The Biggest Boom-or-Bust 2021-22 MLB Free Agents
Risk is the nature of the beast in Major League Baseball's free agency, especially with regard to the players at the top of the market. For every Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper, there's an Albert Pujols and Pablo Sandoval.
On the 2021-22 market, the players with the biggest boom-or-bust potential aren't hard to spot.
There are six in particular we want to talk about. Lest anyone get too hung up on the "bust" element of this exercise, please note we're not trying to characterize these guys as being doomed to fail. They're indeed very good players, but who are also inherently risky based on factors such as old age and flawed abilities.
To keep things nice and simple, we'll go in alphabetical order.
Javier Baez, SS, New York Mets
When Javier Baez is right, there arguably isn't a more exciting player in baseball.
The 28-year-old has averaged 31 home runs in his last three full seasons (i.e., 2018, 2019 and 2021), with good speed, to boot. You also just never know when he's going to do something amazing on defense, where his work has earned him a Gold Glove and four Fielding Bible Awards.
It's because of these skills that Baez has a decent shot at landing a nine-figure deal this winter. Even teams that covet him, however, are surely aware of his downsides.
The big one is his plate discipline, or utter lack thereof. And it's actually getting worse, as he's topped a 30 percent strikeout rate in each of the last two seasons while authoring the worst walk-to-strikeout ratio of any hitter in the majors.
Constant swings outside the strike zone are just one of Baez's fundamental problems. He's also been swinging through a lot of in-zone fastballs over the last two seasons, which could be a sign that his once-extraordinary bat speed is becoming ordinary.
Granted, such things haven't stopped Baez from playing at a star-caliber level in three of the last four seasons. But 2020, in which he had a 59 OPS+ and 0.8 rWAR, was a notable exception. Likewise, it's also notable that it took a hot 24-game stretch in September to rescue his 2021 season from mediocrity.
Kris Bryant, 3B/OF, San Francisco Giants
Rarely do sluggers so closely resemble Swiss Army knives like Kris Bryant did in 2021.
Though he still hasn't reclaimed his offensive prowess of 2015-2017, a 25-homer season is still a 25-homer season. And when a guy starts double-digit games at third base, first base, left field, center field and right field, offense like that inherently feels more valuable.
Hence why Bryant, 29, should secure at least $100 million in free agency. Even $150 million and above might not be out of the question.
But while Bryant can play multiple positions, how well he plays them is another matter. Per outs above average, for example, his 1 OAA for the San Francisco Giants as a left fielder was his only positive defensive rating for 2021.
It's likewise possible to see Bryant's bat in a negative light. He had the worst season of his career in 2020, posting a 73 OPS+. Then in 2021, he front-loaded his best production before sinking to a modest .730 OPS over his last 91 games. More specifically, he's not hitting fastballs like he did in his peak years.
To his credit, Bryant has been willing to adapt his swing as needed in the past. But with his 30th birthday due up on Jan. 4, he's at a point where any deficiencies in his game are more likely due to age than any kind of technical flaw.
Nick Castellanos, RF, Cincinnati Reds
Even more so than when he was a free agent after 2019, Nick Castellanos is hitting the open market at the right time.
Two years ago, his notoriously awful defense was a red flag on the open market. But with the designated hitter all but certain to permanently go universal in the next collective bargaining agreement, he can market himself to 30 teams as a hitter first and nothing else second.
With a career offensive year fresh in his wake, Castellanos figures to sign for at least $100 million. Who knows? He might even double the $64 million deal he signed with the Cincinnati Reds last time out.
Yet even when looking at the 29-year-old strictly as a hitter, his flaws aren't entirely obscure. He's generally not the toughest out, in the sense that his strikeout (54th percentile in 2021) and walk (25th percentile) rates tend to be mediocre or worse.
The most flattering comp for Castellanos is perhaps J.D. Martinez, but it doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Martinez is more patient than Castellanos, who likewise doesn't have the talent for generating barrels that Martinez had at his peak. To wit, Castellanos was only in the 70th percentile for barrel rate in 2021.
This makes it fair to ask how much of Castellanos' success in 2021 can be linked to Great American Ball Park, which is a great place for sluggers and one where his OPS was 337 points higher than it was on the road. So if he lands with a team that has more of a pitcher-friendly park, his bust potential could be that much higher.
Jon Gray, RHP, Colorado Rockies
Jon Gray didn't even get a qualifying offer from the Colorado Rockies, and both his work in 2021 and his overall track record scream of mediocrity.
And yet, he's generally expected to command a multiyear deal worth upward of eight figures per year. It'll be a bet on his potential, in that he's a former No. 3 pick whose occasional flashes of excellence could become that much more frequent if he can so much as get out of Denver.
His career splits, though, complicate this line of thinking:
- Home: 4.54 ERA
- Road: 4.65 ERA
On the bright side, Gray has tended to gain velocity on his fastball on the road, where he sat at 95.1 mph compared to 94.6 mph at home in 2021. As MLB.com's Mike Petriello covered, that could be related to the fatigue factor that pitchers have to deal with at Coors Field.
However, Gray's fastball has always been held back less by its velocity and more by its movement, of which it has basically none of the vertical variety. So unless a team can fix that, he might not have any more potential to unlock after all.
Max Scherzer, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Scherzer keeps earning Cy Young votes because he's still as dominant now as he was when he won his first in 2013. More so, even, as he's kept his average fastball in the mid-90s while striking out at least 11 batters per nine innings annually since 2016.
Because of these things, it's a good bet that Scherzer will sign a record-setting contract this winter. MLB Trade Rumors, for example, has him pegged for a three-year deal that would pay out $40 million annually.
And yet, there is the question of just how much longer Scherzer can keep this up.
It's hard not to think of Justin Verlander, who was a similarly dominant force through his age-36 season in 2019 before finally blowing his arm out in 2020. Though hardly a fait accompli, it wouldn't exactly be a shocker if the same thing happened to Scherzer in the near future.
Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies
Even after the year he had in 2021, Trevor Story might still land a nine-figure deal as a free agent.
For one thing, the recent successes of DJ LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado outside of Denver make it easier to downplay the otherwise dispiriting home/road splits that Story had in six years with the Rockies. For another, it sure seems like bad luck played a huge factor in his 2021 downturn.
To wit, Statcast estimates that Story should have hit 18 more home runs than he actually did. That should track with any Colorado fans who feel like the 29-year-old had an inordinate number of fly balls die at the warning track this past season.
And yet, other Statcast metrics aren't as kind.
Story was in the 62nd percentile for hard-hit rate and in the 64th percentile for barrel rate, with no better than average marks for his chase, walk and strikeout rates. He also posted minus-seven outs above average, marking a stark departure from his defensive reputation.
All this makes it hard to reverse-engineer how, exactly, Story would succeed in a new uniform. So unless he gets an offer to his liking, perhaps the best thing for him would be to make a Marcus Semien-style bet on himself with a one-year deal for 2022.