Sometimes the best signings are the ones hardly noticed during the offseason.
A pandemic-shortened, fan-less season has, as expected, erased any hopes of a normal offseason. With the exception of the Steve Cohen Mets and a few of the usual suspects, most teams are expected to be quiet in free agency.
This bleak outlook has made free-agent bargain hunting more important than ever. Here are five players for teams on a tightened budget to target this winter.
Kolten Wong, 2B
It was somewhat surprising that the Cardinals declined to pick up Wong’s $12.5 million option for next season. He was on his way to winning a second consecutive Gold Glove and has been the model for all that this organization does well—he makes contact, runs the bases well and plays great defense. He has sneaky power, but he isn’t going to hit 20 homers in a season. That’s surely worth more than $12.5 million for one year, right?
The rationale behind not bringing Wong back had more to do with his replacement, Tommy Edman—a similar player who is cheaper and four years younger than Wong, who is 30—than it did with him. But there are plenty of teams that could use Wong’s high-floor production. Since the start of 2018, only Ozzie Albies has more WAR than Wong among those who have played at least 75% of their games at second base. In that span, Wong has slashed .269/.349/.393 and—when factoring the full-season equivalent of what he did in the 60-game 2020 campaign—he’s averaged 3.5 WAR per year. If the value for one win above a replacement player is roughly $8 million, then a typical season for Wong is worth $28 million. Yet in a market as upside-down as this one, it seems he’ll get less than one-third that amount.
Joc Pederson, OF
Pederson’s all-or-nothing offensive approach will keep him from cashing in as a free agent, even in the best of markets. And his absolutely dreadful 60-game regular season definitely won’t help his cause this winter. However, his postseason production—.382/.432/.559 with two home runs—should be enough to show teams looking for a lefty bat how dangerous of a hitter he can be during one of his hot streaks.
Four times in his career, Pederson has hit at least 25 home runs in a season, including a career-high 36 homers in 2019. He’s almost exclusively a platoon player heading into his age-29 season, but he feasts on fastballs from right-handed pitchers. There are plenty of teams who could use a player like that.
Carlos Santana, 1B
Santana had a rough 2020 season, but that’s exactly why he’s a perfect bargain free-agent target this winter. There won’t be much demand for a 35-year-old first baseman coming off a year in which he batted .199, yet his peripherals are a bit more promising. He remains one of the most disciplined hitters in the majors (18.4% walk rate), and his expected batting average this season was a far more respectable .253.
Mitch Moreland, 1B
When the Padres acquired Mitch Moreland in late August before the trade deadline, I thought it was a great move. He’s a consistent, lefty-hitting first baseman. In 22 games with the Red Sox before the trade, Moreland slashed .328/.430/.746 with eight home runs in 79 plate appearances. It didn’t work out—he posted a feeble .609 OPS the rest of the way.
The market for Moreland, who turned 35 in September, was already expected to be limited before he cratered in San Diego. But, like Santana, Moreland could be a suitable one-year plug for a team in need of a short-term fix at first base. The Nationals and Brewers seem like the best fits.
James McCann, C
McCann is the perfect fall-back option for any of the teams that miss out in the J.T. Realmuto sweepstakes. McCann made the All-Star team in his breakout 2019 season but the White Sox signed Yasmani Grandal and relegated McCann to a part-time player. Still, the 30-year-old hit .289/.360/.536 and posted a 144 OPS+ in 31 games.
McCann’s market value is $10,022,659 per year—more than $12 million cheaper than Realmuto, according to Spotrac. That sounds like a bargain to me.
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