Buyer Beware: Every Top MLB Free Agent's Biggest Red Flag

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 7, 2020

Buyer Beware: Every Top MLB Free Agent's Biggest Red Flag

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    Trevor Bauer has ace-like stuff, but doesn't always pitch like an actual ace.
    Trevor Bauer has ace-like stuff, but doesn't always pitch like an actual ace.Associated Press

    The free-agent market for the 2020-21 Major League Baseball offseason is officially open. As per usual, there's no shortage of alluring options for teams with money to spend.

    But since no player is perfect, we thought we'd acknowledge the red flags of the top 10 free agents from our rankings.

    These cover specific and general performance-related issues, as well as matters pertaining to health and durability. While some players come with concerns relating to each of the above, we only highlighted what we considered to be their biggest red flag.

    Let's count 'em down.

10. SP Kevin Gausman: Inconsistency

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 30

    Kevin Gausman can be a darn good pitcher when he's on his game, which was certainly the case in 2020 as he logged 59.1 innings for the San Francisco Giants.

    He boosted his average fastball to 95.1 mph and went to his wicked splitter for 46 of his 79 total strikeouts—only Luis Castillo had more strikeouts on off-speed stuff. In tandem with his low totals in the walk (16) and home run (8) columns, Gausman ultimately rode his nasty stuff to a 3.62 ERA.

    But even setting aside the draft-pick ramifications of his qualifying offer, any club that considers Gausman will have to take a good, long look at his track record and determine how much stock to put into his 2020 effort.

    The right-hander posted an ugly 5.72 ERA as recently as 2019 and has generally pitched to a mediocre 4.26 ERA overall in eight seasons. The quality of his stuff has fluctuated, and he's also been prone to hard contact. To wit, his 55th-percentile exit velocity in 2020 was actually one of his better marks.

9. SS Marcus Semien: Uncertainty

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 30

    This time last year, it looked like Marcus Semien was going to be one of the very best free agents on the 2020-21 market.

    After years of teasing untapped offensive upside, he finally realized it in 2019 by racking up an .892 OPS and mashing 33 home runs while playing in all 162 games for the Oakland Athletics. That plus his strong defense at shortstop resulted in 8.9 rWAR, which in turn helped make him an MVP finalist.

    But then Semien fell back to earth in 2020, managing only a .679 OPS with a career-low 0.3 rWAR in 53 games. What's more, peripheral stats such as his 12-percentile exit velocity and sixth-percentile outs above average paint an even grimmer portrait of his season.

    Some teams might look at this performance and see it as one bad year. Others, however, might look and see his 2019 season as the fluke. Given that said season is an obvious outlier—especially offensively—relative to the rest of Semien's career, teams in the latter camp will have a gripe.

8. DH Nelson Cruz: Age

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 40

    Though Nelson Cruz is technically a free agent, his market might only consist of one team. He and the Minnesota Twins have grown quite fond of one another, and they're reportedly already negotiating a new deal.

    Still, the Twins must proceed with caution. Cruz is seeking a two-year contract, according to LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Such a deal would cover his age-40 and age-41 seasons, either of which may well be the end of the road for Cruz's offensive brilliance.

    He averaged a .916 OPS and 41 home runs per year between 2014 and 2019, and kept it up with a .992 OPS and 16 homers in MLB's 60-game season for 2020. Yet cracks have inevitably appeared in his armor. He missed time with a wrist injury in 2019 and slumped through his last 20 games of this season.

    History provides another reason why the Twins shouldn't expect as many as two more 40-homer seasons out of Cruz. Only three players have ever totaled at least 40 homers across their age-40 and age-41 campaigns.

7. SS Didi Gregorius: One-Dimensionality

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 31

    Teams in the market for a power-hitting shortstop could do a lot worse than Didi Gregorius.

    Since 2016, the 96 home runs he's hit as a shortstop rank fourth behind Trevor Story, Francisco Lindor and Xander Bogaerts. And that's despite the fact that he sat out half of his 2019 season with the New York Yankees after undergoing Tommy John surgery the previous fall.

    But if it's otherwise a question of what else Gregorius can do besides hit for power, answers are becoming hard to come by.

    Outs above average has rated him as a below-average defensive shortstop in each of the last four seasons. His speed is also declining, and he isn't actually good at hitting the ball hard despite his results in the power department. This year, for example, his 83.8 mph exit velocity ranked in the second percentile.

6. SP Marcus Stroman: Upside

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 30

    Marcus Stroman never took the mound for the New York Mets in his walk year. He began his season on the injured list with a calf injury and later opted out altogether in August.

    Despite this experience and his qualifying offer, Stroman figures to be one of the most sought-after free agents on the market. Good starting pitching is in short supply, after all, and the righty's resume includes a 2017 season that earned him Cy Young votes and a 2019 campaign in which he was an All-Star.

    Yet Stroman's durability is bound to be a source of concern. His record includes four different stints on the injured list. There's also, of course, the reality that his diminutive 5'7", 180-pound frame is like something out of the 19th century.

    Stroman also has limited options for getting outs. Unless he can boost a strikeout rate that's peaked at just 7.8 per nine innings, he'll be in trouble if his elite ground-ball rate ever wavers.

5. LF Marcell Ozuna: One-Dimensionality

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 30

    Marcell Ozuna's decision to bet on himself via a one-year, $18 million contract with Atlanta panned out. His value soared in 2020 as he put up a 1.067 OPS and an NL-best 18 home runs.

    Because Ozuna had previously put up modest numbers—i.e., a .777  OPS and 4.5 rWAR—with the St. Louis Cardinals between 2018 and 2019, there's an argument that his biggest red flag is actually inconsistency.

    Thing is, it was apparent even last winter that Ozuna probably deserved better results in St. Louis. His underlying metrics were solid, up to and including a 96th-percentile hard-hit rate in 2019.

    Nowadays, the bigger question is just how useful Ozuna is outside the batter's box. Since winning a Gold Glove with the Miami Marlins in 2017, his throwing arm has been compromised and he's posted minus-11 outs above average on defense. Meanwhile, he's also leaking speed.

4. 2B DJ LeMahieu: One-Dimensionality

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 32

    When the New York Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million deal in January 2019, some scoffed. Where would they even play him? And how well would he hit outside of Denver?

    Now we know the answers: wherever and extremely.

    A three-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman with the Colorado Rockies, LeMahieu worked at second, third and first base in his two seasons with New York. He also hit the daylights out of the ball, riding a total of 326 hard-hit balls (second to Jose Abreu) to a .336 average, .922 OPS and 83 extra-base hits.

    Yet it's some concern that LeMahieu is getting deeper into his 30s, if for no other reason than the ramifications for his speed and defense. He's already a below-average runner, while his outs above average over the last two seasons suggest he's likely done winning Gold Gloves.

3. OF George Springer: Age

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 31

    As with all members of the Houston Astros, there was a question about how George Springer would perform in 2020 after MLB uncovered the club's sign-stealing schemes.

    Just fine, as it turned out. Springer got off to a slow start, but he eventually rebounded to post an .899 OPS, 14 homers and 1.9 rWAR in 51 games. Out of all outfielders since 2016, he now ranks third in home runs and fourth in rWAR.

    This isn't even to mention Springer's postseason track record, which is among the all-time greats. In 63 career playoff games, he's posted an .895 OPS and cranked 19 home runs.

    All of this leaves just one catch: Springer is already 31 years old. Being that close to his twilight years bodes well for neither his athleticism nor his durability. As it is, he's already leaking speed, and his injury history includes five stints on the injured list.

2. C J.T. Realmuto: Durability

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 30

    Other catchers are as good as J.T. Realmuto on offense and defense, individually. But together? Nah.

    The last four seasons have seen him hit .276 with an .812 OPS and 74 home runs on one side of the ball. On the other, he's distinguished by elite marks for both his catch-and-throw times and his framing

    Realmuto should and almost certainly will be paid accordingly. He's likely to become the first catcher to even land a nine-figure deal in free agency, and whichever team grants it to him will cross its (metaphorical) fingers and hope for more of the same.

    But to this end, it's no secret that catching takes a toll on the human body. Given that he's nearing 30 and he's caught more innings since 2015 than every catcher not named Yadier Molina, Realmuto is a prime candidate to be able to vouch for that before long.

1. SP Trevor Bauer: Inconsistency

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 30

    Though he didn't receive as much praise as Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, Trevor Bauer was arguably the best pitcher in baseball this season.

    Boosted by a league-high spin rate on his pitches, the righty allowed only 41 hits and 17 walks while whiffing 100 batters in 73 innings for the Cincinnati Reds. He finished with an NL-best 1.73 ERA, as well as the lowest expected ERA of any starting pitcher.

    This isn't the first time Bauer has pitched at a Cy Young-caliber level. He also made a case for the award with Cleveland in 2018, wherein he pitched to a 2.21 ERA with 221 strikeouts in 175.1 innings.

    But while these two campaigns accurately reflect Bauer's upside, they're also outliers. He's been somewhere between average and below-average in his other seven seasons, and one need only go back to the latter half of 2019—in which he had a 6.39 ERA in 10 starts with Cincinnati—to find the last time he was outright bad. 

         

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

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