Set to turn 28 in October, he's also the youngest highlighted hitter who will test his worth. On pace to play over 150 games for the fifth season in six years, he also receives bonus points for durability.
A team who gives him passing grades on its defensive eye test will feel more comfortable extending him a six-, potentially even seven- or eight-year offer. There's huge overpay potential, and his career numbers say such as pact is still a huge reach. Yet Hosmer is a steady hand who may just now be rounding into his prime among a weak free-agent hitting crop.
2. Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals
Moustakas will find out if teams still dig the long ball.
After suffering a torn ACL early last season, the third baseman has recovered to club 32 home runs. He also, however, holds a mediocre .307 on-base percentage on account of drawing 18 walks.
Once a strong fielder, Moustakas now grades as a subpar defender with minus-seven defensive runs saved (DRS) and a minus-1.0 ultimate zone rating (UZR). The injury has stripped him of range at the hot corner, so this decline appears more than a misleading sample.
Moustakas could cement his All-Star standing by reverting to a competent fielder and returning to the 7.0 walk percentage he posted in 2014 and 2015. Neither is out of the realm of possibility, but teams won't easily forget the ACL tear when deciding whether he warrants a $15-$20 million annual salary.
It would be a tougher sell if he tested the waters in his 30s, but the to-be 29-year-old should ride his power outburst to a sizable payday.
1. J.D. Martinez, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
He's one of baseball's fiercest batters, but J.D. Martinez's summer availability didn't draw a grand-scale frenzy. The Arizona Diamondbacks somehow acquired the star outfielder without sending the Tigers any blue-chip prospects.
Nevertheless, teams should line up for his services this offseason.
Since the start of 2014, only three active, qualified hitters (Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado and Giancarlo Stanton) have submitted a higher slugging percentage than Martinez's .553. And that's a quaint mark compared to this year's .628 clip compiled over 72 games.
Despite missing all of April due to a Lisfranc sprain in his right foot, he has belted 22 home runs, six of which he has nailed in 15 games with Arizona.
Martinez is baseball's best superstar hitter who doesn't receive superstar recognition. Over the past three-plus seasons, his 145 wRC+ matches former Tigers teammate Miguel Cabrera's, and the latter signed an eight-year, $248 million extension that began in 2016.
Although Martinez won't sniff that much money, he should enter 2018 a rich man. Subpar defense and past health woes may require him to maximize his annual earnings with a three- or four-year deal, but someone may reward a fifth year to a 30-year-old delivering peak performance.
Like with any big-time free agent, investing in Martinez comes with hazards. He'll be the biggest litmus test on whether teams will go broke for power.
Even with his warts, he tops the list on the strength of an awesome bat.