The MLB offseason is a very fun time for the baseball world; with so many rumors and players switching teams, it arguably provides more entertainment than the actual season itself!
As free agency starts, content creators will move quickly to publish their “free agency rankings”. However, I do not find this incredibly useful when it comes to analyzing team-building. Unlike the draft, where organizations are simply trying to add the best players available in order to improve their long-term health, free agency is about filling short-term needs; why does it matter if a team ranks Francisco Lindor as the first or second-best free agent if they already have Corey Seager?
Rather, the goal of front offices is to find where the value lies in free agency, and from there, exploit it. Every offseason presents different areas to discover value based on market inefficiencies and the formulation of the free agency class.
In this article, we will go position-by-position, answer the key question for front offices: if one is looking to improve at a certain position, what is the best/most efficient way to do so. Answering this question prevents front offices from overpaying based on consumer demand, as well as potential landing some major steals on the open market. After that, we will identify the top-ten values of the entire free agency class, as well as some final parting shots on the strengths and weaknesses of the class as a whole.
*Tiers at each position were constructed based on public perception/estimated contract values, rather than my personal opinions
First Tier: JT Realmuto
Second Tier: James McCann
Third Tier: Jason Castro, Tyler Flowers, Kurt Suzuki, Alex Avila, Mike Zunino, Yadier Molina
Catcher is easily the most scarce position when it comes to finding quality players, which is why JT Realmuto would appear to be a very appealing option. However, he if he really is seeking the largest catcher contract in MLB history, that is far too steep a price to pay. After all, the 29-year-old’s defensive value is his strength, and not only is defense generally overvalued, but the automatic strike zone is coming soon. Add in the generally poor aging curves for Realmuto, and a steep multi-year contract is risky.
That will make James McCann the next best option, as he absolutely mashes lefties. I’m guessing he comes at a much greater cost than the third tier of catchers, however, which is where the value is. Jason Castro, Tyler Flowers, and Alex Avila all can be key contributors in a catcher timeshare with their plate discipline, batted-ball numbers, and defense, and I’m guessing they’ll settle for very reasonable one-year contracts. For a team like the Rays, for instance, who don’t have any big-league catchers, they could get great value by pairing Castro/Avila and Flowers together.
Catcher is a very volatile position, and not one you want to commit multiple years to for someone in their late 20s. Luckily, there are a lot of short-term stopgaps that are available. Realmuto may be the splashy signing, but signing multiple third-tier catchers to fill a timeshare is a far more efficient strategy.
- Value: Third-tier platoon catchers
First Tier: None
Second Tier: Carlos Santana
Third Tier: Mitch Moreland, Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames, CJ Cron, Justin Smoak
This isn’t a very rich class when it comes to first basemen, but Carlos Santana is certainly an appealing option. He has walked more than he has struck out over the past five seasons, and his poor production from the short 2020 season was mainly due to poor batted-ball luck. For a team looking to revamp their offense, he has the type of on-base skills that ought to make him worth the contract he signs.
If you cannot get Santana, you may be better off avoiding this market, as there aren’t many appealing option. Justin Smoak is worth taking a shot on given his previous statcast data, but he probably fits a rebuilding team looking for someone to potentially flip to a contender (a bench piece for a playoff push) then someone a contender is going to sign and give the everyday first base job to.
- Value: Carlos Santana
First Tier: DJ LeMahieu
Second Tier: Tommy La Stella, Jurickson Profar, Kolten Wong, Cesar Hernandez
Third Tier: Jonathan Schoop, Eric Sogard, Jason Kipnis, Brian Dozier
I’m all for adding impact offensive players, and that’s exactly what DJ LeMahieu is. Some may see his diminishing defensive value as a concern, but he can play all over the diamond at a passable level and has been a gold-glove second baseman in the past, so it really comes down to his offense. He has benefitted greatly from batted-ball luck over his time with the Yankees, but he also hits the ball very hard, so for around $18 million per year on a three-year contract, I’d definitely pay that.
Speaking of impact hitters with contact skills and positional versatility, Tommy La Stella is likely to be severely undervalued given his poor defense. However, the value he provides offensively more than makes up for it, and I think he is a much better target for teams looking to spend efficient than LeMahieu, or anyone else in this class for that matter.
It is likely that Kolten Wong’s defense is overvalued on the open market, so Jurickson Profar and Cesar Hernandez are the next-best options for a starting second basemen. After that, it mostly is just role players, so you’re going to want to target La Stella, Profar, or Hernandez if you’re looking to fill a hole in the infield without taking a risk on LeMahieu.
First Tier: None
Second Tier: Justin Turner
Third Tier: Jedd Gyorko, Jake Lamb, Todd Frazier
Is Justin Turner a first-tier free agent? Given that he is 35-years-old and has dealt with injuries, probably not, but it is hard to ignore his overall body of work. Here is his weighted-runs-created-plus in each of his eight seasons with the Dodgers:
- 2020: 140
- 2019: 132
- 2018: 154
- 2017: 151
- 2016: 123
- 2015: 141
- 2014: 158
That is incredibly impressive, and a testament to his plate discipline and overall on-base skills. There are plenty of teams that would be wise to add him a short-term contract, though it is likely he goes back to the Dodgers.
Good luck finding an everyday third baseman if you can’t sign Turner. Jake Lamb is a great buy-low target, but the rest of the third-base class is filled with bench bats more than players a contending team can count on.
- Value: Justin Turner, perhaps Jake Lamb
First Tier: None
Second Tier: Marcus Semien, Hae-Song Kim, Didi Gregorious, Andrelton Simmons
Third Tier: Freddy Galvis
For the record, I do not believe Didi Gregious or Andrelton Simmons are actual second-tier options. However, the tiers are done based on public perceptions, and both seem to be thought of highly. Between Gregorious’ poor plate discipline and inability to hit the ball hard, and Simmons’ lack of offensive value, I wouldn’t sign either.
Marcus Semien, on the other hand, is a very interesting free-agent target. In 2019, he was an MVP candidate, but he hasn’t had one other season with a wrc+ above 100. Still, there were a lot of stable aspects of that breakout season, so if he can be had a one-year contract, I would want to be the team that rolls the dice.
The real intriguing option on this list, however, is Hae-Song Kim. The Korean shortstop is just 25-years-old, and if considered a prospect, would be a consensus top-100 player. He gets on base, has enough power, plays solid defense, and has a great track record of success in Korea. It’s risky to add a player with no major-league experience, but signing him could drastically help one’s future, and he is a very appealing option for both contending teams and teams in transition.
- Value: Hae-Song Kim (Marcus Semien too if it’s on a one-year contract)
First Tier: Marcell Ozuna
Second Tier: Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson
Third Tier: Adam Eaton, Robbie Grossman, Jay Bruce, Brett Gardner, Josh Reddick, Nick Markakis, Matt Houyce, Ryan Braun
Marcell Ozuna bet on himself by taking a one-year contract last offseason, and it paid off tremendously. The 29-year-old posted a 179 wrc+ and contributed 26.8 offensive runs above average, and did so with an exceptional 53.8% hard-hit rate and an increased launch angle. Many are going to be worried about his defensive issues, but the offense (as it should) more than makes off for it.
He’s not the only corner outfielder who can provide a team with offensive value, however. Michael Brantley, for instance, is as consistent as it gets when it comes to getting on base at a high level, and is one of the safest free-agent targets out there. Joc Pederson, meanwhile, may be undervalued due to a poor 60-game season, yet he had contributed over one offensive win in four of the previous five seasons; he is a very valuable platoon option.
There is a lot of value to be had with the corner outfield market, as even other lesser options could be solid platoon players. This is certainly a good year to have a need for offense here.
- Value: Everywhere, particularly Brantley and Pederson
First Tier: George Springer
Second Tier: Jackie Bradley Jr.
Third Tier: Kevin Pillar
Is George Springer the premium free agent in this class? His recent production would indicate that, but he is also 31-years-old, which means he will likely have to shift to a corner outfield spot at some point, which does hurt his value- he is moving to a much less valuable position. He is a high-level player, yet I would be careful to not overspend, and to not go give too lengthy of a contract.
As someone who tends who believes defense is overvalued, the thought of Jackie Bradley Jr. getting a multi-year contract based on his defensive highlights is concerning. Yet, there is a lot of untapped potential; he hits the ball really hard, but needs to do so in the air. This is a flaw that represents a marker inefficiency that can be exploited, and all it could take is the proper organization to get the most out of him.
This is a very thin class, so Bradley Jr. on a one-year deal is the only place to find value. That’s unfortunate, considering center field is such a premium position.
- Value: None, maybe Bradley Jr?
First Tier: None
Second Tier: None
Third Tier: Kike Hernandez, Jonathan Villar
Both Kike Hernandez and Jonathan Villar project to be useful utility players, and should come at a cheap cost. Hernandez is a lefty masher, while Villar is a great base-runner who has generally overachieved his expected statistics.
- Value: Both of these players likely will be worth the cheap contracts they sign
First Tier: Nelson Cruz
Second Tier: Shin-Soo Choo
He may be 40-years-old, but Nelson Cruz just keeps on hitting. We’re talking about a hitter with an offensive runs above average of 33 or higher in four of the past five seasons, while his walk rate has only improved with age. I am very interested to see how much he costs as a full-time designated hitter, though I guess that depends on the status of the universal designated hitter.
Shin-Soo Choo has always been an underrated offensive producer in my eyes; he may not hit for a lot of power, but he has an incredible knack for getting on base.
Like I say, offense wins championships! The designated hitter market is generally one where there is some exploitable value, and the same will likely be true this offseason.
- Value: Both, particularly Shin-Soo Choo
First Tier: Trevor Bauer
Second Tier: Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman
Third Tier: James Paxton, Charlie Morton, Masahiro Tanaka
Fourth Tier: Drew Smyly, Robbie Ray, Garrett Richards, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Quintana, Corey Kluber, Taijuan Walker, Anthony DeSclafani, Adam Wainwright, Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Mike Minor, Rick Porcello
Others: Chris Archer, Tyler Chatwood, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, Collin McHugh, Trevor Cahill, Martin Perez, Julio Teheran, Mike Fiers, Jake Arrieta
Will Trevor Bauer actually take a one-year contract? The answer to that question could have massive ramifications on the teams that target him; he is in line to receive a massive contract, and if he wants four years and $100 million, I’d pay that.
Both Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman received qualifying offers, and public perception would lead you to believe that Stroman is the far better player. However, I actually think the opposite. Gausman misses more bats, has made sustainable changes, and is my pick to be the more valuable pitcher. He always had the talent as the former fourth overall pick, but he just needed to go to an organization that helped maximize on his abilities.
Former Yankees James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka both could be re-signed by their former team, and if not, they are very appealing targets, as is Charlie Morton; he’ll likely try to stay with the Rays, however. The best value, though, is with the fourth tier of pitchers. Drew Smyly, Garrett Richards, and Robbie Ray (who was already signed by the Blue Jays on a reasonable one-year, $8 million contract), there are plenty of talented pitchers who will be best utilized in a creative role, while Corey Kluber, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Quintana, and Alex Wood are fascinating dice rolls. Heck, even Trevor Cahill, Cole Hamels, Tyler Chatwood, and the injured Chris Archer offer various levels of intrigue.
I’ve seen people say that this is a poor starting pitching class. While there isn’t much top-end talent, I couldn’t disagree more. There is so much pitching depth here to take advantage of, and with practically every team in need of pitching, it will be interesting to see if the amount of solid pitching is able to meet up with the high demand for it.
First Tier: Liam Hendriks
Second Tier: Brad Hand
Third Tier: Kirby Yates, Trevor Rosenthal, Trevor May, Blake Treinen
Fourth Tier: Ken Giles, Jake McGee
Others: Alex Colome, Mark Melancon, Darren O’Day, Anthony Bass, David Phelps, Tony Watson, Shane Greene, Sergio Romo, Joakim Soria, Justin Wilson, Andrew Chafin, Brandon Workman, Pedro Baez, Tyler Clippard, Yusmeiro Petiti, Jeremy Jeffress, Brad Brach, Pedro Strop, David Robertson, Jose Alvarez, Aaron Loup, Tommy Hunter
When you’re trying to fix your bullpen, I always will advise shying away from doing so via free agency, given the volatility of relievers. Thus, I would be very careful targeting any of the top three tiers, outside of maybe Kirby Yates if his value has diminished enough, and would just pay attention to which of the depth options comes at a cheap price. Mainly, though, patching a bullpen comes via attacking the waiver wire and building pitching depth through your farm system. With teams like the Rays and Padres facing a roster crunch, I recommend looking there to add relief pitchers.
- Value: Waiver Wire
Now that we have gone position-by-position, let us answer our main question: where is there value that can be exploited by front offices? Overall, here are ten-best answers to that question:
- Tommy La Stella: His defense is going to significantly hamper his asking price, but he is incredibly undervalued as an on-base machine with some versatility.
- The “fourth-tier” starting pitchers: There are a lot of talented starting pitchers that can be maximized in the right organization and in a creative role, while there are a lot of intriguing “dice rolls”.
- Hae-Song Kim: It is rare to have a chance to add an accomplished 25-year-old at a premium position.
- Relievers that will be cut loose due to roster crunches: There should be plenty of talented relievers available that will be available for a far cheaper price than some of the more well-known free agents.
- Carlos Santana: He is an accomplished hitter with rare on-base abilities.
- Platoon Catchers: Rather that signing JT Realmuto, why not play it safe by signing multiple catchers who can be effective in a catcher timeshare for cheap? Given the volatility of catchers and the automatic strike zone likely to be in effect, that would be a much wiser strategy.
- Joc Pederson/Jackie Bradley Jr.: Both of these left-handed hitting outfielders have certain flaws that will represent a clear market inefficiency that can be exploited.
- Kike Hernandez and Jonathan Villar: These two players are cheap utility options that ought to be incredibly useful contributors.
- Jake Lamb: Lamb is a nice buy-low candidate in a platoon role.
- The 100000000000 non-tenders that are coming: What to add a significant amount of roster depth in a hurry? Take advantage of all the non-tenders.
Rather than creating a free agency big board, the focus of this article was to pay more attention to where there is exploitable value, as that is what smart teams are focused on in free agency. There are plenty of players that can be had for a cheaper price than they should be, especially in this economy, and the teams that take advantage of that are the ones that can best put themselves in position to significantly improve their roster next season, without hurting themselves in the long run. Just remember: it’s about winning on a year in, year out basis, rather than going “all-in” on one season.