MLB

Pending free agents who need strong finishes in 2021

Two months may not seem like a lot of time in the grand scheme of a player’s career, but for a select group of upcoming free agents, how they perform down the stretch could dramatically alter their fortunes on the open market this offseason.

While teams obviously take into account a player’s entire résumé when deciding whether to sign him, we also know that recency bias is a real factor in some free-agent situations.

These are the nine walk-year players with the most to gain (or lose) the rest of this season. (Stats are through Saturday.)

Javier Báez, SS, Mets
Báez reportedly was seeking $200 million in contract extension talks with the Cubs. Due to the strength of the upcoming shortstop class, he’s probably going to have trouble getting that type of deal on the open market regardless of what happens over the final two months, but the 28-year-old has a chance to boost his value if he improves his production with the Mets.

Eight years into his career, we aren’t going to see Báez stray from his hyper-aggressive approach at the plate, which limits his ceiling. But Báez remains an excellent defensive player, and if he can recapture his 2018-19 offensive form (.286/.321/.544) for the next two months, he’ll be more likely to find a team willing to pay him $150 million or more this offseason.

Kris Bryant, 3B/OF, Giants
After the 2019 season, a then-29-year-old Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Angels. That contract could be a target for Bryant, who turned 29 last January and is a Scott Boras client like Rendon. Will he get it? The next two months could be a factor.

Bryant has been one of the best hitters in the NL for much of this season, recording a 1.078 OPS in April, a .961 OPS in May and a .922 OPS in July. But his .445 OPS in June put a dent in his overall numbers. Bryant’s newfound defensive versatility will help, but if he wants to top or exceed Rendon’s contract, he’ll likely need to avoid another extended slump like the one he ran into in June.

Michael Conforto, OF, Mets
When George Springer inked a six-year, $150 million contract with the Blue Jays in January, it was followed by speculation that Conforto could look to top that deal in the coming offseason. His chances of doing so have worsened, as Conforto has hit .203/.331/.342 with seven homers in 75 games this season. In terms of guaranteed money, Conforto may be looking at contract offers closer to Nick Castellanos’ ($64 million) or Marcell Ozuna’s ($65 million) deals than Springer’s — that is, if he can rebound over the final two months. If his current level of production continues, the 28-year-old may find it better to sign a one-year “pillow” contract and try to rebuild his value before making another run at free agency after 2022.

On the plus side, Conforto’s expected wOBA, which is based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks, was .358 entering Sunday, and his “unlucky gap” of 53 points between his xwOBA and actual wOBA was the largest in MLB (min. 200 plate appearances), so there’s hope for a turnaround.

Kevin Gausman, RHP, Giants
Could Gausman land the largest contract among free-agent starters this offseason? It’s in play. Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke might sign shorter deals due to their age, and Justin Verlander and Noah Syndergaard are coming off Tommy John surgery. That leaves Gausman, Marcus Stroman and Carlos Rodón competing for the No. 1 deal.

Gausman has been one of the best starters in MLB the past two seasons with the Giants, recording a 2.72 ERA (154 ERA+) with an 11.1 K/9 across 192 innings. The 30-year-old was around league average (99 ERA+) while pitching for the Orioles, Braves and Reds in his first seven seasons, however, and he had an 8.49 ERA in his first three starts after the All-Star break before dominating the D-backs on Wednesday. How Gausman pitches the rest of the way could go a long way toward determining whether he’s closer to Zack Wheeler (five years, $118 million) or Hyun Jin Ryu (four years, $80 million) on the free-agent contract spectrum.

Kenley Jansen, RHP, Dodgers
For what seems like the third straight season, there are questions about Jansen’s reliability in the closer role. The veteran righty had a sparkling 1.24 ERA at the All-Star break, but he has allowed 10 runs on 13 hits and six walks in eight second-half appearances, blowing three saves in that span. His BB/9 has ballooned to 5.8, a career high. This comes after Los Angeles turned to Blake Treinen and Julio Urías in back-to-back games to close out the Rays in the 2020 World Series following Jansen’s blown save in Game 4.

It remains to be seen if the Dodgers will keep handing the ball to Jansen in the ninth inning and, perhaps more importantly for the 33-year-old, how teams will view him on the free-agent market this offseason. Will he still draw interest as an impact closer? How he performs down the stretch could greatly influence his value, especially in a free-agent class that lacks a top-tier closer like Liam Hendriks (assuming Craig Kimbrel’s option is picked up by the White Sox).

Tommy Pham, OF, Padres
A late-bloomer, Pham is set to hit free agency for the first time this offseason as a 33-year-old. The outfielder is a disciplined hitter with good power and solid speed, but he’s been prone to extreme streakiness in recent years. After recording a .624 OPS over 31 games in 2020 and a .509 OPS in his first 36 games of ‘21, Pham had a 1.027 OPS from May 15 through July 1. However, he’s followed that up with a .624 OPS in his past 28 games.

Pham’s defensive metrics are poor, so he’s counting on his bat to drive his free-agency case. A strong stretch to finish out this season would be a big help.

Robbie Ray, LHP, Blue Jays
Although Ray posted a 6.62 ERA with an MLB-high 45 walks in 51 2/3 innings between the D-backs and Blue Jays in 2020, Toronto quickly re-signed him to a one-year, $8 million contract shortly after free agency began last November. Ray has made a remarkable turnaround, lowering his walk rate to a personal best 6.7% — 11.2 percentage points lower than last season’s figure — while continuing to miss bats at an elite level (31.7% whiff rate, 30.2% strikeout rate). He lowered his ERA to 2.90 with six scoreless innings against the Red Sox on Saturday.

If the left-hander can put the finishing touches on his excellent rebound campaign, a hefty payday awaits him in the offseason.

Trevor Story, SS, Rockies
It’s been a tough season for Story, who had to deal with constant trade rumors that ended up leading to nothing and is having one of the worst years of his career from a statistical standpoint. Like Báez, Story is entering a free-agent class that is rich with shortstops, as Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Marcus Semien will be available as well. All except Báez, who isn’t eligible after being traded, will likely receive a qualifying offer from their respective teams.

Due to the Draft-pick compensation tied to the QO, we’ve seen it hinder the market for some players in recent years. A strong finish could help the 28-year-old Story avoid that fate this offseason. His performance in his past 10 games — .368/.442/.789 with three homers and seven doubles — is a nice start.

Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets
Syndergaard hasn’t thrown a pitch for the Mets since Sept. 29, 2019. The right-hander missed all of 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and suffered a setback earlier this year when he exited a rehab start with right elbow discomfort and was diagnosed with inflammation. 

The Mets are hoping to have Syndergaard back in September, but even in a best-case scenario, the righty is probably not finishing the season with more than 30 innings. And yet, those innings will be important to show teams he’s healthy and still has the tantalizing stuff that made him such an intriguing (albeit frustrating) pitcher before his injury.


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