MLB free agency is under way and many have mocked the class this year. There are some big, but older names at the top of the list like Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. Other top players include Justin Turner, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Desmond, and Dexter Fowler.
Outside of these top few players that will be highly sought out, the free agency class is quite shallow, especially on the starting pitching side. Considering starting pitching is the most lucrative aspect of free agency in the last few years, teams will need to stretch on a few free agents this year. Where can they look? Who are a few other free agents that could be well worth their next contracts?
To start, Jeremy Hellickson could fit the valuable starting pitching category. Hellickson is coming off of his last arbitration year where he reached a mutual $7-million contract from the Phillies. This should give us a decent gauge on what Hellickson would pursue in free agency. Hellickson has been a full-time starting pitcher in the MLB since the 2011. He had a few standout seasons with the Rays where he drastically outperformed his peripherals. In his last season with the Rays and once he was traded to the Diamondbacks, Hellickson's peripherals caught up with him where he supplied a 4.52 ERA and 4.62 ERA in the two seasons previous to this year. However, this past season with the Phillies was much better for Hellickson. He showed off a 3.71 ERA and 3.98 FIP. Looking at a combination of ERA and FIP, this was Hellickson's best season since his first full year for the Rays. But how are we to be sure this wasn't just a stretch of 27 good starts in an overall shaky pitcher?
For starters, a quick check of Hellickson's PITCHf/x pitch usage data shows he drastically reduced his four-seam fastball usage. Previous to 2016, Hellickson used his four-seamer over 40% of his pitches on average. That was reduced to 26.7% this past season as he boosted the usage of his two-seam fastball to 23.1%. Another big change in his arsenal was adding a slider. Per PITCHf/x, his slider usage was right at 10% of his pitches. He had not previously thrown a slider until this year.
Hellickson's new mix of harder-moving pitches dropped his BABIP down to .274 from .291 and .321 in the last two seasons. It also rewarded him with a 2% increase on swings on pitches outside of the strike zone, reducing his walk rate by 1% and increasing his strike out rate by 1%. His 3.71 ERA and 3.98 FIP doesn't seem like he should be at the top of the starting pitcher list. However, when adjusted for playing in a smaller park in Philadelphia, Hellickson's adjusted ERA and FIP were 10% and 6% better than average, respectively.
Hellickson won't cost a ton but he has a decent upside if he keeps his current pitch usage. At worst, teams can get a league-average pitcher for the next few seasons. Mike Leake's contract from last year is an interesting comparison as they are pretty similar in style. Leake received 5 years and $80-million from the Cardinals. We should expect Hellickson to get a little bit less money and maybe one less year as he's had some durability issues. He did receive a qualifying offer from the Phillies that he will almost certainly reject and enter free agency.
Ivan Nova follows on the shallow starting pitching list. Unlike Hellickson, Nova cannot receive a qualifying offer from the Pirates or Yankees because he was traded at the deadline. Nova was another piece that fit the Pirates pitching philosophy perfectly. He struggled in the pop can park that is Yankee Stadium, allowing home runs on over 13% of his fly balls there. However, the Pirates jumped on the opportunity to use Nova in the much bigger PNC Park and make use of his career ground ball rate of 50.8%, including 53.6% last year (13th best in the Majors). Ray Searage, the Pirates pitching coach, has an untouchable reputation of turning around pitchers with decent peripherals and poor results.
Since joining the Pirates at the deadline, Nova pitched to a 3.06 ERA that was backed up by a 2.62 FIP. In Nova's 11 starts with the Pirates, he issued three walks while striking out 52 and only allowing four home runs. Nova draws an interesting comparison from just last year that had a similar career path, J.A. Happ.
Happ is five years older than Nova but was signed by the Blue Jays for 3 years, $36 million. All he did for the Blue Jays was throw to a 3.18 ERA and 3.96 FIP as one of the biggest bargains in last year's free agency. The Pirates missed out on Happ and took an aggressive approach to extend Nova a contract before the season ended. They failed to reach an agreement and will seemingly try again this offseason. Nova was smart to test the waters as his value will be high in the weak market. It's safe to say he'll get a few more years than Happ at a similar annual average because of his age and upside.
After extending qualifying offers to Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays decided not to extend a qualifying offer to Michael Saunders. Thus, any team that does sign Saunders will not have to surrender a first round draft pick in return to the Blue Jays. The draft pick compensation does make a difference, especially for smaller market teams. Thus, Saunders could get more offers since he did not receive an offer.
Saunders has been an injury concern. He did play 140 games last year, the most in a single year of his career. Despite being a league average hitter over his first six seasons, Saunders contributed a 117 wRC+ (he created 17% more runs than the league average hitter). For comparison, that's a similar rate to Jason Kipnis and Buster Posey last year. Despite the comparison at the plate, Saunders doesn't provide defensive value, at all. He was responsible for -11 runs saved in the outfield last year, or the value of one entire team win on defense alone. Nonetheless, Saunders could provide great value to a team that can either DH him or hide him in a short outfield.
Mark Trumbo adds an interesting comparison to Saunders coming into last year's free agency. Trumbo was always a defensive risk but could provide value at the plate. Saunders doesn't necessarily provide 40+ home run power, but not many saw that coming from Trumbo either. Trumbo's contract was for just one year at $9.2-million. At nearly the same age, expect Saunders to get around $10-million average salary over two or three years.
The most valuable free agent position player this year could be Matt Joyce. Joyce spent this past season in Pittsburgh on a cheap one year, $1 million contract after originally signing a minor league deal. Like Ivan Nova, Joyce seemingly revived his career there. In Joyce's first five seasons with the Rays, he put together an impressive 118 wRC+, adding 10.7 wins above replacement. After getting traded to the Angels, Joyce had the worst year of his career. His walk rate was the lowest of his career and his .215 batting average on balls in play was extremely unlucky. The Pirates took advantage of his down year, signed him cheap, and used him mostly as a fill-in or pinch hitter this year.
Joyce's playing time was hard to find with McCutchen, Polanco, and Marte roaming the outfield for most of the season. However, he did get playing time each time one of the big three were injured. In a relatively small sample of 293 plate appearances, Joyce contributed a 137 wRC+. He walked in a ridiculous 20.1% of those plate appearances and homered 13 times (4.4%) while hitting in a huge PNC Park. His on-base percentage was .403 despite only hitting for a .242 average. Joyce clearly bought into the Pirates patient approach and boosted himself as a super valuable piece in free agency. Much like Saunders, his defense isn't great. He's yet to have an above average defensive season in his career. Joyce also only provides value against right-handed pitching. Thus, he'll be used as a platoon player and pinch hitter where he signs next.
This is not to suggest Matt Joyce is Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, but he is a nice addition at the plate for teams that need a cheap, left-handed power bat. Joyce fits the mold for a smaller market, analytical team that is willing to platoon hitters and pinch hit late in games for favorable match ups throughout the season. Joyce will definitely be looking for a raise but his small sample season should keep his price down considering he wasn't viewed as more of a minor leaguer until this year. Joyce should get around $5-million annual average value for a couple seasons, potentially with an option year. It would be unsurprising to see the Pirates resign him but other teams that could use Joyce as a cheap platoon option are Giants, Athletics, or even the Rays again.