More than 100 free agents inked one-year deals, and only a handful of them crept into seven figures. It’s time to shine a spotlight on some of the top-performing players from this group.
These 10 players all inked one-year contracts for less than $10 million in guaranteed money, but they have become crucial pieces for contending clubs in 2021. (All stats are through Monday's games.)
Anthony DeSclafani, RHP, Giants ($6 million)
The Giants’ strong starting rotation, largely built via an array of one-year deals, is owed a lot of credit for the team’s surprising success this season. After re-signing Kevin Gausman via the qualifying offer for $18.9 million, the club inked DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Aaron Sanchez to one-year contracts for a combined $13 million. The latter three have posted a collective 3.34 ERA over 30 starts.
DeSclafani has been an excellent No. 2 starter behind Gausman, recording a 3.09 ERA (125 ERA+) over 75 2/3 innings spanning 13 starts, including two complete-game shutouts. The righty has been even better than his ERA suggests. He allowed 10 earned runs against the Dodgers on May 23 but has pitched to a sub-2.00 ERA across his other 12 outings, nine of which were San Francisco victories.
Rich Hill, LHP, Rays ($2.5 million)
After trading 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to the Padres in December, the Rays went on to sign a number of veteran pitchers to one-year deals, including Hill, Michael Wacha, Collin McHugh and Chris Archer. Hill has been the most important of these signings by far, and he's become even more vital with Tyler Glasnow going down with an elbow injury. After recording an 8.82 ERA in his first four starts, the 41-year-old lefty has delivered a 1.61 ERA across his past nine appearances, and he was named the American League Pitcher of the Month at the end of May.
Hill averages only 88.6 mph on his four-seam fastball, but his four-seamer whiff rate (misses / swings) of 27.1% is a top 20 mark among starting pitchers (min. 100 swings on four-seamers), and his big, sweeping curveball remains outstanding, limiting opponents to a .165 average and a .191 slugging percentage in 114 plate appearances. He hasn’t given up a home run on a curveball in more than two years.
Mark Melancon, RHP, Padres ($3 million)
The last time Melancon was a free agent, after the 2016 season, he signed a four-year, $62 million contract with the Giants. This time around, the Padres landed the veteran right-hander for $3 million guaranteed on a one-year deal with a 2022 mutual option.
Melancon has been nearly flawless in the closer role for San Diego, allowing just two earned runs in 28 1/3 innings (0.64 ERA) and recording a Major League-leading 19 saves.
Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals ($9 million)
Molina tested the free-agent market this past offseason but ultimately returned to the only team he’s ever played for, re-signing with St. Louis in February.
While Molina’s offensive game usually takes a back seat to his defense, he’s having one of his best seasons with the bat this year. Molina’s hard-hit rate (37.4%) and barrel rate (8.4%) are both personal bests for the Statcast era (since 2015), and he ranks third on the Cardinals with a 122 OPS+. The 38-year-old hasn’t posted a figure that high since 2013.
Joc Pederson, OF, Cubs ($7 million)
Two months after non-tendering Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs brought in another left-handed-hitting outfielder to replace him, inking Pederson in February.
Coming off an 83 OPS+ for the Dodgers in 2020, Pederson struggled out of the gate with his new team before going on the injured list with left wrist tendinitis in late April. At that point, he was hitting .137/.262/.235 with one homer in 61 plate appearances. But over 137 PAs since returning from the IL, he has posted a .288/.336/.536 slash line with eight homers. The Cubs were 12-16 when Pederson was activated on May 4; since then, they’re 26-12.
Yusmeiro Petit, RHP, A’s ($2.55 million)
The A’s move to re-sign Petit in February wasn’t earth-shattering, but he’s been a vital part of an Oakland bullpen that has remained effective despite losing Liam Hendriks to free agency and losing Hendriks’ would-be replacement, Trevor Rosenthal, to thoracic outlet syndrome surgery.
Leading the Majors in appearances with 33, Petit has posted a 132 ERA+ while collecting 11 holds and going 7-0. This is nothing new for the veteran righty, whose 151 ERA+ since the outset of 2017 is a top-10 mark among MLB pitchers who have thrown at least 250 innings in that span.
Robbie Ray, LHP, Blue Jays ($8 million)
Ray’s longstanding command issues worsened in 2020, when he posted a 6.62 ERA with 45 walks in 51 2/3 innings between the D-backs and Blue Jays. However, Toronto quickly re-signed him just a few days after the start of free agency, taking a chance on his potential.
Something has clicked for the left-hander in 2021, as he’s filling up the strike zone like never before. Ray’s zone rate, first-pitch strike rate and overall swing rate are all up dramatically, and his walk rate has dropped by 12 percentage points (from 17.9% to 5.9%), the largest among qualifying pitchers. Ray is still allowing a ton of hard contact, but the drop in free passes has mitigated the damage, to an extent. Meanwhile, he’s continued to miss bats at an elite level -- his whiff rate ranks in the 89th percentile and his strikeout rate is an 87th-percentile mark. Add it all up and Ray owns a 3.83 expected ERA (based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks), more than two and a half runs better than his xERA (6.49) in 2020.
Carlos Rodón, LHP, White Sox ($3 million)
The White Sox non-tendered Rodón in December, and he sat on the open market for nearly two months, free for anyone to sign. Finally, Chicago opted to bring him back on a one-year contract shortly before Spring Training began, and he went on to earn the fifth spot in the team’s rotation.
A league-average pitcher over his first six seasons, albeit one with an early first-round Draft pedigree, Rodón has morphed into an overpowering ace out of nowhere in 2021, throwing a no-hitter in his second start and carrying his dominance into his latest outing against the Tigers, when he flirted with another. Flashing increased velocity and crushing hitters’ spirits with a devastating slider, the left-hander has pitched to a 219 ERA+ with 97 K’s and 17 walks in 66 2/3 innings.
Jonathan Villar, INF, Mets ($3.55 million)
Expected to fill a bench role for the Mets when the season began, Villar has been pushed into regular duty by J.D. Davis’ lingering left-hand sprain, which has kept the slugger out more than a month.
Villar’s production has picked up with the increase in playing time. Since the beginning of May, the veteran infielder has hit .256 with six homers, 21 runs scored, a .791 OPS and seven steals in 35 games (32 starts).
Mike Zunino, C, Rays ($3 million)
Zunino became a free agent when the Rays declined his $4.5 million club option after the World Series, but he re-signed with Tampa Bay in December, inking another one-year deal with a team option. He’s been a key cog for the first-place club in 2021.
While the catcher continues to strike out often -- 39.6% of the time, to be exact -- his contact has been much more productive this season. His 26.7% barrel rate leads the Majors (min. 50 batted balls) and has contributed to a .485 slugging percentage, up from .368 across 2018-20. For the Rays, Zunino’s defense might be even more important than his bat. The 30-year-old has been the best framing backstop in the game this year.