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  • This might not be the monster free agent class that is coming after next season, but there are still plenty of stars to keep an eye on, some of whom have made themselves millions of dollars with strong walk years, and others who have done the opposite.
By Ben Reiter
June 14, 2017

In February of 2016, reports emerged that Blue Jays slugger and pending free agent Jose Bautista had set an asking price for himself of five years and $150 million. In June, he began a month-long stint on the disabled list after colliding with an outfield wall, injuring his left big toe. In October, he finished the season with 22 homers and a .817 OPS, his worst numbers since 2009. In January 2017, he re-signed with Toronto on a contract that guaranteed him $18.5 million, just more than 12% of what he had hoped to command 11 months earlier.

Walk years—a player's last before hitting the open market—have become less significant than in the past, as clubs have become more sophisticated about analyzing and contextualizing them. For someone like Bautista, who turned 36 last October and whose value was largely based on one skill (his power bat), they matter a lot. His walk year was read as a sign of his decline and, indeed, his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage have each fallen again this year. For someone like the younger, more diversified Josh Reddick, they matter less. Reddick, now 30, also spent a good portion of last season on the DL and posted an OPS nearly 70 points lower than Bautista’s, but he still received a four-year, $52 million deal from the Astros, for whom he is playing better than he did for the A's and Dodgers combined in '16.

A strong walk year, of course, can also significantly boost a player’s earning power if clubs believe it to be evidence of a fundamental change and not a financially-driven fluke. Ask Rich Hill, who turned 20 good starts at age 36 into a three-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers, about that.

This upcoming winter’s free agent class has long been overshadowed by 2018’s Bryce Harper- and Manny Machado-led monster, but it’s fairly strong in its own right, loaded with All Stars if not superstars. While many of the players who will appear near the top of the Reiter 50, SI.com’s annual ranking of the top 50 free agents—like Rangers righthander Yu Darvish, Cubs closer Wade Davis, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy and Tigers outfielder Justin Upton—have more or less performed to expectations, others have improved or harmed their own stock. Here are three of the top free agent risers and three of the top fallers, players who might have already this year made or cost themselves tens of millions of dollars with the market still five months from opening.

Alex Trautwig/Getty Images (Pineda); Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images (Arrieta)

UP

Yonder Alonso, 1B, A’s

It took the 30-year-old former top prospect just 29 games to tie his previous season high in home runs, nine. A revamped, uppercutting swing has allowed him to maintain that newly torrid pace: despite playing in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum, Alonso now has 16 bombs with an OPS, 1.056, that in the American League trails only that of Yankees sensation Aaron Judge. It looks like a genuine mid-career breakout, similar to those previously experienced and sustained by Bautista, Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez and Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner. Alonso has transformed from a player who was nearly cut last winter to one who could a year later challenge Hosmer as the top first baseman on the market.

Zach Cozart, SS, Reds

What has motivated Cozart to exceed his previous career-highs in batting average by 70 points (up to .324) and OPS by more than 210 (to .982)? The answer is obvious:

Cozart’s offensive explosion—which also includes nine homers—combined with his traditional defensive excellence at short currently has him tied with his potential donkey supplier for the fourth-best WAR among position players according to baseball-reference.com. His age, 32 in August, will hinder his market, as there’s only one Omar Vizquel, but he’ll soon be richer than expected, and not just in livestock.

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Michael Pineda, SP, Yankees

That swap of promising prospects-turned-apparent-lemons in which the Yankees sent catcher Jesus Montero to Seattle for Pineda in 2012 has, like most things in '17, definitively turned out in New York’s favor. While Montero hasn't played in the majors since 2015, at 28, the formerly maddening Pineda has avoided the injuries and periodic disaster outings that used to plague him, pitching his way to a 3.39 ERA and mixing a high strikeout rate (9.4 per nine ) with a low walk rate (2.1 per nine). As he’s one of the youngest starters available this winter, the five-year, $80 million deals commanded by the Cardinals' Mike Leake and the Marlins' Wei-Yin Chen two years ago might represent a starting point for negotiations.

OTHERS MOVING UP: Alex Avila, C, Tigers; Lance Lynn, SP, Cardinals; Greg Holland, CL, Rockies; J.D. Martinez, OF, Tigers; Logan Morrison, 1B, Rays; Mike Moustakas, 3B, Royals; Mark Reynolds, 1B, Rockies; Jason Vargas, SP, Royals

DOWN

Jake Arrieta, SP, Cubs

You don’t need to be an advanced statistician to detect a pattern in Arrieta’s yearly ERAs:

2013: 4.78

2014: 2.53

2015: 1.77

2016: 3.10

2017: 4.68

The Cubs paid just $3.6 million for Arrieta’s NL Cy Young-winning season of 2015, and the fact that he didn’t find success as a pitcher until he was 27 means that he won’t hit the open market for the first time until he’s already beginning to decline. The average velocity on his sinker, the pitch that made him a star, has dipped by more than two miles per hour since '15, from 94.6 to 92.3. That might be one reason why his ground ball rate has plummeted from 56.1% to 42.5% over the same period. Clubs won’t be throwing money at a 31 year pitcher old who can no longer do what made him great.

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Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies

Colorado is soaring, but it's doing so without many contributions from its longest tenured player and longtime centerpiece. At 31 and in the last season of a seven-year, $80 million deal, Gonzalez is batting .219 with a .640 OPS, and the erstwhile 30-30 threat is on pace for just 12 homers and two steals. With his speed gone and an average exit velocity, according to StatCast, that is now slightly below the league’s standard, another big contract is unlikely for Gonzalez—and certainly not with the Rockies, who are loaded with outfielders and likely wish they’d traded him before his decline became obvious.

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Carlos Santana, 1B, Indians

One of the major lessons of last winter is that clubs are now wary of overpaying one-dimensional players, unless that dimension is truly extraordinary. Santana’s former teammate in Cleveland, Mike Napoli, is an excellent example: Napoli could only parlay a season in which he hit 34 homers and became beloved in Cleveland into one year at $8.5 million from the Rangers. Santana, unfortunately, would have to get red hot to approach 34 bombs in his own walk year, as he currently has just eight to go with a .215 batting average and a .704 OPS. It might be an even colder winter for Santana than it was for Uncle Nap.

OTHERS MOVING DOWN: Johnny Cueto, SP, Giants; Todd Frazier, 3B, White Sox; Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Phillies; Chris Tillman, SP, Orioles

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