The 2022 MLB season is now more than two weeks old, yet there’s one significant free agent that’s still unsigned. Outfielder Michael Conforto was ranked 32nd on the MLBTR list of the top 50 free agents, the only one of that group still without a team.
The last report on Conforto, from about three weeks ago, was that his market had been slowed by an injury suffered during the lockout. Conforto’s agent Scott Boras explained the delay, telling reporters that the outfielder suffered a right shoulder strain while training in January.
At the time of that report in late March, Joel Sherman of the New York Post relayed that Conforto had been hitting for five weeks, meaning that he was taking hacks weeks before the lockout ended on March 10. That seemed to at least cast a bit of doubt on the report from Boras, though the health issue seems to be lingering, despite the fact that Conforto has been hitting for about two months now. Mike Puma of the New York Post relays that the shoulder injury was significant enough that surgery was considered, although Conforto opted to forgo that and try to let the shoulder heal. Although Puma doesn’t provide any specific diagnosis of the injury, he reports that Conforto has still not resumed throwing and even suggests it’s possible Conforto may not be able to return to the field at all this season.
If that ends up being the case, it would be another step in a string of bad luck for the outfielder, who already had the misfortune of having a down year just as he was about to qualify for free agency. From 2017 to 2020, he hit 97 home runs and slashed .265/.369/.495. In the estimation of FanGraphs, that production was about 33% better than league average (133 wRC+) and helped him produce 14.9 wins above replacement. However, his offense slipped in 2021 to .232/.344/.384, a wRC+ of 106, still above average but well below his previous level.
He was already going to be challenged to find a contract to his liking after that dip, and after declining an $18.4MM qualifying offer. MLBTR predicted that Conforto would settle for a one-year deal in the $20MM range and then return to the open market without the QO attached, hoping for better offers. This was a route previously taken by players like Yasmani Grandal and Marcell Ozuna, who each took one-year deals and eventually got four-year contracts worth over $60MM. How it will play out for Conforto now will be largely determined by the eventual timeline of his recuperation, which is currently quite murky.
If this injury is as serious as reported, Conforto might just linger on the market long enough to follow that Grandal/Ozuna plan, just without the one-year deal. If he’s able to heal his shoulder and get back into game shape over the next few months, this year’s draft is scheduled to take place July 17-19. Once the draft is completed, any team signing Conforto won’t have to worry about the draft pick forfeiture. Although his extended absence will likely dim the enthusiasm clubs will have for signing him, it’s also possible that a contender suffers an outfield injury of their own that spurs them towards taking a chance. For Conforto’s part, he will surely want to show his health, if he’s able to, in order to improve his earning power after the 2022 season. Even a contract with a modest financial outlay for the season’s final months could be enough to get him onto the field as an audition for his next job. The Marlins, Yankees, Padres, Rockies, Blue Jays and Rangers were known to be interested in him before this injury was revealed.