With a ridiculously fun World Series in the rearview mirror, we turn our attention to a different kind of ridiculous fun: MLB free agency.
Adding to the intrigue and anticipation of this winter is that there is no lockout looming on December 2 to shut down all the joy. Last year’s winter frenzy led to 30 of MLB Trade Rumors’ top 50 free agents signing before the lockout went into effect.
As great as that bonanza of moves was, it still left 20 of the best available players — including stars such as Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman, Cy Young candidates such as Carlos Rodon, and postseason heroes such as Kyle Schwarber, just to name a few — unsigned until the lockout ended in mid-March.
Our free-agent rankings are based primarily on how much we believe these players can help a team in the relatively short term — the next 3-5 years or so. Sure, the biggest contracts signed are awfully likely to extend beyond that range, but no big-name free agent is ever being signed for what they are going to do in Year 6 or 7. It’s about improving a team in the short term for the cost of potentially paying for some less-stellar years in the long-term. Just ask one of the best front-office executives in the game:
Enough prologue! Here are our top 30 free agents for this winter — and which teams you might see sign them.
The Guy Who Just Hit 62 Home Runs, Duh
1. Aaron Judge
Back in April, Judge turned down seven years and $213.5 million and most people thought he was foolish for doing so. Sixty-two dingers later and the titanic outfielder is in line for… an Aaron Judge-sized payday. The impending massive price tag — probably in the $300 million range — probably will eliminate about half of MLB from the sweepstakes before they even begin.
But somebody will eventually shell out the cash, and whichever team does will become the story of the winter. Money is just money; remember, Bryce Harper was available for nothing but cash a few offseasons ago and look what he just did for the Phillies. A big contract like this will lose “value” over its back half, that’s just a part of the game. You aren’t paying for an MVP-level season at age 38, it’s simply what an MVP-level season costs on the front end.
Right now, the consensus belief around the industry is that Judge stays in pinstripes. The thinking: He’s too valuable to the Yankees for them not to shell out the cash and Judge, as far as we know, likes it there and has a shot to solidify himself as an all-time great Yankee. Beyond that, there’s scuttlebutt about Judge’s returning home to Northern California to play for the Giants, but it’s little more than speculation at this point. Any team with big stacks of moola is in the mix.
There are three ways this goes down: (1) Judge signs back with the Yankees before December 1 and this is much ado about nothing; (2) Judge and his team toss rumors around to jack up the price and squeeze every last dollar out of the Yankees, a deal happens after the New Year; (3) A late-winter shocker puts Judge in a new uniform.
Best fits: Yankees, Giants, Dodgers
The Franchise Shortstops
3. Trea Turner
Last winter, Correa was the headliner in another shortstop-heavy class and ended up with the shortest deal of the bunch, albeit also the one with the highest average annual value. Now he’s back on the market after a stellar season with the Twins, but not necessarily one that elevated him to a clear tier of his own. Still, as the youngest and best defender of this trio, we give him the slight edge, though you could make a strong case for Turner or Bogaerts as well.
Turner is still one of the fastest players in the sport, while Bogaerts may be the best pure hitter of this bunch and seems like the safest option to age gracefully, albeit also arguably the least likely to put up a “holy s—” type of statistical season the way Correa or Turner could. You could debate this trio all day long but what’s clear is that all three of them are deserving of being a face-of-the-franchise-type shortstop, either where they already are, or with some lucky new team.
Stars Coming Off Career Years
Nimmo’s offensive output in 2022 didn’t noticeably outpace his previous seasons, but he did improve markedly in two other categories during his walk year: center field defense and staying healthy. His 151 games played were a career-high, and he looked far more comfortable roaming the outfield with improved advanced metrics to back up the eye-test. Add those components to a career 134 wRC+ (making him 34% better than the average major-league hitter), and we actually prefer his profile to that of Swanson.
You could reasonably argue Swanson deserves to be in the franchise shortstop tier above, but his track record of elite offensive performance is far shorter than his peers. Still, he’s tremendously durable (362 games played is No. 1 in MLB since the start of 2020) and his defense — recently awarded with his first Gold Glove — is certainly superior to that of Turner and Bogaerts and at least on-par with Correa. Elite defensive shortstops with 25+ HR power have a strong elevator pitch, but the huge strikeout totals and meh OBP skills are considerable red flags moving forward.
Best fits for Swanson: Braves, Cubs, Angels, Cardinals
7. Jacob deGrom
9. Carlos Rodón
Astros’ Justin Verlander celebrates his second World Series title with his brother
Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander celebrates his second World Series Title with his brother Ben. Justin talks about what this World Series means after coming back from Tommy John surgery.
In terms of pure talent, all three pitchers belong comfortably ahead of Nimmo and Swanson — if not even higher than that — but committing huge money to pitchers will always be riskier than hitters, and especially this trio of arms. Verlander has proven the most durable, but he turns 40 in February and can’t maintain this standard for that much longer … right? Maybe he can! Rodón’s own track record of trips to the IL is largely what prevented him from getting a long-term deal last winter, but he just went out and dominated for 31 starts in San Francisco and has a compelling case for being the best left-handed pitcher on Earth, which you can imagine would be a handy selling point for his agent, Scott Boras.
And then there’s deGrom, who when healthy, is one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen, full-stop. That fact will earn him plenty of deserved attention and eager suitors, and it’s why he was more than comfortable opting out of a contract that would have guaranteed him $32.5M in 2023 despite only making 12 starts this season including the playoffs. He’s just that good. But again, gambling big-time on arms who throw this hard for this long who have had repeated issues pop up is an undeniably large risk. That’s a risk, however, that a lot of teams with World Series aspirations should be willing to take.
10. Clayton Kershaw
Welcome to another winter of everyone’s least favorite Kershaw game show: Dodgers, Rangers or Retirement! Those are the only possible options! There’s nothing else! Either Kershaw signs another one-year deal with the only team he’s ever known, he signs a one-year deal with his hometown team, or he hangs it up.
Age be damned, he’s still really freaking good, legitimately one of the five best left-handed starters in the world. Sure, he’s not Cy Young-level Kershaw anymore, but he’s a solid No. 2 starter on a contender. Any team would be thrilled to have him, but only two have an actual chance. Three if you count playing wiffle ball with his kids in the backyard.
This is where Edwin Diaz would have ranked had he not already signed the biggest reliever contract in MLB history. Congrats to Edwin!
Very Good At Baseball
12. Anthony Rizzo
13. José Abreu
14. Joc Pederson
Here we have a potpourri of players who should be strongly coveted across the league but don’t quite belong in the upper crust of free agents who will unquestionably be demanding nine-figure deals. Contreras is one of the premier offensive catchers in the sport, whose defensive limitations may scare a few teams off a JT Realmuto-sized financial commitment. Still, his bat would likely still play at DH for a bunch of teams.
Speaking of bats that will play anywhere, we spent a while debating Rizzo vs. Abreu, and ended up leaning slightly toward the younger left-handed hitter and better defender (don’t hate — first base defense is important!). Rizzo has more power and patience, while Abreu crushes anything and everything thrown his way, but we’d love to have either of them on our favorite teams.
Pederson enjoyed a career season in San Francisco as the team’s best hitter while the rest of the Giants offense floundered around him and is looking like far more than just a postseason folk hero. Benintendi’s broken hand prevented him from becoming any kind of playoff hero for the Yankees, but he hits the open market as one of the league’s few contact mavens while also offering Gold Glove defense in the outfield.
Best fits for Abreu/Rizzo: Yankees, White Sox, Padres, Cubs, Red Sox, Astros
Best fits for Pederson/Benintendi: Yankees, Giants, Red Sox, Guardians, Padres, Dodgers
Tier 2 Starting Pitchers
16. Martín Pérez
17. Tyler Anderson
Two of the league’s biggest pitching breakouts in 2022, Pérez and Anderson both catapulted themselves from a half-decade of mediocrity into All-Star nods. Pérez has a slightly more reliable track record; even when he wasn’t posting a good ERA, he was still pitching every fifth day. The Venezuelan lefty is one of just 14 pitchers with at least 1,000 innings since 2016. That’s more than Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and Yu Darvish. Even if Pérez can’t replicate his superb 2022, he’s a good bet to show up every fifth day and keep you in the ball game.
Anderson was yet another Dodgers player development revelation. By throwing his changeup more, the 32- year-old became one of the best pitchers in baseball. Is it really that easy? It will be interesting to see if Anderson is anything more than another magic trick of Chavez Ravine’s baseball incubator. A return to the Dodgers is probably the most likely scenario, but some team could certainly push all the chips in on Anderson.
Neither of these guys will get Robbie Ray/Kevin Gausman money, and considering their age (31 and 32 respectively) they probably don’t even get Eduardo Rodríguez money. But something in the three-year, $50 million dollar range isn’t out of the question.
Best fits: Mets, Rangers, Yankees, Padres, Red Sox, Cardinals, Angels, Orioles
Might Be Awesome If/When Healthy
18. Mitch Haniger
19. Michael Brantley
Perhaps these are generous rankings for a duo that combined to play 121 games in 2022 and each have their fair share of IL stints dating even further. But the ceiling here for each is still enticing enough to warrant inclusion in the top 20. Haniger’s unfortunate sequence of injuries have taken a toll on his overall athleticism, but he did play 157 games in both his All-Star 2018 season and the 2021 campaign that earned him down-ballot MVP votes, so it’s not like he’s completely incapable of playing a full season.
Brantley, meanwhile, was having yet another strong season before his season-ending shoulder surgery in August, posting a 127 wRC+ in 277 plate appearances and walking more than he struck out, an especially rare feat nowadays. These two are excellent fits with the teams they’ve already been with, both on and off the field, so it might be less likely to see them seek a new home than some other stars on this list. Still, while both of these guys are corner OF or DHs at this point, each can impact a lineup significantly when right.
Best fits: Mariners, Astros, Guardians, Red Sox, Padres, Angels, Dodgers, Yankees
Tier 3 Starting Pitchers
20. Kodai Senga
21. Chris Bassitt
22. Nathan Eovaldi
23. Jameson Taillon
Senga has been one of the best pitchers in Japan for the past decade, and is primed to become the latest top NPB arm to make the jump to MLB. His fastball is up to 99 MPH, but his forkball is the true headliner.
But for all the hype and intrigue surrounding Senga, some teams will prefer to target starters who have Been There, Done That and that’s what the other three represent. Bassitt continued to deploy his deep arsenal of pitches successfully in Queens and would be a quality addition elsewhere if he is to depart the Mets rotation.
Eovaldi’s tenure in Boston has given us some spectacular highs and some ugly lows along the way, but a healthy version of him can still look like a legitimate frontline arm on the right day. Taillon’s selling point since returning from Tommy John has, somewhat ironically, been his durability — only 16 pitchers have made more than his 61 starts over the past two seasons. He may not possess the star power of the two guys who sandwiched him atop the 2010 MLB Draft (Harper and Manny Machado), but he’s still a quality mid-rotation option who would fit great on a ton of teams.
Best fits: Mets, Rangers, Yankees, Padres, Red Sox, Cardinals, Angels, Orioles
24. Jurickson Profar
25. Brandon Drury
26. Josh Bell
27. Nick Martinez (if he opts out)
28. Robert Suárez
Welp. There goes the supporting cast that helped Machado and Juan Soto knock off the Mets and Dodgers last month. Profar and Suárez exercised opt-outs while Bell and Drury were deadline acquisitions due to hit free agency anyway.
It’s likely at least one of the four end back up in brown and yellow; my money is on Profar, who Pads GM A.J. Preller has been enamored with for almost two decades. Suárez, who the club signed from the NPB in Japan last offseason, made himself a nice chunk of change with a stellar performance in the postseason. The Padres need relievers, but so does every other team, and Suárez is one of the most enticing arms on the market.
Drury and Bell are less conventional cases. Drury had six-plus seasons as an underwhelming utility option before a shocking offensive breakout as a 29-year-old in 2022. Who knows what he is moving forward, but some team is likely to give him multiple years to find out.
Bell was awesome as a National in the first half before heading to San Diego in the Soto trade, where he sorely disappointed Padres fans. Power, especially of the switch-hitting variety, will always find a home, but I’m skeptical any club gives Bell more than a year until he can prove it over a full season.
29. Michael Conforto
30. Masataka Yoshida
We share the same sentiment expressed above regarding Brantley and Haniger with regards to Conforto, who missed the entire 2022 season due to shoulder surgery but still also offers an impressive offensive track record on which to sell possible suitors. Among current free-agent hitters, only Judge, JD Martinez, Nimmo, and Abreu posted a higher wRC+ from 2017 to 2021 than Conforto’s mark of 127. That’s a pretty large sample of great hitting! After missing a full season, he’s no guarantee to return to his former self, but it sure seems like a worthy gamble considering his offensive peaks of the past.
As for Yoshida, he’s not as big of a name as Senga, but the 29-year-old outfielder is someone you should know. He’s coming off an enormous career year in which he led the NPB’s Pacific League in OPS (1.008), walked nearly twice as often as he struck out, and hit a legendary walk-off dinger during the Japan Series en route to his team’s first championship in 26 years:
It’s not as clear that he will ultimately be posted by the Orix Buffaloes, but he’s stated his desire to play in MLB sooner rather than later and if he does get the opportunity, his market should be fascinating.
Yoshida would surely be thrilled to play for any MLB team, but it seems he’s already got quite an affinity for Bryce Harper and the NL champion Phillies.
Best fits: Yankees, Dodgers, Padres, Mariners, Red Sox
Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.
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