Baseball’s hot stove is ice cold. This is undoubtedly hurting Neal Huntington’s chances of getting an overpay in a trade for one of his stars, but it could help him if he wants to pull a 180, pick up a free agent or two and try to get the Bucs back in the playoffs in 2018.
This has been one of the slowest starts to free agency in recent memory. Last year, 17 of Fangraphs’ top 20 free agents signed before the new year. Only five of the top 20 have done so this year. The Dodgers and Yankees are determined to stay under the luxury tax threshold for a one time reprieve before 2018’s legendary free agent class mucks up their checkbooks for generations to come. Every other team doesn’t know how to respond. The Twins are somehow a favorite to land Yu Darvish and the Padres may get Eric Hosmer. The whole world’s gone crazy.
Sure, J.D. Martinez, Darvish and Jake Arrieta will still get gobs of money in free agency, but that second-tier of talent is still waiting for their offers. Those B-listers are going into the bargain bin soon. Max Rieper recently wrote a story for Royals Review that players who sign before the New Year average guaranteed money within five percent of Fangraphs’ crowdsourced estimates. Those who sign after Jan. 1 average only 74.7% of the guaranteed money they were estimated to. Travis Sawchik pointed out on Fangraphs that teams are taking notice. February signings have skyrocketed since the turn of the decade. This year is shaping up to have even more buzzer beater contracts.
The Pirates benefited from desperate players and late signings in 2016 when they landed David Freese and Matt Joyce for a combined $4 million. They combined for 3.6 bWAR, meaning they paid nearly 15 cents on the dollar compared to the going rate of $7 million per win on the open market. The Pirates need to get these types of bargains to stay competitive on their payroll. There are going to be plenty of players to pounce on between now and Spring Training.
Here are a few position players worth keeping an eye on.
Neil Walker (Fangraphs free agent ranking: 11th)
I already wrote about reuniting with Walker once this offseason, so I’ll keep this brief. The Pirates need to make Freese a platoon or bench player in 2018. Walker would be the perfect left-handed counterpart. He’d also give the team a much needed PR win.
Walker came into this offseason looking for a four year deal. The Fangraphs crowdsource projected him to get three. It’s starting to look like he’ll be lucky to get two. He would fit in nicely with several teams, but there’s no buzz around him. We’re also closer to opening day than the regular season finale. The clock is ticking.
He has an injury history and is going to look for as much guaranteed money as possible. There just won’t be as much as he hoped there. If Huntington can swallow his pride and Walker wants to become a fan favorite again, a reunion makes sense.
Todd Frazier (Fangraphs free agent ranking: 13th)
Frazier was one of 15 players who had significant reps at third and accumulated at least 2.5 fWAR in 2017. Of those 15, 11 are definitely staying with their team. Seven of them were on playoff teams (eight if you count Frazier and the Yankees). There’s nowhere for him to go. Mike Moustakas is a more appealing free agent option, too. Joel Sherman reported almost a month ago that 10 teams have “expressed various levels of interest” in Frazier. Not even a nibble has come from that since.
PNC Park may be murder for a right-handed batter, but Frazier has thrived here, recording a .968 OPS in Pittsburgh as a member of the Reds. Before you credit his success to just feasting on Pirates pitching, Frazier has a pedestrian .683 OPS against the Pirates at the bandbox Great American Ballpark. There might be something in the water.
The Pirates need a power hitter, and Frazier’s 67 home runs since 2016 would fill the bill nicely. He could take the everyday third base job from Freese and slide over to first to spell Josh Bell.
Going off of Rieper’s research that players who sign this late only get 3/4ths of the guaranteed money they were projected to, the median three year, $42 million pact Frazier was predicted to get turns into a deal strikingly similar to the one Francisco Cervelli received (three years, $31 million). That would still be a large signing for this franchise. To now, the largest contract they have handed out to a player who wasn’t on the team the year before is Russell Martin (two years, $17 million in 2012). This would be almost double that amount. The Pirates won’t have a third base prospect major league ready until 2019 at the very earliest, so they shouldn’t be afraid to give Frazier a multi-year deal (especially since so much money is coming off the books after this season). Still, it’s a big jump for them.
He would definitely help his market if he’s willing to take a one year deal, but he’s turning 32 in February and would just go through the same headache again next offseason. If he’s insisting on a multi-year contract, the Pirates should take advantage.
Jarrod Dyson and Jon Jay (Fangraphs free agent rankings: 20th and 50th)
One of the Pirates’ most apparent roster problems going into 2017 was they did not have a true fourth outfielder. Between Gregory Polanco’s injury history, Austin Meadows not looking major league ready and McCutchen potentially being dealt midseason, they cannot make the same mistake going into 2018.
Like the third base market, most of the contenders already have a set outfield. Those looking for an upgrade are going to target Martinez, Cain, Bruce, Gomez or Gonzalez because of their higher upsides. The Fangraphs crowdsource lined them both for $8 million per season, with Dyson getting two years compared to Jay’s one. The longer they stay on the open market, the greater the chance they have to settle for a Freese-like deal.
Dyson finally got a look as an everyday outfielder in 2017, and he showed he can handle the workload. He saved 15 runs defensively and recorded a 100 wRC+ in the first half of the season, but a sports hernia slowed him down in the second half and eventually ended his season in September. He may not be the sexiest name available, but he very quietly has averaged 2.5 fWAR a year from 2013-2017.
Jay has made a career of torturing the Pirates. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. He provides an average bat and can play all three outfield positions, though he should probably stick to the corners. Still, if the Pirates need a center fielder, he can hum a few bars.
The main holdup for Dyson is playing time. If he is going to make a concession on salary, he’ll probably want to at least have a shot of being an everyday player again. If the Pirates do end up moving McCutchen, Dyson would be a logical caretaker in center until Meadows is ready. Jay has already played for three different teams over the last three seasons, so he’s used to moving around. He is probably the more likely option for a one year pact with reduced playing time.