Last night, MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk looked at a number of free agents that bolstered their stock with a huge April performance (with the help of some Fangraphs leaderboards that he made for free-agent position players and pitchers). While Mark elected to look at some second- and third-tier free agents that are currently ascending the free agent power rankings, it’s also worth taking a look at the inverse; that is, players that may have had fairly strong free agent cases but have put themselves behind the eight ball. There are, of course, a number of pending free agents that struggled in the season’s first month, but rather than focusing on players that were candidates for shorter, smaller-scale deals in the first place, it seems worthwhile to identify some potentially significant earners that have gotten off on the wrong foot. It should be noted, of course, that a poor month or two isn’t a nail in the coffin to a player’s free agent hopes. Ian Kennedy, for instance, had a 7.15 ERA on June 1 last season and still pulled in $70MM and an opt-out clause this winter. However, there were others that struggled — most notably, perhaps, being Ian Desmond — and never fully recovered.
For the purposes of this post, I’m highlighting players that entered the season with legitimate cases for earning a deal of three years or more on the open market this coming offseason but have a long ways to go to now make that a reality…
Matt Wieters: I was among the crowd that was surprised to see Wieters accept Baltimore’s qualifying offer last November. Despite the fact that he was eased back into catching and hadn’t shown that he could consistently catch on consecutive days, Wieters slashed .267/.319/.422 — a batting line that was precisely league average in the eyes of both OPS+ and wRC+. A catcher that can put up league-average numbers at the plate is a hugely valuable commodity, and Wieters was still reasonably young and had a notable pedigree. Now, however, he’s batting .214/.290/.304 through his first 16 contests, and he’s caught on back-to-back days just once. Nineteen strikeouts in 62 plate appearances doesn’t help his cause whatsoever.
Carlos Gomez: Some will scoff at this notion, but if Gomez had come out the gates blazing and finished with numbers that closely resembled his 2013-14 production, he’d have had a case for a $200MM contract. Jacoby Ellsbury’s seven-year, $153MM contract would have been looked at as a floor for agent Scott Boras, if it was even on his radar at all. Players that can deliver elite center field defense, 20+ homer power and all-around batting lines that are 25 to 30 percent above the league average are of the utmost rarity, and Gomez would’ve been entering his age-31 season. That’s a year older than Ellsbury was when he signed, but Gomez has had more offensive success, and Shin-Soo Choo can speak to the fact that it’s possible to take home seven years entering an age-31 season. Gomez, though, is hitting just .213/.241/.275 with 24 strikeouts and two walks in 83 PAs. The enormous ceiling still has him rated fifth on Tim Dierkes’ free-agent power rankings, but another month like April and Gomez will continue his slide down the list.
Edwin Encarnacion: At .240/.287/.380, Encarnacion’s bat hasn’t been completely nonexistent, but it certainly hasn’t lived up to his standards. I’d be less concerned about his production than any hitter on this list, as he’s curbed a brief strikeout binge to some extent while being plagued by a BABIP south of .180 over his past 12 games and also struggled through a poor April last season before coming to life in May. Encarnacion missed most of Spring Training as well, which could further explain the early rust. Nonetheless, he can’t undo the poor month of production he endured, and he’ll need to offset that lack of pop and those Ks with some heightened productions in the season’s warmer months. He’s currently seventh on Tim’s power rankings.
Erick Aybar: Aybar’s earning power was never going to match that of Wieters or Gomez, but with a strong season and a paper-thin crop of shortstops on the horizon, he had an easy case for a multi-year deal if he could get back to his 2014 form. However, Aybar is hitting just .163/.180/.198, and his glove at shortstop has been so poor that the Braves are already giving him some time at second base. Aybar has cost the Braves three runs at shortstop according to both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, and his results at the plate are among the worst in baseball. That’s a terrible way to start any contract year, but it’s especially troubling for a player that will turn 33 next January.
Austin Jackson: We’re coming up on three years now since Jackson enjoyed an above-average offensive season, and with half of his games coming at the hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field this season, it’ll be difficult to make the claim that his home park played any role in his woes. Defensive metrics are down on his glove in center field as well. If his numbers since 2014 are indicative of Jackson’s true skills now, he’s a player that can handle center but perhaps not excel there with a bat that’s 10 to 15 percent below the league average. A .229/.273/.337 start through his first 90 plate appearances doesn’t do much to help his cause.
Doug Fister: Fister looked to be poised for a significant multi-year deal at the time of his trade to the Nationals, and while his first season carried some red flags, a one-year deal worth $7MM was still an implausible outcome heading into the 2015 season. Fister, though, lost his hold on a rotation spot thanks in large part to the fact that he struggled to scrape 87 mph for much of last season. The diminished velocity led to the second-worst strikeout rate of his career, and his control took a step backward as well. This season, Fister’s velocity is again in the mid-80s, and the collective result of his work is a 4.60 ERA with a 16-to-12 K/BB ratio in 29 1/3 innings. There’s some hope for the 32-year-old, though, as his sinker’s velocity has indeed steadily crept upward, topping out at an average of 88.2 mph in his most recent start (6.2 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K). Fister was a fine pitcher when he last averaged 88-89 mph, and if he can maintain the most recent gains or even see a bit more of an increase, the rest of the season could look much brighter than his ominous April.
Drew Storen: A trade to the homer-friendly Rogers Centre is never particularly good for a pitcher, but Storen’s struggles to begin the 2016 campaign go beyond his early proneness to the long ball. Storen has surrendered three homers with the Jays after yielding just four in 2015 and two in 2014, and his home park isn’t the only issue. Storen’s fastball velocity is hovering around 92 mph this season — a noted step down from his previous levels of 93-94.5 mph. A look at his velocity charts shows that this isn’t simply a case where he’s yet to build up to a midseason peak, either; he’s never started out a season with velocity this low, and his swinging-strike rate is at its lowest point since a difficult 2013 season. All of these data points are small samples, and that’s doubly true with a reliever, so it should be stressed that we’re looking at eight innings worth of work here. However, the decreases in velocity and swings/misses are notable even if Storen’s 30 percent homer-to-flyball ratio is all but certain to regress.
Andrew Cashner: While there’s more to like about Cashner’s start than the starts of Fister and Storen — he’s averaging eight strikeouts per nine innings with a 3.91 FIP — Cashner’s 4.94 ERA leaves plenty to be desired. The results have never really lined up with the raw stuff and pedigree that Cashner brings to the table, sometimes due to underperformance and other times due to injury. Teams are more willing to look past ERA than ever before, but Cashner’s walk rate is up after a notable increase in 2015, and his early ground-ball rate hasn’t measured up to his previously strong marks.
There’s plenty of early-season noise every season, and many of these slow starts will prove to be just that. However, it’s also worth monitoring each of the listed players over the next month or two, as it becomes increasingly difficult to climb out of these holes as the season wears on. Desmond, Alexei Ramirez and two of the players on this very list (Wieters and Fister) all provide testament to that.
Thanks to MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk for creating the free agent leaderboards and of course to Fangraphs for providing the indispensable means to do so.