MLB Free Agency Preview: Breaking Down the Best Position Players
Earlier this week, we talked about the robust market for starting pitchers in the free agent market, and the names are long and distinguished. David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto and Zack Greinke lead an impressive list of arms that has both star potential and depth.
But what about the bats? After all, you still need bats to make all the runs. And while offense did recover a bit in 2015 as compared to the previous few seasons, impact bats are few and far between.
Yet, if you've got the cash, you can find someone in baseball's swap meet this offseason. Here are some of the biggest position players available on the free agent market, which officially opens for business just after midnight on Saturday.
Jason Heyward, Right Field
There is a reason Jason Heyward will likely be the most sought-after position player on the free agent market this winter. Yes, he's been a very productive player the last two seasons, totaling 11.2 fWAR. Only Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt, Lorenzo Cain and Buster Posey have accumulated more Wins Above Replacement over the last two years.
But what makes him really appealing is his age. Heyward is hitting the free agent market at the unusual age of 25 years old, having played his rookie season at just 20 years old back in 2010 for the Atlanta Braves. You almost never see high quality players this young hit the market.
Heyward is not a perfect player, as much of his value comes from his defense, but he does have a decent bat. He hit .293/.359/.439 with the Cardinals this year, with a .346 weighted on base average (wOBA) and 121 weighted runs created (wRC+) that were the second-highest of his career. But he's not a power guy, hitting 13 bombs in 610 plate appearances.
He's not going to help slug you to a title. But he gets on base, hits for a decent average, steals bases (23 stolen bases last year) and plays the best defensive right field of anyone in the game. Don't be surprised if Heyward lands himself a 10-year deal somewhere.
Chris Davis, First Base/Designated Hitter
Baltimore's Chris Davis bounced back in a big way in 2015, blasting a league-best 47 homers, with 117 RBI, 100 runs scored and 30 doubles. His .262/.361/.562 slash line was terrific, as was his .390 wOBA and 147 wRC+, giving him an fWAR of 5.6. And that Wins Above Replacement number is only that low because he's not a very good defender.
For teams in need of a power bat, Davis provides that. But as with all free agents, there are issues.
Sure, he led the AL in homers for the second time in three years, but he also led the league in strikeouts (208) and was largely horrible in 2014 (.196 batting average, 26 homers, 94 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR). Next year will be his age 30 season, and as Ryan Howard has shown the world the last few years, big bodied sluggers who do one thing well don't tend to age all that gracefully.
The Orioles are expected to make a push to re-sign him, but any team willing to give him a five-year deal should be prepared for some ugly years on the back end of that contract. Still, he is one of the premier sluggers in the game and should help someone for the first few years of his free agent contract.
Yoenis Cespedes, Left Field
For a while there, it seemed like Yoenis Cespedes was going to force some team to overpay for his services this winter. From August 1 (his first game with the Mets) to September 14, Cespedes hit .309/.356/.691 with 17 homers, 10 doubles, and 42 RBI in 41 games. Heck, there was talk of including him in the NL MVP conversation, which was laughable on its face at the time.
However, in 16 games to finish the season, he battled injuries and hit just .218/.279/.327 with no homers and 4 doubles in 16 games and followed that up with a lackluster postseason in which he batted just .222 with a .232 on-base percentage and .352 slugging percentage. He had just three extra base hits in 14 games, two of them homers. Not exactly a great way to head into free agency.
That being said, he is a corner outfielder who slugged a career high 35 homers and knocked in a career best 105 runs, also posting career highs in batting average (.291), on-base percentage (.328) and slugging percentage (.542). His 6.7 fWAR also demonstrated a massive improvement defensively. Next year will be his age-30 season, fairly typical for free agents, and it's likely he'll be able to land himself a five-year deal somewhere.
Justin Upton,Left Field
Like Heyward, one of Justin Upton's greatest selling points is his age. He's a couple years older than Heyward, 27, but that's still very young for a guy hitting the open market. Upton made the All-Star team last year and provides decent power and on-base abilities, although he is one of the streakier players in the game. Last year he batted .251/.336/.454 with 26 homers, 81 RBI and 26 doubles and also stole 19 bases, his most since 2011.
While Upton's age perhaps make him a more intriguing option than Cespedes, his sub-par defense is a drawback. Upton's 3.6 fWAR this season was largely the result of less-than-average defense in left field. But if you need a player that can hit the ball out of the yard, Upton is a young and viable option, especially once he's taken out of pitchers' parks like Turner Field and Petco Park.
Alex Gordon, Left Field
World Series hero Alex Gordon is a winner, and that's hard to quantify. He's been on a team that went to two straight World Series and won the most recent one in convincing fashion. He doesn't hit for as much power as Cespedes or Upton but is more in the mold of Heyward, a dynamic defensive player with a little pop in his bat (13 homers in 104 games). Last year, he hit 19 longballs, and in 2013, he bombed 20 out of the yard.
But if you're looking for a guy who can get on base (.377 OBP last season, .348 career), hit for a decent average, run the bases well and play Gold Glove defense, Gordon would be great on a four-year deal. He'll be 32 next season, so there is a risk this athletic player will lose a bit of that athleticism as he ages near the end of his contract.
Ben Zobrist, Second Base/Third Base/Outfield
I listed a few different positions for the versatile Ben Zobrist right there, but the truth is the guy can play just about anywhere on the field. Not only that, like everyone else on the Royals roster, he does just about everything well. He's not the elite defender he used to be, but that's to be expected from a guy who turned 34 in May. Next season will be his age-35 season, and while he's getting up there in years, he is showing no signs of slowing down. Between Oakland and Kansas City, he hit .276/.359/.450 with 13 homers, 36 doubles with a wOBA of .349.
Last year, his fWAR was just 2.1, which was far lower than the 5.5, 5.0, 5.8 and 6.3 he'd put up the four seasons previous, but again, most of that is because of substandard defensive numbers. And because he'll be 35 next year, Zobrist can probably be had on a three-year deal for a little bit less than the marquee guys.
Daniel Murphy, Second Base
It will be very interesting to see who gets paid more this winter, Zobrist or Daniel Murphy. Murphy had a decent season at the plate for the Mets, batting .281/.322/.449 with a wRC+ of 110, 14 homers and 73 RBI in 538 plate appearances and an fWAR of 2.5. Those are right in line with his career numbers, the numbers of a nice player who would certainly find good work somewhere.
But the stakes were raised in the postseason when the 30-year-old hit seven homers in the first two rounds of the postseason and basically became the hottest hitter who ever lived. There was speculation his playoff performance would inflate the amount of cash he'd get in free agency, but his 3-for-20 World Series, with no extra base hits, likely took some of the wind out of those sails.
Ian Desmond, Shortstop
There is no doubt that Ian Desmond's impending free agency affected him this season. How else can you explain the former three-time Silver Slugger Award winner batting .233/.290/.384 with a wRC+ of 83 in 2015? His 19 homers were the fewest he's hit since 2011, and his OPS+ of 80 was also the lowest since '11.
Ball clubs will have to ask themselves if Desmond's struggles really were all just a mental problem, knowing he was playing for his one big contract, or if there is a regression going on here. Desmond will turn 30 next year, but with a lack of true impact shortstops on the market, he should generate some heavy interest from teams like the Yankees, Mets, Twins or Angels, all of whom could be looking for help at shortstop.
Matt Wieters, Catcher
Former top prospect Matt Wieters has been beset by injuries the last couple years, playing just 26 games for Baltimore in 2014 and 75 last year. In his last full season, 2013, Wieters hit just .235/.287/.417, but did slug 22 homers, the third straight year the catcher would hit at least 22 dingers. More importantly, from 2010 to 2013, Wieters was largely regarded one of the best defensive catchers in the game.
But after two injury-marred seasons, the 29-year-old Wieters hits free agency as the best catcher on the market and a guy teams can dream on. If he can recapture that 20-plus homer potential and get back to being the excellent defensive backstop he was in his mid-20s, the former three-time All Star should get a nice contract.
But it won't be like the five-year, $85 million deal Brian McCann got from the Yankees a couple years ago.
Dexter Fowler, Center Field
Talk about a guy who stepped up his game the year before hitting the open market! Dexter Fowler put together an outstanding season as the Chicago Cubs' leadoff hitter, with an OBP of .346, 17 homers, 29 doubles, 8 triples, 102 runs scored, 20 stolen bases and an fWAR of 3.2. And for the first time in his career, he stayed healthy for an entire season. Before his 156 games played in 2015, the most he'd suited up for in a single season was 143, in 2012.
Fowler is one of two center field, leadoff types to hit the market (more on the other one in a moment), and the 29-year-old switch hitter should get something in the neighborhood of a four-year deal with a fifth-year option from some team looking to nab a very productive top-of-the-order bat and decent defensive center fielder.
Denard Span, Center Field
Whereas Fowler managed to stay healthy for the first time in his career heading into free agency, the same could not be said for Denard Span. He was excellent when he was on the field, though, batting .301/.365/.431 with 17 doubles, 11 stolen bases and 38 runs scored in 61 games for the Washington Nationals. But back problems and other maladies had him on the sidelines for virtually all of 2015.
When healthy, he's a three-to-four-win player but is also a couple of years older than Fowler. It will be interesting to see if there's a team out there that will give Span a three-year deal or if he'll have to sign a one-year contract in order to restore some value and prove he can stay healthy in his age-32 season.
Gerardo Parra, Left Field
There is one more potential leadoff hitter who will hit the market in a few days, Baltimore's Gerardo Parra. Unlike Fowler or Span, Parra plays a corner outfield position primarily, although he can play center in a pinch. But he is not a good defensive outfielder, which is primarily why he posted an fWAR of just 0.4 this year and 0.1 last year.
He can be a productive player at the plate, though. The 28-year-old hit .291/.328/.452 with 14 homers, 36 doubles, 5 triples, and 83 runs scored, and he is a year younger than Fowler. For a team looking for a guy to bat leadoff for them, Parra could be a cheaper option.