MLB Free Agency: Breaking down the biggest flaw of every top remaining free agent
Major League Baseball’s offseason has been on hiatus for more than a month and a half now, since all 30 club owners voted unanimously to lock out players and begin the first work stoppage of the league since 1994-95. When the lockout ends – that is, when the owners and the MLB players’ association have ratified a new collective agreement – the league will have to find quick solutions for the rest of its off-season activities, including a commercial market that never started. equipment and a free agent market that still has several top players.
It’s a fact that the more front offices have to play a red team, a blue team on a player, the more likely they are to identify flaws with that player. Sometimes these results turn out to be beneficial for their final analysis; sometimes it feels like overthinking. Regardless, we decided to play along by highlighting a potential sticking point with the top 10 free agents remaining on our offseason top 50 list.
Before we get to the exercise, we are legally required to include some caveats. First and foremost, the 10 players covered below are very good at baseball; Observing a flaw in their game is neither an attempt to downplay that fact, nor an attempt to suggest that they don’t deserve the contracts we believe they will sign in the coming weeks. In addition, it should be noted that in some cases, this exercise can reinforce a player’s perception when his supposed “big flaw” is a trifle that does not change much.
To recap: they’re all great quality players, and the flaws we’re covering here are largely small beans. Understood? Alright, now let’s get to the meat of our skeptic’s guide.
The Fault Line: The Astros Cheating Scandal
As skilled as Correa is (and, clearly, he’s skilled enough to rank No. 1 on our offseason list), it’s hard to write about him without referencing the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme. Independent research by Tony Adams found Correa was one of the Houston hitters most likely to receive a conscious “bang” during their at-bats in 2017. How much Correa (or any other Astro) benefited from the whistleblowing remains unknowable. What is certain is that Correa was a good player back when the Astros only used the dumpsters for trash. He was the No. 1 pick in his day, and he had great seasons before and after the scandal’s supposed length. Also, for better or (probably) worse, the rest of the league seems indifferent to the whole situation; hence George Springer’s signing to a lucrative free agent contract last winter, and hence the quick returns to the dugouts made by AJ Hinch and Alex Cora.
2. Kris Bryant (#3 on the Top 50 list)
The fault line: swing problems
You’d think Bryant, a four-time All-Star and career .278/.376/.504 hitter, would now be inoculated with mechanical nitpicks. You would be wrong. Bryant’s sin is that he’s 6-foot-5 and has the long arms to prove it. These levers are a potential problem as they often result in a longer swing, which could make him speed sensitive as his bat speed decreases. When, precisely, the switch will switch, it is to be seen; it doesn’t look like it was last year, as he posted his highest contact rate against 95 mph or faster pitches since 2017. Although, to be fair, he posted his worst exit speed against this subset of land since 2018. The lesson here is simple: look closely at any moment in life, even those that took place during the happiest times, and you will find traces of pervasive decay.
The fault line: age
Other teams might argue that Freeman’s biggest flaw is his perceived loyalty to the Braves. Fair enough. For our purposes, the problem is that Freeman is about to enter his 32-year-old season. (He turns 33 in September.) Research has shown hitters are in their decline phase by the time they hit their mid-30s. Given the rumors that Freeman is up for a six-year contract, the Braves (or any team) will have to trust in his ability to hold off Father Time longer than the average Bear.
4. Trevor Story (#11 on Top 50 list)
The fault line: arm strength
We covered Story’s decaying canon earlier in his free agency. We noted then that his arm strength initially slipped below positional average for shortstops in 2020. The last offseason hasn’t helped him regain his momentum, and anyone’s guessing if this winter will help him regain his old form. If the answer turns out to be “no,” then Story will likely find himself at another position — probably second base — before long. His bat is powerful enough to withstand such a move, but it’s a consideration teams will need to weigh before giving him a multi-year contract to serve as shortstop.
The fault line: position and defense
Castellanos can really punch, and it’s a good thing he can because his apparent athleticism has never translated into quality defense in the outside corner. The public-facing field metrics mostly stink, but we’ll hold our noses while pointing to Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric. By that metric, Castellanos has been at least five games below par in every season since 2016. Just use it at DH, right? Absolutely… except, to quote the man himself: “I don’t want DH.” Perhaps Castellanos can be persuaded by his next club (or, at least, his next check). Until that turns out to be the case, his stubbornly inferior glove will remain a problem.
6. Seiya Suzuki (#15 on Top 50 list)
The fault line: previous
Much of player analysis is driven by the past: either in terms of player performance, or in terms of the performance of players with similar attributes. Together, these aspects form the basis of most projection systems. What complicates Suzuki’s free will, then, is the lack of precedent. He comes from Japan’s professional baseball league, which means he’s never played in the majors himself. Meanwhile, it’s been a while since an NPB position player other than Shohei Ohtani has come along and been very successful. Suzuki seems like a fair bet to change this trend, but his contract may be terminated as a result.
The fault line: sustainability
It’s about as simple as it gets, as far as perceived imperfections go. Kershaw missed the Dodgers playoffs last fall with forearm and elbow discomfort, adding another medical concern to his collection to go along with his history of back problems. Kershaw has reliably started 20 or more games in each of his full seasons in the big league (we’re obviously excluding 2020 here, although he’s taken the mound 10 times in 60 games), but he’s fair to have further apprehensions about how much longer that will hold true as he begins his campaign at 34.
8. Kenley Jansen (#20 on the Top 50 list)
The fault line: control
There are many ways to look at Jansen’s season. From one perspective, he remained dominant by limiting batters to less than five hits and precisely half a homer per nine innings. On the other hand, he navigated a lot of foot traffic anyway delivering a career-worst 4.7 free passes per nine. Interestingly, Jansen’s overall strike rate remained well above the league average, but his percentage of plate appearances that started 3-0 soared. As with the season as a whole, several conclusions can be drawn: either he became more likely to round hitters, or he was more prone to losing mechanics for entire strikes at a time. Jansen’s contact quality suppression skills might make this a moot point, regardless.
9. Anthony Rizzo (#22 on the Top 50 list)
The fault line: back pain
As with Kershaw before him, Rizzo’s biggest flaw is beyond his control: his health. He has had back problems in the past, and these don’t tend to improve with age. (Ask, uh, almost anyone.) To Rizzo’s credit, he’s been able to do well enough to appear in 345 games over the past three years, or, in about 90% of his possible contests. It’s just unclear if Rizzo will be able to maintain that kind of footfall in the future, or if he’ll end up spending more time on the shelf.
The flaw: last season
If Conforto had qualified for free agency after last season, when he was coming off a career-high 154 OPS+ and having managed at least 27 times in three consecutive full-fledged campaigns , he would have been higher on the list. Instead, he hit the open market after an uneven season that saw him stumble out of the gate before correcting his course on the stretch. Teams would be justified in wondering if he will be able to perform consistently like he did from 2017 to 2020, or if last year is a sign of things to come as he races towards his 29th birthday.