2018 MLB Free Agent Primer (Fantasy Baseball)

Nov 27, 2017

The 2018 Major League Baseball free agent frenzy has been slow to develop this year. One would have to imagine the presence of Giancarlo Stanton available by trade as a reason for the slow developing free agent hitter’s market. Of course, there was also the now solved posting system negotiations between Major League Baseball & the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball Organization for two-way prospect, Shohei Otani. Whatever the reasons may be, the final outcomes and destinations for the 2018 free agent class will send ripples into our fantasy baseball game.

Closers

The 2018 MLB free agent market has a handful of options for the team desiring an established closer.

Wade Davis leads the available closers in both skills and perceived value. 2017 was another strong year for Davis, as he compiled 32 saves to go along with a 2.30 ERA. A look under the hood reveals steady velocity, and an improved strikeout rate from 2016, all of which combined into a skill set that should translate to continued success in 2018.

Greg Holland, another former Kansas City Royals’ reliever, is the next best available closer in this year’s free agent class. After rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery, Holland went on to have a great rebound campaign with the Colorado Rockies. For the season, Holland struck out 70 hitters in 57 innings pitched. Holland’s save total came in at 41 on the year. There is room for Holland to improve next season, as a first-pitch strike percentage above the league average could help to whittle away at a slightly elevated walk rate.

Addison Reed, who spent time both setting up and closing for the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox in 2017, is a potential top-tier closer who shouldn’t cost his new team nearly the same as other top-end options in contractual terms. Reed’s elite skill has been a tiny walk rate, which, combined with a strong strikeout ability, has culminated into an elite command ratio. Reed does allow a few more fly balls than you’d typically like to see from a true shutdown late-inning reliever. Nevertheless, Reed should be in play toward the top of many fantasy baseball closer draft boards for 2018.

Starting Pitchers

Teams looking to bolster their starting rotations before the 2018 season begins will have multiple options to choose from. For these teams, the free agent market contains plenty of names, at multiple price points, depending on both team needs and resources.

Yu Darvish is certainly the biggest name available in the free agent pitching pool. It will be interesting to see where the fantasy baseball market values Darvish in 2018 drafts. On the one hand, Darvish pitched 187 innings last season with 209 strikeouts, a 3.86 ERA, and a 1.16 WHIP. On the other hand, Darvish was torched in two separate World Series games, which could sway some fantasy owners toward other pitchers in Darvish’s price range.

The ballpark that Darvish calls home for 2018 and beyond could also help to determine his fantasy baseball value next season. On this front, we must also consider the fact that Darvish moved in-season, from Globe Life Park in Texas to Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles. The park factors for overall runs is better in Los Angeles, but that doesn’t fully describe Darvish’s biggest issue this past season. Call it a juiced ball, raised seams, or random luck, but home runs have continued to creep up on Darvish. A 1.30 HR/9 shows the issue at hand.

Popular opinion has Darvish signing with the Cubs, which could help with the home run issue (wind dependent). Other teams with favorable home run parks for pitchers and who could be in the market for Darvish include the Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners & Los Angeles Angels. Lastly, because Darvish was traded in-season, he does not have a qualifying offer attached to him. Look for this to help drive up his real-life cost, as well as putting more teams in on the bidding action.

Jake Arrieta is projected by many to be the next biggest free agent starting pitcher available this winter. Despite making 30 starts in 2017, Arrieta only compiled 168 innings pitched. After averaging 26 batters faced per game the previous two seasons, Arrieta was receiving the hook slightly earlier in 2017, averaging only 23.6 batters faced per game.

Another potential issue for Arrieta going forward revolves around his decreasing velocity. Arrieta’s average fastball velocity has been declining since 2015 (94.6 MPH) and has fallen over two full miles-per-hour to an average fastball velocity of 92.1 MPH in 2017. This change in velocity and dominance could also be the driver behind a falling ground ball rate. These lost groundballs appear to all be migrating to the flyball category. As such, Arrieta’s home run rate spiked from 0.39 & 0.73 HR/9 in 2015 & 2016 to 1.23 HR/9 in 2017.

Lance Lynn could be an option for teams looking to spend slightly less on their starting pitching vacancy. Lynn is coming off a 2017 season which saw him rebound to 186.1 innings pitched, after missing a year due to Tommy John surgery. While Lynn’s 3.43 ERA might seem reasonable enough in today’s environment, his FIP (4.82) & xFIP (4.75) paint a much clearer picture of Lynn’s current skill level.

Alex Cobb is yet another arm coming back from Tommy John surgery. In 2017, Cobb made 29 starts for the Tampa Bay Rays. Over these 29 starts, Cobb threw 179 innings and had an ERA of 3.66 for the year. Unfortunately, Cobb’s previous league average strikeout ability did not come back in 2017, as he only managed 128 strikeouts.

Much like Lynn, Cobb’s FIP (4.16), xFIP (4.24) & HR/9 (1.10) in 2017 display a pitcher who may have received some lucky fortune during his walk-year. Another strike against Cobb comes in the form of opposing hitter’s ability to hit him hard. In 2017, the league average Hard Contact Percentage was 31.8%. Cobb’s 2017 Hard Contact Percentage allowed (Hard%) was 36.9%. With a below average strikeout rate, too many home runs, and batters squaring Cobb up often, this free agent arm is certainly not without risk.

C.C. Sabathia is also available via free agency this winter. Sabathia ended the 2017 season with surface statistics much better than I had projected. The elite skills are no longer in place for Sabathia and hoping for a 2017 repeat in 2018 is far from a sure thing. Much like Arrieta, Sabathia was pulled from games much earlier this season as compared to his previous ace-like years. As such, Sabathia’s strikeout total was lacking from previous seasons, compiling only 120 strikeouts on the season.

As a late-round flier or rotation depth, a 37-year-old Sabathia is an alright option in fantasy baseball. That said, fantasy teams might be better off rostering a middle reliever or two, as the difference in strikeouts should be minimal, and the reliever has a better chance of providing valuable ratios.

Hitters

Teams shopping in the free agent market are also looking to add valuable and productive bats. This year’s class contains a wide range of hitters coming off big years in 2017.

J.D. Martinez is easily the best bat available on the free agent market. Like Darvish above, Martinez was traded in-season from the Detroit Tigers to the Arizona Diamondbacks, which allows him to hit the open market without a qualifying offer attached to his services. The ability of Martinez in the batter’s box has been top-tier since 2014.

During this time, among batters with at least 2,000 plate appearances, J.D. Martinez ranks 10th in total home runs hit with 128. This figure is 10 & 11 home runs, respectively, behind the fifth and sixth place finishers of Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado. In terms of wRC+ (definition here), over the same timeframe, Martinez is tied for fifth place with a 148 wRC+. The two other players Martinez is tied with are Bryce Harper & Paul Goldschmidt.

Simply put, he’s amazing. Health remains a small issue for Martinez. That said, the outfield position is deep enough to roster a capable backup for the (hopefully) small amount of games missed one must project.

Lorenzo Cain is another outfielder available this winter. Unlike J.D. Martinez, Cain’s game is a more well-rounded approach. With stolen bases becoming an increasingly more difficult statistic to draft or acquire in fantasy baseball, Cain’s offensive profile is one that should provide both double-digit home runs, as well as 20-plus stolen bases next season. As we’ll detail in both the Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer writeups below, potentially escaping Kauffman Stadium could be a huge factor in Cain’s ability to not only reach 2017’s home run level but perhaps pass it next season.

Mike Moustakas was a player I recommended for power early and often coming into the 2017 season. This was based on his hot start to 2016 before suffering a knee injury that shelved him for the remainder of that year. Over 27 games (113 plate appearances) Moustakas was displaying a solid batting eye (0.69 BB/K) and top-tier isolated slugging (.260). A .214 BABIP helped to hold down his batting average and in turn his draft day cost for the 2017 season, which was great for myself and the people who bought in with me.

Moustakas now enters the market coming off a season in which he hit 38 home runs, drove in 85 and slugged over .520 for the Kansas City Royals. This work was done playing half his games in a home stadium that was one of the worst in baseball for allowing the home run. An ideal landing spot for Moustakas would be in the Bronx, however, with Chase Headley currently rostered and Gleyber Torres reportedly competing for the third base job as early as 2018 Spring Training, the fit doesn’t seem to be there.

Eric Hosmer certainly picked the right season to post a 4+ WAR campaign. This past season Hosmer played in all 162 games, hitting 25 home runs with a .318 batting average and a .385 on-base percentage. Certainly, this level of production is desired among many teams looking to add production at first base.

The concern surrounding Hosmer is where his power numbers will land in 2018. Assuming Hosmer lands somewhere other than Kansas City, his home ballpark’s home run park factor should improve, as Kauffman Stadium remains one of the more difficult parks in baseball to hit home runs. That said, for a power hitting position, Hosmer still brings a batting profile not conducive to high home run totals, due in large part to a 2.50 ground ball per fly ball ratio (GB/FB). Couple this with the fact that Hosmer’s Hard Contact Percentage in 2017 was below the league average rate, as well as projecting slightly fewer games played in 2018, means even reaching 25 home runs could prove challenging for Hosmer going forward.

Teams looking to go another direction at first base certainly have options. These options include 2017 breakout power-hitters, such as Logan Morrison (38 home runs in 2017), Lucas Duda (30 home runs in 2017), Yonder Alonso (28 home runs in 2017), as well as Carlos Santana (23 home runs in 2017). Other power bats who could shift more towards first base as early as next season include both Jay Bruce (36 home runs in 2017) and Todd Frazier (27 home runs in 2017)

Carlos Santana is an interesting option for an organization looking for a potential bargain with a proven production level floor. After hitting 34 home runs in 2016, Santana fell back to earth some with only 23 long balls in 2017. While the home run total regressed some, Santana still owns an elite batting eye, 0.94 BB/K (league average 0.39 BB/K). Santana also had a higher than average Hard Contact Percentage last season. If I had to pick between Eric Hosmer or Carlos Santana in a home run-only draft, Santana would be my selection nine out of 10 times for the 2018 fantasy baseball season.

Teams looking for help at the shortstop position need not look further than Zack Cozart. At 32 years old, Cozart is no longer a long-term asset, however, with a .933 OPS in 2017, his immediate 2018 fantasy production should remain solid at worst.

The biggest driver behind Cozart’s potential production next season will come in the form of health and home ballpark. On the health front, Cozart has missed around 40 games per season the last two years and only played in 53 games during the 2015 season. While Cozart’s skill level took a huge step forward this season, we must also recognize the home run park factor of Great American Ball Park as a potential driving force behind Cozart’s impressive power numbers. That said, the fact that Cozart has managed a batting eye (BB/K) at or near 1.00 (elite) the previous two seasons should translate to strong performance next year regardless of his home address.

This year’s free agent class also contains a couple of bounce-back targets for teams hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.

Jonathan Lucroy had a terrible season offensively for both the Texas Rangers and the Colorado Rockies. It appears Lucroy traded all his power-hitting ability to simply make contact last season. One must only look at Lucroy’s Hard% of 22.3% last season (down from 35.4% and 35.0% in 2016 & 2015) to draw this conclusion. Even with this focus on making contact, along with a home ballpark that inflates batting average, Lucroy only managed a .265 batting average on the year. This mediocre batting average coupled with six home runs spells bust in basically all fantasy baseball formats.

Carlos Gonzalez checks in on our free agent list as another Rockies player who vastly underperformed in 2017. A final fantasy baseball rotisserie line of 14 home runs, 72 Runs, 57 RBI, three Stolen Bases and a .262 batting average were all propped up by a strong September. During his 24-game September run, Cargo hit .377 with six of his 14 long balls for the year.

For years we’ve wondered what CarGo’s numbers might look like had he been traded away from Coors Field. While the trade never materialized, Gonzalez could be leaving Colorado this winter. During his 10-year career at Coors, Gonzalez has a triple slash of .323/.383/.593 versus his road triple slash of .252/.308/.427 over the same timeframe. For those either hoping for a 2018 Carlos Gonzalez rebound or not realizing much of his 2017 projection came in September, things aren’t looking great for the current free agent and former first-round fantasy baseball stud.

The major league free agent market contains many more names and potential fits. The names and write-ups detailed in this post are for those players who either could or have in the past been valuable fantasy baseball contributors. As the free agent market and Hot Stove season begin to heat up, more information and analysis will become available as we all plan for our 2018 fantasy baseball drafts or auctions.

Dave Morris is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Dave, check out his archive and follow him @dmojr.

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