J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, George Springer and DJ LeMahieu. These are the biggest names on the free agent market this MLB offseason, and they’re understandably receiving the most attention among fanbases hopeful their team will sign one (or multiple) of them. But there’s only so many of those top tier names to go around, and several teams in need of significant upgrades will have to turn to the best of the rest.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at one player at each position who could return good value and be a difference-maker in 2021 despite the low cost likely required to sign them this winter:
Catcher: Mike Zunino
There’s a huge dropoff at the catcher position among free agents after J.T. Realmuto and then James McCann, but among the rest of the options, Zunino has some appeal. His drawbacks are clear: Zunino strikes out a lot and has only once hit above .250 in a season. But Zunino is also one of the top pure power hitters at the position, smacking 45 home runs in 237 games from 2017 to 2018, and is considered a premium defender behind the plate. In a market with few catchers capable of making a significant offensive impact, Zunino’s power and defensive abilities would make him a nice fit for several clubs, and he won’t come at a high price at all.
First baseman: Renato Núñez
In a somewhat surprising move, the Orioles designated for assignment and eventually released their home run leader in each of the last two seasons in late November. Núñez doesn’t walk much and is defensively limited at both first and third base, making him perhaps a better fit as a full-time DH, but he’s hit for a roughly .250 average in each of the last two years and the power is unquestionable. The 26-year-old hit 31 homers and drove in 90 runs in 2019 and was performing even better in the shortened season, swatting 12 longballs in 52 games and posting a career-high .816 OPS. The Orioles’ decision to cut ties with him is in part a reflection of how plentiful power is in today’s game, but there’s no doubt in my mind that a .250-hitting, 30+ homer hitter could play a significant role for a competitive club in 2021.
Second baseman: Jonathan Schoop
The longtime Oriole has quietly been one of the steadiest offensive presences at the keystone over the last few years. From 2016 to 19, Schoop hit .265/.304/.464 while averaging 25 homers and roughly 75 runs and RBI per season. After signing a one-year deal with Detroit last offseason, the 29-year-old raked in 2020, hitting .278/.324/.475 with eight homers in 44 games. He may not be flashy or defensively versatile, but Schoop would be a strong, inexpensive addition for several clubs in need of help at second base, including the Yankees, Indians, Angels and Athletics.
Shortstop: Marcus Semien
Semien is on a much higher level than the other players mentioned thus far, but the reason for his name appearing on this list is the nature of the free agent shortstops this winter. Semien, Didi Gregorius and Andrelton Simmons form a clear top tier, but there really is no middle tier — the next-best available options are utility-types like Freddy Galvis, Ehire Adrianza and Eric Sogard, who don’t figure to be real difference-makers in 2021. So we’ll go with Semien, who broke out with an MVP-caliber season in 2019 but now might end up taking a one-year deal. The 30-year-old hit .285 with 33 homers two seasons ago but struggled at the plate in the shortened 2020 campaign, slashing .223/.305/.374 with seven home runs. Semien, who hit a highly impressive .533 in four postseason games, could take a one-year deal to try and rebuild his value, in which case the club that signs him could be getting a real bargain.
Third baseman: Jake Lamb
Lamb hasn’t been a productive hitter over the course of a full season since 2017, when he smashed 30 homers and drove in 105 runs for the Diamondbacks. Still, there are some reasons for optimism that the 30-year-old can get back to something resembling his previous form. Multiple shoulder injuries limited Lamb to under 80 games in both 2018 and 2019, but he appears to be healthy now, and after being released by Arizona midway through the 2020 campaign, Lamb latched on with the A’s and impressed in a very small sample size down the stretch, hitting posting an .882 OPS in 13 games. Lamb, who’s capable of handling both the infield corners, will come with a cheap price tag this winter and could be a difference-maker in 2021 if he has indeed turned a corner.
Left fielder: Brett Gardner
The lifelong Yankee has continued to be a productive player into his mid-30s and is just one year removed from hitting a career-high 28 homers with an .829 OPS in 2019. The left-handed hitter posted a .223 average in 2020 but improved at the plate as the season went on, hitting .288 in September. A high-OBP hitter with a bit of pop and a great left fielder, Gardner’s best production is likely behind him, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a significant contributor. The Yankees, who declined Gardner’s $10 option for 2021, would like to have him back at a reduced rate, but should he not return to the Bronx, Gardner would be a nice addition for several clubs. His 19.6 bWAR since 2015 ranks 10th among all MLB outfielders.
Center fielder: Kevin Pillar
At 31, Pillar isn’t the stellar defender he once was, but remains a plus-center fielder who’s been more productive offensively than he’s typically given credit for. Pillar hardly walks, but steals double-digit bags and posts a solid batting average year after year and has averaged roughly 20 homers per 162 games since 2017. His bat has also shown no signs of slowing down of late, as Pillar posted a career-high .798 OPS in 2020. He’s far from a star, but teams in need of outfield help, particularly on the defensive side of things, could do much worse than Pillar.
Right fielder: Hunter Renfroe
The Rays designated the 28-year-old for assignment and released him in late November after Renfroe hit just .156/.252/.393 in 2020 as the club’s regular right fielder. While the Rays making moves like this to cut costs is nothing new, it was a bit of a surprise to see the defending AL champs give up on Renfroe after one miserable, shortened season. The former Padre hit 26, 26 and 33 homers the three years prior with strong defense in the corner outfield. While he’s not a high OBP bat, Renfroe could provide a significant boost for a team in need of some cheap power like the Cardinals, Athletics or Rangers.
Designated hitter: Ryan Braun
One of the most productive players in Brewers history, Braun is now a free agent and coming off the worst offensive season of his career. But he was battling a back issue (a common occurrence for him) in 2020 and posted a .958 OPS in September to help Milwaukee reach the playoffs. Braun has also remained a strong offensive player into his mid-30s, averaging roughly 25 homers per season with a solid batting average while consistently suiting up for 100-140 games. For a club in search of a proven middle-of-the-order bat at an inexpensive cost, the 37-year-old could be a good fit should he choose to continue his career.
Starting pitcher: James Paxton
There were a ton of directions I could have gone with this pick, but I’m going with Paxton, whose upside of a strong No. 2 starter is higher than all but the most expensive free agents. The 32-year-old’s final season in the Bronx was derailed by injuries, and his performance when on the mound wasn’t good, but 2020 was really the first season of his major league career where Paxton’s overall numbers weren’t pretty. He’s not a pitcher you can count on for 180+ innings from, but from 2016 to 19, Paxton averaged roughly 150 frames per season, with a 44-24 record, 3.60 ERA, 3.16 FIP and nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings. If he’s back to full health, Paxton could be a bargain for some club on a one-year bounceback type of contract. It’s also possible he’s able to secure a high-dollar, multi-year deal, which could still work out favorably.
Relief pitcher: Mark Melancon
Like with starting pitching, there were countless directions I could have gone with this pick, but I’m going with Melancon, who’s quietly been one of the better relievers in baseball for the better part of the last decade. The 35-year-old, who notched 11 saves in 13 chances for the Braves in 2020, isn’t the typical overpowering closer, instead relying on ground balls and weak contact. Melancon has posted a 3.35 ERA and 3.17 FIP since the start of the 2018 season and could serve as a significant part of a club’s late-inning plans in 2021, even if he doesn’t end up working the ninth inning. He’s not a star like Liam Hendriks or other top-tier free agent options, but Melancon will come at a much cheaper cost and comes with an indisputably strong track record.
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