Which players are the class of the offseason? This ranking is empirically correct, so we’ll do the thinking for you.
It’s that time of year again, when the stupid awards are over, and the hot stove is getting hotter. Mmm, so hot. This might be the best part of the offseason, and the only thing you have to do is forget just how wretched most of this free agent class is.
Well, maybe that’s too harsh. There are useful players to be found in the 2017-2018 MLB free agent bonanza this offseason. Some of the players who don’t make this top-40 list will play a significant role for a team next year, and they’ll be regarded as the steals of the winter. There just aren’t a lot of premium players. If your team is looking to slap the offseason upside the head with an oar, there just aren’t that many options.
This is a trip to the hardware store, then. There are no rides. There are no cotton candy machines. There are clamps. Mostly clamps. Maybe a few wood screws.
Okay, maybe there are a couple of cotton candy machines. Like …
1. Shohei Ohtani – RHP, 1B, RF, DH, QB, PF, G
The most perfect free agent possible, really. He can hit, he can pitch, and he isn’t going to cost your favorite team more than Joe Smith. That’s not a figure of speech. He’ll be less expensive than the actual Joe Smith.
He just needs to choose your favorite team. His reasoning might have to do with his future contract. It might have to do with a need for privacy. It might have to do for a desire for the spotlight. It might be based entirely on FiveThirtyEight’s burrito rankings (please, oh please).
There are still some bureaucratic hurdles with the posting system, specifically some rollbacks that would allow Ohtani’s old team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, to make more money for parting with their young superstar, but he’s almost certainly coming over. And he’s easily the best free agent of this class, if not his generation.
2. J.D. Martinez – OF
He’s been really, really good for four years now. The slugging percentage and general power output were absurd last year, but he’s always had a tantalizing combination of power and bat control — the answer to what would happen if Chris Davis could hit .300.
His defense ranges from iffy to incredibly iffy, regardless of what Scott Boras will have you believe, so there are risks with a five- or six-year deal. This is the best hitter on the market, though, and that was probably true before he ascended into the ionosphere with the Diamondbacks.
3. Yu Darvish – SP
The best starter on the market, as expected. Just, uh, ignore the part where he probably single-handedly cost his last team the World Series. It was a blip! Weird things happen when you mix slick balls with small samples. That goes without saying.
Because it’s 2017, not 1987, I’m pretty sure that teams will pay Darvish for the 135 games he pitched before the World Series, not the last two games he pitched. While his track record is inconsistent (just 200 IP in one season, and an ERA that’s gone up in each of the last four seasons), he’s still near the top of any rotation in baseball.
4. Jake Arrieta – SP
For four straight seasons, Arrieta was one of the hardest pitchers to hit in baseball. He led the NL in hits-per-nine in both 2015 and 2016, showing off a repeatable skill that’s hard to find and harder to maintain.
His velocity is down two ticks, though, so I’m going to believe that the bump in hits allowed last season has to do with hitters having extra milliseconds to make better contact. If you’re paying for Arrieta, pay for what he did last year, and then expect it to get slowly worse. That is a fine addition to any major league roster. If you’re paying for what he did in the seasons before that, good luck.
5. Eric Hosmer – 1B
He’s a fine first baseman. Stays healthy, can take a walk. There are some defensive metrics that hate him, but he passes the eyeball test. The good news about him is that he’s just 28, which is relatively young for a free agent.
He’s basically J.T. Snow, though. I lived through the career of J.T. Snow. There were some fine moments, and I will remember him fondly. But I wouldn’t remember him quite as fondly if he made the late-’90s equivalent of what Hosmer might get in this market, which is upward of $100 million. You enjoy players like Hosmer when he has a good team around him. You enjoy them less when they’re your free agent centerpiece.
6. Mike Moustakas – 3B
The sixth-best free agent? We’ve reached something of a tipping point, and I just started.
Moustakas’s career on-base percentage is .305. His glove is pretty okay. If you’re going to start there, you’re going to need the player to hit 38 home runs to have a ton of value. Luckily for him (and Boras), that’s exactly what happened, so there will be a team that will overpay.
This is exactly the kind of free agent that most teams should avoid, though. In his best-case scenario, last year, he walloped nearly 40 dingers and was still worth roughly two wins above replacement. What happens when the baseballs go back to normal? What happens when his fast-twitch reflexes fade, and he needs to swing at better pitches? I can see this one getting ugly fast, so the team that gets him had better be in ultra-win-now mode and have the money to brush financial mistakes off easily after a couple years of solid production.
He’s the Eric Hosmer of third basemen, really.
7. Lorenzo Cain – CF
Probably a better player than either of the other two Royals, but I would trust the power and patience to age better for the previous two when compared to Cain’s speed-and-defense combo.
For next year and maybe 2019, give me Cain, though. His 2017 season wasn’t much different than the year he had in 2015, when he finished third in the AL MVP voting, after all. I might come back in an hour and put him ahead of his former teammates.
8. Lance Lynn – SP
Healthy and able to make every start last year, Lynn is a fine choice for a team wanting to bolster their rotation while also planning to recreate the Dodgers’ 2017 postseason strategy. For the first two times through the order, Lynn is a solid fastball monster with the ability to miss bats. He used to keep the ball in the park, too, but he was hit as hard by the juiced baseballs as anyone.
If you believe that the home runs were a blip? Give him money. He’ll be cheaper than Arrieta and roughly as valuable. If you think that the home runs are here to stay? Be wary of that 4.82 FIP he posted last year, which makes his modest 3.43 ERA seem incredibly lucky.
9. Carlos Santana – 1B
That’s seven straight seasons with at least 18 homers and 600 plate appearances or more, which seems like something most teams can use, and that’s before you get to him being a switch-hitter with a .365 career on-base percentage.
He’s 32, though, and limited to first base or DH, if you ignore those bizarre attempts to put him at third or the outfield. Still, it would make sense to pay him half as much as Hosmer, considering he’s had the typical good Hosmer season in seven out of the last eight years.
10. Alex Cobb – RHP
The American League Lance Lynn, right down to the Tommy John surgery. Like Lynn, I’d rather pay Cobb for three years than most of these pitchers for five, but there’s also a chance that teams will pay all of these guys for five years, so I don’t know.
While it’s a shame that Cobb blew out as arm right as he looked like one of the brightest young starters in the league, he at least timed his rebound well. He allowed twice as many homers as he did in his last full healthy season, but so did everyone else, really.
11. Wade Davis – RP
If you’re looking for a dominant closer to ape what Andrew Miller and Kenley Jansen have done in recent postseasons, don’t look at Davis. Just ask the Cubs. This isn’t a knock on Davis, who gave the Cubs nearly everything they should have expected, but just a reminder that not every closer is built to hit the month of wildly intense bonus baseball and throw twice as often for twice as long.
Davis is a fine closer. Brilliant at times if you let him pitch just one inning. Expect that, and you’ll be satisfied.
12. Greg Holland, RP
Not to be cynical or rude, but when a pitcher coming back from Tommy John has the first-half/second-half splits that Holland did, you should be very, very, very, very skeptical about giving him tens of millions. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go for another one-year deal, really. There are innocent explanations for his second-half decline (general fatigue that is unlikely to carry over into 2018), and I’d prefer to believe those.
What if that pitcher from the first half isn’t coming back, though? It has to be a consideration, at least.
13. Zack Cozart, SS
I laughed at the idea that Daniel Murphy was somehow Rod Carew now. Now Daniel Murphy laughs at me. I’ve already apologized, but he keeps laughing, and it makes me feel worse.
Cozart might be a similar story. He’s always been one of the more underrated defenders in baseball, and prior to this season, he started hitting just enough to take seriously. No one expected him to put up a 933 OPS when he was 31, though. That’s just silly.
He’ll either be the best bargain on the market when he continues to hit like this, or he’ll be overpaid based on his potential to do that.
14. Todd Frazier, 3B
He’s averaged 33 home runs over the last four years, and the only thing keeping him this far below Moustakas is his age. Otherwise, they’re very similar players, with the main difference being that Frazier has done this a lot more often.
15. Logan Morrison, 1B
He went from someone who was practically guaranteed to be a non-roster invitee into a proven commodity. Morrison hit 38 homers in 601 plate appearances, which is about 1,000 plate appearances sooner than it usually takes him to hit that many. He’ll be 30, and his defense has never been exciting, but it would make sense for a lefty-friendly team like the Yankees or Red Sox to stop here first before committing $130 million on Eric Hosmer.
I wasn’t expecting this entire ranking to be a referendum on how much I’m going to hate the Hosmer and Moustakas contracts, but here we are.
16. Neil Walker, 2B
Surprisingly good! Year after year! I almost left him off the list entirely, but he kept sneaking up. He’s remarkably consistent, too, putting up an OPS between 750 and 810 every single freaking season, with competent-to-okay defense and double-digit home runs.
Walker has missed more than 50 games in each of the last two seasons, though, so it’s not all good news. Still, for the rare teams that are looking for a second baseman, they could (and probably will) do far worse than a reasonable contract here.
17. Tony Watson, RP
I had him ranked way too low, which means that I have to manually go back and change the numbers of everyone below him, and I’m mad at him right now. Still, he’s been a consistent left-handed presence in the late innings for years, and he’s the class of the late-inning lefties.
Watson was miscast as a closer, but he’s also miscast as a LOOGY, holding right-handed hitters to a sub-.300 OBP over his career.
18. Mike Minor, RP
What a fantastic renaissance season from a pitcher who hadn’t thrown a pitch since 2014. Durability has to be a concern, but Minor was death on lefties and hard on righties. There will be a lot of teams who think his durability concerns might be a feature, not a bug, if they can get him on a shorter contract because of them.
19. Brandon Morrow, RP
What a fantastic renaissance season from a pitcher who hadn’t thrown a full season since 2012. Durability has to be a concern, but Morrow was death on lefties and hard on righties. There will be a lot of teams who think his durability concerns might be a feature, not a bug, if they can get him on a shorter contract because of them.
(And I wouldn’t think that Morrow’s heavy use in the 2017 postseason will hurt his value that much. He looked outstanding for most of October.)
20. Anthony Swarzak, RP
I started this gig in 2011, and I’d like to think that I’ve written about just about every player since then. But this might be the first time I’ve ever written the name “Anthony Swarzak.” He was the most forgettable pitcher in baseball, every single year. There’s a plaque that goes with that, but they keep forgetting to send it to him.
Swarzak found his strikeout pitch, though. He actually found it in 2015, but this is the year he put it all together. You might disagree and prefer some of the relievers below him on this list, but I’m bullish on this newfound control-minded whiff monster. He’ll help build the copycat bullpen that one of these division winners is going to spend on.
21. CC Sabathia, SP
Still got it. He’s 37 and doesn’t like to run off the mound if he can help it, but he’s had two valuable seasons in a row, and he’s not likely to need a multi-year deal. The Yankees would be lucky to get him back, but there have to be a lot of teams interested in his 150-160 innings of generally solid pitching.
22. Tyler Chatwood, SP
His career ERA is 4.31, which is Pretty Okay. His FIP is 4.58, which suggests that he’s been helped by the brilliant Rockies infields of recent vintage. But his ERA+ is 105, which reminds you that, oh, yeah, Coors Field still exists.
Chatwood hasn’t thrown more than 158 innings in his career, and durability is a concern even more than it is with Lynn and Cobb. But how good can he be when he’s out of Coors? Maybe the walk rate will drop when he’s not worried about every single pop fly drifting out of right-center.
23. Jay Bruce, OF
Over the last four years, Bruce has put up a .237/.303/.457 line, and it’s not like is defense is anything other than passable, at best. He’ll be 31 next year. Please tell me that you see the red flags, too.
And yet he’ll get something like $40 million. He is a left-handed Ryan Ludwick, and there’s going to be a team that stumbles into the viper pit. Compare his numbers with Lucas Duda, then write a letter to your team! This isn’t 1983, and 36 homers aren’t what they used to be. He’s a good guy, lovely in the clubhouse, but his replacement-level play from 2014 through 2016 should really make teams think harder.
Dinger fever has no cure, though. I can respect that.
24. Pat Neshek, RP
He’s still something of a ROOGY, but those concerns are overstated. He can still face a lefty if you need him to, and he’s been quietly excellent for years now. Your bullpen can use more funk. All of them can.
25. Jake McGee, RP
He has a longer track record than Minor, but I’m not immune to recency bias, and even though he was better in 2017 than the previous year, he still never came close to his Rays peak with the Rockies.
On the other hand, he was on the Rockies, which seems tough. Take a moment to go back and remember just how dominant he was in his last two seasons with the Rays, and adjust him accordingly.
26. Addison Reed, RP
He would rank much higher, but he gave up 11 dingers. That is far, far too many for a late-inning reliever. Teams don’t need that kind of heartbreak, even if it’s cut with some excellent pitching in the interim.
Plus, he gets a Gin Blossoms song stuck in my head every time, and I will never forgive him for that.
27. Brandon Kintzler, RP
Ah, we’re deep into the funky relievers now. Brad Ziegler proved that funky can work for right-handed relievers for several years at a time, so don’t mind the below-average strikeout rate too much.
Mind it a little, though. And hope that your team has the right kind of defense if they spend money on Kintzler.
28. Steve Cishek, RP
Funky relievers! I would love to see a team swoop in and grab Neshek, Kintzler, and Cishek at the same time and build the entire bullpen out of funk. Just scour the Earth for all the sheks and kintzes, really.
Take the Neshek capsule and adjust downward for reliability, and you have Cishek, who would be a quality addition to most bullpens.
29. Jhoulys Chacin, SP
Ah, yes, the fourth-most valuable starting pitcher in free agency according to Baseball-Reference’s WAR (tied with Lance Lynn), so look here if you want a bargain. Don’t ask who no. 1 or 2 are. You’ll get to them soon enough.
Even if that seems a little unrealistic when it comes to what to expect from Chacin next year, it’s worth noting that he did have a solid year for the Padres, and it’s not like he’s without excellent stuff. He’s been a pick to break out since his outstanding year for the Rockies in 2013, and that’s only if you considered his 6 WAR season back then something that wasn’t a breakout season.
He’s probably a one-year bargain for someone.
30. Jonathan Lucroy, C
He was briefly one of the most valuable players in baseball, and while the Brewers cashed in on that value both on and off the field, Lucroy is stuck in the land of short-term deals. He could have been a $100 million player with better timing, which seems unfair when you think about some of the players on this list who will get serious money.
Considering his play in Colorado (.310/.429/.437 in 175 PA), I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s invited back. Even though he isn’t an All-Star anymore, he’s still better than most of his peers. That should count for something.
31. Welington Castillo, C
I still find it amusing that the Mariners — who have averaged a .100/.101/.102 line from their catchers over the last decade — had Castillo for two weeks before catapulting him into the desert. He can hit quite a bit for a catcher, and that’s something that will intrigue a dozen teams or two.
He’s not much of a framer or defender, though, so don’t expect the full package. But as an à la carte deal, it’s a pretty good one.
32. Carlos Gomez, OF
This should have been the year that Gomez got his nine-figure payday, but it’s like A. Bartlett Giamatti said, “The Milwaukee Brewers will suck the life force out of you and everybody you love.” Look it up.
Anyway, Gomez is a reasonable defender in center, and he looks a lot better offensively if you pretend that he’s a random player who wasn’t supposed to do much instead of an indie-label Yasiel Puig who used to do everything. It’s all about managing expectations.
33. Andrew Cashner, SP
Here is the top free agent starter by Baseball-Reference’s WAR!
Okay, I don’t get it either, but Cashner turned into Kirk Rueter with worse command, and it worked? I’ve stared at his Baseball-Reference page for an hour now, and I’m not closer to understanding it than I was at the start. Please appreciate this list of right-handed pitchers with low strikeouts, high walks, and above-average run prevention. Jason Marquis! Miguel Batista! Albie Lopez!
And this tall dude who throws in the mid–90s and could always strike people out before. I know he mixed in a cutter, so it’s possible that the Rangers found the secret to success. I would trust the FIP more than the ERA here, though.
34. Jason Vargas, SP
Here is the second-best free agent starter by Baseball-Reference’s WAR (tied with Yu Darvish)! Led the American League in wins and didn’t get a single Cy Young vote. Shameful.
Unlike Cashner, Vargas had his unlikely success in a very on-brand way, though. He was just 50 percent more vargasy. On a short-term deal, he’s similar to R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon last year, and he’ll probably work out as well as one of them.
35. Miles Mikolas, SP
Wild card! He’s following the Colby Lewis path, right down to the part where some poor overworked coach in Japan had to rebuild him from scratch and undo whatever in the hell the Rangers did to screw him up in the first place.
No, I know that’s not fair. But it is amusing to me. Mikolas turned into a bat-missing talent in a league that is known for appreciating the art of contact, and he did it while keeping his walk rate microscopic (2.25 ERA in 188 IP, with 187 K and 23 BB). Lewis’s success in his return to MLB probably made Mikolas an extra couple million. What kind of gift basket do you send over for that?
I would like to order a $25,000 gift basket, please. Yes, yes. Right. Yeah, at least 30 pistachios.
36. Lucas Duda, 1B
Assignment: Write what he’s done each year (four seasons total) on a separate piece of paper. Do the same for Jay Bruce. Put them into a hat, and draw them out. Pretend this is the new career sequence for both of them. Is Bruce going to get $50 million with this new, reordered career? Is Duda going to have to settle for a one-year deal?
The difference, of course, is that one can play the outfield and the other can’t. But as hitters, the only difference is timing. Bruce has it. Duda does not. Do not. Duda do not. Dudon’t. I’m still workshopping this.
37. Carlos Gonzalez, OF
Perhaps my favorite Carlos Gonzalez fun fact is that he’s only 32. It feels like he’s the same age as Matt Holliday instead of the prospect who was traded for Matt Holliday, but he’s actually the same age as Adam Jones.
Keep that in mind, then remember that he had a 114 OPS+ and played in 150 games or more in the previous two seasons. He was good as recently as 2016, and he’s only 32. Don’t just look at his home/road splits and call it a day, because the effects of Coors Field aren’t as simple as that. Accept his warts (platooning is a must) and see if he’s that rare combination of a name-brand player and a short-term bargain.
38. Bryan Shaw, RP
He’s far more boring than all of the other right-handed relievers on this list, but he might be better. More consistent, at least. He looks like a pitcher who was on the original Rays roster and just keeps plugging away, year after year. He’s led the league in appearances in three out of the last four years, which is either a red flag or something that goes on the brochure.
Shaw had the highest ERA of his career, while having the lowest FIP. That’s more than a little odd, but it’s because he allowed a career high in runs while preventing home runs better than he has since 2013. He’ll be just 30, so unless the mileage worries you, he might offer more cost certainly than some of the relievers ranked much higher.
39. Jarrod Dyson, OF
He won’t hit. His career OBP is .325, and it was .324 this year. He’s 33, so that’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.
But he can run, and maaaaaan, can he field. He won’t get a long-term deal, which should probably make him more attractive to everyone. Who can use a lefty-hitting fourth outfielder who can field like a Gold Glover and steal bases when he needs to? Everyone. Everyone can.
40. Yonder Alonso, 1B
Pay for the 774 OPS from the second half. Secretly hope for the 866 OPS on the season. Alonso will be 31 next year, and considering this is the first time he reached double digits in home runs — even Omar Vizquel did that once! — it’s okay to be skeptical.
Ask yourself, though, if you would rather have Alonso and an extra $100 million to spend, or if you’d rather have Hosmer. I know which one I would choose. Promise to come back here in a year and laugh at me if I’m wrong?
Look at the list from last year. Such bad takes all over the place. I’ll stand by the last ranking, though:
40. Edinson Volquez or Seth Smith or Joaquin Benoit or Sergio Romo or Mark Reynolds or Brandon Moss or Santiago Casilla or David Hernandez or Jason Grilli or Fernando Rodney or Adam Lind or Rajai Davis or Angel Pagan or Jon Jay or Pedro Alvarez or Mitch Moreland or Aaron Hill or Logan Morrison or Jon Niese or …
Seems like a jumble of uninspiring names, except you know one of those players up there will have an exceptional year on the cheap …
The answer was Logan Morrison. Logan Morrison. Someone not on this list will do the same next year. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that we know this.
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