We finally had a flurry of activity on the free-agent market. Zack Cozart signed with the Angels to play third base, Carlos Santana is going to the Phillies, CC Sabathia returned to the Yankees, plus several of the top relievers have been knocked off the board. Cozart and Santana ranked third and fifth on Keith Law’s top 50 free agents but 16 of the top 20 remain unsigned.
Most of the rumors so far have focused on J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer, but their market is still mostly constrained to the Red Sox. One reason those two and other big names such as Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Jay Bruce remain unsigned is that the best teams are mostly set around the field. Why spend big bucks on these free agents, all of whom have some clear flaws, whether it’s age, defense or year-to-year consistency? As we’ve seen with the Dodgers and Yankees, even the richest teams are prioritizing staying under the luxury-tax threshold for 2018, in order to have more funds to spend for next year’s free-agent bonanza.
With that in mind, let’s focus on where we’re at with position players on the free-agent market and where they could land. Law’s free-agent ranking for each player is listed in parentheses, and all projections are courtesy of FanGraphs. We’ll also list the top 10 teams and their current starter at each position.
First base (and DH, where applicable)
Five worst projections: Mets, Royals, Mariners, Rockies, Rays
The Red Sox remain the top playoff contender with an obvious hole at first base, but you can see why Scott Boras is pumping up the Hosmer-to-the-Padres rumor — he needs another bidder to help ramp up the price because Hosmer isn’t a likely fit for any of the other contenders. Even if the Indians stick with Encarnacion at DH, they aren’t going to spend for Hosmer, so Alonso or Duda is a more likely fit for them.
Of the bottom teams, the Mariners appear committed to Ryon Healy and will spend any money they have left on pitching, while the Rockies have Ian Desmond and rookie Ryan McMahon as their default answers at first base. They should look to upgrade with a guy like Morrison to add another impact bat behind Charlie Blackmon and Desmond, but they’ll only end up with one of these guys if the price is right. The Mets may look for a one-year stopgap to give Dominic Smith more time in the minors and the Rays have Brad Miller and rookie Jake Bauers as possible options. Both teams are long-shot playoff contenders, so they have to decide if even a minimal investment is worthwhile.
A couple of these guys could be DH options as well. The Astros are a sleeper team here as they could use a left-handed bat to share time with Evan Gattis — Alonso could be a fit on a one-year deal.
Trade bait: Whit Merrifield (Royals)
Astros: Jose Altuve
Dodgers: Logan Forsythe
Yankees: Ronald Torreyes
Nationals: Daniel Murphy
Red Sox: Dustin Pedroia
Cardinals: Kolten Wong
Angels: Ian Kinsler
Five worst projections: Brewers, Reds, Diamondbacks, Yankees, Tigers
It will be interesting to see what the Yankees do. Torreyes is probably stretched as a regular, although the Yankees’ lineup is good enough to get by with below-average production at second base. They also have Tyler Wade, who flopped in a major league trial last year.
The Brewers seem like the team most aggressively looking to upgrade, either bringing back Walker (who came over late last season from the Mets) or maybe trading for Merrifield. The Red Sox may look for some depth here as Pedroia’s knee surgery means he may miss the start of the season. Not listed: The Mets, who don’t really have a regular there right now (Wilmer Flores is the default projection) and could bring back Walker or make a deal for Kipnis.
Astros: Alex Bregman
Dodgers: Justin Turner
Cubs: Kris Bryant
Yankees: Miguel Andujar
Nationals: Anthony Rendon
Red Sox: Rafael Devers
Cardinals: Jedd Gyorko
Diamondbacks: Jake Lamb
Five worst projections: Braves, Giants, Pirates, White Sox, Royals
This is one reason the Machado trade market is actually somewhat limited for the Orioles. The teams that will pay the most to get him are those in playoff contention or on the brink of playoff contention, but our top 10 teams are all pretty set here.
The exceptions are maybe the Indians and Yankees. Ramirez will probably play second base, but Diaz projects to 2.3 WAR — not Machado territory, but good enough to help the Indians rank 13th at the position. I love the idea of the Indians making a push for Machado, and they can fit him into the budget for one season, but they may be reluctant to give up a premium prospect. I could see Frazier going back to the Yankees, but with Gleyber Torres on the ascent, Frazier may have to take a one-year deal for that to happen.
That leaves Moustakas without an obvious suitor, and he’ll probably have to sign with a non-contender. Of course, the Giants tell us they intend to make a playoff push and they need a third baseman, so maybe Moustakas ends up there. They traded Matt Moore to clear up some salary space, either for a third baseman or outfielder. The Braves could really use another power bat. It’s just a matter of whether they want to spend this year or wait until they’re closer to contention.
The wild card is the Cardinals, maybe the one team that could still make a blockbuster Machado trade. They acquired Marcell Ozuna without killing the farm system and could include Gyorko in any deal as the Orioles have indicated they’re not willing to punt 2018 even if they trade Machado.
Free agent: Alcides Escobar (42)
Trade bait: Machado (Orioles)
Astros: Carlos Correa
Dodgers: Corey Seager
Indians: Francisco Lindor
Cubs: Addison Russell
Yankees: Didi Gregorius
Nationals: Trea Turner
Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts
Cardinals: Paul DeJong
Angels: Andrelton Simmons
Diamondbacks: Ketel Marte
Five worst projections: Royals, Marlins, Padres, Rays, Brewers
Not much going on here. Escobar isn’t an upgrade over the glove-first defenders the Padres, Rays and Brewers already have in Freddy Galvis, Adeiny Hechavarria and Orlando Arcia. I’m not sure there’s a starting job out there for Escobar, who was been worth just 0.9 WAR the past three seasons — he’s basically a replacement-level shortstop.
Any of the top contenders would have to be creative in a deal to play Machado at shortstop — like the Cubs being willing to trade four years of Russell for one year of Machado, or the Cardinals trading a pre-arbitration player in DeJong to clear a spot. Those aren’t unreasonable options, but I think it all points to Machado starting the season with the Orioles.
Cardinals: Ozuna, Dexter Fowler
Five worst projections in left field: Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Braves, Reds
Five worst projections in right field: Marlins, Braves, Orioles, Padres, Rockies
The Martinez market is similar to the Hosmer market — if the Red Sox aren’t interested in Martinez as a DH or perhaps a left fielder with Jackie Bradley Jr. then dangled as trade bait, I’m having problems seeing another team paying anything close to the contract Boras wants to land.
The Giants obviously need outfield help, but their top priority at this point is a center fielder, as Denard Span is no longer a viable defensive option up the middle. The Giants, however, are already pushing the luxury tax threshold. The only way they can add a center fielder, a third baseman and Martinez (plus maybe some bullpen help) would be to blow past that $197 million level. Do you see them spending $150 million on Martinez? Maybe, but given that Martinez’s best position is DH, that’s a hefty long-term commitment for an NL team.
The Blue Jays just barely missed the bottom five in projected value at both positions (Steve Pearce and Teoscar Hernandez are their primary guys at present), but they are a big-market team and finished last in the AL in runs. They need a big bat like Martinez and have the DH option down the road. Mark Shapiro has always been a budget-conscious executive, however, and the Martinez-Blue Jays rumors have been quiet.
There are certainly some contenders that need outfield help — the Rockies and Diamondbacks, most notably. They’re not going to pay for Martinez, but Bruce would be a fit for either of those clubs, although maybe the Rockies simply stick with Gerardo Parra, Raimel Tapia and Desmond as corner options (and David Dahl, if he can stay healthy). The Diamondbacks shouldn’t be happy with Tomas or Owings as a corner starter, which could be one reason that Zack Greinke trade rumor with the Rangers popped up. Bruce could also land with the Orioles or Blue Jays to play right field.
Astros: George Springer
Dodgers: Chris Taylor
Indians: Bradley Zimmer, Kipnis
Yankees: Aaron Hicks, Gardner
Nationals: Michael Taylor
Red Sox: Bradley
Cardinals: Tommy Pham
Angels: Mike Trout
Diamondbacks: A.J. Pollock
Five worst projections: White Sox, Royals, Tigers, Brewers, Giants
The Giants are the obvious landing spot for Cain, although the Rangers, who currently have Delino DeShields as their projected starter, are another strong possibility as they’re not as backed up near the luxury tax threshold as the Giants. The Giants may be better off trading for Hamilton and saving more financial resources for a slugger at another position. The Orioles could get creative and sign Cain and move Adam Jones, a free agent after 2018 and a defensive liability in center, to right field. The Brewers don’t project well with Keon Broxton and Lewis Brinson, but they’d certainly love to give Brinson a chance to live up to his prospect pedigree.
Free agent: Jonathan Lucroy (18)
Trade bait: Yasmani Grandal (Dodgers)
Astros: Brian McCann
Dodgers: Austin Barnes, Grandal
Cubs: Willson Contreras
Yankees: Gary Sanchez
Nationals: Matt Wieters
Angels: Martin Maldonado
Lucroy finally hits free agency after signing a team-friendly contract back in 2012 that ended up costing him tens of millions. He does so after a terrible season — hitting just .265/.345/.371, numbers propped up by a 46-game stint with the Rockies in which he hit .310. Still, he’s one year removed from making the All-Star team and it seems strange that his catcher-framing skills would suddenly deteriorate like the numbers suggest. On the other hand, the Rockies signed Chris Iannetta rather than try to keep Lucroy. The Nationals could use an upgrade over Matt Wieters, coming off a minus-0.6 WAR season, but he’s making $10.5 million and they may not want to invest in another catcher who isn’t an obvious fix. The Diamondbacks seem like an obvious fit as Mathis can’t hit. Lucroy’s best move may be to bet on himself on a one-year deal and hope for a better season.