Every offseason, teams look to the open market to find the players that will take them to the next level. While most of the attention goes to the big-ticket items that will garner nine-figure contracts, many under-the-radar free agents can still help teams next year for a fraction of the cost.
The teams that lack the financial means to go after a top-tier free agent like Shohei Ohtani or Cody Bellinger need to find the hidden gems in the free agent market. Those players that most teams think very little of have the potential to be productive players. Whether they had bad luck last year or finally recovered after an extended injury, these players could produce far more than what’s expected of them. Here are three such players.
Three of MLB’s Most Under-the-Radar Free Agents
Tommy Pham: OF/DH (ARI)
Tommy Pham had a solid season for the Mets and Diamondbacks in 2023. At 35, Pham put together his best season since 2019, and he probably should have been better. His sprint speed and defense have declined over the years, but Pham has become a smarter base-runner, accumulating a solid 3.1 baserunning runs, and can still be productive as a DH. Pham put up a very respectable 110 wRC+ and .774 OPS over 481 plate appearances and most underlying stats say he was one of the unluckiest players in the majors.
Pham’s .332 wOBA was still above average, but based on the quality of contact he made all season, it probably should have been closer to Pham’s .361 wWOBA. That 29-point difference makes him the 15th unluckiest player in the entire MLB, and he has other metrics to back it up. Pham’s 49.1% hard hit rate is in the 89th percentile in the league and his 92.3 mph average exit velocity is in the 93rd percentile. Those metrics are at their highest levels since 2020, and Pham’s above-average line drive rate shows that he hit some very unlucky outs. Additionally, Pham’s barrel rate could be more impressive. It is still well above average and he maintains solid swing decisions, taking his walks and putting together solid at-bats.
All of that, plus the fact that he maintains an above-average sprint speed and is a great clubhouse presence, make him a great asset to any contender. The fact that he still has an above-average throwing arm shows that even at age 36, he can still play the outfield effectively. Overall, while there is always a risk when signing a guy of Pham’s age, he just put up his best offensive season in four years despite being unlucky and maintained above-average tools while also contributing excellent veteran leadership to whatever clubhouse he ends up in.
James Paxton: LHP (BOS)
Much of James Paxton‘s career has been wondering what could have been. When Paxton was with the Seattle Mariners, many thought he could become an ace, but he has yet to come close to an entire season since 2019. After throwing just 20.1 innings in the shortened 2020 season, Paxton threw just 1.1 innings in 2021 and missed the 2022 season due to Tommy John surgery and setbacks during rehab. In 2023, though, he managed 96 innings with very average results. Despite the intermediate results, the process last season was above average.
Paxton’s ERA was 4.50, but based on the contact he allows, his expected ERA was 3.82 last season. That’s partially due to bad luck contact and the horrendous Red Sox defense backing him up. What helped Paxton overcome his hapless defense last season was that he still strikes out 24.6% of batters while walking just 8%. While Paxton does an excellent job of limiting baserunners, with an expected opponent’s average of .229 and an xWOBA of .302, his biggest problem has been the long ball. However, he has one pitch that is responsible for that problem.
Paxton’s four-seam fastball caused some problems last season; despite above-average velocity and excellent extension, the pitch got hit hard last year. He threw it 55% of the time despite generating the worst and worst expected results. Paxton’s four-seamer allows the worst slugging and expected slugging of any of his pitches and gets the least swing-and-miss. If he cuts down on four-seam usage, focuses more on the cutter or sinker he occasionally throws and gets a better defense behind him, he is a candidate to have a very good comeback season in 2024. While he is a massive risk with his health, the team that takes a chance on Paxton could see it pay off huge for them.
Hyun Jin Ryu: LHP (TOR)
It wasn’t that long ago that Hyun Jin Ryu was one of the best pitchers in the majors, with back-to-back top-three Cy Young finishes in 2019 and 2020. However, many have forgotten about him after taking a step back in 2021 and missing almost all of 2022 and much of 2023 due to Tommy John surgery. Once Ryu returned from the surgery in 2023, he pitched very well, to a 3.46 ERA over 52 innings.
Despite that, many teams may be scared off by his underlying stats and the fact that Ryu is entering his 37th season. However, there is still some value in his arm. The poor strikeout and swing-and-miss numbers are just a product of his pitching style. Ryu is a low-velocity finesse lefty who throws five different pitches regularly and pitches to weak contact.
Similar to Paxton, Ryu’s four-seam fastball is hit hard (unlike Paxton, he throws it 88 mph), but because of his superb control of multiple secondary pitches and his ability to fool hitters with low speeds, Ryu doesn’t need to throw it nearly as often. Not only does that pitching strategy age better than most, but it can lead to some very effective run prevention for teams with a solid defense. If a team were willing to take a chance on him for a one- or two-year contract, Ryu could be a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm who can give you innings and a chance to win in all his starts.
While the baseball world’s attention will always be on the biggest names on the free agent and trade markets, many of the most essential additions to championship teams are depth pieces that either add depth to a great rotation or lengthen a lineup to turn it from very good to elite. While your favorite team may not be in the running for the big names, they still may make some very significant additions.