The baseball world is still waiting for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado to find their homes for 2019 and beyond, and the free agent freeze is sucking a lot of the potential fun out of another offseason, but that doesn’t mean the hot stove has been shut off completely all winter. Among the players we ranked as the top-30 free agents back in October, 19 have signed and one, Adrian Beltre, retired. Let’s take a look at five of the signings to date that will weigh heaviest in fantasy baseball leagues.
Josh Donaldson, 3B, Braves
There may not be a player with a wider range of realistic outcomes this season than Donaldson. The 33-year-old was limited to 52 games last season because of injuries, and has played just 165 games over the last two seasons. When he has been healthy in that time, however, he has looked like his usual self. In 2017, he hit .270/.385/.559 with 33 homers in 496 plate appearances. He was never able to get in a rhythm last year, and was likely never 100%, but still left the yard eight times in 219 trips to the plate, a 25.8-homer pace based in a season with 700 plate appearances. He’s expected to hit second for the Braves, right in front of Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. That’s a prime spot for someone with Donaldson’s power and on-base skills. The Braves will wisely manage his time, and can afford to do so with Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson on the bench. Donaldson’s best-case scenario may be 500 plate appearances, which translates to about 115 starts. If he stays healthy and gets that much playing time, his fantasy owners won’t be disappointed in him sitting out a game or two per week.
Daniel Murphy, 1B/2B, Rockies
Murphy was a perfect fit with a Rockies team that started the offseason with a hole at first, and a potential one at second. The latter will likely be filled by prospect Garrett Hampson, but Murphy remains eligible at both positions in fantasy baseball. No player in the history of the Rockies gets a downgrade for playing half his games at Coors Field, and Murphy remains effective at the plate as he enters his mid-30s. He hit .299/.336/.454 with 12 homers in 351 plate appearances split between the Nationals and Cubs last season, essentially in line on a per-game basis with what he did during his two full seasons in Washington. Murphy is expected to hit at the top of Colorado’s order, likely sandwiched between Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado in the 2-hole. That’s a great spot for any hitter.
Yasmani Grandal, C, Brewers
Catcher is once again a wasteland in the fantasy world, with J.T. Realmuto and Gary Sanchez the only backstops likely to come off the board inside the first 120 picks of a typical fantasy draft. Grandal will be among the second tier of players selected at the position, a group that also includes Willson Contreras, Salvador Perez, Wilson Ramos and Buster Posey. Grandal racked up a career-high 518 plate appearances last year, hitting .241/.349/.466 with 24 homers, 23 doubles and 68 RBI. The Brewers have a capable backup in Manny Pina, and Grandal has put a lot of mileage on his legs with the Dodgers making deep playoff runs each of the last three seasons. In other words, don’t expect him to approach 500 plate appearances again this year. Still, he’ll get a boost from moving his home to Miller Park from Dodger Stadium, and he should hit at the back end of the heart of order in one of the league’s most potent offenses. Even in his age-30 season, this is an upgrade for Grandal.
Nelson Cruz, DH, Twins
Cruz is as close as we’re getting to a facsimile of David Ortiz, just half a decade younger, so it makes a bit of cosmic sense that he’s joining at the end of his career the team with which Ortiz started his. Cruz has had no fewer than 37 homers or 93 RBI in any of the last five years, his age-33 through age-37 seasons. He has hit .281/.356/.541 with seasonal averages of 31 homers and 104 RBI in that time, and has done so while calling Safeco Field home for four of those five seasons. Another move at 38 years old shouldn’t bother him, especially since he’ll continue to DH. The lone concern for Cruz may be his teammates. He should hit fourth in Minnesota’s lineup, with Jorge Polanco, C.J. Cron and Eddie Rosario holding down the first three spots. Rosario is a nice player, but has had OBPs of .328 and .322 the last two years. Cron, too, lacks high-level on-base skills. Polanco had a .345 OBP in 333 plate appearances last year, but was down at .313 in 544 trips to the plate in 2017. Cruz could see fewer RBI opportunities with the Twins this year than he did in any of his previous five seasons. Despite that, his bankable power and reliable rates make him as safe as it comes at his expected draft-day price.
Michael Brantley, OF, Astros
Brantley is one of the most interesting old faces in a new place after joining the Astros this winter. Injuries robbed him of all of 2016 and about half of 2017, though, he was excellent when he did play in the latter season, hitting .299/.357/.444 with nine homers and 20 doubles in 375 plate appearances. He finally got healthy last year and was almost all the way back to his MVP candidate form, posting a .309/.364/.468 slash line with 17 homers, 36 doubles and 12 steals in 631 plate appearances. Spending a year and a half on the DL and transitioning into his 30s hasn’t taken anything out of Brantley’s game, and he’s now part of one of the best lineups in baseball. He should hit in the middle of Houston’s order, likely fifth behind George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. The only way Brantley isn’t among the league leaders in plate appearances with runners in scoring position is if the first four hitters in the Astros’ lineup drive in all the runs themselves. Brantley’s floor season is likely .280/.350/.440 with 15 homers, 10 steals, 75 RBI and 80 runs. That’s not bad for a guy fantasy owners can likely get after pick No. 100.