The 2018 Free-Agent Bargains

Last week, I released my top-50 list for the free agents available this offseason, including both my own and our community’s forecasts for the contracts those players will receive this winter. Over the next couple of days, I’ll provide a few names that I think look like particularly good or bad bets based on our contract expectations.

Today, we’ll do the expected bargains. I think that, last year, my picks turned out okay. I had Justin Turner and Rich Hill as the two best bets for the price, with Neil Walker, Brett Cecil, and Matt Holliday rounding out my top five. Walker was pretty good when healthy, but health is part of why he took the Mets qualifying offer. Cecil was lousy early in the year but ended up being fine overall, while Holliday was the opposite, posting a good first half until injuries caused him to collapse in the second.

Of course, my track record isn’t always that good, and several of the players I identify as potential bargains below will probably be terrible next year. So it goes when signing free agents. But if I had some money to spend this winter and were looking to make my team better in the short-term, here’s where I would be looking to spend it.

As always, more credit is given for higher-impact players; getting a bargain on a role player isn’t as useful as finding a good everyday guy. On to the list!

5. Doug Fister, RHP
Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 1 $9.0 M $9.0 M
Median Crowdsource 1 $8.0 M $8.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 1.5 $7.5 M $11.2 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
34 138.0 7.9% 18.2% 47.7% 4.52 4.51 4.51 1.5 1.4

Outside of the top few arms available, this starting pitching class is mostly filled with pitch-to-contact starters who a contender should slot in at the back of their rotation. There are some solid innings-eaters around who will get paid for their ability to produce solid results in bulk, but if a team wants to shop in these waters, I’d suggest Fister as a lower cost option than most of his peers.

Jeff covered Fister’s return in detail, noting that the guy who ended up in Boston looked a lot like the guy who was one of the better pitchers in the American League for a while. During the last couple of months of the year, Fister was a top-20 starter in MLB.

The stuff isn’t overwhelming, and Fister’s developed an uncharacteristic walk problem the last few years, but with a fastball back up around 90 mph, he may have regained enough velocity to make the arsenal work. He won’t give you 200 innings and might not crack your playoff rotation, but as a guy expected to settle for a one-year deal for less than $10 million, Fister could be a very solid addition to a team’s pitching staff.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 2 $11.0 M $22.0 M
Median Crowdsource 2 $8.0 M $16.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 2.3 $8.8 M $19.8 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
33 455 7.7% 15.2% .261 .327 .368 .303 85 -5.9 6.9 1.6

Few players have as extreme a skillset as Jarrod Dyson. He makes some of the weakest contact of any hitter in baseball, and is especially terrible against left-handed pitching. On the other hand, he’s also one of the best defensive outfielders in the game and, after adjusting for playing time, has been the most valuable non-Billy Hamilton baserunner in MLB the last three years.

An aging speed-based player isn’t a guy you want to bet on long-term, but just as middle relievers have seen their value increase as teams figure out how to best leverage those skills in the postseason, so too is Dyson a perfect fourth outfielder for nearly any contender. Not only does he provide enough offense against right-handed pitching to occupy the strong side of a platoon, he’s the perfect postseason bench player and could impact every October game with his legs and his glove if deployed correctly.

Dyson doesn’t have much upside, and he’ll be out of the league when he loses a few steps. Right now, though, he still looks like a guy who can give you a couple of wins of value in the regular season, then serve as a huge asset in October. Even if it takes a two-year deal to land him, contenders should be lining up to add him to their outfield mix.

3. Tommy Hunter, RHP
Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 2 $5.0 M $10.0 M
Median Crowdsource 2 $6.0 M $12.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 1.9 $6.4 M $12.3 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
31 65.0 7.1% 23.8% 46.3% 3.71 3.70 3.83 0.2 0.1

Raise your hand if you knew that, among qualified relievers, Hunter threw the fourth-hardest cutter and seventh-hardest sinker in MLB last year. Put your hands down, liars.

While Hunter’s velocity spiked up a while ago, he threw a lot of straight four-seam fastballs that still didn’t miss bats. But after signing with the Rays as a minor-league free agent last winter, he started featuring his cutter far more often, in part because he now throws it 94 mph. The pitch helped him reinvent himself as a dominant reliever. It was only 58 innings of work, so the projections think he’s still not that good, but he ran the same xwOBA as Andrew Miller and Roberto Osuna this year, and the stuff backs up the dominance.

Brandon Morrow is going to be the popular remember-me-I-throw-hard reliever this winter. For a team that wants to bet on a similar level of velocity and recent dominance, but doesn’t want to pay the sticker price for Morrow, Hunter is a pretty nifty alternative. Unless the market buys into Hunter’s 2017 rejuvenation in an unexpected way, he looks like the best bet in this reliever pool to be throwing crucial innings next October without requiring a significant financial commitment in order to sign.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 4 $17.0 M $68.0 M
Median Crowdsource 4 $17.0 M $68.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 4.2 $17.6 M $73.2 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
32 595 7.5% 17.8% .287 .346 .435 .336 107 5.5 6.3 3.2

Like his former teammate a few spots up, the case against Cain is pretty easy to make: speed-based player who turns 32 in April, battled hamstring problems in 2016, and has played 150-plus games just once in his career. His 2017 season looks almost exactly like Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2014 campaign, which was his last as an above-average MLB player. Guys who rack up baserunning and fielding value on the wrong side of 30 are risky bets. There’s no question Cain is one lower-half injury away from losing his status as an impact player.

But let’s not ignore the fact that, since his 2014 breakout, Cain is 20th among position players in WAR, even with some missed time in there. His peers who have put up +18 WAR in the last four years include guys like Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman, Manny Machado, and Justin Turner. He’s probably not going to keep pace with those guys over the next four years, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Cain has been one of baseball’s very best players for a sustained period of time. He has a lot of room to get worse and still be quite good.

And while Cain does get a lot of his value from his speed, he’s not a Dyson-esque slap hitter. His exit velocity measurements are almost identical to Buster Posey’s. Of the 100 hitters who had at least 400 batted balls tracked by Statcast in 2017, Cain’s 89.2 mph average exit velocity ranked 22nd, tying him with Edwin Encarnacion, one spot behind George Springer. This isn’t a guy to whom you can just throw fastballs and get away with it.

Dspite heading towards 32, Cain remains one of the fastest players in the game. By the Statcast fielding data, he still looks like an elite defender, even if UZR and DRS think he took a step back last year. Oh, and that one time he played in more than 150 games in his career? That was last year, so his health problems are all at least somewhat old news.

There’s a real argument to be made that Cain could be the best free agent in this class if his legs hold up. While the general consensus seems to suggest that he’s in line for a deal around $70 million, I’d go significantly higher than that to add him to my roster, and would even consider pushing up to $100 million over five years if I had a clear need in center field and could translate his addition into a deep playoff run. There’s risk with any aging player who gets so much value from his legs, but I’d rather bet on Cain’s upside at his expected price than sign any other outfielder on the market.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 4 $18.0 M $72.0 M
Median Crowdsource 3 $15.0 M $45.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 3.5 $15.6 M $54.7 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
32 651 15.2% 15.3% .261 .377 .479 .366 127 21.0 -10.6 3.2

The only real way to explain the public antipathy towards Carlos Santana’s free agency is that walks are still boring. Other than that, I have absolutely no idea why everyone thinks Santana is getting around $50 million this winter. It’s not just our crowdsourced projections: MLB Trade Rumors ranked him as their 12th-best free agent and projected he’d get $45 million over three years. Jon Heyman came in at three years and $48 million. His “expert” contract estimating partner came in at 3/$38M.

Either everyone understands something I don’t or Santana is the game’s most underrated player, because those numbers just don’t make sense for a guy who has been an above-average big leaguer every season of his career. Santana is among the game’s most consistent and durable players, having played in 150 games in five straight years and six of the last seven. Outside of his rookie year in 2010, which began in the minors, he’s never hit fewer than 600 times in a season.

And with the exception of a slight off-year in 2015, his wRC+ has been between 117 and 132 in each of those full seasons. Even in his down year, he was an above-average hitter, putting up a 107 wRC+ and +2.1 WAR.

Santana is as safe a bet as free agents get. His control of the strike zone gives him a high offensive floor even if the power erodes, which it hasn’t yet. His batted-ball profile isn’t amazing, but it’s just fine for a high-contact hitter who draws a bunch of walks, and there’s no evidence that his results have been propped up by unsustainable performances. And while Santana used to be a pretty lousy defensive catcher, he’s made himself into a perfectly fine defensive first baseman, so he’s not limited to AL-only bidders.

He might not have superstar upside, and perhaps a guy who’s just a consistently good-not-great hitter while playing everyday doesn’t feel like a big impact, but Santana is the safest bet for +3 WAR next year that you’re going to find in this class. And above-average big leaguers shouldn’t be signing for $40 to $50 million in MLB’s current economy. He’s being projected to receive fractionally more than Mark Trumbo or Kendrys Morales, or roughly the same total dollar commitment that Josh Reddick got last winter coming off a +1.1 WAR season.

This is bananas. Santana projects as a better player than Edwin Enacnacion did last year, when the latter got 3/$60M after turning down 4/$80M from the Blue Jays. And Encarnacion got that despite only being able to negotiate with the few AL teams that had openings at DH. Santana’s market should be much broader, and if he doesn’t eclipse Encarnacion’s $60 million guarantee from last winter, a bunch of teams screwed up. I guessed that he’d actually sign for $72 million, but I’d probably go as high as $80 million if he’d spread it out over five years. Santana might not be a superstar, but he’s a good, consistent, durable player who will help his next team more than it seems many people might anticipate.

We hoped you liked reading The 2018 Free-Agent Bargains by Dave Cameron!

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People probably just still confuse Carlos Santana for the guitarist and don’t see much upside in his guitar swing. Idk