When the Toronto Blue Jays entered this offseason it was unfair to expect they’d match last year’s success in the free agent market. Getting MVP candidate Marcus Semien for $18 million was a coup, and grabbing Cy Young winner Robbie Ray for $8 million was a one-in-a-lifetime masterstroke.
Although matching the success of the Ray signing is a virtual impossibility, the southpaw’s success has reinvigorated speculation on who the next inexpensive free agent to take a massive leap will be.
That discourse has tended to focus on pitching for a direct parallel — and because in the Blue Jays context the combination of Pete Walker, Matt Buschmann, and the analytics department is establishing a track record of pitcher turnarounds. The next Ray isn’t necessarily a pitcher, though, and a Blue Jays fan base that saw the rise of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion knows that miraculous offensive breakouts are far from impossible.
It’s easy to acknowledge that a seemingly lower-tier position player out there is probably capable of making the front office that signs him look brilliant for rolling the dice. It’s tougher to identify precisely who that is. One way to do it is trying to find players who profile similarly to Ray coming into 2021. The checklist for “next Ray” candidates is as follows.
• Less than 30 years old, meaning great upside (Ray was 29 when he signed)
• A rough previous season (Ray was coming off a -0.4 WAR year)
• Some history of being a quality player (Ray was an all-star in 2017, we’ll define this as at least one season of 2.0+ WAR)
• One carrying tool (Ray’s strikeout ability was incredible long before 2021)
• At least one fatal flaw (Ray’s walk issues were prevalent even in his best seasons before 2021)
With that criteria in mind, here are two guys who have a chance to be the free agent equivalent of Ray:
2021 stats: .223/.316/.432 in 602 PA with 27 home runs, good for -0.2 WAR
Carrying tool: Power - Soler hit 48 home runs in 2019, and his max exit velocity has been in the top six percent of the league in every season since 2015. There is simply no questioning his ability to crush the baseball.
Fatal flaw: Contact - Soler has run a career strikeout rate of 26.9 percent, which goes a long way towards nullifying his power, and underrated ability to draw walks. Between 2017 and 2020 his K percentage ranked 241st and 260 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances.
Road to a breakout: It seems a bit odd to put a guy who took off in the playoffs here, but outside of Soler’s explosive 2019 he’s produced 2.1 WAR in seven seasons by combining slightly above-average offense with rough defense. He’s probably not going to become a Gold Glove outfielder any time soon, but his offense has potential to find a new level.
After joining Atlanta midseason Soler posted a 18.6 percent strikeout rate and 76.1 percent contact rate — both the best he’d ever managed in a 55-game span:
Considering the way the ball explodes off Soler’s bat, if he’s able to put a few more balls in play the sky’s the limit for his offensive contributions.
2021 stats:. 204/.266/.380 in 154 PA with 6 home runs, good for 0.2 WAR
Carrying tool: Contact - Although Peraza’s strikeout rate has risen over time, it’s generally done so more or less in step with league averages:
Guys who can put the ball in play continue to be at a premium in the “strikeout scourge” era, and Peraza is outstanding at making contact.
Fatal flaw: Power - Since Peraza broke into the majors in 2015 there have been 207 hitters who’ve accumulated 2,000 or more plate appearances. In that group Peraza’s Isolated Slugging of .107 ranks 198th — a couple of spots down from Joe Panik.
Road to a breakout: Peraza is a tough player to trust considering he’s managed -0.8 WAR since his excellent 2018 season, but he does have some interesting building blocks. Beyond his aforementioned contact ability he’s also an excellent defender at second base—and passable at short—and there’s more to his power potential than meeting the eye.
While Peraza will never be a slugger he got his ISO up to an uncharacteristic .176 last season and despite his minuscule career power numbers he usually posts above-average max exit velocities — suggesting there is some hidden thump in his bat that some coaching staff may be able to coax out.
The results say that he’s a slap hitter, but once in a while he hits a bomb like this high 432-footer:
If he can find any more consistency with his power, the rest of the skill set is already there.