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Wednesday 29th Mar 2017

Three-and-a-half weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training and there are still several quality players, including four former All-Stars, who are without a team. And this is after Yoenis Cespedes, the top name remaining on the free agent board, agreed to return to the Mets, signing a fairly unique three-year contract with an opt-out after the first year. Quite a statement by the Amazins, who in recent years have earned the reputation of being cheap. But this is clearly a win-now move, and that's the way it should be, as the window to win while all of those young and dominant starting pitchers are signed to team-friendly contracts will not stay open forever.

So, what about the fantasy-worthy players who are still searching for homes? Let's take a look at some of the more notable names.

Ian Desmond - To be honest, I'm very surprised that Desmond has yet to find a new team. Last year at this time, he was widely regarded as one of the top offensive shortstops in the game, and didn't last past the first few rounds in fantasy drafts. But, a sluggish 2015 campaign that ended with a .233 batting average and a career-high 187 strikeouts has changed all of that. Still, there's plenty of fantasy value in a 19 HR/13 SB shortstop. Also note that 12 of his 19 homers came in the second half, and Desmond batted a respectable .262 after the break. There's definitely bounce back potential here.

Dexter Fowler - Coming off a strong 2015 season, in which he posted career-bests in homers (17), runs scored (102) and games played (156), Fowler seemed on the verge of cashing in nicely this winter. While that still might happen, it's been all quiet on the Fowler front so far. As for his fantasy value, Fowler's eventual landing spot will largely dictate his draft day price. Batting high in the order would maximize his run-scoring potential and playing his home games in a ballpark as home run-friendly as Wrigley Field would help his chances of matching last season's 17 longballs. In that case, consider him a legit top-35 outfielder. Otherwise, you can probably do better for your mixed league OF3, especially in non-OBP leagues.

Howie Kendrick - Boring but steady is the best way to describe Kendrick, and maybe teams are just bored by the idea of signing him. The 32-year-old routinely registers high batting averages, though his power production has been minimal in recent seasons and his stolen base totals have been inconsistent. He's a fine mixed league MI, but I'd go with someone more exciting to fill my starting 2B slot.

Pedro Alvarez - You mean to tell me that there's little interest in a player who is fresh off a 27-home run season and launched a combined 66 home runs from 2012-2013? Strange but true. Alvarez is a career .236 hitter, and he does whiff at a high rate. But, with power so hard to find these days, I figured that Alvarez would be signed, sealed and delivered a long time ago. Even as the strong side of a platoon, Pedro could make a fantasy impact with his power. He's an intriguing late-round flier, especially in non-mixed leagues. Now let's get this guy signed already!

Yovani Gallardo - Although Gallardo's days as a fantasy ace are over, he's still a serviceable back end of the rotation option, and though it seems like Yovani has been around forever, he will be only 30 on Opening Day. The righty's second half collapse last year was concerning; however, as was his career low strikeout rate. There's a 95% chance that I will not own Gallardo in any of my fantasy leagues this year. If he signs with the Rockies, forget about 95%. Make it 100%.

Doug Fister - What happened? Well, elbow issues likely played a role in Fister's struggles last season, but a steadily declining strikeout rate to go along with declining velocity aren't exactly good signs. It shouldn't cost you more than a buck or two at the auction table to draft Fister this year, so there's not a lot of downside in taking a reasonably-priced flier on him.

Eventually, there will be at least one MLB front office that reaches the same conclusion, and a deal will get done.

I was all set to devote this column solely to the top MLB free agents who have yet to put pen to paper. Then, early Saturday morning, Chris Davis signed. Then, a few minutes later, news broke of Ian Kennedy's deal with the Royals, and what was previously a quiet week (let's call it the week of Alexei Ramirez) was a quiet week no more.

Chris Davis re-signs with Orioles for 7 yrs/$161 million - For some reason, the Orioles front office deemed it necessary to bid against themselves and increase their original $154 million offer. Although I cannot fault the O's for aggressively pursuing Davis, as losing him would have been a huge blow to their lineup, that's a lot of money to hand over to a player who batted .196 back in 2014 and routinely ranks among the league leaders in strikeouts. But, Davis has also launched more home runs than any player in baseball over the past three seasons, and in case you haven't noticed, consistent power production is hard to find these days. As a fantasy owner, I've never been a Davis fan due to his streakiness, which can be very annoying. But I'm starting to change my tune, as he proved last year that 2014, not his 53-home run campaign in 2013, was the exception, and although there's a perception that Davis is a batting average killer, that's really not the case. Despite the sub-Mendoza Line AVG of 2014, he's still a career .255 hitter. In other words, he's no Chris Carter, and in OBP leagues, he's actually helpful.

Ian Kennedy signs with Royals for 5 yrs/$70 million - Yeah, it's nice to be a big league pitcher, when a 4.28 ERA can earn you 14 million bucks per year. After a rough start to 2015, Kennedy did improve in the second half, recording a 3.64 ERA to go along with 98 strikeouts across 84 innings. Plus, the home run-prone hurler should benefit from pitching his home games in a park that limits longballs, and the top notch Royals defense will help to limit the damage in those disaster innings, which have been way too common in recent years. It seems like I always own Kennedy in at least one league, and he lets me down time and time again. I might be tempted yet again, but I'll really try to resist. I promise.

Alexei Ramirez signs with Padres for one yr/$4 million - This could prove to be a smart move for the Pads, who deployed Alexi Amarista as their starting shortstop for much of last season. Ramirez is certainly an upgrade, though he is coming off a somewhat disappointing season in which he posted an underwhelming .249/.285/.357 slash line. But Alexei remains mixed league relevant due to his multi-category contributions, and note that he went .277-8-35 with seven steals in the second half last year.

Gerardo Parra signs with Rockies for three yrs/$27.5 million - Finishing with a .291 batting average to go along with 14 homers, 51 RBI, 83 runs scored and 14 steals, Parra enjoyed a career season in 2015, and it surely came at the right time. When it comes to landing spots for hitters, Coors Field is as good as it gets, so don't be surprised if Parra matches or improves upon last season's numbers. Consider him a solid fourth or fifth outfielder in mixed leagues. With Parra on board, the Rockies will now look to trade one of Carlos Gonzalez, Corey Dickerson or Charlie Blackmon.

But when?

Let's just say before Opening Day.

 

To borrow a phrase from one of our favorite baseball personalities, "It's getting late early." Of course, we're talking about the Hot Stove season, which heads into the new year with several big name free agents still on the board. One of the available free agents is Yoenis Cespedes, who reportedly will not return to the Mets after the team offered him only two or three years, which comes off as insulting in today's market. And of course, all the talk here in New York centers around the Mets' unwillingness to spend money and capitalize on their opportunity to win now, while they have Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz all signed to team-friendly contracts.

Anyway, as for actual moves, the past week wasn't too eventful. But there were at least a few signings that deserve the attention of fantasy owners.

Hisashi Iwakuma re-signs with Mariners

Iwakuma was all set to become a Dodger until he failed his physical, and the Mariners were quick to bring him back to Seattle. In total, his deal with the M's could be worth more than the three-year contract he signed with the Dodgers, but the new pact includes only one guaranteed year with a pair of option years that vest based on innings pitched. Through his first four big league seasons, the Japanese import has posted strong overall numbers when healthy. The problem is that he wasn't fully healthy last year, missing all of May and June due to a strained lat. From a fantasy perspective, it's tough to predict how highly Iwakuma will be valued in 2016 drafts, and I honestly have no idea if he will find a spot on any of my rosters without knowing the price. If he falls to me, I'll take him. But considering the health questions along with his age (he turns 35 in April), I won't be actively targeting him.

Mike Leake signs with Cardinals

The St. Louis front office has proven to be one of the finest in the league in recent years, and I think the Leake signing could turn out to be one of the better moves of this off-season. After spending his entire career (with the exception of two months with the Giants last season) pitching his home games in hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park, Leake should benefit from a much more favorable park in St. Louis. Note that in six career starts at Busch Stadium, he boasts a 3.19 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. And then there's the winning atmosphere and superior supporting cast. Consider Leake a quality back end of the rotation starter in mixed leagues, and there could even be some upside here.

Daniel Murphy signs with Nationals

Interesting one. A career-long Met, Murphy now heads to the division-rival Nats, where he will presumably take over as the everyday second baseman with Anthony Rendon sliding over to third. Postseason performance aside, I don't see Murphy's fantasy appeal changing much. Expect a solid batting average, but last season's 14 homers marked his single-season high, and he can no longer be relied upon for steals. As a starting MI in a mixed league, he's fine. But as a starting 2B? Not so much.

Alejandro De Aza signs with Mets

Meet the newest Mets outfielder. No, it's not Justin Upton. It's not even Alex Gordon. It's bargain bin time, and this is exactly the type of move that frustrates the fan base. De Aza figures to split time in centerfield with Juan Lagares, meaning he's not mixed league relevant. Think of him as a late-round pick/endgame auction purchase in NL-only leagues. Maybe he can swipe double-digit bags, even in a part-time role.

John Jaso signs with Pirates

Outside of NL-only leagues that use on-base percentage (career .361 OBP), Jaso carries minimal fantasy value. He will likely share first base at-bats with Michael Morse, but considering the extensive injury histories of both Jaso and Morse, it might not be long before the Pirates will need another legitimate first base option.

This isn't really a tough question, but I'll ask it anyway. What do Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Howie Kendrick, Ian Desmond, Alexei Ramirez, Gerardo Parra, Jimmy Rollins and Dexter Fowler have in common? All of these hitters, ranging in skill level from quality big leaguer to All-Star caliber player, headed into November as free agents and remain free agents one week into the new year. Quite an impressive group at this point in the off-season, though the list of unsigned players did shrink over the past week. And there was one notable trade, a swap that made a lot of sense for both sides. But how should the fantasy owner make sense of it all?

Alex Gordon re-signs with Royals - How refreshing! A homegrown player sticking with his original team, a team that is coming off two consecutive World Series appearances and a World Series title. Gordon might not be the superstar player that many predicted when he made his big league debut back in 2007. Still, a high-end defender who sports a .348 career OBP and routinely posts a well-rounded offensive stat line has a place on any roster, real or fantasy.

Nationals trade Drew Storen to Blue Jays for Ben Revere - The Nats were clearly not fully comfortable with Michael Taylor as the everyday replacement for Denard Span in centerfield and the Blue Jays bullpen has been an obvious weakness for quite some time now. Roberto Osuna did a fine job as Toronto's closer for the majority of the 2015 campaign, but Storen is the far more established stopper and will likely take over ninth inning duties for his new club. He carries top-10 closer potential. A fully healthy season from Revere could net his fantasy owners 40-plus steals to go along with a strong batting average. His runs scored total will largely depend on where he hits in Washington's lineup. Let's hope he bats leadoff.

Denard Span signs with Giants - I'm sort of surprised that Span was able to secure a three-year contract being that he's coming off an injury-marred 2015 season that saw him appear in just 61 games. But I still consider him to be one of the more underrated players in baseball, and he doesn't get enough respect in fantasy circles either. Expected to serve as the leadoff man in a formidable San Francisco lineup, Span should easily outperform his draft day price, which thanks to the health risk, will be too cheap to pass up.

Kenta Maeda signs with Dodgers - The Dodgers were wise to sign Maeda to an eight-year contract with a low average annual value but plenty of performance-based bonuses because, well, does anyone really know how this guy will fare in the big leagues? His numbers in Japan were excellent, but so were the numbers of Kei Igawa. Maeda should benefit from a strong supporting lineup and a pitcher-friendly home park, and it's entirely possible that he could establish himself as a solid mid-rotation fantasy option in mixed leagues. But unless I can draft him in the late rounds or for a few bucks at the auction table, I'm not interested. The downside outweighs the upside. And then there's the troubling news that concerns over Maeda's elbow played a role in the heavily incentive-laden structure of the contract.

Chris Carter signs with Brewers - Carter is who he is, which was fine in 2014 when 37 homers and 88 RBIs made up for a .227 batting average. Last year was a different story, however, as 24 homers and 64 RBIs did not make up for a .199 batting average. The Brewers will give Carter an opportunity to match his 2014 stat line in 2016. Whether or not he makes the most of the opportunity is anyone's guess.

Mike Napoli signs with Indians - It's all about health with Napoli. If he's healthy, he will play. And if he plays, he will hit enough home runs to be worth a mixed league roster spot.

Don't count on it.

More often than not, the week following the Winter Meetings turns out to be the most eventful period of the Hot Stove season, as the annual gathering provides an opportunity for general managers to schmooze and lay the groundwork for various trades and free agent signings. This year was no exception, not so much with regard to the quantity of moves but rather the quality of the players that found new homes. A trio of elite fantasy options headline the list, but the astute fantasy owner will probably spend more time thinking about the less obvious guys on this list, players who aren't early-round material but still carry various degrees of mixed league appeal. But to be fair, let's start from the top.

Todd Frazier traded to White Sox

This was quite surprising, as Frazier still has two years left on his contract and is coming off a career-best season in which he launched 35 homers to go along with 89 RBIs, 82 runs scored and 13 swipes. As he will be moving from one hitter-friendly park to another, I don't see his fantasy value changing much, though it must be noted that 25 of Frazier's 35 home runs last season came in the first half and he batted just .220 following the All-Star break. I'm not so sure that I'll be willing to pay the price that it will take to draft him in 2016.

As for some of the other players involved in this swap, Jose Peraza could register an elite stolen base total if the Reds give him regular at-bats, a possibility that would come closer to a reality if they can find a taker for Brandon Phillips. The speedy Micah Johnson, who is heading to the Dodgers, actually opened the 2015 campaign as the White Sox starting second baseman before losing the gig early in the season. He might emerge onto the mixed league radar if the Dodgers do not add another second base option to pair with the brittle Chase Utley.

Jason Heyward signs with Cubs

To be honest, the contract does seem kind of ridiculous considering Heyward's solid but not superstar-caliber numbers over his first six big league seasons. But he doesn't even turn 27 until August, so he could certainly take another step forward. A return to 20/20 form is well within reach now that he will be playing his home games at The Friendly Confines. However, Heyward's draft day price figures to be significantly higher than that of your typical 20/20 outfielder, as it will factor in upside. And that scares me.

Johnny Cueto signs with Giants

After pitching to a 2.62 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 19 starts for the Reds last season, Cueto registered an underwhelming 4.76 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 13 regular season starts for the Royals. The good news is that he will now be moving back to the NL and should benefit from playing half of his games in a pitcher-friendly park. There's mixed league ace potential here at a mixed league SP2 cost. Sign me up.

Ken Giles traded to Astros

The trade of Jonathan Papelbon last July opened the door for Giles to assume closer duties for the Phillies. He thrived in the role, racking up 15 saves in 17 chances as Philadelphia's stopper and finishing the season with a 1.80 ERA and 11.2 K/9 across 70 innings. The change of scenery shouldn't affect him one bit, other than likely providing him with more save chances. The Astros have yet to commit to Giles as their closer, but I don't see Luke Gregerson standing in the way, even though he is coming off a strong 31-save season. Consider Giles a top-10 closer heading into 2016.

Asdrubal Cabrera signs with Mets

Maybe Asdrubal will never hit 25 homers in a season again, but he's remained a fine mixed league contributor ever since that breakout 2011 campaign. Expect more of the same from Cabrera, some pop, some speed and even some upside in the runs department if he ends up hitting near the top of the order for the Mets. As a starting MI in a 12-team mixed league, you could do a lot worse.

Steve Cishek signs with Mariners

Can anyone figure out what happened to this guy last year? I can't. Despite the disappointing season, however, Cishek did pitch better in a lower leverage role following his trade to the Cardinals (2.31 ERA in 27 appearances), so the M's are hoping that they are getting that version of Cishek, and better yet, perhaps even the version that saved 88 games for the Marlins from 2012-2014. Seattle has already named Cishek their closer to begin 2016, but the newly signed Joaquin Benoit offers the club a viable ninth inning alternative should Cishek struggle out of the gate. In a mixed league, I'd avoid this situation if possible.

Rajai Davis signs with Indians

With Michael Brantley expected to miss at least the first month of the regular season as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery, Davis figures to get the bulk of those at-bats. The veteran speedster instantly becomes a viable late-round flier or endgame auction purchase for his stolen base potential, even if you only keep him around for April.

Bartolo Colon re-signs with Mets

Seriously, what's not to like about this signing? Assuming a fully healthy starting rotation, Colon will likely head to the bullpen when Zack Wheeler is ready to return sometime in June or July. But until then, Bartolo will be well worth a roster spot in NL-only leagues and even some deeper mixed formats. Plus, he's a lot of fun to own. Trust me.

Mark Reynolds signs with Rockies

Mark Reynolds in Colorado? Why didn't we think of this sooner? Just so you know, in 37 career games at Coors Field, Reynolds sports a .287 batting average to go along with eight home runs, 23 RBIs and a .955 OPS. He could open the season on the short side of a platoon at first base with the left-handed hitting Ben Paulsen, but Reynolds also has the ability to play the outfield, which would open up additional at-bats for the streaky slugger. Think of him as strictly an NL-only option for now, but don't be surprised if he enters the mixed league scene at various times during the season. When he's hot, he can carry you in the home run category for a week, or maybe even two.  

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