Scouting The Free Agent Market: David Freese

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

As the offseason winds down, teams are currently in bargain hunting mode trying to find that last piece or two to round out their roster. The Yankees have grabbed low-cost veterans like Eric Chavez, Brian Roberts, and Raul Ibanez at this point of the offseason in recent years. They weren’t counting on them for huge impact, just quality depth.

The Yankees have already announced their list of non-roster Spring Training invitees, but the roster building doesn’t end there. The team can still add players and may indeed make a minor pickup or two in the nine days between now and the open of camp. Veteran third baseman David Freese remains unsigned, and with Greg Bird now out for the season, the Yankees could use corner infield depth. Is Freese a potential fit for that role? Let’s look.

The Offense

Freese, 33 in April, has been rather consistent the last three years, putting up a wRC+ in the 105-110 range each season from 2013-15. Both his BABIP (.321) and strikeout rate (22.4%) have held fairly steady these last few years, but his walk rate is trending down (9.0% to 7.4% to 6.6%) while his ISO (.119 to .123 to .163) is trending up. Here are his platoon splits from 2013-15:

vs. RHP 1,127 .257/.321/.375 100 .327 6.7% 24.0% 54.2% 24.8% 14.9% 36.2%
vs. LHP 375 .268/.349/.451 127 .303 10.7% 17.9% 48.7% 28.7% 14.7% 37.4%

Freese is a right-handed hitter, as you may have guessed from the splits. He’s also a ground ball hitter, which explains the higher than league average BABIP and generally underwhelming ISO. Ground balls sneak through for hits more often than fly balls, but they rarely go for extra bases.

Last season Freese put up a .257/.323/.420 (110 wRC+) line overall, and his splits had reversed from his career norms. He was basically average against lefties (104 wRC+) while having more success against righties (112 wRC+). That looks very much like a one-year blip based on the rest of his career — it was a 92 wRC+ against righties and a 153 wRC+ against lefties as recently as 2014 — and not the new normal, but stranger things have happened.

The lack of interest this offseason suggests teams do not see Freese as a player capable of producing at an average or better clip against both righties and lefties. Those guys usually find jobs, especially at an in-demand position like third base. Going forward, it’s best to project Freese as a platoon bat, and if he performs better than expected, great.

The Defense

For the vast majority of his career, the defensive stats have rated Freese as an average to slightly below-average third baseman. He had one disaster year in 2013 (-14 DRS and -16.5 UZR) but has otherwise hovered within a run or two of average. For what it’s worth, the UZR components say it’s all due to a lack of range. Freese turns double plays fine and avoids errors, but he’s a statue. Not much range at all.

Freese has played some first base in addition to third base, mostly earlier in his career, which is kind of a big deal as far as the Yankees are concerned. The Bird injury means they’re out a Grade-A piece of depth at first base. Freese played nine games at first with the Cardinals from 2009-11 plus a bunch more in the minors, and I’m guessing he would have seen some action at first with the Angels the last two years if not for Albert Pujols and C.J. Cron.

The defensive stats at first are meaningless given how little time Freese played there. As we’ve seen the last few years, first base is not as easy as it seems. The Yankees have thrown a lot of players at first for short periods of time (Chase Headley, Kelly Johnson, Brendan Ryan, Brian McCann, etc.) and all struggled with the transition to some degree. Freese at least has some familiarity with the position. He wouldn’t be going in blind.

Injury History

Only once in his six full MLB seasons has Freese managed to play 140+ games. That was the 144 games he played in 2013. Freese is good for at least one DL stint per season. Check out the list of injuries:

  • 2015: Non-displaced fracture of right index finger. Missed close to six weeks.
  • 2014: Fractured right middle finger. Missed three weeks.
  • 2013: Lower back strain. Missed three weeks.
  • 2012: Right and left ankle sprains. Missed ten games in September but didn’t go on the DL because of expanded rosters.
  • 2011: Broken left hand. Missed two months.
  • 2010: Right ankle tendon reconstruction surgery. Missed a little more than three months.
  • 2009: Left heel debridement surgery. Missed two months in minors.

Not great. He’s had surgery on both ankles/feet and breaks in both hands/fingers. Any team that signs Freese would have to have a decent Plan B at third base because he’s going to miss time. His history suggests staying healthy over a full season just isn’t happening. The best predictor of future injury is past injury, after all.

Contract Projections

It is late in the offseason, and at this point the remaining free agents are going to end up with contracts smaller than expected. Howie Kendrick just took two years and $20M. That’s ridiculous. It’s a fraction of what he’s worth. Bargains are out there. Here are some early offseason projections for Freese:

Freese would certainly jump on three years and $30M right now. That’s 150% of Kendrick’s deal! He’d probably take the two years and $18M as well. Martin Prado and Justin Turner will be the best available free agent third basemen next offseason. Would Freese take a one-year deal and try his luck again next winter? He might not have a choice at this point.

Wrapping Up

Although he is four years older, I prefer Juan Uribe to Freese, but Freese could potentially fill a similar role as the backup third baseman and righty bat off the bench. He can’t play second like Uribe, but the Yankees have depth at that position in Dustin Ackley and Rob Refsnyder. They need first base depth in the wake of Bird’s injury and Freese may be able to provide that. (Uribe may be able to as well.)

(Harry How/Getty)
(Harry How/Getty)

Looking around the league, I count eight teams that have an opening for either a starting third baseman or a most of the time third baseman: Angels, Indians, Astros, Braves, Reds, Brewers, Pirates, and Padres. Some of those teams are more realistic fits for Freese than others. The rebuilding Braves, Reds, Brewers, and Padres aren’t going to spend money on a veteran third baseman, for example.

The Yankees have yet to sign a Major League free agent this offseason but I don’t think they’re opposed to the idea completely. They can’t be. You have to be willing to act if a favorable deal comes along. My guess is Freese would have to come on similar terms as Stephen Drew last year ($5M for one year) for the Yankees to have any interest. And even then Freese has to be willing to accept a bench role.

As with most position player free agents this offseason, Freese looks like an okay fit for the Yankees but the Yankees don’t seem to be a fit for Freese. The Angels, Indians, and Pirates all stand to offer more playing time and Freese may consider those clubs more likely to contend in 2016 than the Yankees. At some point someone will sign him, right? I would be surprised if he has to settle for a 13th position player on the roster job at this stage of his career.

Cross one name off the list: Freese traded to Angels

The Cardinals traded David Freese (and a reliever) to the Angels for Peter Bourjos (and a prospect) this afternoon, both teams announced. This is notable because the Yankees were discussing Freese with St. Louis recently, but talks didn’t advance because New York didn’t have much to offer. There was some belief they could revisit talks later in the offseason, but forget that now. Even if Alex Rodriguez does not get suspended, the Yankees need to look for a capable third baseman just because he’s such an injury risk.

Scouting The Trade Market: David Freese

I feel like this was inevitable. At some point this winter, the Yankees would be connected to David Freese. It made too much sense. The Cardinals don’t need him anymore with second baseman Kolten Wong ready (Matt Carpenter would slide back to third) and the Bombers need some help at the hot corner. Add in the big-ish name, past postseason success, and familiarity with a baseball-crazy market and pennant races and all that, and it’s a match made in rumor heaven.

The Yankees have long had their eyes on Freese — they reportedly agreed to acquire him from the Padres for Kei Igawa back in 2007, but George Steinbrenner backed out because he didn’t want to eat any of Igawa’s contract — and sure enough, Mark Feinsand reported yesterday two sides have been talking trade. Later in the day we found out a deal is unlikely because they don’t match up well, or, in other words, the Cardinals don’t have much interest in what New York has to offer. That doesn’t mean a trade is off the table completely though, the offseason is still young and these two clubs have months to find common ground. Does he fit the Yankees’ needs though? Let’s take a look, starting with the negatives.

The Cons

  • Freese’s power was absent in 2013. He slugged only nine homers with a .119 ISO in 521 plate appearances, down from the almost perfectly league average .150 ISO he posted from 2009-2012. Freese saw his HR/FB rate drop from 18.8% in 2011-2012 to 10.5% this year.
  • His batted ball profile did not change (no sudden spike in ground balls, for example) and his .320 BABIP this past summer was actually a career-low by more than 30 points. He’s a high-BABIP hitter who managed a career-worst .262/.340/.381 (106 wRC+) in 2013.
  • Freese is pretty bad defensively regardless of whether you want to use the eye test or the various fielding stats: -14 DRS, -13.1 UZR, -12.5 FRAA, and -19 Total Zone in his career. If you watched the postseason at all, you saw how positively statuesque he is at third.
  • Freese won’t give you anything on the bases. He’s gone 6-for-12 in stolen base attempts in his 466-game big league career and he’s taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) just 34% of the time, below the 40% league average.
  • The injury history is rather long. Freese missed time with back trouble this season (started the year on the DL) and he’s had three surgeries since breaking into the show: left heel debridement (2009), right ankle tendon reconstruction (2010), and a left hand fracture (2011). He’s also had a lot of day-to-day stuff over the years (mostly hamstring and wrist).
  • I usually try to steer clear of off-the-field stuff here, but Freese has three alcohol-related arrests in his recent past and that seems like something worth mentioning. He was arrested for DUI in 2002 and again 2009, and was also arrested for public intoxication and resisting arrest in 2007. The second DUI was a violation of his probation stemming from the 2007 arrest.

The Pros

  • Freese didn’t hit this past season but he has hit every other year of his career, putting up a .296/.363/.446 (125 wRC+) line from 2009-2012 and .293/.372/.467 (133 wRC+) with 20 homers in 567 plate appearances in 2012 alone. Both his walk (career 8.6%) and strikeout (21.0%) rates are right in line with the league averages.
  • As a right-handed batter, he does most of his damage against lefties (career 134 wRC+) but can still hold his own against righties (114 wRC+). Even this past season, the worst of his career, he managed a tolerable 98 wRC+ against righties. He doesn’t need a platoon partner.
  • We have to mention the postseason, right? Freese is a career .289/.357/.518 (141 wRC+) hitter with seven homers in 185 plate appearances across 41 postseason games, but I have to point out those numbers were built almost entirely during that monster 2011 run (245 wRC+). He was okay in 2012 (106 wRC+) and downright awful in 2013 (50 wRC+).
  • Matt Swartz projects Freese to earn $4.4M through arbitration next season — for some reason I thought it was over $7M — and he will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2015 as well. He won’t be eligible for free agency until the 2015-2016 offseason.

Freese isn’t a bat first player, he’s a bat only player. He doesn’t help on defense and you can’t count on him to play 140+ games either — he’s only done that once in his career (144 in 2012) — so if he doesn’t hit, he’s a replacement level player (like he was this summer). There’s a chance his subpar 2013 season at the plate has to do with his back problem, which means he could rebound next year if he’s healthy or continue to get worse since back injuries have a way of lingering forever. I think it’s very clear Freese’s reputation, which was boosted by 2011 postseason heroics, far exceeds his actual worth right now.

Now, that said, the third base market is a wasteland. The best available free agent is Juan Uribe, who was very good this past season but a release candidate in both 2011 and 2012. The alternatives are Michael Young and Mark Reynolds. So yeah, the free agent market doesn’t offer much help. With the Padres reportedly hanging onto Chase Headley and Pablo Sandoval only kinda sorta on the market, Freese figures to be the best third baseman on the trade block this winter barring something surprising. He’s the best of an underwhelming lot of players.

The Yankees don’t have much to offer the Cardinals in the trade, hence St. Louis’ reluctance to pull the trigger. There is a chance the Cardinals will non-tender Freese prior to the December 2nd deadline rather than risk paying him $4.4M to be a bench player in 2014, at which point New York could simply sign him as a free agent. Maybe this is a repeat of the Russell Martin situation — the Yankees offered Frankie Cervelli to the Dodgers for Martin, who balked and eventually non-tendered their backstop days later. Maybe they low-balled St. Louis and are content with waiting to see if he gets cut loose next month (when they might have a better handle on the Alex Rodriguez‘s situation) before upping their offer. Freese would help the Yankees but only at the right price. I don’t think he’s someone they should go all out to acquire regardless of their third base needs and the lack of alternatives.

Update: Yankees and Cardinals unlikely to swing David Freese trade

6:28pm: The Yankees and Cardinals don’t match up well and are unlikely to work out a trade involving Freese, reports Ken Rosenthal. He says New York simply doesn’t have much to offer.

5:00pm: Via Mark Feinsand: The Yankees and Cardinals are discussing a trade involving David Freese. No word on what other players would be involved or heading to St. Louis or anything like that. Matt Swartz projects Freese to earn $4.4M next year and he won’t be eligible for free agency until after 2015.

Freese, 30, hit .262/.340/.381 (106 wRC+) with nine homers in 521 plate appearances this season. Obviously any team that acquires him would be banking on a return to 2012 (133 wRC+) or 2011 (123 wRC+) form. Freese is a limited defender with poor range and a lengthy injury history, so his value is tied up entirely in his bat. His reputation far exceeds his production at this point, but Freese makes some sense for the Yankees as long as the cost is reasonable. I’m just not sure that’s the case.

Mailbag: Gardner, Gonzalez, Freese, Aune

Just four questions this week, but they’re good ones. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything throughout the week. Mailbag questions, links, comments, whatever.

(Layne Murdoch/Getty)
(Layne Murdoch/Getty)

Travis asks: Is there a case to be made for trading Brett Gardner in the offseason? His calling card is his speed and once that goes, I believe his production for the team will be severely limited. The Yankees will have Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells, Ichiro Suzuki, Melky Mesa, Zoilo Almonte and Slade Heathcott (presumably) on the roster for 2014, which could make Gardner expendable. He may or may not get the Yankees a draft pick after 2014, depending on his production and if his legs hold up and he doesn’t get hurt. Add in his age (30, 31 after next season) and you have the makings for a trap contract (if an extension is given). What are your thoughts?

There’s no one on the roster I wouldn’t trade right now. The Yankees don’t have a Mike Trout or a Clayton Kershaw, that untouchable player you can build around for the next half-decade. I very much agree Gardner will be close to useless once his speed slips, which is why I wouldn’t bother trying to sign him to an extension. He’s not all that young, like you said. Based on what we know right now, I’d be completely fine with letting him walk as a free agent after next season. Let someone else pay for his decline years.

Trading Gardner has more to do with the possible return than anything. What can one year of an above-average but not elite center fielder get you on the open market? Is last winter’s Shin-Soo Choo trade comparable? He was a much better hitter but a fraction of the defender and completely unproven in center. The Indians turned him into a top 20 pitching prospect (Trevor Bauer). One year of David DeJesus — a much more comparable player to Gardner than Choo — brought back absolutely nothing (Vin Mazzaro!) a few years ago. Coco Crisp fetched a then above-average big league reliever (Ramon Ramirez) and is probably the best comparison. Teams have done a better job of valuing defense since then, however.

Trading Gardner makes sense in a vacuum, but who would the Yankees play in center in his place? Sign Jacoby Ellsbury? Re-sign Curtis Granderson? I don’t think Ichiro can do it full-time and Wells sure as hell can’t. Mesa will be out of options next year and likely cut from the roster before the end of the Spring Training. Heathcott won’t be ready either. There’s a lot of variables here, it’s not like trading Gardner would be dealing from a position of depth. If some team wants to overpay, sure, move him. If not, he’s more valuable to them next year than anything they’ll probably get back in a deal.

Andrew asks: Whatever happened to the Cuban pitcher the Phillies supposedly signed but then never agreed to a contract with? He’s still out there, any idea why and if the Yankees could get him to fill in next year?

Andrew’s talking about 26-year-old Miguel Alberto Gonzalez, who agreed to a six-year contract worth more than $50M with Philadelphia back in July. The contract fell apart a few weeks later over concerns about his elbow, specifically bone spurs. He had some removed two years ago and is said to have made a full recovery, but apparently there was enough of a concern on the Phillies’ part to call off the agreement. The two sides could always work out a new deal. I have no idea if Gonzalez could step into the rotation and help the Yankees next year, but he’s still out there if they want to sign him. Six years and $50M is a ton of money though.

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Travis asks: Could the Yankees make a play for David Freese if Alex Rodriguez is suspended for all or most of 2014?

Get ready for a winter full of Freese-to-New York rumors, ’cause they’re coming. Ken Rosenthal (video link) recently said the Cardinals are expected to shift Matt Carpenter to third base (his natural position) with top infield prospect Kolten Wong taking over at second (his natural position) next season, making Freese available in what figures to be a thin third base market. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? As long as Wong doesn’t expect, I suppose.

Freese, 30, is hitting .266/.342/.380 (106 wRC+) with six homers in 412 plate appearances this year, his worst season as a big leaguer. He missed a few weeks with a back strain earlier this summer and has a long injury history, including heel (2009), right ankle (2010), left ankle (2010), and hand (2011) surgeries. Freese will earn $3.15M this year and is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2015, so he’ll be relatively affordable. Given his age and injury history, this isn’t someone you look to sign long-term. Ideally he’d be a two-year stopgap between A-Rod and Eric Jagielo, right? We can dream.

I’m not quite sure how to value Freese in a trade at this point. He’s not particularly young, his hot corner defense is just okay (awful this year by the various metrics), his power has vanished (.114), he’s injury prone, and he’s touted as a clutch god because of his work in the postseason two years ago. That last part is why a ton of people will overvalue him, kinda like Andre Ethier. Ethier hit some walk-off homers a few years ago and suddenly he became a star when the actual production said otherwise. Yes, the Yankees should look into acquiring Freese if he becomes available, I just don’t know what an appropriate package would be. He’s a solid regular at a hard-to-fill position, not a star or a true impact player.

Jeb asks: Austin Aune’s season has been … interesting. I’m assuming he has a decent arm because he started at SS and had a chance to play QB. Is there a chance that he could be converted to a pitcher?

Interesting is a nice way to put it. The 19-year-old Aune is hitting .177/.209/.234 (~25 wRC+) with a ridiculous 67 strikeouts (!) in 148 plate appearances. That’s a 45.3% strikeout rate (!!!). Remember, the Yankees gave this kid a double-slot $1M bonus as their second round pick (89th overall) just last summer. He was raw because he was a top quarterback recruit who split time between the two sports in high school, but raw doesn’t explain that. I hope the Yankees have Aune working on some swing adjustments because that would at least explain the extreme contact problems. I wouldn’t pull the plug on him as a hitter yet, he is still just a teenager with only 311 pro plate appearances to his credit, but yeah. This isn’t exactly encouraging.