The 2017 Free Agent Bargains

On Friday, we rolled out our list of the top 50 free agents available this winter, with the crowdsourced contract estimates gathered over the last month, along with my guesses as what players will sign for. In the blurbs on each player, I noted a few guys I thought could be good values this year, but it’s always helpful to get it on the record; that way you can see whether I’m worth listening to.

For instance, last year, I identified Rich Hill, Ben Zobrist, and Steve Pearce as bargains based on the contracts we were expecting them to get, and all performed quite well, justifying my faith in their skills. My other two picks? Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Heyward. Yeah.

To some degree, this is the nature of playing in the free agent pool. Even the guys who look like values come with risk, and many times, the reason I think they may be underpriced is because they have some identifiable flaw. When you’re shopping in this kind of environment, you just have to hope your hits are bigger than your misses, and accept that a fairly high percentage of players you sign will end up not being worth the money. But if you get a Hill or a Zobrist, you can get enough value to make up for some of the signings that don’t work out so well.

So let’s try to find some guys who might be undervalued in this class. As other years, I’ll try to sort them by the magnitude of impact, so an undervalued high-end player will rank higher than a similarly underpriced role player; you’re better off landing a Zobrist than a Pearce, for instance. And I’ve included my contract and the crowdsourced projections, along with their 2017 Steamer forecast, as a reminder of what we think the market might pay them this winter.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 1 $14.0 M $14.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 2 $11.9 M $20.5 M
Median Crowdsource 2 $12.0 M $24.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
Age PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Off Def WAR
37 518 10.1% 18.0% .274 .358 .465 .353 121 10.9 -10.7 1.8

Think about the contract that you think Holliday is going to get, and then think about the contract Edwin Encarnacion is going to get. Holliday is probably getting a one year deal, maybe with some kind of vesting option for a second year, while Encarnacion is looking at three of four guaranteed years at north of $20 million per season. And yet, I’m not sure the gap between the two is really that large. Steamer projects Encarnacion for a 125 wRC+, Holliday at 121. Both are DHs who can play the field occasionally. Both are in their mid-30s.

Holliday comes with more risk, certainly. He’s older, spent a chunk of last year on the DL, and just saw his walk rate plunge as pitchers started challenging him more than they had previously, perhaps a recognition that they didn’t think he had the ability to hurt them as often as he used to. At anything close to the same price, you take Encarnacion. But given the dramatic difference in expected costs, if I was shopping for a right-handed DH, I’d pick Holliday. On a short-term deal, he can likely be a nice DH/1B/LF at a more than reasonable price. Add in that he won’t cost anyone a draft pick to sign, and while there’s no real long-term upside here, I think Holliday is one of the better one or two year bets any team can make this winter.

4. Brett Cecil, LHP
Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 3 $11.0 M $33.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 2 $7.2 M $17.3 M
Median Crowdsource 3 $7.0 M $21.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
Age IP BB% K% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
30 65.0 8.2% 28.0% 48.6% 3.01 3.08 3.28 0.3 0.2

Relievers are going to cost an arm and a leg this winter, especially the three brand-name closers, and it’s a little weird to be calling any reliever a potential bargain after we saw what the league did to bullpen prices last year. But it still feels like Cecil is a hidden relief ace, the kind of guy who people are overly skeptical of because he’s not a capital-C Closer. But take a look at the table below.

xFIP- Leaderboard, 2014-2016
Rank Player xFIP-
1 Andrew Miller 39
2 Aroldis Chapman 48
3 Dellin Betances 50
4 Zach Britton 56
5 Kenley Jansen 56
6 Brett Cecil 64
7 Ken Giles 67
8 Craig Kimbrel 68
9 David Roberstson 69
10 Wade Davis 69

Over the last three years, Cecil’s BB/K/GB rates rank him right up there with the very best relievers in baseball. And it’s not like he’s the Ricky Nolasco of relievers; his 72 ERA- over that span is also quite excellent. He hasn’t put together a healthy, dominant full-season in a couple of years, but he’s had runs in each of them where he’s been as unhittable as anyone, and there’s enough upside there that I think he’s worth betting on. Especially with teams starting to recognize the value of guys who pitch before the ninth inning, Cecil should command a decent paycheck, but he’ll probably still cost less than half of the closers, and it wouldn’t be all that shocking if he out-pitched one or two of them over the next few years.

Also, again, no draft pick compensation attached here. For the expected price, I’d happily put Cecil in my bullpen, and if he signs anywhere near the crowdsourced contract, he could be the pitching steal of the winter.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 3 $18.0 M $54.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 4 $14.3 M $50.5 M
Median Crowdsource 4 $14.0 M $56.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
Age PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Off Def WAR
31 560 8.8% 18.4% .270 .341 .451 .339 111 7.5 -2.3 2.4

On the one hand, putting him here could look silly, because Walker might not even be a free agent for long after this post goes up; there’s some talk he could take the Mets qualifying offer, removing himself from the free agent class, and try to show he’s healthy next year instead of pursuing a long-term deal coming off back surgery. But either way, I think whoever gets Walker could be happy with the result.

While second baseman hit better than ever last year, there’s still quite a bit of value in having an up-the-middle player with Walker’s offensive skillset. He’s a better hitter than Mark Trumbo, for instance, and can you imagine what kind of contract Trumbo would get this winter if he could even passably play second base instead of being a 1B/DH? Defense is an issue with Walker, but data-driven positioning is making range a little less important at second base, with almost every team employing shifts against the left-handed hitters who hit the groundballs that used to get by guys like Walker.

With his weakness diminished, Walker’s bat should allow him to remain an above-average player for 2017 (assuming he’s healthy), and above-average players don’t come this cheap anymore. For $50 million or so, a healthy Walker may very well produce at around the same rate of guys signing for $100 million this winter. There’s a big health risk here, of course, but I generally prefer to bet on talent, and Walker looks like one of the guys who could prove to be a quality investment when he’s on the field.

2. Rich Hill, LHP
Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 2 $24.0 M $48.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 3 $17.6 M $47.6 M
Median Crowdsource 3 $17.0 M $51.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
Age IP BB% K% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
37 138.0 9.1% 26.3% 45.1% 3.36 3.50 3.74 2.9 3.1

Yeah, I’m going with Hill again. He’s going to get something like 5-10 times what he got in free agency a year ago, but he also showed that his late-2015 breakout was no fluke; his curveball is one of the best pitches in baseball, and when he’s on the mound, he’s a legitimate frontline starting pitcher. Clearly, he’s also a huge risk, and no one can expect to get more than 150 innings from him; even that might be optimistic, honestly. But even with a reduced workload, Hill has the chance to perform better than most of the rest of this class can do even in full seasons, and if the team that signs him can keep him bubble-wrapped until October, he’s highly valuable in the postseason.

The bust potential is so high that it will keep the price down, probably, especially since the age doesn’t allow for a long-term commitment to reduce the average salary. So that means the best starting pitcher on the market is expected to sign for a total commitment in the range of what Scott Kazmir got a year ago. For me, with this kind of upside, if I’m a team with resources to spend in a win-now situation, I’d probably push up towards $60 million. The benefit if he’s healthy are enormous, and if you miss, it doesn’t cripple your franchise forever. This is the kind of risk/reward proposition that should be pretty appealing to a team looking for an ace but not wanting to sign a pitcher to a six or seven year deal.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 4 $20.5 M $82.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 4 $17.2 M $70.9 M
Median Crowdsource 4 $17.0 M $68.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
Age PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Off Def WAR
32 560 8.3% 17.5% .284 .353 .466 .352 120 12.5 4.5 3.6

As I noted in the Top 50 write-ups, Steamer thinks Turner is pretty clearly the best free agent in this class, and if you buy into their forecast, he’s worth something like 5/$120 million as a free agent; the crowdsourced estimates have him getting close to half of that. Despite hitting the crap out of the ball for the last three years, there still seems to be some skepticism of his value based on what he was before he brokeout, but like Daniel Murphy last year, I think the skepticism isn’t warranted by the data. The power is clearly for real, the contact skills have always been there, and he showed last year that he can be a quality player even without a high BABIP.

Plus, unlike the other quality hitters in this class, Turner is an asset in the field, at least in the short-term. The knee problems that slowed him down in the early part of 2016 should be a bit of a concern, and no one should expect elite defense at third base for much longer, but Turner has a lot of decline left before he’s a DH only, and for the next few years, he should be a valuable two-way player. Given the paucity of quality players in this class, Turner probably should crack $100 million, but it feels like the consensus is that he’ll fall quite a bit short of that mark.

So Turner looks like this year’s Ben Zobrist; a good player who will get underpriced because he doesn’t feel as good as he actually is. At $70 or $80 million, Turner still isn’t getting priced like a star; that’s Mike Leake money these days. And Turner is pretty clearly better than a pitch-to-contact stating pitcher. So for a team that wants an impact player at a price that doesn’t reflect the kind of value they’re likely to get, Turner is probably the best bet on the market.

We hoped you liked reading The 2017 Free Agent Bargains by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Have you checked out Boone Logan’s numbers outside of Coors??