- If you're looking for value on the free agent market, a few veterans may be your best options.
The Harper-Machado sweepstakes may be taking up most of the oxygen in the room, but there are plenty of valuable smaller deals to be had on the free agent market. Here’s a look at some of the available players who can provide the biggest bang for their buck:
Morton’s last two seasons don’t look much at all like his previous years’ work, which can make it tricky to project his future. That change isn’t a matter of either simple decline or improvement, though: It’s reinvention. Morton is a notably different pitcher than he was before he arrived in Houston in 2017. The veteran sinkerballer has changed his approach, to the point where it’s no longer really appropriate to call him a sinkerballer. In 2018, for the first time in his career, the pitch was not his most frequently used. Instead, it made up just 29% of his arsenal (compare to 63% in 2015) and was outranked by the curveball, with the four-seam fastball just behind. That curve, of course, has become one of the nastiest in baseball. Opponents hit .142 against it last season, with nearly half of their swings ending up as whiffs. And there’s no conversation to be had about the rise of spin rate as a significant metric without a mention of Morton’s curve.
Morton’s age is a reasonable point of concern, as is the fact that his two years of good work were preceded by nine years of mediocre performance. There’s something of a worrisome injury history, too; last season was just his second time topping 160 IP. All of these factors could reasonably drive down his contract. But there’s a difference between a player who simply begins to break out at age 33, and one who engineers an entirely different approach to success. The latter is often a better bet for future production—which could create a great bargain here in Morton.
Ramos’ recent injury record will be a red flag. An ACL tear sidelined him for much of 2017, and a hamstring problem kept him out in 2018. He’s not a remarkable defender, though he’s solidly capable. (Just about an exactly average pitch framer, according to Baseball Prospectus.) He’s not the flashiest catcher available: Yasmani Grandal leads the free agent market, and J.T. Realmuto, the trade market. These elements should drive his cost down—but there’s still real value here. Ramos has been one of the best offensive catchers in baseball over the last three seasons, with a 120 OPS+ second only to Gary Sanchez’s 121.
Ramos’ biggest potential downside would be injuries forcing him out of the catcher’s position. But his bat is big enough to make him perfectly serviceable elsewhere. His upside? A scratch defensive catcher who’s a serious offensive threat. Even if the ultimate outcome is somewhere in the middle, that’s enough for him to certainly end up being more valuable than he looks.
A 36-year-old pitcher probably doesn’t seem like a great value buy. But Happ has a few things going for him here. For a guy who depends so heavily on his fastball, the big concern would typically be losing velocity; Happ, though, has proved largely immune to that over the last several years. Possibly linked to that? The fact that he wasn’t throwing at too high of a velocity to begin with. (He’s sat 92 mph for the last few seasons.) He’s made a few adjustments as he’s gotten older—most notably, using his sinker more—but for the most part, he’s just held steady with his trademark command, and it’s paid off. His profile doesn’t make him the sexiest pick-up, and the aging curve is still going to be a concern here, but he stands out as a potentially sharp bargain for two or so years of solid middle-of-the-rotation work.
Coming off the two best seasons of his career, Lowrie will be in demand this winter. Even so, there’s a good chance that he might still end up as something of a value buy. Lowrie’s adjustments over the last two years are significant, and they could ultimately be worth quite a bit. He’s been hitting harder than ever (40.1% hard contact rate in 2018), and he’s done a better job of lifting the ball, too. His launch angle is up, and his 0.72 groundball-flyball ratio over the last two years is the fifth-lowest in baseball. He’s not a better version of the same hitter that he used to be. He’s a different hitter.
Lowrie’s a 34-year-old with a shaky injury record, sure. But there’s reason to believe that his recent development will lead to serious future production, and as a result, he could be quite a big value at second base.
Cahill was a huge bargain in 2018—putting together his best performance in years on a one-season, $1.5 million deal. While that should certainly earn him some attention on the free agent market, it won’t necessarily do enough to cut off his potential as a great value.
Cahill’s profile hasn’t changed much in recent years: He still generates plenty of groundballs, and his sinker is still his primary pitch. While both of those statements are true, though, they’re less true than they used to be. Grounders made up 53% of his opponents’ contact last season, for instance, compared to 63% in 2015. This isn’t a bad development, though. Rather, a slight change in his approach has allowed him to strike out more hitters—relying a little more heavily on a pitch that’s variously been classified as a slider and a cutter—which gives him a rare combination of soft contact and whiffs. There was only one starter in baseball last year who had a higher groundball rate and higher strikeout rate (Lance McCullers, Jr.).
This makes for an intriguing profile, and it could project well for Cahill. His typical risk factors are still present and valid—injury record, shaky command—but if those contribute to positioning his cost at, say, two years and $15 million, then there’s a good shot that he could end up as a solid bargain.