5 Under the Radar Free Agents Who Are Off to Fast Starts

After signing deals that may not have qualified as breaking news this offseason, these five free agents are having an outsized impact on their new teams.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - MARCH 28: Frankie Montas #47 of the Cincinnati Reds takes the field during a game against the Washington Nationals at Great American Ball Park on March 28, 2024 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Cincinnati Reds/Getty Images)

Each offseason, the “winners and losers” of the winter are typically defined by who landed the biggest stars and who was forced to go bargain-bin hunting for free agents.

However, with a class of free agents headlined by Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and “The Boras Four,” who didn’t sign until February or later, there was a unique opportunity for teams to find under-the-radar players who could make a noticeable impact on their team.

Here are free agents from this past winter whose fast starts have proven to be an important part of their new teams’ play in 2024.

While there is a small sample size caveat attached to each of these players so far, all five have shown signs that their strong play could continue well into the season.

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Michael A. Taylor — Pittsburgh Pirates

2024 Stats: .318/.347/.386, .324 wOBA, 0 HR, 6 RBI, 98 wRC+

Michael A. Taylor was one of many free agents who didn’t sign until late in the game. His deal with the Pirates didn’t come together until March 16, but he’s already played a major role in the team’s 11-5 start.

The 33-year-old defensive specialist has made a home in the Pittsburgh outfield while showing that perhaps some of the offensive gains he made in 2023 for the Minnesota Twins might stick with his new club.

Last season, Taylor smoked a career-high 21 home runs, set a new high with a 114.3 MPH max exit velocity, posted a barrel rate that suggested he deserved the power increase and demolished lefties, posting a 146 wRC+ in off-handed matchups.

Now, with the Pirates, Taylor has opened the year with a 14.3% barrel rate, a 42.9% hard-hit rate and the expected stats to show that he isn’t totally way out over his skis.

However, the .500 BABIP he’s currently running is certainly unsustainable. So, while Taylor has found success getting on base, he hasn’t found his power stroke in Pittsburgh yet, despite hitting the ball just as hard and just as often as he did in Minnesota.

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Where we’re likely to see an adjustment in Taylor’s numbers comes in the direction that he’s hitting the ball. Right now his 60.7% ground ball rate would be a career high for him, while his 14.3% fly ball rate would be a significant career low. 

So, if Taylor starts to hit the ball in the air more in line with his career numbers, perhaps we start to see him find more power while losing out on some hard-hit groundballs that turn into hits. 

Gio Urshela — Detroit Tigers

2024 Stats: .310/.326/.357, .306 wOBA, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 98 wRC+

A trendy pick to outperform expectations coming into the season, the Tigers’ February signing of Gio Urshela probably didn’t factor into those dark horse picks.

Despite an 0-for-5 day during Saturday’s double-header against the Twins, the 32-year-old journeyman infielder has been a pleasant surprise at the hot corner for Detroit.

Before his 2023 was prematurely ended by a fractured pelvis, Urshela had a solid year with the Los Angeles Angels. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough to have teams knocking down his door over the winter, even if he was one of the top third base free agents in a weak overall class. If his start to 2024 is any indication, the nine-year veteran might be in for a pay raise from the $1.5 million deal the Tigers gave him this offseason.

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Like Taylor, some of Urshela’s early success can be attributed to the .382 BABIP he’s running through his first 13 games with Detroit. However, there are still some signs that Urshela has made a few changes at the plate that may help him look more like the above-average hitter we saw when he was with the New York Yankees.

Urshela has been making excellent swing decisions in his at-bats. He’s currently posting a career-low 33.3% chase rate, and even though that hasn’t turned into walks, Urshela is obviously getting better pitches to swing at, helping him generate a career-best 41.2% line-drive percentage.

While he’s definitely not the player that hit 21 home runs in 2019, by hitting the ball on a line more often than he ever has, Urshela has found a perfect role in Detroit, picking up hits at the bottom of the order and providing a steady presence in the field.

Frankie Montas — Cincinnati Reds

2024 Stats: 16.2 IP, 2.16 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 1.14 WHIP, 19.1 K%, 5.9 BB%

One of the most underrated stories to begin the season has been Frankie Montas’ resurgence in Cincinnati.

After being dealt to the Yankees at the 2022 Trade Deadline, injuries kept Montas from even making 10 starts in New York. And after shoulder surgery in February 2023 held him to just 1.1 innings in 2023, he inked a one-year, $16-million deal with the Reds this offseason as one of the more underrated free agents in the class.

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That bet seems to be paying off for Cincinnati. Even though his third start wasn’t amazing, Montas has been lights out to begin his Reds tenure.

Being healthy is, of course, the most important ingredient for Montas in finding success, but he has thrown a couple of twists into the mix to start the year.

He’s throwing his fastball more than he ever has as an MLB starter, and getting incredible results on it. Opponents are hitting just .185 and slugging .296 against Montas’ four-seamer. 

His splitter has also been a solid swing-and-miss offering, despite some mixed results. The pitch is generating whiffs 38.7% of the time, but has allowed a .313 average and .500 slugging against. The pitch is only being hit hard 26.7% of the time and has a better expected average and slugging, so if Montas is able to continue getting whiffs and limiting hard contact with it, the results should improve.

Seth Lugo — Kansas City Royals

2024 Stats: 18.2 IP, 1.45 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 1.18 WHIP, 11.8 K%, 6.6 BB%

After moving to the rotation full-time with the San Diego Padres last season, Seth Lugo has quietly emerged as a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm.

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With the Padres he delivered 146.1 innings of 3.57-ERA ball while making 26 starts, and he’s been even better this season with Kansas City.

He signed a three-year, $45-million deal as part of the Royals’ big offseason, joining the likes of Michael Wacha, Hunter Renfroe, Chris Stratton, and Will Smith as notable free agents coming aboard.

Over his first three starts, he has allowed just three runs and done a great job of limiting hard contact. While his strikeout rate isn’t quite at the same point it was in 2023 with San Diego, the quality of contact he is allowing is all below league average.

In 2023, Lugo found a lot of success with his fastball, ranking in the 96th percentile in MLB with a 17 run value on his fastball. But so far this season, his breaking stuff has been the difference-maker.

He ranks in the 94th percentile with a run value of three on his breaking pitches. He throws a slider and curveball, which combine for a .235 average and a .324 slugging against.

Lugo is also generating a career-best 52.5% ground ball rate and has yet to allow a home run.

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Sean Manaea — New York Mets

2024 Stats: 14.2 IP, 4.30 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 1.36 WHIP, 27.7 K%, 10.8 BB%

While Saturday’s start against the Royals didn’t go well for Sean Manaea, the 32-year-old southpaw has proven that some of the late-season success he had in 2023 with the San Francisco Giants is here to stay.

The Mets inked Manaea to a two-year, $28-million deal with an opt-out after 2024, following his late-season surge in 2023. The overall numbers with the Giants in 2023 weren’t all that great, but Manaea had a 2.87 ERA over 47 innings after Aug. 1.

Manaea’s success coincided with a velocity bump and the addition of a sweeper to his arsenal. However, as Just Baseball’s Ryan Finkelstein wrote following the signing, his best stretch of the year came over his last four starts, when he leaned into throwing his slider over the sweeper.

Funnily enough, Manaea’s fastball velocity is back closer to his career norms than 2023’s highs, and his sweeper has been his preferred pitch over his slider through three starts.

Both pitches have been fantastic thus far, holding opposing hitters to a sub-.200 average against. The sweeper, in particular, has been great the 40 times he’s thrown it. It has not been hit hard or for an extra-base hit, and has generated a swing and miss 57.1% of the time.

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Manaea’s chase and whiff numbers are both much improved over 2023, which can partly be attributed to the sweeper’s success.

Even though the Royals tagged him for six earned runs over 3.2 innings, they didn’t record a single barrel in the game. even Salvador Perez’s two-run homer went off of Brandon Nimmo’s glove and wouldn’t have cleared the well without some assistance.

So the numbers are tainted by a weird start early, but Manaea’s process has been that of a solid back-end starter so far.

— All stats from before play on April 15.