As America opens its collective pocket for the busiest shopping day of the year, the baseball world prepares for freezing cold. We’re just five days away from the MLB’s collective bargaining agreement expiring, and with it the typically hot stove will likely cool. With the uncertainty looming, clubs looking to add free agency could start shopping in the discount section rather than chasing the many big shots that are still available.
In the spirit of Black Friday, below are five underrated free agents who probably aren’t at the top of many teams’ charts, but would make great additions to the bargain bag for teams looking to add on the margins. None of the five rank anywhere near the top of our top 50 list (and three aren’t at all), but each has the potential to end up being a robbery if found in the right situation.
SP Alex Cobb
This is Cobb’s second time as a free agent after signing a four-year, $ 57 million deal with the Orioles in 2018 that largely turned out to be a disappointment. The right-hander had a 4.90 ERA in 2018 and made just 13 starts between 2019 and 20 before being traded to the Angels in February. Although injuries limited him to just 93.1 innings, they were far more effective than in his time in Baltimore.
Cobb leaned on his divider and curveball for good results, with a 3.76 ERA and a 2.92 FIP. With a 4.2% barrel rate, he was one of the toughest pitchers to square. Cobb inducted grounders at a rate of 53.3% and set a new career high with a strikeout rate of 24.9%. Durability is Cobb’s biggest question mark, but it won’t outweigh the desire of contending teams to beef up their rotations with a pitcher of his caliber. At 34, he’s desirable on a short-term deal and would be a great opportunity for missing clubs Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray and Marcus Stroman.
SP Corey Kluber
Kluber pitched 36.2 combined 2019-20 innings, which was enough for the Yankees to sign him to a one-year, $ 11 million deal. The two-time Cy Young Award winner shone through the first two months of the season before a shoulder injury kept him out until late August. He had mixed results upon his return and is now re-entering the market heading into his 36-year season.
While the risk of injury is relatively high here, the advantage is undeniable. Kluber cut his lead use last season and pitched his curveball more often than any other pitch, with excellent results. Hitters had a .186 batting average against the curve with a 39.1% odor rate, with just four extra-base hits in 109 plate appearances. Teams looking to add Kluber probably won’t hold their breath for him to log more than 100 innings, but he showed enough last season to show he’s a safe bet to deliver quality production when he can stay on the field.
RP Mark Melancon
In a relatively scarce relay jug market, Melancon is like receiving a good pair of socks as a gift, often overlooked, but always appreciated. The right-hander led the majors with 39 saves last season and made his fourth career All-Star team, with a 2.23 ERA in 64.2 innings. Melancon has a 2.97 ERA over the past four seasons, but has pitched for three different teams in that span.
With Melancon, you know what you’re getting: low speed, low total strikeouts, and a ton of grooves. He has posted a shot-through rate of more than 50% for 11 consecutive seasons and has allowed less than one home run for every nine innings in each of the past nine years. Raisel Iglesias and Kenley Jansen will sign for higher average annual salaries, but Melancon is a reliable bet to keep their production going as they enter their 37-year season.
LF Tommy Pham
Once upon a time, Pham was among the most dynamic outfielders in the game. From 2017-19, he racked up a combined 13.8 fWAR with a .284 / .381 / .475 bar line, good for a 122 wRC +. He averaged nearly 22 home runs and 22 stolen bases in 136 games per season, with expert command of the strike zone. Injuries limited him to a great extent in 2020, and although his production dropped a bit from its peak in 2021, he was able to stay healthy and play in 155 games.
Pham’s .229 batting average and 102 wRC + were the lowest full-season marks of his career, however the underlying metrics are more optimistic. His barrel rate (10%) was nearly identical to 2018, while his strikeout and walk rates were flat. Pham’s expected wOBA has not been below .353 in five years, although in the past two years his actual wOBA of .318 suggests some bad luck. The fact that Pham is entering his 34-year-old season and hasn’t performed the way he used to lately will make him a less expensive option, but there seems to be a lot still in the tank for him to be a productive player every day.
2B Donovan Solano
Despite the Giants’ magical regular season this year, Donnie Barrels didn’t get a repeat of 2020, when he flirted with the National League batting title and won the Silver Slugger award. But he remained tough at the plate, posting a .280 / .344 / .404 bar line and 105 wRC + in 344 plate appearances.
Although he hasn’t been an everyday player for a long time, Solano has been quietly consistent for some time now. He has 114 wRC + over 775 plate appearances since 2019 and a .308 / .354 / .435 bar line. That’s the third-highest batting average and seventh-best on-base percentage among the second basemen with the most plate appearances in that span, with a better wRC + than Ozzie Albies, Cavan Biggio, Adam Frzaier, Whit Merrifield. and Gleyber Torres. San Francisco’s success last year somewhat overshadowed Solano’s strong hitting, but he’s a more than viable option for teams needing help at the cornerstone.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.