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MLB 2018 Free Agent Primer

Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening — whichever is applicable to you. Last Sunday was the culmination of six months of hard labor. Eternal glory was bestowed upon league winners, and a push of the reset button for those who fell short in 2017. For whatever joy you were given Sunday evening, the misery of a Monday morning without a season could not be avoided.

With 2017 now archived, the preparation for 2018 can begin. My first focus area has always been the shaping of the upcoming Free Agent class. Today I want to review the class as a whole and offer my thoughts on both player and club options. For those interested in the off-season rumor mill I cannot urge you enough to follow MLBtraderumors.com.

CATCHER

The position as a whole offers little fantasy impact. The same could be said for this upcoming class as well. Alex Avila, Todd Hundley, Carlos Ruiz, and Chris Iannetta have found success in recent years, but at this point are best served as league only options.

  • Tyler Flowers has a four-million dollar Club option that would figure to be picked up given his success the last two seasons.
  • Wellington Castillo has a seven-million dollar Club option as well. Injuries may have limited the counting numbers to some degree, but on a game by game basis his offensive prowess is well worth it.
  • Matt Wieters has a 11-million dollar Player option that the .225 hitter can’t sign soon enough.

With all the platoon options paired with several resigning I suspect Jonathan Lucroy to be the lone featured Catcher in the class. Despite spending the season in two of the best hitting parks in baseball, Lucroy saw his batting average drop 27 points and he failed to hit 10 home runs in over 400 AB.

At the end of the day a .265 average is palatable production for a Catcher, and he’s only a year away from being the top fantasy Catcher. His production was solid over the final month of the season. This combined with the 2017 team success could prompt the Rockies to offer up a one year deal giving Lucroy some fantasy appeal.

FIRST BASEMAN

Eric Hosmer (28) and Carlos Santana (32) are without question the cream of the crop. Hosmer could be the most coveted bat on the market aside from JD Martinez. Increased walk rate paired with good contact make Hosmer a threat for .300 with 25 home run pop. While his career home/road splits have been minimal, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest 81 games in a more hitter friendly environment would do wonders to that bottom line. Santana’s stock will be listed much lower on the Dow, but depending on the destination their fantasy values could be similar.

The rest of the players at the position offer a big mix of similar players. Yonder Alonso (31), Lucas Duda (32), Mitch Moreland (32), Logan Morrison (30), and Mark Reynolds (34) all offer similar skill sets. Alonso had the most well-rounded offensive season and features a plus glove. He could be the pick of the class in terms of MLB clubs. Morrison has youth on his side and has featured a steady track record of growth the last two seasons. Duda and Moreland feel like platoon options to me, but should the market fall into place either could find themselves with a clear starting job on Opening Day 2018. 30 HR with a .839 OPS typically doesn’t warrant a platoon role but at 34 I just don’t see a scenario where Reynolds is the go to option for 162.

At 36 years old and with a 11-million dollar Club option, Mike Napoli would figure to be done in Texas. With 29 home runs in 425 AB last season is it premature to suggest this could be the end of the road? My early guess would be Napoli plays in 2018. However, his status as a 400 PA player may no longer be applicable. While injuries have made Matt Holliday a part-time player, 2018 could be the first year the narrative will be that. At 38, Holliday could also decide that 2017 will be his final year.

SECOND BASEMAN

Jose Altuve on a 6 Mil Club Option – YES please! With a little less clarity will be the decisions on Asdrubal Cabrera (8.5 M Club), Logan Forsythe (8.5 M Club), and Jed Lowrie (6 Mil Club). With his versatility and the Mets outlook for 2018 I suspect Cabrera will be welcomed back. Lowrie at six-million fits what the A’s look for in a player; cheap and versatile, but they do have internal options. The story for Forsythe may be different. When the Dodgers dealt for Forsythe the talk of affordability and length was applauded. A very disappointing 2017 paired with internal options could make that money better spent elsewhere. My guess is the Dodgers move on, leaving Forsythe to rebuild his stock. The value is low but production could still be had; strong walk and decreased strikeouts certainly offer hope.

Eduardo Nunez and Neil Walker are the most appealing options available; but just how much interest exist? Is Nunez an everyday MLB option or is he a Utility type? A strong 2nd half would suggest he’s an everyday player, but in many ways it seems his real life appeal is to that of a contender in a Utility role. At 32 and a recent injury history one has to wonder if Walker’s days as a perceived starter are over? Brandon Phillips (37) and Howie Kendrick (34) may be best served as Bench or platoon options at this point, but I could see a starting job for either opening up. Phillips fantasy value is minimal, but Kendrick’s versatility offers some value should everything fall into place.



THIRD BASEMAN

Mike Moustakas picked a really good time to have a career season. Career high .835 OPS to go with 38 HR and a full season that should help vanquish the durability issues posed at this point last year. Much like Hosmer, Moustakas hasn’t featured big home/road splits throughout his career, but 81 games in a more favorable park could further work in building the legend of Moose Taco’s.

As for the rest, the 2018 class may not have the answers teams need when looking for an answer at third base.

Yunel Escobar is 35 and is the poster child for an empty .280 hitter. Jose Reyes is also 35 and he comes with a checkered past if the age hadn’t scared you away already. From a production standpoint, Reyes was excellent last season hitting 15 HR while swiping 24 bags. This will earn him a deal somewhere; I’m just not sure he is guaranteed a regular spot outside of New York.

Todd Frazier has youth on his side at 32, but his production arrow is pointing downward. 30 HR pop with sub .220 AVG was more palatable five years ago. To Frazier’s credit his 14.4% walk rate was easily a career high and he still offers plus defense. His stock may be at an all-time low, but with this class he’ll be the consolation prize.

SHORTSTOP

14 Mil Club Option for JJ Hardy?… Anyone?… Anyone? Bueller?… At 35 I believe I can finally remove JJ Hardy from my player pool. I realize most have likely done this three years ago, but year after year I find myself saying…What if? Moving on to meaningful players; Danny Espinosa is barely hanging on at 31. No bat, good glove just isn’t as tolerated as it once was. My apologies on declaring Danny Espinosa meaningful; the position lacks depth and I had to differentiate between the line that is JJ Hardy and that of the Espinosa tier.

The cream of the free agent crop is one Zach Cozart. Long rumored to be moved at the deadline, Cozart will finally have a chance to get out of the Queen City. Good bat and steady glove are generally good traits to have when playing up the middle. However, a lengthy track record of injury will simultaneously cloud the long-term outlook. Despite Great American being a very friendly home park, Cozart’s Home/Road splits have been neutral with 12 more points in AVG at home traded for four more homers on the road.

Alcides Escobar is the consolation prize for this group. A glove first option who offers you nothing more than an injury replacement in fantasy. That skill set will not change with a new zip code.

OUTFIELD

Some interesting question remain to be answered in this grouping. First and foremost, an 11 Million club option for Michael Brantley is a no-brainer based on talent. However less than 400 AB over the last two seasons make that decision much more clouded. Organizationally the Indians seem to have a sense of loyalty about them. Combine that with recent success and the monetary hang-up doesn’t seem to be the issues that it could have been 5-years ago. I suspect Brantley is once again an Indian in 2018.

Justin Upton has an opt-out clause on his remaining 4-years/88 Million dollar deal. Coming off an excellent season paired with a steady – not spectacular – positional class would figure to be a recipe for opting out. Problem is recent history has not been favorable to 2nd tier stars in the free agent market. Familiarity with the West Coast leads Upton to re-up. The 88 Million doesn’t hurt either.

Jose Bautista 17 Million mutual option. Bautista has already walked into the Blue Jays front office eagerly awaiting to sign that extension. The Blue Jays have likely responded with a, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”. Jose Bautista is still waiting by his phone at his bedside.  The Jays will happily fork over the 500K buyout and thank Joey Bats for the Bat Flip.

Andrew McCutchen’s future has me a little less certain. Reverted back to the Old McCutchen in many ways last season, improving his average 23 points over 2016 and hitting 28 HR that was good for the 2nd best total of his career. Organizationally a 14.75 Million option makes little sense. Austin Meadows feels close, and a 1 Million buyout seems too simple of a decision not to make. McCutchen isn’t your typical good player. He’s been the face of the franchise for 15 years and was among the games best for nearly a decade of it. Fans and ownership alike have more of a loyalty to these types of players. The answer to this question will be based on if the Pirates brass feels like it can get 13.75 Million worth of assets for McCutchen at some point next season. I suspect that this could be a big ask. Last seasons move to RF served as the ceremonial passing of the torch so to speak. My guess is the formality will be finalized this offseason.

The rest of the OF class features some solid depth in the middle tier.

  • Melky Cabrera is 33 but should be a serviceable lineup fixture for 2-3 more years.
  • Michael Saunders is 31 and the Phillies are unlikely to honor the 11 Million Club option. Health has been sketchy but sustained stretches of success have been there when healthy.
  • Keeping with the injury riddled talents; both Cameron Maybin (31) and Colby Rasmus (31) would fit that description. Rasmus offers some plus power and can play all over the OF. Maybin features more speed and perhaps a better hitting tool. I could see Saunders, Maybin,  and Rasmus all sign as 4th outfielders, but work their way into a prominent role and onto the fantasy radar.

Without question JD Martinez is the big-ticket of this group. Teams are always in need of a right-handed power bat, and few are better than Martinez. Injuries may limit the years, but demand will make that annual salary pretty pricey. Lorenzo Cain could be the 2nd best option. At 32 his asking price could be much more affordable and his appeal could be more centered around competing teams. While not absolute, typically contending teams offer more built-in fantasy value. Jay Bruce at 31 still offers good pop and RBI promise. Like Cain, I see Bruce appealing more toward contending teams, thus a counting stat steadiness can be expected.

Carlos Gomez is a talent, but at 32 just how much of those tools are left? Ok 2017 overall, but from a game by game basis his production was beyond maddening. Unless Gomez would land in an extreme hitters park I’ve found myself with no interest at all. Carlos Gonzalez, the original CarGo, is coming off easily the worst full season of his career. Pair that with his career Home/Road splits and it becomes hard to value Gonzalez moving forward. This cocktail of disappointment could create a nice draft day value. Should that prove to be the case, take comfort in his improved walk rate, steady K rate, and his likely spot in the middle of the order wherever he lands.

RELIEF PITCHING

The class is rather shallow in terms of clear-cut closers. Greg Holland has a 15 Million player option that he will undoubtedly exercise. I would suspect The Red Sox will follow suit with Craig Kimbrel as well for 13 Million. With these names out of the class, the only primary closers from 2017 on the market figures to be Wade Davis and Fernando Rodney. Davis would seem like a given to earn another job unless he is nabbed to be part of another super-pen. Rodney could be another story. The arrow shots are cute, the 30+ SV even better, but can we really expect it to continue attached with the plus 4.00 ERA?

Some interesting names who have pitched like closers at various points the last two seasons include:

  • Brandon Kintlzer
  • Pat Neshek
  • Juan Nicascio
  • Seong-hwan Oh
  • Addison Reed
  • Luke Gregerson
  • Anthony Swarzak

Not difficult to imagine 2-3 of these guys emerge as closers heading into 2018. One interesting name for me is Brandon Morrow. Morrow has been nothing short of brilliant this season, and the K rate he had as a starter has finally returned. Paired with good control Morrow could find himself signing a one to two-year deal somewhere and building on 2017 enough to earn a shot at closing at some point.

STARTING PITCHING

We have a few options out there, but all seem rather clear-cut. The Giants will gladly welcome back Madison Bumgarner for 12 Million while Johnny Cueto (wanted or not) will happily return for 4 years and 84 Million. Matt Moore at 9 Million won’t leave you screaming of excitement, but with limited organizational options and an eye on contending in 2018, he’ll return.

Chris Sale for 12.5 Million offers no hesitation even if he serves up 10 homers in his next playoff start. Masahiro Tanaka will re-up for 3 years and 67 Million as will Ian Kennedy at 3 years and 43 Million and Wei-Yen Chen 3 years and 52 Million (When the hell did that happen?). Nathan Eovaldi was signed knowing 2017 was a loss. The 2 Million option for 2018 is a given for the Rays.

The group of Yovanni Gallardo (13 Million), Ricky Nolasco (13 Million), and Anibal Sanchez (16 Million) all seemed destined to ask themselves, “Why don’t you love me anymore?”.

Some questions remain along the pitching front:

  • RA Dickey isn’t good, but value can be found in eating innings. Is that 8-Million? I suspect the Braves will honor that.
  • Wade Miley has a 12-Million Club option and a favorable buyout of 500K. At 31, Miley has featured some areas of growth the last couple of seasons and offers at least a small glimpse of promise for a rotation where it doesn’t exist. I suspect the Orioles will go back to Miley once more.
  • Mike Minor was excellent in 65 innings out of the pen. A 10 Million option will certainly work for him, but will the Royals be receptive? I suspect the Royals will be willing if they feel Minor can make a return to the rotation.
  • Martin Perez may be stretching the boundaries of fantasy relevant, but at 27 and a 2.45 Million buyout, they’ll fork over the 6 Million in hopes the ERA may someday level off into the 4’s.

Before the 2018 Free Agency period begins we will likely say our final goodbyes to Matt Cain (Official), Bartolo Colon (45), and John Lackey (39), although Colon has expressed interest in pitching in 2018.

One name to watch could be CC Sabathia. At 37, Sabathia is coming off his perceived best season since 2012. The reality is CC’s 2017 was a carbon copy of 2016 and 2015; he just managed to win 14 games instead of losing 10 and 12 respectively. At this point in his career, just how many teams will be willing to offer up a one year deal? Of those teams, how many will be real competitors going into the season? Coming off a 122 Million contract I just don’t see Sabathia willing to do whatever it takes to hang on.

Interesting middle tier of arms that offer some potential upside.

  • Trevor Cahill seems like he’s 40, but he’ll be just 30 next year. Solid K totals, control can be problematic, and workload is questionable, but if everything were to go as planned, what would 140 Innings pitched look like?
  • Jhoulys Chacin may not offer upside, but he now has two seasons worth of above average production. I wouldn’t consider myself high on Chacin, but given the right situation you could see some sneaky Win totals. 
  • Jamie Garcia is 31 and features excellent stuff, but the track record of inconsistency is just too long at this point. He needs to return to the NL.
  • Francisco Liriano transitioned to the bullpen this season, and 34 isn’t the age when one typically returns to form. Despite this I still find myself interested to some degree in where he ends up.
  • Finally, Tyson Ross is coming off two consecutive lost seasons and is 31, but the talent alone warrants monitoring. Pitcher friendly park with a well-respected pitching coach may be all Ross needs aside from a good run of health.

The second tier of available pitching doesn’t offer much depth.

  • Lance Lynn was really good for the overwhelming majority of 2017. A rough stretch late in the season will sour some owners. Forgive and forget I would advise.
  • Alex Cobb had a fine season overall posting 166 Innings of work with a sub 3.75 ERA. Cobb improved as the season went on posting a 3.52 ERA in the 2nd half compared to 3.75 in the 1st half. More promising however is the bump in K/9 (7.31 to 5.93) combined with the decline in BB (1.97 to 2.34). This should bode well for him moving forward.

Jake Arrieta (32) and Yu Darvish (31) are the best the class has to offer. Coming into 2017 Arrieta’s stock was on the down turn, and the 2nd half of 2017 had been pretty brutal. Meanwhile Darvish had managed to return from injury and pitched well enough to further bury those concerns. Arrieta looked more like the Cy Young winner than the 2nd half of 2017 version while Darvish never seemed to do enough. I feel both arms can be expected to be productive for years to come, but neither are foolproof. Both have lapses in control and both have home run tendencies. Arrieta is more of the ground ball pitcher and isn’t the strikeout source that Darvish is. The trade off of course is that Darvish is likely to give up more home runs.

Bottom Line: I expect both to be solid contributors in 2018, but I wouldn’t without question value them at their draft price. Hitting friendly parks and a less than desirable Division may make me think twice.

 

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Josh Coleman
Father of four SP1 children. Replacement level husband to a top tier wife. I love my family, value my friendships, and spend as much time as possible (too much according to the aforementioned Mrs. Coleman) dedicated to the pursuit, of another Fantasy Championship. I'm the oddball at the bar who prefers Fantasy Baseball to Fantasy Football.
Josh Coleman

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