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Interesting non-tendered players who entered MLB’s free agent market


Every winter, MLB’s free agent market receives a late wave of talent as clubs pare down their 40-man rosters by non-tendering arbitration eligible players. And every season following, a few of those non-tendered players go on to have strong, productive campaigns. Just look at some of the players who became free agents after being non-tendered in recent seasons:

Non-tendered in 2019 (fWAR since in brackets): Kevin Gausman (12.1), Taijuan Walker (4.5), Cesar Hernandez (4.2), C.J. Cron (3.9), Blake Treinen (2.3), Yimi Garcia (1.9)

Non-tendered in 2020: Carlos Rodon (11.1), Tyler Anderson (6.1), Kyle Schwarber (5.4), Adam Duvall (3.6), Clay Holmes (2.2), Paul Sewald (1.9), Tyler Naquin (1.4)

Non-tendered in 2021: Daniel Vogelbach (1.5), Jason Adam (1.3), Taylor Clarke (0.7)

Of course, players are non-tendered for a reason. They’re often coming off seasons marred by unproductivity, injury or both. They typically don’t project to produce enough value in the upcoming season to justify the salary they’d command through arbitration. If everything was going great, they wouldn’t have been non-tendered.

But that in turn creates value opportunities for the clubs that can identify players coming off down years that could turn things around. The San Francisco Giants signed Gausman to a one-year, $9-million deal after he was non-tendered in 2019 and got in on the ground floor of his late-career breakout. The Chicago White Sox non-tendered Rodon in 2020, brought him back on a one-year, $3-million contract, and watched him pitch a five-win season.

That same winter, the Washington Nationals inked a non-tendered Schwarber to a one-year, $10-million pact and enjoyed part of his 145-wRC+ campaign before trading him at the deadline. Last off-season, the Tampa Bay Rays guaranteed Adam only $900,000 and came away with a high-leverage arm who worked to a 1.56 ERA over 67 appearances.

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So, come this time next year, who will we be looking back on as the most cunning pick-ups from the non-tender market? Impossible to say. But it could be one of these names.

Cody Bellinger

It would’ve been shocking, on the heels of his .305/.406/.629, 161-wRC+, MVP-winning 2019, to suggest Bellinger would be non-tendered in 2022 before his final season of arbitration eligibility. If anything, he was an extension candidate. But after watching the outfielder hit .203/.272/.376 with a 78 wRC+ over the three next seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers have decided they’ve seen enough.

Your guess as to why Bellinger’s production dropped off that cliff is as good as anyone’s. You can write off the 60-game 2020 season – when Bellinger was still an above-average player with a 112 wRC+ – as a strange year for us all and one in which his results were sabotaged by a suspiciously low .245 BABIP. And you can cut him some slack for his 2021, which was plagued by shoulder, calf, hamstring and rib injuries.

But Bellinger’s 2022, which saw him bat .210/.265/.389 with an 83 wRC+ over a full season, isn’t so easily explained away. He set career highs in strikeout and chase rate and career lows in walk, barrel and hard-hit rate. He finished second-last among MLB’s 130 qualified hitters in on-base percentage. His maximum exit velocity continued a four-year decline to its lowest of his career. He began the season hitting seventh and playing every day for the Dodgers but was out of the lineup regularly by August, typically batting ninth when he did play.

Perhaps the only positives to cite from Bellinger’s 2022 are his plus speed and 92nd percentile outs above average in centre field. In fact, Bellinger ranks within the top-15 of all MLB outfielders in outs above average over the last three seasons, rubbing shoulders with Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Kiermaier. That defensive value is the only thing keeping Bellinger’s fWAR since 2020 — 2.1 over 295 games — above water.

So, is this what Bellinger will be now? A glove-first, No. 9 hitter at best; a fourth outfielder at worst? Or, still only 27, is it possible he can tap back into some of the immense upside he demonstrated earlier in his career? Those are the difficult questions outfielder-needy clubs will ask themselves as they consider not only how to value Bellinger but how he best fits on a roster.

Bellinger has fascinating questions to answer himself as he seeks the ideal contract and environment to help him get his career back on track and maximize future earnings. Does he take guaranteed term if it’s out there for him? Does he gamble on a one-year deal to try to resuscitate his value before re-entering the market next winter? Is he willing to sign with a non-contender, which would not only offer him a clearer path to regular playing time, but increase the possibility of a deadline trade that would leave Bellinger ineligible to receive a qualifying offer if he does rediscover his form?

For a player whose career has featured more questions than answers over the last three years, his current circumstances are fitting.

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Alex Reyes

You want stuff? Alex Reyes has stuff. An upper-90s fastball with above-average movement. An unbelievable slider that produced a .089 batting average against and 56 per cent whiff rate in 2021. Not to mention a 90-mph changeup for lefties and a curveball with 10 more inches of drop than the league average hook.

You want results? Reyes has results. He dominated lineups as a starter throughout his minor-league climb, striking out 32.3 per cent of hitters along the way, before settling into a high-leverage relief role as a big-leaguer. Reyes ran a 30 per cent strikeout rate in 2021, pitching to a 3.24 ERA, earning 29 saves, and going to the All-Star Game.

You want health and availability? Well, he hasn’t had that. Reyes’ tantalizing 2021 is the lone full-season sample on his CV since he reached the majors in 2016. He lost his 2017 to Tommy John surgery; almost all of his 2018 to a lat issue; much of his 2019 to inconsistency and a pec problem; and all of his 2022 to shoulder surgery.

That’s why Reyes is available now to any team that wants him after the St Louis Cardinals ran out of patience. Whether he’s healthy, or ever will be healthy again, is certainly in question. And even if he does make it back to a big-league mound in 2023, there’s reason for concern in his 2021 numbers – most notably a 16.4 per cent walk rate, 1.12 HR/9, and 5.52 second-half ERA.

But Reyes is still only 28 and you don’t often come across stuff as electric as his, which is why he’ll get an opportunity somewhere – provided he can pass a physical.

Brian Anderson

Back, shoulder and oblique injuries have sabotaged Anderson’s once-promising career, limiting him to only 165 games over the last two seasons, a span in which he’s hit .233/.322/.359 with a 93 wRC+. But teams need only look at the results from his 2017 debut through 2020 – a span that saw Anderson bat .266/.349/.431 with a 113 wRC+ – for evidence of the productivity he can provide when healthy.

With that proof of concept, capable defence at both third base and right field, and the 81st percentile maximum exit velocity he displayed in 2022, Anderson ought to find plenty of opportunities on the open market. Whether that’s to be a bench piece for a win-now club or an everyday player for a non-contender might be up to him.

Dominic Smith

There are few better examples of the caution required when citing numbers from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season than Smith, who hit .316/.377/.616 with a 166 wRC+ over a 50-game sample that year. It wasn’t entirely out of line with the .282/.355/.525 line and 134 wRC+ he posted over 82 games in 2019. But it looks now to have absolutely been the high-water mark of his career, as Smith has hit .233/.298/.435 with an 82 wRC+ over 194 games since.

Still, shoulder issues and the New York Mets’ crowded outfield / first base mix didn’t do Smith any favours, as he spent much of the last two seasons either injured, filling a part-time role or stuck at triple-A. That’s the needs-a-change-of-scenery trifecta. And at only 27, Smith has plenty of physical prime remaining to recapture the pedigree that made him a top-100 prospect before his 2017 debut.

Luke Voit

In MLB, if you aren’t going to have a position, you better have power. And that’s Voit – a hulking first baseman / designated hitter who’s been running 86th percentile or higher barrel rates since 2019.

Clubs would no doubt prefer if Voit hit left-handed or provided any defensive value at all, but they aren’t going to ignore his gaudy exit velocities and a 123 wRC+ since his 2017 MLB debut. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Voit follow the Vogelbach path in 2023 – signing a short-term deal with a non-contender, mashing for half a season, and getting shipped to club in the playoff hunt at the trade deadline.

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Jeimer Candelario

Much like his 2022 Detroit Tigers, a team that went from popular preseason sleeper pick to cellar-dweller with a quickness, Candelario’s fall from grace has been sudden. He’s only a season removed from a solid 2021 in which he hit .271/.351/.443 with a 120 wRC+. And only two past an even-better 2020, which saw him bat .297/.369/.503 with a 140 wRC+ in a 52-game sample.

But 2022 was a rough go for the third baseman, as his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate tanked, which led to much-poorer .217/.272/.361, 80-wRC+ results. The Tigers are evidently ready to move on, but another club needing help on the infield corners is likely to see a decent bounce-back bet – Candelario’s .257 BABIP last season stands in stark contrast to his .298 career mark – if it believes it can help him make swing adjustments to tap back into his power.

Rafael Ortega

Ortega’s a turnkey fourth outfielder for any club looking to build out bench depth this off-season. The 31-year-old left-handed hitter boasts a .265/.344/.408 line with a 108 wRC+ since the beginning of 2021 and is unspectacular-yet-playable at all three outfield positions.

He won’t hit for much power but Ortega works a strong plate appearance, evidenced by his solid strikeout (19.9 per cent), walk (11.9), chase (25.8) and contact (81.6) rates in 2022. He’ll even steal you a base every now and then (Ortega’s swiped a dozen bags each of the last two seasons). It isn’t a sexy profile. But it’s a useful one for the bench of any good team.

Franchy Cordero

It doesn’t take a deep analytics department to see the potential in Cordero’s measurables. He hits the ball as hard as anyone in the game, posting 99th percentile maximum exit velocities each of the last two years. He’s fast, averaging a 28.6 feet per second sprint speed that ranked among the top-100 MLBers in 2022. And he can draw a walk, as he did in over 10 per cent of his plate appearances for the Boston Red Sox last season.

It’s the rest of it that’s been an issue. Cordero’s never found a way to leverage his absurd tools into consistent productivity, batting .221/.290/.386 with an 83 wRC+ since his MLB debut. He’s struck out in an eye-popping 35 per cent of his career plate appearances and underwhelmed at multiple defensive positions. At 28, it’s not out of the question that Cordero could make some adjustments and finally put it all together. But it’ll likely take a non-contending club to give him the runway to do so.

Edwin Rios

Rios has flashed a ton of offensive potential in short bursts, posting a 160 wRC+ over a 28-game MLB debut in 2019, a 143 mark over 32 contests in pandemic-shortened 2020, and a 120 across 27 games last season. But there’s also a putrid 2021 on his resume, in which he struggled to an 11 wRC+ over 25 games. Put it all together and Rios has a .219/.299/.492 line with a 112 wRC+ in 112 games spread across four seasons.

But despite his extreme ups and downs, his many stops and starts, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something here. When healthy, Rios has sprayed the ball to all fields and demonstrated a maximum exit velocity in excess of 113-mph. He’s hit 104 homers in 498 career minor-league games – or nearly 34 per 162. He’s already hit 20 in the majors despite making only 291 plate appearances. That’s legitimate power.

Shoulder and hamstring injuries have hampered Rios significantly over the last two seasons. And he’s struggled to earn playing time in a deep Los Angeles Dodgers lineup. But if a team can keep the corner infielder healthy and give him some runway, it might just get a massive home run total in return. And we might get to finally learn what Rios could be.

Touki Toussaint

Toussaint was the No. 16 overall pick in the 2014 draft and entered 2019 as a consensus top-100 prospect but has spent most of his five big-league seasons searching for a way to unlock his potential. He’s traded his four-seamer for a two-seamer, he’s tweaked grips, he’s toyed with his pitch mix – none of it has worked. And now he’s a free agent after posting a 5.34 ERA over his first 170.1 big-league innings split between the rotation and bullpen.

But there’s still plenty to work with here – including a big curveball, a promising splitter, and a long delivery that gives Toussaint among the best extension in the game and helps his fastball play up – for a developmentally minded organization. If the Dodgers or Giants sign him this winter, look out.

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Brailyn Marquez

Marquez has pitched only two-thirds of an inning in affiliated ball since 2019 thanks to persistent shoulder injuries and repeated bouts with COVID-19 that led to him developing myocarditis. But before his many health setbacks, the big left-hander was a Chicago Cubs developmental darling, showing a triple-digit fastball with wicked secondaries that earned him placement on top-100 prospect lists industry-wide entering 2020 and ’21.

Is Marquez healthy? Is his shoulder strong enough to generate the huge velocity he did years ago? That’s anyone’s guess. But Marquez isn’t yet 24, and if there’s even a glimmer remaining of the overpowering stuff that made him a top prospect years ago, some team will give him the opportunity to try to get his career back on the rails.

Jake Brentz

With a 97-mph fastball, bat-missing slider and sneakily effective changeup for righties, Brentz pitched to a solid 3.66 ERA over 72 relief appearances in his 2021 rookie season, striking out 27.3 per cent of the batters he faced. But he struggled out of the gate in 2022, hit the IL with a flexor strain in late April, and ultimately underwent UCL reconstruction in June.

The rehab from that procedure will extend well into the 2023 season. But left-handed relievers with big velocity and multiple swing-and-miss secondaries don’t grow on trees. So, there ought to be a club willing to sign him to a minor-league deal this winter to oversee his recovery and potentially gain a bullpen weapon for the stretch run.

Josh James

Yet another mid-2010s success story from the Houston Astros player development factory, James went from a soft-tossing, Division II college starter to an overpowering, back-end reliever within the span of five years after the club plucked him from obscurity in the 34th round of 2014’s draft. Armed with an upper-90s fastball, frisbee slider and disappearing changeup, James struck out 37.6 per cent of the batters he faced in a breakout 2019 that culminated with him facing leverage in the World Series.

But injuries have taken a heavy toll since, as James had hip surgery in 2020, struggled with a hamstring issue in 2021 and underwent flexor tendon surgery at the end of a 2022 season spent battling back and lat problems. That’s limited him to only 18 big-league appearances over the last three seasons.

Helping James regain health and form would be a long, involved process with no guarantee of success for any team that brings him in on a minor-league deal. But there’s little risk in taking that chance and the potential reward at the end of that tunnel could be immense if he beats the odds. There aren’t a lot of minor-league free agents kicking around who’ve spent a full season in the majors touching triple-digits and throwing two secondaries with whiff rates over 50 per cent.

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