The Major League Baseball offseason is now officially in full swing, although after a shortened season without a live audience due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, most fans and analysts expect things to progress slowly and the market for free agents to be depressed. Still, that has not stopped the national websites from ranking their top available players. One such site is MLB Trade Rumors, who recently listed their top-50 free agents and offered predictions as to where each would land.
After an extremely mediocre season that ended in an eighth-seed playoff berth and a quick first-round exit at the hand of the eventual World Series champions, the Milwaukee Brewers could go any number of directions this winter. If the team wants to compete for their fourth-consecutive postseason appearance in 2021, several needs will have to be addressed. The team has no obvious internal solution at either third base or first base, received little production from Omar Narvaez behind the plate or Avisail Garcia in the outfield, and like pretty much every other MLB franchise, could use additional pitching depth.
Given those weaknesses in mind, the analysts over at MLBTR have predicted that the Brewers will land two major free agents — both bounce back candidates who figure to be available on relatively owner-friendly, short-term deals:
LHP Robbie Ray
Ray has long been seen as a high-upside pitcher who has had difficulty getting the most out of his skills because of inconsistent control of the strike zone. That was more evident than ever in 2020 as Ray limped to a 6.62 ERA and 6.50 FIP across 51.2 innings with the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays. He struck out 68 batters, but also issued a whopping 45 free passes and coughed up 13 long balls. For his career, Ray owns marks of 4.28 BB/9 and 1.31 HR/9 allowed.
From his first full big league season in 2015 through 2019, however, Ray authored a much more steady 3.96 ERA (112 ERA+) across 140 starts and 762.0 innings pitched with Arizona. He has always been able to miss bats (11.3 K/9 career) and he saw his velocity rebound in a major way during the 2020 campaign (up 1.2 MPH to 93.9 MPH). Ray is still relatively young entering only his age-29 season. If some improvements to his strike-throwing ability can be made, Ray could be a potential front-line starter. But even if he can only rebound to be the league-average or slightly better starter that he was for five years before 2020, that would be well worth the one-year and $6 mil that MLBTR predicts he will net. For what it’s worth, the Brewers were linked to Ray in advance of the 2019 trade deadline.
1B Carlos Santana
Santana appeared in all 60 games and walked more than he struck out this past season while leading American League hitters with 47 free passes, but he also posted a below-average batting line by wRC+ for the first time in his career. The veteran slugger managed only a .199/.350/.349 slash line in 255 plate appearances for the Indians this past season, good for a 95 wRC+. Santana’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and ISO were all career-worsts, and he hit only 8 home runs among just 15 extra-base hits in 2020.
Santana was hurt by a .212 batting average on balls in play this past season, the worst output of his career. As someone who isn’t exactly fleet of foot that happens to pull the ball a lot, however, his career BABIP is only .266. Santana’s average exit velocity and hard hit rate were both his lowest since the start of The Statcast Era, and his batting line got worse as the year went on — a 120 wRC+ in July, 103 in August, and 78 in September.
2020 was a weird year though, and Santana has a long track record as an excellent hitter at the game’s highest level. He is a career .248/.366/.446 hitter in nearly 1,500 career games (121 wRC+) who posted 10 straight seasons with a wRC+ over 100 from 2010-19. He puts the bat on the ball (16.5% strikeout rate career), hits for power (7 seasons with 20+ home runs), draws a ton of walks (15.5% career BB rate), and is a switch-hitter who has been similarly effective against both righties (119 wRC+) and lefties (127 wRC+) during the course of his career. He has also graded out as an average or better defender at first base by Defensive Runs Saved for five straight seasons, including +5 DRS in 60 starts at the cold corner in 2020.
Santana turns 35 next April, so the question is whether he can return to being an elite bat or if 2020 was the beginning of the end. With his track record and a predicted one-year, $6 mil contract, it might be worthwhile for Milwaukee to find out if he can fill the void at first base, at least in the short-term.
In addition to those two players, MLBTR has Milwaukee listed as possible fits for a handful of other players on their top-50 board. Catcher James McCann, ranked #16 with a predicted two-year, $20 mil deal, could be a target if the team decides to move on from Omar Narvaez. Tommy La Stella — listed at #30 with a 2-year, $14 mil prediction — might be an answer for the Brewers’ hole at third base, but with his versatility he could plug a leak on just about anyone’s roster. Veteran right-hander Rick Porcello worked to a 5.64 ERA in 59.0 innings for the Mets in 2020, but a .373 BABIP against and a 3.33 FIP suggest that he was the victim of some misfortune. He’s ranked #46 overall and forecasted to find a one-year, $5 mil pact.
The Milwaukee Brewers are sure to engage the free agent market this winter, but it remains to be seen what caliber of player they’ll go after and how much money they’ll be willing to dish out.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs