Friday’s deadline for non-tendering arbitration-eligible players provided few surprises among the 26 players added to this winter’s free-agent pool. The threat of paying them at arbitration-inflated prices might have liberated them to take their chances on the market, but they can use their newfound freedom to land solid deals to provide useful performances at affordable prices. Adding more free agents to the pool of possibilities makes it that much more likely that teams shopping for affordable help can find it.
The winter’s free-agent market is already overstocked with first base/DH bats, so it might not seem like the best time for Matt Adams to be a free agent. But Adams slugged .543 in 100 games with the Braves after getting dumped in a deal by the Cardinals. St. Louis essentially gave up on him after a brief, ugly trial in left field that ought to discourage anyone else from considering that option going forward. Adams was picked up to fill in for an injured Freddie Freeman, but on the strength of his 10-homer June, the Braves gave Freeman a test run at third base to keep Adams in the lineup at first.
After contributing to the Cardinals’ last pennant as a rookie in 2013, Adams is already 29 years old and better off with a new team rather than riding pine behind Freeman. What damage he did was once again almost entirely against right-handed pitching — he had a 300-point OPS differential in 2017, consistent with a split of more than 230 points on his career, and he has slugged .495 against righties in his career. On the right team and in the right park, that has value. If he’s given a shot with a team that has the roster flexibility to carry a platoon bat at first base and the ballpark to make his power play up — hello, Colorado — he could be a great cost-conscious pickup on a two-year deal, or one year with an option.
For every team looking for relief help, seeing Hector Rondon‘s name added to this year’s list of free agents might seem like a godsend. The Cubs were sensible in terms of not bothering to arbitrate his value — his brief run as their closer was sure to escalate his pricing — but put on the market, the former Rule 5 find might instead receive some multiyear security at a lower annual average value than the $6 million-plus he might have won in arbitration. Between his late-game experience and his nice mix of a 97 mph fastball and a high-80s slider, he’ll be of interest. If his next team can help him improve on his off-speed offerings to stymie left-handed hitters, he could regain his status as a quality pitcher in the ninth inning, and for considerably less than what teams were spending on closers last winter.
The Astros cut their ties with Mike Fiers, closing the book on that 2015 trade with the Brewers that brought Fiers and Carlos Gomez to Houston while putting prospects Domingo Santana, Josh Hader, Brett Phillips and Adrian Houser in Milwaukee. With a fastball that sits just under 90 mph on average, he’s a durable finesse righty with a broad assortment who can handle 30 starts per season — ideally pitching in a bigger ballpark. Fiers didn’t have a ton of success in the DH league, managing an ERA+ of just 86 across two years and two months as an Astro. So cutting him loose makes sense. But so would some other team signing him to round out a rotation and provide depth.
There’s even less surprise over the Mariners non-tendering Drew Smyly. His blowing out his elbow before throwing a regular-season pitch for Seattle was disappointing enough, and his recovery from his Tommy John surgery last June might keep him off the radar of teams hoping for anything more than stretch-run participation in 2018. But he wouldn’t be the first recuperating pitcher to sign a deal that locks him in during his recovery and employs him the year after. The Yankees struck exactly this kind of deal with Jon Lieber in February 2003 knowing that he’d miss the ’03 season; they reaped the benefit with a 14-win season from Lieber on their 101-win team in 2004 while paying him just $2.7 million. It’s extremely easy to envision Smyly getting something similar from anybody who wants a lefty starter in 2019 with the stuff to average a strikeout per inning. Who doesn’t want that?
The other interesting position player among the new additions is Ryan Goins, who was non-tendered by the Blue Jays. Guys who can play both short and second while providing a little bit of power already have value as bench players, but for Goins’ value to escalate beyond something in the neighborhood of $2 million or so per year, a lot depends on what teams end up thinking about his value at shortstop. Defensive metrics like defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating soured on his performance in 2017, but those are just starting points as far as evaluation goes, and clubs use their own metrics. It isn’t inconceivable that some front office might think he’s capable of handling short on an everyday basis while also providing some modest power (he hit 21 doubles and nine homers for Toronto last year). He might not be worth much in terms of WAR, but teams like the Royals and Padres might not have a replacement-level alternative in-house and might be thrilled to sign Goins as a second-division placeholder for a year or two.
Other names to note: Bruce Rondon put up 10.7 K/9 during his career with the Tigers, relying heavily on high-90s heat; you can bet 29 other teams will want to see if they can harness that if he’s over his back problems. … T.J. McFarland didn’t have a great year in Arizona, but he held lefties to a .548 OPS with a 20 percent strikeout rate, which still has value for teams looking for situational lefty help. … Tom Koehler flopped in 2017 in his work with the Marlins and Blue Jays, but some club is going to remember that when he was paired with ace pitch-framer Jeff Mathis in Miami in 2016, he held hitters to a .593 OPS in 13 starts. If he turns up in a starter-hungry venue with a good receiver — say, Cincinnati with Tucker Barnhart, or Minnesota with Jason Castro — he could be a bounce-back surprise at bargain-basement pricing as a No. 4 starter.