MLB Free Agent Stock Watch: Yankees veteran Brett Gardner, resurgent Travis d'Arnaud on the rise heading into free agency
Pedro Strop, meanwhile, is seeing both his fastball velocity and free-agent stock trend downward
The 2019 trade deadline is in the rear-view mirror and it gave us some clarity about the upcoming free-agent market. Among other things, here's what we learned about free agency following the deadline:
- Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler stayed put and will be eligible for the qualifying offer.
- The Reds will probably try to contend again next season after acquiring Trevor Bauer.
- The Astros could have trouble re-signing Gerrit Cole after adding (most of) Zack Greinke's contract.
- The Braves may not be in the bullpen market after adding Mark Melancon and Shane Greene through 2020.
Cincinnati's attempt to make a run at the postseason this year isn't really working out, but they gave their top prospect (Taylor Trammell) and top trade chip (Yasiel Puig) to get Bauer, who will make upwards of $20 million through arbitration next year. You don't make a move like that unless you're planning to add more pieces in an effort to win next year.
Astros owner Jim Crane played coy when asked what the Greinke trade meant for Cole -- "(Re-signing Cole) would put you way over the (luxury tax threshold)," he said recently -- but the bottom line is Houston took on about $20 million annually in Greinke and will owe big raises to Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Justin Verlander next year. Money could be tight.
To me, the Wheeler situation is most interesting. He'll be eligible for the $19 million or so qualifying offer -- that entitles the Mets to a draft pick should he leave -- and tendering the offer seems like an easy call. Worst case scenario is he accepts and you get a good pitcher on a one-year contract. Consider the team's upcoming rotation raises though:
- Jacob deGrom: $9.5 million in 2019 to $25.5 million in 2020
- Marcus Stroman: $7.4 million to approximately $12 million
- Noah Syndergaard: $6 million to approximately $10 million
- Steven Matz: $2.625 million to approximately $4 million
Would the notoriously cash-strapped Mets risk Wheeler accepting the qualifying offer and committing roughly $70 million to five starting pitchers next year? Possible, sure, but it would hurt. The guess here is the Mets make Wheeler the qualifying offer, and, if they accepts, they'll look to cut salary elsewhere, possibly by trading Stroman or Syndergaard for young (and cheap) players.
When you cut a player loose and the first two teams after him are the Dodgers and Rays, it's a good indication you made a bad decision. The Mets hastily released Travis d'Arnaud in May after 25 admittedly poor plate appearances. They were also his first 25 plate appearances following Tommy John surgery, so he hadn't had time to shake off the rust.
d'Arnaud signed with the Dodgers and was quickly traded to the Rays. With Tampa, he's revived his career thanks first and foremost to being healthy, but also by being reunited with hitting coach Chad Mottola, who he worked with in the Blue Jays system. Here's what manager Kevin Cash told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times last month about d'Arnaud's success:
"It's probably a little bit of everything," Cash said. "I know him and Chad have worked really hard. They have a relationship, they had a relationship years ago in Toronto when Travis was coming up before he got traded to the Mets and they rekindled that. That helps.
Looking under the hood, no one skill stands out with d'Arnaud. Instead, he's one of those guys who does a little of everything. Both the eye test and his Statcast profile say d'Arnaud has no glaring deficiency in his game -- no glaring strength either, but no glaring deficiency -- and that he can help his team in a number of ways:
I know that's not the sexiest profile in the world, but gosh, catchers who can contribute on both sides of the ball are hard to find. d'Arnaud turns 31 in February, and while the recent elbow reconstruction will take a bite out of his earning potential, the bet here is a smart team will scoop him up on a lower cost two or even three-year deal this winter. That said, Jason Castro's three-year, $24.5 million deal with the Twins might be a bit too ambitious in this free-agent climate.
This was supposed to be the season the Yankees phased out Brett Gardner, their longest tenured player. They declined his $12.5 million club option last year and instead re-signed him to a one-year, $7.5 million contract. He was expected to be a platoon fourth outfielder behind Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton.
Then Hicks got hurt in spring training, Stanton got hurt in the first series of the season, Judge got hurt in April, and Stanton and Hicks got hurt again at midseason. All that has forced Gardner into the lineup on an everyday basis, often in center field, and he's responded with what might be the best offensive season of his career.
While the juiced ball has definitely helped, Gardner has 17 home runs this season after averaging 15 homers per season from 2014-18, and he's done that because his 44.3 percent pull rate is by far his full season career high. A left-handed hitter pulling the ball in Yankee Stadium will be rewarded. There's also this:
- Swing-and-miss rate: 5.5 percent (7th lowest in MLB)
- Walk rate: 10.3 percent (well above the 8.5 percent league average)
- Sprint speed: 28.9 feet per second (21st highest in MLB)
- Defensive runs saved: 9 (10th most among all outfielders)
The 17 home runs are nice, but power is not really Gardner's game. He's a slash-and-dash speedster who saved runs in the field. And, even without his 36th birthday is less than two weeks ago, Gardner retains his high-end speed and defense, he draws plenty of walks, and he makes as much contact as anyone in the game. Plus he's long been regarded as a great clubhouse leader. The core skills remain intact.
Despite his production, Gardner's age means he is heading for another year contract. And, realistically, it's difficult to see him leaving the Yankees. Even with Hicks and Stanton signed long-term and Judge under team control through 2022 (and the emergence of Mike Tauchman), Gardner could remain with the Yankees as a reserve outfielder next year, especially since MLB is adding the 26th roster spot. Don't rule out another team swooping in and offering more playing time, however.
It will forever be known as the Jake Arrieta trade for obvious reasons, but the Cubs also landed Pedro Strop in that deal with the Orioles at the 2013 trade deadline, and Strop has been a stellar high-leverage reliever for Chicago the last seven seasons. He's given the team 361 innings with a 145 ERA+ and 10.1 K/9. That's a heck of a secondary piece in a trade, eh?
Things have not come quite as easily for Strop this season. He's missed time with hamstring and neck problems, his hit and home run rates are the highest of his Cubs career (his homer rate is more than double his career average), and his fastball velocity is not-so-gradually trending down:
Velocity loss is perfectly normal for a pitcher in his mid-30s (Strop turned 34 in July). It is part of baseball and there are ways to compensate (more breaking balls is popular), but once velocity starts to go, it usually doesn't come back. Strop's age and reduced fastball are going to be used against him in free agency.
Of course, relievers are still getting paid well in free agency, and I don't expect Strop to have much trouble finding work this winter. In fact, he could wind up right back with the Cubs. I just wouldn't expect a big money three-year deal. A one-year contract in the $3 million to $4 million range (Greg Holland money) might be Strop's best bet at this point of his career.
What a rough contract year for Reds southpaw Alex Wood. After coming over from the Dodgers in the Yasiel Puig trade, Wood went down with a back injury in spring training, and he did not return until late last month. Wood has made four starts with Cincinnati, during which he's allowed 12 runs and six homers in 19 1/3 innings. Ouch.
Furthermore, Wood's strikeout (18.1 percent) and ground ball (41.3 percent) rates are by far his lowest in the last four years. A small sample size, to be sure, but the early returns following the injury aren't great. MLB teams are ruthless. They will use any sign of decline against a player in free agency and Wood has plenty of them right now.
It can be easy to forget Wood is still only 28. He turns 29 in January. I'm sure he came into the season with his eyes on a large multi-year contract in free agency. That won't happen. The back injury sabotaged his free-agent stock. A one-year deal prove yourself contract a la Matt Harvey ($11 million) strikes me as the most likely outcome here.
Between his age, his track record with the Dodgers, and the fact his 2019 struggles could be chalked up to the back injury will make Wood an intriguing sleeper in free agency. There's reason to believe he'll be better next year following a normal spring training. That ensures his one-year deal will be for good money, but it'll be a one-year deal nonetheless.
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