By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
When the lockdown was lifted and the Hot Stove warmed up, it looked like there would be at least one player left standing in the game of transactional musical chairs. It was just a question of who.
Well, now we have our proverbial seatless player: Michael Conforto.
With all due respect to Brett Gardner, Johnny Cueto, JA Happ, and Brian Goodwin, among others, Conforto is the best free agent still on the market by a considerable margin. Opening day is eight days away, and one of the most consistent outfield bats in the league over the past half-decade is still here, unsigned.
If we go back to GM meetings in early November, Conforto agent Scott Boras seemed very confident that his client would have a robust market.
Since then, Boras has negotiated over $1 billion in free agent deals, but Conforto remains the odd one out.
Now, many of this year’s best in class free agents have entered the market after years of careers and cashed in accordingly. Trevor Story was truly the only other top free agent whose platform year was significantly worse than his career standards, and it took him a while to find a home in Boston. But Story had the advantage of being a more infield defender, whereas Conforto is known as an average defender in an outfield corner at best, which put a lot more pressure on his bat to be in full form by entering free agency.
Unfortunately, Conforto just posted his worst offensive season since establishing himself as an All-Star caliber player in 2017. That’s not to say he was bad, but it’s easy to imagine the teams are less enthusiastic about handing a multi-year contract to a corner. outfielder who was meh at best.
During GM meetings, Boras explained Conforto’s struggles in 2021: he was dealing with the aftermath of a case of COVID-19 he contracted shortly before spring training, then a hamstring injury. -legs kept him out for much of May and June. The numbers support that general theory, as Conforto’s .639 OPS in the first half pales in comparison to the more familiar .792 mark he posted after the All-Star Break.
On top of all that, the vibes in Queens weren’t exactly good for much of the season, and Conforto wasn’t the only Mets hitter to seriously underperform after the team excelled offensively. in the shortened 2020 season.
Boras seemed convinced that the teams understood the context of Conforto’s disappointing year and that this would not affect its market. At this point, however, it seems teams are hesitant to bring in Conforto at the price Boras is likely still looking for.
But if you zoom out further, there’s plenty of reason to believe he could still be worth the investment, even if it means giving up a draft pick due to the qualifying offer he rejected. at the start of the offseason.
I’m inclined to buy Boras’ general explanation for Conforto’s struggles last season. He had a stellar track record through 2021 – and by no means short. He hit .265/.369/.495 in nearly 2,000 plate appearances from 2017-20, good for a 133 wRC+, a higher rating than fellow freelance hitters Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, Chris Taylor, Story and Javier Baez over the same span. In fact, Conforto ranked 25th in wRC+ among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances during that span.
Plus, the peripherals of his lackluster 2021 suggest he wasn’t that much of a hitter, despite baseball’s disappointing back-card results. It’s not as if his plate discipline has evaporated. In fact, his 21.7% withdrawal rate was his lowest. since his rookie year, and his walk rate of 12.3% was perfectly in line with his career average. He just didn’t have such a consistent impact on the ball when he made contact, and the BABIP gods weren’t smiling at him either.
All that to say, Conforto’s four-year performance record is nice, but it obviously hasn’t solved the question that fans and teams tend to focus on more when it comes to free agents. : what have you done for me lately?
The Conforto platform year disappointed, surely. But the big picture makes it easier to understand why Boras is still looking for big revenue for its client. But with opening day around the corner and rosters being finalized, it’s hard to imagine Conforto landing a deal close to what Boras was looking for in November, when he called it the “king Queens”.
However, a team will soon sign Conforto. So who could be in the mix? Or, perhaps more specifically at this point, who should be in the mix to plug it into one of their outfield corners?
The Blue Jays, White Sox and Padres would all make a lot of sense, but each recently opted to acquire a left-handed outfield bat via trade, with Toronto swapping Randal Grichuk for a badly-needed left-handed bat in Raimel. Tapia, Chicago acquiring former first-round pick Adam Haseley from the Phillies and San Diego landing Matt Beaty from the Dodgers.
Conforto is better than all three, but the teams have apparently decided that the cost of trades for these less proven but possibly productive players is better than giving Conforto a major contract. Still, even after the Beaty trade, the Padres feel like a potential candidate, especially if they can move contracts for Eric Hosmer or Wil Myers.
Early in the offseason, the Mariners looked like a decent landing spot for Pacific Northwest native Conforto, but they took an even bigger swing, acquiring All-Star outfielder Jesse Winker from Cincinnati, so we can probably cross them out too. .
Guardians are arguably the most obvious adjustment. Frustratingly, Cleveland has spent less on free agency so far than any other team outside of Oakland and seems very content to keep it that way. It’s one thing to rebuild teams to avoid spending money on the free agent market, but this Cleveland team could easily compete in the AL Central, given the strength of the pitching staff, and it’s infuriating to see them refuse to upgrade a lineup that lacks any semblance of punch outside of Jose Ramirez and Franmil Reyes.
Of the contenders, perhaps my favorite, albeit unlikely, possibility is Boston. Signing Conforto and pushing Jackie Bradley Jr. to the bench could give the Red Sox even deeper training to compete in the gauntlet that is the AL East. JBJ would be an expensive fourth outfielder, but his extremely poor offensive display in 2021 suggests it’s probably his best role at this point in his career.
Who else? The Nationals have room, but Nelson Cruz appears to be their only big swing of the winter. The Angels could use Conforto if they feel Jo Adell or Brandon Marsh aren’t completely ready to flank Mike Trout in center field. The Rockies are completely unpredictable and could add Conforto to bolster a powerful outfield core alongside Grichuk and Bryant. The Giants seem perfectly content with their squads in the outfield, and it’s hard to blame them after their spectacular success last year.
Could Texas add another big ticket item to its unrivaled free agent spending spree? Could Conforto return to the Mets, despite all their additions in the outfield seemingly to replace him? I do not know!
All this to say that it is very difficult to identify where Conforto could end up. In some ways, it’s funny – a team is about to add an All-Star outfielder just before Opening Day for a huge discount.
I don’t know which team it will be, but I hope Conforto can prove them right by doing it.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He lives in DC but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn’t sleep much. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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