The Riskiest 2021-22 MLB Free Agents Still on the Board

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 6, 2022

The Riskiest 2021-22 MLB Free Agents Still on the Board

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    If we were to make a completely honest, no-nonsense list of risky players left on the 2021-22 free-agent market, it would simply read "all of them."

    But whereas no free agent is ever devoid of risk, some are always going to require a greater leap of faith than others. And right now, we see at least seven we haven't yet talked about.

    It would be 10 if we hadn't already covered the respective downsides of Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos and Trevor Story, but we did. As for what makes the seven guys on our radar also risky in their own right, it's a variety of things. Contract demands. Age. Injury history. Consistency. You name it.

    Since this complicates how to rank them, we'll simply hit them in alphabetical order.

SS Carlos Correa

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 148 G, 640 PA, 26 HR, 0 SB, .279 AVG, .366 OBP, .485 SLG, 131 OPS+, 7.2 rWAR

    Age: 27

    Why Carlos Correa? Because any player who signs for $300 million faces a tall task in living up to it, and that's where he figures to end up after Corey Seager's 10-year, $325 million pact with the Texas Rangers.

    Baseball's $300 Million Club contains both success stories and cautionary tales. For the former, there's Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. For the latter, there's Giancarlo Stanton and arguably Mike Trout, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Lindor, who have backslid onto thin ice by way of injury and ability question marks.

    It's easy to imagine how Correa would become a $300 million success story. He leads all shortstops in rWAR since 2015 for a reason, after all. Or rather two reasons, in that he's a Gold Glove-winning defender who's also been a well-above-average hitter to the tune of a 127 career OPS+.

    Yet Correa has also fallen short of even a 100 OPS+ twice since 2018, in which span his xwOBA is barely in the top 70 among qualified hitters. He also has a crowded injury history for a guy his age. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, Correa's lower back is of particular concern.

    Especially given the possibility that Correa's back and up-and-down production are related, any team that hands him a $300 million offer will do so with fingers crossed.

DH Nelson Cruz

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 140 G, 584 PA, 32 HR, 3 SB, .265 AVG, .334 OBP, .497 SLG, 130 OPS+, 2.6 rWAR

    Age: 41

    This is probably a tad unfair, as it's not as if Nelson Cruz is going to earn anything close to Correa dollars.

    On the contrary, anything longer than a one-year deal for him would count as a surprise. Ditto for any salary substantially higher than the $13 million he earned in 2021, which in itself was more than a fair rate for the hitter who leads MLB with 292 home runs over the last eight years.

    Nonetheless, history isn't on Cruz's side. Assuming he does play in 2022, it'll be his age-41 season. No hitter that age has ever so much as crossed the 30-homer plateau, much less those for 35 or 40 home runs.

    And as good as Cruz was in 2021, he started declining in plain sight in the latter half of the year. He went from a 148 OPS+ with the Minnesota Twins to a 103 OPS+ with the Tampa Bay Rays, complete with an 8.3 percent jump in his strikeout rate

    Specifically, four-seam fastballs became a more frequent source of whiffs for Cruz after he joined the Rays. Maybe that's just noise. But it might also be a telling sign that he was starting to leak bat speed. If a guy has a problem like that at 40, it's surely not going to get any better at 41.      

RHP Kenley Jansen

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 69 G, 52 GF, 69.0 IP, 36 H (4 HR), 86 K, 36 BB, 2.22 ERA, 185 ERA+, 2.3 rWAR

    Age: 34

    If anything, you might look at Kenley Jansen and see an all-time great closer whose stock is actually rising.

    After a scare with his heart in 2018 that necessitated surgery and medication, the veteran closer has pitched without restrictions in each of the last three seasons. The most recent of these is one of his best, as he notably had the third-lowest OPS against among pitchers who faced over 250 batters.

    Among other things, Jansen's reemergence can be chalked up to how he's evolved as a pitcher. His cutter is still a work of pitching art, but he's become unafraid to mix in sliders and sinkers in situations when he needs to make a big pitch.

    And yet, it's vaguely alarming that Jansen has had to diversify his pitch mix in response to his cutter becoming more hittable. In what sure seems like a related story, its average velocity isn't what it used to be.

    That might not be just Jansen's age at play but also his workload. Few relievers have appeared as often as he has since 2011, which isn't even counting all the extra pitches he's thrown in 57 playoff appearances. With a multiyear contract likely headed his way, how many bullets he has left is a fair question.

LHP Clayton Kershaw

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 22 GS, 121.2 IP, 103 H (15 HR), 144 K, 21 BB, 3.55 ERA, 115 ERA+, 2.1 rWAR

    Age: 33

    As an eight-time All-Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, an MVP and a World Series champion, Clayton Kershaw already has the goods to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when his time comes.

    The catch now is that he's not that guy anymore, yet he's merely gone from great to good. Last year still saw him post a safely above average ERA+ and one of the better strikeouts-per-nine rates of his career.

    Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Dodgers signaled that they didn't think Kershaw was worth even $18.4 million for 2022 by neglecting to make him a qualifying offer. If that can be traced back to two primary concerns, they're likely his compromised durability and stuff.

    The forearm injury that dogged Kershaw in the latter half of 2021 is scary enough on its own, and even more so in context of all the other aches and pains that are keeping his most recent 30-start season stuck in 2015. After 14 years and tens of thousands of pitches, his body just can't hack a full workload anymore.

    Whereas the lefty's fastball, slider and curveball were all plus pitches at his peak, the hittability of his fastball and curve has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. So even if he is able to stay healthy in 2022 and beyond, his returns might still keep diminishing.

LHP Yusei Kikuchi

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 29 GS, 157.0 IP, 145 H (27 HR), 163 K, 62 BB, 4.41 ERA, 94 ERA+, 1.7 rWAR

    Age: 30

    Yusei Kikuchi would make for an odd choice for this list if not for the kind of attention he had been getting before the lockout. According to MLB Network's Jon Heyman, he had gotten multiple offers of three years.

    Which is to say that the market was bullish on Kikuchi in spite of his numbers in the majors. He didn't crack even a 100 ERA+ in any of his three seasons with the Seattle Mariners, with more total hits allowed (381) than innings pitched (365.2).

    Of course, this is ignoring the potential that he flashed in an All-Star first half in 2021. Notably, he had his average fastball up to 95.7 mph with a solid 3.18 ERA through his first 15 outings.

    Kikuchi couldn't sustain that, however. Over his last 14 starts, he lost a mile per hour off his average heater and surrendered both walks and home runs in bunches as he got lit up to the tune of a 6.22 ERA. He basically reverted to what he had been in 2019 and 2020.

    As he won't have to ramp up his innings as drastically as he did from 2020 to 2021, there might be hope of Kikuchi sustaining the quality of stuff that he had in the first half of the latter. Yet it's at least as likely that said half will be revealed to be precisely what it looks like: an outlier.

LHP Carlos Rodon

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 24 GS, 132.2 IP, 91 H (13 HR), 185 K, 36 BB, 2.37 ERA, 183 ERA+, 5.0 rWAR

    Age: 29

    Lest anyone forget just how off the radar Carlos Rodon was last winter, the Chicago White Sox non-tendered him before ultimately circling back to offer him a $3 million lifeline in February.

    What happened after that was nothing short of astonishing. Aided by new mechanics forged in partnership with pitching coach Ethan Katz, Rodon tossed a no-hitter in his second start of 2021 and was sitting on a 2.14 ERA and 114 more strikeouts than walks through 16 starts on July 18.

    After that, though, came just eight more starts the rest of the way. Rodon lasted longer than five innings in none of them, all while his fastball velocity dried up and his general hittability increased.

    Because the southpaw hurled only 34.2 innings in 2019 and 7.2 in 2020, you could look at this and wonder if, like many pitchers, he just wasn't built up for a 162-game workload in 2021. If so, he should be better prepared for 2022.

    But then there are the elephants in the room, namely the shoulder surgery he had in 2017 and the Tommy John surgery that followed in 2019. In 2021, that same shoulder was bugging him again in the form of fatigue. Because of these things, to assume he can handle a proper workload is to take a lot on faith.

RF/DH Jorge Soler

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 149 G, 602 PA, 27 HR, 0 SB, .223 AVG, .316 OBP, .432 OBP, 97 OPS+, Minus-0.3 rWAR

    Age: 29

    When Jorge Soler is going good, few sluggers in the game are more intimidating.

    Consider his 2019 season, in which he set a Kansas City Royals record with 48 home runs. Or even better, the latter half of his 2021 campaign. He went off for an .882 OPS and 14 home runs in 55 regular-season games with Atlanta, and then won the MVP for the World Series.

    Though Soler is more of a designated hitter than a right fielder, that will be less of an issue if the DH goes universal in the next collective bargaining agreement. He'll have 15 more teams to barter with, which should put him in line for a lucrative multiyear deal.

    After that, which version of Soler will show up is anyone's guess. He's been a wildly mercurial player even in his good years. To wit, there was a 271-point gap in his OPSes from the first and second halves of 2019. In 2021, there was a 312-point gap between halves.

    Soler tends to run hot or cold depending on where he is with his strike-zone discipline, in that he's a high-walk, low-strikeout hitter when hot and vice versa when cold. So unless he can achieve some kind of equilibrium, whoever signs him will have to hope that he's at least hot at the right times.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.