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MLB Free Agent Hitters: Where Do Bryce and Manny Go?

The 2018-2019 offseason is upon us. Fantrax is previewing the relevant and noteworthy pending MLB free agents, noting which players’ fantasy values are subject to change with the upcoming roster machinations. Here we’ll focus on MLB free agent hitters. Also check out our breakdown of the fantasy relevant free agent pitchers.

MLB Free Agent Hitters

This is not a comprehensive list of MLB free agents. Instead we’re sticking solely to players whose signing will have significant fantasy impact on the team they join and on the team they leave.

Free Agent Catchers

Yasmani Grandal has been one of the league’s best catchers the past few seasons, but he enters the offseason on the heels of an abysmal October. Dodger fans turned on him, Dave Roberts benched him for four of the five World Series games (for a player who slugged .290, no less), and the organization has two top catching prospects in the high minors. It’s clear that a change of scenery is appropriate for everyone involved. Austin Barnes has plate discipline and frames pitches well, but he doesn’t have an exciting fantasy toolkit. More interesting is prospect Will Smith, whom Fantrax’s Eric Cross recently ranked fourth in the Dodgers’ system. Smith makes contact, draws walks and hits the ball in the air, an enticing offensive package for a catcher. He’ll start the year at Triple-A, but he could be in Dodger Stadium in short order.

Wilson Ramos outhit every other catcher in baseball last year, and while his 2018 season is probably not replicable, he’s got a long track record of offensive success. A return to Philadelphia makes some sense, but if he signs elsewhere, maybe they turn the position over to Jorge Alfaro, who’s got huge raw power but an abysmal approach.

Kurt Suzuki has hit for unprecedented power the last two seasons in Atlanta. He’s split time with the Braves but could find himself in position for a bigger role from a catcher-needy contender, a la Arizona or Washington.

Brian McCann and Jonathan Lucroy have name value, but neither looks like a surefire starter anymore. McCann suffered a myriad of injuries last season and probably can’t hold up for a full season’s workload at age 35, while Lucroy’s batted ball data have plummeted the last two seasons.

Free Agent First Basemen

The first base market is abysmal.

Steve Pearce feels like he has to return to the Red Sox after his World Series heroics, and another time share with Mitch Moreland makes sense. He raked in limited playing time in 2018, but he’ll be 36 years old next year and has never taken 400 plate appearances in a season. It’s hard to see anyone guaranteeing him a full-time job now.

The Twins cut bait on Logan Morrison after a horrific season, but his Statcast numbers indicate he wasn’t quite as bad as his results, and he surprisingly only just turned 31. He’s only a year removed from being a quality hitter; maybe there’s bounce-back potential there.

Otherwise, any huge Hanley Ramirez fans out there? The options are bleak.

Free Agent Second Basemen

Second base offers some intriguing veterans.

Daniel Murphy strikes me as the most fantasy relevant. After a slow, injury-related start, Murphy caught fire for the Cubs. His average exit velocity fell last season, perhaps due to injury, perhaps just aging, but he makes a ton of contact still. Especially in roto leagues- where contact hitting is almost impossible to find- Murphy is valuable. He can’t defend anymore, but fantasy owners don’t care about that, and teams will find a way to get his bat in the lineup, maybe as a multi-positional player rather than an everyday second baseman. Paradoxically, his bad defense at the keystone could aid his defensive value in fantasy, then.

Jed Lowrie’s career resurgence continued in 2018, as he put together quite arguably the best season of his career at age 34. He may have priced himself out of Oakland’s price range over these last two years, but the A’s are a contender, his age won’t force them to hand out a crippling long-term deal and Billy Beane was on record calling Lowrie one of the best second basemen in baseball before his first All-Star campaign. Owners will want to be cautious- a lot of mid-30’s players are good right up until they aren’t- but there are no apparent weaknesses to Lowrie’s game. If Lowrie does move on, Franklin Barreto is an in-house favorite to take over. Barreto’s tools are deafening, but he struck out like crazy in Triple-A, so a bona fide contender like the A’s may want to hedge their bets by acquiring someone with a more stable profile.

Asdrubal Cabrera fell off a cliff in the second half. His exit velocity went down, his swing-and-miss went up, and his playing time dwindled at the end of the year. It was a solid season in aggregate, but Cabrera doesn’t run anymore, and his contact and power numbers are about average. I doubt owners will be falling over themselves scrambling to grab him.

DJ LeMahieu is probably leaving Colorado, so his fantasy value predictably craters. LeMahieu’s best seasons have been BABIP-driven, and without the vast outfield of Coors Field, not as many of those bloop hits are falling in. He’ll get a good deal somewhere on the strength of his defense and bat-to-ball skills, but it’s probably not coming from the Rockies, who have an elite runner in Garrett Hampson to take over short-term. Brendan Rodgers should be ready by midseason, but Hampson has sneaky fantasy upside if Colorado does turn the keystone over to him. Hampson’s a 99th percentile runner who stole 38 bases across three levels last season. Players with his wheels are few and far between.

Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier, and Josh Harrison are all formerly-productive veterans coming off down seasons. They’ll find playing time somewhere, but all three look to be firmly on the decline. Ditto Logan Forsythe and Neil Walker, who are probably a tier below those other three.

Free Agent Third Basemen

Josh Donaldson is the big wildcard in the third base market. As far away as it feels now, it was only a year ago that Donaldson was a bona fide superstar, coming off five consecutive elite seasons. A six-point increase in his ground ball indicates that he was out of whack last season; an avowed fly ball revolutionary, he wasn’t elevating or celebrating much in 2018. Shoulder and calf injuries sapped him of his explosiveness. Optimists will point out that a full offseason should give him time to recover and find his form; pessimists can note his age (33 in December) and mark this as the start of a decline phase.

Nevertheless, if healthy, he’s playing every day somewhere, and his ADP will be interesting to monitor as draft season approaches. If he leaves Cleveland, which seems apparent given their financial constraints, Jose Ramirez does not appear poised to move back to third base. Instead, the Indians seem intent on getting Yandy Diaz everyday at-bats. Unless and until he stops hitting everything on the ground, Diaz is probably fantasy-irrelevant, but he’s a monster physically with impressive exit velocities. He could be an interesting late-round sleeper.

It appears to be Texas or bust for Adrian Beltre, who may retire. We’ll know more as draft day approaches, of course, but if the future Hall of Famer decides to postpone his Cooperstown induction by one more year, he could be a low-end fantasy option at the hot corner. He still makes above-average contact, and he’s actually coming off a career-best season in terms of hard hit rate. Oh, and he’ll obviously steal exactly one base, as he remarkably has in eight consecutive seasons.

The only other notable third base option is Mike Moustakas, who declined a player option to remain in Milwaukee. One could read that as Moustakas again misreading the market; he had to settle for a one-year deal last offseason after his market cratered. Or it could be that teams are more confident he’s healthy after a solid season. Moustakas has been the same player for years: a 30 home run bat who hits .250 and doesn’t walk. Wherever he goes, you can count on that type of production again.

Free Agents Shortstops

There’s not a ton to say about the shortstop market. Manny Machado is going to exceed $300 million and be a top-10 fantasy bat for years to come. His postseason antics may make him less likable, but they don’t have much bearing on his performance. With Corey Seager returning from Tommy John Surgery, Machado’s time in LA was probably short-lived.

Otherwise, there’s not much of fantasy relevance. Jose Iglesias is a defensive whiz, but no fantasy team wants to play him every day (judging by Detroit’s inability to trade him over the past couple years, no MLB team seemed interested in doing that either). There’ll be an opportunity in Detroit for someone, but barring a surprisingly-aggressive Isaac Paredes promotion, they don’t have anyone with obvious upside to take over. Everything said about Iglesias applies equally to Freddy Galvis. Just substitute Fernando Tatis, Jr. for Paredes.

Free Agent Outfielders

The Bryce Harper questions that have seemingly dated back a half-decade will finally be answered in the coming months. Despite some criticism of Harper’s early-season performance, he slashed a stellar .243/.393/.496 with 34 home runs and is squarely in his prime. No matter where he signs, he’s a first-round pick next season.

A.J. Pollock had a stellar first two months, then fell off precipitously. Barring a surprising decision to accept a qualifying offer, his decade in the Diamondback organization has probably come to an end. His sprint speed fell slightly in 2018, and his stolen base total fell with it, but he’s actually coming off a career-high in home runs, average exit velocity, and isolated power despite Arizona’s installation of a humidor, designed to suppress offense. He’s got a different game than he used to, when his speed, defense, and contact made him a borderline star, but he’s got a well-rounded and valuable profile and should secure a better contract than many might expect.

Interestingly, Arizona is toying with the idea of kicking Ketel Marte to center field to replace Pollock, following in the Mariners’ footsteps with Dee Gordon. That increased versatility would make Marte a valuable bench piece in fantasy leagues.

Michael Brantley reaffirmed what he’s capable of when healthy: a ton of contact, double-digit stolen bases, and home runs. As discussed with Daniel Murphy, plus-plus hitters are difficult to find. Brantley’s more than just a contact hitter, though. He’s probably priced himself out of Cleveland as a result.

Turning to the second tier (or third, if you want to separate Harper into a tier of his own), Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones are former superstar center fielders who have aged their way into a corner. McCutchen offers rare consistency, having played in over 140 games with at least 20 home runs every season since 2011. He’s still got elite plate discipline and above-average power, and he’s going to find everyday playing time somewhere.

That’s less clear in Jones’ case; he doesn’t walk or steal bases, and his power dipped in 2018. There’s no real reason to read into Jones’ runs and RBI totals falling off– playing on a 47-win team will do that– but he seems to be a fringe player at this point. Maybe a rebuilding team gives him 600 plate appearances, but if he signs with a contender as a fourth outfielder, he may lose some playing time against right-handed pitching (although it’s worth noting that he’s shown a reverse platoon split in his career, so he’s not a traditional lefty-masher bench bat).

Marwin Gonzalez predictably regressed from his 2017 season, when his results significantly outpaced his batted ball data. He doesn’t have an elite skill, but he moves all around the field, so he fits on basically every roster. There’s not a ton of fantasy upside, but he’s going to secure a solid multiyear contract.

Carlos Gonzalez’s time in Colorado appears to be over, which hurts his stock in two ways. Obviously, leaving Coors Field will knock down his surface numbers. More subtly, it’s tough to see any other team giving Gonzalez 500 plate appearances next season. Colorado valued veteran presences like Gonzalez more than most teams do, and he’s pretty clearly a platoon bat at this point. The jettisoning of Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra should open up an opportunity for speedy prospect Raimel Tapia. Nick Markakis had a great April, but he looked like himself after that. He hits for average and draws walks, but it’s not a sexy profile and an Atlanta reunion seems unlikely.

Denard Span, Curtis Granderson, and Jose Bautista all have standout skills (Span’s bat-to-ball skills, Bautista’s and Granderson’s power and plate discipline) but are limited players at this point and seem unlikely to find everyday jobs.

Free Agent DH

Nelson Cruz is the only designated hitter on the market sure to find an everyday job. At some point, he’ll fall off, of course, but he’s given no reason to believe that that’s happening in 2019. He’s exceeded 35 home runs in five straight seasons, and he continues to hit the ball as hard as anyone in baseball. Just as MLB teams need to weigh Cruz’s DH-only status, fantasy owners must consider Cruz as a utility option only. For those willing to take on the lack of roster flexibility, though, Cruz should offer elite power yet again.

Stats referenced from Fangraphs and Baseball Savant


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