Amid MLB's home run revolution, free-agent sluggers could come cheap

With home run rates skyrocketing across baseball, free-agent sluggers such as Jay Bruce might have a hard time separating themselves from the pack of available power hitters this winter. Jason Miller/Getty Images

Some perceived "winners'' of the hot stove season thrive because they are bold, have a keen organizational vision or possess the biggest pile of money. But success can also be a byproduct of patience and restraint. Few teams are more opportunistic than the Cleveland Indians, who waited long enough last winter for a prized commodity to fall into their laps.

As Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and his group embarked upon the task of fortifying their roster, they were intent on adding a middle-of-the-order bat. Toronto DH Edwin Encarnacion was high on the team's wish list. But the Indians were so skeptical of their chances to land Encarnacion that they didn't even have a formal sit-down with his agent, Paul Kinzer, at the general managers' meetings or the winter meetings.

"We figured we just couldn't play at that level of a guy,'' Indians GM Mike Chernoff said.

Then a funny thing happened. Encarnacion's market stalled, owner Paul Dolan stepped up to make the necessary financial commitment, and the Indians sprung into action. They signed Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal with a fourth-year option, and he led the team with 38 homers, 107 RBIs and a .377 on-base percentage before suffering an ill-timed ankle injury against the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series.

No one can predict if an Edwin Encarnacion-caliber bargain will emerge on the free-agent market this winter. But if teams are looking for pop, they'll find it in a variety of positions and price ranges. That's a natural offshoot of baseball's new power-happy existence, which resulted in a record 117 hitters with 20 or more home runs this season. Of that group, 16 are available as free agents this winter. The array of options begins with J.D. Martinez, who was proclaimed the "King Kong of Slug'' by agent Scott Boras after he launched a career-high 45 homers, and ends with catcher Welington Castillo, who reached 20 for the first time with the Baltimore Orioles.

The Los Angeles Angels scratched one name from the list when they signed outfielder Justin Upton to a five-year, $106 million extension in November. As the non-tender deadline approaches, Atlanta's Matt Adams (20 homers in 339 at-bats) could be available if the Braves don't work out a trade for him. Houston's Evan Gattis and Tampa Bay's Brad Miller -- both of whom have 30-homer seasons on their résumés -- have also been mentioned as potential non-tender candidates. But indications are that both players will be tendered contracts by Friday's deadline.

Regardless of the final number, all those long balls have turned each day into Black Friday for teams in search of power. According to ESPN Stats & Information, a total of 16 hitters with 20 or more homers signed major-league contracts as free agents last winter -- compared to only five the previous season. That doesn't include Ryan Howard, who signed a minor league deal with Atlanta in April after hitting 25 homers for the Phillies in 2016.

Amid the glut of options, teams are tempted to rearrange their priorities. Do they make an early push for an outfield defensive whiz or an innings-eating starter knowing there are fewer of those to go around?

"Obviously, it's a game of supply and demand,'' said Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, who is not in the market for an impact bat this offseason. "If the supply is high on one position, maybe you do attack the position that has a low supply and kind of make your choice after that.''

Even seemingly minor developments on the trade market support the notion that power alone has become a devalued commodity. The Phillies have tried to deal Tommy Joseph, who has been displaced at first base by Rhys Hoskins. But they didn't get any nibbles last summer while Joseph was on his way to hitting 22 homers and slugging .432. Two weeks ago, the Oakland Athletics traded third baseman Ryon Healy (25 homers and a .451 slugging percentage) to Seattle for reliever Emilio Pagan.

"Hitters are making a conscious decision to hit with more power and perhaps sacrifice contact,'' said John Mozeliak, the St. Louis Cardinals' president of baseball operations. "Should that change the value of a home run or not? It's a fair question.''

Several general managers interviewed by ESPN.com said their team-building calculations go well beyond a single number. With the advent of more sophisticated metrics, MLB clubs have a mass of statistical information to assess how players can contribute at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths.

"We all follow the trends,'' Chernoff said. "At the same time, when we are actually evaluating players, we're just looking at overall run production and prevention on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively. We have our ways of quantifying that. You add it up and come up with your list of players. I don't think we're ultra-focused on exactly how a guy does it.

"There are certain attributes we're looking for that could be a good fit for our team, but we're not sitting there stacking up home run vs. home run. We're stacking up overall production vs. overall production.''

The Boston Red Sox are trying to upgrade their lineup's production against an intriguing backdrop. Last season, they ranked last in the American League with 168 home runs, marking the first time since 1993 that they claimed that distinction. Now GM David Dombrowski's list of offseason targets includes both Martinez, a 45-homer man, and Eric Hosmer, who looks like a sure bet to fetch a $100 million-plus deal even though he has yet to surpass 25 homers in seven big-league seasons.

"You don't ever want to look down on hitting a home run because they're always nice,'' Dombrowski said. "We want a bat for the middle of the lineup, but it's more about run production than necessarily home runs.''

Some executives work to fill their teams' biggest voids while balancing personal preferences. Angels GM Billy Eppler, who is shopping for an upgrade at second base or possibly third, developed an appreciation for high-OBP guys while working in the Yankees' organization under Gene Michael and Brian Cashman.

"My biggest mentors were very on-base-oriented,'' Eppler said. "Stick [Michael] started to build the organization that way in the '90s, and it's something that's been ingrained in me. I look at it in a very simple way: There are only two outcomes when you step in the batter's box. You're either on base or in the dugout. Those are the only two things that can happen. And we're trying to get more guys who don't go in the dugout and get on base.

"[Players] do it in different ways. Some guys do it with a huge slug and lower average and on-base [percentage]. Some guys do it through average and on base. And some guys help you through their defensive ability. I'm trying to grow the differential as much as possible. That's my process, and I focus on that process.''

The offseason has already moved at a glacial pace, and the glut of power bats could result in some anxious hitters and agents come January. When teams are choosing from a menu of Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, Adam Lind, Yonder Alonso and Mitch Moreland, they might find the distinctions so negligible that it pays to wait until January to see who blinks first and signs for the most team-friendly price. Bargain hunters welcome that trend. Tampa Bay, which sported MLB's 28th-lowest payroll on Opening Day, ranked sixth in the game with 228 home runs in 2017. Morrison, Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson contributed a total of 95 homers while earning a little more than $6 million combined. But the Rays also incurred some collateral damage: They ranked 22nd in baseball with a .317 OBP while amassing a league-high 1,538 strikeouts.

"Anytime we're in the free-agent market, we're always looking for value,'' said Chaim Bloom, Tampa Bay's senior vice president of baseball operations. "I think some of what led us to the team we had this past year was just an attempt to find offense in any form we could. It led us to some guys who provided it through power. But there are different ways that guys can provide value.''

Analysts will continue to debate whether spiraling home run totals are a product of lively baseballs, better bats, changing swing paths, increased velocity from pitchers, a willingness to live with rising strikeout totals or some combination of the above. But the product on the field is changing, and the offseason dynamic has begun to reflect that change.

The home run, as always, remains baseball's glamour statistic. But for those not named J.D. Martinez, it doesn't necessarily translate into getting paid.