- Senior writer of SweetSpot baseball blog
- Former deputy editor of Page 2
- Been with ESPN.com since 1995
Spring training games have started, and as you scroll through the box scores looking for your super-secret fantasy pickups, it’s worth noting which names you won’t see at the moment: Major League Baseball’s last few unsigned free agents. Yasiel Puig is the headliner here, but there are some other reasonably big names from the not-too-distant past still out there. None of these guys were All-Stars in 2019 — there’s a reason they remain unsigned, after all — but there are 18 former All-Stars unsigned and unretired, including Puig. Let’s take a look:
Yasiel Puig, RF
2019: .267/.327/.458, 24 HR, 84 RBI, 19 SB, 1.4 WAR
Bottom 5 in RF WAR projection (via FanGraphs): Mariners, Tigers, Cardinals, Padres, Marlins
Puig would be at least a minor upgrade for several teams beyond those listed above, including the Indians, the team he finished last year with after a midseason trade with the Reds. Recent reports had the Rays and Giants interested, but the Giants instead signed Hunter Pence and the Rays seem pretty set in the outfield with Austin Meadows in right field and a slew of options in left and center field. It also seems clear that some of the baggage that comes with Puig has dulled interest in him.
How about the Rockies? Puig projects as an improvement over Ian Desmond or Raimel Tapia (worth a combined minus-2.6 WAR a season ago), pushing Charlie Blackmon over to left field with David Dahl in center. One concern is that Puig’s defense might be slipping despite above-average speed. His jump rate in the outfield ranked in the sixth percentile, according to Statcast, and that could be a disaster in Colorado.
Scooter Gennett, 2B
2019: .226/.245/.323, 2 HR, 11 RBI, minus-0.8 WAR
Bottom 5 in 2B WAR projection: Giants, Marlins, Rockies, Mariners, Red Sox
Gennett had a lost season in 2019, not returning until late June after suffering a severely strained groin, getting traded to the Giants and then getting released in August. He had just 139 plate appearances and didn’t hit much, but he’s just a year removed from his All-Star season of 2018, when he hit .310/.357/.490 with 23 home runs for the Reds. He hit .295 with 27 home runs the year before that, so it’s not like 2018 stands out as a fluke season.
Gennett will turn 30 in May and lacks the defensive versatility teams might want at this point, but it seems his biggest obstacle is that the bad teams — like some of those above — want to try a younger player over the proven commodity. The Giants have Mauricio Dubon, the Marlins have Isan Diaz, the Mariners have Shed Long. The A’s could be a potential fallback as a playoff contender without a clear second baseman at this point, as they have Chad Pinder, Sheldon Neuse, Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo as options.
Collin McHugh, RHP
2019: 4-5, 4.70 ERA, 74.2 IP, 82 SO, 12 HR
Bottom 5 in bullpen WAR projection: Marlins, Mariners, Tigers, Giants, Royals
McHugh won 43 games from 2014 to 2016, and after an injury-shortened 2017 season, he moved to the bullpen in 2018 on a deep Houston staff and posted a 1.99 ERA while holding batters to a .176 average. He started 2019 in the rotation but moved to the bullpen and later missed six weeks with a sore elbow and then all of September and the postseason. There could be some health issues that explain why he’s still on the market, as his fastball and slider velocity were both dropping when he hit the injured list in late August.
McHugh had a 2.67 ERA as a reliever in 2019, so it probably makes sense to view him as reliever given his success there the past two seasons. He’s not your classic flamethrower bullpen arm, as he ranked in the 10th percentile in fastball velocity, but he has a high-spin fastball and high-spin curveball that limit his hard-hit rate (92nd percentile). The White Sox aren’t listed above, but they project into the picture with MLB’s sixth-worst bullpen. He also makes sense for any of those five teams above as a player they could flip to a contender in July.
Addison Russell, SS
2019: .237/.308/.391, 9 HR, 23 RBI, 0.1 WAR
Bottom 5 in SS WAR projection: Orioles, Tigers, Rangers, Pirates, Reds
Let’s be honest here: If Russell had hit better in 2019, he wouldn’t be floating out here in free agency, even with the domestic violence suspension in his recent past. Russell’s best season came in the Cubs’ 2016 championship year, when he produced a 4.1-WAR season at age 22 thanks to some pop (21 home runs) and superb defense. He’s still just 26 years old, so it’s not unrealistic to think there’s still something here, especially with the plus glove, but the bat has regressed. Is he still one of the 40 best shortstops on the planet? Probably. Will any team give him an opportunity, or need to give him that opportunity? If so, it probably will be in the minors and he’ll have to show improvement at the plate.
Matt Harvey, RHP
2019: 3-5, 7.09 ERA, 59.2 IP, 39 SO, 13 HR
Bottom 5 in rotation WAR projection: Giants, Blue Jays, Royals, Mariners, Orioles
He’s a big name, but Harvey is a 30-year-old with middling stuff coming off a terrible season. It’s possible that his career is over. Besides the ugly numbers with the Angels after he signed a one-year, $11 million contract, consider some of the advanced metrics from 2019:
• 10th percentile in hard-hit rate
• Fifth percentile in exit velocity allowed
• Second percentile in expected batting average allowed
• First percentile in expected wOBA allowed
Clay Buchholz, RHP: You never know when Buchholz might pop up and give you 15 good starts, like he did for the Diamondbacks in 2018. He had a 6.56 ERA in 12 starts for the Blue Jays last year, however, missing more than three months with shoulder issues.
Fernando Rodney, RHP: Rodney turns 43 in March and still throws pretty hard to go with his plus changeup, but the command is shakier than ever (5.3 walks per nine), making him a back-of-the-bullpen option at best.
Russell Martin, C: I’m a little surprised Martin hasn’t signed as he’s a quality leader who ends up on winning teams — he played for seven playoff teams in the 2010s. He doesn’t hit for average, but he draws enough walks that he still posted a .330 OBP with the Dodgers in 2019. He’d be a serviceable backup again, but he also has made a lot of money in his career and might not want to go to a non-contender.
Steve Pearce, 1B: The 2018 World Series MVP battled injuries last year and hit just .180 in 29 games. He turns 37 in April, and given that power is easy to find these days and platoon first basemen aren’t in high demand, his days might be numbered. Pearce has played 13 seasons in the majors and never batted 400 times in one season. I wonder if any non-catcher/pitcher has ever done that? (Quick check … the answer is yes. Several guys. Jim Dwyer was a first baseman/pinch-hitting specialist in the 1970s and ’80s who played 18 seasons with a career high of 292 PAs.)
Andrew Cashner, RHP: He went 11-8 with a 4.68 ERA for the Orioles and Red Sox last year, and reports last month had the Orioles interested in bringing him back. He also could fit as a bullpen piece for the Nationals or maybe a starter for the Yankees, given their injury issues with James Paxton and Luis Severino. Last season, Cashner also threatened to retire if he was traded (he didn’t), so who knows how much he wants to play.
Sam Dyson, RHP: Dyson has a 2.98 ERA over the past two seasons, but he is being investigated for domestic violence after an ex-girlfriend accused him of abuse, making him, like Russell, persona non grata. Dyson also underwent capsule repair surgery on his right shoulder in late September.
Tony Sipp, LHP: The veteran lefty held batters to a .644 OPS last season. He’ll pop up somewhere.
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Mark Trumbo, 1B/DH: Hey, he’s a two-time All-Star, the second time coming in 2016 when he mashed 47 home runs for the Orioles. He played just 12 games last year, however, not returning until September following knee surgery in August 2018. He has been worth more than 1.0 WAR once in the past seven seasons, so he’s really just an injury backup plan at this point.
Melky Cabrera, OF: He played a lot for the Pirates last year, getting into 133 games and receiving 397 PAs, but his bat was below average (.280/.313/.399) and his defense well below average, as it has been for several years now. An aging backup outfielder who can’t play center field isn’t exactly high on wish lists.
Aaron Sanchez, RHP: The 2016 American League ERA champ when he went 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA, Sanchez has struggled with blister issues since then, was traded in July to Houston and then went down with a shoulder issue after four starts with the Astros. He underwent a similar surgery that Julio Urias had for the Dodgers in 2017, and Urias was out for over a year, so Sanchez might miss the entire season.
Ben Zobrist, UT: He turns 39 in May and missed much of 2019 while taking time off to work through a divorce. When he did play, he had a .350 OBP but had just one home run in 150 at-bats. He’s also just a season removed from hitting .305/.378/.440. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted a couple of weeks ago that Zobrist has no plans to play in 2020, but no official retirement has been announced. If he is done, what a career: 45.2 WAR, two rings (Royals and Cubs) and a run from 2009 to 2014 when his versatility, defense and production made him one of the best players in the game.
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