The What-If and Then-What of MLB’s Lingering Free Agents

By: Blake Dowson | February 16, 2018

MLB free agency is taking its sweet time to play out, so we went ahead and did it for them by placing remaining big names on a rumored team and further evaluating with STATS TVL data and STATS Video Solution.

Pitchers and catchers have reported. We made it. Finally, there is more to report on than the slow offseason. But those high-end free agents not yet signed are still going to dominate headlines until they find a middle ground with a team on a contract.

The slow offseason hasn’t stopped rumors from slipping out, however, and industry experts have tried their hands in predicting where some of those top free agents might end up. So for now, all we can do is take those predictions and project how those free agents might be of impact for those teams.

The outline of this piece will include an oft-rumored landing spot for each free agent, and counterparts he has both done well and not-so-well against in his career, with regular season stats included.

J.D. Martinez to the Boston Red Sox

Martinez and the Red Sox have been linked all offseason. It would make sense: The Red Sox were 27th in MLB and last in the American League in home runs in 2017. Martinez hit a home run once every eight at-bats with Arizona last season.

If Martinez does sign with Boston, it will be in an effort to keep pace with the New York Yankees. The former Detroit Tigers slugger has hit .337 lifetime against the Yankees, but with mixed results versus two of New York’s starters.

Martinez vs. CC Sabathia: 2 for 8 (.250)/.333 OBP/.250 SLG/1 RBI/2 K

Sabathia has done a good job of keeping Martinez off balance, with a mix of cutters in on his hands and changeups falling out of the zone away.

Busting Martinez in on the hands can be tricky business, especially if the pitch catches too much of the plate, but Sabathia has avoided that.

The big lefty has taken two different approaches the two times he has cut Martinez down on strikes. On April 9, 2016, he continually tried to get in on his hands with this sequence: cutter, cutter, two-seam, cutter, cutter.

A year earlier on April 20, 2015, Sabathia got Martinez swinging, coming nowhere close to his changeup. That sequence went like this: changeup, four-seam, changeup, four-seam, two-seam, changeup. Martinez whiffed on all three offspeed offerings.

UPDATE: J.D. Martinez signed a five-year deal with Boston on Feb. 19

Martinez vs. Masahiro Tanaka: 5 for 9 (.556)/.556 OBP/1.444 SLG/2 2Bs/2 HRs/3 RBI

There’s no gentle word to use when describing what Martinez has done to Tanaka pitches in his career.

It’s not for lack of trying on Tanaka’s part. He throws everything but the kitchen sink at Martinez. In that regard, it’s hard to determine exactly why Martinez has had so much success against Tanaka.

Martinez had two doubles off Tanaka on April 23, 2015. In his second at-bat, Tanaka started him off with a slider, then went with splitter, cutter, splitter, cutter, slider. Martinez doubled to left field.

His next at-bat, Martinez jumped on a first-pitch splitter. He doubled to left field.

Two months later, Martinez hit home runs in his first two at-bats off Tanaka. His first home run was off a slider, two-seamer sequence. The next was on a first-pitch curveball. There’s something to saying a hitter just sees a certain pitcher really well.

Martinez sees Tanaka really well; another good reason for the Red Sox to sign him.

Lance Lynn to the New York Yankees

There hasn’t been a ton of steam behind any Lynn rumors, but after Yu Darvish landed with the Chicago Cubs, there have been reports that he could be a lower cost Plan B for the Yankees.

As a Yankee, he would be judged on how well he pitched against the Red Sox. Here is how Lynn has done against two of Boston’s lineup mainstays.

Lynn vs. Hanley Ramirez: 2 for 10 (.200)/.273 OBP/.300 SLG/1 2B/1 BB/4 K

There’s the scene in the Dennis Quaid movie “The Rookie” after he makes his major league debut and a reporter asks him what pitches he threw. Quaid responds with, “fastball…fastball…fastball.” That’s Lynn every single start. In 2017, nearly 82 percent of the pitches he threw to right-handed hitters were four-seam fastballs. That’s a higher percentage than R.A. Dickey threw his knuckleball. Add in his cut fastball, and that’s 97 percent of the pitches he throws.

Ramirez hit just .249 off fastballs last season, which would bode well for Lynn in pinstripes.

Lynn vs. Mookie Betts: 3 for 5 (.600)/.500 OBP/1.200 SLG/1 HR/3 RBI

Betts hit .291 off fastballs last season. The home run Betts hit off Lynn on May 16 of last year was off a four-seam fastball.

There isn’t a lot of mystery with Lynn. He throws his four-seamer to his glove side and his two-seamer to his arm side. Wash, rinse, repeat. If he’s hitting his spots, it’s effective. When he misses to good fastball hitters, like Betts, he pays for it.

Jake Arrieta to the Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals’ World Series window is closing fast. Bryce Harper is a free agent after this coming season. There are more rumors about him leaving than about him staying. Ryan Zimmerman, a mainstay in the organization, is on the back nine of his career. In fact, probably on hole 15 or 16.

Behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the rotation gets a little shaky. So why not go all in on this season and sign Arrieta?

If they do sign the 2015 Cy Young winner, it won’t be to fend off any other NL East teams. No one else in the division looks to be in the same class as the Nationals. It will ultimately be to make it out of the National League and into the Fall Classic, which means going through the class of the NL, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Arrieta of course has thrown a no-hitter against the Dodgers, in 2015. However, the Los Angeles lineup has been almost completely turned over, as Joc Pederson and Yasmani Grandal are the only players slotted to start on Opening Day that were also in the lineup on August 30, 2015 against Arrieta.

If Arrieta would sign with Washington, it would be the young guys – Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger – he would need to get out.

Arrieta vs. Corey Seager: 3 for 5 (.600)/.667 OBP/.600 SLG/1 BB/1 K

All three of Seager’s hits off Arrieta are singles, so he hasn’t done huge damage, but Arrieta still hasn’t been able to figure the young shortstop out.

Arrieta’s success ultimately comes down to control. If he can put his two-seamer where he wants, he dominates. Against Seager, he has continually missed inside the zone, and he has paid the price.

Arrieta uses his two-seam differently than most right-handers. Instead of mostly using it arm-side, he likes to run it in on lefties and bring it back across the inside of the plate. Seager got to one of those inside two-seamers on May 26 of last year when it leaked back out over the plate.

Arrieta vs. Cody Bellinger: 0 for 2/1 K

Sample size is small here, but it shows how dominant Arrieta is when he has his control of all his pitches. In that May 26 game, Arrieta got Bellinger swinging at a curveball in the dirt for strike three and was completely in control.

The same was the case when Arrieta got Bellinger swinging in the NLCS, when he kept his two-seamer arm-side.

Of course, Bellinger got Arrieta in the third inning of that game when Arrieta tried to bury a slider on Bellinger’s back foot and left it out over the middle of the plate, and Bellinger put it in the right field bleachers.

Alex Cobb to the Minnesota Twins

The Twins desperately need pitching. Behind Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios, the starting rotation is extremely thin, and Santana is out at least 10 weeks with a finger issue.

After surprisingly making the postseason last year, there’s more expectation in 2018. To do that, the Twins will need to go through the Cleveland Indians, who they were 7-12 against last season.

Cobb would see a lot of two lefties that are always at the top of Cleveland’s order.

Cobb vs. Jason Kipnis: 2 for 10 (.200)/.333 OBP/.300 SLG/1 2B/2 BB/1 K

Cobb has liked using his curveball against Kipnis in his career, which is in line with how he typically attacks hitters. In 2017, Cobb used his curveball 31 percent of the time to righties and 38 percent of the time to lefties.

The crafty right-hander has mixed his pitches against Kipnis as well, something he hasn’t necessarily done against Jose Ramirez.

Cobb vs. Jose Ramirez: 2 for 5 (.400)/.333 OBP/.600 SLG/1 2B

Cobb has shown a tendency in the past to be splitter-heavy against Ramirez, a pitch he threw only 20 percent of the time to left-handers last year.

In the at-bat Ramirez doubled off Cobb in September 2014, four of the six pitches he threw were splitters, including the last one.

Cobb was a lot more reliant on his splitter back then, throwing it 40 percent of the time to lefties in 2014. After coming back from Tommy John surgery that consumed the 2015 and most of the 2016 campaign, he has been less reliant on the pitch.

Jonathan Lucroy to the Washington Nationals

Continuing on the Nationals’ World Series window train, the most obvious hole on the roster is behind the plate.

Last season, Matt Wieters played in 123 games for Washington, hit .225 with a .632 OPS. His WAR was -0.5.

Although Lucroy is coming off a down year, he would be an upgrade.

As with the Arrieta projection, we will look to how Lucroy has performed against the Dodgers.

Lucroy vs. Clayton Kershaw: 1 for 20 (.050)/1 2B/4 K

To be fair, not many hitters have success against this Kershaw guy. But Lucroy’s career average against him is well below Kershaw’s .206 career batting average against.

It’s been the slider that has tripped Lucroy up against Kershaw. The Dodgers ace is one of the best in the game at burying a slider on a right-hander.

Typically for a hitter, it’s advantageous the more you can see a pitcher. In Lucroy’s case, he may not plead for more plate appearances against Kershaw.

Lucroy vs. Alex Wood: 2 for 5 (.400)/2 BB

Although Lucroy spent time in Colorado last year and most of his career in the NL, he doesn’t have a large sample size against any Dodger other than Kershaw.

He has had success against Wood, though, reaching base four times in seven at-bats.

Wood is a no-nonsense pitcher as far as repertoire (fastball, curveball, changeup), but he employs a herky-jerky motion that is deceptive. The two times Lucroy has gotten to Wood have been when he missed a spot out over the middle of the plate.