Just as the top of the free-agent market has started to shrink, the bottom has greatly expanded courtesy of Wednesday’s midnight deadline for teams to tender contracts to players under club control. Forty players were non-tendered on Wednesday, as teams would rather cut them loose than pay the seven-figure salaries those players were expected to command in arbitration. As a result, all 40 are now free agents who are available to any team. Among that group are a former Rookie of the Year, five former All-Stars, two players who received Cy Young votes in 2014 and a one-time National League home run champion. Here’s a quick look at the 10 most compelling non-tenders.
1. Pedro Alvarez, 1B
The No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez has delivered on his power potential in the majors, leading the NL with 36 home runs in his All-Star season of '13 and averaging 32 homers per 162 games over the last four years. However, he has hit just .203/.270/.332 in 623 career plate appearances against his fellow lefties, and he may not be viable at any position other than designated hitter.
Never a particularly adept third baseman, Alvarez developed a case of the throwing yips in 2014, forcing his move to first base at the end of that season. He responded to the change in position by adding enough weight over the winter to rule out a return to third in 2015, then proved to be pretty lousy at his new position as well. He has cut down on his strikeouts a bit in the last two seasons, however, and, with the help of a platoon partner, he had a nice rebound at the plate this past year (.27 home runs, .787 OPS) after a down 2014 (18 HRs, .717 OPS). Heading into his age-29 season, he’d be a great fit with the Orioles or Indians, as would the next man on this list.
2. Chris Carter, 1B
Like Alvarez, Carter is a poor defensive first baseman heading into his age-29 season whose elite power is undermined by high strikeout rates and low batting averages. Unlike Alvarez, Carter is righthanded, does not have a pronounced platoon split and has three team-controlled years remaining; an inexpensive one-year deal could keep him at arbitration prices for two more years. And, oh that power! Carter hit 37 home runs in 2014, leading the majors with a homer every 13.7 at-bats, and over the last four seasons, he has averaged 36 home runs per 162 games.
Carter walks more often than Alvarez and was so hot in late September (six homers in his last 10 regular-season starts) that the Astros started him at first base in all six of their playoff games (Carter responded by hitting .294/.400/.529 with another homer). Unfortunately, Carter also strikes out more than Alvarez and, those six playoff games aside, cannot hit for any kind of respectable average; his career mark is .217, and his single-season high of .239 came in just 260 PA in 2012. He walks enough to keep his on-base percentage over .300, but his inability to scratch out hits is crippling. Still, for teams such as Baltimore and Cleveland that have an open DH spot and a need for big bats, Carter would be an inexpensive source of power. Also worth considering: an Alvarez/Carter platoon, which would all but guarantee 30 home runs from the DH spot.
3. Tyler Flowers, C
Flowers has taken an unusual path from being a bat-first–minor-league masher (career minor league line: .275/.391/.484) whom many thought would have to move out from behind the plate, to being a glove-first major league catcher who has yet to post a three-digit OPS+ in parts of seven major league seasons. Flowers arguably should have won the Gold Glove this season: He led the AL in Framing Runs (Baseball Prospectus’ statistic measuring runs saved by pitch framing) this past season, which alone will make him attractive for any team in need of catching help.
Flowers also has pop in his bat—he's averaged 19 home runs per 162 games over the last five seasons—and his .240/.296/.378 line over the last two years is a fair comparison for what the average major league catcher hit this past season (.232/.295/.383). He’ll be 30 in January, but his average bat and above-average glove should make him an attractive new option in a market that has already seen a great deal of action at the catcher position. Flowers was replaced in Chicago by free agents Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, the latter of whom agreed to a one-year deal with the White Sox on Thursday morning.
4. Henderson Alvarez, RHP
Alvarez threw a no-hitter on the final day of the 2013 season, then was even better in 2014. He made the All-Star team, tied for the major league lead in shutouts (three), posted a 2.65 ERA (140 ERA+) and picked up a fifth-place NL Cy Young vote from a local Miami writer. In 2015, however, he was limited to four starts by a torn labrum that required surgery in July. That he was non-tendered prior to his age-26 season with two years of team control remaining tells you something about how optimistic the Marlins are about his return from that injury.
Alvarez isn’t expected to be ready for Opening Day in 2015, but he’s still a compelling young groundballer, and that extra year of team control makes him worth a flyer for a team in need of starting pitching depth.
5. Greg Holland, RHP
Holland had Tommy John surgery in early October, which means he won’t pitch again until 2017, by which point he would have become a free agent anyway. He’s perhaps the least surprising non-tender on this list, but he was one of the best closers in baseball for Kansas City as recently as 2014. In both '13 and '14 he made the AL All-Star team while picking up Cy Young and MVP votes for saving a total of 93 games with a combined 1.32 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP in those two seasons.
As the Royals did with Kris Medlena year ago, it would be well worth it for a team to sign Holland to a back-loaded, two-year deal with an option for a third season, which would give the club a chance to own his first two post-rehab campaigns while giving him a salary for the coming year as he works his way back.
6. Yusmeiro Petit, RHP
Soft-tossing journeyman Petit found a home in San Francisco in late 2013 and came within one out of a perfect game against the Diamondbacks early that September. He returned as a valuable swing man in '14, most famously throwing six scoreless innings in the Giants’ 18-inning win in Game 2 of that year’s Division Series against the Nationals. He got off to a rough start in 2015, but then posted a 2.33 ERA and 7.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half.
Over the last three seasons, Petit has posted a 4.98 strikeout-to-walk ratio, good for a 3.21 fielding independent pitching mark in 241 innings, and that's not counting his 1.42 ERA in 12 2/3 innings in the 2014 postseason. Still, San Francisco apparently decided it didn’t want to pay second-arbitration-year prices for a 31-year-old middle reliever who rarely hits 92 mph on the radar gun. He should still be a valuable utility pitcher elsewhere.
7. Steve Cishek, RHP
The side-arming Cishek saved 73 games for the Marlins between 2013 and ’14 and posted a 2.70 ERA and 2.59 FIP in 253 1/3 innings from '11 to '14, striking out 10 men per nine innings over that span. He won’t turn 30 until June and has two team controlled years remaining, but there were several red flags in his 2015 performance. Most significantly, he experienced a drop in both velocity and strikeout rate, a particularly alarming combination. Cishek’s average sinker was one mile per hour slower in 2014 after a smaller drop from '13 to ’14. That might not seem like much until you look at his strikeout rate and see that it dropped below 8.0 per nine innings after a career high of 11.6 in 2014. Cishek also saw his walk rate spike, sending all of his peripherals in the wrong direction.
All of those numbers suggest that Cishek's arm isn’t sound, but given his performance prior to 2015, he’s still a compelling relief option—provided he passes his physical.
8. Cesar Ramos, LHP
Ramos posted a 2.75 ERA (3.02 FIP) in 65 relief appearances last year, but the catch is that those figures are roughly a run lower than his ERA and FIP over the previous two seasons, painting that performance as a bit of a fluke. Ramos also does not have much of a platoon split, so while he is viable against all hitters, he is not particularly hard on lefties, making his status as a southpaw less of a selling point. He’ll also be 32 in June and a free agent after the coming season. Still, competent lefty relievers aren’t that easy to come by.
9. Juan Nicasio, RHP
Nicasio walked a lot of men last year, but he also struck out a ton and allowed just one home run in 58 1/3 innings (congratulations, Jeff Francoeur). Generally speaking, Nicasio has taken well to relief work, posting a 3.48 ERA and 3.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 appearances for the Rockies in 2014 and posting a 2.83 FIP with 10 strikeouts per nine innings for the Dodgers this past season in 52 relief outings and one abbreviated start. Nicasio’s fastball reaches the high 90s in those short stints, and if his new team can get him to bring his walks per nine down to his career rate of 3.4, he could be a valuable setup man in his age-29 and -30 seasons, both of which are team-controlled.
10. Will Middlebrooks, 3B
Okay, so Middlebrooks is most likely a bust. Once the Red Sox’s top prospect, he burst upon the majors with a .288/.325/.509 line and 15 home runs in 75 games in 2012, but he was then slowed by injuries and has failed to show that form again in three subsequent seasons. Still, he can play third base, has three team-controlled years remaining and still offers some righthanded pop, even if that power is accompanied by almost no other offensive production (he has hit .213 over the last three years and averaged just 32 walks per 162 games). The Padres were wrong to think Middlebrooks was a proper replacement for Chase Headley at third base, but that doesn’t mean he’s not worth a minor-league deal and an invitation to spring training heading into his age-27 season.