It’s not uncommon for one or two top-ranked free agents to see their unemployment stretch into the month of March, but the 2017-18 offseason has, of course, proven to be anything but common. It’s March 1, and an unprecedented eight of MLBTR’s Top 50 free agents remain unsigned — some with a handful of clubs holding interest but waiting out a bargain but others with no clear market for their services at all.
We’ll re-rank the nine best remaining free agents here and assess their current prospects:
1. Jake Arrieta
Arrieta is the top pitcher and top free agent remaining, but he holds that distinction in a market where no club appears poised to offer even four years to any free agent at this point. Agent Scott Boras compared Arrieta to Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer earlier this offseason, but it seems abundantly clear that a contract in that duo’s $180-210MM range isn’t happening. (Such numbers always seemed far-fetched.)
The Phillies have been linked to Arrieta in recent weeks, though every report out of Philadelphia has suggested that the team is only interested in capitalizing on a lackluster market and inking Arrieta to a short-term deal — perhaps for three years at a premium annual value. The Brewers have been said to hold some degree of interest but are also unlikely to pay top-of-the-market rates. The Nationals are reportedly maintaining interest, and perhaps that’s Boras’ best bet; he’s pitched directly to owner Ted Lerner in the past and has a strong relationship there. Plus, there’s no clear fifth starter for the Nats, who are currently set to go with A.J. Cole in that spot.
Earlier in the offseason, there were some connections between Arrieta and the Cardinals, though there’s been little in the way of reports connecting the two sides over the past two months. St. Louis already has a full rotation in addition to several 40-man options that appear ticketed for Triple-A to open the season.
The Twins and Angels are reportedly more or less finished with their offseason shopping, though there’s a clear on-paper fit for him in either organization.
Best remaining fits: Brewers, Phillies, Nationals, Cardinals, Twins, Angels
At this point, it’s hard to see Moustakas commanding a significant multi-year deal. The 29-year-old belted a career-high 38 homers last year but did so with a .314 OBP that fell within close proximity to his career .305 on-base percentage. Moustakas’ power surge came at a time when the entire league hit long balls at a historic rate, thus mitigating the value of that improvement. Moose and Boras need not look any further than Logan Morrison, who also slugged 38 homers last season and recently settled for a $6.5MM guarantee from the Twins, for proof that those homers aren’t going to be compensated as they once were.
The Cardinals added one power bat to their lineup in Marcell Ozuna this offseason but could conceivably play Matt Carpenter at first, Moustakas at third and split Jose Martinez’s time between first base and the outfield. Bringing him in would likely push the out-of-options Greg Garcia off the roster and make Jedd Gyorko the primary utility option.
The White Sox could toy with the idea of pushing Yolmer Sanchez to a utility role to accommodate Moustakas, while the Braves could do the same with Johan Camargo. But, both of those teams would need to weigh the idea of hurting this year’s draft pool by signing Moustakas, who rejected a qualifying offer in November.
The Phillies could be another dark horse here, given their minimal payroll commitments and the recent underperformance of Maikel Franco. They’d be selling low on Franco if they moved him, though, so it’s far from clear whether there’d be real interest.
Best remaining fits: Cardinals, White Sox, Braves, Phillies, Royals
3. Lance Lynn
Lynn tossed 186 1/3 innings over 33 starts with a 3.43 ERA in his return from Tommy John surgery, prompting him to reject a qualifying offer. However, he also turned in career-worsts in K/9, BB/9, HR/9 and chase rate while matching his career-low in fastball velocity. Lynn’s .244 BABIP was the lowest among qualified big league starters, while his 79 percent strand rate was among the highest.
Teams surely see value in Lynn as a stabilizing force at the back of a rotation, but it’s doubtful that many of today’s more data-driven clubs are evaluating him based on an ERA that looks poised for some significant regression. The five-year term Lynn reportedly sought earlier this winter isn’t going to come into play, and even three or four years at a solid AAV could be a reach at this point.
There’s still a case for a multi-year deal, of course, and all of the teams listed as plausible landing spots for Arrieta make sense for Lynn as well. One could argue that he also fits on some clubs with less payroll flexibility like the Orioles and Mariners, though neither has been linked to him. If you’re looking for a more concrete indication for how teams value Lynn, Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN reported in his most recent podcast that the Twins threw out a low-ball offer of about $12MM total over two years. Unsurprisingly, Lynn’s agents at Excel quickly shot that down, but it’ not a great sign when that’s the type of interest he’s fielding in early March.
Best remaining fits: Brewers, Phillies, Nationals, Twins, Angels, Orioles, Mariners
4. Greg Holland
Holland reportedly had the opportunity to return to the Rockies on a three-year deal earlier this offseason, but the Rox moved on and signed Wade Davis when Holland continued shopping for better deals. It’s hard to see him coming anywhere near the $51MM that Davis secured now, and any three-year deal at a premium rate would come as a surprise.
The Cardinals still don’t have much name value at the back of their ’pen, and speculatively speaking, the Cubs could make a bargain play for Holland if he’s willing to sign a two-year deal. The Angels would reportedly consider him at the “right price.” The D-backs could use some bullpen depth and were willing to stretch payroll for J.D. Martinez, so there’s probably enough wiggle room to make it happen — especially on a backloaded deal. The Rockies, meanwhile, have been stockpiling arms, so if Holland’s price drops enough, perhaps they’d further double-down on that strategy in hopes of compiling a super-pen.
Houston was tied to Holland earlier this winter and never added a big-name reliever, while the Phillies have payroll flexibility and some open spots in the bullpen should they decide that Holland’s price has lowered to the point where he’s a good value proposition. The Nationals have been connected to Holland at times, but it seems likelier they’ll focus elsewhere after adding multiple relievers already.
Best remaining fits: Cardinals, Cubs, Angels, D-backs, Rockies, Astros, Phillies
5. Alex Cobb
Reports of Cobb’s “willingness” to sign for a four-year term in the $70MM range back in January seemed optimistic for a variety of reasons. Now, with Spring Training underway, it’s even tougher to see him landing anything within arm’s reach of those numbers. Like Lynn, Cobb posted a solid ERA in his comeback season from Tommy John, but his profile is teeming with red flags. He’s never made 30 starts or topped 180 innings in a season, his swinging-strike rate was the third-worst in all of baseball last season, and multiple reports have cited scouts questioning the effectiveness of his formerly above-average changeup.
His market overlaps with those of Arrieta and Lynn, but he also comes with draft/international forfeitures after turning down a qualifying offer. Cobb reportedly turned away a three-year deal in the $42MM range from the Cubs earlier this offseason, and I’d be surprised if he topped that figure at this point.
Best remaining fits: Brewers, Phillies, Nationals, Twins, Orioles, Mariners
Lucroy’s bat bounced back with the Rockies after a terrible start to the season with the Rangers, but his framing numbers plummeted and his power was nowhere to be found — even at Coors Field. There simply aren’t many (or perhaps even any) clubs looking for starting catchers, and the ones that arguably should be aren’t in aggressive pursuit of upgrades.
The A’s could certainly stand to look for an improvement over Bruce Maxwell, who hasn’t hit much in the Majors and is facing some troubling off-field allegations. However, Oakland brass has voiced commitment to Maxwell on more than one occasion. The Nationals would be well-served to find an alternative to Matt Wieters after a dreadful first year in D.C., but perhaps they don’t relish the idea of buying low on a second veteran in hopes of a rebound.
Speculating, the Brewers could look at Lucroy as an insurance option for Manny Pina, who stumbled in the season’s second half last year after a surprising first half. Stephen Vogt and Jett Bandy are in camp as backup options, though Vogt is out up to three weeks with a shoulder issue and on a non-guaranteed arbitration contract, while Bandy is out of minor league options and struggled tremendously in 2017. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are currently slated to use light-hitting Luke Maile as their backup to Russell Martin. There’s a fit there, but Lucroy probably prefers more playing time as he seeks to reestablish himself.
Best remaining fits: Athletics, Nationals, Brewers, Blue Jays
7. Neil Walker
Walker might be the toughest of the remaining free agents to place. He told Billy Witz of the New York Times this week that he thought he was close to going to the Yankees before they acquired Brandon Drury, and that swap now looks to have eliminated one of the top on-paper fits for him. The Brewers still need a second baseman, and Walker, a switch-hitting veteran who has steadily been an average or better regular throughout his career would be an improvement for them.
Outside of Milwaukee, there just aren’t many teams — contenders or non-contenders — looking for help at the keystone. The Tigers could conceivably move Dixon Machado to a utility role and add Walker if they feel he’s a bargain that they could flip in a trade this summer. Perhaps the Rays could view Walker as an underpriced bargain and cut ties with Brad Miller, whose arb deal isn’t guaranteed, in order to bring Walker in at second base.
The White Sox or Braves could sign him to put him at third base, though displacing current options to play Walker out of position seems like a stretch even by the loose standards set within this writing. Barring a spring injury, the market for Walker is extremely limited, which is unfortunate for him, as he’s long been a solid contributor. At the very least, he’s an intriguing bench option for contending clubs in a role not dissimilar to the one he was likely exploring with the Yankees.
Best remaining fits: Brewers, Tigers, Rays
CarGo picked a bad time for the worst offensive performance of his career, but it’s worth noting that he raked at a .327/.401/.553 clip over his final 227 plate appearances (albeit with a massively unsustainable .401 BABIP). Both the trade and free-agent markets in recent years have illustrated very clearly that modern front offices simply don’t value bat-first corner options in the same manner as their front-office predecessors. Gonzalez is hardly a butcher in the outfield, but he’s 32 years old and even favorable projections aren’t likely to peg him as more than an average right fielder.
The Orioles are the clear best fit in my eyes, having spent the offseason pining for a left-handed bat to play in right field but to this point settling on minor league deals for Colby Rasmus and Alex Presley. (Meanwhile, prospect Austin Hays’ shoulder is barking, though that seems like a short-term issue.) Adding CarGo on a short-term deal would fit well with a closing window as most of their stars are set to depart this coming offseason. A return to the Rockies isn’t exactly a clean fit given the outfield options they already possess, but Colorado has kept in touch with Gonzalez all offseason, per GM Jeff Bridich, and the slugger is already being missed in the clubhouse.
The White Sox strike me as a team with room to add, and striking a deal with CarGo would bump Leury Garcia to a super utility role for which he may be better suited than everyday activity. But, GM Rick Hahn has suggested recently that he’s not in a rush to take at-bats away from potential longer-term options. The Royals recently brought Michael Saunders in on a minor league pact and continue to face some outfield uncertainty, but GM Dayton Moore has stressed that the economic component of any signing is critical to them right now. (Put another way: CarGo is probably too expensive for them.)
Best remaining fits: Orioles, Rockies, White Sox, Royals
9. Jon Jay
Jay doesn’t bring any power to the table and isn’t a great center fielder, but he’s a solid on-base guy that can be used at all three outfield slots. He hits left-handed but without a significant platoon split, and he’s been an average or better overall hitter each season in the Majors except his ugly 2015 campaign (by measure of OPS+ and wRC+).
Perhaps that means he’s not an ideal starter, but he’d make for a useful fourth outfielder or something slightly more — similar to the manner in which the Cubs used him last year when he received 433 plate appearances. He’d fit the Orioles’ desire for a lefty outfielder — the center-field capability also helps there — and he’d perhaps be more affordable for the Royals than Gonzalez. The Tigers could use him as a fourth outfielder, or he could be a stopgap for the Braves until Ronald Acuna reaches the Majors. The Marlins were linked to him before they signed Cameron Maybin, but he still makes some sense there. And I could see him landing with the Nationals if they view him as an upgrade over Brian Goodwin as a fourth outfielder.
Best remaining fits: Orioles, Royals, Tigers, Braves, Marlins, Nationals