Top Free Agents Who Can Help Needy MLB Teams

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IApril 16, 2021

Top Free Agents Who Can Help Needy MLB Teams

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    For some players, free agency never ended.

    Some big names are still looking for employment with the 2021 season underway. These players remain unsigned for any number of reasons, whether it's age, health or a recent decline in production.

    While it's early in the new MLB season for teams to start thinking blockbuster deal, some of these players might be able to plug holes for needy MLB clubs. Any number of teams could use a bat or pitching of some kind, especially because COVID-19 is still having an impact on personnel and roster management.

    General managers looking for new blood to breathe life into their teams might be considering some of the following names.

    Note: Yasiel Puig was not considered for this article because he is facing an ongoing sexual assault lawsuit that has cast an enormous cloud over his future, with a front-office source telling ESPN's John Barr "Nobody wants the headache" as far as Puig is concerned. He already had some trouble garnering interest as a free agent last season as it is.

Edwin Encarnacion

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    It's almost scary to think how much better the Chicago White Sox's offense could have been in 2020 had Edwin Encarnacion produced numbers more in line with his career averages.

    Encarnacion slashed .157/.250/.377 to go with a strikeout rate close to 30 percent in his lone season on the South Side. Still, it's a bit surprising he remains unsigned.

    The three-time All-Star was one of the foremost power hitters in the game for close to a decade. Encarnacion hit at least 32 homers in every season from 2012 to 2019, averaging over 37 homers per season during that span.

    There are reasons to be wary of Encarnacion following his poor 2020, however. He ranked in the seventh percentile in average exit velocity and 22nd percentile in hard-hit rate. The whiff rate was pretty rough (15th percentile), while the walk rate also declined. But it might have been an anomaly of a campaign.

    Encarnacion ranked in the 68th percentile or higher in average exit velocity and the 70th percentile in hard-hit rate in each of the five seasons before 2020. He ranked in the 82nd percentile or higher in barrel percentage, including an 86 percent barrel rate last summer.

    If nothing else, Encarnacion has a strong pedigree as a guy who can hit the ball out of the yard and drive in runs. Will he stick with an American League club? Maybe he could be a right-handed complement to Mitch Moreland for the Oakland Athletics with Moreland off to a bit of a slow start.

Yoenis Cespedes

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Yoenis Cespedes might be a DH-only at this stage, but he could be a run producer for a team needing offense.

    Cespedes hasn't been signed for any number of reasons, notably injury concerns. He played just 129 games combined between 2017 and 2018 before missing the entirety of the 2019 campaign. Cespedes began the 2020 campaign with the New York Mets but opted out in a saga that seemed to confuse even the Mets. 

    Not to mention, Cespedes struggled to be productive in that brief return to the diamond. He hit a pair of homers last summer but also struck out 15 times in 34 plate appearances. 

    The 35-year-old held a showcase for teams at the beginning of March during which he reportedly flashed glimpses of the power that made him a two-time All-Star. Cespedes surpassed the 30-homer plateau in 2015 and 2016. He clubbed 17 homers and had a .540 slugging percentage in 81 games in 2017 and mashed nine more dingers with a 126 OPS+ in 38 games in 2018.

    Making Cespedes a DH could mitigate injury concerns. Last year's swing-and-miss issues are a concern, but he has a reputation as a guy who can handle breaking pitches and hits the ball incredibly hard.  

Cole Hamels

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    It's all about health with veteran left-hander Cole Hamels.

    The former World Series MVP experienced a career resurgence after being traded from the Texas Rangers to the Chicago Cubs in July of 2018. 

    Hamels had a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts with the team to finish the 2018 campaign, then posted a 2.98 ERA and .659 OPS against in the first half of 2019. But he suffered an oblique injury in a late-June start against the Cincinnati Reds and things have not been the same since.

    Hamels had a 5.79 ERA in 10 second-half starts to conclude the 2019 season. He still earned a one-year, $18 million deal with the Atlanta Braves for 2020, but a shoulder injury limited him to one start.

    Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported Hamels had interest from "several teams" this winter, adding the four-time All-Star was working out and staying in shape. But he never inked a deal.

    Can a healthy Hamels help a team with rotation needs? He still has the stuff to be impactful when he is healthy. Hamels rediscovered the changeup as an out pitch (.252 xwOBA in 2019) during his stint with the Cubs and also possesses a plus curveball.

    A team could take a flier on Hamels to bolster the back end of the staff.

Anibal Sanchez

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Anibal Sanchez has played a pivotal role on multiple contending teams.

    Sanchez had a 2.83 ERA in 136.2 innings with the Atlanta Braves in 2018. He had a 3.85 ERA in 30 starts with the World Series champion Washington Nationals in 2019, also playing an imperative role especially early in October. 

    The right-hander took a big step back in 2020. He had a 6.62 ERA in 11 starts with the Nats, conceding the most earned runs (39) in the National League. Still, Sanchez's poor 2020 has not deterred teams from showing interest.

    Jon Heyman reported earlier this month the Nats and others had interest in signing Sanchez, with Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post reporting on April 3 the 37-year-old could sign soon.

    That has not happened yet, in part because Sanchez suffered a cut middle finger early in his bullpen showcase on April 10. 

    Sanchez excelled at getting soft contact before his ugly 2020 showing. He ranked above the 98th percentile in hard-hit rate and average exit velocity in 2018 and ranked in the 97th percentile in hard-hit rate in 2019. 

    Sanchez does not generate a ton of whiffs. But he can get weak contact and eat some innings as a back-end starter and might also have value as a long reliever.

Rick Porcello

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Perhaps no starting pitcher has been quite as mercurial as Rick Porcello in the last five seasons.

    Porcello won the AL Cy Young Award as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2016, going 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA in 223.0 innings. But he regressed in each of the next three seasons, bottoming out with a 5.52 ERA in 2019.

    The 32-year-old had poor numbers again with the New York Mets last summer, going 1-7 with a 5.64 ERA in 12 starts. But some of the peripherals tell a slightly different story.

    Porcello slashed his home runs per nine innings in half (1.6 in 2019 to 0.8 in 2020) and posted a career-best 3.33 fielding independent pitching mark (FIP). Opponents also had a seemingly unsustainable .373 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). 

    The right-hander had his best average exit velocity (87.2 mph) since the Statcast era began in 2015. He had a 4.38 xFIP and 4.45 skill-interactive ERA (SIERA) in 2020, suggesting he is more of a mid-4.00 ERA guy.

    Those numbers aren't spectacular. But Porcello can be an innings eater for a team desperate for rotation help or one seeking a veteran arm. Jason Beck and Jon Morosi of previously reported Porcello had interest from the Detroit Tigers.

Mike Leake

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    It probably isn't a stretch to suggest Mike Leake could be pitching right now if he so desired.

    Jon Heyman reported Leake, who sat out the 2020 season due to health concerns, turned down "multiple offers" and would not be signing before the start of the 2021 campaign. Heyman added Leake could be open to pitching if things returned closer to "normal."

    The 33-year-old bounced around quite a bit in the past several seasons. He has pitched for five different clubs since 2015. 

    Leake most recently had a 4.29 ERA in 32 starts in 2019, though he gave up an MLB-high 41 homers. That said, the right-hander had a sub-4.00 FIP in 2016 and 2017 and also posted a respectable 4.13 FIP in 2018 with the Seattle Mariners.

    Nothing about Leake is flashy. His fastball barely gets into the upper-80s, and he has ranked in the bottom four percent in whiff rate in four of his last five seasons.

    However, Leake has typically had success by staying in the strike zone and grinding hitters down. He ranked in at least the 96th percentile in walk rate in each seasons between 2016 and 2019. The San Diego native also had a ground ball rate above 52 percent in three straight seasons from 2015 to 2017.

    Leake is similar to Sanchez and Porcello in that he can eat innings as a No.5-type starter.

Shane Greene

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Shane Greene was one of the prizes of the 2019 trade deadline when the Atlanta Braves acquired him from the Detroit Tigers.

    Greene was not the same dominant force he had been in the Motor City after moving to Atlanta, but he rebounded with a strong 2020.

    The 32-year-old had a 2.60 ERA in 27.2 innings. He was one of Atlanta's better relievers in the NLCS, striking out five and giving up three hits and one run in 4.2 innings. He also saw a year-over-year improvement in terms of average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel percentage.

    It seemed possible the Braves would look to re-sign Greene this offseason, but David O'Brien of The Athletic reported in March the team would not be willing to re-sign the right-hander for much more than $1 million.

    There hasn't been much noise in terms of Greene's market, though Jon Heyman reported last month the reliever has been staying ready in anticipation of the "right opportunity."

    Bullpen help will undoubtedly rise to the forefront for numerous playoff contenders in due time. Greene is one of the better free-agent options still available.

Jeremy Jeffress

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    Jeremy Jeffress is another reliever who has had a slow-developing market during the offseason. Unlike Greene, however, Jeffress was given the chance to make a big league roster. 

    Jeffress signed a minor league deal with the Washington Nationals in February. But he was released just over two weeks later. Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said the move was made for "personnel reasons."

    The 33-year-old tweeted immediately after he was released stating people shouldn't believe the "false negativity," later saying his ex-agent has painted a false narrative of him being a "problem" in the locker room.

    Jeffress was a major stabilizer for the Chicago Cubs bullpen last season, posting a 1.54 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 23.1 innings while also converting 8-of-10 save chances.

    The former All-Star is not the same player he was with the Milwaukee Brewers. His fastball velocity was down over 2 mph from 2018 this past season. But he had success throwing more split-finger fastballs. Opponents had a .225 xwOBA against that pitch in 2020.

    Jeffress has always had a knack for getting ground balls. He had a ground ball rate of at least 58 percent in each season from 2015 to 2018. That mark fell to 49 percent in 2019, but Jeffress had a 54.4 percent ground ball rate and 3.5 barrel percentage in 2020. 

    Even if he is not the same flamethrower he was in his Brewers days, Jeffress has proved he can adapt and still find ways to get outs. He could be a good bridge guy for a number of bullpen units.


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant or FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.