MLB free agency: Five rebound candidates on new teams

By the time the holidays rolled around, there weren’t many free agent gifts left to stuff into suitors’ stockings.

This offseason’s top picks signed their deals quickly. As of Thursday, 30 of the top 33 free agents (based on last season’s FanGraphs WAR totals) had already signed.

Additionally, 27 of the top 30 free agent signings are making at least $10 million in average annual value with their new contract. Teams take chances on the upside, often with the hope that a change of scenery will bring out the best in some recovery candidates.

Here are five free agent signings who could bounce back on new teams next season.

Note: Only players with an fWAR under 3.0 last season were considered for this list.

1. Josh Bell1B

Team change: San Diego Padres at Cleveland Guardians

Contract: Two years, $33 million

2022 WAR: 2.0

Career fWAR: 8.3

Best fWAR Season: 2.9 (2019)

Bell won a Silver Slugger Award during the 2022 season, so at first glance it may seem odd to put him on this list; but it seems fair considering how his year ended with the Padres. Bell looked like a different hitter before and after his trade to San Diego.

At 29, with a slash line of .301/.384/.493 with a 153 OPS+ in 103 games in Washington, Bell looked like much more than a pitching player in the Juan Soto deal for a Padres team that suddenly he was ready to make noise. . It didn’t turn out the way Bell or his new club envisioned.

While he had a couple of memorable postseason moments (he homered in both the wild-card and championship series), Bell posted a .587 OPS with three homers in 53 regular-season games for San Diego as he saw his slugging percentage and barrel percentage drop. a little and his average exit velocity drops considerably.

The Guardians desperately needed to add some pop to their lineup, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 2019 All-Star return to his form from the first half of 2022. Bell could go for it as well, signing a two years for $33 million with an opt-out. The hitter, who was moved 55.8 percent of the time as a lefty, should also benefit at least slightly from the new trade rules.

2. Noah SyndergaardRHP

Team change: Philadelphia Phillies at Los Angeles Dodgers

Contract: One year, $13 million

2022 WAR: 2.2

Career fWAR: 21.0

Best fWAR Season: 6.0 (2016)

Will Syndergaard be this year’s Tyler Anderson? The Dodgers have a knack for getting the best out of their pitchers and have a track record of success working with the former All-Star right-hander.

Syndergaard was more of a useful depth piece between the Angels and Phillies in 2022 than the top-line star he was in his 20s with the Mets. He went 10-10 with a 3.94 ERA and said after the season that he felt like he was struggling for himself. After suffering a setback in his Tommy John recovery in May 2021, he was unable to regain his typical velocity in his first full season and saw confidence in his delivery and mechanics fluctuate.

He’s confident that 2023 will yield different results and that he can hit triple digits again (he was throwing 97-98 mph in his bullpens before the setback), an effort as difficult as that can be at age 30 after averaging 94.1. mph on his four-seamer bike last season. He signed a one-year deal in Los Angeles in hopes of rebuilding his value, much like Anderson and Andrew Heaney did with their outbursts in Los Angeles last season. Even if Syndergaard doesn’t return to the 97.8 mph he averaged with his fastball before Tommy John surgery, just a slight boost and the right pitching combination could make him look more like himself with the Dodgers .

3. Cody BellingerCF

Team change: Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs

Contract: One year, $17.5 million (mutual option for 2024)

2022 WAR: 1.7

Career fWAR: 17.3

Best fWAR Season: 7.7 (2019)

Is the MVP version of Bellinger still around?

This might be the biggest question mark of any recovery candidate. There is no doubt about the ceiling. MVP at age 23 just four seasons ago, Bellinger has already proven his abilities. He hit 47 homers and slashed .305/.406/.629 in 156 games that year.

He hasn’t played at this level since either.

The decline began in 2020, but he was still more than useful offensively in that shortened season. The slide was pronounced after he hurt his shoulder in a postseason celebration at home later that year. As the injuries piled up, including a hairline fracture in his leg shortly after returning from shoulder surgery, he never regained his offensive form. Among players with at least 300 plate appearances in 2021, Bellinger finished ahead of only Austin Hedges and Jackie Bradley Jr. in wRC+. Despite nearly hitting twice in 2022 as well, it was still a considerably below-average offensive year last season (78 OPS+, 83 wRC+).

At the very least, Bellinger still gives the Cubs an above-average defender at multiple positions. But they expect more than that with his one-year deal that guarantees him $17.5 million. That’s a contract not far off what the Dodgers would have had to pay Bellinger in arbitration before they decided to move forward without tendering the 27-year-old, a move that would have seemed unfathomable just a couple of years ago.

4. Mitch HanigerRF

Team change: Seattle Mariners at San Francisco Giants

contract: Three years, $43.5 million

2022 WAR: 0.8

Career fWAR: 11.8

Best fWAR Season: 4.8 (2018)

Haniger’s addition likely won’t ease the pain felt by Giants fans, who saw Aaron Judge re-sign in New York and Carlos Correa minutes away from officially joining their club before it all went down. But if he can stay healthy, Haniger should be a valuable addition to San Francisco over the next three years.

It’s hard to put a ton of stock in Haniger’s minor numbers in 2022, given that he played in just 57 games due to an ankle injury. The local product, who was born in Mountain View, Calif., went to high school in San Jose and played college ball at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was hoping to return to the Bay Area after a productive period in Seattle.

Haniger was an above-league average hitter all five seasons with the Mariners. Even in a relatively down year last season (.246/.308/.429), he averaged the highest slugging percentage of his career (47.2) at age 31. The previous season, Haniger hit 39 home runs while playing in 157 games.

When Haniger plays a full season, he tends to produce. He was an All-Star in 2018, when he posted a career-best 139 OPS+ with 26 home runs in 157 games. His problem is staying on the field. He has appeared in more than 100 games just twice since debuting in 2016.

5. Michael ComfortOF

Team change: New York Mets at San Francisco Giants

contract: Two years, $36 million

2022 WAR: DNP (1.4 in 2021)

Career fWAR: 19.3

Best fWAR Season: 4.8 (2017)

Another Giants signing, and the first major addition since the Correa debacle, Conforto will pair with Haniger to help shore up San Francisco’s outfield. Both players have a history of production as well as missed time.

Considered the best hitting outfielder left on the market when he was acquired in late December, Conforto has not played in a game since October 2021. He was a free agent before the 2022 season but missed the entire year after shoulder surgery. While there’s no guarantee he’ll return to pre-injury form (see: Bellinger), he could offer similar value to Haniger.

Conforto’s performance fluctuated in recent years. He finished with an .856 OPS in 2019, a .927 OPS in the shortened 2020 season and a .729 OPS in 2021 while missing a month with a hamstring strain. It might be hard to predict after sitting out an entire year, but Conforto has never produced less than a 1.0 WAR season in his career. He has averaged an .837 OPS over his last five seasons.

Honorable Mention: Mike ClevingerRHP

Team change: San Diego Padres at Chicago White Sox

contract: One year, $12 million (mutual option for 2024)

2022 WAR: 0.4

Career fWAR: 12.1

Best fWAR Season: 4.5 (2019)

It’s hard to fully judge a player in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. However, like Syndergaard, Clevinger dealt with a decline in velocity and strikeout rate upon his return.

Clevinger enjoyed a solid first half in 2022 (3.50 ERA, 1.14 WHIP) and found effectiveness by adding some feathers to his mix, but his productivity dipped after the All- Star while struggling with some physical issues. He didn’t need surgery after the year, but Clevinger said he did get a PRP injection for his right MCL.

Pre-Tommy John, Clevinger was 41-20 with a 2.96 ERA and 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings from 2017 to 2020. FanGraphs predicts a 1.3 WAR season for Clevinger, and perhaps another year may look like -more so in the launcher it was in. his last 20 years. That would help solidify the back end of the White Sox rotation.

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Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously served as editor of the Dodgers’ digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Rowan Kavner.

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