12 best under-the-radar MLB free agents

By Matt Johnson
Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Plenty of intriguing options to choose from in free agency.

Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s MLB free agents have fans and general managers across baseball excited. For all of the attention given to the stars of this year’s crop, there are also a series of players flying under the radar who can provide great values for teams.

Teams in need of pitching, whether relievers or starters, will find plenty of intriguing options to choose from in free agency. Of course, many of these bargain pitchers also come with red flags.

The crop of hitters also offers some intriguing value and especially a lot of versatility. From impact hitters to platoon players, general managers can find it all in this year’s class.

Here are 12 of the best under-the-radar free agents in MLB this offseason.

 

Yasmani Grandal, catcher

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While Grandal is ranked as one of the 10 best free agents available this offseason, it still doesn’t properly capture the magnitude of his availability.

MLB is in a time when the collective performances of catchers are down significantly and it is a weak spot for several contenders. Despite Grandal’s ugly showing in October, the 30-year-old is a premium player at a position where few such options exist throughout the league.

Grandal will immediately give the team that signs him a top-five player at his position with plenty of high-end production defensively at the plate for several years to come. Ultimately, he could be one of the biggest difference-makers for a team next season.

 

Garrett Richards, starting pitcher

Courtesy of Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today Sports

Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today Sports

Nathan Eovaldi became a postseason hero for the Red Sox. However, his journey to becoming one of this year’s most coveted free agents started as a bargain free agent recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Richards finds himself in the same situation just months removed from TJS and with a long history of durability issues. When healthy, he is a very capable starter who can pitch near the front of a rotation.

Some team will sign him to a two-year deal loaded with incentives. While he won’t pitch in 2019, signing him now could lead to him being a core part of a team’s rotation in 2020.

 

Jed Lowrie, second base

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Jose Ramirez and Jose Altuve. Over the past two seasons, these are the only two second baseman who have outperformed Lowrie in terms of production.

The 34-year-old has posted a higher fWAR (8.5) than Javier Baez and a higher OPS (.804) than Whit Merrifield over that time as well. A patient hitter at the plate with solid defensive abilities and 37 home runs over his past two seasons, Lowrie is a perfect fit for several teams.

Age and some durability issues will limit him to a two-year deal with a slight chance at a three-year pact. Either way, numerous playoff-caliber teams should be coming after him quite aggressively this offseason.

 

Trevor Cahill, starting pitcher

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When teams evaluate Cahill’s profile this offseason it will be covered with medical red flags ranging from elbow to shoulder to back troubles. All of these offer long-term concerns. However, the potential impact he can have when healthy is seductive.

Cahill recorded a 3.76 ERA and 3.54 FIP across 110 innings in 2018 with an outstanding 8.18 K/9. The 30-year-old also demonstrated he can work in a relief role and cover multiple innings.

Teams in need of pitching will find great value by signing Cahill to a two-year deal. He can work in the back of a rotation and put up strong numbers over 90-plus innings in a season with the upside for more if health is on his side.

 

Josh Harrison, utility player

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When the Pittsburgh Pirates declined their $10.5M option on Harrison, his agent’s phone likely started to buzz continuously for hours with interest from dozens of teams. Coming off a disappointing 2018 season, Harrison now becomes one of this year’s best values.

Before 2018, Harrison was coming off one of his best seasons in the majors with 16 home runs, 12 stolen bases and a 2.6 fWAR in 2017. He is a versatile weapon that can play all over the infield and even the corner outfield, while also providing some speed and pop.

Harrison’s defensive versatility, along with his overall skills at the plate, should make him a very intriguing target for teams looking for a flex weapon to move all around the diamond.

 

Kelvin Herrera, relief pitcher

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One of the more underappreciated relievers in baseball, Herrera’s chance for a bigger contract took a horrible turn when he tore his Lisfranc ligament in his left foot on a routine play.

The 28-year-old should be ready to pitch for much of the 2019 season and he can be a closer or late-inning reliever for a team in need. Herrera recorded a 2.44 ERA in 2018 and posted a 15.2 percent K-BB rate in 44 1/3 innings.

This is the perfect situation for a general manager to give him a one-year deal. Herrera will come into 2019 with a desire to improve his stock to land a multi-year deal next offseason, and the team will have a great reliever in the late innings.

 

Ervin Santana, starting pitcher

Minnesota Twins pitcher Ervin Santana during the 2017 AL Wild Card Game

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A small surgical procedure turned into a disaster this past season for Santana. The veteran underwent surgery on his right middle finger last offseason, a procedure that was expected to keep him out for a few months but instead limited him to five starts across the entire season.

If the issues in his pitching hand are gone, Santana becomes an extremely tempting bargain pitcher on the market. He excelled from 2016-17 with a 3.32 ERA and 316/114 K/BB ratio across 63 starts.

Teams will likely want to see Santana throw to determine if his velocity and command is back. If he shows those qualities are returning, one team will land a strong mid-rotation starter potentially for the price of a fringe back-end pitcher.

 

Denard Span, left fielder

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Span bounced around the majors in 2018 being shipped from San Francisco to Tampa Bay, then finally to the Seattle Mariners. While not much was expected from him with the Mariners, he proved to be quite the productive contributor for the team.

While Span is extremely limited defensively, he continues to provide solid production at the plate and could be an ideal part-time player. He slashed .272/.329/.435 upon his arrival in Seattle.

Span would plug in nicely as a platoon outfielder to start against left-handed pitchers thanks to his .302/.388/.442 slash line. Paired with his experience and veteran presence in a clubhouse, he would be a great addition for several teams.

 

Charlie Morton, starting pitcher

Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton

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Perhaps one of the best pitchers in baseball statistically for a large stretch of the season, Morton managed to stay relatively healthy for a majority of 2018.

Morton posted a 3.13 ERA with a 10.83 K/9 and 28.9 percent strikeout rate across 167 innings this past season. While he wasn’t quite as dominant after the All-Star Break (3.46 ERA) as before it (2.96 ERA), Morton regularly demonstrated the stuff of a No. 2 starter.

Of course, he also missed time with a shoulder injury and his arm has caused him numerous problems in recent years. A number of teams will take a chance on Morton because the upside from the 34-year-old is far too much to pass up on.

 

Marwin Gonzalez, utility player

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Talent is the most essential commodity for teams, but versatility is quickly emerging as a desired trait teams are looking for from players. Look at recent World Series champions and you’ll find a good player whose versatility and overall tools made a profound impact on his team.

Fans have seen Gonzalez do it for the Astros. He played a critical role in Houston’s ALDS sweep and should now turn that into a pretty lucrative contract this offseason. Gonzalez can play all over the diamond and can also add to his versatility as a switch hitter.

While he may not repeat the numbers we saw in 2017 with 23 home runs, 90 RBI and a .907 OPS, it shows he is an accomplished hitter who can contribute in a significant way. This is a player every team should be after this winter, but only one team will be able to walk away with.

 

Anibal Sanchez, starting pitcher

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A pitcher who was forgotten and a career that seemed over with the Detroit Tigers suddenly found the fountain of youth in Atlanta.

Sanchez’s cutter came alive with the new organization, going from a pitch that didn’t even exist in his arsenal to one of the best weapons in his repertoire. The evolution of this pitch led Sanchez to a career resurgence with a sensational 2.83 ERA and 135/42 K/BB ratio across 136 2/3 innings.

Now with health and an upgraded repertoire on his side, Sanchez is pitching like it’s 2013 all over again. This year’s group of free agent pitchers is deep, so Sanchez may have to wait for the market to shake out. When it’s all over, he could become an excellent value for a very lucky team.

 

Zach Britton, closer

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There are few players more coveted than elite closers. A dominant pitcher who can come into any clutch situation and wipe out the opposing team’s hope for a comeback — there is nothing like it.

From 2014-2016, Britton was among the best in the business. In fact, his 2016 season with a 0.54 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 47 saves will go down as one of the best seasons by a reliever in MLB history.

By his own standards, Britton struggled in 2018. Even in his current state, he can be an excellent closer and the talent is still there to be a sensational reliever. The right pitching coach can unlock all of it and make Britton one of the biggest free agent signings this winter.