Here we are, last week of January, and the most unusual free agent season meanders on. This was a rich and deep group, and when David Price and Zack Greinke went early, it wouldn’t have been crazy to think the market would run dry by the new year.
But the position players went off more slowly, and only on Friday night — when outfielder Yoenis Cespedes signed with the New York Mets – did the last of the truly elite players come off the board.
Yet what we have left, with February here in a week and spring training two-and-a-half weeks beyond that, is a decent group of major leaguers still available to the highest bidder. A look at 10, from 10th to first.
10. Justin Morneau, first baseman: Remember when this guy was an MVP? Really. In 2006 with the Twins. That year, he hit .321 with a .934 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, launching 34 homers and driving in 130 runs. He has never matched any of those numbers in a year in which he has played more than half the season. He turns 35 in May, and how do you evaluate him? He won a batting title (by hitting .319) in Colorado in 2014, but managed just 49 games with the Rockies last summer.
9. Mat Latos, starting pitcher: This is under the radar, but whose stock has fallen further than Latos’s over the past year? From 2010 to 2014, he averaged 180 innings with a 3.27 ERA for the Reds, throwing in a park unfriendly to pitchers. Since then? He was traded to Miami, where he flopped, then was part of a convoluted three-team deal that sent him to the Dodgers at the trade deadline. He was cut by Los Angeles in September, and the Angels picked him up. He pitched just 3-2/3 innings for them, and now seems more like a journeyman than an established starter. The market is treating him as such.
8. Austin Jackson, center fielder: There was a time not too long ago (2012) when this guy hit .300 for a division winner. It seems, now, distant, even though he turns just 29 next week. Jackson was dealt by the Tigers to Seattle in the middle of 2014, then by the Mariners to the Cubs in 2015. No one seems to want him back. His strikeout rate – 23.9 percent, with just nine homers in 527 plate appearances – can’t help. But he plays major league defense, and the best version of him is a good player. No takers?
7. David Freese, third baseman: Granted, we’re a long way from the time when this former Cardinal was a World Series hero, back in 2011. But he’s not a throwaway, either. Freese played 255 games for the Angels the past two years. His numbers were down from those he posted in St. Louis (.783 OPS with the Cardinals, .723 with the Angels). But this is a major league third baseman who doesn’t turn 33 until April – and he’s unemployed.
6. Doug Fister, pitcher: Not sure who he’ll end up with, but whoever it is, mark him down as a candidate for comeback player of the year. Keep in mind that – before a series of odd circumstances ended up with him in Washington’s bullpen last summer – Fister not only posted a 2.41 ERA in 25 starts for the Nationals in 2014, but he went 51-38 with a 3.11 ERA and a 1.163 WHIP from 2011 to 2014 with the Mariners, Tigers and Nats. His walk year with Washington was shaky. But doesn’t that make him a bargain now?
5. Tyler Clippard, reliever: Nationals fans, for sure, are clamoring, “Sign him! Sign him!” And there’s good reason why. From 2010 to 2015, no pitcher appeared in more games than Clippard (440), and no reliever threw more innings (464-1/3). And he has the numbers to warrant how much he has worked: a 2.67 ERA and 1.032 WHIP over that period (largely with the Nats, but with the Athletics and Mets worked in). Yet given it’s the last week of January, is it fair to say the market is wondering whether all that workload for Clippard represents more fatigue than reliability?
4. Howie Kendrick, second baseman: He’s not a star. But what has he done to deserve a place in the unemployment line at the moment? Kendrick’s OPSs since 2011, when he was still with the Angels: .802, .725, .775, .744, .746. Fairly consistent, particularly for a middle infielder. He turns 33 in July and was injured some of last year, limiting him to 117 games with the Dodgers. But unlike last offseason, when the Dodgers traded for him, no contender has jumped on his services.
3. Yovani Gallardo, starting pitcher: If you want a not-terrible starting pitcher, this is probably the best of the lot. But there are warning signs. Though Gallardo posted a 3.42 ERA with Texas in 2015, he doesn’t pitch deep into games. In 15 of his final 17 starts of 2015, he failed to complete even six innings. Plus, his WHIP of 1.416 was seventh-highest in all of baseball. Yes, he’s high on this list. But there also may be a reason why he’s not signed yet.
2. Dexter Fowler, center fielder: The easy solution for the Chicago Cubs would have been to simply re-sign one of their own, the guy who led off for them much of the magical 2015 season. But Jason Heyward trumps Fowler, and so Fowler remains without a job. He scored 102 runs for the Cubs last year, which is attractive, and stole 20 bases, which is also glamorous. But as he turns 30 in March, are teams worried that his on-base percentage has dropped from .389 in 2012 to a career-low .346 last year?
1. Ian Desmond, shortstop: One of the offseason’s great mysteries. Nationals fans will say, given the current state of affairs, that the club should have eschewed the deal with Daniel Murphy, re-signed Desmond to a reasonable three- or four-year contract, and kept Danny Espinosa at second. But that ship has sailed, and there’s reason to wonder whether the rest of baseball values Desmond as much as folks in Washington did. He’s coming off his worst offensive year (.233/.290/.384), but he still hit 19 homers. Only the White Sox seem to truly need a shortstop, so Desmond may be offering his services at other positions. What’s beyond speculation: This is an accomplished major league baseball player. It’s the last week of January. And no one has signed him.