MLB Free Agent Stock Watch: Dodgers' Hyun-Jin Ryu on fire after accepting qualifying offer; Cubs' Ben Zobrist on decline

Soon the top two unsigned free agents from the 2018-19 offseason may find work. Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel will be free from draft pick compensation as of 11:59 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 2. Less than a month until the "teams don't want to give up draft picks to sign them" excuse goes away. It's a shame those two are not helping contenders right now. It really is.

Anyway, even with the 2018-19 offseason still "incomplete," we're going to continue our weekly look ahead to the 2019-20 free-agent class. Several marquee would-be free agents have signed long-term extensions in recent weeks, thinning out the free-agent class, but there are still several big name players set to hit the market. As usual, this week's Free Agent Stock Watch will highlight two impending free agents on the rise and two on the decline. Away we go ...

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Hyun-Jin Ryu LAD • SP • 99
ERA1.72
WHIP.73
IP52.1
BB3
K54

Few pitchers in baseball have been as good as Dodgers southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu this season. He's sitting on a 1.72 ERA with 54 strikeouts and only three -- three! -- walks through eight starts and 52 1/3 innings. Ryu took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in his last start and into the sixth inning in his start before that. Opponents are hitting .189/.201/..330 against him.

"He doesn't have any consistent tendencies," Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc told ESPN's Alden Gonzalez recently. "He knows how to pitch, he knows how to change speeds, and I think he reads the hitters very well. Even if he has a plan, he'll deviate from it. There's just not anything consistent about how he attacks each guy."

Years ago, when he was preparing to come over to MLB, someone described Ryu to me as the Korean David Wells, and not because they have similar physiques. It was because Ryu, like Wells, can roll out of bed and paint the corners, and because he's fearless on the mound. He's pitched and pitched well in many big games for Los Angeles over the years.

Ryu, now 32, accepted the $17.9 million qualifying offer last offseason, so, by rule, he can not receive it again this winter (or ever again in his career). He will be free of draft pick compensation and, while I don't fully buy teams steering clear of top free agents for draft pick reasons, that won't hurt Ryu's cause. Really, the only knock again him is injuries, and his injury history is long:

  • 2014: Missed three weeks with shoulder inflammation.
  • 2015: Missed the season with surgery to repair torn labrum.
  • 2016: Missed first half of the season rehabbing from labrum surgery.
  • 2017: Missed three weeks with a foot contusion.
  • 2018: Missed three and a half months with a groin strain.
  • 2019: Missed two weeks with a groin strain.

The good news? Ryu's shoulder has been sound since his 2015 labrum surgery. The groin issues these last two years are worrisome, though the arm is always the greater concern with a pitcher. Ryu has thrown as many as 125 innings once in the last five seasons, and that was the 126 2/3 innings he threw in 2017. It's a long injury history and he'll be 33 on Opening Day 2020.

The thing is, 120-ish innings of Ryu are still incredibly value. He's sporting a 3.07 ERA in 610 big league innings and a 2.94 ERA in 266 big league innings since labrum surgery. Even if he slips to, say, a 3.60 ERA guy going forward, that's still really good! Everyone wants that 200-inning horse. There's also something to be said for 120 well-above-average innings.

Moreso than any other team, the Dodgers use their starters in moderation, and manipulate the injured list to make sure everyone is well rested. The last Dodger not named Clayton Kershaw to throw 160 innings in a season was Kenta Maeda in 2016. The last other than Kershaw to throw 180 innings was Brett Anderson and Zack Greinke in 2015. They're fine with low innings totals.

Case in point: Rich Hill. The Dodgers gave him a three-year, $48 million contract three years ago and he threw 135 2/3 innings in year one and 132 2/3 innings in year two, and Los Angeles is perfectly fine with that. They were 130-ish high quality innings (combined 3.49 ERA) at a reasonable price. That contract has worked out very nicely for both sides.

There is mutual love and respect between the Dodgers and Ryu, and the Dodgers know Ryu's medicals better than anyone. As long as he stays reasonably healthy this season, Ryu will have no shortage of suitors this winter. Still, a reunion makes sense for everyone. He has indicated he doesn't want to leave and the Dodgers would of course welcome the pitching depth.

Although it would represent an annual pay cut from his $17.9 million salary this year, a three-year contract along the lines of Hill's deal could fit. It's a multi-year deal with a nice total guarantee. The Dodgers get their 120-inning ace and Ryu gets a nice multi-year contract. That said, all it takes is one team to swoop in and blow him away with a big contract, and Ryu is pitching his way into consideration for such an offer.

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Howie Kendrick WAS • 3B • 47
BA.311
R15
HR6
RBI23
SB1

Turns out healthy Howie Kendrick is still a productive player, even with his 36th birthday less than a month away. Kendrick, who missed most of last season with a blown Achilles tendon, owns a .311/.365/.556 batting line with one of the lowest swing-and-miss rates in baseball. The rates are dead sexy:

  • Strikeout rate: 13.0 percent (92nd percentile)
  • Exit velocity: 91.9 mph (88th percentile)
  • Hard-hit rate: 49.4 percent (90th percentile)

It's a small sample, only 104 plate appearances (he missed a few games with a hamstring issue in April), but Kendrick is showing the same elite bat-to-ball skills that made him one of the game's most productive second baseman for the better part of a decade. No, he won't slug .500-plus all year, but Kendrick is still spray the ball all over the field. That's his game.

Over the last few years Kendrick has developed into a super utility type -- he's played first, second, and third bases this year and has left field experience as well -- which adds to his value. In the eight-man bullpen/three-man bench era (or four-man bench in the National League), teams need a guy like Kendrick, someone who can cover a lot of positions and contribute offensively.

Given last year's Achilles injury and his age, and the way MLB teams are steering clear of veterans, I thought Kendrick came into 2019 as a candidate for a forced retirement after the season. Instead, he's showing the versatility and contact skills teams love, setting him up for a nice little one-year contract to continue his career in 2020. One year and $5 million or so is possible.

Stock Down

Collin McHugh SP •
ERA6.04
WHIP1.23
IP44.2
BB16
K48

Congratulations to Astros righty Collin McHugh, the first player to appear in this year's Free Agent Stock Watch series twice. He was a Stock Up player in our first installment back in April. That was after a strong first start back in rotation, during which he racked up swings and misses and held his stuff well over five innings. McHugh has been a starter pretty much his entire career and it looked like he never spent 2018 in the bullpen.

In his next seven starts, McHugh allowed 28 runs and 46 baserunners (including nine home runs) in 36 innings. Opponents hit .241/.316/.533 against him. Ouch. Turns out McHugh had trouble holding his velocity -- which is only average to begin with -- into the later innings:

collin-mchugh-velocity.png
Collin McHugh's fastball velocity dipped noticeably in the middle innings as a starter. Brooks Baseball

The Astros moved McHugh to the bullpen last week and he took the demotion like a pro -- "This is a real good baseball team and I'll just reiterate what I said the last two years. Being able to be on this team and help this team any way possible is a privilege," he told reporters, including KRIV's Mark Berman -- which is no surprise.

In two relief appearances since the demotion McHugh has allowed one run in 3 2/3 innings while striking out six. Last year he threw 72 1/3 relief innings with a 1.99 ERA and 94 strikeouts. We know McHugh can be a very good reliever. This year was a chance to find out whether he could still be an effective starter, and the Astros themselves determined the answer is no.

Even in this free-agent climate, relievers are still getting paid very well. Six relievers signed free agent deals worth at least $20 million this past winter. (And that's with Kimbrel still unsigned.) It's just that starters still tend to get paid better than relievers. Just look at what competent starter Lance Lynn received (three years, $30 million) compared to elite reliever Adam Ottavino (three years, $27 million). Generally speaking, it is still more lucrative to be a starter.

Given all the role changes the last few seasons -- McHugh has made 85 starts and 60 relief appearance since 2015 -- it is difficult to pin down McHugh's potential contract. As a full-time reliever set to entire his age 33 season, he could be looking at something along the lines of Joakim Soria's contract with the Athletics (two years and $15 million), assuming he finishes the season well out of the bullpen. Clearly though, being demoted to the bullpen takes a bite out of McHugh's free-agent stock.

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Ben Zobrist CHC • RF • 18
BA.241
R12
HR0
RBI10
SB0

Is this the beginning of the end for Ben Zobrist? I mean, we wondered the same thing two years ago, when he hit .232/.318/.375 and looked finished, but then he rebounded with a .305/.378/.440 batting line last year. Doubt Zobrist at your own risk.

The thing is, Zobrist is two years older now. He'll turn 38 later this month. And his punchless .241/.343/.253 batting line comes with undeniably terrible contact quality numbers. Look at this:

  • Exit velocity: 86.3 mph (15th percentile)
  • Hard-hit rate: 26.0 percent (9th percentile)

Zobrist is not hitting the ball hard at all. He is drawing plenty of walks -- Zobrist has 14 walks and 12 strikeouts this year -- and he remains capable of playing pretty much anywhere, but the bat is hard to ignore. In fact, last month Zobrist went to manager Joe Maddon and recommended David Bote take his spot in the lineup. From Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times:

Zobrist approached manager Joe Maddon before the game to suggest that hot-hitting David Bote remain in the lineup Sunday after hitting two home runs Saturday, despite an advance schedule that had Zobrist starting and Bote on the bench. 

...

"Frankly, there was a little tension in my competitive heart, but it was the right thing to do.'' said Zobrist, who got a fist bump from Maddon after making the suggestion. 

For a guy who did not play his first full big league season until age 28, Zobrist has had a heck of a career. Two World Series rings, one World Series MVP award, three All-Star Game selections, MVP votes in three different seasons, and more than $85 million in player contracts. I suspect that, if he is nearing the end as a player, it won't be long until he winds up with a coaching or front office role.

With a rebound at the plate the rest of the season, Zobrist could put himself in position to land a one-year deal worth $5 million or so after the season. The track record is strong enough and he's respected enough to land another gig somewhere. If the bat doesn't rebound though -- it would take a sudden and dramatic increase in hitting the ball hard, which is not easy at soon-to-be age 38 -- it would be awfully tough to land another contract in this free-agent climate.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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