Each season, unheralded free agents step up and play an enormous role in determining the fate of the team that gives them a chance.  This year it was Koji Uehara dominating for the Red Sox, Francisco Liriano and Bartolo Colon solidifying the Pirates and Athletics rotations respectively, and James Loney filling the void at first base for Tampa Bay.  These players, for differing reasons, entered the 2012-13 off-season undervalued but emerged as key players in the playoff picture.  Jonah Keri of Grantland in his recent article “What Did We Learn From the MLB Season” highlights many lessons of team building garnered in 2013, one of which is “Bargain Hunting can and does often payoff.” Keri continues to note that he believes the best bargains can be found in free agents who are “under 30 players who play good defense, are coming off ugly seasons by traditional metrics, and have some history of strong performance two or three years ago.” I don’t necessarily agree with his under-30 statement but I roughly followed this formula and attempted to identify several undervalued free agents who could breakout in 2014.

David Murphy

To say that David Murphy’s 2013 campaign was terrible would be 100 % correct.  Murphy posted a lowly slash line of .220/.282/.374 with a miserable wRC+ of only 73 to boot.  However, Murphy suffered from a BABIP of .227, 75 points below his career average of .302 and he’s only a year removed from a season in which he posted a 3.9 WAR.  Murphy plays good defense in left field with a UZR of 10.8 and a RngR of 16.1 in 2013, and at age 32 he should still have several good years ahead of him.  A mechanical adjustment to put the ball in play more may have factored into Murphy’s 2013 struggles as his K% and SwStr% both saw declines, but there’s no reason to believe these issues can’t be fixed.  He might not get back to 2012 form, but Murphy is a far better player than he showed in 2013 and will be nice pick-up for whoever signs him this winter.

Dan Haren

Dan Haren is years removed from being a being a front-end starter, and while I don’t believe he’ll ever get back to that status, he’s a better pitcher than he’s shown the past two seasons.  Despite having an ERA of 4.67 in 2013, the 29th lowest amongst free agent pitchers, Haren’s xFIP was 3.67, the 14th lowest amongst free agent pitchers.   Haren’s K/9 was also 8.01 in 2013, above his career average of 7.64, and his swinging strike rate rose back into the 9% range after dipping to 8.7% in 2012.  Haren has also started 30 or more games each season since 2005, and his durability should not be undervalued.  The key for Haren is de-emphasizing his cutter.  The cutter was a pitch that Haren used supremely well in 2011, holding hitters to a .217 batting average against, and helping him post of WAR of 6.2.  However, since then hitters have figured it out.  In 2012, hitters hit .308 against the pitch and in 2013, they hit an outstanding .329 against it.  His four-seam and two-seam fastballs, however, held hitters to batting averages against of .243 and .271 in 2013 respectively.  To say if Haren simply throws less cutters he will perform at a higher level would be short-sighted, but there’s undoubtedly room for improvement by changing his pitch usage patterns.  This is an adjustment Haren can and should make in 2014.

Josh Johnson

Part of last winter’s grand blockbuster deal between the Toronto Blue Jays and Miami Marlins, Josh Johnson came into the American League with high expectations.  Johnson did not live up to the hype though, posting a record of 2-8 and an ERA of 6.20.  Yet, fielding independent metrics suggest Johnson was not as pitiful as his fielding dependent metrics indicate.  His xFIP was only 3.58, his K/9 was 9.18, he had a 9.3 SwStr% consistent with his career average, and his batted ball trends were nearly identical to his career numbers as well.  Johnson fell victim to having a ridiculously high HR/FB ratio of 18.5% and .356 BABIP.  The big question that comes along with Johnson, however, is his health.  Johnson’s 2013 campaign ended abruptly with a forearm strain in August and then he had minor elbow surgery in October.  Despite these issues, pitchers usually rebound from forearm injuries, his elbow surgery was only to remove bone spurs, and Johnson will be 30 years old next season.

Chris Young

Chris Young struggled in 2013, playing in only 107 games due to both an early season strained quad and poor performance.  Young hit a mere .200, while slugging .379 and posting a wRC+ of 82.  However, Young is still only 30 years old, had a BABIP of .237 in 2013, 37 points below his career average, and has a positive career UZR/150 and RngR for his career.  Young’s 2013 numbers also prove that his power and speed are still there.  His 12 home runs in 327 plate appearances would equate to 20.8 home runs in a full season of 650 plate appearances and he swiped 10 bags in his limited time as well.  Young does strike out at an exorbitant rate (24.8% in 2013) and he hasn’t played a full season since 2011, but he still has the potential to regain his 20/20 ability  and he will provide a team with reliable center field defense.

Advanced stats are courtesy of FanGraphs

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