With January coming to a close, most of the biggest free agents have already signed. Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler, and their ilk received new contracts within the first month or two of the offseason. Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista took a while to find a home, but eventually each of them returned to their 2016 employer. That leaves, as of right now, these two players as the top remaining free agents by fWAR:
Top free agents
|Player||Position||2016 team||2016 fWAR|
|Player||Position||2016 team||2016 fWAR|
Those names don’t look all that inspiring. Both have gotten up there in age — Utley is 38, Pagan 35 — which is probably why Steamer projects each of them to be worth less than one win this year. But is that pessimism warranted? Despite their position on the age curve, Utley and Pagan may sustain their 2016 production in 2017, meaning teams in need of a second baseman or outfielder may want to give them a call.
We’ll start with Utley, who has the comparatively bullish projection: Steamer expects him to accrue 0.8 fWAR over 350 plate appearances. Unless you follow the Phillies or Dodgers closely (or you’re Ronald McDonald), your last conception of Utley — like mine, probably — was as one of the worst hitters in the majors. Indeed: Over the first three months of the 2015 season, Utley sputtered his way to a 42 wRC+, the fourth-lowest in the majors. On June 23 of that year, when ankle inflammation sent Utley to the DL, it looked as though his career might be over.
But those early struggles weren’t because Utley had hit a wall. He’d originally strained his ankle before spring training, and the effects seemed to have lingered with him through the first few months of the 2015 campaign. Two months later, he made his return, and since then, he’s looked like a whole new player:
Utley’s newfound aggression allowed him to square up the ball more consistently. Since Aug. 7, 2015 — the date of Utley’s first game back — 219 players have accumulated at least 500 plate appearances. Utley ranks 23rd in that sample with a 38.7 percent hard contact rate, ahead of Cespedes (who’s signed for four years and $110 million) and Trumbo (three years and $37.5 million), among many others.
During that span, Utley also has an average ground ball rate (44.7 percent), an above-average line drive rate (22.7 percent), and a below-average popup rate (2.9 percent). He didn’t waste his solid contact, in other words — he just seemed to get unlucky. In 2017, some of those hard-hit balls should fall in for hits, which could improve his BABIP and ISO beyond the .291 and .130 Steamer predicts.
Shortly after he made his return, the Phillies traded Utley to the Dodgers, with whom he’d spend the next year-plus. While neither of those clubs may want him in 2017 — Los Angeles just traded for Logan Forsythe, and Philadelphia brought in Howie Kendrick in November — some teams still have a need at second base. The Diamondbacks and Royals, two teams that may try to contend this year, are projected to compile 0.6 and 0.4 fWAR, respectively, at the keystone; each of them could make good use of Utley’s services.
Then there’s Pagan, whose outlook is a little less sunny. Steamer pins him at 0.3 fWAR in 366 trips to the dish this season, primarily due to regression at the plate: The system thinks he’ll drop to a 91 wRC+. That, too, is a little suspect, given how comparatively well Pagan’s hit in his five years with the Giants:
Pagan since 2012
Projection systems tend to weight recent outcomes more heavily, which is why Pagan’s 2017 forecast is about midway between his 2015 and 2016 level. In this case, though, that approach might have some flaws, because the latter seems to better represent Pagan’s true talent.
Strikeouts gave Pagan some trouble two years ago — after going down on strikes at a 13.5 percent clip from 2012 to 2014, he saw that figure increase to 16.9 percent in 2015. But his swinging-strike rate actually went down that year, from 4.9 percent to 4.4 percent. Perhaps that’s why in 2016, as he whiffed even less often (4.2 percent of the time), his strikeout rate plummeted to 12.8 percent.
Plus, the contact Pagan made was more beneficial. He’s always performed best when pulling the ball — he has a career pull wRC+ of 161, which dwarfs his 101 wRC+ up the middle and 92 wRC+ the opposite way — and in 2016, he went that way a lot more often:
Pagan batted-ball distribution
Unlike Utley, Pagan didn’t make much solid contact last year — his hard-hit rate of 24.3 percent was one of the lowest in baseball. That’s because Pagan’s game has never revolved around getting good wood; even from 2012 to 2014, he put up a 25.5 percent hard-hit rate. Pagan hits liners (25.1 percent line drive rate in 2016) and legs out grounders (6.6 percent infield hit rate in 2016), and if he can keep doing both of those in 2017 as he did in 2016, he should remain an adequate hitter.
The Giants might still require Pagan’s services — FanGraphs projects their current left fielders to rack up 0.8 fWAR. Their division rival could outbid them, though: The Diamondbacks might have the worst left field group in baseball, at -0.4 fWAR. Pagan doesn’t have the speed to play center field anymore, or to run the bases like he used to; it’s nevertheless easy to imagine him contributing at least one win this year, for whichever team eventually employs him.
Obviously, neither Pagan nor Utley is a perfect player, nor are they as good as they used to be. At this age, they could easily suffer a serious injury or just decline out of nowhere. Yet even with the risks involved, they can help out a team in need — and teams that still have needs don’t have many options left. Spring training starts two weeks from today, so for Arizona, Kansas City, San Francisco, and whoever else, the time to patch up holes is now.
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Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, and about politics for The Diamondback. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.