MLB free agency: Cody Bellinger and more non-tender candidates who could find themselves on the market

Friday marks Major League Baseball’s deadline for tendering contracts to unsigned players, a couple of weeks earlier than normal. For those unfamiliar with the concept, teams have to choose whether or not to extend contract offers to all players not already signed to guaranteed deals. That encompasses most players with fewer than six years of big-league service time (although there are exceptions, such as players who agreed to long-term extensions earlier in their careers).

The players who do not receive contract offers are described as being “non-tendered,” meaning they become free agents. Unlike a traditional free agent, those with the required amount of service time, these players rarely receive multi-year deals. Many of them find new homes on one-year arrangements, with their salary either aligning or coming in underneath their projected arbitration prize.

We here at CBS Sports are nothing if not the speculative kind, so below we’ve highlighted 10 potential players who could find themselves hitting the open market — or, at the very least, traded to another franchise — later this November. (Do note that the players are presented in alphabetical order, and that you can find a complete list of MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration salary projections by clicking here.)

There was a point earlier in Anderson’s career, when he tallied back-to-back three-win seasons in 2018-19, where it appeared he could become a franchise cornerstone. That hasn’t happened. Instead, he’s taken a step backward the past two seasons, posting a 90 OPS+ and notching just 1.6 combined Wins Above Replacement. Now, Anderson is a 29-year-old whose projected arbitration prize (north of $5 million) would make him one of the highest paid players on the Marlins roster. Another franchise, one endowed with a greater financial commitment from ownership, might shrug off that price point. Probably not the Fish, who used Anderson sparingly down the stretch out of deference to younger, cheaper internal options.

The Dodgers played the will-they, won’t-they game with Bellinger last offseason, ultimately opting to bring him back for another year. The good news is that he improved upon his play compared to his 2021 effort; the bad news is that his output remained well below his previously established marks. Bellinger is only 27 years old, and not even three full winters removed from winning the Most Valuable Player Award. Still, there aren’t many teams who can stomach sinking $18 million into a player who would be doing well to post an on-base percentage in the .280s. The Dodgers are one of those teams, but we think they might concede it’s time to move on.

The first big decision the new Tigers front office will have to make is deciding Candelario’s fate. (Hey, big is a relative term.) He’s had an up-and-down career to date, with last season safely falling in the “down” bin. It’s worth noting that Candelario can qualify for free agency with another year of big-league service time, meaning that the Tigers can view this in a straightforward way: would they sign him to a one-year deal worth $7 million if they could, or would they prefer to use that money elsewhere. The third-base market is barren, so either choice is defensible.

If we had to guess, we would write that Hiura will make the cut. He’s projected to earn $2 million next year after hitting for a 115 OPS+ last season in 80 games. That seems like a pittance to pay for an above-average hitter, but we’re not sure he’ll remain one. Hiura struck out in more than 40 percent of his plate appearances in 2022, and he continued to provide negative value defensively. The Brewers have 18 arbitration-eligible players on their roster, suggesting they have some hard decisions awaiting them. Moving on from a 26-year-old former top-10 pick would qualify.

Sticking with the Brewers, Houser is projected to earn nearly $4 million in 2023. He’s started 58 times during the Pandemic Era, amassing a 101 ERA+ and a 1.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He doesn’t miss bats (his 83 percent contact rate last year was the fourth-worst among the 186 pitchers with 10-plus starts) and he’s always had a significant platoon split. You can never have too much pitching depth, but we think the Brewers would be justified to cut bait with Houser and give someone else a chance.

These decisions aren’t always about dollars and cents. Sometimes, they’re about roster space and team complexions. Hudson is slated to make a modest $2.7 million next season, but his disappointing 2022 season could have him deemed expendable. After all, the Cardinals can field a starting rotation of veterans without even dipping into a pool of young arms that includes Matthew Liberatore, Gordon Graceffo, or Michael McGreevy. Where does that leave Hudson? Probably on another roster. (The Rockiesfor one, have expressed past interest in obtaining his services.)

The Royals have shown a lot of patience with Keller, whom they originally acquired as part of the 2017-18 Rule 5 draft. Alas, he hasn’t rewarded their faith the last two seasons. In 61 combined appearances (48 starts), he compiled an 82 ERA+ and a 1.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Royals are a good starting rotation away from being a contender (or close to it), suggesting that new head exec JJ Picollo should be able to find a better use for both Keller’s projected $7 million salary and 20-plus starts.

8. Emilio Pagán, RHP, Twins

Pagán is among the most frustrating pitchers in the majors. Since a career-best showing in 2019, he’s appeared in 148 games the past three seasons while mustering an 85 ERA+, an abysmal mark for a high-leverage reliever. (For context, Hansel Robles is the only reliever with 10 or more saves and a worse ERA+ in the Pandemic Era.) Pagán’s stuff is good enough to rack up more than a strikeout per frame, yet that hasn’t prevented him from surrendering close to two home runs every nine innings the past three years. Maybe the Twins keep him around with the thought that he’s due for another good season. You can forgive them if they decide otherwise.

(Note: Since the original publication of this article, Reyes has been outrighted and elected free agency.) The Cubs took a chance on Reyes after he was waived by the Guardians in August. It was a sensible gamble. For as much as he’d struggled in 2022, he wasn’t that far removed from a 30-homer season in 2021. Reyes did indeed play better with the Cubs, raising his seasonal OPS+ from 73 to 81, just not well enough for them to keep him at his projected $6 million cost. Reyes is only 27 years old, but he’s going to find himself in the minors on a permanent basis if he doesn’t start hitting again, and soon.

We’ll wrap up the list with Smith, who is expected to earn around $4 million next season. He’s been perpetually available in trades the last few years, but nobody bit because of his stalled play. He’s failed to build upon the momentum he established in 2019-20, and has instead posted a 78 OPS+ in his last 645 trips to the plate. That’s not, as the kids say, what you want from a player who offers negative secondary value.

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