Which remaining free agents boast best skills?

January 20th, 2019

With less than a month remaining before Spring Training gets underway, many free agents have already found homes for the 2019 season.
Among the names already off the board are starting pitchers Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, J.A. Happ and Yusei Kikuchi; relievers Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Andrew Miller and Adam Ottavino; and hitters Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Yasmani Grandal and Andrew McCutchen.
That still leaves plenty of talented players available, and clubs looking to add certain ingredients to their rosters before Opening Day will have no shortage of options. Here is a look at the remaining free agents on the market who possess the top skills.
Hardest hitter:Manny Machado
Statcast™ classifies batted balls with at least a 95-mph exit velocity as hard-hit, and in each of the past two seasons, nobody has produced more of those than Machado. He put a hard-hit ball in play 257 times in 2018 -- 28 more than anyone else (MLB batters as a group hit .524 and slugged 1.047 on hard-hit balls last season). On a rate basis, Machado made hard contact on 48.2 percent of his batted balls, a figure that ranked 15th out of 228 players (minimum 250 batted balls). As a 26-year-old shortstop/third baseman with a good glove, Machado's appeal should go far beyond this, but his ability to consistently square up pitches is fundamental to his status as a top free agent.

Most power:
The other big name at the head of this class is closing in on 200 career home runs (184 to date), as Harper enters his age-26 season having smacked 34 last year while slugging .496. He was well above average in 2018 at both making solid contact (45.1 percent hard-hit rate), and getting the ball in the air (53.6 percent line drive/fly ball rate). As a result, Harper tied for 25th in MLB by connecting for 45 barrels -- balls with an ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, which usually turn into extra-base hits.

Most versatility:
Gonzalez is the only player who spent at least 20 games apiece last season at first base, second base, shortstop and left field. He and are the only two active players with at least 90 career games at those four positions, plus third base. Gonzalez doesn't just have a lot of gloves -- he is adept at using them, posting roughly average or better Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) scores at each spot. With a 111 OPS+ over the past five seasons, Gonzalez has a good enough bat to play just about every day, even if he's constantly moving around the field.
Best outfield defense:A.J. Pollock
Given that Pollock recently turned 31 and has a rather extensive injury history, teams might be somewhat skeptical of his ability to continue chasing down fly balls in the years to come. But there's no doubt that his track record in that area is strong. Despite all of his missed time, Pollock is tied for 14th among MLB outfielders with plus-51 DRS since 2013. Just last year he was plus-6 in both DRS and Statcast™'s range-based Outs Above Average metric.

Best infield defense:
There are several options here, including , Josh Harrison and . But Hechavarria has been worth plus-17 DRS as a shortstop over the past three seasons, ranking sixth at the position despite averaging 114 games. That being said, Hechavarria's paltry .246/.283/.347 line over that span could make him more of a backup and late-game defensive replacement in 2019.
Best catcher defense:
Between the Angels and Astros last season, Maldonado stopped 17 of 35 base-stealing attempts, leading the Majors with a 48.6 percent rate. How? Among 36 catchers who faced at least 20 attempts at second base, Maldonado averaged the third-hardest throw velocity (87.5 mph) and eighth-fastest pop time (1.97 seconds). The eight-year veteran doesn't contribute much at the plate but has consistently rated well as a pitch framer, in addition to his control of the running game.

Most speed:
Fellow veterans such as , JB Shuck and may bring a bit more speed, but Maybin is probably more likely to land at least a semi-regular role, having averaged 120 games per season since 2015. The 31-year-old did drop from 33 stolen bases in 2017 to 10 last year for the Marlins and Mariners, but saw virtually no change in his average sprint speed (28.6 feet per second), which ranked in the top 20 percent of MLB.
Most swing-and-miss ability:
One of the game's elite closers over the past eight seasons, Kimbrel would also lead this remaining class of free-agent pitchers in fastball velocity (97.1 mph) -- albeit down from 98.3 mph in 2017 -- and best secondary pitch. Working off that heater, Kimbrel threw his curveball about 35 percent of the time last season, and batters went 5-for-61 (.082) against it, with one extra-base hit and 33 strikeouts. Between those two pitches, the righty racks up lots of strikeouts. Batters missed on 40 percent of their swings against him in 2018, the third-highest rate out of 499 pitchers (minimum 200 swings).

Best ground-ball artist:
For a team that plays in a homer-friendly ballpark, Keuchel would have obvious appeal. The lefty threw his sinker more than 40 percent of the time last season, and generated a grounder on roughly 55 percent of balls put in play against him. While that represented a drop from his 68 percent mark in 2017, it still ranked among the best in MLB, and Keuchel has finished well above 50 percent in every season of his career.
Best at limiting quality of contact:
The veteran lefty made some real changes between 2017 (5.61 ERA for Baltimore) and '18 (2.57 for Milwaukee), including making a cutter his go-to weapon. Opponents struggled mightily to square up the pitch, and Miley kept them off balance with an assortment of other offerings. Of the 169 pitchers who generated at least 250 balls in play last season, Miley produced the eighth-lowest hard-hit rate (28.5 percent) and second-lowest barrel rate (3.5 percent), trailing only in the latter category.
Most effective fastball:Nick Vincent
This might seem like an odd choice, given that Vincent is a 32-year-old right-hander whose four-seamer averages less than 90 mph. But while velocity obviously helps, it isn't everything. Vincent, with a 3.62 ERA over 191 appearances for Seattle since 2016, gets a lot of spin on his fastball and attacks up in the zone with it. The results are striking. On four-seamers over the past three seasons, Vincent's 30.8 percent strikeout rate is higher than , and his .230 expected wOBA -- which factors in quality of contact, strikeouts and walks -- is the lowest in the Majors.

Best specialist:
It's nice to be left-handed. Perez, a 37-year-old who worked as a starter for much of the previous decade, has found a second life coming out of the bullpen. The Indians used him with extreme care last season, as Perez faced less than 2.5 batters per appearance -- about 54 percent of them lefties. The results were terrific in that limited role. Perez posted a 1.39 ERA and 35.8 percent strikeout rate while allowing just a .417 OPS. While it's a small sample, Perez's .216 xwOBA allowed trailed only , and .