- Yu Darvish (SP):
Despite occupying the top rank on the current list of unsigned free agents, there is perhaps no pitcher in baseball with such a wide range of possible outcomes entering the 2018 season. At his best, Darvish commands five plus pitches and can be virtually unhittable. When he is locating his mid-to-upper 90s fastball and finds his two-plane, wipeout slider, he is a front of the rotation starter. On days that he also features his drop-off-the-table splitter and bugs bunny curveball, opposing hitters stand no chance. Every time Darvish takes the mound, he has a chance to make history, but unfortunately for the 6’5” right-hander, his incredible talent doesn’t translate into as many dominating performances as one might expect.
This was especially true last season where Darvish’s inconsistency reared its ugly head against the Astros in Game 7 of the World Series. While his poor performances in the Fall Classic are not a reflection of the supreme talent he possesses, failing to make it through the 3rd inning twice on the game’s biggest stage may make contending teams shy away from signing him for fear that he is devoid of the “clutch gene”.
In any case, Darvish is one of the best 20 starting pitchers in the game today and with quality starting pitching at such a premium, there is no doubt that Mr. Darvish will become an incredibly rich man in the coming months.
Despite short stints of sporadic command, Darvish possesses a career ERA of just 3.42, while striking out just about 30% of the batters he faces. To put these strikeout totals in perspective, only Jose Fernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber have fanned guys at a higher rate over the last three seasons. Simply put, Darvish is nothing short of an ace when healthy, but that if grows larger with each passing season, which is why teams pursuing him may want to offer shorter-term deals with larger annual values.
Of all the teams listed below that have expressed interest in Darvish, I believe the Cubs to be the best fit. The Astros will likely save payroll for the elevated arbitration figures that George Springer, Carlos Correa, and others will set to earn in the upcoming seasons. The Yankees have made it known that they would like to stay under the luxury tax, and the Twins probably don’t have the spending power to compete financially with these other clubs.
That leaves the Cardinals and Cubs and in all honesty, both clubs look like good matches on paper. The NL Central rivals both have a need at the top of their rotation and the money to spend on a frontline starter, so it is splitting hairs to make this prediction.
In the end, I believe that since Jake Arrieta, who is the only other free agent starting pitcher available, has shown little interest in returning to the Cubs, Theo Epstein will be more eager to pursue Darvish to fill the rotation spot.
Suitors: Rangers, Astros, Yankees, Twins, Yankees, Cardinals, Cubs
Final Destination: Cubs
Contract: Six years, 170 million
2) J.D. Martinez (OF/DH):
The moment Brian Cashman and the Yankees acquired one of the most formidable power hitters in baseball to stick him after Aaron Judge in what is now one of the most feared power duos in history, you can guarantee that Red Sox general manager was eager to respond with a splash as well. However, the days passed and the offers put forth by the Boras Corporation grew to quite frankly astronomical figures, forcing the Red Sox to backpedal in their pursuit. Dombroski probably recognized that the high ball offers he was receiving from Boras were merely a tactic designed to take advantage of the Red Sox GM while reeling from the Stanton news.
Wisely, the Red Sox have been patient in their pursuit of J.D. Martinez, ostensibly in an attempt to drive the price tag for the slugger down to the point where he could be acquired without pushing the Red Sox over the luxury tax. Sooner or later, however, J.D. Martinez will be running out to the Green Monster to occupy left field or play designated hitter at Fenway Park. Simply put, it is a match made in heaven. A power hitting right-handed hitter launching balls over the Green Monster all the while providing some much need power to a Red Sox lineup that ranked last in the American League in home runs.
The one obstacle that the Red Sox must overcome before completing this deal is negotiating with Martinez over how much it matters for him to be relegated primarily DH role. While Martinez has struggled mightily in the outfield the past two seasons, he has expressed on numerous occasions that he still sees himself as an outfielder.
Regardless of how Martinez thinks of himself, the fact of the matter is that he is a well-below average corner outfielder. For the time being, his elite offense more than makes up for his defensive struggles, but if Martinez is going to sign the seven year deal that super agent Scott Boras is pushing, a relegation to a DH role is inevitable at some point. As the only suitor listed that plays in the American League, I would be shocked if the J.D. Martinez isn’t in a Red Sox uniform come next Spring.
Suitors: Red Sox, D’Backs, Giants, Dodgers
Final Destination: Red Sox
Contract: Six years, 165 million
3) Eric Hosmer (1B):
It is no secret that Eric Hosmer, whether deservedly or not, is going to get paid nine figures by some team this Winter. Even though the common baseball fan views Hosmer as an All-Star caliber first baseman, he has actually been a pretty mediocre player for the majority of his career. In fact, in four of his seven seasons, he has failed to eclipse the one win mark according to Fangraphs WAR.
With front offices placing so much importance on the advanced statistics, I could envision a scenario where no team will be willing to meet Hosmer’s asking price. But when it comes down to it, his pedigree and reputation will probably loom bigger than the advanced statistics in the minds of MLB teams, meaning Hosmer will be paid much more than he probably deserves. I am not downplaying the importance of intangible qualities like leadership or being a good teammate, but when a club decides to pay Hosmer over 100 million dollars, they will be paying for his moxie and not his talent.
If any team values these intangible qualities, it is the team that has actually witnessed and benefitted from them. As such, I think the Royals overpay for Hosmer’s services, just as they did in 2015 when they tacked a loyalty tax to Alex Gordon’s multi-year deal.
With a dearth of contenders seeking a first baseman and the increasing reliance on sabermetrics (most of which Hosmer does not rate out well on), I believe the market for Hosmer will be much quieter than some expect. Despite the Padres frequently being linked with Hosmer, investing 20 million or more a year to a first baseman a year after signing Wil Myers to a long-term extension makes little sense to me. Perhaps, Myers defensive struggles have the Padres front office executives questioning whether a move back to the outfield might suit Myers, but even if that was the case, any big money signing at this point in the Padres rebuild would be questionable at best.
Suitors: Royals, Padres
Final Destination: Royals
Contract: Six years, 124 million
4) Jake Arrieta (SP):
Depending on who you ask, Jake Arrieta could be considered the top free agent starting pitcher in this free agent class. Over the last three seasons, Arrieta has a 2.71 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and has struck out just about a batter an inning. Three year averages can be misleading though as his otherworldly 2015 season skews these totals dramatically. Since being virtually unhittable in a historic second half of the 2015 season, Arrieta has steadily declined.
This decline can be at least partly explained by mechanical issues. With an unorthodox delivery that contains a lot of moving parts, Arrieta lets his command get away from him at times, and when that happens, it can sometimes take weeks to correct. In the first half of this season, he posted a 4.35 ERA, while striking out just 23.4% of the batters he faced (the lowest such percentage since his early days in Baltimore).
Over the course of the last few seasons, Arrieta also experienced a sharp decline in his GB%. His GB% went from 56.2% in 2015, to 52.6% in 2016, and all the way down to 45.1% this past season. Naturally, the drop in his GB% resulted in a spike in his FB%, an unfortunate trend in an era where more fly balls are converted into home runs than any other period in MLB history.
The most obvious scapegoat for these changes is Arrieta’s drop in fastball velocity. Despite the MLB changing the way mph was calculated (which generally resulted in marginal spikes in velocity), Arrieta consistently registered velocities slower than usual. In his 2015 Cy Young season, Arrieta’s average fastball velocity was 94.6 mph, but dropped all the way to 92.1 this past season. Common sense would tell us that this drop in velocity was a natural consequence of aging, but considering Scott Boras (Arrieta’s agent) and his uncanny ability to spin worrisome trends into reasons to be optimistic, I would not be surprised to hear reports about Arrieta deliberately taking some off his fastball to “create more movement” or “allow himself to pitch deeper into games.”
Despite the obvious red flags about signing a 31-year-old starting pitcher with difficult to repeat mechanics to a long-term deal, Arrieta will get paid due to his impeccable health, playoff experience, and recent track run of success. The question about where he will end up is much more difficult to answer.
Of all the teams listed below, I believe the most likely landing spot for the former Cubs’ ace is St. Louis. With money to spend and a ton of question marks in their starting rotation, I don’t believe John Mozeliak will be able to resist the temptation to bring a top line starter on board to pair with Carlos Martinez. With that being said, it’s not inconceivable that the Nationals could reel in Arrieta given their lovey dovey relationship with Scott Boras.
Suitors: Brewers, Phillies, Cardinals, Astros, Nationals, Angels, Twins, Braves, Mariners
Final Destination: Cardinals
Contract: Four years, 110 million
5) Lorenzo Cain (CF):
Finding a place for Lorenzo Cain will be a bit more difficult than the first four guys on this list, mainly because teams are wary of center fielders in their 30s who are reliant on their speed. Despite an unfavorable profile in an era with overly cautious front offices, there is reason to believe that Cain could defy the trend that befalls most aging speedsters.
First, according to the Statcast Spring Speed leaderboards, Cain’s average sprint speed has actually marginally increased from 28.5 mph in 2016 to 29.1 mph in 2017, which ranks in the 65th percentile of MLB center fielders. Cain’s plus footspeed is a huge reason why Cain has ranked in the top 10 of the “Oats Above Average” leaderboard the last two seasons. Similar to sprint speed, Cain ranked higher in his age 31 seasons on this leaderboard than he did a year prior. I am not saying that Cain is going to get faster as he ages, but rather that his footspeed has shown no signs of slowing down.
At the plate, Cain has developed a few positive trends that will help stave off any age-related decline, namely a more disciplined approach at the plate. Not only did Cain post a career-high walk percentage of 8.4%, he also was able to cut down on his strikeouts, lowering his K% to 15.5%. The plate discipline statistics reveal that he did not achieve better walk and strikeout figures by developing a more patient approach as his swing percentage stayed in line with his career average. Instead, Cain managed to make more contact with the pitches he did swing at. Logic would suggest that a greater emphasis on putting balls in play could result in weaker contact, but this was not the case either as his average exit velocity increased from 88.5 mph to 89.9 mph between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Despite these encouraging indicators of how well Cain will age, this doesn’t change the fact that the market for center fielders is limited.
The Giants certainly need both a top-of-the-order hitter and a plus defensive center fielder, but Brian Sabean spoke with conviction when he said that the team would not sign any player tied to draft pick compensation. (Since Cain declined a qualifying offer, any revenue sharing team that signs him in free agency will be required to forfeit both a 2nd and 4th round pick).
The Mariners took themselves out of the running when they decided to trade for Dee Gordon and convert him into a centerfielder. The Blue Jays have perennial Gold Glove finalist Kevin Pillar. This leaves the Rangers as the most logical fit to sign the former All-Star.
Not only do the Rangers have an obvious need in centerfield, they are also in need of a top-of-the-order hitter. Cain would also be instrumental in helping compensate for the defensively inept Willie Calhoun, who is currently slated to start in left field. While the Rangers weren’t dreadful defensively last season, they did rank 23rd in UZR/150, which doesn’t help a contact-oriented pitching staff.
Suitors: Giants, Mariners, Blue Jays, Rangers, Royals
Final Destination: Rangers
Contract: Four years, 66 million
**In the next article I will play the free agent matchmaker for free agents #6-10.