Six underrated MLB free agents who just missed out on our Top 40 Big Board
Earlier this week, a group of us at The Athletic MLB ranked our top 40 free agents, including predictions, fits and contract projections, so the best available options have received our full attention. There aren’t a lot more than 40 great players available on the market, but there are some. And they deserve some love because every great team has had that overachieving veteran piece somewhere on the roster — Andrew Heaney and Evan Longoria might be good examples from this year’s World Series — and so every team with space on its roster wants to add an underrated free agent.
The players on this list have some flaws. Maybe they’ve been injured, or their defense has fallen behind, or they just recently had a bad season with the bat — or maybe all three of those things are true. One thing that happens with players like these, though, is that teams and fans focus on those weaknesses and not on their potential strengths.
So let’s highlight some upside on smaller-name options that might still move the needle for a team next season.
Amed Rosario, Infielder
As a hitter, there probably isn’t too much mystery around Rosario. He’s fluctuated between being slightly above average and slightly below average from year to year, and has ended up five percent worse than league average over his career — and is basically projected to continue that. But he has some things going for him. He mostly makes more contact than average, he’s been one of the five fastest players at his age in every year but one, and he has non-zero power. He also has some obvious flaws. Rosario doesn’t walk, so his on-base ability is dependent on his batted-ball luck and he’s never been an above-average hitter against righties.
But the big question is how good he can be defensively. The only consensus among the different defensive metrics is that Rosario was not at his best with the glove in 2023, but it’s still worth looking back a few years using Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Info Solutions, Outs Above Average from Baseball Savant, and Deserved Runs Above Average from Baseball Prospectus.
Overall, this tells the story of a player who should probably stop playing shortstop at the very least. That’s fine, that’s how careers have progressed for most aging shortstops at some point. But if he can be a scratch second baseman or maybe a Manny Margot-type outfielder, then he’ll likely make good on the above-average projection he’s showing from Steamer projections at FanGraphs. In fact, Rosario has the best projection from any free agent not in our top 40.
Option for: Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Washington Nationals
Gary Sánchez, Catcher
Maybe it’s because the batting average is bad, but it might surprise many fans to find out that Sánchez has been a really good catcher since he first got a regular gig in 2016. He’s been the fifth-best qualified catcher by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement and only Salvador Perez has hit more homers than the former Yankee. An above-average walk rate and 173 career homers make him a decent offensive threat, and even in his bad years, the pop is enough to make him passable at the position.
Sánchez most likely got a reputation as a bad defender due to something very memorable: he’s not great at blocking balls. He’s been the worst catcher in baseball at blocking balls in the dirt in at least one season of his career, and those events, especially if they happen at a crucial moment, seem like a big deal.
But those moments are relatively rare. Sánchez had five passed balls last season and had the opportunity to frame 4,890 pitches. More important for a catcher’s overall impact defensively is their ability to steal strikes through framing (where he’s been OK), and in today’s game, maybe even their ability to throw out runners. (Last year, he had a top-10 pop time and arm strength and was above average overall.)
In the end, he’s a fit for a team that just needs a little more power from the position. Last year, only 10 catchers hit more than 19 homers, and that’s well within the capabilities of Sánchez, who also projects as slightly above average by Steamer.
Option for: White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Tampa Bay Rays
Harrison Bader, Center fielder
If you think that the three position players on this list were selected because they were the only ones projected to be average who weren’t in the top 40, you wouldn’t be completely wrong. Getting a league-average player on the cheap is worth highlighting, especially when there’s evidence that there’s a dividing line there: teams seem more willing to pay higher salaries for above-average players even once you adjust for quality. In other words, a team will spend more per win for an above-average player than they will for more of a part-time guy.
Is Bader a full-time guy or a part-time guy? What separates Bader from the other two hitters on this list is that he’s got more of a defense-first package to offer his next team. He was either a top-10 defensive center fielder or maybe even better than that depending on the metric last year. Can the 29-year-old be a little more like the above-average bat he was earlier in his career and a little less like he’s been over the past two seasons? In the first four seasons of his career, Bader struck out more, walked more, and hit the ball harder. He could still have that in him.
So why wouldn’t a top defensive center fielder be included in the top 40 free agents? Probably because the market values offense a little more, or at least wants the player to start with above-average offense. Kevin Kiermaier was a similar free agent last year and got a one-year, $9 million deal, so he wasn’t at the top of the class. Then again, Kiermaier also was an above-average player in about two-thirds of the playing time in 2023. That’s what Bader’s signing team will be looking for, and maybe for even cheaper since Kiermaier himself is out there once again.
Option for: San Francisco Giants, Miami Marlins, Boston Red Sox
Luis Severino, Starting pitcher
Velocity, shape, spin — these things aren’t everything, and obviously, results matter. Severino suffered through an awful season that will probably end up bookending his time with the Yankees similar to how he came in. In 2016, he had an ERA near six in 71 innings full of injuries. From 2017 to 2022, he threw over 500 innings with a 3.10 ERA which was supported by his peripherals (he was also hurt for most of 2019 to 2021). In 2023, he had an ERA over six in 89 innings full of injuries.
But we also shouldn’t forget those five hundred innings in between, and we shouldn’t ignore that the velocity, shape, and spin on his pitches in 2023 were not all that bad compared to what he showed during those great five hundred innings.
Comparing just 2023 to 2022, Severino:
- Had basically the same fastball and slider and cutter velocities
- Lost only about a half inch of vertical movement on the fastball and slider
- Had the same horizontal movement on all his pitches save his cutter
- Once again showed above-average Stuff+ on three pitches
He didn’t command his pitches all that badly, either, which is obvious from the fact that he kept up his traditional better-than-average walk rate. There’s no way to look at his results and say he’s what he once was, but there’s also enough under the hood to think he could possibly be a pretty good pitcher if given another chance. There are three free-agent starting pitchers who threw 50-plus innings and showed above-average Stuff+ and below-average ERA in 2023: Aaron Nola, Kenta Maeda and Severino. Someone will give the former Yankee a short-term deal and benefit.
Option for: Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, Baltimore Orioles … anyone?
Reynaldo López, Relief pitcher
Say what you will about Stuff+ for starters, but that stat is remarkably predictive for relievers, and it makes sense. A reliever usually has two pitches and we’ve seen that they are more closely tied to their fastball velocity than starters, who have more pitches, better command, and generally more ways to get a batter out. So when you look at qualified relievers last year by that statistic, and see that the only free agents in the top 20 are Jake Diekman, Aroldis Chapman, Jordan Hicks and López, that stands out a little. The first two have command issues, the third will be relatively expensive, and hey, who’s that with a three-pitch mix of standout pitches by shape and velocity?
Anyone who followed the righty through his travails in Chicago may not remember him fondly because of the ups and downs, and he did put up a league-average ERA in 43 games for the White Sox this past season. But, for the full year, López had a 3.27 ERA with the strikeouts and fastball velocity to support it. After claiming him from the Angels in August, the Guardians had López feature his change more than his two previous teams did, and he gave them 11 scoreless innings as a result. There’s probably some noise making him seem worse than he is — consider that his slider allowed a .390 slugging but looked like this:
That velo with that movement should be a really good pitch. Who knows what his actual deal will look like — he could easily slide into the top 40 deals once all is said and done — but this is one of the best four or five relievers available on the market.
Option for: All teams.
Frankie Montas, Pitcher
In 2021 and 2022 combined, Montas had a 3.67 ERA over 331 1/3 innings and had a top-20 strikeout minus walk rate. It came on the back of two very different 96 mph fastballs with an 89 mph slider and a really good splitter, but you’d be forgiven if you’d forgotten because he underwent shoulder surgery in February and missed all but four outs of the 2023 season. Shoulder surgery is worrisome — and so is the fact that it took so long to come back — but at least, according to his manager, his rotator cuff was left alone.
It’s also a good sign that he came back and threw the dang ball hard. At 95.6 mph, he was down about a half tick, and that’s in short stints as a reliever, too, but his sinker had better shape, and his slider speed was present. The injury risk is still there, for sure. The reason he is still interesting despite those questions is that teams seem to be thinking differently about the fifth spot in their rotation and the middle part of their bullpen these days. Could someone sign him and get only 75 innings next season? Sure, but that’s the kind of arm that can be the glue for a full staff if those innings come at the right time and in the right place. Plus the injury concerns mean the deal probably won’t be a long one.
Option for: Padres, White Sox, Nationals, Pirates, maybe any team with a 40-man spot.
(Photo of Luis Severino in August 2023: Melissa Tamez / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)