The free-agent talent pool got a boost on Monday, when 56 players were let go before the deadline to tender contracts to those who were eligible for arbitration.
Some of them won’t move the needle much. Others are useful roster pieces but with relatively low ceilings -- think defense-first outfielder (Kevin Pillar), utility man (Charlie Culberson) or relief specialist (Álex Claudio). Yet there is also some intriguing talent that is newly available, with the potential for big rewards. A year ago, the list of non-tenders included catcher James McCann, who made the All-Star team, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who hit 23 homers, and pitcher Mike Fiers, whose 33 starts included his second career no-hitter.
There is a reason all of these new free agents were cut loose, and while there is often a financial factor involved, injuries or a subpar season often plays a significant role as well.
With that said, here are the top nine non-tendered players who could make a big impact in 2020 -- and make their new clubs look smart.
1) Blake Treinen, RHP (non-tendered by Athletics)
What went wrong: Following a spectacular 2018, Treinen battled some injuries, saw his numbers regress dramatically and lost his closer job.
What could go right: Treinen is still only a year removed from being perhaps MLB’s best reliever -- a 2018 All-Star and sixth-place AL Cy Young Award finisher. Life in the bullpen often means dramatic swings in performance, and Treinen still has the stuff to ride the roller coaster back toward the top.
Where he fits: Just about any team could stand to take a low-risk shot on a potentially game-changing closer. How about the Phillies? The would-be contenders endured plenty of bullpen issues in 2019 and could be without David Robertson for all of ‘20.
2) Travis Shaw, 3B/1B (non-tendered by Brewers)
What went wrong: Just about everything. Shaw spent time on the injured list with a right wrist injury and twice was optioned back to Triple-A. When he was in the Milwaukee lineup, he hit .157/.281/.270.
What could go right: From 2017-18, Shaw’s .844 OPS ranked 34th in the Majors (minimum 1,000 plate appearances), and his 63 homers tied for 18th. He mashed right-handers during that time, and has +26 Defensive Runs Saved in his career at third.
Where he fits: The Nationals need hot-corner insurance in case they don’t re-sign Anthony Rendon. If they do, Shaw slides into an open spot at first, where he can fill the strong side of a platoon.
3) Kevin Gausman, RHP (non-tendered by Reds)
What went wrong: In the latest chapter of a career that has never quite lived up to the hype, Gausman produced a 5.72 ERA, including 6.19 in 16 starts for the Braves before Cincinnati claimed him off waivers in August.
What could go right: Once the No. 4 overall pick in the MLB Draft (2012), the 28-year-old had a pre-2019 history as a solid MLB starter, delivering an above-average 105 ERA+ over the previous five seasons. His 2019 FIP (3.98) suggests he could return to that level, though his limited repertoire and dramatic bump in K-rate after Cincinnati moved him to the bullpen raise the alternate possibility of becoming a wipeout reliever.
Where he fits: The Rays have a good track record with pitchers, and don’t mind using them creatively, in different roles.
4) Steven Souza Jr., OF (non-tendered by D-backs)
What went wrong: The talented but often-injured Souza sustained a horrendous left knee injury just before Opening Day, tearing multiple ligaments and missing the entire season.
What could go right: Souza has played a full season just once, but turned that into roughly 4 WAR for the 2017 Rays. The severity of this latest injury is concerning, but Souza tweeted last month that he’s “back running at 100%.” When he’s healthy, he’s an all-around contributor.
Where he fits: The White Sox had the least productive outfield in the Majors in 2019, per FanGraphs WAR. Even if Eloy Jiménez takes a step forward and Luis Robert (MLB’s No. 3 prospect) arrives, there’s room here to take a shot on Souza’s upside.
5) Taijuan Walker, RHP (non-tendered by D-backs)
What went wrong: Walker has thrown a grand total of 14 MLB innings over the past two seasons due to Tommy John surgery, followed by a capsule strain in his right shoulder.
What could go right: Once a top-10 prospect, Walker has displayed some promise in the Majors before, such as in 2017, when he gave Arizona 157 1/3 innings with a 3.49 ERA. He did return to throw one inning in the 2019 finale, and at just 27, he still could have his best days ahead of him.
Where he fits: The rebuilding Giants have rotation space and a forgiving ballpark to help Walker get back on his feet. If he succeeds, he’s young enough to be part of the future, or he could fetch prospects at the Trade Deadline.
6) C.J. Cron, 1B/DH (non-tendered by Twins)
What went wrong: He hit only .229/.280/.420 in 47 games after sustaining a right thumb injury in early July, a setback that led to multiple stints on the injured list and offseason surgery.
What could go right: From the beginning of 2018 until he first went on the IL this summer, Cron slashed .258/.324/.494 -- putting him about 20% above league average offensively -- and swatted 47 homers in 218 games.
Where he fits: No team last year got fewer home runs from right-handed batters than the Rangers (67). Cron could see time at both first base and DH, entering a mix with lefties such as Ronald Guzmán and Shin-Soo Choo.
7) César Hernández, 2B (non-tendered by Phillies)
What went wrong: A more aggressive approach at the plate contributed to a cratering walk rate, as FanGraphs pointed out. Hernández’s .333 OBP was his lowest since 2015, and the switch-hitter’s offensive numbers dipped for a second straight year.
What could go right: Can a new team help him readjust his approach? Hernández posted a .366 OBP from 2016-18, so a return to that level makes him a solid starting second baseman who can provide an average bat and glove, and run a bit.
Where he fits: Some teams looking for middle-infield help could turn to José Peraza or Addison Russell instead, but Hernández would make sense for the D-backs, who could keep Ketel Marte in center field.
8) Jimmy Nelson, RHP (non-tendered by Brewers)
What went wrong: Shoulder surgery in September 2017 halted a breakout season, and Nelson missed all of ‘18, then struggled through 22 big league innings this year.
What could go right: It’s difficult to say if Nelson can get back to 100%, and the small-sample results last year were mostly troubling. But the 30-year-old still missed bats (26 K's), and back in 2017, he ranked eighth among MLB pitchers in FanGraphs WAR (4.8), showing both strikeout and ground-ball ability.
Where he fits: While lots of teams could take a flier on Nelson, the Dodgers have shown a willingness to bet on talented but injury-prone pitchers (Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill, Brett Anderson) and possess the depth to be just fine if Nelson doesn’t pan out.
9) Domingo Santana, OF/DH (non-tendered by Mariners)
What went wrong: A productive first half at the plate gave way to a miserable second half interrupted by an elbow injury. Santana’s -13 Outs Above Average, per Statcast, was tied for second-lowest among MLB outfielders.
What could go right: Santana’s park-adjusted 127 wRC+ before the All-Star break placed him in the top 40 among qualified hitters and matched his number from a breakout 2017 with Milwaukee. The 27-year-old has patience, and this year barreled roughly the same percentage of his batted balls as Marcell Ozuna, Freddie Freeman and Juan Soto.
Where he fits: Like the Rangers, the Indians didn’t have much right-handed thump last year, and they also have room to give Santana most of his at-bats as a DH.