Not every free agent has the benefit of hitting the open market off his best season -- or even an adequate one.
While it's unfortunate for the player, a poor platform season can present an opportunity for an enterprising team to take a chance on a free agent at a point when their stock is deflated and reap the rewards of a rebound campaign.
Take the Cubs' signing of Cody Bellinger a year ago for example. Bellinger won the NL MVP Award in 2019, but he was non-tendered by the Dodgers last November after putting up a .193/.256/.355 slash across 2021-22. Chicago signed him to a one-year, $17.5 million deal and watched Bellinger return to form with a .307 average, 26 homers, 20 steals and an .881 OPS in 2023.
The five free agents below have a chance to be next season's version of Bellinger. While none performed especially well in 2023, we can find reasons to be optimistic about all of them moving forward.
Tim Anderson, SS
What happened in 2023: Virtually nothing went right for Anderson this past season. With his strikeout and ground-ball rates spiking, Anderson homered only once and hit .245 with a .582 OPS over 123 games. His -2.0 WAR tally was the worst of all MLB position players. As a result, the White Sox declined Anderson’s $14 million club option for 2024, which once seemed like it would be a no-brainer.
Reasons for optimism: Besides the .304 average he posted against left-handed pitchers, there's really nothing we can point to from 2023 that bodes well for Anderson moving forward. The best case we can make for a possible rebound is that Anderson is only 30 years old and put up a sterling .318/.347/.474 slash with 51 homers and 53 steals in 374 games across 2019-22, hitting over .300 in every season during that span. The underlying metrics were also promising as recently as 2022 -- he ranked in the 99th percentile with a .297 expected batting average, the 86th percentile with a 37.5% sweet-spot rate and the 84th percentile with a 15.7% strikeout rate. Additionally, the longtime shortstop is reportedly willing to move to second base if needed, which could allow him to improve his defensive value. It worked for Marcus Semien, who has gone from being a poorly rated shortstop to one of the best fielding second basemen in the game since making the switch.
Lucas Giolito, SP
What happened in 2023: Giolito followed up a 4.90 ERA in 2022 with a 4.88 mark in 2023, making appearances for three teams (White Sox, Angels, Guardians) and leading the American League with 41 home runs allowed. His penchant for serving up the long ball contributed to a 5.27 FIP, his highest figure since 2018.
Reasons for optimism: Giolito may never return to the heights he reached from 2019-21, when he posted a 3.47 ERA, a 3.54 FIP, a 1.08 WHIP and a 3.84 K/BB ratio, but the righty was a perfectly effective arm for the White Sox in 2023 before his season unraveled down the stretch. Giolito had a 3.79 ERA, a 4.43 FIP, a 1.22 WHIP and a 3.12 K/BB ratio over 21 starts for Chicago before being dealt to the Angels at the Trade Deadline. He finished the season with a 70th-percentile whiff rate (28.8%) and a 67th percentile strikeout rate (25.7%), showing he can still miss bats at an above-average level. Also of interest to potential suitors? Giolito’s durability, as evidenced by his 167 games started -- tied for the fifth most in MLB -- since the beginning of 2018. Entering his age-29 season, he’s an obvious rebound candidate.
What happened in 2023: Traded from the Blue Jays to the Mariners last November, Hernández went on to produce 26 homers and 93 RBIs over 160 games for Seattle, providing value as a solid middle-of-the-order bat. However, Hernández also struck out 211 times and was prone to inconsistency as a result, posting an OPS of .675 or lower in March/April, May, July and September/October. The Mariners could have used his production down the stretch as they missed the postseason by the slimmest of margins, but Hernández hit .171 with one homer, 33 strikeouts and a .474 OPS in his final 91 plate appearances and finished the season with his lowest OPS+ (106) in four years.
Reasons for optimism: Can Hernández reclaim the form he showed for Toronto from 2020-22, during which he posted a 133 OPS+? A more in-depth look at his 2023 performance suggests he might be closer than you think. While Hernández struggled at pitcher-friendly T-Mobile Park (.643 OPS), he was much better on the road, registering a .295/.344/.486 slash with 14 homers in 355 PAs. Moreover, the outfielder maintained impressive quality-of-contact metrics on the year, including an 88th-percentile barrel rate (13.8%) and a 90th-percentile hard-hit rate (49.4%). Leaving the Mariners for a team with a home venue that’s more favorable to hitters may be all he needs to get back on track.
Lance Lynn, SP
What happened in 2023: No pitcher in the Majors served up more home runs in 2023 than Lynn, whose 44 dingers allowed contributed to career worsts in ERA (5.73) and FIP (5.53). Not one pitch type he utilized had a positive run value. And though the veteran righty showed some improvement in the run-prevention department after going from the White Sox to the Dodgers in a summer trade, his season ended on a sour note as he served up four more homers to the D-backs in Game 3 of the NLDS.
Reasons for optimism: While it’s hard to look past all of the loud contact Lynn allowed in 2023, it’s at least encouraging that he hasn’t lost his ability to throw the ball by opposing batters. He managed to post a strikeout rate (23.6%) that was 1.5 points above the MLB average for starting pitchers (22.1%), fueled by one of MLB’s highest combined whiff rates (28.5%) on four-seamers and sinkers -- up there with stalwarts such as Freddy Peralta, Spencer Strider, Luis Castillo and Zack Wheeler among big league starting pitchers. History also tells us Lynn is likely to see positive regression with his 19.0% HR/FB rate, the second-highest mark any qualifier recorded in a single season across 2021-23.
Luis Severino, SP
What happened in 2023: Severino missed significant time due to injuries for the fifth straight season, spending more than a month on the IL with a right lat strain early in the year and ending the year on the IL with a high-grade left oblique strain. The righty, who has appeared in just 45 games since the beginning of 2019, found little success when he was healthy enough to take the mound. Over 19 games (18 starts), Severino recorded a 6.65 ERA and a 6.14 FIP.
Reasons for optimism: Severino’s elite performance in 2017-18, during which he earned back-to-back All-Star selections and posted a 3.18 ERA with a 4.64 K/BB ratio over 63 starts, is a distant memory. However, he’s yet to turn 30 years old and still appears to possess the stuff to perform at a high level in the Majors. Severino averaged 96.5 mph with his four-seam fastball, topping out at 100.2 mph, and he continued to get a ton of horizontal movement on his slider. Stuff+, a metric that grades pitches based only on their physical characteristics to determine nastiness, rated Severino’s four-seamer, slider and cutter as above-average offerings. His overall arsenal received a Stuff+ rating of 104 (100 is considered league average), not far off from where he was in 2022 (108).