While the usual “it’s still early” caveat goes without saying, some teams have already played a third of their schedule. We’re quickly approaching that point when a good start morphs into simply a good season altogether. 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.
Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies: A thin starting pitching class became even thinner after Stephen Strasburg signed an extension with the Nationals, which opens the door for several free agent starters to score larger-than-expected contracts. For instance, look at the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year enjoying a strong rebound season in Philadelphia. Hellickson posted a 3.58 ERA, 8.84 K/9 and 4.63 K/9 rate in 37 2/3 IP last month and delivered similar numbers in April. ERA predictors xFIP (3.37) and SIERA (3.39) actually have an even brighter view of the righty’s season, in a reversal of Hellickson’s early seasons with Tampa Bay when he was posting low ERAs but worrisome peripherals. Hellickson is on pace for career-bests in strikeout and walk rates, and he’s performing well despite an ungainly 16.4% home run rate. You wouldn’t have pegged Hellickson as a qualifying offer candidate prior to the season, though now it’s not out of the realm of possibility…unless, of course, he gets traded, though that could depend on whether or not the surprisingly competitive Phillies decide to take a run at a wild card.
Aaron Hill, Brewers: After two mediocre seasons in Arizona and a rough April in Milwaukee, it looked like Hill’s career simply might have been winding down in his age-34 season. Then, Hill hit .357/.455/.583 with five homers and 14 runs in 100 PA over a scalding-hot May, posting the same fWAR (+1.4) over the month as the likes of David Ortiz, Kris Bryant and Mookie Betts. No doubt the .385 BABIP helped Hill post those big numbers, though when you’re a mid-30’s veteran, even one excellent month could be the difference between your next contract being a Major League or minor league deal. If Hill even remotely approaches similar production over the next six weeks, he would stand out as a trade deadline chip for contenders looking for infield help.
Steve Pearce, Rays: Speaking of veteran infielders coming off a big month, Pearce has started games at first, second and third for Tampa this season, while crushing seven homers and hitting .317/.406/.622 over 96 PA in May. Pearce hit the open market last winter with a rather hard-to-evaluate stock, though with another strong season under his belt, he should finally be able to command a multi-year deal. Pearce still has lopsided splits (.736 OPS vs. righty pitching, 1.297 OPS vs. lefties) but a player who can provide that kind of power in a ballpark that typically suppresses right-handed power (i.e. Tropicana Field) will turn heads.
Doug Fister, Astros: The right-hander was so bad in April that MLBTR’s Steve Adams cited him as one of the free agents who had hurt their stock with a poor showing in the opening month. Like Hill, however, Fister righted the ship in May, posting a 2.84 ERA and 57.4% grounder rate over 38 innings. ERA indicators weren’t as kind (4.12 FIP, 4.06 xFIP, 4.18 SIERA) in May, but even in a couple of his prime seasons, Fister’s low-strikeout, grounder-heavy attack led him to outperform the advanced metrics. Fister still has a couple of warning signs hanging over him, namely a 3.3 BB/9 that would be a career high over a full season and an average fastball that clocks in at 86.4 mph, only a touch higher than his FB velocity during his rough 2015 season. Still, given how poor Fister looked in April, any sort of improvement is welcome.
Logan Morrison, Rays: How bad was Morrison’s April? Put it this way…he posted an astonishing negative-22 wRC+ over 64 PA in April, meaning he created 122% fewer runs than a league-average player. Just as quickly, however, Morrison went from hitting like Bob Friend to hitting like Mike Trout, thanks to a .351/.455/.486 slash line (and a 167 wRC+) over 88 PA in May. The month-to-month gulf was so enormous that it’s somewhat hard to predict what’s next for Morrison, though his big May provides some hope that he can still emerge as a post-hype prospect for Tampa and land a solid contract in the offseason.
Chase Utley, Dodgers: Utley hit .281/.363/.416 with three homers and 18 runs scored over 102 May plate appearances, making it back-to-back solid months for the veteran second baseman. While Utley’s .336 BABIP hints that his revival may not last, he’s still on pace for a big improvement over his poor 2015 campaign. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the Mets won’t be bidding on Utley in this winter’s free agent market, though he’ll find plenty of interest amongst the other 29 teams if he chooses to keep playing into his age-38 season.