Michael Conforto is the last unsigned player who appeared among MLBTR’s Top 50 free agents at the start of the offseason. Easily the best player still available on the open market, Conforto has nevertheless remained without a team with just a week until Opening Day.
Agent Scott Boras offered an explanation for Conforto’s delay in signing this evening, telling Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic and Joel Sherman of the New York Post the outfielder suffered a right shoulder strain while training in January. Boras says Conforto is now healthy and is again hitting but that the issue slowed down both his offseason training routine and his hunt for a club. According to Rosenthal, negotiations with teams were on hold but resumed last week.
Conforto’s injury could partially clarify the hold-up in his finding a new club, although it doesn’t seem to completely explain the delay. After all, he suffered the strain in January, a time when MLB free agents were barred from communicating with teams anyhow. Sherman writes that Conforto has been hitting for five weeks, indicating he’d returned to batting practice well before the lockout was lifted on March 10. The delay in his resuming throwing ostensibly kept Boras from negotiating with teams in the immediate post-lockout signing spree, although that he’s been in contact with clubs for about a week suggests that only set back discussions around 10-14 days.
Unsurprisingly, Boras claimed that a now-healthy Conforto is drawing strong interest. However, he declined to project a timetable for the 29-year-old to sign. At the very least, that negotiations are ongoing would seem to reduce speculation among some fans that Conforto could wait until after the draft to put pen to paper. The left-handed hitter rejected a qualifying offer from the Mets at the start of the offseason, entitling New York to draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere and costing a signing club a draft choice.
Waiting to sign until after the draft would remove that compensation from the equation, and a few qualified free agents like Stephen Drew and Dallas Keuchel have taken that approach in past offseasons. However, this year’s draft is scheduled to take place from July 17-19, later than the early-June drafts of the Drew/Keuchel era. That’d require Conforto sitting out more than half the season, a course of action which never seemed likely.
Conforto is coming off a down season from a results perspective, but his strikeout and walk rates were customarily strong. The left-handed hitter also posted better batted ball marks than his 14 homers and .153 ISO (slugging minus batting average) would indicate. He looks like a strong bounceback candidate, one who could upgrade most lineups around the league.
Nevertheless, it’s tough to pin down top suitors for Conforto, even at this stage of the offseason. The Marlins, Yankees, Padres and Rockies were linked to him before the lockout. Miami and Colorado have since gone in different directions to upgrade their outfields, while San Diego is reportedly reluctant to take on another big move that could push them above the luxury tax threshold. New York hasn’t addressed the outfield, but they’ve since added Anthony Rizzo and Josh Donaldson to the payroll.
The Blue Jays more recently checked in as part of their search for a lefty-hitting outfielder, but they acquired Raimel Tapia from Colorado last week. No other team has been definitively tied to Conforto throughout the winter, but Jon Heyman of the MLB Network suggested on his Big Time Baseball podcast last week the Rangers could jump into the mix.