MLBTR writers and this upcoming season’s predictors are Tim Dierkes, Steve Adams, and Anthony Franco, who compiled the 16th Free Agent Annual roster. Blame them.
GUEST BLOG / By Tim Dierkes, Writer, MLB Trade Rumors--Last offseason was colored by the uncertainty of the pandemic. While teams are still feeling the effects of reduced attendance, the biggest unknown is the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement on December 1st.
A lack of an agreement may prompt MLB to initiate a lockout, putting a freeze on free agency that could result in a compressed signing period once a new CBA is reached. Absent an official transaction freeze, teams may operate cautiously, lacking insight on potential important changes involving free agency, arbitration, luxury tax thresholds, the minimum salary, draft pick compensation and the addition of the designated hitter to the National League. Rather than make unfounded assumptions about these many unknowns, we’ve made normal contract projections. We don’t know when, but eventually, a new collective bargaining agreement will be in place.
We realize that a Top 50 Free Agents list with team predictions will leave some fanbases dissatisfied.
A few notes to keep in mind:
• With our team predictions, each of us tried to present one possible puzzle where everything could happen. Once we start to get picks wrong, it has a ripple effect.
• While some teams’ key needs have gone unaddressed, we wouldn’t recommend reading into it. There are plenty of potential big names on the trade market, as well as good free agents who didn’t make our top 50.
• This list was originally published on November 8th, 2021.
TOP 50 MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL FREE AGENT LIST
1. Carlos Correa. Ten years, $320MM. In this winter’s star-studded class of free agent shortstops, we consider Correa the best. The Astros drafted Correa first overall out of Puerto Rico Baseball Academy back in 2012, and he won the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year award despite debuting in June. The 2016 season was a continuation of that success, and Correa seemed unstoppable.
However, in the three seasons that followed, Correa averaged only 98 games played per year due to a torn ligament in his thumb, multiple back injuries, and a cracked rib. Correa was able to avoid the IL during the shortened 2020 season, yet posted just a 96 wRC+ at the plate.
At that point, Correa had played more than 110 games in a season only once, in 2016. With plenty to prove in 2021, Correa delivered. He played in 148 games, posting a 134 wRC+ at the plate. Remarkably, Correa and Corey Seager have each played exactly 281 games with 1,182 plate appearances since 2019.
Correa’s 129 wRC+ ranks fifth among shortstops during that period, not far behind Seager, Trea Turner, and Xander Bogaerts (Fernando Tatis Jr. remains in a class by himself).
Correa’s shortstop defense sets him apart from his offensive peers. Since 2018, Correa’s outs above average mark is on par with Andrelton Simmons, tied for third in the game among shortstops. Francisco Lindor has better defensive numbers but has never hit the way Correa does.
It stands to reason that Lindor’s ten-year, $341MM extension with the Mets signed in April 2021 will be a benchmark for Correa. And keep in mind that while Lindor and Correa’s contracts both begin with the 2022 season, Correa is more than ten months younger. Correa should be able to remain at shortstop for the majority of his contract, which is not necessarily true of others on the market.
Correa’s postseason performance further bolsters his resume. He’s had all kinds of walk-off moments in his 79 career postseason games, with a batting line of .272/.344/.505 and 18 home runs in 334 plate appearances. Correa has mostly quieted questions about his ability to stay healthy, having played in more than 97% of regular season games since 2020. That leaves one primary concern about our top free agent: his involvement in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Correa benefited from the team’s trash can scheme in at least 2017 and ’18, and possibly in 2019.
While Correa has spoken about feeling remorse, there has also been defiance in his comments after the scandal broke. Perhaps that’s why the sign-stealing scandal might not roll off Correa’s back in quite the same way it seems to have with George Springer, who signed the largest contract of the previous offseason.
The boos may follow Correa on the road for his entire career, and he showed this year that doesn’t faze him. But with several good alternatives on the market, certain big market teams — namely the Dodgers and Yankees — might not be able to stomach a long-term marriage with Correa.
The Dodgers have a potential in-house replacement for Seager anyway in Trea Turner. The Yankees figure to at least be involved in Correa’s market, given their stated desire to improve at shortstop. The Tigers, Phillies, Rangers, Angels, Mariners, and Cardinals are other potential suitors. A reunion with the Astros is still possible as well, though the club never got past $125MM in their spring training extension offers.
The Predictors: Tim Dierkes: Tigers / Steve Adams: Phillies / Anthony Franco: Tigers. Each writer was polled on what team the numbered free agent would eventually sign with, plus the estimated salary contract.
2. Corey Seager. Ten years, $305MM. TD: Yankees / SA: Yankees / AF: Yankees
Seager, 28 in April, is one of the best-hitting shortstops in baseball. Since 2020, only Fernando Tatis Jr. has outhit him. He’s difficult to strike out, posted a career-best walk rate this year, and since 2020 ranks third among all shortstops (min. 200 PAs) with a .239 ISO (slugging minus batting average). Though the left-handed-hitting Seager has never topped 26 home runs in a season, he has 31 bombs in 147 games since ’20.
His key Statcast markers were all in the 80th percentile or better. Seager didn’t set the world on fire in his 53 postseason plate appearances this year for the Dodgers, but he boasts trophies for NLCS and World Series MVP in 2020 and has ample October experience.
The former No. 18 overall draft pick (2012) won the NL Rookie of the Year and finished third in the MVP voting back in 2016. A two-time All-Star, Seager also received MVP votes in the 2017 and ’20 seasons.
Seager’s defense generally falls into acceptable range, but there’s an expectation he’ll move off shortstop at some point in the middle of his contract.
At 6’4″, Seager, Correa, and Cal Ripken Jr. are the tallest regular shortstops in Major League history. Major injuries have befallen Seager three times in his MLB career. He played in only 26 regular season games in 2018 due to Tommy John and hip surgery.
This year in May, Seager was struck by a Ross Detwiler pitch that fractured his right hand, limiting him to 95 regular season games. Seager raked upon his return, with a 169 wRC+ in 240 plate appearances.
He did, however, find himself with a new double play partner in Trea Turner. Turner, under team control through 2022, was in his fifth year starring as the Nationals’ shortstop and moved to second base for the Dodgers only in deference to Seager. After the easy call to make Seager a qualifying offer, it stands to reason that the Dodgers will make at least some attempt to retain their longtime shortstop.
But with Turner in tow, they hardly need to act out of desperation, opening the door for teams like the Yankees, Tigers, Phillies, Astros, Angels, Rangers, and Cardinals to make a play.
3. Freddie Freeman. 6 years, $180MM. TD: Braves / SA: Braves / AF: Red Sox Freeman, 32, has been one of the best hitters in baseball dating all the way back to 2013. His lowest single-season wRC+ mark during those nine seasons is 132, and he surged up to 186 in the shortened 2020 season to win the NL MVP.
Freeman has gotten MVP votes in five additional seasons and is a five-time All-Star. Having signed an extension back in 2014, Freeman has been a Braves fixture for more than 11 seasons. With such a beloved and consistently excellent player, it’s difficult to picture Freeman in another uniform.
However, despite the Braves’ attempts to lock him up, Freeman has reached the open market. The obvious comparable is Paul Goldschmidt’s five-year, $130MM extension from spring 2019, but it’s unknown where each side stands relative to that marker. It’s also worth noting that even with the Braves’ championship, signing Freeman at $30MM+ per year will leave Liberty Media with limited financial flexibility to improve the team unless they raise payroll to new heights or shed existing commitments.
If the Braves somehow allow Freeman to leave, the Yankees, Red Sox, Padres, Giants, Mariners, Mets, and Dodgers could be in play, but it’s tough to let a legacy player like this walk away on the heels of a World Series win.
4. Kris Bryant. Six years, $160MM. TD: Mariners / SA: Mariners / AF: Mets The Cubs selected Bryant second overall in the 2013 draft out of the University of San Diego. The club held off on starting the clock for his 2015 Rookie of the Year season just enough to secure control of his 2021 season, which led to a grievance that Bryant ultimately lost.
Bryant seemingly peaked early, ranking third among all position players in wins above replacement from 2015-17, a period that included his 2016 MVP award and the Cubs’ World Series championship.
Two of Bryant’s seasons have been marred by injury: a shoulder injury that limited him to 102 games in 2018, and an assortment of minor injuries that resulted in him playing 34 of 60 games in 2020. That brief ’20 season was the only one in which Bryant posted a subpar batting line. While he bounced back this year with a 123 wRC+, that still fell short of anything he did from 2015-19.
He was never a standout defensive third baseman, which prompted the rebranding of Bryant into a jack-of-all-trades defender. He logged 55 games at third base, 48 in left field, 39 in right field, 19 in center field, and 12 at first base this year for the Cubs and Giants.
As Bryant approaches his 30th birthday, he seems to have settled in as a quality hitter with defensive versatility, rather than the Hall of Fame-track superstar he was when he burst onto the scene. Bryant once seemed a lock for well over $200MM, but we don’t see that happening now that he’s actually reached free agency.
He is aided by being ineligible for a qualifying offer. The Giants will surely keep an eye on his market, but president of baseball ops Farhan Zaidi has plainly stated that the rotation is his top priority. And, after the season, Zaidi also characterized the acquisition of Bryant like a move that was unique to the 2021 season: “For us, the move at the deadline was really about pushing chips in with this team, which we thought was a really special team and had a chance to do some special things and did. But we recognize that he’s a superstar talent and it’s going to be a really competitive market for his services. I’m sure we’ll have conversations there, but he’s going to have a long line of suitors, so we’ll just have to see how that develops.”
The Giants can’t be firmly ruled out, but the Mariners, Rangers, Mets, Blue Jays, Phillies, and Padres could also be suitors.
5. Kevin Gausman. Six years, $138MM. TD: Giants / SA: Giants / AF: Giants Gausman began his career with a solid run for the Orioles after being selected fourth overall in 2012 out of Louisiana State. He was dealt to Atlanta at the 2018 trade deadline as the O’s kicked off their still-ongoing rebuild. After struggling through 16 starts in 2019, the Braves let Gausman go to the Reds as a waiver claim. Cincinnati used him as a reliever to finish the season. It seems that neither the Braves nor the Reds felt that Gausman’s abilities justified an arbitration salary north of $10MM, and the Reds non-tendered him.
That’s where the Giants jumped in with a $9MM free agent contract. Under the Giants’ tutelage, Gausman was superb in the abbreviated 2020 season, enough so that the club felt justified in making an $18.9MM qualifying offer. Rather than hit the free agent market with that burden, Gausman accepted the offer. A two- or three-year deal might have been on the table had he rejected and hit the market, but the decision to bet on himself by accepting that QO now looks prescient.
Gausman went out in 2021 and proved his 2020 breakout was no fluke, making his first All-Star team. The righty ramped up the use of his splitter this year, to the point where he threw that or his fastball nearly 90% of the time. Overall for the Giants, Gausman has a 3.00 ERA, 30.0 K%, and 6.5 BB% in 251 2/3 innings. Gausman’s bet on himself paid off, and he hits the market ineligible for a qualifying offer. If Gausman’s price gets too high for the Giants’ liking, he could land with the Tigers, Mariners, Angels, Twins, Blue Jays, Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, or Cardinals.
6. Marcus Semien. Six years, $138MM. TD: Red Sox / SA: Dodgers / AF: Angels Semien settled in as Oakland’s dependable starting shortstop as of 2015, but his offense skyrocketed in 2019 en route to a third-place finish in AL MVP voting.
An unimpressive regular season in 2020 led to Semien betting on himself in free agency, signing a one-year, $18MM deal with the Blue Jays and moving to second base. With the Jays, Semien established that 2020 was the fluke, as his monster 45 home run 2021 campaign will net him MVP votes once again. Semien’s Statcast batting metrics don’t stand out this year, but you can’t argue with the results. Defensively, Semien may profile better at second base than shortstop, but he’s played significantly more short in his career and should at least be good for a few years there. Semien does carry the weight of a qualifying offer, but interest should be robust for clubs that missed out on Correa and Seager or prefer not to shop in the $300MM aisle. His market also may differ from Correa and Seager in that he’s more likely to be signed as a second baseman. As a 31-year-old, Semien may be limited to a six-year pact, itself hard to achieve at this age. The Blue Jays will surely attempt to re-sign Semien, but otherwise the Phillies, Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox, Tigers, Twins, Astros, Angels, Mariners, Rangers, Cardinals, and Dodgers are other potential matches.
7. Robbie Ray. 5 years, $130MM. TD: Blue Jays / SA: Blue Jays / AF: Blue Jays Drafted by the Nationals out of high school in the 12th round in 2010, Ray was traded to the Tigers in the December 2013 Doug Fister deal. A year later, Ray was dealt to the Diamondbacks in the three-way trade that sent Didi Gregorius to the Yankees. Ray found success in his first five seasons for the D’Backs as a high-strikeout, high-walk, homer-prone southpaw.
In 2017, he made the All-Star team and finished seventh in the NL Cy Young voting. But in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Ray’s already-high walk rate jumped to an untenable 20.1% through seven starts, and with free agency looming he was shipped to Toronto mostly as a salary dump. Ray’s brief effort for the 2020 Jays didn’t stand out, and he still walked batters at a higher rate than he had from 2015-19 in Arizona. Toronto saw something they liked nonetheless, making an early free agent strike by re-upping him to a one-year, $8MM deal in November last year.
Ray began the 2021 season on the IL for a bruised elbow suffered falling down some stairs. After a six-walk outing on April 18th, the notion of Ray contending for the AL Cy Young award would have been laughable — but that’s exactly what he did. The 30-year-old lefty led all of baseball with 248 strikeouts, also solving his longstanding walk issue with a career-best 6.9 BB%. Ray’s 2.84 ERA was the best in the American League.
As Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic put it, “How Ray went from good to elite took a change in his mechanics, a change in his approach and a change in his physique.” Still, it wasn’t a radical overhaul in terms of pitch selection for Ray, who has remained a fastball-slider pitcher. Ray showed strong control over a five-month period this year. For a potential new team, how much does that erase his 13 BB% from the three prior years? It’s also worth considering that Ray allowed a home run to 4.3% of batters faced this year, 19th-worst in MLB among those with at least 100 innings pitched. While Ray is about nine months younger than fellow top free agent Gausman, the lefty bears the burden of a qualifying offer. Their markets figure to be similar.
8. Trevor Story. Six years, $126MM. TD: Phillies / SA: Rangers / AF: Astros Story, 29 this month, ranked second among MLB shortstops with 13.6 WAR from 2018-20. At the plate, he posted a 124 wRC+ during that time and was a regular 30-homer threat.
Story was one of the game’s best defensive shortstops by Outs Above Average in 2019, though his OAA marks have been pedestrian since. Amid trade rumors and right elbow inflammation, the longtime Rockie slipped to a 100 wRC+ at the plate. But after the trade deadline passed, Story rallied for a 127 wRC+ that was more in line with his career work.
The Rockies chose not to trade Story, instead tagging him with a qualifying offer. Like most Rockies regulars, Story has been a much better hitter at Coors Field. We’ve seen plenty of hitters leave that comfortable hitting environment and continue to succeed — Matt Holliday, DJ LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado, Corey Dickerson, Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler, and Chris Iannetta among them.
Others, like Brad Hawpe and Troy Tulowitzki, could not sustain their success. And still others, like Garrett Atkins and Carlos Gonzalez, began their decline while still in a Rockies uniform. It’d be overly simplistic to suggest Story’s offensive success is a product of Coors. And even with his worst season at the plate since 2017, Story still posted 3.5 WAR. By some metrics, he has remained an above-average defender. Though he may not have the youth or ceiling of Correa or Seager or the platform year of Semien, Story should be highly coveted in free agency. The Astros, Rangers, Yankees, Tigers, Twins, Angels, Phillies, and Cardinals may be involved.
9. Max Scherzer. Three years, $120MM. TD: Dodgers / SA: Dodgers / AF: Dodgers Scherzer, 37, has already put together a Hall of Fame career in his 14 years in MLB, mainly with the Tigers and Nationals. He won a Cy Young in 2013, ’16, and ’17 and finished top-five in four other seasons.
In 2021, Scherzer showed no signs of slowing down, and he’s in the running for the top pitching award once again. Not long after landing his fourth All-Star game start, Scherzer was traded by the Nationals to the Dodgers along with Trea Turner in a blockbuster deal. Scherzer’s dominance only deepened with the Dodgers, and overall he finished with a 2.46 ERA, a 34.1 K% that ranked second in the NL, and a 5.2 BB% that ranked fifth.
Scherzer’s postseason experience is extensive, but after getting his first career save against the Giants in NLDS Game 5, Scherzer started Game 2 of the NLCS and started feeling the effects.
Arm fatigue kept him from Game 6, and that’s as far as the Dodgers went. Even at 37, Scherzer remains a Game 1 ace, and bidding for his services among playoff hopefuls will be fierce. He’s free of a qualifying offer, too. Three-year deals are exceedingly rare at Scherzer’s age, yet we still think he can get there. We also believe that given the relatively short term, Scherzer can surpass MLB’s record average annual value of $36MM and possibly even become the game’s first $40MM AAV player. The Dodgers should have the inside track, but otherwise the Giants, Angels, Astros, Blue Jays, Mariners, Tigers, Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, Padres, and Cardinals could join the bidding.
10. Nick Castellanos. Five years, $115MM. TD: Rangers / SA: Padres / AF: Padres
Castellanos, 30 in March, posted a 140 wRC+ on the season that ranked third among free agents, behind Kyle Schwarber and the now-retired Buster Posey. His 34 home runs ranked third behind Marcus Semien and Kyle Seager. Aside from the lost 2020 season, Castellanos has posted at least a 122 wRC+ in every year since 2018. He also shows well in Statcast metrics. Castellanos is one of the best hitters available in free agency this year.
Castellanos made the easy choice to opt out of the remaining two years and $34MM owed to him by the Reds, who have since tagged him with a qualifying offer. Aside from the QO, the knock on Castellanos is his defense, which has been consistently below-average. By Outs Above Average, he was the second-worst right fielder in the game this year. Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimare Zone Rating weren’t quite so bearish but still agreed he was a below-average outfielder once again. Still, there’s a good chance the DH comes to the NL in 2022, and Castellanos could draw interest from the Rangers, Rockies, Marlins, White Sox, Reds and Mets.
11. Marcus Stroman. Five years, $110MM. TD: Angels / SA: Twins / AF: Dodgers Stroman, 31 in May, opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic an, and then accepted a one-year, $18.9MM qualifying offer to remain with the Mets. Like Gausman, that decision worked out well. Stroman ranked eighth in the NL with a 3.02 ERA this year, and was one of only seven MLB starters to make 33 regular season starts. Of the last five seasons in which Stroman has played, he’s started at least 32 games in four of them.
Stroman’s game is about keeping the ball on the ground and limiting walks. His strikeout rate is generally below average, and even this past season’s career-best 21.6% mark was shy of the 22.6% league-average among starters. It’s worth noting that Stroman did set new career-highs in swinging-strike rate and opponents’ chase rate. The grounder/command-oriented approach isn’t as typical as it once was, but Stroman has managed to defy ERA estimators like SIERA by a wide margin in three separate seasons: 2017, 2019, and 2021. Even if he settles in as a mid-rotation arm, Stroman is free of a qualifying offer and will be a popular free agent. He’ll draw interest from the same group of teams that are attracted to Gausman and Ray.
12. Javier Baez. Five years, $100MM. TD: Rangers / SA: Tigers / AF: Rangers
Baez, nicknamed El Mago, is one of baseball’s most exciting and popular players. He’s hit 94 home runs in the last three full MLB seasons. Baez’s flashy defense earned him a Gold Glove in 2020, and he led all shortstops in outs above average in ’19. His tags are a thing of beauty. He adds value as a baserunner, somehow inducing ridiculous plays like this one. Baez is also a hacker at the plate, striking out in more than a third of his plate appearances this year. He’s not big on drawing walks, getting on base that way only about 5% of the time. The result is an on-base percentage that generally falls short of .320.
Baez benefits immensely from writing off 2020, as he was among one of the worst hitters in the game and seemingly scared the Cubs off extension talks. The Cubs shipped Baez to the Mets this year near the trade deadline, freeing him of a potential qualifying offer and pushing him to second base to play alongside his friend Francisco Lindor. At the end of August, Baez was sitting on a .290 OBP and a 102 wRC+, apologizing for a thumbs-down gesture he started as a way of booing Mets fans. Then Baez went off with a 169 wRC+ in the season’s final month, helping pull his overall wRC+ to 116. Baez offers an exciting blend of power, versatile defense, baserunning, and marketability. If the Mets don’t retain him, his market should be similar to that of Story.
13. Starling Marte. 4 years, $80M. TD: Mets / SA: Giants / AF: Phillies
Marte, 33, is the only starting-caliber center fielder on the free agent market this winter. He played six full seasons for the Pirates, tallying at least 3 WAR in each of them. The Bucs signed Marte to an extension in 2014 that gave them club options on his first two years of free agency. Those options were exercised, and Marte played those two seasons for the Diamondbacks, Marlins, and A’s. Though Marte is an older free agent, he benefits from a lack of center field alternatives, ineligibility for a qualifying offer, and the best season of his career. Marte’s well-rounded contributions this year included a career-best 133 wRC+ and the most baserunning value generated by any player.
Speedy as Marte is, he wasn’t among the 40 fastest regulars in the game this year in terms of average sprint speed (as measured by Statcast). No matter: he led all of MLB with 47 stolen bases, getting caught only five times. Marte wisely rejected a reported three-year, $30MM extension offer from the Marlins before his July trade. We think a four-year deal is justified. Players like George Springer, DJ LeMahieu, Josh Donaldson, and Lorenzo Cain have all signed major free-agent deals that pay through age 36 or 37, and Marte should add to that list. The Giants, Yankees, Phillies, Mets, Braves, Rockies, and Dodgers are among the potential suitors.
14. Eduardo Rodriguez. 5 years, $70M. TD: Twins / SA: Tigers / AF: Twins Rodriguez, 29 in April, joined the Red Sox at the 2014 trade deadline in a trade with the Orioles for Andrew Miller. Since making his big league debut in 2015, Rodriguez had made at least 20 starts in every season until 2020. He battled some knee injuries earlier in his career, culminating in surgery after the 2017 season. The southpaw’s finest year came in 2019, when he finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting. Unfortunately, Rodriguez got COVID-19 in June of 2020 and developed a heart condition called myocarditis. He missed the 2020 season and was barred from physical activity for three months. Thankfully, 2021 marked a successful comeback season for Rodriguez. The lefty posted career-bests in strikeout and walk rate, with a K-BB% that ranked 15th in the game among those with at least 150 innings. He also ranked among the game’s best in terms of average exit velocity (90th percentile) and opponents’ hard-hit rate (87th percentile) and pitched well in his final two postseason starts. Rodriguez did post a career-worst 4.74 ERA, driven in large part by a .363 batting average on balls in play. Virtually any fielding-independent metric is far more bullish on Rodriguez, who posted a 3.64 SIERA and 3.32 FIP. We believe Rodriguez might surprise some people with a four or even-five year deal this winter, although Boston’s decision to issue a qualifying offer figures to put a dent in his market. We still believe teams not quite willing to pay $23-25MM AAVs for starting pitching might turn to Rodriguez, and he’s young enough to entice clubs that are trying to get better but don’t quite expect to win the World Series in 2022. Signed with Tigers for five years, $77MM, with an opt-out after the second year.
15. Kyle Schwarber. Four years, $70MM. TD: Rockies / SA: Blue Jays / AF: Nationals
Schwarber, 29 in March, posted a 145 wRC+ that ranked first among all free agents and 11th in baseball among players with at least 400 plate appearances. It was basically four months worth of elite hitting, as Schwarber struggled in April and missed over a month during the summer with a hamstring strain. As he recovered from the injury, the Red Sox acquired Schwarber in a trade with Nationals. Drafted fourth overall by the Cubs in 2014, Schwarber put up a 115 wRC+ for the club over the course of 492 games before struggling in the shortened 2020 season. He had his share of big postseason hits for the Cubs, including a dramatic return to DH in the 2016 playoffs after missing nearly the entire season due to a torn ACL and LCL.
The Cubs chose not to tender Schwarber a contract after 2020, and he signed for one year and $10MM with the Nationals. Prior to ’20, the Cubs generally shielded the left-handed-hitting Schwarber against southpaw pitchers, letting him face them in fewer than 20% of plate appearances. This year, there were no such concerns: Schwarber saw lefties 31.6% of the time and posted a 119 wRC+ against them.
Though he was drafted as a catcher, the Cubs gradually phased Schwarber out of that position and into left field. He’s graded out as below-average defensively. The Red Sox used Schwarber in 19 games at first base, a position he had not played for the Cubs, given the presence of Anthony Rizzo. The potential addition of the DH to the NL would help Schwarber, who is ineligible for a qualifying offer. After out-producing Nick Castellanos on a rate basis, Schwarber should see a similar market as one of the best bat-first players available. Castellanos has the more consistent track record and doesn’t have the history of platoon issues, so he gets the nod over Schwarber in terms of earning power for our list purposes despite a similarly productive 2021 season.
16. Chris Taylor. Four years, $64MM. TD: Marlins / SA: Red Sox / AF: Mariners
The Dodgers acquired Taylor from the Mariners in June 2016, as a means of improving infield depth. Taylor added the outfield to his repertoire in a breakout 2017 season and won the NLCS MVP award that year. Taylor has remained an above-average hitter ever since and has a 114 wRC+ over the last three seasons. Though he struggled to hit in September this year, “CT3” left a strong final impression with his huge playoff showing. It was Taylor’s walk-off homer that propelled the Dodgers past the Cardinals in the Wild Card round, and he slugged three home runs in Game 5 of the NLCS to help the Dodgers force a Game 6. Taylor has been deployed at second base, shortstop, third base, center field, and left field in his career.
Though he’s sometimes compared to Ben Zobrist, Taylor reaches free agency at an earlier age and with more defensive versatility. He may not have quite the offensive track record Zobrist carried into free agency, but he’s very arguably a more attractive target for teams. As expected, the Dodgers issued a qualifying offer to Taylor. We expect him to take his shot at a multiyear deal, but certain clubs may shy away from surrendering a draft pick or two to sign him. Taylor’s ability to play all over the diamond still makes him a potential fit for many teams, including the Blue Jays, White Sox, Mariners, Braves, Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Rockies, Giants, and Cubs.
17. Raisel Iglesias. Four years, $56MM. TD: Dodgers / SA: Astros / AF: Blue Jays
Iglesias is easily the best reliever of this free-agent class. He defected from Cuba in 2013, signing a seven-year deal with the Reds the following year. Iglesias worked as a starter in 2015 before finding his home in the bullpen. After his 2018 season, Iglesias inked a three-year, $24.125MM extension. Seeking payroll relief, the Reds shipped Iglesias to the Angels in December 2020 — a trade that amounted to a pure salary dump.
Iglesias, 32 in January, ranked third among all relievers and first among free-agent relievers with a 33.3 K-BB%. Among the 398 pitchers to throw at least 40 innings in 2021 (starters and relievers alike), Iglesias ranked 10th in strikeout rate (37.7%), 14th in walk rate (4.4%), ninth in chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone (39.5%) and third in swinging-strike rate (20.6%).
None of those 398 pitchers posted a higher combined percentage of swinging strikes and called strikes (36.8%). Iglesias’ primary flaw is that he’s allowed 1.4 homers per nine frames over the past four seasons. It’d be charitable to attribute that solely to his time in the homer-happy Great American Ball Park, as he also coughed up 11 homers while playing his home games at the much friendlier Angel Stadium in 2021.
The Angels issued Iglesias a qualifying offer, so signing him will require the forfeit of draft picks. Any deep-pocketed contender seeking a lockdown stopper at the back end of their bullpen figures to be in on Iglesias, who could take aim at Liam Hendriks’ $18MM AAV record for relievers. The Blue Jays, Astros, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies, and Padres are potential suitors.
18. Carlos Rodon. One year, $25MM. TD: Astros / SA: Red Sox / AF: Angels Drafted third overall by the White Sox out of NC State in 2014, Rodon was part of the team’s rotation the following year. The hard-throwing lefty with the nasty slider was limited to 12 starts in 2017 due to a biceps injury, undergoing arthroscopic shoulder surgery in the offseason that held him to 20 starts the following year. Rodon still served as Chicago’s Opening Day starter in 2019, but by May he was under the knife for Tommy John surgery.
Rodon returned for four appearances in 2020, and was non-tendered by the White Sox in December with little fanfare. In late January of this year, Rodon returned to the club on a one-year, $3MM deal that turned out to be one of the best bargains of the offseason. Working with new White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz, Rodon made changes to his delivery and came out of the gate with guns blazing. He threw a no-hitter in his second start of the season, made his first All-Star team, and had his ERA as low as 2.14 after a dominating start on July 18th in Houston.
Having thrown just 42 1/3 innings from all of 2019-20, Rodon seemed to wear down at this point. He averaged more than six innings per start and 96 miles per hour on his fastball through July 18th, but only 4.5 innings per start and 94.1 miles per hour thereafter. Rodon dipped all the way to 91 miles per hour against the Reds on September 29th, and then on 12 days rest in a 56-pitch ALDS start, he was able to crank it back up to 96. On the season, Rodon pitched on four days of rest only six times. It can be argued that he’s best served as part of a six-man rotation.
Despite the velocity dip, Rodon still rates as the hardest-throwing starting pitcher on the market this winter. Even in those somewhat worrying final nine starts, Rodon was able to punch out 28.9% of batters with a 3.26 ERA. His overall season numbers — 2.37 ERA, 34.6 K%, and 6.7 BB% — are off the charts. So what will Rodon do, coming off a dominant season in the middle of which he seemed to run out of gas? According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the White Sox “decided at the end of the season that they were not going to bring Rodon back,” and the club was surprisingly unwilling to even issue the one-year qualifying offer. Is that just the White Sox being frugal, or is it a red flag regarding Rodon’s health?
We expect Rodon to receive multiyear offers this winter, though he might be better-served to take a large one-year deal and establish his health. Rodon’s free agency should be fascinating, especially without the burden of a qualifying offer. He’ll need a team with a high tolerance for injury risk and a preference for high-AAV short-term deals. The Dodgers, Giants, Braves, Red Sox, Yankees, Mariners, and Astros could be candidates.
19. Jon Gray. Four years, $56MM. TD: Tigers / SA: Angels / AF: Giants Drafted third overall by the Rockies in 2013 out of the University of Oklahoma, Gray never quite put together an All-Star caliber season in his six-plus years with the club. He’s still been one of the best pitchers ever drafted by Colorado. The righty was one of the five-hardest throwing starting pitchers from 2016-19.
While he’s not at his 96 mile per hour heyday at age 30, he still ranked 13th in average fastball velocity this year among those with at least 140 innings, and third among free agents. Gray has made at least 25 starts in each full season dating back to 2018. Outside of his eight-start 2020 season, which ended early with shoulder inflammation, Gray has always posted an above-average strikeout rate.
This year, Gray hit the IL in June for a right flexor strain, missing three weeks. He exited a late August start with forearm tightness, but that turned out to be a minimum IL stay. The injuries did not affect his velocity, though he did surrender 11 earned runs in his final 8 2/3 innings, pushing his ERA from 4.17 to 4.59. The Rockies declined to trade Gray at the July deadline, stating their intent to extend him. In late September the club offered “a three-year deal in the range of $35 million to $40 million,” according to Nick Groke and Eno Sarris of The Athletic.
He rejected. Front offices are likelier to be more attracted to what’s under the hood than his surface-level 4.59 ERA. The bet here is that teams will look past the up-and-down nature of Gray’s career and view him as an upside play who’ll thrive away from Coors Field and with more robust information and data at his disposal. Gray is a former No. 3 overall pick who averages 95 mph or better on his heater. He’s better than league-average in terms of strikeout rate, walk rate and ground-ball rate for his career, with promising swinging-strike rates on a near-yearly basis.
Some teams will believe they can turn Gray into a slam-dunk playoff starter. The Rockies’ interest in retaining Gray was not enough for them to issue a qualifying offer, so they must have found the potential one-year price too high. Now, Gray gets to enjoy his first time through free agency without the QO dragging him down. The Angels, Blue Jays, Tigers, Twins, Mariners, Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Giants, Dodgers, Cardinals and just about any team looking at rotation help could consider him. Gray’s upside and price point (relative to the top of the market) could also pique the interest of teams that aren’t looking at 2022 as a must-win season, putting him in play for clubs like the Rangers, Cubs and Nationals.
20. Seiya Suzuki. Five years, $55MM. TD: Phillies / SA: Rangers / AF: Rangers
Perhaps an unknown name to many who are viewing this list, Suzuki is a 27-year-old outfielder who is expected to be posted by the Hiroshima Carp this offseason. We’ve received a broad range of opinions on Suzuki when surveying teams and scouts who’ve seen him play in Japan.
That’s likely indicative of the volatility and uncertainty that is inherent to signing star players from overseas, but the most bullish outlooks on Suzuki peg him as an everyday right fielder with more than enough power to hit in the middle of a big league lineup.
Dylan Hernandez of the L.A. Times cited a scout who called Suzuki the “best player in Japan” in an August profile of the slugger, and at least one evaluator to whom we spoke echoed that sentiment. Suzuki won’t turn 28 until next August and is putting the finishing touches on another dominant season in NPB. Through 530 plate appearances this season, he’s posted a .319/.436/.640 batting line with 38 home runs, 26 doubles and nine steals (in 13 tries). Dating back to 2018, the right-handed-hitting Suzuki has put together a combined .319/.435/.592 batting line with 121 home runs, 115 doubles, four triples and 44 stolen bases (albeit in 72 attempts) through 2167 plate appearances.
Unlike many sluggers, including countryman Yoshi Tsutsugo, Suzuki achieves this production without selling out for the power. Since 2018, he’s fanned in only 16.4 percent of his plate appearances — compared to a nearly identical 16 percent walk rate. Suzuki has played some center field in the past, though no one we spoke to believes he’ll be a regular there. He has four NPB Gold Gloves for his work in right field, however, and while big league evaluators don’t seem convinced he’ll be an elite defender in MLB, the consensus seems to be that he’ll be a strong-armed, above-average right fielder.
The risk is always considerable when signing top-tier talent from other professional leagues, be it NPB, the KBO or the Cuban National Series. Suzuki is a legitimate superstar in NPB, however, with tools that are loud enough to forecast him as a Major League regular. A 25-homer bat with solid right field defense sounds an awful lot like Avisail Garcia, who places lower on this list — but Suzuki’s youth, huge walk rates and the upside of the unknown give him an edge for us, even if it’s possible they profile as similar players. The contract we’re predicting for Suzuki would come with a $10.125MM posting fee, bringing the total outlay to $65.125MM. As always, it’s possible (or even probable) that his representatives will ponder the possibility of working an opt-out clause into the deal, perhaps allowing him to re-enter the market if he proves himself through his first two to three seasons. It’d be tough for a contender to just plug Suzuki right into its lineup, though teams like the Giants, Braves and Brewers certainly represent on-paper fits. Suzuki seems like a better fit for a club looking to turn the corner and willing to take on some risk, however, which could open him up to the Marlins, Cubs, Rangers, Tigers and Nationals.
21. Anthony Rizzo. Three years, $45MM. TD: Marlins / SA: Red Sox / AF: Braves
As the longtime face of the Cubs, it seemed like the club would hammer out an extension with Rizzo even if they intended to take a step back in 2022. He’d already signed a seven-year extension in 2013, which turned into a nine-year contract once both club options were exercised. As of March 31st of this year, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer was “very confident” a deal would get done and Rizzo had used the word “optimistic.” The Cubs’ initial offer was reportedly for five years and $70MM, while Rizzo sought something closer to Paul Goldschmidt’s $130MM deal.
An agreement was not reached, and once the Cubs fell out of contention, Rizzo was traded to the Yankees. At age 32, Rizzo’s play seems more solid than spectacular. He’s posted a 109 wRC+ in 819 plate appearances since 2020, roughly on par with Josh Bell, Jonathan Schoop, Miguel Sano, and Eric Hosmer. To sign Rizzo to a deal well beyond our projection would require placing a large value on intangibles, or expecting him to defy the aging curve and return to his 2019 form. Still, Rizzo is free of a qualifying offer and faces limited competition at first base unless Freddie Freeman and/or Brandon Belt make it to the market. Many clubs could find a spot for him, especially if the NL DH adds flexibility.
22. Anthony DeSclafani. Three years, $42MM. TD: Mets / SA: Mariners / AF: Cardinals
DeSclafani had put together some solid 3-WAR type seasons for the Reds in 2015 and 2019, but he scuffled in 2020 with a right teres major strain that limited him to seven starts. The Giants jumped in with a one-year, $6MM contract and a rotation job. The result was a 3.17 ERA that ranked 11th in the NL among those with at least 150 innings. In five of the past seven seasons, DeSclafani has started at least 20 games — the exceptions being the shortened 2020 season and 2017, when he missed the season due to a ligament issue in his right elbow (but notably avoided surgery).
In four of his five most healthy seasons, “Disco” has pitched to a 4.05 ERA or better. DeSclafani’s skills and history suggest he’s more of a 4.00 ERA type pitcher than the 3.17 level he showed in 2021, but that would still be plenty valuable for clubs seeking mid-rotation innings at a reasonable price. We discussed whether a four-year deal was possible and agreed it’s not out of the question, but we see a three-year deal as the likelier outcome.
Though Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi issued a qualifying offer to Brandon Belt this offseason and Kevin Gausman last winter, he chose not to take the plunge on DeSclafani. We believe DeSclafani would have accepted, and perhaps the Giants didn’t want to tie up that hefty one-year salary so early in the offseason. DeSclafani may yet return to the Giants, but he’s now free to explore the market without being hampered by the QO. The Tigers, Royals, Twins, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Angels, Mariners, Rangers, Mets, Nationals, and Cubs are among the other teams that make sense.
23. Justin Verlander. Two years, $40MM. TD: Giants / SA: Giants / AF: Braves
Like Scherzer, Verlander is a future Hall of Famer likely to sign a high-AAV, short-term deal. The difference is that Verlander, 39 in February, underwent Tommy John surgery in October 2020. He missed almost the entirety of that season and all of 2021, but won the AL Cy Young award in 2019 and finished second in 2018. Verlander will be 17 months from his surgery in March of next year, so he should be able to have a normal Spring Training (barring a lockout).
Even if his 220 inning days are behind him, Verlander will appeal greatly to contenders. Though Verlander has pitched only six innings since 2020, the Astros issued him a qualifying offer. In October, Astros owner Jim Crane suggested Verlander will be “looking for a contract of some length,” implying perhaps a two-year pact. If things somehow don’t work out between Verlander and the Astros, the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, Angels, Mariners, Braves, Mets, Cardinals, Dodgers, Padres, and Giants could be interested.
24. Avisail Garcia. Three years, $36MM. TD: Royals / SA: Marlins / AF: Rockies Garcia, 30, put together a solid season in 2021. He posted a 115 wRC+ with a career-best 29 home runs in 135 games as the Brewers’ right fielder. Defensively, he seems to be at least average, depending on your metric of choice. Garcia has 88th percentile sprint speed and is very strong in most Statcast batting metrics. He’s a player who seems like he could have another level, but that was also true when he signed his two-year deal with the Brewers. Garcia could be a fit for the Marlins, Royals, Rangers, Mets, Cubs, Reds, and Rockies if the Brewers don’t bring him back.
25. Jorge Soler. Three years, $36MM. TD: Brewers / SA: Rockies / AF: Marlins Soler defected from Cuba in 2011 and signed a nine-year, $30MM deal with the Cubs. He was a part of the Cubs’ 2016 championship team, but was traded to the Royals for Wade Davis after that season. In 2019, Soler shook off a long injury history to set the Royals’ franchise record with 48 home runs – perhaps in part because he played 107 games at DH and only 56 in the field. Soler played 752 innings in right field this year, his most in the field since 2015 – in part because the Royals traded him to the Braves at the deadline. He’s never been a good fielder, and rated as one of the game’s worst defensive right fielders this year.
Soler struggled mightily in the first half of the season, but from July 20th forward, he posted a 144 wRC+ that ranked 21st in all of baseball. Soler capped his season by winning the World Series MVP, crushing three big home runs against the Astros. 30 in February, Soler lights up Statcast and demonstrated his ceiling back in 2019, even if he played at replacement level overall this year. If the NL gets the DH, Soler could snag a three-year deal.
26. Alex Wood. Three years, $30MM. TD: Mariners / SA: Nationals / AF: Twins
Wood, 31 in January, was a second round pick by the Braves out of the University of Georgia back in 2012. He was sent to the Dodgers in a three-team, 13-player swap at the 2015 trade deadline, and then moved to the Reds in another complicated trade in December 2018. However, Wood tallied only 48 1/3 frames from 2019-20, resulting in a pair of cheap one-year free agent deals with the Dodgers and Giants. When healthy, Wood has always been effective.
He made only seven starts for the 2019 Reds due to a back injury. He cracked the Dodgers’ rotation in the shortened 2020 season, but quickly went down for shoulder inflammation and pitched mostly in relief upon his return. For the Giants, though, Wood was healthy for the first time since 2018, making 27 starts despite starting on the IL due to a March back procedure and later missing time due to COVID-19. Wood’s 26 K% ranks sixth among free agent starters, and he’ll cost a lot less than those ranked ahead of him. He’s also free of a qualifying offer, but that’s true of the other mid-range starters as well.
27. Steven Matz. Three years, $27MM. TD: Red Sox / SA: Angels / AF: Nationals Matz, a 30-year-old lefty, was drafted out of high school by the Mets in the second round in 2009. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2010. Matz finally debuted for the Mets in 2015, pitching well enough to get the ball in Game 4 of the World Series. He became a rotation mainstay in the four years that followed, pitching fairly well aside from a 2017 season mostly lost to elbow woes. Matz made 60 starts with a 4.09 ERA from 2018-19, but was yanked from the rotation in 2020 after five rough starts.
Considered a possible non-tender candidate after that season, Matz was instead signed and shipped to the Blue Jays in a trade. Matz pitched well for the Jays, with a 3.82 ERA in 29 starts. His strikeout and walk rates were roughly league average. Only six left-handed starters threw harder than Matz’s 94.5 miles per hour average this year, so it’s possible suitors will aim to unlock another level of strikeout ability in him. Matz declined a reported multiyear proposal from the Blue Jays, who declined to make him a qualifying offer. Other clubs seeking an middle of the rotation arm like Matz might include the Tigers, Royals, Twins, Angels, Mariners, Rangers, Nationals, Cubs, Cardinals, and Giants.
28. Kendall Graveman. Three years, $27MM. TD: Astros / SA: Royals / AF: Dodgers
Graveman, 31 in December, was drafted in the eighth round by the Blue Jays out of Mississippi State back in 2013. He joined the A’s in the Josh Donaldson trade the following year. Graveman served as a groundball-heavy, pitch-to-contact starter for the A’s from 2015-17, putting up a 4.11 ERA in 71 starts.
Graveman lost his rotation job early in the 2018 season, and then went down for Tommy John surgery in July of that year. The A’s cut him loose, and the Cubs signed him with an eye on the 2020 season. The Cubs chose to decline the option, leading to a $1.5MM deal with the Mariners for ’20. Graveman’s 11 appearances that year didn’t impress, but his fastball ticked up close to 95 out of the bullpen and he figured out a four-seam fastball during quarantine. A benign bone tumor was discovered in Graveman’s spine, but he was able to pitch with it.
Graveman’s club option was declined again after the season, but this time he re-upped with the Mariners for $1.25MM for ’21. Graveman put it all together for the Mariners this year, posting a 0.82 ERA and 28.1 K% before the club surprisingly traded him to the division-rival Astros for Abraham Toro and Joe Smith.
Though Graveman’s control slipped with the Astros, he still performed capably and assumed a key role in their bullpen through the postseason. Graveman’s skills form a rare combination, as only three relievers this year can boast of a 96 mile per hour fastball, 27 K%, and 54% groundball rate. He may be the best setup option on the market, and should draw interest from just about every contender.
29. Kenley Jansen. Two years, $26MM. TD: Blue Jays / SA: Blue Jays / AF: Royals
Barely a year after spending most of his season catching for the High-A Inland Empire 66ers, Kenley Jansen made his MLB debut as a hard-throwing reliever at Dodger Stadium against the Mets in 2010. Armed with little more than a devastating cutter, Jansen began a run of domination out of the Dodgers’ bullpen that resulted in a 2.08 ERA over his first eight seasons.
In January 2017, after fielding even larger offers from other teams, Jansen-re-signed with the Dodgers on a five-year, $80MM deal that still stands as the second-largest ever given to a reliever. Though still very good, Jansen started to waver a bit in 2018, posting career-worsts in ERA, strikeout rate, and home run rate. He blew saves in Games 3 and 4 of the 2018 World Series, undergoing heart surgery in the offseason. Jansen battled through eight blown saves in 2019, posting a career-worst 3.71 ERA. After Jansen blew the save in Game 4 of the 2020 Series, manager Dave Roberts called on Blake Treinen and Julio Urias to close out Games 5 and 6. Jansen began reducing his cutter usage in 2019 after typically throwing the pitch 85-90% of the time. He was down to 58% in ’21, to solid results.
While Jansen’s ERA fell back down to 2.22 and was unscored upon in seven postseason innings, Jansen’s 12.9 BB% was the worst he’s had in a full season. Now 34 years old, the second act of Jansen’s career figures to be respectable, if not dominant. Jansen is ineligible for a qualifying offer, having received one previously. If the Dodgers decide to finally move on, the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Astros, Angels, Braves, Marlins, Phillies, and Padres could be potential suitors.
30. Mark Canha. Two years, $24MM. TD: Guardians / SA: Guardians / AF: Guardians
Canha, 33 in February, was drafted in the seventh round out of UC Berkeley in 2010 by the Marlins. The Rockies took him in the 2014 Rule 5 draft, immediately trading him to the A’s. He was able to hit well enough as a rookie in 2015 to stick on the roster, but required season-ending hip surgery in May of the following season. Canha was up and down in the Majors in 2017 and underwent wrist surgery after the season. In 2018, Canha was finally able to stick in the bigs for good, posting a 115 wRC+. His best season was 2019, when he hit 26 home runs for a 146 wRC+ and four wins above replacement in 126 games.
Canha has a strong .366 on-base percentage since 2020, but has slugged only .393 – perhaps the result of playing his home games at RingCentral Coliseum. The lack of power and hard hits does show up in Canha’s Statcast metrics. Defensively, Canha is able to play all three outfield positions capably. For a team seeking to bolster its OBP, Canha is a strong addition who may be limited to a two-year term given his age. The Guardians, Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Rockies, and Giants could be fits.
31. Kyle Seager. Two years, $24MM. TD: Blue Jays / SA: Blue Jays / AF: Mets Among free agents, only Marcus Semien hit more home runs than Seager’s 35 this year. Seager may have sold out for power, however, as he posted a career-worst strikeout rate and batting average. Seager still probably profiles as a 110 wRC+ type bat, and the 34-year-old plays above-average defense. Drafted by the Mariners in the third round in 2009 out of UNC, Seager has played 11 seasons with the club due to a seven-year extension signed in December 2014. The free agent market is short on regular third basemen this year, and the Blue Jays, Phillies, and Mets could make sense.
32. Michael Conforto. One year, $20MM. TD: Braves / SA: White Sox / AF: Brewers Conforto, 29 in March, seemed primed for a large contract heading into the 2021 season. Instead, he tumbled to a 106 wRC+, his worst mark since 2016. In the four years prior, Conforto stood at 133, 18th in baseball among those with at least 1,500 plate appearances during that time. The longtime Met can play either outfield corner, and can be used in center in a pinch. In general, his right field defense has been average. There will be teams that happily make Conforto a multiyear offer, crediting his long track record as one of the game’s better left-handed hitters over his mediocre 2021. The guess here is that Conforto will turn down the qualifying offer, find the multiyear offers insufficient, and sign a comparable one-year deal with a new team to rebuild value and shake off the QO. Yasmani Grandal and Marcell Ozuna followed this model successfully. If the Mets don’t hammer something out with Conforto, he could fit with the Rangers, Braves, Phillies, Cubs, Brewers, Rockies, Padres, Guardians, and Royals.
33. Clayton Kershaw. One year, $20MM. TD: Rangers / SA: Rangers / AF: Phillies Kershaw, 34 in March, will eventually enter the Hall of Fame as a Dodger. His resume includes three Cy Young awards and votes in six other seasons. The legendary lefty saw his average fastball velocity drop to 90.7 miles per hour this year, down from the prior shortened campaign but within range of his 2018-19 work. He was a big contributor to the Dodgers’ 2020 championship, with a 2.93 ERA over five starts. Though a bit homer-prone over the past five seasons, Kershaw 25.2 K-BB% in 2021 remains elite.
Kershaw made 22 starts this year. He returned to pitch in September after a two-month absence due to a forearm injury, but after four starts his season ended due to a recurrence. Kershaw received a platelet-rich plasma injection in October for what he termed a “flexor issue,” with no current plans for surgery. The options for Kershaw appear to be a return to the Dodgers, a move to his hometown Rangers, or retirement. The Dodgers surprisingly elected not to issue a qualifying offer to Kershaw, which could be perceived as a red flag on his health or just a friendly gesture meant to allow him to explore free agency uninhibited. A multiyear contract is still possible, but we decided to predict one year given the uncertainty of Kershaw’s injury.
34. Yusei Kikuchi. Two years, $20MM. TD: Cubs / SA: Cubs / AF: Cubs Kikuchi, a 30-year-old southpaw, averaged 95.2 miles per hour on his fastball this year – second only to Carlos Rodon among free agents. After an excellent July 1st start at Toronto, things were looking up. Kikuchi owned a 3.18 ERA, 25.4 K%, and and 8.5 BB% in 15 starts, and he had been selected to his first All-Star Game. Though it didn’t immediately manifest in his results, Kikuchi lost 197 RPM on his four-seam fastball after June 12th. He also lost about one mile per hour on his fastball after July 1st, possibly the result of wearing down.
From July 7th forward, Kikuchi posted a 6.22 ERA, 23.3 K%, and 10.3 BB%, with 1.7 home runs allowed per nine innings. By the end of the season, he’d been booted from the Mariners’ rotation. The Mariners made the easy choice to decline his four-year, $66MM option, but Kikuchi surprised some by declining his one-year, $13MM option. But not guaranteed a rotation spot in Seattle and with at least some prospect of a multiyear deal, Kikuchi’s decision makes sense. Despite his solid start to the season and top-notch velocity from the left side, Kikuchi isn’t quite the appealing upside play you might imagine.
His Statcast numbers show that when batters hit the ball against Kikuchi this year, they absolutely hammered it. The 91.9 mile per hour average exit velocity against him was the worst in baseball, and 47% of the balls hit against him were 95 and up (second worst in the game). As such, the fact that Kikuchi allowed more than a fifth of his flyballs to leave the yard can’t be waved away as a fluke. Some starting pitchers, such as Robbie Ray this year, are able to succeed despite allowing hard contact. But it’s hardly a positive, and Kikuchi does allow his share of walks as well. He’s still an interesting project, but a total reboot will be required. The Blue Jays, Tigers, Twins, Angels, Rangers, Mets, Nationals, Cubs, and Giants could be candidates.
35. Eduardo Escobar. Two years, $20MM. TD: Nationals / SA: White Sox / AF: Blue Jays
Escobar, 33 in January, joined the Twins in the July 2012 Francisco Liriano trade with the White Sox. He received his first taste of semi-regular duty in his years with the Twins before being traded to the Diamondbacks at the 2018 deadline. A solid ’18 campaign earned Escobar a three-year extension with Arizona, and he rewarded the club with a 35 home run, 3.6 WAR season in ’19. Escobar struggled mightily in the shortened ’20 campaign. He bounced back in ’21 and was involved in the third trade deadline deal of his career, heading to the Brewers. Escobar is an above-average hitter who can handle third base, second base, and first base. The Blue Jays, Mariners, and Phillies could be among those looking to plug him in at the hot corner on a short-term deal.
36. Brandon Belt. One year, $18.4MM (accepts qualifying offer). TD: Giants / SA: Giants / AF: Giants
Since 2020, Belt’s 163 wRC+ ranks behind only Juan Soto and Bryce Harper among those with at least 500 plate appearances. The flip side is that Belt played in only 97 games this year due to a left oblique strain, a right knee injury, and a fractured left thumb. The first baseman, 34 in April, did manage to play in more than 93% of the Giants’ possible games from 2019-20. It’s also worth noting that Belt faced left-handed pitching about a third of the time from 2016-18, but only about 19% of the time from 2020-21.
That’s likely because the Giants found quality right-handed complements in Darin Ruf and Wilmer Flores. That said, Belt hasn’t always struggled against lefties. He posted a 127 wRC+ against them over the first six years of his career, and a 129 mark this year. But from 2018-20, Belt hit just .207/.319/.319 against southpaws over 348 plate appearances, and it’s difficult to say if this year’s 75 PA erases that. Having signed a five-year extension in April of 2016, Belt has spent his entire 11-year career with the Giants.
The Giants issued him a qualifying offer, and it may make sense for Belt to accept and aim for a healthy 2022 with the only team he’s ever known, especially with the expected addition of the NL DH. We do believe offers larger than $18.4MM would eventually surface for Belt, but we don’t know his willingness to wait out a potential lockout and/or leave the Giants.
37. Noah Syndergaard. One year, $18.4MM (accepts qualifying offer). TD: Mets / SA: Mets / AF: Mets
Syndergaard, 29, burst on the scene with a fourth place Rookie of the Year finish in 2015 and Cy Young votes the following season. However, the hard-throwing Mets righty made only seven starts in 2017 due to a lat injury. He bounced back to make 57 starts from 2018-19, but went down for Tommy John surgery in March 2020. It took Syndergaard 18 months to return to an MLB mound, as he made two appearances as an opener as the Mets closed out their season. Syndergaard wasn’t at his pre-surgery 97-98, but 95 miles per hour isn’t a bad starting point. Syndergaard seems to be in favor of the Mets’ issuing a qualifying offer. A simple path forward would be for him to accept the $18.4MM offer and re-establish his health in 2022 before hitting the free agent jackpot.
38. Corey Knebel. Two years, $18MM. TD: Red Sox / SA: Phillies / AF: Twins Knebel, 30 this month, was drafted 39th overall by the Tigers in 2013 out of the University of Texas. He was traded to the Rangers in the July 2014 Joakim Soria trade, and then to the Brewers in the January 2015 Yovani Gallardo deal. Throwing 95-97 miles per hour, he peaked in 2017 with a 40.8 K%, 39 saves, and an All-Star nod.
Knebel was briefly demoted to Triple-A late in a rocky 2018 season, and then went down for Tommy John surgery in March 2019. Knebel returned from surgery for 15 shaky appearances in 2020, and the Brewers traded him to the Dodgers in lieu of a non-tender. He missed more than three and a half months this season due to a lat strain, returning in August. After his return, Knebel was excellent in 19 appearances, including four as an opener.
He opened twice more for the Dodgers in the playoffs among seven appearances, adding another dominant 5 2/3 innings to his ledger. It’s fair to wonder how many innings Knebel can provide next season, but his last impression was a strong one and he should be a popular late-inning relief target.
39. Alex Cobb. Two years, $16MM. TD: Royals / SA: Red Sox / AF: Athletics Cobb, 34, joined the Angels in a February trade and pitched better than he ever did in Baltimore. Cobb’s 24.9 K% marked a career-best, though his walk rate was his worst since his brief rookie season. In his time with the Rays and Orioles, Cobb hasn’t primarily been a strikeout pitcher, instead relying on strong groundball rates. Cobb hit the IL in late July with wrist inflammation this year, knocking him out for more than two months. Cobb hasn’t made 20 starts in a season since 2018. Still, he shouldn’t require a long-term deal and can supplement just about any rotation.
40. Zack Greinke. One year, $15MM. TD: Nationals / SA: Cardinals / AF: Red Sox
Still putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame resume, Greinke’s season ERA stood at 3.41 as late as August 23rd. He’d make only four more regular season appearances for the Astros, allowing 20 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings. Greinke’s season and perhaps Astros career ended on a high note, with four scoreless innings to start off Game 4 of the World Series. In his 18-year career with the Royals, Brewers, Angels, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Astros, Greinke has one Cy Young award and votes in four other seasons. He’s always had impeccable control, though his strikeout rate tumbled down to 17.2% this year. The 38-year-old righty is enigmatic, thoughtful, and hilarious, and would likely be signed for his clubhouse presence as much as for his work on the mound. First, we have to see whether Greinke even wants to continue pitching.
41. Eddie Rosario. Two years, $15MM. TD: Nationals / SA: Braves / AF: Braves
Rosario, 30, was an above average hitter for the Twins each year from 2017-20, with a 112 wRC+ overall. He’s not much of an asset on defense, with a 2018 season that was particularly rough. Facing an arbitration salary beyond what the free agent market would pay a player of this skill set, the Twins chose not to tender Rosario a contract after the 2020 season. The Indians gave Rosario a one-year, $8MM free agent contract, and by the trade deadline they were simply hoping to unload some of the financial commitment. Rosario became one of the Braves’ four outfield acquisitions, shipped to Atlanta while on the IL for an abdominal strain. Once he returned Rosario hit well in 106 regular season plate appearances for the Braves, posting a 133 wRC+. He added the NLCS MVP award on top, smacking three home runs in six games against the Dodgers. His power and solid finish to the season on the big stage should help him land a starting outfield job.
42. Hector Neris. Two years, $15MM. TD: Phillies / SA: Angels / AF: Rays Neris, 32, has pitched in parts of eight seasons for the Phillies. While he’s been prone to the longball throughout his career, Neris also has a long history of missing bats. He’s got a 31.1 K% since 2019, 11th in baseball among relievers with at least 140 innings during that time. His swinging strike rate during that period ranks fifth, and Statcast also paints a positive picture. Neris hasn’t always been able to hold onto the Phillies’ closer job, and he had seven blown saves this year, but he remains a capable late-inning reliever.
43. Jonathan Villar. Two years, $14MM. TD: Mets / SA: Rockies / AF: White Sox Villar, 30, is a solid utility infielder capable of playing second base, third base, and shortstop. Though he struggled to hit in the shortened 2020 season, he posted a 105 wRC+ this year for the Mets and a 107 mark in 2019. He also adds positive value on the basepaths, with 2021’s low two-thirds success rate likely an aberration. Villar is not generally known for his defense; his versatility is his calling card. After this year’s one-year, $3.55MM deal with the Mets, Villar should do better this time around through free agency.
44. Mark Melancon. Two years, $14MM. TD: Phillies / SA: Cardinals / AF: Cardinals
Melancon, 37 in March, led all of MLB with 39 saves for the Padres this year. And among relievers with at least 50 innings, his 2.23 ERA ranked 18th. Melancon deploys a groundball-heavy approach, helping compensate for a strikeout rate below 22% over the last three years. The veteran righty is pretty good at generating weak contact, with a barrel rate and average exit velocity both in the 76th percentile or better.
While Melancon’s skill set isn’t the one modern GMs crave, he keeps getting results and should surpass last winter’s one-year, $3MM deal.
45. Ryan Tepera. Two years, $12MM. TD: Angels / SA: Royals / AF: Phillies After a 2019 season abbreviated due to elbow surgery, Tepera’s Blue Jays career came to an end when he was designated for assignment. The Cubs picked him up as a free agent for just $900K. Despite a less-than-ideal 13.5 BB% in 2020, Tepera was a key part of the Cubs’ bullpen and had a decent year. The 2020 campaign earned Tepera an accidental MVP vote, but the Cubs still weren’t impressed enough to tender him a contract.
After a few months on the market, Tepera landed back with the Cubs, this time with an $800K guarantee. This year, Tepera got a handle on the free passes, but still punched out more than 30% of batters faced. That earned him a ticket across town in a midseason trade with the White Sox. Though Tepera pitched better than most of the relievers ahead of him in the bullpen pecking order, including fellow ex-Cub Craig Kimbrel, he wasn’t thrust into a high-leverage role. Still, it seems like Tepera will finally earn some respect this winter with a multiyear deal.
46. Corey Kluber. One year, $12MM. TD: Braves / SA: Twins / AF: Giants Kluber blossomed into a late-career ace with the Indians, winning Cy Young awards in 2014 and ’17 and receiving votes in three other seasons. However, he missed almost the entire 2019 and ’20 seasons due to a forearm fracture followed by a Grade 2 tear of the teres major muscle in his right shoulder. After showcasing for teams in January this year, Kluber signed a one-year, $11MM deal with the Yankees. Kluber’s 16-start season with the Yankees was a mixed bag. He peaked with a May 19th no-hitter at Texas, but then missed more than two months with a subscapularis strain in his shoulder. The righty was much better before the injury than after it, and his 14.4 K-BB% on the season was far from vintage Kluber. 36 in April, Kluber’s past glory plus a healthy, normal offseason should still make him an interesting one-year deal candidate.
47. Nelson Cruz. One year, $12MM. TD: Padres / SA: Padres / AF: Brewers Cruz, 41, posted a 122 wRC+ with 32 home runs in 584 plate appearances for the Twins and Rays this year, almost entirely as a designated hitter. While Cruz was a solid producer, 2021 was still his worst season since 2013. He’d been at a 150 wRC+ in the three seasons prior. Cruz’s drop in offense coincided with his trade to the Rays, as his walks and power took a tumble and he managed league average production. Cruz’s Statcast metrics remain near the top of the chart, and the ageless slugger will only be helped if the National League adds the designated hitter.
48. Danny Duffy. One year, $10MM. TD: Angels / SA: Dodgers / AF: Royals Duffy, 33 in December, got off to a fine start this year with a 1.94 ERA through his first seven outings. At that point, he hit the IL for a flexor strain and missed more than a month. He was reinstated for a brief 42-pitch start on June 23rd, and then was oddly brought out in relief two days later. After that he made four additional starts, topping out at 77 pitches, before the flexor strain recurred and ultimately ended his season.
That wasn’t known at the time, and while on the IL Duffy attracted interest from the Giants and Dodgers, landing with the latter via trade. Duffy suffered a setback in September and never pitched for the Dodgers. Having signed a five-year extension in 2017, Duffy pitched with the Royals for 11 years. In his 61 innings this year, he posted a career-best 25.8 K%. He’s generally been good for about 150 innings of 4.00 ball, and could become an attractive target once teams gain clarity on his health situation.
49. Yan Gomes. Two years, $10MM. TD: Yankees / SA: Yankees / AF: Rockies
In an extremely thin market for catchers, the 34-year-old Gomes stands out as the lone starting-caliber option in free agency. Gomes admittedly hasn’t been a particularly consistent hitter on a year-to-year basis, but over the past four seasons he’s turned in a combined .252/.311/.426 slash — about seven percent worse than the league-average hitter (regardless of position) but about five percent better than the average catcher.
A solid hitter relative to his positional peers, Gomes also possesses quality defensive ratings. He’s roughly average in terms of pitch framing, but Baseball Prospectus rates his ability to block pitches in the dirt quite well. Gomes also boasts a 29% caught-stealing rate across the past four seasons and notched a 31% mark in that regard in 2021 — well above the league-average of 25%. Gomes will turn 35 next July, so his days as a clear-cut starting option behind the plate could potentially be dwindling, but the Rangers, Yankees, Marlins, Angels and Cubs (depending on a trade of Willson Contreras) could all potentially use a solid veteran of this style.
50. Andrew Heaney. One year, $6MM. TD: Cardinals / SA: Nationals / AF: Pirates Heaney, a 30-year-old southpaw, had a disastrous year with a 5.83 ERA in 129 2/3 innings. Things only got worse after the Angels sent him to the Yankees at the trade deadline. But look below the surface, and you’ll see an interesting reclamation project. Among those with at least 250 innings over the last three seasons, Heaney’s 27.1 K% ranks 24th in the Majors. His K-BB% ranks 21st. The skills are there for a 4.00 ERA starter. Always a flyball pitcher, Heaney was undone in 2021 by allowing 18% of his flyballs to leave the yard. A team with a big ballpark might wind up with a bargain. Signed with Dodgers for one year, $8.5MM.
• Tyler Anderson • Andrew Chafin • Johnny Cueto • Josh Harrison • Rich Hill • Daniel Hudson • Joe Kelly • Aaron Loup • Andrew McCutchen • Collin McHugh • Brad Miller • James Paxton • Joc Pederson • Tommy Pham • Michael Pineda • Brooks Raley • Tomoyuki Sugano