While the usual “it’s still early” caveat goes without saying, a quick start can be a boon to players in their last year under contract, as it always helps to establish value as soon as possible. Looking at the lists of position players and pitchers (big tip of the hat to Fangraphs) who are eligible to hit the open market after the 2016 season, some notable names have already done a lot to position themselves for big multi-year deals this winter. This post won’t focus as much on the upper-tier players who may sit atop the free agent power rankings, but rather the lower- or middle-tier names coming into this season looking to greatly improve their stock.
Dexter Fowler, Cubs: Entering today’s play, Fowler led not just all pending free agents, but all hitters in baseball with 2.0 fWAR in April. Fowler has only topped the 2.3 fWAR mark once in his career over a full season, which underscores his hot start. While Fowler isn’t going to keep hitting .347/.474/.613 all year (not to mention a scorching .426 BABIP), a big season will surely put Fowler in much better position as a free agent this winter than last. Fowler’s market last offseason was greatly impacted by the qualifying offer and teams were reluctant to give up a draft pick for his services, resulting in Fowler eventually re-signing with Chicago on a one-year, $8MM deal that contains a $5MM buyout of a $9MM mutual option for 2017. It seems very likely that Fowler will decline his end of that mutual option and again look to score a big multi-year commitment.
Michael Saunders, Blue Jays: After tearing his meniscus in Spring Training and missing almost all of the 2015 season, Saunders has rebounded to hit .303/.376/.566 with four homers over 85 plate appearances. Some regression is inevitable (Saunders has a .365 BABIP) but any stretch of consistent, healthy play is a boon for a player who has dealt with numerous injury woes over his career. While it seems clear that Saunders’ knee has impacted his baserunning and fielding, his defensive metrics in left field have thus far been not bad (+1.5 UZR/150, -1 Defensive Run Saved) considering the scope of his injury and the long-term effects of having a meniscus actually removed. Obviously, being a bat-only player entering his age-30 season would greatly hamper Saunders’ free agent stock, so he’ll need to keep displaying at least an average or only a slightly below-average glove to make future suitors comfortable with the idea of using him in the outfield.
Jhoulys Chacin, Braves: One of the few bright spots in a rough Braves season, Chacin has a 3.27 ERA, 9.41 K/9 and 5.75 K/BB rate through four starts and 22 innings. Chacin signed a minor league deal with Atlanta in order to rebuild his stock following two injury-plagued seasons, so while the early returns have been impressive, he’ll need his shoulder to hold up over the coming weeks and months to really put himself in line for a nice free agent contract. If Chacin keeps it up, the rebuilding Braves could move him at the trade deadline.
Rich Hill, Athletics: It took Hill just 29 spectacular innings in 2015 to go from reclamation project to recipient of a one-year, $6MM deal from the A’s in free agency. With 32 innings now in the books for his 2016 campaign, Hill is still looking good, posting a 2.53 ERA, 11.53 K/9 and 51.3% grounder rate for Oakland. His BB/9, however, is 3.66 — that’s still a manageable number (particularly given all the strikeouts and grounders Hill is generating), though Hill has battled control problems throughout his career. If teams are going to offer Hill a multi-year contract for his age-37 season to beyond, they’ll need certainty that Hill’s wildness is mostly behind him.