The MLB playoffs are already underway. The Toronto Blue Jays have defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Wild Card game and are now set to take on the Texas Rangers. But just because it is playoff time, baseball fans should not forget about the upcoming offseason. Over two-thirds of the league are already looking ahead to the 2017 season, and that means they are looking at roster construction.
One of the main factors that will influence how teams will look different come 2017 compared to this past season is free agency. Unfortunately for teams looking to make vast improvements, the free agent class is rather underwhelming as a whole. There are a handful of big names, such as Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, but the overall depth is simply not there.
But like every offseason, there will surely be a few gems to be had. And some of those gems will not cost monster contracts. So who are some of the possible hidden treasures on the market this winter? Look no further, as we have five under the radar free agents right here.
Mark Melancon, Relief Pitcher (Washington Nationals)
The one position that is flush this winter is the relief market. Chapman and Jansen are set to get all of the buzz, as two 29-year-old flame throwers. While both men are dominating forces, there is a third man who is just as capable of closing out ballgames, and will likely come at a lower price.
Mark Melancon is a few years older than the other two men mentioned above, as he will be 32 in 2017. Melancon had a solid 2016 campaign, with an ERA of 1.64 to go along with his 47 saves in 51 attempts. That means over the course of the last two seasons. Melancon has closed 98 games in 104 attempts. That is a 94% save percentage for the closer, who has saved more than 30 games in three straight years. And not only will he come cheaper than Chapman and Jansen, but teams do not have to worry about forfeiting a draft pick for him, as he was traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Washington Nationals during the season.
Michael Saunders, Outfielder (Toronto Blue Jays)
Michael Saunders is a former top prospect who will be 30 during the 2017. This past season he saw his power game emerge, as he hit a career-high 24 home runs. This could be a sign that Saunders is finally starting to live up to that prospect hype from years ago. It happens to many top prospects who start their careers off slow. Saunders has been plagued by injuries his entire career, with knee injuries essentially taking away his stolen base game.
But if Saunders can build upon this season’s power numbers, he could be a very nice addition in the number six slot in someone’s lineup. He is by no means a major star, but he is the contributing player who could very well take a team from playoff team to World Series contender. Given his injury history and propensity to strikeout, he could very well come cheaper than he should. Sure he is no lock for those reasons, but given this year’s free agent class, he is the type of guy worth taking a gamble on. Give him a two or three-year deal, and see if that power surge can continue in his later peak years.
Jeremy Hellickson, Starting Pitcher (Philadelphia Phillies)
The starting pitching market this winter is one of the worst in recent memory. There are no bona fide aces for sure. The market pretty much consists of rebuilding projects, inning eaters or guys who simply have underachieved given their talent. One of those inning eater type pitchers is Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson falls under the former top prospect category, who had a decent 2016 season.
While pitching for the Phillies in a hitter friendly park, Hellickson managed to win 12 games, while throwing to a 3.71 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. He is not going to strike a ton of guys out, but he showed this season he can keep guys off base, and be a fairly reliable pitcher. Whether he signs with a non-contender or a contender, he can be of service. For a non-contender, he can serve a similar role as he did with the Phillies. Or with a contending team serve as a back end of the rotation type of arm.
A knee injury in his final start could help to lower his price as well this offseason. Given he is not a dominating force, but simply a contact pitcher, he will not cost a hefty sum at all. But given what he showed this season, paired with the former top prospect tag and a Rookie of the Year award, he is a guy worth taking a stab with on a team friendly contract. Especially given the starting pitching market.
Ivan Nova, Starting Pitcher (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Ivan Nova was a lost cause with the New York Yankees this season. Then he got traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the trading deadline. And luckily for Nova, Pittsburgh is the place where pitchers are reborn. I do not know what pitching coach Ray Searage does, but he works wonders with pitchers. Guys like Francisco Liriano, AJ Burnett, JA Happ and countless others have revived their careers after going to Pittsburgh and getting the chance to work with Searage.
Nova is just the latest name on that long list. After coming over to the Pirates this season, he went 5-2 in 11 starts and threw to a 3.34 ERA. His walks were down big time, with a career best walks per nine of 1.56 as well. He will be entering his age 30 season, so he still has some years left before he enters the decline of his career. Getting the chance to work with the pitching wizard could certainly help revive Nova’s career.
At the very least, it makes him an intriguing option in this weak class of free agent arms. J.A. Happ was ina very similar situation last offseason, and he turned into a 20 game winner this season. Now I am not saying Nova is going to go on to win 20 games, but he is certainly worth giving a shot too, as he does have some skill.
Greg Holland, Relief Pitcher (Free Agent)
The man that everyone has forgotten about. In a winter that features big time relievers, it is Greg Holland who could emerge as one of the best relievers out there. Now sure he comes with the injury risk, but let’s look at some of the numbers shall we.
Late in the 2015 season, Holland injured his elbow, leading to Tommy John Surgery on October 2, 2015. Before the injury, Holland had saved 32 games in a season where he was clearly pitching through an injury. The prior two seasons, he saved 47 and 46 games and was seen as the best closer in baseball. But following the surgery, the Royals elected not to tender him a contract, making him a free agent. He would go on to sit out the entire 2016 season, as that is what Tommy John will do to a pitcher.
We are now a full year removed from his surgery. By the time March and spring training rolls around, Holland will be 17 months removed from his surgery. Now given some pitchers return from the surgery looking stronger than they did before their injury, why not give Holland a roll of the dice?
He is no sure thing, but he also comes with minimal risk.
He will not require a big contract by any means, and any team that signs him could have the steal of the winter. So to the teams that miss out on Chapman, Jansen and Melancon, give Holland a chance to prove he can once again be one of the most dominant closers in baseball.