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Risk versus reward.
It’s something all MLB general managers have to weigh when considering a major free-agent signing or a blockbuster trade, and every available player has a wart or two.
Whether it’s his age, a troubling statistical trend, a lingering health concern or another flaw, there are always potential red flags if you look hard enough.
With that in mind, we’ve pinpointed the one factor that could lead each of the top 25 players available this winter to become a bust with his new team.
The top-25 rankings are based on a player’s expected value going forward, with on-field production and salary obligations both taken into account.
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25. SP J.A. Happ: Age
J.A. Happ ended 2018 on a high note, going 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 11 starts with the New York Yankees after he headed over from the Toronto Blue Jays in a July deadline trade. That strong finish and his standing as one of the top starters in a thin free-agent market could be enough to net him another three-year deal. However, there’s no telling whether the 36-year-old can continue to pitch at a high level in 2019, let alone for the next several seasons.
24. 1B/OF Wil Myers (Trade Candidate): Salary spike
Wil Myers looks like a prime change-of-scenery candidate after he hit .297/.357/.516 on the road last season, compared to .210/.279/.376 in spacious Petco Park. The 27-year-old also posted back-to-back 20-20 seasons before an injury-plagued 2018, and he’s shown valuable defensive versatility to boot. The thing is, his salary will spike from $5.5 million in 2019 to $22.5 million annually from 2020 to 2022. Living up to that contract will be tough, and The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal has reported the San Diego Padres have discussed trading him.
23. CF A.J. Pollock: Injury history
There might not be a bigger boom-or-bust player on the free-agent market than A.J. Pollock. When he’s healthy and firing on all cylinders, he’s a dynamic power/speed threat and standout defender in center field, which is what we saw during a 7.2 WAR season in 2015. However, in the three years since, he’s played 12, 112 and 113 games, missing time with myriad injuries. The payoff could be big, but counting on him to play 140 contests is a huge roll of the dice.
22. RF Andrew McCutchen: Name value vs. actual value
As the 2013 NL MVP and one of the faces of baseball during the early 2010s, Andrew McCutchen’s name value might outweigh his on-field performance. He’s still productive, as he posted a 118 OPS+ with 30 doubles, 20 home runs, 14 steals and an excellent .368 on-base percentage. However, in terms of present value, he’s closer to Nick Markakis than Bryce Harper and needs to be paid accordingly.
21. SP Yusei Kikuchi: Injury concerns
Yusei Kikuchi is the latest Japanese import set to cash in with a move stateside, but the left-hander comes with red flags. As Jon Morosi of MLB.com wrote, Kikuchi dealt with left shoulder tightness for much of the 2018 season, and his velocity was down as a result. His ERA (1.97 to 3.08), WHIP (0.91 to 1.03) and strikeout rate (10.4 to 8.4 K/9) all moved in the wrong direction, and his secondary stuff was not as crisp. He has No. 2 starter upside, but there’s also a clear risk.
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20. C Wilson Ramos: Defensive decline
Offensively, Wilson Ramos was back to his pre-injury form (torn ACL in 2017) this past season, posting a 130 OPS+ with 15 home runs and 70 RBI. However, his defense has yet to recover. He tallied minus-five DRS and threw out just 28 percent of attempted base stealers in 2018. Compare that to 2015, when he had 10 DRS and threw out 44 percent of runners. At 31 years old, he will continue to see a negative trend in his defensive game.
19. SP Charlie Morton: Age
The trouble with a late-career breakout is that it makes it tough to predict the inevitable age-related decline. When a player deviates considerably from his career norms in his mid-30s, it becomes a guessing game as far as what to expect. Charlie Morton is a perfect example, as he turned in a breakout age-33 season in 2017 and followed it with an even better 2018. All told, during his two seasons in Houston, he went 29-10 with a 3.36 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 over 313.2 innings. There’s just no telling where the 35-year-old will go from here or how many innings he can throw.
18. C Yasmani Grandal: Awful postseason
Yasmani Grandal has been one of baseball’s most productive catchers over the past three seasons, posting a 113 OPS+ while averaging 21 doubles, 24 home runs, 66 RBI and 2.7 WAR. The 30-year-old had a postseason to forget, though. He went just 4-for-29 (.138) with 15 strikeouts and looked lost at times defensively. Was his nightmare October a fluke or a sign of things to come?
17. RP Adam Ottavino: Limited track record
Adam Ottavino was one of baseball’s most overpowering relievers this past season, posting a 2.43 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 13.0 K/9 with 34 holds in 75 appearances. Those numbers were unexpected, to say the least. He’s just a year removed from logging a 5.06 ERA and 1.63 WHIP, and he entered 2018 with a 3.97 ERA and 1.37 WHIP for his career. Was the 33-year-old’s breakout for real?
16. 2B Robinson Cano (Trade Candidate): Defensive viability
Despite an 80-game performance-enhancing-drug-related suspension, Robinson Cano still turned in a productive 2018, hitting .303/.374/.471 with 22 doubles, 10 home runs and 50 RBI in 80 contests for 3.2 WAR. That said, he’s still owed a whopping $120 million over the next five years, and the 36-year-old’s days as a second baseman could be winding down. The Seattle Mariners are looking to trade him, per Rosenthal, but any team that makes a run at him will need to take into account a likely move to first base or DH and the diminished value that comes with such a shift.
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15. DH Nelson Cruz: Age
Nelson Cruz has outrun Father Time to this point. The 38-year-old has been one of baseball’s most consistent sluggers in recent years, posting a 145 OPS+ and averaging 41 home runs and 104 RBI over the past five seasons. Sooner or later, age catches up to everyone, though.
14. RP Craig Kimbrel: Command issues
There’s little doubt Craig Kimbrel is one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history. His 333 saves make him the active leader, and he’s backed that total with a 1.91 ERA and 14.7 K/9 in 542 career appearances. However, this past season, his walk rate spiked from 1.8 to 4.5 BB/9, and then he issued eight free passes in 10.2 playoff innings. That should be reason enough for some teams to think twice about making a long-term commitment.
13. SP Nathan Eovaldi: Injury history
When the lights shined brightest, Nathan Eovaldi was nothing short of brilliant, posting a 1.61 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in 22.1 playoff innings for the Boston Red Sox. With his triple-digit fastball, vastly improved cutter and breakout postseason, he stands to secure one of the most lucrative contracts among this year’s free agents. However, we’re still talking about a pitcher who missed 2017 while recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. He pitched just 111 innings last year and has topped 150 just twice in his career. The risk is clear.
12. SP Zack Greinke (Trade Candidate): Price vs. production
Zack Greinke is still owed a sizable chunk of money—$104.5 million over the next three years. That $34.8 million-per-season price tag is a good deal more than what he’d fetch on the open market. After a rocky first year in Arizona, Greinke has gone 32-18 with a 3.20 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 414 strikeouts in 410 innings over the past two seasons. He’s experienced, durable and has a repertoire and approach that should age well. Still, he’ll have a hard time living up to his salary if the D-backs don’t pay down that money in a trade—as the Arizona realizes it will have to do, per USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale.
11. LF Michael Brantley: Injury history
Michael Brantley stayed healthy enough to play in 143 games this past season, but his recent injury issues still give reason for pause. The 31-year-old underwent two surgeries on his right shoulder that limited him to a combined 101 games in 2016 and 2017, and while there were no lingering issues this past season, it’s worth wondering if it will rear its ugly head again.
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10. SP Dallas Keuchel: More hittable peripherals
There were some troubling trends for Dallas Keuchel this past season. While the 2015 Cy Young winner was solid on the surface, going 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA in 204.2 innings, several notable peripherals moved in the wrong direction. His groundball rate (66.8 to 53.7 percent), hard-contact rate (24.7 to 28.1 percent) and opponents’ batting average (.218 to .263) all got worse, and as a pitcher who doesn’t lean heavily on strikeouts, those are clear red flags.
9. SP Noah Syndergaard (Trade Candidate): Health
At his best, Noah Syndergaard is one of the most overpowering pitchers in the game. In 2016, he led the majors in FIP (2.29) while going 14-9 with a 2.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 218 strikeouts in 183.2 innings. The 26-year-old has three years of team control left and the stuff to be an ace on any staff. However, injuries have sidelined him each of the past two seasons, and that’s reason enough to think twice before emptying the farm to acquire him.
8. SP Carlos Carrasco (Trade Candidate): Injury history
It’s hard to find bust potential in Carlos Carrasco. The 31-year-old has quietly been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past three seasons, going 46-24 with a 3.33 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.1 K/9 and only missing time with a broken hand at the end of the 2016 season. If there’s any reason for pause, it’s that he already has one Tommy John surgery on his resume. That’s clearly nitpicking, though.
7. SP Patrick Corbin: Has he peaked?
Patrick Corbin used an improved slider to post the best numbers of his career in 2018. The left-hander pitched to a 3.15 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 246 strikeouts in 200 innings, raising his strikeout rate from 8.4 to 11.1 K/9 in the process. It was a significant step forward, but he still needs to prove he’s for real after posting a 4.12 ERA and 7.9 K/9 over his first five seasons. It will likely cost $100 million or more to find out.
6. 1B Paul Goldschmidt (Trade Candidate): Rental status
Barring injury, Paul Goldschmidt is a lock for a 130 OPS+ with 30 home runs and at least 5 WAR, so it’s hard to see how he would bust from a performance standpoint in 2019. The risk here comes with the fact he’s a year removed from free agency and certain to test the market. Any team that pays the price to acquire him will need to justify it with success next season; otherwise, the prospects it gives up become squandered assets.
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After suffering a dirt bike accident in 2017 and then a broken hand this past season, Madison Bumgarner returned in June and posted a 3.99 FIP and 1.24 WHIP over 21 starts. Those numbers both represented his worst marks in a season when he pitched at least 120 innings. Is it the beginning of an inevitable decline for a pitcher with 1,638.1 innings on his arm or simply a matter of rust? It’s a question worth asking given what will be an exorbitant acquisition cost.
4. C J.T. Realmuto (Trade Candidate): Has he peaked?
Has J.T. Realmuto peaked? It’s a question worth asking when faced with an asking price that has been described as “beyond staggering,” per Buster Olney of ESPN.com. The 27-year-old set career highs in OPS (.825), OPS+ (131), home runs (21) and WAR (4.3) this past season, emerging as arguably the best catcher in baseball in the process. There’s no reason to think he won’t continue to be a top-tier player at the position, but paying a premium for his career year carries obvious risk.
3. SP Corey Kluber (Trade Candidate): Workload
Over the past five seasons, Corey Kluber has worked 1091.1 innings during the regular season and another 45.1 in the playoffs, an average of 227.1 innings per year. He’ll turn 33 on April 10, and it stands to reason that extreme workload will start to catch up with him in the near future. No question he’s one of the best in the game, but a potential drop-off has to be considered when weighing a blockbuster deal.
2. RF Bryce Harper: Name value vs. actual value
Bryce Harper is one of the most recognizable figures in baseball, and he’s been a household name since he was still in high school. At 26, he already has an NL MVP award and 27.4 WAR on his resume, and at his best, he’s a truly transcendent talent. However, he was far from his best last season when he managed just 1.3 WAR. Consistency will be the key to living up to a $300 million-plus payday, and Harper has simply not performed at an elite level year in and year out.
1. SS/3B Manny Machado: Attitude
Manny Machado has tried to walk back comments about his disinterest in hustling, but it goes beyond those odd remarks when it comes to concerns about his attitude. His action in the NLCS when he seemed to intentionally step on the foot of Jesus Aguilar while running to first base led eventual NL MVP Christian Yelich to call him a “dirty player,” and that’s not the first incident of that nature. There’s no question the 26-year-old is an all-world talent. His 33.8 career WAR bests Harper with both players entering their age-26 season. But is he someone you want as the face of your franchise?