The NFL season is nearing the playoffs and the NBA season is almost under way, but honestly, the MLB is in its best season- the offseason! With so many players, as well as managers and executives, changing organizations, this is a critical time for franchises to progress and improve their teams not just for this season, but in the future as well.
Technically, free agency started over a month ago. However, we now have more clarity about what the market will look like after teams lost revenue this season, while the non-tenders and international postings have taken place. Thus, we have as much information as possible to project contract worth for free agents.
We have already analyzed where the value is in free agency, and have also played general manager for every American League team and National League team. Today, we will put all of those lines of thinking together.
Using a combination of Steamer and ZiPs projections, as well as my own projections based on weighted performance over the past four seasons, I have been able to project each free agent’s value over average (VOA). From there, those numbers were translated into contract values, with the amount of years being based on my personal comfort in the player and their age. For multi-year contracts, aging curves were taken into account.
So, who are the top-190 free agents, and how much should they get paid? These following players are ranked in terms of overall contract projection value. For the players that have already signed, they were included, and we can now compare what they got paid versus what my projections believe they should have. We will quickly run through the less-coveted free agents, before focusing more closely on the premier options available on the open market; I will also provide commentary on their top fits in free agency. The one notable exclusion from this list is Chris Flexen, as making a projection for him after coming over from the KBO is extremely difficult and has a high margin of error. However, for two years and under $5 million, I believe the Mariners did well in signing him to add some pitching depth.
Without further adieu, let us get to the list!
Tier 9: $500K to $1.99M
Description: These players project as replaceable bench hitters, swingmen, or low-upside relief options
- This tier mostly consists of low-upside relievers, a majority of whom were recent non-tendered. Pedro Baez, Ryne Stanek, Nate Jones, Hansel Robles, and Jeremy Jeffress have all shown flashes in the past, and are likely to be able to contribute in some role.
- As for the recent signed relievers, Alex Claudio (LAA), Jonathan Holder (CHC), and Kenyan Middleton (SEA) each agreed to deals worth $1.5 million or less. Of those three, Holder probably holds the most intrigue since he has demonstrated the best ability to miss bats. However, Claudio’s funky release and low-velocity pitches are useful when trying to build a bullpen with different looks, something that more teams are committed to doing.
- Sean Doolittle was once considered one of the top relievers in the sport, but he has dropped off significantly. Based on name value, I wouldn’t be shocked if his actual contract exceeds his projected worth.
- Julio Teheran and Anibal Sanchez each recently signed contracts worth $8+ million annually, but now, they probably project more as starting pitchers you’d like to bring in as a non-roster invite. Innings will need to be filled since pitchers will be unlikely to handle full workloads in 2021.
- I actually remained somewhat intrigued by Blake Parker. Over the past four seasons, he has demonstrated the ability to miss bats, and has posted sub 4.30 xFIPs. The key for him will be honing in his command, but either way, he certainly is a capable part of a functioning bullpen.
Tier 8: $2M to $3.49 M
Description: This tier is very similar to the bottom tier. However, these players come with much more intrigue; they’re close to locks to be on major-league rosters.
- Nick Tropeano improved his strikeout rate tremendously in his shift to the bullpen with the Pirates, but it was also a very small sample size.
- The collection of $2 million relievers all offer various levels of intrigue. Tyler Clippard, Brandon Kintzler, Darren O’Day, Sergio Romo, and Shane Greene all are low-variance options, while Anthony Bass, Ian Kennedy, and Justin Anderson offer a higher ceiling but lower floor. Meanwhile, the Royals are betting on Greg Holland’s improvement by signing him to a $3 million deal, though his command has fluctuated tremendously in the past.
- Looking for a bench bat? Perhaps Daniel Murphy, Matt Joyce, or Yoenis Cespedes can be that.
- Greg Garcia, Danny Santana, Josh Harrison, and Ehire Adrianza are utility players who might not get MLB deals, while Albert Almora Jr. and Delino DeShields profile as fourth outfielders with their ability to play all three outfield spots and base-running.
- Gio Gonzalez, Tyler Anderson, and Jose Urena could compete for rotation spots given that they have been relatively productive in the past.
- Colin McHugh and Trevor Cahill would both best be served as bulk relievers, and I’d be intrigued by either ending up with the Rays.
- Justin Smoak has excellent hard-hit rates and has had some strong statistical seasons, but contact issues and the shift have gotten the best of him recently.
- There are a healthy amount of backup catchers available on the open market.
- Alex Colome’s ERAs have been low, but with poor K-BB ratios, I don’t see the intrigue with him.
- On the other hand, Aaron Loup has some value given the relative scarcity of lefty relievers
Tier 7: $3.5M to $4.99M
Description: Relievers with upside, back-end starting pitchers, and high-end bench bats/utility players
- Brad Peacock and Keone Kela could prove to be off much higher value, though the two pitched a combined two innings this past year.
- David Dahl was non-tendered by the Rockies, but quickly signed with the Rangers for $3 million. For a rebuilding team, it’s worth taking a shot on his talent and hoping his production is more legitimate than his home/road splits (often over discussed) indicate
- Archie Bradley provides name value, but the projection systems aren’t high on him, and there’s a reason the Reds chose to not tender him a contract.
- I’d love to take a chance on Jake Lamb as a bench bat; when healthy, his underlying metrics have been strong. The same can be said about Jose Martinez to an extent.
- Chase Anderson has made some interesting tweaks to his pitch mix that allowed him to be more effective missing bats in 2020, though it’s unclear if that will hold up. He’s worth a one-year flyer, however.
- Both David Phelps and David Robertson could be value signings if they are healthy and pitch like they have in the past.
- Derek Dietrich and Jedd Gyorko offer positional versatility and offense versus opposite-side pitchers.
- Alex Avila and Curt Casali are both high-level backup catchers, with Avila holding more intrigue with his batted-ball numbers and sound defense.
- What should we make of Matt Wisler? The former top prospect threw his sliders over 80% of the time, and thus was able to strike more batters out, but also walked more. Finding the optimal usage of the slider should allow him to be a useful, flexible bullpen option, and he was quite productive in 2019. The Giants found great value by inking him to a $1.5 million deal.
- Former A’s Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria are both coming off of poor 2020 campaigns, but are reliable veteran options. The same goes for Andrew Chafin.
- Jake McGee and Justin Wilson are both similars as lefty relievers who can pitch to righties and miss bats. After flourishing with the Dodgers last season, McGee is a fascinating case study on how much to value 2020, though there is legitimacy to his success with him relying almost exclusively on his elite fastball.
- Jake Arrieta is no longer the Cy Young-caliber pitcher he once was, but he still is useful at the back-end of one’s rotation, which is also true of Jon Lester.
- Matt Moore dominated in Japan last season, so it will be interesting to see if any team takes a shot on him.
- Jonathan Villar is probably not going to replicate the 4 fWAR season he had in 2019, but he’s a useful contributor given his positional versatility and base running.
- Recently non-tendered by the Braves, Adam Duvall has the power and defense to be a starting outfielder for a rebuilding organization.
- Edwin Encarnacion performed very poorly in 2020 and the projections are wary of him, but it is worth noting that he was productive enough to sign for $12 million last offseason.
Tier 6: $5M to $6.99M
Description: 1-1.5 fWAR starting pitchers, everyday players for rebuilding teams, and high-variance relievers
- Cole Hamels certainly didn’t return the Braves’ $18 million investment in him, but if healthy, he can fill in at the back of one’s rotation.
- Marvin Gonzalez’s defensive versatility should appeal to contending teams.
- Mike Zunino’s poor plate discipline limits his offense substantially, yet his defense is so strong that it makes him a low-level starter. The Rays got solid value re-signing him on a $3 million contract
- Shin-Soo Choo isn’t viewed well by the projections, but he has a long track record of posting high-on base percentages and would have his market improve if there is a universal designated hitter. This also applies to Brad Miller, though he has more defensive value.
- Robbie Grossman, Mitch Moreland, Howie Kendrick, and Ryan Braun are all very similar in that they may not quite profile as everyday players for a contending team, yet they are very useful part-time options given their offensive production.
- Kurt Suzuki, Wilson Ramos, and Robinson Chirinos were all once well-regarded catchers, but are probably best served as high-level backups or in a time share.
- Blake Treinen’s up-and-down trajectory is the epitome of relievers as a whole, and his strikeout rate continued to decrease in 2020. His market will be fascinating.
- Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Michael Wacha, and Matt Shoeamaker all are very similar; productive, but not a reliable source of innings due to injuries. Still, I’d want to be the team that signs them in case they do, in fact, stay healthy, especially Wood.
- Sung-Bum Na’s contact issues are a red flag coming over from the KBO, but his power is significant.
- Yuli Gurriel already re-signed with the Astros for about his recommended contract amount, which leaves CJ Cron as the likely candidate to be signed to be a rebuilding team’s first baseman- that’s the best way to describe him, though his hard-hit numbers have been strong.
- Jonathan Schoop also profiles as the starter for a rebuilding team, though his defense has been stable and he is generally been around average offensively. The Indians are an interesting fit.
- Coming off of Tommy John surgery, Chris Archer is a risky signing, but he has a long track record of performance. A two-year deal skewed towards the second year is a possibility, with the Rays, Twins, and Dodgers standing out as potential fits.
- Kirby Yates is also coming off of elbow surgery, so availability will be what teams will have to monitor.
- JA Happ, Adam Wainwright, and Brett Anderson all aren’t very exciting starting pitching options, but all are good bets to produce 1 to 1.5 fWAR, and practically every team could use a pitcher like that.
- It’s likely that Brett Gardner either returns to the Yankees or retires, though there has yet to be an indication New York wants him back in their crowded outfield. Giving more at bats to Clint Frazier is the logical option, so the lack of interest makes sense.
Tier 5: $7M to $9.99M
Description: Intriguing one-year pitching flyers, as well as reliable veteran everyday players
#47: SP Anthony DeSclafani
DeSclafani recently signed with the Giants for $6 million, which is a move that has a chance to pay off for all parties. His strikeout rate dipped greatly in 2020, but his velocity was stable and his swinging strike rate remained unchanged. Thus, his command was the main issue, and that’s likely statistical noise in a small sample size. If he leans on his slider more, and re-creates the separation between that and his curveball, he should once again be a high 3.00 xFIP pitcher. Plus, pitching in San Francisco will surely help with his high home run rates.
#46: C Jason Castro
After signing for $6.5 million with the Angels last offseason, Castro is worth around the same amount as a platoon catcher. He hits the ball extremely hard and plays sound defense, and would fit in tremendous with several catcher-needy teams.
#45: SP Taijuan Walker
Once a very stable middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, Taijuan Walker doesn’t have much of a track record of pitching recently due to injuries. His peripherals weren’t great in 2020, yet he still projects similarly to DeSclafani.
#44: 2B Cesar Hernandez
Although he hit the ball harder in 2020, Cesar Hernandez is likely an average offensive producer with slightly above-average defense at second base. That translates to him being an everyday option, though not an exciting one.
#43: C Yadier Molina
Likely to make more than this due to his name value, Molina is still an effective starting catcher with above-average defense, especially if his offense slightly rebounds for him not to be a liability. There are several teams interested in him, though the negative pushback from Cardinals fans if he were to go elsewhere likely forces to team to overspend to keep him.
#42: RP Trevor Rosenthal
In just one season, Rosenthal went from being arguably the worst pitcher in baseball to once again being a shutdown option. I could see him parlaying his 2020 success into a multi-year deal, especially since the Padres gave up a decent return to acquire him mid-season from the Padres. Still, I’d be wary based on his overall volatility.
#41: SP Garrett Richards
Speaking of former Padres, Garrett Richards will continue to create intrigue based on his raw pitch metric numbers. However, that hasn’t ever translated into elite strikeout numbers, and his durability is always a concern. Utilizing his fastball, which doesn’t have much active spin, less could help, though, and in the right situation, he has talent left to be untapped. At the very worst, he is still a quality arm for 120 innings or so.
#40: OF Eddie Rosario
Many were surprised that Eddie Rosario was non-tendered, but we shouldn’t be. His offense is severely limited by his very poor plate discipline, though he is productive enough to fit in nicely with a team searching for outfield offense, such as the Indians or Rockies.
#39: OF Adam Eaton
Recently signed by the White Sox for one year and $7 million, Eaton is an interesting case study. On one hand, his 2020 performance was atrocious and his defense has been declining. On the other hand, he still gets on base and projects as a slightly above-average offensive producer, which makes him a reliable starting corner outfielder.
#38: SP Rick Porcello
Porcello signed for $9 million last offseason with the Mets, and one would assume he failed to return that investment by posting a 5.64 ERA. However, he suffered from very poor defense, and after seeing his strikeout rate rebound, he profiles as a probable 1.5-2 fWAR starting pitcher who should sign for a similar amount.
#37: RP Ken Giles
If healthy, Giles would rank much higher on this list. However, he will likely miss all of 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, so a team who signs him will likely sign him to a back-loaded two-year deal with the hopes of him contributing in 2022. The Giants, Mariners, Tigers, and Marlins all make sense, given that all are aiming to contend in 2022 and have money to spend.
#36: RP Brad Hand
There was general pessimism about the market when the Indians chose to put Brad Hand on waivers instead of paying him $10 million, and then no one chose to claim him. However, that was likely more of a baseball decision. The projections are highly skeptical of him, and his xFIP has now increased in three-straight seasons.
#35: SP Jose Quintana
Quintana only pitched 10 innings in 2020, but his previous track record – no other full season with an xFIP over 4.20 and a 3.5 fWAR in 2019 – should make up for that. Shifting back towards using his off-speed pitches more, which is what he did when he was regarded as one of the better young pitchers in baseball with the White Sox, could make him a steal if his price isn’t substantial.
#34: SP Mike Minor
One reason to believe that Quintana may get multiple years is Mike Minor’s recent two-year, $18 million agreement with the Royals. On the surface, that’s not a hefty amount for a pitcher who projects to be worth around 2 fWAR. At the same time, his velocity did decline in 2020, and his xFIP has been above 4.50 in three consecutive seasons.
#33: SP Jake Odorizzi
Who is the real Odorizzi? Here is the 30-year-old’s recent fWARs, excluding the 13.2 innings he pitched in 2020:
2019- 4.3 fWAR
2018- 2.6 fWAR
2017- 0 fWAR
2016- 1.8 fWAR
Steamer- 1.9 fWAR
I’d align with closer to the projections, as his past two FIPs have been much lower than his xFIPs due to home run luck, and there’s nothing to suggest he’ll continue to benefit from that luck. Ultimately, one will need to assess whether his 2019 strikeout bump was legitimate, and as a fly ball pitcher, him pitching in the right ballpark is also ideal. He’d fit well with the Giants and Mets, or he could simply go back to the Twins.
Tier 4: $10M to $19.99M
Description: Useful signings that can make a difference for a team looking to make a World Series push
#32: Robbie Ray
Yes, Ray’s 2020 season was very, very bad. At the same time, he’d probably have been looking at a $50M+ contract prior to the season, so the Blue Jays signing him for $8 million is great value. He won’t pitch late into games, but his bat-missing ability makes him very effective in five-inning stints.
#31: SP Drew Smyly
That line of thinking also applies to Drew Smyly, though he used the 2020 season to dramatically increase his stock. His rebound really started in 2019 after signing with the Phillies, however, and with his velocity coming back and him utilizing his elite curveball more, his increased strikeout rate appears to be mostly legitimate. Many saw the $11 million he got from the Braves as an overpay, but it was right around what he’ll likely be worth.
#30: OF Kyle Schwarber
The Cubs are looking to cut payroll, but not tending Kyle Schwarber a contract for around $10 million could prove to be a mistake. The 27-year-old was worth a combined 5.8 fWAR, is projecting to have a 118 weighted-runs-created plus (wrc+) by Steamer, and I’d be comfortable giving him a multi-year contract. However, it’s likely he looks to take a one-year deal to try to earn more money next offseason.
#29: SS Andrelton Simmons
The 31-year-old Simmons has seen his offense regress to the point where he’s almost certainly a below-average hitter. At the same time, his defense up-the-middle is elite to the point that even VOA thinks enough of him to project him to be worth around $12 million. I’m not committing multiple years for him, but he holds value on a one-year deal. Honestly, why not the Mets for him to prevent their defense from being a liability?
#28: SP Corey Kluber
Corey Kluber has pitched a combined 36.2 innings over the past two years. He also was worth 5.5 fWAR in 2018, and had been worth 4.9+ fWAR in every season between 2014-2018. Health is a concern, but there the upside he presents is enormous.
#27: UTIL Kike Hernandez
A multi-year contract may seem steep for Hernandez. However, he showcased his value as a very underrated part of the Dodgers. There is a certain unquantifiable value he brings with his positional versatility that the Dodgers, Rays, and others have brought onto center stage, and he is particularly a strong defender at second base. Also, he has the ability to mash left-handed pitching, and fits with pretty much every team in baseball. Specifically, the Padres, Mets, and Twins could use his services.
#26: C James McCann
The $40.8 million that the Mets are paying James McCann is a massive overpay, in my opinion. Yes, his offense has improved recently, which is driven by hitting the ball harder. At the same time, his plate discipline numbers aren’t great, and his track record of offense and defense are both slim. A shorter-term contract seemed much more logical, and if I were the Mets, I would have preferred to go a safer route with a timeshare with Castro and Flowers.
#25: OF Jackie Bradley Jr.
Bradley Jr. is frustrating, as despite his high hard-hit rates, he hits the ball on the ground too much to be the offensive producer he has the potential to be. Still, he’s a solid defensive center fielder with enough offense, so a two-year, $13-14 million deal with a team like the Phillies, Blue Jays, or Astros is about right
#24: SS Didi Gregorius
Gregorius doesn’t hit the ball hard, but he has also consistently over-achieved his expected numbers, so expecting regression to suddenly hit is probably fruitless, particularly since his defensive runs above average have constantly been encouraging. Staying with the Phillies, where his pull-side power can translate well, would be ideal, though the Reds or Brewers wouldn’t be a poor fits either.
#23: SP Charlie Morton
Ironically, Morton received exactly the $15 million my projections believe he’ll be worth. The 37-year-old’s velocity decreased this past season, but a three-win season is a very conservative and reasonable projection, and that’s all he needs to earn that amount. The fit in a young Braves rotation that need stability is tremendous.
#22: DH Nelson Cruz
Cruz is a designated hitter and is 40-years-old, but when you produce the type of offensive numbers he does, you can move the needle. A slight upgrade from the $12.5 million he made in his first contract with the Twins is likely in order, and I’d expect him to remain in Minnesota to anchor one of the best lineups in baseball.
#21: RP Trevor May
It’s rare that a reliever actually gets underpaid compared to projections, but that appears to have happened with May, who signed for $15 million with the Mets. His fastball is a fantastic offering and plays tremendously up in the zone, and he’s a strong bet to miss bats at around a 12 K/9 rate. As his fastball velocity continues to rise, there is a strong chance we haven’t even seen the best of him!
Tier 3: $20M to $49.9M
Description: Not quite worth 3+ years, but players that could easily make an All-Star team with little risk
#20: 1B Carlos Santana
Santana’s market didn’t take too much of a hit, as the Royals brought him in on a two-year, $17.5 million deal. His poor 2020 season was due to bad luck that couldn’t positively regress in a shortened season, and his offense, led by his plate discipline, fits tremendously in any team’s lineup.
#19: 2B/UTIL Jurickson Profar
2019 was a disaster for Profar, but the Padres trusted him enough to trade multiple young players for him, and he delivered. As a switch-hitter with positional versatility, he provides his team with a tremendous amount of flexibility, and honestly could fit with all 30 rosters. I’m a major proponent that winning teams have players like this; they can plug in any type of hole you could have over the course of a 162-game season. Even at second-base, he projects as a slightly above-average starter.
#18: 2B Kolten Wong
It is unclear how much offense Wong will provide you with, but he should be about average, while his defense is very sound. The Blue Jays have shown a lot of interest in him and could make sense, as do the Red Sox and Phillies.
#17: 2B/UTIL Tommy La Stella
My free-agent crush of the offseason, Tommy La Stella is the exact type of free agent I would want my favorite team to sign. He has constantly hit for a high on-base percentage (.356 projected OBP), and is far from a liability defensively. He has now posted a 120+ wrc+ in two-straight seasons, and even as a bench bat, remained similarly productive. In my opinion, with offensive moving the needle in today’s game, I’d have a slight preference for him over Wong.
#16: OF Joc Pederson
Many have claimed that Pederson is limited by serving in a platoon, but that simply increases his efficiency, which is why he has posted a 2.7+ fWAR in three of the past five seasons. His high-level against righties is something that several teams should covet, especially since he’s a reliable defensive corner outfielder and can also fill in at first base. The Nationals, Cardinals, and Astros should all seriously look into signing him, as should the Brewers and Blue Jays.
#15: SP Masahiro Tanaka
It has been feared for some time now that Tanaka’s elbow wouldn’t hold up, but he has continued to be a very reliable source of quality innings. Likely to be around a three-win pitcher, a two-year contract is likely in his future plans. That may not come from the Yankees, but the Twins, Angels, Mets, Phillies, and Blue Jays should all be in the market for him.
#14: RP Liam Hendriks
I am as big of a proponent for not paying relievers as anyone, which is why Liam Hendriks would only get a two-year deal for me. At the same time, he has the ability to work multiple innings, and has a case as being the most valuable reliever over the past two seasons. My recommended contract amount would allow a team to be in line to potential receive more than they pay, but not pay too much in case he is the latest trap regarding the volatility of relievers.
#13: OF Michael Brantley
There is something to be said about consistency, and that’s precisely what Michael Brantley will bring to any team that signs him. He has posted a wrc+ of 124 or higher in three straight seasons, and most of all, he has managed to stay healthy. You’re taking somewhat of a risk that he doesn’t deal with injuries, but with the on-base ability he has, he’s the type of player every team would want at the top of their lineup. The Cardinals should be all over him on the open market, while the Blue Jays and a reunion with the Astros also make sense.
#12: SS Marcus Semien
When analyzing Semien’s career, it is clear that one year stands out as not being like the rest:
2020: 91 wrc+
2019: 137 wrc+
2018: 96 wrc+
2017: 97 wrc+
2016: 98 wrc+
2015: 97 wrc+
With all of that taken into account, it’s likely that Semien is about a league-average hitter, or slightly better. However, with his ascending defense up-the-middle, that means that he is a very valuable player. He has a very high floor, given the defense and his improved plate discipline, while he offers upside if some aspects of his 2019 offensive break come back into play. Of the veteran shortstop options, he clearly stands out as the best.
#11: SP James Paxton
Paxton was limited to 20.1 innings due to injury. At the same time, he still struck out 11.51 batters per nine innings, and had been worth 3.5+ fWAR in each of the previous four seasons. I could see him taking a one-year contract to increase his value, but I’d still be comfortable signing him to a multi-year deal. With his fly-ball tendencies, the Giants, Mets, and Twins stand out if he wants to boost his stock, while seeing the “Big Maple” with Canada’s team is also a classic fit.
#10: 3B Justin Turner
Justin Turner may be 36-years-old, but he continues to not show any signs of slowing down. He’s produced a wrc+ between 123 and 154 in each season since he became an everyday player for the Dodgers in 2014, while his underlying metrics and plate discipline remain exceptional. His defensive value and overall durability would be the only question marks, but his offensive consistency more than makes up for it. Ideally, he could be had on a one-year deal, but he’ll likely get multiple years. It would be a massive upset for him not to be back with the Dodgers, though if that falls through, the Blue Jays and Brewers are his best fits.
Tier 2: $50M to $69.9M
Description: Not quite a “tier one” free agent, but high-level numbers that are right to command a 4+ year contract
#9: SP Tomoyuki Sugano
Projected Contract Worth: Four Years, $54 Million
Best Fits: BOS, TOR, SF, SD, NYY
There is always going to be risk associated with signing a pitcher with no MLB experience. However, Tomoyuki Sugano is worth it. According to Jon Paul Morosi at MLB.com, some in the industry believe the 31-year-old is the second-best pitcher on the open market, and it’s easy to see why.
In eight seasons in Japan, Sugano has posted an impressive 4.59 K-BB ratio. A majority of the credit should go to his incredibly precise command (1.8 BB/9), and I expect the translation to the MLB to go smoothly. Studies have shown that NPB is similar to MLB, especially for pitchers, and with how much hitters focus on not striking out, we have actually seen Japanese pitchers be able to improve their strikeout rate. Plus, he has been productive from a very young age, has been ultra-consistent, and scouting reports cite him as having overall above-average raw stuff with encouraging spin rates.
Plenty of teams need pitching, so Sugano won’t have trouble finding suitors. The Red Sox, Blue Jays, Giants, Padres, and Yankees are among the teams to express interest, while the Mets, Twins, Angels, Phillies, and Mariners all make sense as well. Even at 31-years-old, I’d be comfortable signing him to a four-year deal, especially since his workload hasn’t been extreme over the past two seasons. Regardless, I think many will be surprised about the size of the contract he gets, as well as the impact he’ll have next season for whoever signs him.
#8: SP Kevin Gausman
Projected Contract Worth: Four Years, $56 Million
Best Fits: Signed Qualifying Offer With SF
Since he decided to accept the qualifying offer from the Giants, we won’t see what Kevin Gausman’s market would have looked like; his free agency profile was very fascinating.
At first glance, four years may seem like a lot for Gausman, who was non-tendered by the Reds last offseason. However, the 29-year-old has always been an undervalued pitcher. Some may see him as a disappointment as a former 4th overall pick, but he has a 3.93 xFIP over the first six years of his career, and he appears to be trending up. His swinging strike rates have increased in three straight seasons, and although progression isn’t linear, this improvement makes sense. During that span, he has increased the usage of his splitter, which is one of the better pitches in baseball- it has been worth 32.2 runs above average for his career. Right now, he’s combatting the notion that starting pitchers can’t rely mostly on two pitches, and the results back up his pitch usage tweaks.
Projecting Gausman to be roughly a three-win pitcher in 2021 isn’t outrageous by any means; Steamer projections have him worth 2.9 fWAR. Thus, paying $14 million per year would be a reasonable amount. Plus, after flourishing with the Giants with a 3.06 xFIP and striking out 11.92 batters per nine, which aligns with an increased fastball velocity and improved pitch usage, his 90th percentile is significantly enticing. Obviously, you pay for the 50th percentile, but that extra note on Gausman certainly makes him appealing.
Getting an extra second-round pick would have been optimal, but the Giants, who have money to spend, likely aren’t complaining that he accepted the qualifying offer. He fills a major hole in their rotation, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the two sides work out a multi-year contract eventually, based on all indications about how both sides feel about one another.
#7: SP Marcus Stroman
Projected Contract Worth: Four Years, $58 Million
Best Fits: Signed Qualifying Offer with NYM
Another starting pitcher who accepted the qualifying offer, Marcus Stroman’s median projection is very similar to Gausman, but said projection is formulated in a far different way.
Stroman has never been elite when it comes to missing bats. For his career, he has a 7.36 K/9 and 9.5% swinging strike rate, which certainly aren’t very enticing rates. However, that hasn’t stopped the 29-year-old from being an effective pitcher. In the full five seasons he has pitched, he has averaged around 3.1 fWAR, while his career xFIP sits at 3.59. Additionally, he has pitched 200+ innings in multiple seasons, and is a sure bet to continue to accumulate over 180 innings pitched in any given season. Yes, he didn’t pitch in 2020, but if anything, that may almost play to his advantage; he didn’t have to deal with the peculiar adjustments that other pitchers had to in order to get in proper condition to pitch after the long lay-off.
Stroman’s main trait is his ability to induce ground balls (58.6%) and limit walks (2.59 career BB/9). Thus, I am interested by his decision to accept the qualifying offer from the Mets. New York’s infield defense is very poor, which may explain why Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha posted ERAs far higher than their peripherals indicate that they should have. If he was looking to increase his stock, the Padres and Angels would have been outstanding fits, and in the future, an analytically-inclined organization that does a proper job of positioning their defenders will allow him to thrive in run prevention.
The Mets will count on Stroman to be a critical part of their rotation next season. He doesn’t have the “upside” that Gausman has, but his floor is much higher, and he’s a very good bet to be at least a three-win pitcher. Here’s hoping that he can have a productive season, and that New York properly supports him with at least adequate defense.
#6: OF Marcell Ozuna
Projected Contract Worth: Four Years, $59 Million
Best Fits: WSH, ATL, STL, MIN, TEX
Marcell Ozuna declined the Cardinals’ qualifying offer last offseason, but he later settled for a one-year deal with the Braves for roughly the same amount. It is safe to say that the decision to bet on himself paid off.
The 30-year-old posted an absurd 179 wrc and .444 wOBA, and despite the shortened season, nearly set a career high with 26.8 offensive runs above average. In reality, he was one of the five best hitters of 2020.
So, is this the real Ozuna? There is certainly a lot to like. For starters, he walked at a career high 14.2% rate, and although that doesn’t correlate with a 32.5% chase rate, it does correlate with his improved power. Speaking off, he adopted a slightly more aggressive approach, and although it led to more whiffs, it also increased the quality of his contact tremendously. His exit velocity (93 MPH) and barrel rate (15.4%) were both exceptional, while he also elevated his launch angle and thus maximized on his power potential- a high ground ball rate had been a problem for him.
It is risky to bet on Ozuna’s offense, but there appears to be sustainable changes that were made to his approach. As such, his offense comfortably projects to be 20% to 30% above league average. Thus, the only major concern with him is with his defense. He mostly served as a designated hitter last season and has rated out poorly from Baseball Savant’s outs above average (OAA). At the same time, his defensive runs saved (drs) and ultimate zone rating (UZR) have seen as a more-than-competent defender, so he certainly is capable of playing the outfield.
I don’t see Ozuna as a designated hitter, so his market shouldn’t be hampered too much by the pending ruling on a universal DH. The Nationals, who desperately need to improve their offense, are an exceptional fit, while a reunion with the Braves, Cardinals, or even the Marlins could be in play. In the American League, the Twins could take a look at him if talks with Nelson Cruz fall through, while the Rangers have little in the way of offense and appear to be trying to remain competitive. I’m a big believer in the improvements he made offensively, which really started in 2019, and I’m guessing he is able to land a four-year contract, though the market is as uncertain as ever right now.
Tier 1: $70M+
Description: These five players all project to be four-win players, or at least worth $70+ million over the length of their contracts.
#5: SS Hae-Song Kim
Projected Contract Worth: Five Years, $70 Million
Best Fits: SF, TEX, SEA, TOR, NYM
The second international player to be highly ranked on this list, Hae-Song Kim may be my personal free agent. Seriously, if given the choice of any player on this list, I’d pick him.
Kim is coming off a season at the KBO in which he walked more than he struck out, posted a .218 isolated power (ISO), and got on base nearly 40% of his plate appearances. Those numbers are going to translate well to the MLB, which Fangraphs’ Dan Szymborski helped illustrate for us:
“Those are the projections of a player who ought to be highly sought after, even in an offseason full of uncertainty due to COVID-19 and the relating economic downturn. Normally, a player like this would get north of $100 million, though it remains to be seen just how teams will view him this winter given the possibility for additional perceived risk for a player from a different league. If Kim comes to the majors and doesn’t get a guaranteed contract worth $50 million, some team likely got a helluva deal from their point-of-view. Pretty much every team that’s near contention and without a good shortstop already should strongly consider Kim this offseason. And giving one of Korea’s biggest stars a platform to show off his talents will hopefully open the door for more players to come here, making MLB an even more international game than it already is.”
From all reports, Kim is a productive up-the-middle defender with the versatility to play multiple positions, which only increases his value. Plus, he has a swing geared to lift, which will allow him to continue to for power in the majors. Yes, Korean hitters haven’t always produced at the MLB level, but that is mainly due to their propensity for whiffs. Kim doesn’t deal with those concerns, and he also has been an above-average offensive hitter in the KBO since he was 19-years-old.
Oh, and did I mention that he is also only 25-years-old? Thus, he fits perfectly with ALL clubs, regardless of their window of contention. A team that signs him will be receiving his prime years, while his versatility allows him to be a perfect building piece for any organization. The Giants, who have long-term uncertainty in their middle field and money to spend, are undoubtably the best fit, but the Mariners and Rangers also do too. The Blue Jays have expressed interest and could take advantage of his versatility, while a team like the Mets, Nationals, Phillies, or Cubs could make a run at him to improve their short-term and long-term well being. Either way, he truly is the unicorn of this offseason, and if this list took into account how I personally would sign at their likely asking price, he’d rank #1.
#4: 2B DJ LeMahieu
Projected Contract Worth: Four Years, $72 Million
Best Fits: NYY, TOR, WSH, STL, LAD
If DJ LeMahieu isn’t a New York Yankee next season, I think it is safe to say that the baseball world would be more than mildly surprised.
That doesn’t mean the 32-year-old won’t have other suitors, however. He has produced 50 combined offensive runs above average over the past two seasons, and projects to hit for a .352 on-base percentage from Steamer. Additionally, with his defensive versatility, he provides teams with the type of flexibility that is incredibly useful when constructing one’s roster. This is one of the reasons why he’s a nice fit with the Yankees, who don’t exactly have stability in their infield.
With LeMahieu, the main question is what type of offense can you expect from him moving forward? He has consistently posted high batting averages on balls in plays (BABIP), but the .370 mark from 2020 is unsustainable, and his expected statistics back that up. Yes, he hits the ball hard, but does on the ground often, and thus his barrel rates have never been impressive.
That said, LeMahieu’s consistent contact allows him to post high batting averages, which in turns allows him to post high on-base percentages. It’s right to be slightly concerned about how his power and high BABIPs will play in the wrong ballpark, but the 111 wrc+ Steamer has him projected for seems rather harsh. Meanwhile, his defensive value has taken a hit from playing less-valuable positions, but he remains a quality at second base.
If the Yankees don’t sign LeMahieu, the Blue Jays could benefit tremendously from his on-base ability and defensive versatility. Other than them, the Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Brewers all could be potential fits, but the two AL East clubs stand out as his best options. It will be interesting to see how negotiations with New York develop; all reports indicate they aren’t close to a new deal right now, which could prompt Toronto to make a push to sign him.
#3: OF George Springer
Projected Contract Worth: Four Years, $81 Million
Best Fits: TOR, NYM, WSH, STL, ATL
Despite being a World Series MVP for the Astros, it appears George Springer and the franchise will be going their separate ways this offseason. With a new regime in Houston, it isn’t surprising that there aren’t any sentimental ties, but it does create a very intriguing market.
At 31-years-old, it is unclear if Springer will stick in center field, but his defense has remained above average in center field, so at least for the first few years, that shouldn’t be a concern. When he does have to shift to a corner spot, I’m sure he’ll be a quality defender there as well.
At the end of the day, you are signing Springer for what he provides offensively. In 2019, he posted a career-high 156 wrc+, and he followed that up with a 146 wrc+ in 2020. In fact, he has been worth over 20 runs above average offensively in every full season outside of 2018, which is the type of track record you’re looking for when choosing to invest in a free agent.
Thus, outside of future defensive fit, there isn’t a lot of risk with Springer. I personally wouldn’t sign him to a five-year deal, but I’m not particularly opposed to it depending on fit and average annual value. The Mets are the front-runners to sign him, but I find his fit with the Blue Jays most enticing, as their outfield is somewhat of a mess right now. Additionally, the Nationals, Cardinals, and Braves could all use solutions in their outfield, but this appears to be a two-team race between Toronto and New York.
#2: C JT Realmuto
Projected Contract Worth: Five Years, $100 Million
Best Fits: STL, TOR, WSH, SEA, PHI
After the Mets opted to sign James McCann, JT Realmuto’s market has shifted dramatically. The 29-year-old was seen as extremely likely to sign with them, so now, his market is much more unclear, to say the least.
Re-signing with the Phillies is likely to happen. However, I do not believe this is a good idea for Philadelphia. They lack any sort of depth in terms of pitching and offense, and also do not have much in the way of payroll flexibility. Running it back with the same team, but with another $20+ million contract, would be doing something again and expecting a different result, which is the definition of insanity.
Investing a lot of money in a catcher comes with extreme risk. Still, it is likely that a team jumps at the chance to acquire arguably the best catcher in the MLB, given the overall scarcity at the position. Realmuto has established himself as an above-average offense producer (wrc+ over 107 in five straight seasons), while he clearly has made serious improvements to his defense in recent years. Additionally, he is hitting the ball harder, and has increased his barrel rate. Add in his base-running prowess, and he’s an all-around player.
At the same time, catcher aging curves aren’t known to be pretty, and investing a lot of money in a player who relies on defense, when offense is so much more important, may not be the optimal strategy. Add in the uncertainty with the value of catcher defense with automatic strike zones soon coming into play, and going beyond five years would be quite the bold move.
Realmuto represents a massive short-term upgrade for certain teams. His above-average offense at such a talent-deficient position is incredibly intriguing, especially since his defense can help a team with pitching issues as an extension of run prevention. His lack of elite plate discipline and the fact that defense and base-running are skills that age quicker are concerning, but he is likely to earn a contract over $100 million. Should the Blue Jays sign him, they would have the flexibility to shop Danny Jansen. If not them, the Cardinals and Nationals need short-term fixes behind the plate. I am somewhat intrigued by his fit with the Mariners, who are looking to contend in 2022, but, in the end, I believe his market should revolve around Toronto, St.Louis, and Washington. This isn’t a player I’d be keen on splurging on, but I understand the overall appeal.
#1: SP Trevor Bauer
Projected Contract Worth: Five Years, $107 Million
Best Fits: LAA, TOR, NYM, MIN, SF
Will Trevor Bauer actually go through with signing a one-year deal? That’s a question that may define this offseason. If he does opt for a one-year deal, the Padres, Phillies, White Sox, and Dodgers are among the teams that also would align with the “best fits” category.
Bauer’s 2019 season is one that may bother some teams, as he posted a 4.33 xFIP and 3.3 fWAR; fine numbers, but far from elite. At the same time, the 29-year-old also has multiple productive seasons to build his case:
- 2018: 3.14 xFIP, 5.8 fWAR
- 2020: 3.25 xFIP, on pace for 6.75 fWAR
Bauer has made strides to become a true strikeout pitcher, which has come through pitch tunneling, various tweaks, and improving his fastball spin rate. Now, the optics of how he improved said spin rate are unclear, but the effects have been tremendous. Really, the only inconsistency in his game has been his command, which plagued him in 2019. As long as his strikeout rates hold up, however, I don’t see that as an over-aching concern.
Based on his past three seasons, Bauer appears to be likely to produce between 4 and 4.5 wins above replacement. That’d put him in line with this contract worth, and considering he was worth 3.3 fWAR in a down season, the floor is rather high if he signs for this amount; his ability to pitch 200+ innings add significantly to his value. Then again, his elite 2020 season may lead to him getting a larger contract, which would place more pressure on his top seasons to be a reflection of who he is.
If Bauer goes for a multi-year deal, the Angels, Blue Jays, and Mets are easily the best landing spots for him, as they have the long-term finances to spend, and all need pitching desperately. Additionally, the Giants and Mariners could make sense as two forward-thinking organizations that a) would be appealing to Bauer and b) could realize the weaknesses of next year’s pitching market and may opt to boost their 2022 contention hopes. Pitchers always have more fits than position players, and although there are talented hitters available, I believe Bauer has the highest floor, and quite honestly, the highest ceiling as well.
All Stats via Fangraphs and Baseball Savant. Additionally, contract values are what the player is projected to be worth, so teams should ideally spend slightly under that amount to increase the value on their end.