Breaking down the best remaining free agents in baseball

Ian Desmond is one of the best free agents left on the market, but there are some hang-ups to signing him.

With Yoenis Cespedes re-signing with the Mets, the free-agent pickings are getting pretty danged slim. All the free-agent trackers will give you slightly different rankings, but here’s a pretty good estimate of the five best (if not most interesting) players still looking for gainful employment this year:

You wanna swap out Freese for Austin Jackson or Doug Fister? Hey, it’s your funeral.

Nah, not really. This isn’t life and death, everybody’s going to make enough to stay off the bread lines, and I might be too high on life to recognize all of Freese’s weaknesses. But I chose those five and we’ll just have to live with them …

I’m a little surprised that we haven’t heard more about Desmond, because he’s actually quite good. I mean, he was just fair last year; a .290 on-base percentage will do that. But Desmond has been a league-average hitter in his career, and a perfectly decent shortstop. Which is a pretty valuable combination. Even including his subpar 2015, Desmond’s probably been one of the five best shortstops in the league over the last three seasons, thanks in part (but only in part) to his outstanding durability record.

So why don’t you sign Ian Desmond? First — and this goes for everybody else on the list — we don’t know what sort of dollars his agent has floated, or has rejected. Second, while he remains a fine player, he might not be nearly so fine at the end of (say) a five-year contract. Third, if you sign Desmond, you gotta fork over your first-round draft pick to the Nationals.

Desmond’s biggest problem is that none of the teams with lousy shortstops are really in a position to sign him, for various reasons. Granted, he’s volunteered to play second base, or even take on super-utility chores. But if he’s getting the big contract, it’s probably as an every-day shortstop. And you gotta think he wants the big contract. So yeah, maybe he should have accepted the Nats’ qualifying offer, and hoped the market for his talents was stronger next winter. But he didn’t. So now he waits. The Diamondbacks are soft at both middle-infield positions and they’re supposedly all-in. So maybe there’s a fit there. Oh, and the D-backs already gave up their first-round pick when they signed Zack Greinke.

Much of the above might be said about Howie Kendrick, except Kendrick plays second base instead of shortstop and is two years older than Desmond. Kendrick has not been one of MLB’s five best second baseman over the last three years, but it’s been a better three years for second basemen than shortstops; there’s no meaningful difference between the two in terms of their overall value.

Howie Kendrick.

And again, the Diamondbacks seem a sensible destination. As do the White Sox, who got approximately nothing from their second basemen last season. Also again, the devil’s in the details (of the contract); if you sign Howie Kendrick for five years, you’re in for some pain toward the end.

Speaking of pain, Dexter Fowler’s fielding numbers are hurting him. I mean, you’d think a center fielder with a .363 career on-base percentage — including .358 after his impressive time with the Rockies — would be highly in demand. Except all the metrics suggest that Fowler’s a poor center fielder, and these days approximately 30 teams are acutely aware of the metrics.

It’s not that you can’t get a job playing center field with weak metrics; Matt Kemp is living proof of that. It’s just harder, especially if you’re not an outstanding hitter (or used to be). Fowler’s highest utility is probably with one of the teams that missed out on Justin Upton and Cespedes. But would he sign a two- or three-year contract to play left field? For a lot less money than those guys got? We’ll see. But that’s what it might take.

Yovani Gallardo is the best starting pitcher left on the board, or at least the most reliable; for seven years running, he’s started at least 30 games every year. The problem is that Gallardo’s star began dimming after his outstanding 2010, and he’s been losing a little off his fastball every year since. The good news is that you know what you’re getting every year: around two Wins Above Replacement. The bad news is that two can turn into one within a few years. Which discourages long-term commitment. I’m faintly reminded of Carlos Silva, however unfair that comparison might be.

Yovani Gallardo.

Finally we come to David Freese, recently considered by a measurable percentage of Missourians and television presenters as THE GREATEST CLUTCH HITTER EVER.

Which he was, I suppose, for a couple of weeks. Since then he’s been a perfectly normal clutch hitter and a perfectly decent (but just decent) MLB third baseman. Which means, if you just go by the cost of a victory on the open market, he’s actually worth at least $15 million per season. Considering that Freese is a weak-fielding third baseman who doesn’t hit enough to play anywhere else, and turns 33 this spring, I wouldn’t give him that much.

Well, maybe for a year or two. But if some team signs Freese for three or four years, they’re going to be sorry in the third or fourth year. Which is probably why he remains unsigned.