About 24% of the MLB regular season is in the books. The Astros, Yankees, and Nationals currently reign supreme. Familiar names Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Chris Sale top the WAR leaderboards. Though we’re only in mid-May, there’s a subset of players who can’t help but look ahead: those eligible for free agency after the season. Here, we attempt to rank the projected free agents based on their earning power. For the full list of 2017-18 MLB free agents, click here.
1. Yu Darvish. Nine starts into his season, Darvish is not quite in vintage form. His 2.76 ERA ranks 11th in the American League, though strikeouts are down and walks are up. The key stat might be his 58 2/3 innings pitched, good for a second-place tie in the league. Darvish’s second career 200-inning campaign would quiet concerns after his 22-month Tommy John layoff, possibly leading to the largest contract of the winter. In the short term, the question is whether Darvish will be traded this summer. The Rangers have climbed into the Wild Card discussion with an eight-game winning streak, though they’re already eight games behind the Astros for the division lead.
2. Johnny Cueto. In the early going of 2017, Cueto has posted his worst ground-ball rate since his 2008 rookie season. He’s allowing home runs twice as often as last year and also has an abnormally low strand rate, leading to a 4.50 ERA. I think his numbers will be fine in the end, and he’ll opt out of his remaining four years and $84MM. The Giants may attempt to extend Cueto prior to that point, or they could wind up trading him this summer. The slow-starting club already faces an uphill battle to reach the playoffs.
3. Jake Arrieta. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs put it in the headline of his article this week, “Jake Arrieta Has Not Been Good.” The surface statistical reasons bear some similarity to Cueto: ground-balls are down, home runs are up, and he’s been stranding fewer runners on the bases. 5.44 ERA notwithstanding, Arrieta is still a quality pitcher in his present form. He may settle in as a sub-4.00 ERA number three-type starter, which would only be disappointing compared to the dizzying heights of his 2015 Cy Young season. Darvish, Cueto, and Arrieta should all by vying for five-year deals, and may shuffle spots in these rankings all year long.
4. Jonathan Lucroy. Since we last checked in, Lucroy’s bat has come alive with a .328/.380/.469 line in 71 plate appearances. Talking to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, Lucroy did not attribute his April struggles to his impending free agency, as you’d expect him to say. On the defensive side, Samuel Hale of WFAA wrote an article contending that Lucroy “used to be an elite framer, but that time has passed.” Lucroy’s pitch framing numbers will be worth monitoring as we try to assess whether he will receive the largest contract for a catcher in free agent history.
5. J.D. Martinez. After suffering a foot injury on March 18th, Martinez made his 2017 Tigers debut last Friday. He’s clubbed five homers in six games since then, so I’d say his foot is fine. Martinez, 30 in August, may establish himself as the top free agent bat and move higher in these rankings.
6. Eric Hosmer. Don’t count Hosmer out yet. The Royals’ much-maligned first baseman is hitting .347/.411/.484 in 107 plate appearances since we last checked in. The 27-year-old has apparently been laying off inside pitches in recent weeks, to much success. The Royals are in last place in the AL Central and are unlikely to make the playoffs, which could prompt a summer sell-off of impending free agents like Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Jason Vargas, and Alcides Escobar.
7. Justin Upton. Upton has posted a fine season so far, with a .248/.368/.504 line in 144 plate appearances. Interestingly, he’s drawn a walk in 15.3% of plate appearances, though he’s never reached 12% in a full season and bottomed out at 8% last year. Upton’s newfound selectivity and move toward becoming a Three True Outcomes hitter has been a net positive. If he posts another 30 home run season but draws 90 walks instead of 50-60, Upton may be compelled to opt out of the remaining four years and $88MM on his Tigers contract.
8. Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka has always been on shakier ground than the Big Three of this free agent class, given his health history, lower strikeout rate, and home run tendencies. More than a fifth of the flyballs Tanaka has allowed this year have left the yard. Those 10 home runs allowed in 45 innings have helped his ERA balloon to 5.80. His last outing was particularly ugly, with four long balls leading to a second-inning exit on Derek Jeter Day. There’s talk of a mechanical issue, and maybe this is nothing more than a blip on the radar. With a rough year, Tanaka could have a tricky decision on his opt-out clause, since he has three years and $67MM remaining on his Yankees contract.
9. Michael Pineda. Tanaka’s rotation-mate has a home run problem as well, with a full quarter of Pineda’s fly-balls going for home runs. Nonetheless, he’s posted a ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio accompanied by a solid 3.42 ERA through eight starts. Despite the 10 home runs allowed, Pineda has been able to avoid disaster starts. Has the 28-year-old actually “figured it out” and harnessed his considerable stuff? Jake Devin of Pinstripe Alley asked that question earlier this week, and found the results to be inconclusive.
10. Wade Davis. Davis has been utterly dominant to start off his Cubs career, with 17 1/3 scoreless innings and 22 strikeouts against five walks. Davis’ streak actually goes back another seven innings, into last September with the Royals. He’s no stranger to this kind of dominance, having been unscored upon for 31 2/3 innings in 2014 (tied for the 17th-best scoreless streak for a reliever in MLB history). If Davis continues to distance himself from last year’s flexor strain, he could surpass Mark Melancon’s four-year, $62MM contract from last winter.
While Davis moves into the No. 10 spot on the list, his former teammate, Greg Holland, is close behind. Holland has been dominant and needs to finish just 30 games to trigger a $15MM player option. He entered the day with 18 under his belt already. Perhaps Holland’s lengthy Tommy John layoff will make teams reluctant to give him four years, but he’s a few months younger than Davis and is quickly reestablishing himself. Reds shortstop Zack Cozart leads all impending free agents with two wins above replacement already, and he very nearly snagged the final spot on the list. The 31-year-old has a shot at a four-year deal if his stellar play continues. Athletics first baseman Yonder Alonso has also put himself on the radar by changing his approach and crushing 12 home runs in 137 plate appearances. The Rays’ Logan Morrison, also part of the 2017-18 free agent class, is right behind him with 11 bombs.
With an OBP of .291, Mike Moustakas has fallen outside the top 10 for now. He joins honorable mentions such as Lorenzo Cain, Chris Tillman, Lance Lynn, Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Santana, Marco Estrada, and Alex Cobb. Though the 34-year-old Jason Vargas is unlikely to obtain top 10 earning power, he warrants mention for his 2.03 ERA, which entered the day ranked third in the American League.
One last name you might be wondering about is Shohei Otani, the 22-year-old Nippon Ham Fighters two-way ace. He’ll have a late start to his season due to a thigh injury. While Otani aims to move from Nippon Professional Baseball to the Majors for the 2018 season, and that would be a huge story on MLBTR, he’s seemingly capped at about $10MM in earning power due to a change in the new CBA.