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How to Succeed in Free Agency Without Really Winning

Not every team can sign Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Patrick Corbin. But these three second-tier options can fill similar needs for the clubs that whiff on the stars.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Baseball’s 2018-19 free-agent class isn’t as loaded as it could have been, but the tremendous amount of talent on offer, led by Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Patrick Corbin, makes this the best class since at least the Albert Pujols–Yu Darvish–Prince Fielder group of the 2011-12 offseason.

Not only does this class have a bumper crop of superstar talent, the top names in this class are young enough to spend most of their next contracts in their prime. Last year, four free agents signed contracts worth $20 million a year or more, and all four players were at least 30 years old. This year’s top three free agents, Machado, Harper, and Corbin, are 26, 26, and 29, respectively.

Players as good and as young as Machado and Harper in particular don’t hit free agency that often. Cliff Corcoran of The Athletic published a list of the best 28-and-under free agents ever and rated Machado third and Harper 11th. Most free-agent classes don’t have even one young superstar of this caliber, let alone two.

The problem is that while all 30 teams could use Machado, Harper, and Corbin, there’s only one of each of them, and if a team sets aside money for one of the top free agents and misses, it still has a roster hole to fill. While there’s no replacement for a player like Machado or Harper, there are a few second-tier free agents who can fill similar needs to those players.

Manny Machado Approximation: Marwin González

Since 2016, Corey Seager and Carlos Correa are tied for the best OPS+ (128) among shortstops with at least 1,000 PA. Machado, who moved back to shortstop in 2018 after playing most of his career at third base, also has a 128 OPS+ since 2016. A team trying to find that kind of bat at shortstop on the free-agent market can either sign Machado now or wait for Seager and Correa to hit free agency in three years. There’s no such thing as a poor man’s (a poor Manny’s?) Machado.

But Marwin González is the kind of player who makes a championship roster come together. For the past five seasons, González has been the Houston Astros’ super-utility man, filling in at second base when José Altuve was hurt, at shortstop when Correa was hurt, at third base before Yuli Gurriel was signed, and at first before Alex Bregman was promoted in 2016, forcing Gurriel to first. In 2018, González played 73 games in left field when Houston’s top offensive prospect, Kyle Tucker, stopped hitting when he reached the majors.

González has never been a marquee player or put up sterling WAR totals, in part because he’s spent so much time playing easier positions (first base and left field) than he’s capable of, and partially because he’s never had to put up a 600 PA season.

But consider that the 2016 Cubs and 2018 Dodgers rewrote their entire lineups game to game or even inning to inning, and González’s value becomes obvious. Managers in this day and age have to figure out not only their best lineup in general, but their best lineup for every given situation, weighing offense versus defense and the platoon advantage. González, a switch hitter who can play seven positions, is an ideal player for that style of baseball, the one-man answer to a roster crunch. He might not be the team’s best offensive first baseman against righties or the best defensive shortstop, but no matter the situation, he’ll be somewhere in the ideal lineup on any team. Watching the Cubs and Dodgers, and even the Astros to a certain extent, this fluid style of lineup construction looks like a new innovation, but baseball history is full of great teams that were held together by one complementary player who does what González has done for the Astros since 2015—Gil McDougald for the 1950s Yankees, Tony Phillips for the late-1980s Athletics, Ben Zobrist for the Rays, Royals, and Cubs over the past decade.

But González could also just play shortstop for 150 games a year. González will probably never replicate his 2017 season, in which he hit .303/.377/.530. But since 2016, he’s produced a 113 OPS+, which would have him tied with Xander Bogaerts for fifth among shortstops over that time frame. Since 2014, his first 100-game season, González is hitting .271/.328/.438 in 2,265 PA, a 111 OPS+. He’s a good hitter, full stop, and he’s still only 29 years old. He’d be useful on any team in the majors, but on the right team he could be the last piece of the puzzle.

Bryce Harper Approximation: Josh Donaldson

Donaldson had an awful walk year, spending nearly all of 2018 either hobbled or out of the lineup completely with injuries to his calf and shoulder, struggling to get into the lineup after an August trade to the Indians, and going 1-for-11 in Cleveland’s three-game ALDS loss to Houston. Donaldson turns 33 next month, and has spent a disconcerting amount of his career airborne and horizontal, which paints a picture of an aging player who’s worn his body down to the nub.

MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Harper, its top-rated free agent, will sign for 14 years and $420 million, both of which would be records, while Donaldson, its 13th-rated free agent, will get just one year and $20 million.

Donaldson’s physical state is a concern, to be sure, but that seems like a pittance for a player of Donaldson’s ability. Donaldson gets talked about like he’s a shell of his former self, but even with his arms and legs falling off in 2018, that shell posted a 119 OPS+. In 2017, he posted a 148 OPS+. Since 2015, when Harper and Donaldson both won MVP awards, Harper is hitting .283/.410/.543. Donaldson, even with that 2018 season he’d rather write off, is hitting .281/.383/.548 at a tougher defensive position. González won’t replace Machado’s bat, but Donaldson could replace Harper’s, at least in the short term.

Maybe 2018 was the beginning of the end, but so far it’s just a one-year aberration for a player who was worth 4.8 bWAR in 2017 and at least 7.5 bWAR in each of the four seasons before that. Maybe the old Donaldson’s still in there, and a smart team will pounce on the opportunity to find out.

Patrick Corbin Approximation: Charlie Morton

Morton is almost six years older than Corbin, and has a troubling injury history—Tommy John in 2012, a torn hamstring in 2016, and a litany of minor shoulder, abdominal, thigh, and foot ailments in between. But he’s been relatively healthy during his tenure with the Astros, making 55 regular-season starts over those two seasons. In 2018, he threw 167 innings with a 129 ERA+, which is more innings and a better ERA+ than James Paxton, who just cost the Yankees pitching prospect Justus Sheffield, or Noah Syndergaard, who’d require an even bigger trade package.

Corbin is indeed a better and more durable pitcher than Morton, which is why he’s in line to sign for an extra four years and $100 million, give or take. But while Corbin’s the best pitcher on the free-agent market, he’s not a Max Scherzer or Chris Sale. Morton can get most of the way to Corbin’s production. Last year, Corbin had an ERA- of 77, Morton 76. Corbin struck out 30.8 percent of the hitters he faced, Morton 28.9. Opponents hit .218/.270/.337 off Corbin, .213/.303/.356 off Morton. It’s not exactly the same performance, but it’s close.

The major advantages Corbin has over Morton are control (Morton’s walk rate last year was half again what Corbin’s was, and he led the AL in hit batters each of the past two seasons), an extra 30 or 40 innings pitched per year, and age—Corbin’s almost six years younger, and would likely sign a longer-term contract. These aren’t trivial advantages, but a team can work around them, and in a one-game setting, those differences would be imperceptible. That’s the bet the Yankees just made with Paxton; Morton represents a similar proposition without the cost in prospects.