The open market welcomed 26 additional free agents Friday when various major league teams chose not to tender contracts to certain arbitration-eligible players. While no one is going to confuse the new members of this winter’s unsigned class with any of the top free agents, there are at least a few who could boost teams’ chances in 2018 and beyond. As Tyler Flowers, Steve Cishek and Welington Castillo have shown over the past couple years, a non-tender doesn’t have to be a career death knell.
Here’s a look at the best of this year’s group:
- Hector Rondon, RP: The hard-throwing, right-handed Rondon isn’t that far removed from a two-year showing in which he was among baseball’s premier relievers. The former closer pitched to a minuscule 2.03 ERA with 8.91 K/9, 2.03 BB/9 and a 50.8 percent groundball rate across 133 1/3 innings from 2014-15, during which he combined for 59 saves on 68 attempts. However, Rondon’s effectiveness began fading during the Cubs’ World Series-winning 2016 campaign – thanks in part to an arm injury, perhaps – and he’s now fresh off a year in which he posted a 4.24 ERA. But Rondon managed at least 50 innings (57, to be exact) for the fourth straight season in 2017, when he also continued his groundballing ways (48.3 percent) and logged a career-high swinging-strike rate (11.3 percent). Further, even during his disappointing 2016-17 stretch, he saw his K/9 rise to an impressive 10.55 (against 2.33 walks per nine). While neither the Cubs nor any other team thought Rondon would be worth a projected $6.2MM in 2018, the 29-year-old still figures to intrigue a host of clubs – some of which may not be in the mood to pay high prices for established relievers this winter.
- Mike Fiers, RHP: An estimated $5.7MM for Fiers was too rich for the Astros and other teams, but it wouldn’t have been an unreasonable amount relative to what the 32-year-old has done during his career. Since debuting as a starter with the Brewers in 2012, Fiers has racked up 694 1/3 innings from the rotation and compiled a respectable 4.15 ERA, also notching 8.64 K/9 against 2.79 BB/9. Fiers was one of the few members of the World Series champion Astros who endured a miserable 2017 (5.22 ERA, 5.43 FIP in 153 1/3 frames), but if the personal-worst 19.5 percent home run-to-fly ball rate he put up more closely resembles his career mark of 13.6 going forward, he could return to being a decent innings eater.
- Matt Adams, 1B: Lefty-swinging first basemen who struggle against same-handed pitchers aren’t exactly rare, so it wasn’t that surprising when the Braves jettisoned Adams in lieu of potentially paying him around $4.6MM in 2018. That said, Adams has been quite useful versus right-handed pitchers, having slashed .286/.333/.495 against them in 1,510 plate appearances, and has typically been adept at first base (14 Defensive Runs Saved, 8.3 Ultimate Zone Rating). Those skills should make the 29-year-old Adams a worthwhile pickup for someone, though he’s a small fish in a big free agent pond that includes other proven first base types in Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana, Logan Morrison, Yonder Alonso and Adam Lind.
- Jared Hughes, RP: As a groundball specialist who has generated excellent results despite a dearth of strikeouts, Hughes isn’t all that dissimilar to more hyped free agent Brandon Kintzler. But even though he has a good track record and was projected to earn a very reasonable $2.2MM in 2018, the 32-year-old Hughes is now on the unemployment line. Based on Hughes’ history, Milwaukee’s loss could be a big gain for another club. Since 2014, his first of four consecutive solid years, the ex-Pirates righty has thrown no fewer than 59 1/3 innings in any individual season and ridden a 62.1 percent grounder rate to a 2.55 ERA. Hughes ranks eighth among qualified relievers in GB rate and 18th in ERA over the past four seasons, despite having registered only 5.54 K/9 against 3.02 BB/9 during that span (notably, though, his K/9 rose to a career-high 7.24 in 2017).
- Drew Smyly, LHP: With his estimated $6.85MM salary, Smyly was a non-tender waiting to happen the moment he underwent Tommy John surgery in June, officially ending a season in which he was unable to take the mound for Seattle. The Mariners acquired Smyly 10 months ago with the hope that he’d serve as a capable mid-rotation starter – something he had been at times with the Rays from 2014-16. Smyly combined for 395 innings of 3.94 ERA ball during those seasons and recorded 8.59 K/9 against 2.53 BB/9, and offset a paltry grounder rate (34.2 percent) with a league-best infield fly mark (15.3 percent). It’s anyone’s guess whether Smyly will resemble his old form when he returns (perhaps not until 2019), but he’s still just 28 and looks worthy of taking a flyer on at an affordable cost this offseason.