9 players looking for fresh start after tough Year 1 of new deals
A year ago at this time, we were wondering where several notable free agents would end up, including Kris Bryant, Trevor Story, Javier Báez, Nick Castellanos, Chris Taylor and Eduardo Rodriguez. What else do those players have in common other than being part of last offseason's free-agent class? They all had 2022 seasons they’d like to forget about.
Now that the calendar has flipped to 2023, the question is: Will the new year bring good fortunes on the diamond for these guys? Here’s a look at nine players hoping to rebound in Year 2 of free-agent deals this season and why there’s reason to believe it can happen.
Kris Bryant, Rockies
The baseball world was shocked when Bryant signed a seven-year, $182 million deal with the Rockies. Hopes were high in the Mile High City that he would be the big-name slugger the team needed in the middle of its lineup after the departures of Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story. But it didn’t work out that way, at least in 2022.
Bryant suffered a pair of injuries that limited him to just 42 games in his first season with Colorado. A back injury landed him on the injured list less than a month into the season, and after he returned from that, a foot issue that was later diagnosed as plantar fasciitis kept him out of the lineup for most of the remainder. In 181 plate appearances, Bryant did hit .306/.376/.475, but he enters 2023 without a homer at Coors Field in a Rockies uniform.
As he turns 31 on Wednesday, Bryant already boasts quite the resume, with a Rookie of the Year Award, a Most Valuable Player Award, four All-Star selections and a World Series ring to his name. But he’ll need to prove he can stay on the field moving forward -- last season wasn’t the first in which he missed significant time due to injury.
What Bryant has proven is that when he’s in the lineup, he’s productive. His career slash line is .279/.376/.503 with 172 homers in just over 4,000 plate appearances. Much of the Rockies’ hopes fall on Bryant’s shoulders -- and back and foot -- and Colorado will hope he’s on the field for at least 150 games in ’23.
Trevor Story, Red Sox
We go from a new Rockie to a former Rockie. Story’s first season in Boston didn’t go the way he would’ve hoped, though there was a stretch over which he was the hottest hitter on the planet. The shortstop-turned-second-baseman (turned shortstop again?) had a lot on his plate going into his first season with the Red Sox -- a new team, of course, but also a new position and a baby on the way.
Story inked a six-year, $140 million deal with Boston and got off to a slow start at the plate, batting under .200 as late as May 15, when his OPS was .562 with one home run. But then he had a tremendous 10-game stretch in which he launched eight homers. His slugging percentage skyrocketed nearly 200 points in the process, and it appeared that Story was flipping the script.
But Story went homerless with a .552 OPS over his next 20 games. Still, he was undeterred, hitting .271/.307/.496 the rest of the way, though he was sidelined with wrist and heel injuries that limited him to 13 games in the second half.
With the changes and injuries behind him, and assuming he can stay on the field for most of next season, there’s no reason to believe Story won’t be the Story he was in Colorado, where he had a .909 OPS (123 OPS+) with 83 homers and 65 steals from 2018-20, before an elbow injury derailed him in ’21.
Javier Báez, Tigers
Báez’s first taste of the American League was bitter – he hit just .238/.278/.393 with 17 homers in his first season with Detroit after spending the first eight years of his career in the National League with the Cubs (and the Mets for a couple of months in 2021).
Those numbers are a bit deceiving, though. Báez had a very difficult start to his Tigers career, and by June 15, he was hitting .190 with a .524 OPS. From there on out, however, he hit .264/.302/.448 with 14 homers in 94 games.
If the adjustment to a new team and league were truly the reason he struggled early on, we could see a much more Báez-like performance for Detroit in ’23.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Tigers
Another Tiger who wishes his first year in Detroit went better than it did, Rodriguez is looking to regain the form he had with the Red Sox before he missed the entire 2020 campaign due to heart inflammation resulting from a COVID-19 infection.
In 2019, Rodriguez had the best season of his career. In a Major League-best 34 starts, the left-hander had a 3.81 ERA (128 ERA+) over 203 1/3 innings for Boston. He’s still only 29, and he’s shown he can be one of the better starters in the AL. Interestingly, in ’21, when he made 31 starts, his 3.47 xERA was more than a run lower than his actual ERA of 4.74 (his FIP was also much lower, at 3.32), meaning he appeared to be the victim of bad batted-ball luck.
Last season, Rodriguez made only 17 starts after missing time with a rib cage injury and then taking a three-month leave of absence on the restricted list to address a family situation. If he has an uninterrupted 2023 campaign, and his luck is better than what it was in ’21, the veteran left-hander could return to prominence in his age-30 season.
Nick Castellanos, Phillies
That the Phillies nearly won it all with Castellanos posting a .694 OPS in the regular season is quite something. When he reached a five-year, $100 million deal with Philadelphia last offseason, Castellanos joined a lineup featuring then-reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper and, very soon thereafter, another free-agent slugger, Kyle Schwarber. While the defense would certainly be a question mark in the outfield, the potential for fireworks at the plate was big.
While Harper had another fantastic year in spite of injuries, and Schwarber led the NL with 46 homers, Castellanos never truly got going offensively. That is going to have to change in 2023, particularly because the defending NL champions will be without Harper for at least the first half of the season (recovery from Tommy John surgery).
While his overall numbers for the regular season weren’t great, there were some encouraging signs for Castellanos before an oblique injury caused him to miss most of September -- from July 2-Aug. 27, he hit .303/.327/.431. Prior to that, he was slowed by a wrist injury, posting a .674 OPS through 75 games. His bat didn't wake up in the postseason (.478 OPS in 17 games), but he did manage to contribute with his defense.
Much like others on this list, if he can stay in the lineup at full strength, Castellanos should return to his All-Star form from 2021 with Cincinnati.
Chris Taylor, Dodgers
Taylor proved to be a key cog in the Dodgers’ well-oiled machine from 2017-21, when he had an .804 OPS with 78 homers and helped Los Angeles win a World Series title in ’20. Then, during the ’21 postseason, he followed an All-Star regular-season campaign by hitting .476 with three homers in the NL Championship Series against the Braves.
All of that earned Taylor a four-year, $60 million contract to remain with the Dodgers. Unfortunately, 2022 was a down year for him -- his OPS dropped more than 100 points from the prior season, to .677 in 118 games. He had a really tough second half, hitting .193/.278/.313.
While those numbers are tough to look at, there is a silver lining: Despite his OPS falling so drastically from 2021 to ’22, Taylor’s hard-hit rate and barrel rate were each nearly identical in both years. His hard-hit rate in ’21 was 38.1 percent compared to 38 percent in ’22, while his barrel rate was exactly the same in both years, at 10.2 percent.
Although his chase rate was in the 83rd percentile last season, Taylor’s strikeout rate was way up, from 28.7 percent to 35.2 percent year-over-year from 2021-22. That will need to change if he’s going to bounce back in ’23.
Avisaíl García, Marlins
García inked a four-year, $53 million contract with Miami following a great 2021 campaign, in which he hit .262/.330/.490 with 26 homers in 135 games for the Brewers. But his first year with the Marlins was a disappointment. He was limited to 98 games because of lingering hamstring issues, as well as back and hand injuries. In 380 plate appearances, he had a .582 OPS with only 17 extra-base hits (eight homers).
The question with García has always been health -- he’s played in more than 130 games only three times during his 11-year MLB career. In the last two such seasons, he posted an OPS over .800, including an .885 mark during an All-Star campaign in 2017 with the White Sox.
The formula is pretty simple for the 31-year-old slugger, and it’s a familiar one for players on this list: stay on the field. If he can do that in 2023, it could be a very good year for him.
Jorge Soler, Marlins
Another Marlins slugger who slumped in his first season with the club, Soler wasn’t able to follow up an MVP performance in the 2021 World Series for the Braves with anything close to that with Miami in ’22.
Soler was hurt for much of last season with back issues and only played in 72 games, hitting .207/.295/.400 with 13 homers in 270 plate appearances. Compare that to his production after the Royals dealt him to Atlanta the prior summer -- in 64 fewer plate appearances down the stretch with the Braves, he smashed 14 homers with an .882 OPS.
After setting a Royals franchise record with 48 home runs in 2019 (tied by Salvador Perez in ’21), Soler had a down year in the pandemic-shortened ’20 campaign and a poor start in ’21 before his rejuvenation with the eventual World Series champion Braves. But he has yet to turn 31, and he's not far removed from good offensive production.
Once again, assuming health, look for Soler to bounce back in 2023.
Mark Melancon, D-backs
This one’s iffy, given we’re talking about a veteran reliever -- relievers’ performances can vary drastically from one year to the next, and Melancon is going to be 38 on Opening Day. But we’re also talking about a guy who led the Majors with 39 saves to go along with a 2.23 ERA for the Padres in 2021.
That was before Melancon signed a two-year deal with the D-backs, and 2022 wasn’t as kind to the right-hander. His ERA was 4.66, his highest mark in 10 years, and his WHIP was 1.50.
The silver lining, though hard to find, was that Melancon’s walk rate was actually lower in 2022 (8.5 percent) than in ’21 (9.4 percent). The problem was that his strikeout rate dropped drastically, from 22.3 percent to 14.2 percent, and the quality of opponents’ contact was far better in ’22 -- their average exit velocity jumped from 86.6 mph to 89.7 (the highest Statcast has ever tracked in Melancon’s career) and the hard-hit rate went from 36.1 percent to 38.9 percent.
Some of that may be a result of Melancon losing a tick on his fastball. It averaged 92 mph in 2021, and 90.9 mph last year. That raises the age and mileage questions again, but if there’s one thing Melancon has shown throughout his career, it's his ability to rebound following bad years -- see 2012, and 2017.