10 free agents poised to bounce back in '21

January 25th, 2021

As any good investor can tell you, it’s hard to build a fortune by splurging on the hot, surging stocks. You make bank by buying the dip -- distressed or undervalued assets are due to rise.

And in recent days, we’ve seen some teams buying the dip. The Yankees did it with starter Corey Kluber, who has made just seven starts over the past two seasons but has two American League Cy Young Awards on his resume. The Blue Jays did it with reliever Kirby Yates, who pitched just 4 1/3 innings in 2020.

Here are some remaining “buy the dip” opportunities in this free-agent class. (Ages listed as of Opening Day 2021.)

, RHP (age 31)
The 2020 season was shortened for everybody but especially Odorizzi. He made just four starts for the Twins, totaling 13 2/3 innings. He was struck in the chest by a comebacker in one of those innings, necessitating a trip to the injured list. This was just after he missed time with an intercostal strain and just before he dealt with a blister issue. So luck was not on Odorizzi’s side (and neither were the results, as he posted a 6.59 ERA). But you’ll notice none of these injuries involved the elbow or shoulder. Odorizzi had a 3.51 ERA and 129 ERA+ in '19, he's entering his age-31 season, and his stuff is intact. He might be the best starting pitcher on the board after Trevor Bauer.

, SS (age 30)
Semien ran into a double dose of free-agent frustration -- first with his disappointing 2020 after finishing third in AL MVP Award voting in '19, and then with a free-agent and trade market that was/is crowded with shortstops and short on teams in need of a shortstop. So he’s been working out at other infield positions to improve his stock. As for that steep decline in offensive production last year, a bad start (.207 OBP and .232 SLG in the season’s first two weeks) to the strange year marred his overall numbers. Semien’s performance the rest of the way (.337 OBP, .426 SLG) was much more respectable. He might not reach an MVP level again, but he’s still a valuable defender capable of better-than-league-average production at age 30.

, 2B (age 30)
It is readily acknowledged that Wong, who won his second consecutive Gold Glove Award in 2020, is a gifted defender. But it’s his bat that ultimately compelled the Cardinals to decline his $12.5 million option for '21. Wong suffered a major power decline in '20, shaving 97 points off his slugging percentage. His OPS+ of 87 was 13 percent worse than league average. Compare that to his '19 mark of 108, which is 8 better than league average. If Wong can combine that glove of his with even an average production, he’s a really valuable player. Alas, his '20 batted-ball data was ugly. So ugly I won’t even cite it here. But his whiff and K rates remained among the best in baseball, making him a legit leadoff option, and the power output did improve slightly in the season’s final month.

, OF (age 28)
Pederson had enough huge moments in the postseason for the World Series champion Dodgers that his rough regular season is basically an afterthought. Still, the .190/.285/.397 slash line was definitely sub-par for Pederson, who ordinarily dominates righties. Those numbers, though, were a pretty obvious product of poor luck, as Pederson’s average exit velocity ranked 10th in MLB and his .200 batting average on balls in play was 57 points below his career norm. He remains a worthy platoon player, as is evidenced by his October.

, OF (age 30)
To be honest, Puig could be five years out of baseball with a potbelly and running a used muffler shop, and I’d probably still recommend that someone sign him. The game is more fun with Puig, and so his absence was felt when a deal with the Braves fell through and he remained unsigned in 2020. Puig has done himself no favors with some on-field and off-field antics over the years, but hopefully, the year away has taught him a hard lesson. Take advantage of his reverse-platoon split by employing him against right-handed pitching (.285/.350/.495 career slash), and it says here the 30-year-old Puig can still be a valuable contributor to a ballclub.

, RHP (age 32)
Unfortunately, Archer is no longer remembered most for being a two-time All-Star who once finished fifth in the AL Cy Young Award voting. He’s remembered more for being on the wrong end of the trade that brought Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows to Tampa Bay. Archer had a 4.92 ERA in 33 starts for the Pirates from 2018-19 and didn’t pitch in 2020 after having thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. There’s really no telling how he’ll recover from that (See: Harvey, Matt), but he’s expected to be ready for Spring Training, and he pitched better in the second half of '19 after ditching a failed sinker and going back to his old pitch mix. A low-guarantee, incentive-laden deal could make him a worthwhile lottery ticket for pretty much any club looking for rotation depth.

, OF (age 37)
It’s pretty widely assumed Gardner will just end up back with the Yankees, especially given how right-handed their projected lineup is. But with Clint Frazier having earned an everyday job in left field, that’s no certainty. So maybe someone with more outfield innings to offer should take a shot on Gardner. Yes, his numbers took a precipitous dip from 2019 (.251 average, .503 slugging percentage) to '20 (.223, .392), and so it’s deceptively easy to write him off as a washed-up 37-year-old. But his hard-hit rate actually increased year over year, from 32.6 percent to 36.5 percent, and his walk rate (16.5 percent) and sprint speed (83rd percentile) were among the best in baseball.

, RHP (age 27)
Kela sandwiched a positive COVID-19 test and a right forearm strain around his only two innings for the Pirates in 2020. So as with Odorizzi, it was a lost season for him. And to be sure, health has rarely been on the side of the former Rangers closer, who has logged 40 innings in a season just twice since coming up in '15. But he’s struck out roughly one-third of batters faced in his career, with a solid 1.12 WHIP. So if he can prove he’s healthy, he’d be a nice bounce-back bet in the volatile relief world.

, LHP (age 32)
“Big Maple” has one of the best nicknames in baseball (18th best, by one count), but he doesn’t have one of the best track records in terms of durability. He’s yet to qualify for an ERA title. In 2020, the velocity on all of his offerings was down in six starts following back surgery before he was shut down. But the 32-year-old’s fastball velo was back up slightly in a recent bullpen session for scouts, and his performance track record when healthy (a 3.50 ERA and 117 ERA+) is strong.

, LHP (age 34)
Doolittle was one of the best closers in the game in 2018, with a 1.60 ERA and 0.60 WHIP for the Nationals. He had an uneven '19 and then a disastrous '20 (5.87 ERA, 1.70 WHIP), with a nearly three-mile-per-hour drop in his average fastball velocity. Major red flags for a 34-year-old reliever. The company line, though, was that Doolittle was affected by the strange ramp-up to the '20 season. For what it’s worth, he did finish the season with six scoreless outings, getting better results with a slightly altered pitch mix (more sliders and split-fingered fastballs). And his velocity was trending upward at season’s end, too.