10 Degrees: Meet the worst baseball free agent class in decades

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist

Late last week, in the midst of one of his unconscious jags, Yoenis Cespedes did something that sounded impossible: walk in five consecutive games. Cespedes is professionally impatient, addicted to swinging. Only once before had he gone at least five straight games drawing a walk. That was in September of his rookie season after an 18-game stretch he went without a single base on balls.

Yoenis Cespedes (Getty Images)
Yoenis Cespedes (Getty Images)

All of which is to say: If this is more than a small sample and Cespedes actually has evolved in his approach at the plate, it only strengthens his case as the No. 1 free agent in the class of 2016-17 following the Washington Nationals spending $175 million to remove the incumbent, Stephen Strasburg. Cespedes’ case is strong: He is among the best hitters in the class, at 30 years old he’s a few years younger than the better bats, he has acquitted himself well enough in center field and this is the worst free agent pitching class since perhaps 2007, when Carlos Silva received the only multiyear deal among starters.

If last year’s $2.5 billion offseason showcased MLB’s largesse, this class offers teams an ability to show some discipline. Because it’s not that …

1. Yoenis Cespedes is unworthy of sitting atop a free agent list. It’s just, well, here are the best players from the last five Ultimate Free Agent Trackers:

2015: David Price

2014: Max Scherzer

2013: Robinson Cano

2012: Zack Greinke

2011: Albert Pujols

So, that’s a Cy Young winner, a Cy Young winner, a five-time All-Star, a Cy Young winner and a three-time MVP. Or, after their free agencies, men worth, respectively $217 million, $210 million, $240 million, $147 million and $240 million.

Cespedes’ pedigree does not match the previous five. It’s more along the lines of Matt Holliday, the best free agent after 2010, who received seven years and $120 million going into his age-31 season. Industry revenues, of course, have jumped more than 50 percent, to nearly $10 billion, so the idea that Cespedes should jump at a Holliday-type contract seems ludicrous.

And yet we can’t forget that Cespedes is a free agent-to-be only because no team wanted him on a long-term deal this past winter. He was free to be had. The best contract: a three-year, $75 million deal with the Mets that, in reality, was a one-year, $27.5 million contract with a player option for two more years and $47.5 million more. Barring something shocking – and even that might not be enough – Cespedes is going to be a free agent again, and instead of Jason Heyward and Justin Upton and Alex Gordon siphoning away possibilities, it will be …

Jose Bautista had a rough Sunday afternoon in Texas. (AP)
Jose Bautista had a rough Sunday afternoon in Texas. (AP)

2. Jose Bautista and his iron chin. Whatever you may think of Bautista – and among fellow players, he is more respected than beloved – the fact that he did not crumble to the ground after Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor blew up his chin with a right cross Sunday was staggering. It was the single cleanest baseball punch landed in … a decade? Easily. A quarter century? Maybe. Odor is facing at least a suspension in the neighborhood of 10 games, and he earned every last bit of it by swinging at Bautista after a hard slide into second base, which was precipitated by a hit by pitch, which came seven months after The Bat Flip.

None of this has much to do with Bautista’s free agency, which because of his stature, age and desired contract will be one of the most keenly watched this winter. Even though he turns 36 in October, and even though he’s off to a .217/.360/.442 start, Bautista still will command a $100 million-plus deal because of his old-man game. And that is spoken with the greatest amount of respect possible. Unlike the old-man skills in basketball about which people will sing paeans, old-man game in baseball is a sneaky and valuable commodity.

In a nutshell: Few players in baseball come to the plate with as acute a sense of what and what doesn’t constitute a strike. Bautista again leads the American League in walks, like he did last season, like he did five years ago, like he threatens to annually. Bautista’s profile as someone who walks in more than 15 percent of his plate appearances burnishes his case to get paid.

Still, Bautista needs to hit better than he has over the season’s first six weeks. He isn’t swinging at more pitches or visibly cheating on fastballs because he can’t catch up to them anymore. He just isn’t what he can be. And what he can be must be what he is if he wants to cash in anywhere near his desired $150 million-plus, because defensive metrics believe his glove in right field is worsening even as he stays in spectacular shape, and the prospect of a $30 million-a-year DH may limit the market. It’s a feeling with which ...

3. Edwin Encarnacion long ago acquainted himself. Sure, the 33-year-old Encarnacion plays himself an occasional first base and is tolerable, but his present and future is at designated hitter, and that’s a dreadful position for any free agent-to-be.

Edwin Encarnacion (AP)
Edwin Encarnacion (AP)

Now, a few things to note. First: This is not the order of the upcoming free agent class. Considering how Encarnacion has started the season, and his positional inflexibility, he might not crack the top 10 right now, which is saying something. And second: There have been some winners at DH in recent years, but both were coming off seasons far better than Encarnacion’s current .237/.304/.434.

All the patience that made Encarnacion a fearsome presence over the past four years has disappeared this season, leaving Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak – not Bautista and Encarnacion – to be the second- and third-best bets in the Blue Jays’ lineup after MVP Josh Donaldson. The awful starts of Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Goins and particularly Russell Martin (.168/.239/.178 with one extra-base hit all season) make Encarnacion’s that much more glaring.

The prospect of a Victor Martinez deal (four years, $68 million coming off a .335/.409/.565 season) or a Nelson Cruz contract (four years, $57 million after leading the AL with 40 home runs) grows less likely by the week. Encarnacion is capable of rattling off a 10-homers-in-15-days run, so things could change in a hurry. When GMs consider spending on a mid-30s DH, though, compared to a 30-year-old outfielder like …

4. Josh Reddick … well, that’s really not a tough call. Reddick has played himself into potentially elite free agent status, and he’ll be an interesting litmus test for whether the market rewards a player for his achievements or does so excessively because of such a limited supply.

And, yes, there are other available outfielders – it is perhaps the deepest position in the class, which is sort of like comparing a kiddie pool to the ocean, but whatever – so Reddick could run the risk of overplaying his hand. He is, however, a pretty desirable modern player: doesn’t strike out a ton, walking more, solid enough fielding to stay in a corner-outfield spot, maybe even for a half-decade.

Reddick might be the quietest consistent three- or four-win player in baseball. Considering the cost of a marginal win, and the irrationality of free agency, and this class, Reddick signing a nine-figure deal is within the realm of possibility. Likely? Probably not, but then who out there figured …

5. Carlos Gomez was going to turn into a pumpkin like this?

(If the Mets are raising their hands, that’s fair. And surely there’s an enterprising Mets fan out there who can write some fanfic on life if the Gomez-for-Zack Wheeler-and-Wilmer Flores swap actually happened. The Mets don’t get Cespedes. They don’t make the playoffs. Terry Collins gets fired. The possibilities are endless.)

Gomez, meanwhile, is a complete mess. He has struck out 46 times in 121 at-bats. Bartolo Colon has outhomered him. Here’s the list of players with a lower OPS than him: Erick Aybar. That’s it. Gomez’s .486 OPS is 191st of 192 qualified players. It’s gotten so bad the Astros might not even tender him a qualifying offer because of the fear he would accept it and they would be on the hook for more than $16 million. Granted, it happened this offseason with …

6. Colby Rasmus and the Astros are thankful for his offense helping keep them afloat during the season’s first three weeks. The last three have been Gomez-level grim: a homerless .161/.239/.194 with much of the patience he showed at the beginning of the season dissipating and the strikeouts for which we all know Rasmus returning like springtime allergies.

Colby Rasmus (AP Photo)
Colby Rasmus (AP Photo)

Neither of the other two players who accepted the $15.8 million qualifying offer is setting the world afire, either. Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters managed to get his OPS over .600 with a home run Saturday. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brett Anderson underwent back surgery, and his return date remains in question.

Cespedes, Bautista, Encarnacion and Reddick almost assuredly will receive qualifying offers – or whatever version of one there is, should MLB and the MLB Players Association come to terms on a new collective-bargaining agreement before the offseason that fixes the broken system. Cubs leadoff man Dexter Fowler could ride a .400-plus OBP to an offer. The Rangers paid a draft pick for Ian Desmond; now that he has shown he can play center field, and maybe quite well, they're going to want to recoup one for him, too. A couple of under-the-radar possibilities: catchers Francisco Cervelli and Wilson Ramos – Cervelli on the basis of back-to-back strong seasons and Ramos if he can transition a great first six weeks into a great total six months.

And the unlikeliest of all may be …

7. Rich Hill, though he is probably a greater trade candidate at the moment than someone onto whom Oakland would hold all season. The A’s guaranteed Hill $6 million this season based on four starts for Boston at the end of last year. In his first eight starts for Oakland, Hill has struck out 53 in 43 2/3 innings and posted a 2.68 ERA. Not that the A’s are teeming with starting pitching, but with Henderson Alvarez nearly ready and Daniel Mengden dealing at Triple-A, trading Hill sooner than later isn’t out of the question.

The 2016 free agent pitching class is shaping up to be an ugly one.
The 2016 free agent pitching class is shaping up to be an ugly one.

Provided he can do over the last three-quarters of the season what he has done in the first quarter, the question is whether the 36-year-old Hill, who just once, in 2007, started more than 13 games, can be called the best pitcher on the free agent market. Andrew Cashner might protest … from the disabled list. Clay Buchholz’s season ERA is 6.11, and if you flip the 6, that’s a pretty good indication of what his stuff has looked like. Anderson still hasn’t thrown a pitch. James Shields, due $44 million over the next two years, is unlikely to opt out of his deal. Same goes for the struggling Scott Kazmir. And even if Edinson Volquez opts out of his deal, which is almost a certainty, is a soon-to-be 33-year-old truly that much more coveted an option than someone like Hill?

The starting pitching in this free agent class is a dumpster fire meme waiting to happen, and even with the bullpenification of baseball, the presence of …

8. Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman can’t fully salvage it. Jansen and Chapman are the two best closers in baseball not named Wade Davis, and their markets should be fascinating to watch, particularly because the elite-level closer’s is limited to begin with. Paying more than $15 million a year for a relief pitcher is something few teams would be willing to do.

Aroldis Chapman (Getty Images)
Aroldis Chapman (Getty Images)

Detroit, Washington, San Francisco and the Dodgers are teams with free agent closers, no obvious replacement and big-enough payrolls to take on a monster closer salary. Yes, they could opt for Mark Melancon or Brad Ziegler or Santiago Casilla, or take Joe Smith or Daniel Hudson and plug either into a ninth-inning role, or, you know, not spend a quarter-million dollars an inning.

Jansen and Chapman’s performances have transcended that, and the idea that they’ll push for $18 million-a-year deals is not altogether far-fetched. Mariano Rivera was paid $15 million a year for five consecutive seasons toward the end of his career, and while it was Mariano Rivera, it also started eight years ago, ample time for the market’s ceiling to grow. Chasing the money never was …

9. David Ortiz’s domain. Amazing fact: Ortiz never made more than $16 million in a season. Among those making more than Ortiz this season: Melvin Upton Jr., Pablo Sandoval, Prince Fielder, Andre Ethier, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Matt Cain, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford – whom he’s singlehandedly outhomering 10 to 7, just to say.

David Ortiz (Getty Images)
David Ortiz (Getty Images)

A retiring player ends up on a free agent list by sitting atop MLB’s OPS leaderboard in the middle of May. Ortiz is 40 years old, and his bat is as good as ever, which it shouldn’t be for guys who are 40. But then who thought Neil Walker was going to be this class’ power broker, or that Mark Trumbo was going to be hitting .300, or that Ian Desmond would recover from a miserable start to look like a legitimate major league outfielder ready to hit free agency again, or that Martin Prado – still just 32, even though he seems Papi’s age – would be hitting .381 with extraordinary bat control as free agency beckons.

More names could show up. Will a team trade for Jay Bruce and pick up his $13 million option? Do the Cardinals save some money by declining the options of Matt Holliday ($17 million), Jaime Garcia ($12 million), neither or both? And what about the rest of the eight-figure starting pitching club, with Jason Hammel and Gio Gonzalez at $12 million club options and Derek Holland at $11 million. Considering what …

10. Yoenis Cespedes could get, all those numbers seem like bargains. Because while $27.5 million for Cespedes this season felt high, he’s going to want that annually now, and not for three or four years. At 32, Jayson Werth got seven years and Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano 10 apiece. Deserve doesn’t matter. That is the market, and the market generally does not screw around when it comes to the biggest free agent available.

Cespedes doesn’t need to walk around with a .287/.365/.648 line for the rest of the season to solidify his spot in the baseball universe come November. And he doesn’t need to bust out with another August like last year or even one of those recent stretches where he’s swinging the bat like he’s Noah Syndergaard or something.

No, this new Yoenis Cespedes – or at least the version he’s showing us early on in the season – is taking more pitches inside than he did last season and swinging at balls outside the strike zone less frequently. Again: It’s still early. And all it takes for those statistics to even out is a bad week.

Still, it’s exciting to see Cespedes at his best because he is so prodigiously talented and has the sort of stage in New York available to so few. The Mets will face another tough decision this offseason, one that pits him against them and waits to see who, if anyone, blinks. For now, though, that’s too far off. Save the irrationality of the offseason for then, and in the meantime, enjoy Cespedes for all he can do. That’s an even better show than what’s coming this winter.