The underappreciated free agents who could deliver huge value

November 25th, 2023

It’s easy to project that Shohei Ohtani is going to make a huge impact for whichever team signs him this offseason. The same goes for other top free agents, such as Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell and Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

It’s harder to pinpoint which under-the-radar options will do the same. We know that some players available on the open market will deliver significant value in 2024 -- but which ones?

Well, we’ve challenged seven writers to come up with some candidates. While your definition of “under the radar” may vary, we limited the pool to those not among the top 25 free agents ranked by executive reporter Mark Feinsand.

Here are the results:

1. Mitch Garver, C
2023 stats (Rangers): 87 G, .270/.370/.500, 19 HR

Why he’s under the radar: It’s hard to say Garver is truly “under the radar” when he just won a World Series as a regular with the Rangers, but he might be undervalued due to his injury history and lack of a position. Garver last played at least 100 games in a season back in 2018, and he made only 42 defensive appearances behind the plate during his two seasons with Texas. 

Why he’s intriguing: Garver’s recent production at the plate rivals some of the top bats in this year’s free-agent class. In fact, among current free agents, only Shohei Ohtani has posted a higher OPS+ over the past five seasons than Garver (130). The 32-year-old finished 2023 with a 134 OPS+, and there was nothing fluky about his performance -- he ranked in the 83rd percentile or better in barrel rate (83rd), expected slugging percentage (85th), expected wOBA (87th), walk rate (90th) and chase rate (98th).

And while Garver saw most of his playing time as Texas’ designated hitter in 2022 and '23, that was mostly because he shared a roster with superior defensive backstops such as Jonah Heim and Austin Hedges during that time. Although he may never be a Gold Glove Award contender behind the plate, Garver has the potential to provide considerable value to a roster while splitting time between the catcher and DH spots, especially in a free-agent group that lacks attractive catching options.

-- Thomas Harrigan

2. Adam Duvall, OF
2023 stats (Red Sox): 92 G, .247/.303/.531, 21 HR

Why he’s under the radar: Duvall is 35 years old, he’s been hurt much of the past two seasons and he played for a team that had a disappointing campaign in 2023. All of that is a recipe for falling below radar, even after smashing 38 homers and driving in 113 runs just two years ago, when he helped the Braves win the World Series.

Why he’s intriguing: The main issue for Duvall is health. When he was in the lineup for Boston last year, he was productive, most prominently over a three-week period from Aug. 10-Sept. 3, when he slashed .342/.402/.772 with nine home runs -- eight of which came over the final 13 games in that span. Duvall can be streaky -- throughout his career, he’s had his prolonged slumps in addition to his red-hot stretches. He’s also a high-strikeout guy. But in an offseason with a shallow pool of impact position players, Duvall represents a relatively low-cost slugging outfielder who can carry a lineup for weeks at a time.

-- Manny Randhawa

3. Joc Pederson, DH
2023 stats (Giants): 121 G, .235/.348/.416, 15 HR, 111 OPS+

Why he’s under the radar: As that slash line indicates, Pederson is coming off a rather pedestrian season. He also missed 30 games during the year because of right hand/wrist injuries. He still doesn’t hit left-handed pitching very well and is not a good outfielder, so Pederson is best utilized as a designated hitter getting the strong side of a platoon. Those limitations make him not even worth considering for some teams.

Why he’s intriguing: In 2022, Pederson registered the best OPS+ of his career (146) in 433 plate appearances with the Giants. He obviously didn’t replicate that production across 425 plate appearances in 2023, but he probably deserved better given how he consistently hit pitches on the screws. 

Pederson’s hard-hit rate increased for the fifth straight year, up to a career-best 52.2%, tied for 11th in the Majors. He also posted a healthy 12.1% barrel rate and recorded the two highest exit velocities of his 10-year career. Prior to 2023, Pederson never had an EV greater than 114.3 mph. Then he hit balls at 115.0 mph and 116.6 mph this past season. All of that loud, ideal contact was a big reason why his expected slash line -- .263/.364/.483 – exceeded his actual one. Not to mention that he made these batted-ball boosts while significantly improving his plate discipline (20.9% strikeout rate, 13.4% walk rate). 

For all of his weaknesses, Pederson’s bat remains very strong. Entering his age-32 campaign, he should continue stinging baseballs for his next club. Perhaps he’ll have more to show for it in 2024.

-- Brian Murphy

4. Sean Manaea, LHP
2023 stats (Giants): 7-6, 4.44 ERA, 128 K, 117 2/3 IP, 1.24 WHIP, 3.90 FIP, 1.1 fWAR

Why he’s under the radar: Manaea finished the 2023 season with a ho-hum 4.44 ERA and 3.90 FIP while splitting time between the Giants’ starting rotation and bullpen. At 31 years old, the left-hander has never been anyone's definition of an ace -- he’s never finished a full season with an ERA better than 3.50 or a double-digit K/9, nor has he ever pitched 180 innings in a single season. In a free agent market overflowing with No. 1 and No. 2 starter types, Manaea is sure to be glossed over.

Why he’s intriguing: Over the last four-and-a-half months of the season, Manaea pitched about as well as anyone in baseball, posting a 3.44 ERA and 3.15 FIP while striking out 9.5 batters per nine innings. Now, most of that work came as San Francisco’s “bulk innings” arm out of the bullpen, but a short September stint in the rotation proved he can still stick it as a starter. Over 24 innings in his last four starts, Manaea had a 2.25 ERA, striking out 18 hitters while walking just two. Manaea also had the quickest fastball of his career (93.6 mph), which was two ticks higher than his 2022 velocity.

-- Dylan Svoboda

5. Shintaro Fujinami, RHP
2023 stats (A's/Orioles): 64 G (7 GS), 2 SV, 7.18 ERA, 83 K, 79 IP

Why he’s under the radar: Because his first season in MLB was an absolute rollercoaster. When Fujinami signed with the A's from NPB's Hanshin Tigers, the scouting reports said he had big stuff but erratic command. Well, those command issues torpedoed his stint as a starter in Oakland, and even after he converted to a reliever and the Orioles traded for him, Fujinami couldn't stay consistent enough to make Baltimore's postseason roster as a bullpen arm.

Why he’s intriguing: Because he throws 100 mph and showed flashes of becoming a valuable late-inning reliever in Baltimore. Fujinami struck out over a batter per inning, allowed a batting average of just .193 and had 20 scoreless outings with the O's. And again, his stuff is really enticing.

Fujinami topped out at 102.6 mph -- on a strikeout, no less, one of three K's Fujinami recorded at 102-plus mph in 2023. He was one of only 16 Major League pitchers to throw even a single pitch 102 mph or harder last season, and one of only 10 to get a strikeout on a pitch that fast. He was one of only 13 to reach a max velo of 102.6 or higher, and one of only five with a K at that velocity. If Fujinami can get onto a team that knows how to develop its pitchers and figures out his command, he could be a huge value signing.

-- David Adler

6. Michael Wacha, RHP
2023 stats (Padres): 24 GS, 14-4, 3.22 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 124 K

Why he’s under the radar: It's really through no fault of his own. Wacha fell off the radar following the 2015 season due to injuries and poor performance. Then he had his resurgence with the 2022 Red Sox and '23 Padres -- two clubs that could most kindly be described as underachieving.

Why he’s intriguing: Wacha made 23 starts in 2022, and 24 this past season. Over that period, he's gone 25-6 with a 3.27 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. He's lost about 3 mph on average off his four-seam fastball from its peak of 95.1 mph in 2016, but he did tally 70 strikeouts on changeups this season, tied for the third-most in baseball, which would suggest that even with a dip in velocity his repertoire should remain viable. What's more, despite how long it feels like he's been around, he's still just 32 years old -- so, in theory, he's got a few good seasons left to offer a club hoping to add a veteran to its rotation.

-- Shanthi Sepe-Chepuru

7. Jordan Hicks, RHP
2023 stats (Cardinals/Blue Jays): 12 SV, 3.29 ERA, 81 K, 65 2/3 IP

Why he’s under the radar: Hicks underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2019 after experiencing right elbow soreness early in the '19 season. He then opted out of the COVID-impacted '20 campaign due to pre-existing health concerns, as Hicks was not only still recovering from his procedure, but he also has Type 1 diabetes. Upon returning in 2021, Hicks once again experienced discomfort in his right elbow early in the season. He landed on the injured list on May 2, and did not make another appearance that season for the Cardinals. With St. Louis attempting to stretch Hicks out as a starter in 2022, he remained mostly healthy until spending the final few weeks on the IL due to right arm fatigue.

Why he’s intriguing: Hicks not only had a fully healthy 2023, but he got stronger as the year went on. He posted a 2.63 ERA over 25 appearances for the Blue Jays after being acquired at the Trade Deadline. Oh, and he averaged 100.3 mph with his four-seamer and 100.1 mph with his sinker -- both up from his 2022 averages. Hicks maxed out at 104.3 mph last season -- a pitch speed reached by only one other pitcher (Jhoan Duran). When healthy, there are few pitchers who throw as hard as Hicks, and he can be a game-changer at the back end of the bullpen for a lot of contenders.

-- Paul Casella