Many different types of free agents end up receiving relatively expensive, one-year deals. Some are looking for the right opportunity to earn a nice single-season paycheck while (hopefully) building up to a multi-year deal in the ensuing winter. Others settle for a solo campaign after trying and failing to find more. Some are younger players who have enough upside to draw a significant offer despite a rough platform campaign. Others are steady veterans that are being paid more for their floor than their ceiling. All such players necessarily receive only a limited commitment from their new teams; those that end up with non-contenders must be prepared for a mid-season scramble for new lodging in the event of a swap.
With about a quarter of the season in the books, let’s look at how things are shaping up for the dozen highest-paid rental free agent position players, each of whom earned over $5MM for his services in 2019.
Josh Donaldson, Braves, $23MM: It took a big salary to land the former MVP, but this situation is playing out as the Braves envisioned. Thus far, a healthy Donaldson (40 games played) has provided good value (127 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR) and typically fiery leadership. Austin Riley’s ascent only sweetens the pot. He’ll be an option at third if Donaldson gets hurt and the Braves will get a good feel for whether he’s ready to take over full-time next year — with Donaldson potentially declining a qualifying offer and delivering some draft compensation on his way out the door.
Yasmani Grandal, Brewers, $18.25MM: The most surprising player to settle for a one-year pact was this veteran backstop, who has been a consistently stellar overall performer for some time. He reportedly turned down much longer, more lucrative overall deals that he felt would not have compensated him sufficiently for his single-season value. The Brewers managed to sneak in and get a very appealing contract that is paying off so far. Grandal continues to grade as a strong pitch framer while providing top-line offensive output for a catcher, with a .263/.358/.467 batting line through 162 plate appearances to begin the season.
Nelson Cruz, Twins, $14.3MM: Cruz isn’t exactly driving the bus in Minny, where a host of other players are performing at unexpectedly lofty levels, but the respected veteran is earning his keep. Though 144 plate appearances, Cruz carries a .270/.354/.508 slash with seven home runs. He just hit the injured list with a wrist injury, but the hope is it’ll be a brief respite.
Mike Moustakas, Brewers, $10MM: It’s hard to be a total bargain at this price, but the Milwaukee organization is getting everything it hoped for out of Moose. He’s hitting at a 126 wRC+ clip and held down the fort well enough at second base before shifting back to his native hot corner.
Brian Dozier, Nationals, $9MM: Though he’s walking in nearly a dozen of every hundred plate appearances, Dozier carries an anemic .187 batting average and hasn’t yet rediscovered his pop. There’s still time for a turnaround, but it’s not a promising start for the second bagger, who was not that long ago a star-level performer.
Jonathan Schoop, Twins, $7.5MM: The veteran second baseman has been a nice buy thus far for the Twins, putting up a strong 109 wRC+ after a rough 2018 season. There’ll likely always be some ups and downs for a player that draws so few walks, but Schoop has been a productive player when he has been at or above the .300 BABIP and .200 ISO lines. He’s doing that so far.
Steve Pearce, Red Sox, $6.25MM: Though his career has been filled with peaks and valleys, we’ve never seen anything like this from Pearce. Typically, he’s an excellent hitter when he’s able to stay on the field. Pearce opened the year on the IL with a calf injury but hasn’t been himself since returning. Through 69 plate appearances, he owns a not-so-nice .111/.176/.143 batting line without a single long ball.
Nick Markakis, Braves, $6MM: What is there to say at this point? It looked like a nice price when the Braves coaxed the veteran back, though it was questionable whether it really made sense to hand him everyday time in right field to open the season. Markakis has done more than keep the seat warm for younger options or mid-season acquisitions; he’s slashing .299/.393/.461. As was the case last year, there are some sustainability questions — different ones this time around. Markakis carries a robust 14.2% walk rate against only a 10.9% strikeout rate and is making tons of hard contact, but he’s also sporting a 2.54 GB/FB rate that is by gar the highest in his career.
Robinson Chirinos, Astros, $5.75MM: This one came as something of a surprise, as it had seemed the Houston organization would try for a big improvement behind the dish. Interestingly, the Rangers paid Chirinos $1MM rather than exercising a $4.5MM club option. The cross-Texas change has worked out well for Chirinos and the ’Stros, as he’s off to a .268/.398/.546 start to the year with six home runs and an appealing combination of 19 walks and thirty strikeouts. Chirinos has shown power and plate discipline before, but never to quite this extent at the same time. He’s also trending up in the framing department after a being graded harshly in that area last year.
Billy Hamilton, Royals, $5.25MM: If the Royals were expecting something different in kind from what they’ve received from Hamilton, they probably shouldn’t have. He’s still miscast as a near-everyday option in the outfield, as his ongoing struggles with the bat (.224/.305/.284) confirm yet again. Hamilton is now carrying a sub-70 wRC+ for the third consecutive season. He’s also still providing value on the bases and contributing quality glovework, though metrics now view him more as very good than exceptional in those areas.
Jordy Mercer, Tigers, $5.25MM: Injuries have hampered the veteran shortstop early on and he’s not hitting when healthy. There was never much hope that he’d suddenly find a new gear with the bat at 32 years of age, but the Detroit club surely hoped for more than a .206/.275/.317 output. It’s quite a small sample, but both DRS and UZR see cause for concern also with Mercer’s glovework.
Freddy Galvis, Blue Jays, $5MM: To this point, the Blue Jays have gotten better value on their slightly lesser investment in the younger Galvis than the Tigers have in Mercer. That said, Galvis has fallen back to earth after a hot start and is currently sitting at approximately league-average overall offensive production. Toronto can’t be displeased, since the move was designed to fill in the gap for a single season.