Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have drawn most of the attention on the free agency market this offseason, but these three hitters can be just as productive at a much lower price.
Harper and Machado, however, aren’t the only significant free agents that can make the difference in the batting order for a playoff contender next year.
If the presumed record price tags for those two prized hitters is too much for some teams, there remains a plethora of cheaper options that can be just as valuable.
That list begins with these three players, each of whom has proven to be a dependable hitter but who won’t cost as much as the top two options. If playoff contenders want just as much value but don’t want to pay for Harper and Machado, these players are well worth considering.
1) Michael Brantley
The oft-injured Michael Brantley has proven to be among the most reliable hitters in the league during his 10-year career in Cleveland.
Brantley played just 11 games in 2016 and 90 in 2017, but came back to appear in 143 last season, hitting .309 with 17 home runs and 76 RBI. He hasn’t hit worse than .284 in any of the last six seasons in which he played at least half the games.
Not only does Brantley consistently hit for a high average, he’s one of the most dependable hitters at making contact. He struck out just 60 times in 631 plate appearances in 2018. His strikeout rate of 9.5 per cent was second-lowest in the majors, behind only Andrelton Simmons.
He also made contact on 90.9 per cent of his swings, best in the league according to Fangraphs.
The 31-year-old Brantley made $11.5 million playing outfield for the Indians last year. If he’s finally overcome his injury woes, he could be the steady bat a playoff contender could use.
2) Marwin Gonzalez
The 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros boasted the American League MVP in Jose Altuve and All-Stars like Carlos Correa and George Springer Their top run producer, however, was Marwin Gonzalez.
The switch-hitting Gonzalez usually gets overlooked when compared with his more decorated teammates, but he’s been just as important to the Astros success. He led the Astros in their World Series year with 90 RBI. In 2018 he hit .247 with 16 home runs and 68 RBI.
It’s not just Gonzalez’s bat that brings value to the team that signs him. He’s also one of the most versatile fielders in the league. He played mostly in left field last season, but when Correa was hurt he filled in at shortstop. When Altuve was out of the lineup, he played second.
Gonzalez played at least 20 games in left, shortstop, second base and first base last year. He’s the first player in Major League history to have four seasons where he played 10 games in at least four different positions.
As Altuve told MLB.com in November, “You have a problem, you call Marwin.”
Gonzalez got off to a tough start in 2018, batting just .230 before the All-Star break. He rebounded in the second half to hit .275 and was 19th in the AL in OPS. In the postseason he hit .333 with nine RBI.
He’ll turn 30 by the start of the 2019 season. Still in his prime, he’s due for a significant raise from the $5 million he made last season.
3) Nelson Cruz
Even at 38, Nelson Cruz doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.
The Seattle Mariners designated hitter leads the majors with 163 home runs over the last four years. His 414 RBI are fourth-most in that span. He hit 37 homers with 97 RBI last year after leading the AL with 119 RBI in 2017. Since 2017, Cruz ranks 17th in the majors with a .889 OPS.
The biggest detraction from teams pursuing Cruz is his lack of defensive ability. He played the field in only four games last year, limiting his potential free agent landing spots to American League teams. Cruz also slowed down late in the season.
After hitting .267 in the first half and making his sixth career All-Star appearance, he regressed to .242 after the break.
Cruz made $14.25 million in the last year of a four-year deal with Seattle in 2018.
One contender that could use improvement at DH is Houston. Evan Gattis served as the Astros’ primary DH in 2018, but he hit only .226. Houston DH’s combined to hit .242 with 28 home runs last year.