Caveat emptor, the Romans would say; buyer beware. Free agency can feel like a guessing game sometimes, as teams try to figure out which improvements are for real and whether downturns are permanent or merely bumps in the road. As major league teams begin to call agents and do their due diligence on those available, here are five players who look like better bets to go bust on their next deal than pay off.
Cody Allen/Andrew Miller, RHP/LHP
The two-headed monster that made the Indians such a terrifying foe in the playoffs, both Allen and Miller had forgettable years in 2018. The former saw his ERA balloon from 2.94 in 2017 to 4.70 in ’18, losing his closer job in the process, and the latter was limited to just 34 innings by persistent knee pain. Nor did Miller look remotely like his formerly dominant self when on the mound, with a bloated 4.24 ERA. Both pitchers, meanwhile, saw spikes in their walk and home-run rates, along with drops in strikeouts.
For Allen, the issue was his fastball. A two-pitch pitcher, the righty throws a four-seamer at 94 mph and a dipping curveball that he uses as a two-strike hammer. But unable to locate the former for strikes, he couldn’t get hitters to chase at the latter as much. Miller, meanwhile, had trouble controlling his devastating slider, leaving it in the strike zone far too often. The strikeout rate on that pitch dipped from 50.0% in 2017 to 30.7 last year, while batters went from hitting a miniscule .094 with a .168 wOBA against the slider to a more robust .256 and .348.
For Miller, some of his issues may go away with a return to full health and better mechanics that aren’t compromised by injury—though he’ll turn 34 in May. Allen is more worrisome, given that he lost nearly a mile per hour of velocity on his fastball and was already decidedly prone to giving up home runs. Either way, both their days of being elite relief options may be at an end, making them shaky bets for teams looking for shutdown bullpen weapons.
Dallas Keuchel, LHP
The 2015 AL Cy Young, Keuchel isn’t your prototypical ace. The lefty averages just 89 mph with his fastball, relying instead on a mix of cutters, sinkers, sliders and changeups to keep hitters off-balance and get lots of groundballs. But that strategy doesn’t leave a lot of room for error, and if there’s one red flag in his profile going forward, it’s a shrinking strikeout rate that dropped to 17.5% last season—fourth lowest among qualified pitchers. Batters didn’t seem fooled in 2018: Keuchel’s 19.8% whiff rate was the lowest of his career, and he saw increases in contact rates both inside and outside of the strike zone.
Most worrisome for Keuchel, though, is that hitters aren’t topping his pitches into the ground as often. His ground-ball rate took a big hit last season, falling from 68.0% in 2017 to 54.9, while his fly-ball and line-drive rates both increased. The culprit seems to be the sinker, which batters had an easier time squaring up and lifting, hitting .289 against it last year with a 67.2% ground-ball rate compared to .216 and 79.8, respectively, in 2017.
Keuchel can still be effective even with diminished stuff, but anyone expecting a No. 1 pitcher is likely to be disappointed. That kind of money, though, is probably what he’ll be holding out for on a starting pitcher market devoid of established aces.
DJ LeMahieu, 2B
Fresh off his third Gold Glove and as a two-time All-Star and the owner of the 2016 batting title, LeMahieu looks like a top-flight second baseman for those in need of one. But his résumé doesn’t stand up to deeper scrutiny. That 2016 season, when he hit .348, is the only year of his career where he’s posted an OPS+ above league average—and that’s despite playing half his games in the broken pinball machine that is Coors Field. Last year’s more pedestrian numbers—.276/.321/.428 with an OPS+ of 88—are more in line with what he’s done over his career otherwise.
Then there’s the pesky matter of Coors Field. It’s been a happy home for LeMahieu: His career line there is .329/.386/.447. Outside of Denver, though, is a different story.
LeMahieu has been a completely different hitter on the road, hitting a meager .229/.277/.422 away from Coors in 2018. Add to that his middling plate discipline (a 6.4% walk rate, 111th among all qualified hitters last year) and age (he turns 31 next July), and you have all the ingredients for a disappointment at the plate. LeMahieu’s defense is valuable, but teams paying for the offense he showed at Coors won’t be getting that.
Daniel Murphy, 2B
Heading into his 2018 walk year, Murphy was all set to cash in as a free agent. The veteran second baseman had put up OPS+ figures of 155 and 136 over the last two seasons with the Nationals, establishing himself as one of the best hitters at his position. But last season was a mess: Offseason knee surgery kept him off the field until June 12, and in a year split between the Nationals and Cubs, he was merely average at the plate, with a 106 OPS+ in 351 plate appearances. Worse, Murphy’s average exit velocity has steadily dropped over the last three years, and his hard-hit rate of 28.5% was a 13-point tumble from both 2016 and ’17.
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If Murphy’s not hitting, he’s worthless. His defense, never the best, has atrophied to the point that no team should seriously consider playing him at second base full-time. His knee troubles, meanwhile, have made him a glacier on the base paths: His Sprint Speed of 25.5 seconds is well below the MLB average (27.0) and ranked 476th in baseball last year out of 549 runners.
Thanks to those deficiencies, Murphy totaled a mere 1.1 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version) with Washington and Chicago. Set to turn 34 in April and getting by on balky knees, it’s hard to expect much better. Teams buying on his reputation or expecting a bounceback should think twice.
A.J. Pollock, CF
When healthy, Pollock is a good hitter and strong defender who slots in comfortably atop a winning lineup. The only problem is that “when healthy” is a modifier rarely seen for him. A broken right elbow cost him all but 12 games of the 2016 season, and in ’17 and ’18, he appeared in just 112 and 113 games, respectively, thanks to a groin strain and a fractured thumb. Nor has Pollock, an All-Star in 2015, been particularly productive around those recent injuries either: His collective line over the last two years is a fine but unexceptional .261/.323/.477, with a 103 OPS+ that’s squarely league average.
Beyond his health, though, something teams will have to figure out with Pollock is his newfound swing-and-miss tendency. His swinging-strike rate rose from 6.9% in 2017 to 10.7 last year, as did his overall swing rate (42.3 to 48.1). Accordingly, his contact rate suffered, dropping from 83.6 to 77.8. By the looks of it, Pollock was selling out for power: His launch angle went up five degrees from last season, and his fly-ball percentage nearly doubled. The results were there, as he set a new career high in home runs with 21, but his percentage of extra-base hits actually fell, as he lost a fair number of doubles from 2017. Putting the ball in the air more is generally a good thing, but it hasn’t seemed to work fully for Pollock, perhaps giving teams another reason to be wary of him.