We’re now more than halfway through the month of February, and yet, despite the fact that pitchers and catchers report will begin to report this week, there are a surprising number of starting-caliber players available on the free-agent market. While that can, in some ways, be attributed to what was a very deep crop in terms of outfielders and starting pitchers, that was never true of third base. And yet, David Freese finds himself lingering on the open market and without a team to which he has recently been tied in any sort of convincing manner. Earlier this winter, Freese reportedly talked to the Angels about a reunion, but the team has since acquired Yunel Escobar to handle third base. The White Sox represented an on-paper fit back in November, but their trade for Todd Frazier eliminated the need for a third baseman.
Freese has been a league-average or better bat throughout his career according to both OPS+ and wRC+, and he’s coming off a pair of seasons in Anaheim where he batted a combined .258/.322/.401 (106 OPS+, 108 wRC+). Overall, he’s a lifetime .276/.344/.417 hitter that has averaged 15 home runs per 162 games played. Durability has, at times, been an issue for Freese, but he’s been the victim of a pair of pretty fluky injuries over the past two seasons, twice fracturing a finger in his hand when he was hit by a pitch. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him as a roughly average fielder, which is better than what a lot of teams will trot out in 2016. A slightly above-average bat and an average glove aren’t necessarily exciting, but there’s value there.
While those are all reasons to consider Freese, there are also reasons to pass. UZR may be fine with Freese’s glove, but Defensive Runs Saved has him quite a bit below average. He’s also 32 years old and set to turn 33 in late April, so he’s entering a stage of his career at which it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see his bat decline. An average player at a premium position certainly holds value, but his limited ceiling means that there are probably several potential suitors that feel they have an in-house option capable of putting up comparable numbers. Realistically, some of them are going to end up being correct in that assessment.
I’d be surprised to see Freese land more than a one-year commitment at this stage of the winter. That, it would seem, creates the potential for a bargain add for a team in need of some infield help. He’s not someone that will take a fringe team and make them a contender, but he can add a couple of wins to a contending club with a questionable option at third base or potentially develop into a trade chip for a rebuilding team come July. And, on a one-year deal, if things go south, it’s relatively easy to cut ties.
That said, let’s take a look around the league to see where Freese might best fit as Spring Training games approach…
- Indians: Cleveland third basemen batted a collective .228/.273/.356 last season, and the team has moved former third-baseman-of-the-future hopeful Lonnie Chisenhall to the outfield. That leaves the defensively gifted but offensively questionable Giovanny Urshela and Jose Ramirez as the favorites for at-bats at the hot corner. Realistically, either could be considered an upgrade over Freese with the glove, but both players contributed to that dismal batting line I just referenced in 2015, and Ramirez could arguably better serve the Indians by bouncing around the infield in a utility capacity. Money is tight in Cleveland, as is so often the case, but they’re considering a run at Juan Uribe, according to multiple reports, and Freese would fill that same need.
- Angels: They might have one of baseball’s highest payrolls, but money also hinders the chances that Freese will return to the Halos, as owner Arte Moreno seems dead set on not exceeding the luxury tax threshold of $189MM. If the Halos clear some money in some form of Spring Training trade, though, it stands to reason that Freese could return and push Escobar from third base over to second base. Angels second basemen hit .250/.295/.352 last season, and incumbent starter Johnny Giavotella has a limited track record at the plate and poor ratings in the eyes of defensive metrics.
- Astros: Luis Valbuena is a capable enough third baseman with the bat, as he showed in 2015 when he blasted a career-best 25 home runs. Valbuena, though, can handle multiple positions and saw 200+ innings at first base last season. He could slide across the diamond to first base early in the year while A.J. Reed finishes developing (and, perhaps, avoids Super Two status), leaving third base open for Freese, whose right-handed bat would mesh well with the Astros’ short porch in left field. Houston third basemen batted just .223/.298/.412 last season. GM Jeff Luhnow knows Freese well from the pair’s days together in St. Louis.
- Brewers: There’s a case to be made that a rebuilding team needn’t spend money on a veteran free agent, as it behooves the team to free some at-bats for younger players (and losing games only strengthens the team’s draft the following season, anyhow). However, Milwaukee will probably be giving a fairly substantial amount of at-bats to fellow veteran Aaron Hill at third base, and Hill could be relegated to a platoon role with Scooter Gennett, clearing the way for a hitter with much more recent success. Manager Craig Counsell spoke about the importance of adding the veteran Hill and his experience to the Milwaukee clubhouse following that trade, and Freese could do the same while providing a better bet to serve as a summer trade chip.
- Braves: Much in the same way that the Brewers could potentially benefit from Freese, the Braves currently project to have a combination of Adonis Garcia and Kelly Johnson at third base now that Hector Olivera is in the outfield. Atlanta has quite a few options there already, as Gordon Beckham can also man third base if needed, but Freese seems a more reasonable bet to produce like a regular at the hot corner.
- Pirates: Pittsburgh’s starting infield is filled in as it is, but adding Freese could allow them to ease Jung Ho Kang back into action and could also push Kang back to shortstop, where is offense would be an upgrade over that of Jordy Mercer, who could probably fill a utility role more aptly than Pedro Florimon. Financial considerations and an already crowded infield picture make this one perhaps a bit of a stretch, though there’s some logic to the fit.
Clearly, not every team listed is a perfect fit, but none of the six mentioned here has a concrete enough infield setting that Freese couldn’t perhaps serve as an improvement. Some other teams I debated listing that ultimately seemed a bit too much of a reach include the D-backs (Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury both represent possible regulars at the position) and Padres (Yangervis Solarte has been similarly productive from 2014-15). An injury in Spring Training, of course, could create further matches for Freese and other remaining free agents — especially those that are most likely limited to one-year deals.