Nearly three months after the World Series ended, a majority of this offseason's best free agents remain unsigned. While that could change at any minute, the fact is that there are only so many ways you can try to get J.D. Martinez to Boston or Eric Hosmer to San Diego, to use two oft-rumored destinations.
For teams who may not have expected to be in the market for one of these stars, it's time to get aggressive and think outside the box. Maybe that means adding depth where you already have talent; maybe it means a rebuilding team should be adding free agents a year ahead of schedule. Because so many players are still unsigned, there's sudden opportunity available, for those clubs willing to take advantage of it.
With that in mind, we've come up with a few unexpected fits for some of the remaining free agents. We can guarantee these won't all happen. Some should, though.
J.D. Martinez to the Indians
Cleveland enters 2018 the same way it finished '17: As one of the truly elite teams in baseball. Yet it still feels like something is missing, and that something is in the outfield, where the current roster doesn't have a player that you're certain can reliably be above average every day.
That's not to say there isn't talent here, but Michael Brantley has played only 101 games over the past two years due to injury, and now he's recovering from right ankle surgery. Young Bradley Zimmer has all the talent in the world, but he also had a mere .307 OBP and a below-average 81 wRC+ last year. In right, Lonnie Chisenhall is a platoon bat, with just 270 plate appearances last year, and zero seasons of more than 420 plate appearances since 2014.
Other than backup platoon bat Brandon Guyer, every one of the Tribe's outfielders bats lefty, as does Jason Kipnis, who played some outfield last year and may yet again. Martinez, meanwhile, is an elite power bat who is a good bet to continue mashing for at least the next three seasons. It's true that he's not a long-term outfielder, but the timing works out pretty well here, because designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion is signed for only the next two seasons (plus a club option). It's easy to see Martinez playing right in 2018 and '19, then sliding to DH. Of course, having signed Encarnacion last year, the Indians may not be willing to go out for another big contract.
There's too much uncertainty in Cleveland's outfield, and too many lefties. Anything Brantley gives is a bonus, not an expectation. Martinez is the missing piece this group needs, and a lineup that features him, Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez at the top would be elite.
Lucas Duda to the Astros
Last year, Houston's offense was historically productive, so even if the Astros did nothing else but let Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa mature for a year and let Carlos Beltran (who hit just .231/.383/.383 in 2017) retire, they'd still be just fine headed into next season.
"Just fine," however, isn't good enough. That's where the underrated Duda, who hit 30 homers last year and has been an above-average hitter each healthy year of his career, comes in. The Astros' lineup right now is heavily right-handed, and that's true at first base (34-year-old righty Yuli Gurriel) and designated hitter (31-year-old Evan Gattis).
Duda has sizeable platoon splits, but he'd never face a lefty in this situation. Against righties in 2017, his Statcast™ quality-of-contact numbers put him in the same league as Charlie Blackmon, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger. Duda is not an everyday star. He doesn't need to be. He'd make baseball's best lineup even better.
Mike Moustakas to the Braves
We hear you, Braves fans. Austin Riley just hit .315/.389/.511 in half a season at Double-A. He's very exciting. But Riley is also 20 years old and hit .252/.310/.408 at Class A in the first half of the season. He's at least a year away, with a million different ways his career could turn out, and if in 2019 or '20 you have too many talented players, well, that's a nice problem to have.
In the meantime, Atlanta should get aggressive, even if it's ahead of schedule. This has the potential to be a very good lineup right now -- Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson have arrived, Ronald Acuna will be there soon, Freddie Freeman is a superstar, and Ender Inciarte and Tyler Flowers are nice supporting pieces -- but third base is thin, currently slated to be manned by Johan Camargo, Rio Ruiz or Charlie Culberson.
Moustakas, meanwhile, is increasingly without options in a tough third-base market. The Giants and Angels have already made their moves; the Mets and Yankees seem unlikely to add him. That could keep the contract reasonable for Atlanta, and at only 29, he could be part of the next good Braves team. Other than Freeman and Inciarte, the Braves have no contract commitments past 2019. That Moustakas just hit 38 homers in a very difficult hitter's park adds to the appeal.
(This could mostly also apply to Todd Frazier. The point stands.)
Jacob Arrieta to the Phillies
Speaking of rebuilding National League East teams who ought to move things up now to prepare themselves for a run at contention in the years to come: The Phillies. With Carlos Santana joining Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr and Cesar Hernandez, plus prospects J.P. Crawford, Jorge Alfaro and Scott Kingery either ready right now or very soon, this is suddenly a very interesting lineup.
What they don't have is a rotation to match. Aaron Nola can be a legitimate ace, though he's yet to reach 170 innings in a season, but behind him are a collection of talented young arms with relatively little track record of success, health and consistency. Between Nick Pivetta, Jerad Eickhoff, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and Vince Velasquez, you can probably cobble together a rotation. But none of them are Arrieta.
All of the concerns about Arrieta are valid. He'll soon be 32, his velocity has trended down, and his 2017 was merely good, not great. For those reasons, no team is going to guarantee Arrieta six or seven years, nor should they. But you still expect near-term performance, and if the terms are right, you put him atop the rotation with Nola, in front of a bullpen that added Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, and suddenly this is a team that's closer than you think.
(Besides: Other than Herrera and Santana, the Phils have no contract commitments past 2019. Adding Arrieta wouldn't take them out of the Manny Machado / Bryce Harper sweepstakes next year.)
Neil Walker to the Yankees
It's very possible that the young duo of Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andjuar will man second and third base for the Yankees for the next 10 years. It just seems relatively unlikely that they, or Tyler Wade or Ronald Torreyes, are really what the Yanks will go with for Opening Day.
With Frazier a free agent, Starlin Castro in Miami and Chase Headley in San Diego, the Yankees could use an infielder, preferably one who won't require a long-term deal, because of the prospects. Enter Walker, who checks all of the boxes for New York.
Walker is flexible, as he played some first and third last year as well as his usual second, and he's a switch-hitter. He's a competent defender, and he's been an above-average bat every year of his career. (His 2017 line of .265/.362/.439, good for a 114 wRC+, is similar to his career line dating back to '09.) It's true that he's had some injuries the past two years, but you're not looking for 162 games annually for the next five years. You're looking for a quality veteran to hold things together until the rookies are ready. You're looking for Walker.