Every year, MLB’s non-tender deadline sees club’s allow players under team control to head for the open market early, whether it be due to an increasing price tag in arbitration or a need for additional space on the club’s 40-man roster. Last offseason saw one of the most notable non-tenders in recent memory as the Dodgers made the decision to part ways with Cody Bellinger. Bellinger, of course, went on to sign with the Cubs and post a resurgent season, slashing .307/.356/.525 with 26 home runs en route to a top-10 finish in NL MVP voting. Bellinger’s strong season earned him the #2 spot on MLBTR’s Top 50 free agents list this offseason, where we projected him for a twelve-year, $264MM deal.
A player of Bellinger’s caliber- a two-time All Star with MVP and Rookie of the Year awards under his belt- being non-tendered is exceptionally rare, and there’s little reason to believe that any of this offseason’s non-tendered players will reach those sort of heights in 2024. That being said, plenty of players wind up non-tendered and go on to have strong careers afterwards: Kyle Schwarber, Jeimer Candelario, Kevin Gausman, and Matt Strahm are among the players in recent memory who have gone on to find success as big league regulars following a non-tender.
With an unusually weak class of free agent hitters on tap for this offseason, teams figure to be more incentivized than ever to uncover a diamond in the rough in search of offensive upgrades this winter. Let’s take a look at five hitters who hit free agency following last week’s non-tender deadline and could be worth keeping an eye on throughout the coming offseason. Players are listed in alphabetical order, with their age for the 2024 season in parentheses.
Mike Ford (31)
Ford made his MLB debut with the Yankees in 2019. He hit exceptionally well in a part-time role, slashing .259/.350/.559 (134 wRC+) with 12 homers in just 163 trips to the plate. Despite that strong performance, Ford would not clear 100 plate appearances in a season again until 2022, when he struggled through 50 games at the big league level while bouncing between the Braves, Angels, Mariners, and Giants. In 149 trips to the plate between the aforementioned four clubs, Ford hit a paltry .206/.302/.313 (81 wRC+). He received another big league opportunity in Seattle this season, however, and managed to make the most of it with a solid rebound campaign.
Upon being called up in early June, Ford played on a semi-regular basis with a solid .228/.323/.475 slash line with 16 home runs in 251 trips to the plate. Overall, that performance was good for a well above-average wRC+ of 123. Despite his successful season, the Mariners non-tendered Ford rather than offer him an arbitration-level contract that MLBTR’s Matt Swartz projected would be worth $1.5MM. Still, Ford figures to be a cheap source of optionable left-handed power for a club with an opening at either first base or DH, and could prove to be a solid pickup for teams looking to boost their offense in 2024 who can afford to offer him at-bats.
Kyle Lewis (28)
After being selected eleventh-overall by the Mariners in the 2016 draft, Lewis began his big league career with a bang by slashing .268/.293/.592 with six home runs during an 18-game cup of coffee towards the end of the 2019 season. The strong initial performance earned Lewis an everyday role in center field during the shortened 2020 season. It was an opportunity Lewis made the most of as he slashed .262/.364/.437 (127 wRC+) while playing quality defense in center en route to an AL Rookie of the Year award.
Unfortunately, since have gone off the rails for Lewis since then. Knee injuries, a concussion, and illness have sidelined him much of the time since then, and he’s hit a paltry .203/.281/.342 in 70 MLB games when he has been able to take the field. That being said, Lewis hit exceptionally well at the Triple-A level for the Diamondbacks this year, with a .371/.457/.641 slash line in 293 trips to the plate. That performance wasn’t enough to convince Arizona to spend a projected $1.61MM on Lewis’s services in arbitration this year, but it’s certainly possible it signals that Lewis could return to being an above-average regular in the big leagues if he can stay healthy long enough to find an extended opportunity.
Nick Senzel (29)
Senzel was the second overall pick in the 2016 draft and made his big league debut with the Reds back in 2019. He performed acceptably in his rookie season, adjusting on the fly to become the club’s regular center fielder after spending his entire professional career prior to 2019 on the infield dirt. Still, his bat left something to be desired as he slashed just .256/.315/.427, good for a wRC+ of 87. Senzel struggled to stay healthy following the 2019 campaign, however, appearing in just 59 games over the next two seasons. He returned to semi-regular playing time in 2021, but struggled badly at the plate with a weak slash line of just .231/.296/.306 in 420 trips to the plate.
Though his offense improved slightly in 2023 as he slashed .236/.297/.399 with 13 home runs in 330 plate appearances as he split time between second base, third base, and all three outfield spots, that performance did not convince the Reds to tender him a contract worth a projected $3MM this offseason. Senzel’s non-tender was hardly a surprise given Cincinnati’s excess of positional talent and his recent struggles. That said, it’s easy to see Senzel being a valuable piece of a club’s bench mix in 2024 given his versatility and career .287/.334/.460 slash line against southpaws and it’s certainly feasible a player of his prospect pedigree could take a step forward if allotted regular playing time.
Jacob Stallings (34)
By far the oldest player on this list, Stallings is a veteran of eight MLB seasons and first joined the Pirates organization as a seventh-round pick all the way back in 2012. After struggling to catch on in a regular role early in his career, Stallings became the regular catcher in Pittsburgh during the 2019 season and spent the next three years as a quality regular behind the plate, slashing a decent .251/.331/.374 (89 wRC+) while playing excellent defense behind the plate that earned him a Gold Glove award in 2021. Unfortunately, Stallings’s career took a turn for the worse upon being traded to Miami. Over the past two seasons, he’s slashed just .210/.287/.290 in 203 games as his defensive metrics have collapsed behind the plate. Those struggles made it an easy decision for the Marlins to non-tender Stallings rather than offer him a contract that projected to be worth $3.6MM for the 2024 season.
Stallings is perhaps the least likely on this list to be a productive regular in 2024. After all, he’s been well below average on both sides of the ball the past two seasons and is entering his mid-thirties. That being said, He’s just two seasons removed from a 2.5 fWAR campaign that saw him post slightly better offensive numbers than the average catcher while being among the strongest defenders behind the plate in the league. Given the constant need for catching depth around the game, it seems likely Stallings will be afforded plenty of opportunity to recapture his old form as a solid two-way catcher, and he’d only need to find success at one or the other to be a solid backup option.
Juan Yepez (26)
Perhaps the most unusual entrant on this list, Yepez was non-tendered by the Cardinals last week despite not yet being eligible for arbitration. Yepez made his big league debut as a 24-year-old during the 2022 season, and made a solid impression during his rookie campaign. Though he was blocked at his native position of first base by Paul Goldschmidt, Yepez split time between DH and all four corner spots while slashing a solid .253/.296/.447 with 12 home runs in 274 trips to the plate. Unfortunately, Yepez struggled badly in his sophomore season, slashing just .183/.246/.300 in his 65 trips to the plate in the majors this year. His time in Triple-A didn’t go much better, as he posted a mediocre slash line of .255/.323/.414 in 86 games at the level.
While that down season led the Cardinals to part ways with Yepez to clear room on the 40-man roster, it’s worth noting that Yepez was blocked by an already-crowded Cardinals outfield mix at the big league level. Given his limited opportunities at the big league level to this point in his career, his relative youth, and a career .273/.349/.515 slash line at the Triple-A level, it’s easy to see how Yepez could be the latest late-career breakout candidate to emerge from St. Louis, not unlike Adolis Garcia, Luke Voit, and Patrick Wisdom before him.