Unfortunately, we’ve grown accustomed to teams’ Goldilocks approach, where the competitive window and team finances must line up just right to improve their teams through high-profile free agency. There are sure to be teams to buck that trend, though, and let’s be thankful for them adding a little intrigue to the interminable winters without baseball.
For this year’s free agent predictions, a first cut at who is ready to invest comprises of teams that are both ready to contend, and have shown a willingness to spend in free agency. On one end, you have teams like the Mets, who are coming off a 100-win plus season and whose new owner was so invested in making a splash in free agency that the new CBA rules were designed to rein that kind of behavior in. On the other, you have the Pirates, who are coming off their second consecutive 100-loss season and whose last free agent signing above $10 million was Ivan Nova in 2016(!).
With those sorting mechanisms in mind, here are the destinations we predict for the top free agents available in 2023, based on teams’ past behavior and where they should be looking to upgrade for a pennant push. Notable free agents were identified using MLB Trade Rumors and Fangraphs.
Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees
Going To: Yankees
Why: They love each other. As they should. General Manager Brian Cashman has acknowledged both the Yankees’ interest in resigning Judge, as well as Judge’s price being significantly higher than the last offseason when he was offered a $213 million, six year deal with the Yanks. Sixty-two home runs will do that for ya. For his part, Aaron Judge has also expressed his interest in staying with the only MLB franchise he’s known. It makes too much sense for both parties, and as long as the Yankees come up from their offer last offseason it feels inevitable something will get done. Every team would benefit from Judge in their lineup, but they’re going to have to beat the Yankees’ almost surely higher offer after an historic season.
Jacob deGrom, SP, Mets
Going To: Mets
Why: DeGrom has indicated he plans to opt out of his $30 million contract for the 2023 season. The Mets have too much invested in DeGrom (and the rest of their rotation), and suddenly a $30 million hole in their payroll. Hey, would you look at that! The Mets have to think that a full season of DeGrom might have pushed them over to avoid the playoff wild card round, and while betting on the health of any pitcher is a risky proposition, you might as well make that bet on the best pitcher in baseball.
Dansby Swanson, SS, Atlanta
Going To: Angels
Why: With Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, and Xander Bogaerts all likely available in the free agent market in the offseason, and many contenders set at shortstop, it may be a bear market for players at that position. For my money, I’d prefer Swanson over any of them. Since becoming a regular, Swanson has never had a season in which he’s logged less than 500 PA (save for the shortened 2020 season), has improved his wRC+ each season, and is a plus defender at the position. Teams would be justifiably wary of his 20 (!) outs above average in 2022, but he’s never been less than average at shortstop by that metric. On top of that, Swanson is only 28. He’d be a perfect fit for an Angels team that ranked 29th in wRC+ from shortstops and 27th in fWAR, in what should be a “go for it” type window with Ohtani and Trout.
Trea Turner, SS, Dodgers
Going To: Dodgers
Why: The Dodgers pay to keep any free agents they want to, á la Mookie Betts, Justin Turner, and Clayton Kershaw. There’s really no reason for the team to wade into a free agent for shortstops with no one available that’s performed as high at a level as Turner, unless they want to gamble on the upside of a (barely) younger Dansby Swanson. Prospect Jacob Amaya may be ready for the big leagues sooner rather than later but there’s no reason to rush him when you can keep consistency and depth with one of the best in the game.
Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox
Going To: Atlanta
Why: Based on the assumption that they don’t re-sign Swanson but still need to plug that hole at shortstop, Bogaerts makes a lot of sense for a team that should have both World Series aspirations and money to spend with the rest of the core lineup somehow basically locked up until the heat death of the universe.
Brandon Nimmo, OF, Mets
Going To: Twins
Why: The AL Central is still imminently winnable, and Nimmo would provide a boost to a team that has been willing to spend on shorter-term contracts (such as Carlos Correa in 2022), and whose outfield was below MLB average in wRC+ last year. Nimmo provides some health insurance for Byron Buxton, an upgrade from the other serviceable outfielders for Minnesota, and could rotate in and out of the DH slot with Buxton and Luis Arráez.
Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
Going To: Dodgers
Why: Kershaw sure doesn’t seem done yet. The Dodgers have a deep rotation, and as stated above with Trea Turner, tend to keep players they believe in. It’s hard to imagine a better fit for Kershaw in terms of World Series aspirations, the financial investment the Dodgers make in free agents, and comfort level both from the player and team standpoint. Sure it’s not exciting, but such is mundane nature of the Dodgers’ inevitable steamrolling of the NL West every season. If you want a dark horse candidate, perhaps an “on the cusp” team like the Rangers or Diamondbacks make a splashy play for Kershaw, but they likely can’t absorb the health risks like the Dodgers can.
José Abreu, 1B, White Sox
Going To: Padres
Why: The Padres identified first base as a potential area for upgrade as they acquired Bell from the Nationals this summer, but he’s eligible for free agency along with sometimes-first-baseman Brandon Drury. Abreu for his part is still an awfully productive hitter, registering a 137 wRC+ in 2022 and can also slot in at DH for the Padres, who managed just a 90 wRC+ this season at that lineup spot.
Willson Contreras, C, Cubs
Going To: Cardinals
Why: For the first time in a million years, the Cardinals could use a starting catcher. Contreras would add to an already formidable lineup. The only thing working against this prediction is that it seems too obvious and therefore will never happen.
Edwin Díaz, RP, Mets
Going To: Mariners
Why: Seattle’s relief corps wasn’t exactly a problem in 2022; they mixed and matched their way to their first playoff appearance in over two decades. However, the bitter taste of the heartbreaking playoff losses may spur them to reach for a lights-out reliever to bolster the bullpen as they look to be going all-in in the next few seasons. There’s not a better reliever available in free agency, and a reunion between Seattle and Díaz would make a lot of sense.
Brandon Drury, 2B/3B/1B, Padres
Going To: Diamondbacks
Why: Drury’s free agency appeal for teams likely relies heavily on whether you think he’s a .164 ISO type player as he was through 2020, or the .226 ISO player of the past two seasons. Either way, Drury would be a sneaky good signing for a team as he can play almost any position on the field, and quite capably. His Statcast outs above average over the past several season has more ones and zeroes than a computer science textbook.
The Diamondbacks are on the verge of contending with several young interesting players. A flexible player like Drury could give them an immediate upgrade and cover a lot of positions while their top prospects marinate in the minors, or, if things go south, they could trade him to a contender at the deadline that needs a third baseman. Or second. Or first. Or…
Joey Gallo, OF, Dodgers
Going To: Brewers
Why: The Brewers have been mostly content to take a “wait it out” approach to free agency over the past several seasons. With Gallo coming off his worst full season since 2016 at the plate, perhaps he falls to Milwaukee in an opportunistic late winter signing. Gallo did strike out more and walk less than in recent seasons, but also suffered from a career-low .219 BABIP, which should rebound anyway but particularly has some upside with the shift going away next season. On their end, the Brewers could use Gallo in the outfield while the young kids make their way up, or at DH where 2023 free agent Andrew McCutchen took the majority of plate appearances but struggled to find power against righties.
Josh Bell, 1B, Padres
Going To: Mets
Why: There are other teams that could probably use a durable on-base machine like Josh Bell more, but the Mets are likely all-in contenders this season and Bell could split DH duties with Daniel Vogelbach. Bell has been better as a right-handed hitter, and the Mets struggled at DH and finding their way on base last year even with Pete Alonso locked in as the everyday first baseman.
Carlos Correa, SS, Twins
Going To: Diamondbacks
Why: No one is really holding down shortstop in Arizona, and if the Diamondbacks want to push in a little further into contending, there might not be a better spot to upgrade offensively. With Correa reportedly opting out of two remaining years at a combined total of $70 million , it’ll take a pretty significant offer to land the 28-year old shortstop. A longer-term contract (perhaps with a smaller annual average value) might line up well with the Diamondbacks’ plans for contention over the next several years.
Carlos Rodón, SP, Giants
Going To: Orioles
Why: My pick for the NL Cy Young this year signed a two-year “prove it” contract with the Giants in the offseason and will almost certainly exercise his option to test free agency. Rodón backed up his breakout 2021 with a sub-three ERA and struck out almost 12 batters per nine this season. He’s the second-best starter likely to hit the market after DeGrom and won’t have a shortage of contenders after his services. The Orioles found themselves in a surprise playoff contention position this year and it’s time to make a big move in free agency. Starting pitching was a major weakness and between the young hitters taking a step forward and a viable path to a wild card, Rodón would fit a missing piece.
Andrew Heaney, SP, Dodgers
Going To: Twins
Why: The Twins could use a lefty starter and will likely have a $30 million less in payroll this season after Carlos Correa opts out. Heaney is coming off a career year in both ERA and xFIP, and his strikeout rate has jumped nearly 10% to a career high. Much of that may be how the Dodgers were able to deploy him, as he only exceeded 5 IP in two of his 14 starts. The Twins had a pretty middling bullpen last year, though so may need to piggyback him with a right-handed long reliever.
Tyler Anderson, SP, to the Padres- The Padres lineup is set but Anderson would provide the rotation with some much-needed higher end depth.
Rafael Montero, RP, to the Mariners- A one-two punch between Montero and Díaz might give the Mainers the strongest bullpen in the AL, and quickly.
Chris Martin, RP, to the Brewers- Brewers desperately need to re-fortify their bullpen after last year’s Hader trade, and Martin is the type of veteran reliever the Brewers have taken steps to acquire as of late. If he ignores their overtures, it would be a cold play (yes I’ve made this joke before).
Kenley Jansen, RP, to the Tigers- The Tigers have shown a willingness to dive in to the free agent pool perhaps before general consensus has deemed them “contenders,” but in an expanded playoff field, everyone is a contender. A team on the brink of contention might be the best fit for a player like Jansen. If he’s 2022 first-half Kenley, you have a closer that’s either the best reliever in your bullpen or a trade piece at the deadline to a contender.
Andrew Benintendi, OF, to the Astros- The Astros don’t sign as many free agents as you’d think, preferring to re-up the contracts of their stars. They might be fine with Chas McCormick, especially given his defensive value but if they want to bolster their offense they could look to Benintendi.
Joc Pederson, OF, to the Guardians- Cleveland struggled mightily at DH last season and some hit-first player would be the easiest area to upgrade for the team. Pederson for his part just always seems to get on base and be in the thick of playoff races.
Chris Bassitt, SP, to the Blue Jays- The Jays are decent free-agent spenders, and could use more starting pitching depth to bolster their chances in the AL East. Bassitt is the kind of steady pitcher smart teams should be adding, as he’s thrown at least 140 innings each year since 2019 (except 202o of course) and hasn’t posted an ERA above four in that time, even without big strikeout stuff.
Jameson Taillon, SP, to the Red Sox- The Red Sox could use additional rotation depth, as the team was 21st in starters’ innings pitched in 2022. Taillon hasn’t thrown less than 100 innings in any season since his rookie year (excluding the shortened 2020 season).
José Quintana, SP, to the White Sox- The White Sox are bringing everyone else back from the past, so how about Quintana? In all seriousness, they could use a lefty starter. Quintana benefitted last season from an extremely low HR/FB rate; if that rebounds to his career norms it could spell trouble, but outside of a disastrous 2021 Quintana has been a perfectly good back-end starter as of late, which would bolster the Southsiders’ rotation.
Nathan Eovaldi, SP, to the Cardinals- Captain Eo fits in to the back end of the Cardinals’ rotation with above-average strikeout and groundball rates and can let that fantastic defense take care of the rest.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)