Upcoming MLB Free Agents Boosting Their Stock the Most in 2020

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2020

Upcoming MLB Free Agents Boosting Their Stock the Most in 2020

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    After Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg and Zack Wheeler all signed megadeals last offseason, the upcoming MLB free-agent class could be a letdown.

    Aside from the lack of star power, there is also no telling what sort of impact the revenue that teams have lost will have on spending.

    Despite that uncertainty, a handful of upcoming free agents have played their way into a better position in the shortened 2020 season.

    From an NL Cy Young candidate to a utility infielder making good on a one-year deal, the following 10 players have all boosted their earning power.

Other Free Agents Who Have Improved Their Stock

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    Tommy La Stella
    Tommy La StellaTony Avelar/Associated Press

    Position Players

    • CF Jackie Bradley Jr., BOS
    • IF Asdrubal Cabrera, WAS
    • 1B C.J. Cron, DET
    • 2B Cesar Hernandez, CLE
    • IF Tommy La Stella, OAK
    • C James McCann, CWS
    • OF Kevin Pillar, COL

                

    Pitchers

    • RP Tyler Clippard, MIN
    • RP Shane Greene, ATL
    • SP J.A. Happ, NYY
    • RP Jeremy Jeffress, CHC
    • RP Mark Melancon, ATL
    • SP Drew Smyly, SF
    • RP Blake Treinen, LAD

OF Robbie Grossman, Oakland Athletics

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Robbie Grossman has quietly been a productive fourth outfielder with strong on-base skills for several years.

    Over the past four seasons, he posted a .361 on-base percentage and averaged 32 extra-base hits and 448 plate appearances per year while suiting up for the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics.

    The 31-year-old was set to earn a modest $3.7 million this season in his final year of arbitration, and he has continued to produce, posting a career-high 127 OPS+ with 11 doubles, five home runs and 19 RBI in 153 plate appearances.

    He is also one of just 22 qualified hitters this year with a walk rate above 10 percent and strikeout rate below 20 percent, giving him a rare offensive profile in today's strikeout-heavy game.

    Something in the neighborhood of a two-year, $10 million contract is reasonable for a player who has proved himself over several seasons and in an expanded role in 2020.

LHP Tony Watson, San Francisco Giants

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Tony Watson has an impressive track record as a reliable, late-inning workhorse.

    The left-hander made at least 60 appearances in eight straight seasons before 2020, posting a 2.72 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 8.0 K/9 with 30 saves and 207 holds in 563 games during that stretch.

    However, it looked like his productive career might be winding down last season when he logged a career-high 4.17 ERA and a career-low 6.8 K/9, finishing the season on the injured list with a fractured wrist.

    The 35-year-old has bounced back in a big way this season, pitching to a 0.64 ERA and 0.64 WHIP in 16 appearances with two saves and seven holds.

    There is always a market for productive left-handed relievers, and he should have no problem exceeding the one-year, $3 million contract he signed this past offseason.

IF/OF Brad Miller, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Brad Miller failed to build off a 30-homer campaign with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016, struggling to an 88 OPS+ and hitting just 16 home runs in 661 plate appearances the next two years.

    He followed with his first foray into free agency, which ended in a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He then bounced to the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees before finding a home with the Philadelphia Phillies in June 2019.

    He hit .263/.331/.610 for a 136 OPS+ with 12 home runs in 130 plate appearances after joining the Phillies while serving in a super-utility role. That was enough for him to secure a one-year, $2 million MLB deal with the Cardinals this past winter, and he has earned an everyday spot in the St. Louis lineup.

    The 30-year-old is hitting .265/.387/.522 with 14 extra-base hits in 134 plate appearances, and he has seen time at second base, shortstop, third base and designated hitter. He is also walking at a career-high 16.1 percent clip, nearly double his 8.8 percent rate from a year ago.

    While he still fits best as an offensive-minded utility player, he has proved his strong finish to the 2019 season was for real. That should be enough for him to secure a multiyear deal and a modest raise this offseason.

RHP Garrett Richards, San Diego Padres

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The San Diego Padres signed oft-injured Garrett Richards to a two-year, $15.5 million contract before last season, knowing he would spend most of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

    He started the 2020 season with a spot in the San Diego rotation and went 2-2 with a 4.27 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 46.1 innings over 10 starts.

    With Mike Clevinger, Dinelson Lamet, Zach Davies and Chris Paddack expected to make up the postseason rotation, Richards has been moved to the bullpen to get acquainted with relief work down the stretch.

    "Obviously he's got to figure out how quick it takes him to warm up and everything that goes into it, but we think he's got a chance, with his arsenal, to be somewhat dominant down there for us," Padres manager Jayce Tingler told reporters.

    The 32-year-old has proved healthy, and regardless of what role he fills down the stretch, he has rebuilt his stock after a lost year.

2B Jonathan Schoop, Detroit Tigers

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Jonathan Schoop was an All-Star in 2017 when he posted a 124 OPS+ with 35 doubles, 32 home runs and 105 RBI.

    His OPS plummeted from .841 to .682 the following season, and he landed somewhere in the middle in 2019 on a one-year, $7.5 million contract with the Minnesota Twins. He hit .256/.304/.473 with 23 doubles and 23 home runs for baseball's most powerful offense before once again hitting the open market.

    The 28-year-old landed with the rebuilding Detroit Tigers on a one-year, $6.1 million contract, which was a decent payday in a tough market.

    Had there been a 2020 All-Star Game, there's a good chance he would have been Detroit's representative.

    He's hitting .278/.324/.475 for a 113 OPS+ with 14 extra-base hits and 23 RBI in 164 plate appearances while also playing a strong second base (1 DRS, 10.5 UZR/150) and serving as a veteran leader in a young locker room.

    A nice uptick in his offensive numbers and a thinner market at second base should give his earning power a boost this winter.

RHP Taijuan Walker, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    At his peak in the Seattle Mariners farm system, Taijuan Walker was ranked as the No. 11 prospect in baseball before the 2014 season, according to Baseball America.

    He made his MLB debut just weeks after his 21st birthday and showed flashes throughout his four seasons in Seattle. Before the 2017 campaign, the M's traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks along with Ketel Marte in a five-player deal that sent Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger to Seattle.

    In his D-backs debut, Walker went 9-9 with a 3.49 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 146 strikeouts in 157.1 innings. That was good for 2.6 WAR, and he was seemingly on the cusp of stardom after his age-24 season.

    Instead, injuries derailed his ascent, and he pitched just 14 innings in 2018 and 2019 because of Tommy John surgery. He was non-tendered in December, and after a lengthy run on the free-agent market he returned to Seattle on Feb. 12 on a one-year, $2 million contract.

    He pitched well enough in five starts with a 4.00 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 27 innings that he was a sought-after trade chip ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline. He was flipped to the Toronto Blue Jays, and he has continued to impress with a 1.56 ERA in 17.1 frames since the trade.

    Still just 28 years old, he has more upside than most free-agent pitchers in this year's class. That alone should be enough for him to secure a multiyear commitment.

SS Didi Gregorius, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Didi Gregorius was one of the best shortstops in baseball during his first four seasons with the New York Yankees.

    He posted a 104 OPS+ and averaged 26 doubles, 20 home runs, 75 RBI and 72 runs scored while also playing quality defense, which all amounted to an impressive 3.6 WAR per season from 2015 through 2018.

    Unfortunately, he missed the start of his contract year while recovering from Tommy John surgery and was not the same hitter upon returning, posting a .238/.276/.441 line and an 87 OPS+ in 344 plate appearances.

    It was an inopportune time for his first trip into free agency, and he settled on a one-year, $14 million prove-it contract from the Philadelphia Phillies last offseason while also receiving interest from the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers.

    The 30-year-old is hitting .280/.339/.482 for a 117 OPS+ and has tallied six doubles, two triples and eight home runs in 174 plate appearances, effectively reasserting himself as a two-way standout.

    He'll share the shortstop market with Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons this offseason, and there should be no shortage of interest now that he is back to his pre-injury form.

RHP Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The San Francisco Giants gave several one-year deals to veterans this offseason to fill out a rebuilding roster and perhaps hit on a few trade chips.

    The expanded playoff format has put them in position to sneak into the postseason, and they stood pat at the trade deadline. Otherwise, Kevin Gausman would have been a hot commodity.

    The 29-year-old enjoyed a solid five-plus-year run with the Baltimore Orioles, though he never quite lived up to being the No. 4 pick in 2012.

    He was traded to the Atlanta Braves at the 2018 deadline and pitched extremely well down the stretch, but the wheels fell off last season when he struggled to a 6.19 ERA in 16 starts before he was released.

    The Giants gave him a one-year, $9 million contract in December, hoping he would regain his previous form, and he has responded with the best season of his career.

    A 3-2 record and a 4.05 ERA might not look like anything special, but those numbers are backed by a terrific 1.14 WHIP and a 62-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 46.2 innings. His 12.0 K/9 and .229 opponents' batting average both represent career bests.

    In a thin market for starting pitching, he could eclipse the three-year, $28 million contract that Kyle Gibson signed with the Texas Rangers last year.

OF Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Tethered to a qualifying offer and coming off a down 2019 season, Marcell Ozuna went the one-year, prove-it route last offseason when he signed an $18 million contract with the Atlanta Braves.

    The hope was that he could replace some of the middle-of-the-order run production that was lost when Josh Donaldson joined the Minnesota Twins, and he has done just that for the NL East leaders.

    The 29-year-old is hitting .314/.400/.592 with 11 doubles, 14 home runs and 44 RBI in 198 plate appearances, placing him squarely in the NL MVP conversation.

    His 155 OPS+ represents a career high, and his 12.7 percent walk rate is also a personal best. His 1.5 WAR through 50 games is close to the 1.9 WAR he posted in 130 games a year ago.

    With Mookie Betts extended by the Los Angeles Dodgers, George Springer suffering through a down year, and J.D. Martinez increasingly unlikely to opt out given his struggles this season, a case can be made that Ozuna is the most impactful offensive player in the upcoming free-agent class.

    Catcher J.T. Realmuto is an impact offensive player in his own right, but his earning power is tied to his positional scarcity and two-way ability more than his bat.

    At the very least, Ozuna should be able to match the four-year, $64 million contract that Nick Castellanos signed with the Cincinnati Reds last offseason.

RHP Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati Reds

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Trevor Bauer went 2-5 with a 6.39 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 10 starts with the Cincinnati Reds last year after he was acquired in a three-team, seven-player blockbuster at the trade deadline.

    If he had hit the free-agent market last winter, that rocky stretch might have cost him significant money.

    Instead, he has spent 2020 rebuilding his stock and then some, and he enters the season's final weeks squarely in the NL Cy Young conversation alongside Jacob deGrom and Yu Darvish.

    The 29-year-old leads the NL in ERA (1.71), WHIP (0.81), strikeouts (83), complete games (2) and shutouts (2), and his 12.9 K/9 represents a career high.

    He has stated multiple times that he intends to sign one-year contracts the rest of his career, and there's solid logic to his reasoning behind that approach. Will he stick to that mindset when nine-figure offers start rolling in?

    Regardless, with Marcus Stroman injured (calf) and Robbie Ray struggling, there is little question Bauer is now the top starting pitcher in the upcoming free-agent class.

                    

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted, and accurate through Wednesday's games.