16 Impending Free Agents Off To Slow Starts At The Plate

MLB Trade Rumors

The Padres cut ties with Robinson Cano this morning, just as the Mets did before them. It was a tougher decision for the Mets, given the financial obligation they have toward Cano through the 2023 season. However, his lack of production and the presence of younger, better options forced the hand of both parties.

We’re coming up on a third of the way through the 2022 season, and it’ll become increasingly difficult for teams with struggling veterans in the Cano mold to continue trotting them out there. That’s especially true of players who are impending free agents. While fans can (and do) disagree with the thinking, a player like Aaron Hicks, whom the Yankees owe $30.5MM from 2023-25, will get a longer leash than an impending free agent due to that multi-year commitment. So while there are plenty of struggling veterans on long-term deals, those with the thinnest grasp on their current roster spots are those who’ll be off the books at season’s end anyhow.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some names to watch and, when applicable, some of the names behind them who could aid in pushing them out the door (all stats entering Thursday’s play):

Carlos Santana, Royals: I’m not sure anyone other than the Royals’ front office understands the thinking behind continuing to trot Santana out to the field at this point. The 36-year-old is hitting .161/.293/.250 through 147 plate appearances, and it’s not as though that enormous slump is an entirely new development. Santana hit just .214/.319/.342 while playing in 158 of 162 games for the Royals last year and .199/.340/.350 in Cleveland during the shortened 2020 season.

Santana’s very presence on the Royals is due to the team’s effort to return to win-now mode after a rebuild focused on drafting college arms. He signed a two-year, $17.5MM contract heading into the 2021 season but hasn’t been able to bounce back to the form that long made him one of the game’s biggest on-base threats and most underrated offensive performers.

Signing Santana might’ve been a “win-now” move, but it’s hard to argue that continuing to run him out there is in the Royals’ best interest. That’s doubly true with top prospects Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino mashing in Triple-A Omaha. Both are in the same first base/designated hitter mold as Santana, and both Pratto (55) and Pasquantino (61) rank prominently in Baseball America’s updated Top 100 prospect rankings. Pratto got off to a slow start but is hitting .246/.392/.483 over his past 148 plate appearances. Pasquantino burst out of the gates and hasn’t slowed down; he’s hitting .298/.392/.667 with 15 home runs in 204 plate appearances.

The Royals owe Santana the balance of his $10.5MM salary whether he’s on the roster or not, but he’ll start racking up incentives when he reaches 300 plate appearances.

Joey Gallo, Yankees: Gallo was one of the Yankees’ biggest trade-deadline additions in recent years, but he’s never found his footing in the Bronx. His status as a three-true-outcomes player is well-documented, but he’s trended more aggressively toward the least-desirable of those outcomes since donning pinstripes. Gallo has fanned in 38% of his plate appearances as a Yankee while seeing both his power and his walk rate dip. Since the Yankees acquired him, he’s batting .167/.295/.370.

Even with the short porch in right field, Gallo has only five home runs through 141 plate appearances this season. He’s also seen his average exit velocity, launch angle and barrel rate drop in 2022. Gallo is still making loads of hard contact when he hits the ball in the air, per Statcast, and perhaps that’s helping to keep him both in the lineup and on the roster. New York isn’t getting any real offense from Hicks, Isiah Kiner-Falefa or Kyle Higashioka, however. Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson are once again on the injured list. Anthony Rizzo had a massive April but is batting just .162/.274/.303 in his past 117 plate appearances. The Yankees’ AL East lead has begun to shrink, as the Jays have rattled off eight straight wins, and they can’t realistically count on Aaron Judge to carry the offense all season long.

Gallo doesn’t have a high-end outfield prospect breathing down his neck, but if he can’t get things going at the plate, the calls for change are only going to grow louder. He’s earning $10.275MM in his final arbitration season before free agency, and another club might view him as a change-of-scenery candidate with the hopes that he’ll be the position-player equivalent of Sonny Gray and thrive following a rocky stint in the Bronx.

Adam Duvall, Braves: Like Gallo, Duvall’s skill set and offensive profile were well established when the Braves opted to retain him via arbitration. He was coming off a 38-homer campaign, so there was never much doubt he’d be tendered a contract, but Duvall’s brand of huge power/bottom-of-the-scale OBP always left him with a pretty low floor should the power ever evaporate.

That’s been the case in 2022, as Duvall still isn’t walking or hitting for average, and he’s only slugged two homers on the season. Paired with a career-worst 31.9% strikeout rate, those troubling trends have resulted in a .191/.257/.272 slash for Duvall, who has also already been tasked with playing more center field in 2022 than he had in his entire career to date.

Atlanta has already called up Michael Harris II, one of the sport’s fastest-rising outfield talents, and former top prospect Drew Waters is at least putting together respectable, if unexciting results in Triple-A. The Braves have also tinkered with catcher William Contreras in the outfield. Duvall has been MLB’s second-worst qualified hitter, by measure of wRC+, and it’s fair to wonder how long the leash will be.

Miguel Sano, Twins: Sano isn’t technically a free agent at season’s end, but barring a Herculean push to finish the season, it’s nearly impossible to fathom the Twins picking up a $14MM option on him. To Sano’s credit, he hit quite well from June through season’s end (.251/.330/.503, 21 homers, 21 doubles in 373 plate appearances), but he looked absolutely lost at the plate in 2022 before landing on the injured list due to a torn meniscus. Sano hit just .093/.231/.148 in 65 plate appearances.

When Sano does return, he’ll come back to a retooled roster that has seen versatile Luis Arraez rake while picking up regular at-bats at first base. Former No. 1 pick Royce Lewis is getting looks at third base and in left field — though Lewis is on the 10-day IL himself now — and top outfield/first base prospect Alex Kirilloff is hitting well in Triple-A following his return from a wrist injury.

The Twins can keep Sano in Triple-A for 20 days on rehab assignment when he’s ready, and they may want to do just that to give him a chance to show he can recapture some of his late 2021 form. But the clock on Sano’s three-year, $30MM deal is running out, and the first-place Twins have plenty of options to fill out the lineup. None of them have Sano’s raw power — almost no one in MLB does — but the big man’s ongoing contact issues tend to lead to protracted slumps like the one he slogged through earlier this year. If he can’t turn it around quickly upon his return, it’d be difficult to justify playing him over Arraez, Kirilloff and others.

Enrique Hernandez & Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox: Hernandez was a revelation in 2021 when he smacked 20 homers, hit .250/.337/.449, and delivered all-world defense in center field. But as good as year one of his $14MM contract was, the second and final campaign of that deal has been nightmarish. Hernandez is hitting .203/.269/.340 with a career-low hard-hit rate and exit velocity. He’s still playing great defense in center and helping shoulder the second base workload, but the offensive deficiency is glaring.

That’s also somewhat true of Bradley Jr., who returned to Boston after one ill-fated season in Milwaukee. To Bradley’s credit, he has actually picked up the pace quite a bit, hitting .291/.328/.491 since mid-May, but that surge still only brings his overall season line to .227/.284/.353. If Bradley can sustain some of this production, he’ll surely hang onto his roster spot, but it’s hard not to look at young Jarren Duran’s .309/.391/.523 output in Triple-A and start thinking of ways to insert him into the big league lineup. Duran struggled in his debut last year but is still a touted young prospect whom the Sox envision as a long-term building block.

Hernandez is earning $8MM this season. Bradley is on a $9.5MM salary and is still owed an $8MM buyout on a mutual option for the 2023 season.

Yuli Gurriel, Martin Maldonado & Jason Castro, Astros: Gurriel won a batting title and looked like one of the game’s best pure hitters in 2021, but he’s started his 2022 season with a woeful .223/.261/.361 performance through 176 plate appearances. His strikeout rate is up about four percentage points, while his walk rate has halved and his hard-contact numbers have plummeted. Gurriel is also chasing more pitches off the plate (36.4% in 2022, 29.8% in 2021) and making contact on pitches out of the zone at a far lower rate (74.5% in 2022, 81.9% in 2021).

Houston’s catchers, meanwhile, have been the least-productive in baseball. Maldonado has never been much of a hitter but is batting only .133/.208/.239 this season. Castro hasn’t even been able to match that, batting .104/.228/.146. If catching prospect Korey Lee weren’t enduring immense struggles of his own in Triple-A, a change might’ve already been made.

It seems unlikely that the Astros would cut bait on Gurriel, who’s been a prominent presence and one of the team’s most productive hitters since signing more than a half-decade ago. A reduced role is something they’ll have to consider if he can’t right the ship, however. The catchers seem far more vulnerable, and there figure to be some prominent names available on the trade market (Willson Contreras, most notably). That Houston is leading the AL West by 5.5 games despite having the least-productive catchers (29 wRC+) and 29th-ranked offensive output from its first basemen (74 wRC+) is both a testament to their pitching and indictment on the play of their divisional opponents thus far.

Gurriel is being paid $8MM in 2022, while Maldonado is earning a $5MM salary and Castro is at $3.5MM.

Andrew McCutchen, Brewers: Milwaukee added McCutchen on a one-year, $8MM contract this offseason with the idea of installing him as their primary designated hitter. McCutchen tormented the Brewers during his early years with the Pirates, which included an NL MVP win, but he’s hitting .214/.263/.312 to begin his tenure in Milwaukee. Even McCutchen’s typically outstanding production against lefties has gone up in smoke this year, as he’s managed a .196/.224/.391 slash against them.

Despite McCutchen’s ineffectiveness, the Brewers are leading the Majors in homers (70) and sit fifth in total runs scored (238). But if McCutchen, who’s hitless in six straight and has been 73% worse than average at the plate since a return from the Covid list (27 wRC+ in 57 plate appearances), can’t begin to show some signs of life, the Brewers could be on the lookout for some offensive help as the Aug. 2 trade deadline draws nearer.

Robbie Grossman & Tucker Barnhart, Tigers: Between Grossman, Austin Meadows and Victor Reyes, the Tigers have an entire outfield on the injured list. Underwhelming play from young options like Daz Cameron, Akil Baddoo and Derek Hill will probably extend Grossman’s leash, but he was hitting a career-worst .199/.311/.241 in 167 plate appearances prior to landing on the IL due to ongoing neck soreness. Grossman has a solid track record, but the Tigers will also want to get a look at top prospect Riley Greene soon, and they’re giving Kody Clemens an opportunity after a nice start down in Toledo.

Behind the plate, the Tigers are probably content with Barnhart’s glovework and leadership. There was talk of a potential extension after he was acquired, but a .229/.263/.257 start might have tempered that. Backup Eric Haase isn’t hitting enough to force a change, and the Tigers’ Triple-A catchers are journeymen Dustin Garneau and Ryan Lavarnway. They have a well-regarded prospect at Double-A in Dillon Dingler, but Barnhart shouldn’t be in imminent danger of losing his spot at this time.

Maikel Franco, Nationals: Franco is probably only in this everyday role because Carter Kieboom suffered an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery, but he hasn’t done much with his latest opportunity. The former Phillies, Royals and Orioles third baseman is hitting .258/.284/.374 (82 wRC+) through 208 plate appearances. The Nats have an ultra-thin farm system without much in the way of third base options in the upper minors, and they’re clearly not winning anything this year anyhow. That might keep Franco safe, but if an even semi-interesting option presents itself on the waiver wire, there’s little reason not to take a look.

Corey Dickerson, Cardinals: Prior to the 2022 season, Dickerson had never been worse than five percent below-average with the bat in any full year (by wRC+). That’s all but certain to change now, as the typically steady lefty has posted an uncharacteristic .183/.238/.215 slash in 101 plate appearances. For a lifetime .283/.327/.488 hitter who was coming off a solid 2021 campaign, it’s a rather astonishing swoon.

Dickerson has been in a platoon with Albert Pujols at DH for the most part, logging only 110 innings on defense in the outfield corners recently due to injuries elsewhere on the roster. He’s also only on a one-year, $5MM contract, so if he can’t find his swing in the near future, it’s easy to see the Cards giving more at-bats to Pujols’ long-shot chase for 700 home runs and to young standout Juan Yepez. Dickerson is safe for now with both Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson on the injured list, but he needs a hot streak sooner than later.

Mike Zunino, Rays: Zunino’s career-high 33 home runs from a year ago feel like a distant memory, as he’s off to a .147/.193/.294 start in 109 plate appearances in 2022. He’s still drawing excellent marks for his defensive contributions, which the Rays value heavily, but Zunino isn’t even hitting against lefties, whom he’s handled well throughout his career — particularly in recent seasons.

Backup Francisco Mejia isn’t hitting much himself, going just 6-for-42 without a walk over the past month or so. Were he producing at the plate, it’d be more tempting for Tampa Bay to significantly reduce Zunino’s playing time. The Rays do have 25-year-old Rene Pinto mashing in Triple-A, and he’s made his big league debut already this year. As with the Astros, however, the Rays are in firm win-now mode and entered the season with World Series aspirations. If the in-house options aren’t performing up to par, the trade market beckons.

Austin Hedges, Guardians: Hedges has never hit and has always been one of the game’s premier defensive players, so his 2022 season is nothing new. Still, a .155/.223/.282 output from your primary catcher is just difficult to stomach, no matter how strong the defense is. Veteran backup Luke Maile has hit well in a tiny sample of 35 plate appearances, but he’s a career .208/.264/.317 hitter himself.

Prospect Bryan Lavastida got a brief MLB cup of coffee in April and is hitting .225/.330/.360 so far in Triple-A. His performance will bear monitoring, because if the Guardians are intent on pulling into the playoff picture, Hedges’ production might be too light to overlook. And if they end up selling at the deadline, Hedges could draw interest from a team seeking a glove-first backup option — which could open a door for Lavastida.

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