MLB Black Friday Deals: Scouts and execs weigh in on 9 best free agent bargains available on the market

John Harper
·7 min read
Kirby Yates, Andrelton Simmons and James Paxton
Kirby Yates, Andrelton Simmons and James Paxton

Everybody loves Black Friday. Or at least the concept of it, if not the actual mad dash to the malls (in non-Covid years, anyway).

In that spirit, I offer a list of the best potential free-agent bargains in the marketplace, which is to say far from the big-ticket aisle where teams will be shopping for Trevor Bauer, George Springer, J.T. Realmuto, D.J. LeMahieu, etc.

The good news for Mets’ fans is that their team is not limited to the discount rack with Steve Cohen writing the checks. However, considering that Sandy Alderson wants to add much-needed depth as well as star power, they’ll be looking for bargains as well.

Same for the Yankees, who are expected to be frugal, other than trying to re-sign LeMahieu.

Often that means gambling on bounce-back seasons for players returning from injuries or an off-year. Or it can mean betting that a fading star can return to form in a new environment, holding off old age a little longer.

So, with insight from scouts and executives, here are nine potential value signings, with a guess as to where each will land.

1) Kirby Yates

Perhaps the most intriguing buy-low candidate on the market, Yates will be coming back from surgery in August that removed bone chips in his pitching elbow, an injury that ended his 2020 season with the Padres after only 4 1/3 innings in 2020.

However, there should be plenty of interest in him, thanks to brilliant seasons in 2018 and ’19, when he developed a split-finger pitch that made one of the top relievers in the majors.

Yates turns 34 in March, but the bone-chip surgery is considered relatively minor, so if he still has that devastating splitter, which was largely responsible for his 101 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings in 2019, multiple teams should be bidding on him.

Who Signs Him? Mets. Steve Cohen’s money should be an advantage on more than the high-priced free agents. A few extra million on a two-year deal to get Yates could pay off in a big way.

2) Trevor Rosenthal

He seemed headed for the scrap heap a year ago after an ugly 2019 season, and had to settle for a minor league deal with the Royals. But Rosenthal re-discovered his lost command and still had the 98 mph fastball that made him a sensation as a young closer for the Cardinals several years earlier.

The right-hander pitched well enough for the Royals to warrant a trade to a contender, and then dominated down the stretch for the Padres, allowing no earned runs in nine appearances spanning 10 innings. The Dodgers roughed him up in his one NLDS appearance, but at age 30, Rosenthal is going to attract considerable attention.

Who Signs Him? Yankees. Their bullpen wasn’t as dominant as expected, so look for Brian Cashman to add a low-cost reliever or two this winter.

3) Andrelton Simmons

Once considered the hands-down best defensive shortstop in baseball, Simmons seemingly has slipped with the glove the last couple of seasons. However, scouts believe a severe ankle injury in 2019 continued to linger in 2020, limiting him to 30 games with the Angels, as he posted a negative DRS (defensive runs saved) number for the first time in his career.

He’s only 31, so if the ankle doesn’t limit him, Simmons could return to the form that earned him four Gold Gloves. He’s not an impact hitter but does enough with the bat to have considerable value if he’s shining defensively again.

Who Signs Him? Indians. They’ll need a shortstop when they trade Francisco Lindor (unless it’s to the Mets for Amed Rosario or Andres Gimenez) and with most teams well-stocked at the position, Simmons can be had on a short-term deal.

4) Corey Kluber

Does Kluber, at age 35, have anything resembling his two-time Cy Young winning form left? The gamble is that injuries have pretty much wiped out his last two seasons -- he took a line drive off his pitching forearm in 2019, his last season with the Indians, and then went down with a shoulder injury in 2020 after pitching only an inning for the Rangers.

The tantalizing part? In his most recent healthy season, 2018, Kluber went 20-7 with a 2.89 ERA, pitching 215 innings.

Who Signs Him? Angels. They need to take chances like this on starting pitching and hope they get lucky.

5) Marcus Semien

Was his spectacular 2019 season that earned him a third-place finish in the AL MVP voting a fluke? That’s what any team considering signing him will be trying to come to grips with after the A’s shortstop slipped badly, posting a .679 OPS over 53 games in 2020, compared to .892 in 2019.

Problem is he’s been closer to the 2020 Semien than the 2019 version for most of his career, but at age 30, he could have a big bounce-back season ahead and could be amenable to a one-year deal in the hope of rebuilding his value.

Who Signs Him? Angels. They might be willing to gamble on the higher offensive ceiling Semien offers rather than re-signing Simmons.

6) James Paxton

Perhaps destined to be an eternal tease at this point, after still more injuries wrecked his 2020 season with the Yankees. Paxton was dominant in 2019 at times, including the postseason, but when he did pitch in 2020, his velocity was down significantly before being sidelined by a left forearm flexor strain.

His agent, Scott Boras, has said Paxton’s velocity was down because he returned too soon last season from offseason back surgery. At age 32, he’s worth a one-year gamble.

Who Signs Him? Phillies. They need starting pitching behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, and will likely gamble on someone with high-ceiling talent.

7) Garrett Richards

Somewhat like Paxton, Richards always had high-end stuff that wowed scouts but has repeatedly been derailed by injuries. The right-hander made only 31 starts over four seasons from 2016-’19 but managed to stay healthy for the Padres through the abbreviated 2020 season, pitching to a 4.03 ERA over 51 1/3 innings.

Scouts say Richards, who turns 33 in May, is still a tempting option, in part because of high spin rates on both his fastball and curveball that teams value more than ever these days.

Who Signs Him? Yankees. They love their analytics, so perhaps they’ll buy in on those spin rates and take a shot that Richards can stay healthy.

8) Joc Pederson

He’s coming off a down season in which he hit only .190 in 43 games for the Dodgers, but in 2019 Pederson hit 36 home runs for the Dodgers. His left-handed power makes him worth a gamble, especially for a team that can afford to mostly platoon him as a corner outfielder.

Pederson doesn’t hit lefties but he’s got a career. 571 slugging percentage vs. right-handed pitching, with a .920 OPS.

Who Signs Him? Nationals. Their lineup could use some more pop, and they’ve got room in the outfield if Adam Eaton leaves via free agency.

9) Kolten Wong

An excellent second baseman who won the Gold Glove for a second straight season, Wong didn’t hit much in 2020, putting up a .675 OPS, and so the Cardinals decided not to pick up a $12 million option on next season.

He’s hit enough, albeit without power, to expect something of a bounce-back with the bat, and his defense is a difference-maker.

Who Signs Him? Mariners. They could pair him with shortstop J.P. Crawford and have outstanding defense up the middle as they try to build a contender.