10 MLB Free Agents Who Could Get Screwed by Suppressed Market
Major League Baseball teams have grown to be especially risk-averse on the free-agent market in recent years. Following a pandemic-shortened season marked by billions in losses, they figure to be even more so this winter.
This isn't good news for any free agent, but it could be particularly bad news for a select few.
We've pinpointed 10 players who could be disappointed by their offers on this winter's market. Though each of them is coming off a strong 2020 season, they also come with nits that will invariably be picked. Maybe it's their age. Or their position. Or their true talent level. Or some combination of all of the above.
Let's count 'em down, from the least desirable to the most desirable free agent.
10. INF/OF Brad Miller
After experiencing diminishing returns in 2017 and 2018, Brad Miller enjoyed a career revival in 2019 to the tune of a .941 OPS and 12 home runs with the Philadelphia Phillies.
He kept it up with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2020, playing in 48 games and posting an .807 OPS with seven long balls. By OPS+, he's been 23 percent better than average over the last two seasons.
Miller is 31 years old, however, and the catch with his recent offensive output is that he's benefited from a platoon role. The left-handed swinger has taken all of 42 plate appearances against lefty pitchers since the start of the '19 season.
Miller's defense is also suspect, as he's versatile yet not particularly good at any position. It's a good bet that he'll only get one-year offers, and probably for not much more than the $2 million he made in 2020.
9. OF/DH Robbie Grossman
After teasing star potential with an .828 OPS and 11 home runs in 99 games for the Minnesota Twins in 2016, Robbie Grossman promptly settled into a mere role-player existence between 2017 and 2019.
Not so much in 2020. Grossman appeared in 51 of the Oakland Athletics' 60 games and was one of their best hitters with an .826 OPS and eight homers. He also tallied four outs above average in left field.
But especially because Grossman is now 31 years old, teams have every reason to be skeptical of the sustainability of his most recent performance. To this end, the sizable gap between his expected production and actual production could stick out like a proverbial sore thumb.
Grossman should at least do better than the $3.8 million he earned in 2020, but maybe not even to the extent that he doubles up on it in a one-year deal.
8. SP Adam Wainwright
After 15 hugely successful seasons and in excess of $100 million in career earnings, Adam Wainwright arguably has nothing left to play for.
And yet the 39-year-old is still going strong. After making only eight starts in 2018 because of elbow trouble, he's made 41 starts since 2019 and pitched to an above-average 109 ERA+. He was especially good in 2020, compiling a 3.15 ERA in 10 outings.
Still, "dominant" doesn't quite describe Wainwright at this stage. He struck out only 54 batters in 65.2 innings this year, with batted ball metrics that ranked in the middle of the pack. In theory, his success had much to do with St. Louis' excellent defense.
Between that, his age and his injury history, Wainwright might have to settle for an incentive-laden one-year deal with a smaller guarantee than the $5 million he made in 2020.
7. 2B Cesar Hernandez
When the Phillies non-tendered Cesar Hernandez last winter, it seemed like they had neglected to notice that second basemen don't come much more consistent than he does.
Cleveland picked him up on a $6.3 million contract and benefited accordingly in 2020. Hernandez, 30, played in 58 games and posted a ho-hum .355 on-base percentage with an AL-high 20 doubles. He also won his first Gold Glove.
After a season like this, Hernandez is arguably the second-best second baseman on the market after DJ LeMahieu. Yet teams might rate Kolten Wong as a better defender, while others might gravitate more toward Jonathan Schoop's power or Tommy La Stella and Jurickson Profar's versatility.
There might be a two-year deal for Hernandez out there, but it wouldn't be surprising if he had to accept a one-year deal for no more than what he signed for last winter.
6. RHP Alex Colome
From one perspective, Alex Colome was an overpowering closer for the Chicago White Sox in 2020.
He allowed only two earned runs in 22.1 innings, a performance that largely stemmed from his ability to stifle hard contact. Out of 64 batted balls off him, only two registered as "barrels"—i.e., balls struck with an ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity.
There's a case to make for Colome as perhaps the second-best reliever on the market after Liam Hendriks. If just one team buys into that, a multiyear deal will be within Colome's reach.
However, he will be 32 years old on December 31, and the reality that he struck out only 16 batters this season is a major red flag at a time when most late-inning relievers are swing-and-miss specialists. Colome may have to accept a one-year deal, and perhaps for less than the $10.6 million he made in 2020.
5. RHP Mark Melancon
His rough introduction to the San Francisco Giants in 2017 notwithstanding, Mark Melancon has been one of baseball's most reliable relievers over the last eight seasons.
Overall, he boasts a well-above-average 165 ERA+ in this span. So it went in 2020, wherein he had a 173 ERA+ and finished 19 games out of 23 total appearances with Atlanta.
Similar to Colome, however, Melancon didn't rack up many swings-and-misses, striking out only 14 batters all season. Nor did he manage contact to an exceptional degree, as his exit velocity was in the 38th percentile.
Considering that he'll also be 36 years old when Opening Day for the 2021 season rolls around, Melancon might be lucky to get so much as half of his $14 million salary for 2020 in a one-year deal.
4. CF Jackie Bradley Jr.
The 2020 season brought out the best in Jackie Bradley Jr.
As per usual, he was one of the best defensive outfielders in the majors by way of his seven outs above average. He also performed capably across the board with a .283/.364/.450 slash line and seven home runs.
He's obviously no George Springer, but there's little question that Bradley is the second-best center fielder on the open market. He should be in line for a multiyear deal, perhaps one that matches his $11 million salary for 2020 on an annual basis.
Yet it's just as easy to imagine Bradley's market falling flat. He'll be 31 on April 19, and his offense is notoriously prone to fluctuations stemming from his platoon split and hit-or-miss batted ball metrics. He might have to settle for a mere two-year deal that doesn't even guarantee him $20 million.
3. SP Taijuan Walker
At just 28 years old, Taijuan Walker is on the young side for a free agent. That alone will help his market.
There's also, of course, the reality that Walker is coming off a promising season. In 11 total starts for the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays, he authored a 2.70 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 19 walks in 53.1 innings.
Trouble is, virtually none of Walker's peripheral stats from 2020 leap off the page. His stuff didn't light up velocity or spin readings, while his swing-and-miss and batted ball metrics were generally below par.
Considering that he made only four starts across 2018 and 2019 because of Tommy John surgery, Walker's injury history also can't be ignored. If he does get multiyear offers, they may be for few enough years and few enough dollars to convince him he's better off betting on himself in a one-year deal.
2. SP Masahiro Tanaka
Masahiro Tanaka mostly pitched like an ace in his first three seasons with the New York Yankees, logging a 131 ERA+ over 75 starts.
He hasn't been that guy since 2017, but he's remained effective with a 103 ERA+ while scarcely missing any starts. He also has a strong track record in the postseason, where he's posted a 3.33 ERA in 10 outings.
Tanaka is arguably the No. 2 starting pitcher on the market after NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer. If he were to be rewarded accordingly, the 32-year-old could make eight figures a year in a three- or even a four-year deal.
Yet there is the possibility that Tanaka's partially torn UCL will scare teams off. Others might be more worried about his below-average peripheral metrics. In either case, he might be pushed toward a lesser multiyear deal with a payout that hinges on incentives.
1. LF/DH Marcell Ozuna
Oh, don't worry. Marcell Ozuna is going to be paid handsomely this winter.
He certainly deserves as much after the season he just had. He collected an MLB-high 267 plate appearances and mashed with a .338/.431/.636 line and 18 home runs. He was able to finally collect on some overdue good luck since his modest numbers for St. Louis in 2018 and 2019 actually came with strong underlying metrics.
The 30-year-old ought to be in the market for a four- or five-year deal. Depending on the average annual value, such a deal could eclipse the $100 million mark with its total guarantees.
The big catch, though, is that Ozuna worked mostly as a designated hitter in 2020. That's reflective of how much his defense has deteriorated since he won a Gold Glove in 2017. So even if the DH stays in the National League for 2021—which isn't certain—Ozuna's market might still take a hit.