8 Talented MLB Free Agents in Danger of Missing 2021 Spring Training
Here we go again.
As the labor tensions heat up between Major League Baseball and its players, a number of talents remain unsigned just days before pitchers and catchers are set to report to their respective camps.
This has not been uncommon in recent seasons. In 2019, pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel—who had helped the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox to World Series titles in 2017 and 2018—remained on the market through spring training and the start of the regular season.
In 2018, there were so many unsigned free agents as spring training began that they formed their own training site in South Florida. The group could have fielded an All-Star team with how much talent was there.
This year, the situation is not quite as dire as it was then, when more than 100 free agents were available in February. The biggest names are off the board. National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer joined his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers, and center fielder George Springer headed north of the border to the Toronto Blue Jays. This class of free agents consists mostly of veteran pitchers and outfielders, with a few notable names still available.
Here are eight of them, and the best destination for each.
RF Yasiel Puig
There is always a chance for excitement when Yasiel Puig is on the field. There is also the chance for controversy.
The right fielder was unsigned a week before the 2020 season opened and came to an agreement on a contract with the Atlanta Braves, but the deal fell through after his positive coronavirus test.
You can't discount character issues when it comes to Puig. On the field, he's feuded with players and been involved in a brawl. Off it, he's been charged with reckless driving and investigated by MLB over allegations of domestic violence.
But if a team is willing to take a chance on him, he will likely give it 20-plus home runs with regular playing time. The 30-year-old has also expressed a willingness to take coaching when it comes to his outfield positioning.
Puig switched agents this offseason and is now represented by Rachel Luba, who recently negotiated Trevor Bauer's record-breaking contract. If she can do the same with Puig, then he'll land with a team at some point.
Best fit: St. Louis Cardinals
Puig could serve as insurance for Dylan Carlson if the 22-year-old needs to further develop.
LF Yoenis Cespedes
The contentious relationship between Yoenis Cespedes and the New York Mets ended last season after he hit just .161 with two home runs in eight games before opting out of the rest of the campaign.
It's tough to know what you'll get with Cespedes, who was one of the most dynamic power hitters in baseball before leg muscle injuries and double heel surgeries limited him to just 119 games in 2017 and 2018. While sitting out in 2019 to rehab from the heel procedures, he suffered a fractured ankle in an accident at his ranch in Port St. Lucie, Florida, that set him back even further.
Cespedes is an enigma. He might be hitting free agency at the wrong time, considering many teams have taken a conservative approach to offseason acquisitions after the coronavirus pandemic reduced revenues.
Best fit: Oakland Athletics
Given his history of injuries, the 35-year-old Cespedes would probably be more useful as a designated hitter than as an outfielder. His first major league team is missing some pop in its lineup after it traded Khris Davis to the Texas Rangers.
RHP Jake Odorizzi
Jake Odorizzi couldn't follow his first All-Star season with a repeat performance last year, as injuries limited him to four games.
But before the 2020 season, Odorizzi had been a model of consistency. He had made at least 28 starts for six straight years and averaged 165 innings per campaign in that span (with a low of 143.1 in 2017).
The good news about those injuries is that they weren't major. He had a blister, a chest contusion after being hit by a comebacker and an intercostal strain. Considering there was no structural damage, it's likely he'll regain his old form.
Best fit: New York Mets
Odorizzi is a solid middle-of-the-rotation option. The New York Mets could use someone such as him to eat innings to supplement their rotation of fireballers.
RHP Rick Porcello
Rick Porcello, the 2016 American League Cy Young Award winner and a New Jersey native, signed a one-year deal with the New York Mets last year. The homecoming didn't go as planned.
He went 1-7 with a career-worst 5.64 ERA. His numbers are projected to be better than that next season, but not by much. FanGraphs' Steamer forecasts a 4.95 ERA, and ZiPS predicts a 4.50 ERA. Porcello's success early in his career came from his sinker, which didn't have much sink last year.
However, if he can match the innings projections of 158 and 154, then he may be in business. A durable, back-end innings eater who knows how to win could have some value as a depth piece.
Best fit: Detroit Tigers
Porcello has a history with the Detroit Tigers, and their rotation could use a boost. Going back to the tri-state area didn't work out the way he planned, but maybe going back to the organization that drafted him in the first round in 2007 would produce better results.
C Tyler Flowers
J.T. Realmuto got a big payday with the Philadelphia Phillies, and James McCann signed a free-agent contract with the New York Mets, so Tyler Flowers is the best catcher left on the market.
The 35-year-old veteran's biggest asset is his pitch-framing abilities. This has long been Flowers' calling card, dating back to his days with the Chicago White Sox when he caught Chris Sale.
Flowers won't put up big numbers at the plate, but he does enough to warrant a role as a backup.
Best fit: Atlanta Braves
The Travis d'Arnaud-Flowers platoon worked well for Atlanta in 2020 and could work out again in 2021 as the Braves chase the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League.
RHP Roberto Osuna
Entering his age-26 season, Roberto Osuna is the youngest pitcher on this list. He has a career 2.74 ERA and 0.90 WHIP with 348 strikeouts in 315 innings.
Since he debuted in 2015, his 1.6 walks per nine innings is the sixth-lowest mark in the majors. Osuna helped the Houston Astros reach the World Series in 2019, and his credentials are among the best in baseball for closers.
So, why is he still unsigned? Osuna has a partially torn UCL. He's trying to avoid Tommy John surgery. He also served a 75-game domestic violence suspension in 2018.
Best fit: Texas Rangers
Pitchers with elbow injuries are a risk, but maybe a rebuilding team such as the Texas Rangers will be willing to take a flier on Osuna.
RHP Trevor Rosenthal
Trevor Rosenthal was abysmal in 2019. He put up a 13.50 ERA in 15.1 innings and was released by the Washington Nationals and Detroit Tigers.
He looked like a different pitcher in 2020. Before 2019, his career ERA was 2.99, so when he bounced back it wasn't a shock, but the turnaround was drastic.
He was fantastic for the Kansas City Royals and San Diego Padres last season. The Kansas City area native signed a minor league contract with the Royals and made the big league team after a strong spring training. He was later traded to the Padres and was good enough to pitch in high-leverage situations. In 10 innings with San Diego, he walked only one batter and struck out 17.
However, he pitched just 23.2 innings last season, which could be a reason why he's still unsigned. It's a small sample size, so naturally, there is the question of which pitcher will show up in 2021. Given his history, it's more likely the fluke season was 2019 and not 2020.
Best fit: San Diego Padres
San Diego lost closer Kirby Yates to the Toronto Blue Jays via free agency, opening the door for Rosenthal.
CF Jackie Bradley Jr.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is the best free agent left on the market.
Defensive metrics rank him among the top center fielders in baseball. The 30-year-old former Boston Red Sox ranked sixth in UZR (1.8) and tied for fifth in defensive runs saved (five) last season, per FanGraphs. Only three other center fielders have saved more runs than Bradley's 31 since 2016, and he won a Gold Glove Award in 2018.
The left-handed hitting Bradley is known to be streaky with his bat, but his .814 OPS in 2020 ranked second among Red Sox starters.
Best fit: Houston Astros
The New York Mets looked like a lock for Bradley's services hut they improved their center field depth recently with the addition of free agent Albert Almora Jr. and Kevin Pillar. Houston has Myles Straw in center field but signing Bradley would take the pressure off Straw to develop right away. The Astros have some wiggle room with the Luxury Tax Threshold, so maybe Bradley is their replacement for George Springer.