Cost-alternative options could provide value in 2017
By Matt Kelly and David Adler
The 2016 Winter Meetings produced plenty of headline signings and trades, and plenty more are sure to come with big-name free agents still left on the market.
For teams on a tighter budget, however, a lot of value can be found in both the hitter and pitcher free-agent pools just below the surface of the big names. Similar to the Cubs, who picked up Dexter Fowler for under $10 million last offseason, and the Indians, who did the same with Mike Napoli, showed in 2016, teams don't necessarily need to empty their wallets to land someone who could make a world of difference.
With that in mind, here are four unsigned free-agent hitters and pitchers whose recent statistics suggest they could make a big impact for a low cost in 2017:
Colby Rasmus, OF 2016 team: Astros 2016 salary: $15.8 million 2016 stats: .206/.286/.355, 15 HR, 54 RBI
Rasmus likely won't equal last year's salary again after a dismal 2016 season, but while he might not get back to his career-high .276 batting average set in 2010 and '13, he's certainly a more capable hitter than his career-low .206 mark in '16 suggests. The outfielder may have been a tad unlucky with a .257 batting average on balls in play, far below where his career .298 BABIP stood coming into the year. What's more, Rasmus hit the same rate of barrels in 2016 -- 1.2 percent -- as in 2015, per Statcast™. Still in his prime at age 30, Rasmus could return to his 20- to 25-homer form.
Chris Carter, 1B/DH 2016 team: Brewers 2016 salary: $2.5 million 2016 stats: .222/.321/.499, 41 HR, 94 RBI
Carter tied for the National League lead with 41 homers in 2016, while also pacing the league with 206 strikeouts before Milwaukee decided to non-tender him. As long as a team is comfortable with taking the whiff with the bang, Carter figures to keep mashing; the right-hander barreled up 2 percent of the pitches he saw in '16, per Statcast™, ranking him 12th among Major League hitters. When Carter does connect with pitches next season, he'll probably do so with authority.
Luis Valbuena, INF 2016 team: Astros Salary: $6.1 million 2016 stats: .260/.357/.459, 13 HR, 40 RBI
Valbuena was one of only 53 position players in baseball last season to pair at least 2.5 wins above replacement with his bat with a positive WAR rating on defense -- and he played the third-fewest games of the players on that list. The left-handed hitter ranked fourth on the Astros with an .816 OPS before going down with a strained right hamstring in late July, and he's shown that he can play around the infield and even a bit in the outfield if his team is in a pinch. Valbuena should be a good bet to return to 20 to 25 home runs while providing steady defense in a healthy season next year.
Angel Pagan, OF 2016 team: Giants 2016 salary: $11.25 million 2016 stats: .277/.331/.418, 12 HR, 55 RBI
The Giants rewarded Pagan with a four-year, $40 million contract after he helped lead them to the 2012 World Series title, and while his production didn't quite live up to that dollar figure, Pagan enjoyed a quiet surge in his power numbers last season. The Puerto Rico native figures to come much cheaper this time around as he enters his age-35 season, but he did knock a career-high 12 homers and clubbed line drives on 6.7 percent of the pitches he saw, per Statcast™, which was fourth-best among big league regulars in 2016. Pagan's ability to ignite an offense (he sports a .334 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot over the last four seasons) and make contact (he's never struck out 100 times in a season) as a switch-hitter makes him an intriguing option, even at his advanced age.
Doug Fister, RHP 2016 team: Astros 2016 salary: $7 million 2016 stats: 12-13, 4.64 ERA, 180 1/3 IP, 62 BB, 115 K
Fister's surface numbers have taken a dip since 2014, his best year with the Nationals; his ERA has jumped from 2.41 to 4.19 to 4.64, and he allowed a career-high 24 homers in 2016, versus his prior average of 14. But a closer look indicates the 32-year-old might be poised to rebound. In his 32 starts in 2016, Fister allowed only 26 barrelled balls, 11th-fewest of all pitchers with at least 500 batted balls. He yielded a barrel on just 4.38 percent of batted balls, the ninth-lowest rate in baseball. Meanwhile, his 87.84 mph average exit velocity against was the fourth-lowest in the Majors, according to Statcast™ (minimum 500 batted ball events). That bodes well for 2017, especially if Fister's home run rate regresses toward his career average.
Derek Holland, LHP 2016 team: Rangers 2016 salary: $10 million 2016 stats: 7-9, 4.95 ERA, 107 1/3 IP, 35 BB, 67 K
Signing Holland is all about buy-low upside. The left-hander is a gamble in terms of health and effectiveness. Holland has missed large chunks of the last three seasons due to injury, and he's struggled since he returned from a subscapular strain in his left shoulder late in 2015. But Holland is also a left-handed starting pitcher whose fastball can touch the mid-90s (he maxed out at 95.6 mph in 2016, per Statcast™), and he's only entering his age-30 season. He's high-risk, high-reward, but there's a chance a team gets something closer to the pitcher who had a 1.31 ERA in five straight quality starts once he returned from knee surgery in September 2014 than the one who had a 4.95 ERA this season.
Joe Smith, RHP 2016 team: Angels/Cubs 2016 salary: $5.25 million 2016 stats: 2-5, 3.46 ERA, 52 IP, 18 BB, 40 K
The Cubs acquired Smith at this year's non-waiver Trade Deadline, but the veteran was left off their postseason roster. Still, the sidearmer's track record should provide his 2017 team plenty of reason to hope for a quality season. For the five seasons prior to 2016, Smith was one of the more reliable setup men in the game, averaging 72 appearances with a 2.51 ERA and allowing only four home runs a year. The home runs doubled in 2016, to eight, which could well prove to be an aberration -- Smith posted a 53 percent ground-ball rate, according to Statcast™, similar to his career average of 57 percent. Signing the 32-year-old sinkerballer could pay off nicely.
Brad Ziegler, RHP 2016 team: D-backs/Red Sox 2016 salary: $5.5 million 2016 stats: 4-7, 2.25 ERA, 68 IP, 26 BB, 58 K, 22 saves
The veteran submariner has continued to chug along through his mid-30s, and entering his age-37 season, Ziegler should be an affordable option for a team that thinks he has more left in the tank. Really, there's nothing to suggest he doesn't. Ziegler's 2.25 ERA in 2016 was even better than his 2.44 career average, and he had a 1.52 mark for the Red Sox after they acquired him in July. Ziegler has exceeded 60 appearances every year since 2009, his second season, and he pitched in 69 games in 2016. His repertoire has remained steady -- sinker in the mid-80s, curveball in the mid-70s and changeup in the upper-70s. So has his excellent home run rate -- Ziegler allowed only two long balls this season and has averaged three a year for his career.