This off-season has been painfully slow. It is the middle of January and most of the top free agent’s are still available. Outside of a few trades there hasn’t been much action at all. People are calling collusion, blaming next years free agency crop, or just debating whether these guys that are available are even any good. Most free agent deals don’t end well and investing in the down years of a player’s career rarely seems wise. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had in free agency.
Let’s take a look at who the elusive “mystery teams” might be that could swoop in and sign some of these players. I say mystery team loosely because at one point or another, these individual players might have been linked to these teams. What I mean is organizations that are less than an obvious fit.
RHP Yu Darvish – Angels
It was recently reported that Yu has narrowed his choices down to 5 teams – the Yankees, Astros, Cubs, Rangers, and Twins. Darvish himself then chimed in on twitter that there is one more team still in the mix as well. Since those tweets took place, the Astros have traded for RHP Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates, which may or may not take them out of the mix for Darvish. Now it’s up to us to figure out who that last team may be.
For me, that team should be the Los Angeles Angels. Even after securing the biggest prize of the off-season – RHP/DH Shohei Ohtani – in December, the Angels pitching depth leaves something to be desired. For a team that has best-player-in-the-world Mike Trout and recently shelled out big money for Justin Upton and Zack Cozart, they lack the top of the rotation starters that could realistically help them compete with the mega-powers of the American League. That is especially true if Ohtani shows up to Spring Training and needs Tommy John surgery before Opening Day. Shelling out the money to land Darvish might help shift the Angels from a Wild Card team to legit pennant contenders.
Darvish isn’t without risk himself. He missed all of 2015 with Tommy John Surgery of his own and just got shelled in back-to-back World Series starts. However, when Darvish is on he is amongst the most dominating pitchers in the game. Even when he is not at his best, Darvish is still more reliable and productive than most any of what the Angels currently have on their roster. Add in the potential of a Darvish-Ohtani-Richards rotation in a short series and this is an opportunity Anaheim should not pass up.
1B Eric Hosmer – Rockies
I don’t really advise that anyone sign Eric Hosmer, as his contract will most assuredly be amongst the worst in baseball upon being signed. That’s not his fault! Hosmer is a good player. But name value exceeds his actual production at this point. We’ve heard the Padres and Royals as his most interested clubs thus far. However, if his prices drops down enough, his list of suitors could broaden just a little bit and Colorado could be in a position to make a move.
The Rockies have two of the best players in baseball in 3B Nolan Arenado and OF Charlie Blackmon, and rode the production of those two to the second NL Wild Card spot in 2017. They also just invested a ton of money in their bullpen. Blackmon is a free agent after next year and Arenado could follow him out the door the year after. It is no guarantee they will let both of those players walk, as they have shown a willingness to spend in the past – Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki come to mind. However, paying Blackmon into his late 30’s and investing $300MM+ in Arenado might not be the best use of assets for a club with limited payroll.
Colorado may instead choose to invest their money in a cheaper option. That is where Eric Hosmer could fit in the black pinstripes. Instead of committing huge dollars to Blackmon and/or Arenado, it could make sense to take that money and invest it elsewhere. Hosmer has his flaws, but as is true with most players, his left-handed bat and the thin air in Coors Field could make an interesting match.
OF/DH J.D. Martinez – Braves
This was a tough one for me. Right now it seems like it’s Red Sox or bust for J.D. Martinez. That’s a shame, because for a player coming off a robust .303/.376/.690 season with 45 home runs, .430 wOBA, and 166 wRC+ in just 119 games you’d think there would be more teams who could use his services. Part of it has been his contract demands, part of it could be his declining skills in the field, or it could be a combination of both. He reportedly has a 5-year, $100 million offer on the table from the Red Sox, but is willing to wait out for more.
I was tempted to pick the Rockies here, but I ultimately settled on the Braves. They recently opened a new ballpark, have one of the top farm systems in baseball, and will have cash to spend with big money coming off the books after this season. However, next year they run the risk of bidding against financial giants like the Dodgers and Yankees, not to mention tens of other clubs that have been saving their money for next off-season’s free agents. Maybe the time for the Braves to pounce is now.
Obviously adding Martinez’s bat speaks for itself in terms of impact. I imagine an Inciarte-Acuna-Freeman-Martinez top of the line-up mashing the Braves into the playoffs as their crop of pitching prospects begin to establish themselves. Beyond Acuna, a majority of the Braves top prospects are pitchers, and Martinez can fill one of the open long-term spots in the outfield.
The Braves would have to live with Martinez’s below average defense in right that will likely only get worse as he ages, but with sound defenders around the diamond elsewhere they may be better equipped to deal with it than other potential suitors. Teams with top farm systems can come together quicker than expected, and adding Martinez could advance the Braves timeline into 2019 if everything breaks right.
RHP Jake Arrieta – Mariners
The Mariners are in a confusing place. They have a ton of money invested in their aging core, yet don’t have much to show for it in terms of success. They are entering or are already in the twilight years of Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez’s careers. If they want to compete with the players they have now they’re going to need some more help.
Jake Arrieta is also in a confusing place. He was the best pitcher in baseball in 2015 after finally escaping the Orioles organization. He was very good again in 2016, though not as good as 2015, and then he watched his numbers fall off a little bit further in 2017. Nobody would argue he is a solid pitcher who would make most teams better. However, with his large contract demands and limited track record of success, teams are understandably hesitant to commit long-term to Jake.
The longer the off-season progresses, the more you’d think the price on players like Arrieta would drop. If his demands come down to the 4-year, $85-100MM range, the Mariners might be in a position to add a top of the rotation starter at a discounted price. If James Paxton can stay healthy, a one-two punch of him and Arrieta could propel Seattle into Wild Card contention before their core ages them into irrelevance.
RHP Greg Holland – Giants
The Giants are an organization that has always confused me with the moves they make. This off-season has been no different. They added former Rays 3B Evan Longoria and former NL MVP outfielder Andrew McCutchen, two players that, while still productive, are past the primes of their career. Maybe the moves aren’t as crazy as they seem as the Giants have three World Series championships since 2010 to show for their confusing moves, and have proven to me that I have no idea how to run a baseball team.
There is an urgency to win while C Buster Posey and LHP Madison Bumgarner are still productive and in their primes. For that reason enough you might as well try to compete if you aren’t going to rebuild. Both of those guys are on track to be in the Hall of Fame and you don’t waste those guys when you have them. Now that the Giants have shored up two positions of weakness, perhaps addressing the bullpen could be next.
The Giants of course already have an expensive closer in RHP Mark Melancon. Melancon is coming off a not-so-good season and has spent the off-season recovering from surgery on a rare muscular disorder. With the way baseball teams are built these days, the Giants could surely use another potentially dominant reliever. A decrease in ground balls, increase in fly balls, and diminishing fastball velocity have stalled Holland’s market. Red flags didn’t stop the Giants from acquiring Longoria and McCutchen, and at a certain cost Holland might make sense to help shore up the Giants bullpen.
RHP Lance Lynn – Reds
The Reds are in an enviable position. They have two of the Top 20 prospects in baseball in 3B Nick Senzel and RHP Hunter Greene, and five of the Top 100 prospects overall according to MLB.com. At the major league level they have generational hitter 1B Joey Votto to mix with promising young pieces in 3B Eugenio Suarez, RHP’s Luis Castillo and Raisel Iglesias, and C Tucker Barnhart. They might be closer to competing than people think, but boy oh boy do they need pitching. Their rotation was second to last in ERA in 2017 (5.55) and could desperately use a reliable innings eater.
Lance Lynn returned to the Cardinals rotation in 2017 after missing all of 2016 to Tommy John surgery. While his 3.43 ERA in 186 innings looks solid on the surface, his 4.82 FIP and .244 BABIP paint a different picture. It is not all bad, however, as he got more soft contact than he had the year before surgery, and his hard contact wasn’t all that much higher than his career average. Perhaps most importantly in terms of his fit in the Great American Ballpark, his 44%GB was right in line with his career and the league average. It is also not uncommon to see pitchers further bounce back as they distance themselves from surgery.
To realistically compete soon the Reds need arms. That much is clear. In a depressed market, the Reds might be able to get Lance Lynn at a price that makes sense for them. He may not help them get over the hump right away, but could provide value eating up innings in a rotation that desperately needs improvement.
Alex Cobb – Athletics
Every once in a while the Athletics are good for a random move that nobody saw coming. Remember the Matt Holiday trade? In a market that is moving as slow as plans to build a new ballpark in Oakland, the A’s could be in a position to add a discounted player that fits their budget. In a rotation full of pitchers still establishing themselves, perhaps veteran righty Alex Cobb would make a welcome addition.
Cobb returned from Tommy John surgery to post a 3.66 ERA (4.16 FIP) and 2.4 fWAR in 179 innings. A deeper look into the numbers paints a grim picture of Cobb’s future, but like Lance Lynn, it is not unreasonable to think Cobb could improve as he furthers himself from surgery. Cobb’s rise in home runs would also be less of a concern in the spacious Coliseum, especially with the solid defense likely to roam Oakland’s outfield.
It would likely take an even further depression in the market for these stars to align. Though if Cobb is willing to accept a 2 or 3-year pact, I could see Oakland swooping in to make a deal. Adding a veteran arm to the rotation is generally a wise move for rebuilding teams even if it doesn’t move the needle in terms of competing. Even if he is not part of the next great Athletics team, Cobb could help the club get through its transition period and even potentially be used as trade bait in the future.