As the U.S. opens up its collective pocketbook for the busiest shopping day of the year, the baseball world braces for a cold freeze. We’re a mere five days away from Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expiring, and with it a likely cooling of the typically hot stove. With uncertainty looming, clubs looking to add in free agency might begin shopping in the discount section instead of going after the many big fish still available.
In the spirit of Black Friday, below are five underrated free agents who probably aren’t at the top of a lot of teams’ lists, but would be great bargain bin additions for teams looking to add on the margins. None of the five rank near the top of our top 50 list (and three aren’t on it at all), but each has the potential to end up being steals if they find themselves in the right situation.
SP Alex Cobb
This is Cobb’s second time being a free agent after signing a four-year, $57 million deal with the Orioles in 2018 that largely proved to be a disappointment. The right-hander had a 4.90 ERA in 2018 and made just 13 starts from 2019–20 before being traded to the Angels in February. Though injuries limited him to only 93.1 innings, they were much more effective than in his stint with Baltimore.
Cobb leaned on his splitter and curveball to strong results, with a 3.76 ERA and 2.92 FIP. With a 4.2% barrel rate, he was among the most difficult pitchers to square up. Cobb induced ground balls at a 53.3% clip and set a new career high with a 24.9% strikeout rate. Durability is Cobb’s biggest question mark, but it won’t outweigh the desire for contending teams to bolster their rotations with a pitcher of his caliber. At 34 years old, he’s desirable on a shorter-term deal and would be a great get for clubs that missed out on Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray and Marcus Stroman.
SP Corey Kluber
Kluber pitched a combined 36.2 innings from 2019–20, which was enough for the Yankees to sign him to a one-year, $11 million contract. The two-time Cy Young Award winner shined through the season’s first two months before a shoulder injury sidelined him until late August. He had mixed results upon his return and now re-enters the market heading into his age-36 season.
While the injury risk is relatively high here, the upside is undeniable. Kluber decreased his sinker usage last season and threw his curveball more often than any other pitch, with great results. Hitters had a .186 batting average against the curve with a 39.1% whiff rate, with just four extra-base hits in 109 plate appearances. Teams looking to add Kluber likely won't hold their breath for him to log much more than 100 innings, but he showed enough last season to prove that he’s a safe bet to provide quality production when he’s able to stay on the field.
RP Mark Melancon
In a relatively thin relief pitcher market, Melancon is like getting a nice pair of socks as a present—often overlooked, but always appreciated. The right-hander led the majors with 39 saves last season and made his fourth career All-Star team, posting a 2.23 ERA over 64.2 innings. Melancon has a 2.97 ERA over the last four seasons, yet has pitched for three different teams in that span.
With Melancon, you know what you’re getting: low velocity, low strikeout totals and a ton of ground balls. He’s posted a ground ball rate over 50% for 11 straight seasons, and has given up fewer than one home run per nine innings in each of the last nine years. Raisel Iglesias and Kenley Jansen will sign for higher average annual salaries, but Melancon is a reliable bet to maintain his production entering his age-37 season.
LF Tommy Pham
Once upon a time, Pham was among the most dynamic outfielders in the game. From 2017–19, he racked up a combined 13.8 fWAR with a .284/.381/.475 slash line, good for a 122 wRC+. He averaged nearly 22 home runs and 22 stolen bases over 136 games per season, with an expert command of the strike zone. Injuries greatly limited him in 2020, and though his production waned a bit from his peak in 2021, he was able to remain healthy and play in 155 games.
Pham’s .229 batting average and 102 wRC+ were the lowest full-season marks of his career, yet the underlying metrics are more bullish. His barrel rate (10%) was nearly identical to what it was in 2018, while his strikeout and walk rates remained steady. Pham’s expected wOBA hasn’t been below .353 in five years, though over the past two years his actual wOBA of .318 suggests some tough luck. The fact that Pham is entering his age-34 season and hasn’t performed like his old self lately will make him a less expensive option, but there appears to still be plenty in the tank for him to be a productive everyday player.
2B Donovan Solano
Despite the Giants’ magical regular season this year, Donnie Barrels didn’t quite pull off a repeat of 2020, when he flirted with the National League batting title and won the Silver Slugger award. But he remained a tough out at the plate, posting a .280/.344/.404 slash line and 105 wRC+ in 344 plate appearances.
Though he hasn’t been an everyday player for long, Solano has been quietly consistent for some time now. He has a 114 wRC+ over 775 plate appearances since 2019 and a .308/.354/.435 slash line. That’s the third-highest batting average and seventh-best on-base percentage among second basemen with as many plate appearances over that span, with a better wRC+ than Ozzie Albies, Cavan Biggio, Adam Frzaier, Whit Merrifield and Gleyber Torres. San Francisco’s success last year overshadowed Solano’s strong hitting a bit, but he’s a more than viable option for teams needing help at the keystone.
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