Free-agent news flew at the speed of light early in the offseason. Players hustled to get deals done before the owner-imposed lockout, leading to record amounts of spending on free agents in November***. We saw many of the big free agents find new homes, including Max Scherzer, Corey Seager, Javier Báez, Robbie Ray, etc.
As such, there is still plenty of analysis to do over those guys that have already signed, but now that we have almost zero transaction news to get through for the foreseeable future, it seems appropriate to look past the lockout, whenever that may be, to see which players are still out there for teams to chase after. There are still a handful of solid players and at least one more elite free agent out there.
So, let’s take a look at the top remaining free agents on the market, and see what they bring to the table for the team that jumps back into the spending spree that began in November.
***Only because the owners forced the players into a lockout and GMs/players wanted deals to get done before the owner-imposed lockout
The Cream of the Crop (Tier One)
1. Carlos Correa (SS) – Correa enters the offseason as the best free-agent position player. That certainly hasn’t changed, even with a lockout in place. The 27-year-old had another stellar season in 2021, slashing .279/.366/.485 and finishing 5th in American League MVP voting. He also picked up 7.1 bWAR and 5.8 fWAR in 2021, both career-highs. He’s a younger free agent as well, which means any team that signs him will get several years of prime Correa. As such, Correa will be in line for a huge payday, likely on par — if not more — with the Corey Seager deal with the Rangers (10 years, $325 million).
The real question for Correa is, what team is still in the hunt for a shortstop? One of Correa’s biggest suitors, the Tigers, effectively checked out of the Correa sweepstakes by signing Javier Báez to a big deal, but if they really wanted to go after Correa and then slide Báez over to short, they could. The Astros could be a suitor to retain Correa’s services, but they haven’t shown an inclination to resign pricey free agents, like George Springer or Gerrit Cole. The Angels are another team to watch because they love going after pricey position players and are currently looking at filling their SS spot with some combination of David Fletcher, Jack Mayfield, and Luis Rengifo. The Yankees may also check in on Correa, as they were supposedly in on Seager earlier but failed to reel him in. They could stick Correa at short and then look into trading Gleyber Torres or Gio Urshela to prevent squeezing too many infielders out of playing time.
Prediction: Astros, because he’s too much of a fixture there to not be an Astro for life.
Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good (Tier Two)
2. Kris Bryant (3B/OF) – KB plays all around the diamond. Last season, he played 55 games at third base, 48 in left field, 39 in right field, 19 in center, and 12 at first base. He’s coming off a solid year offensively, hitting .265/.353/.481 for a wRC+ of 123. After being traded to the Giants at the July Trade Deadline, Bryant wasn’t quite as good as he was in Chicago, accumulating a 113 wRC+ in San Francisco, but he was able to finish with 3.6 fWAR. He’s several years removed from the Bryant that had 2 consecutive top-10 MVP finishes, but he was selected for the All-Star Game in 2021 and is still in his prime(ish). Bryant will turn 30 in January, so the team signing him will have to make a fairly long commitment, but will likely still get a couple of years of his prime.
Who’s interested in a guy that can play 3B and passible OF defense? The Phillies are a logical fit, considering Alec Bohm had a bit of a sophomore slump and the Phillies currently have 1 or 2 playable OFs. The Cubs may also be interested in a reunion with Bryant to give the fans something to watch during their rebuilding phase. The Mariners have also checked in on Bryant with the departure of Kyle Seager. The Rockies have also apparently checked in on Bryant, which makes sense given their lack of other watchable options and geographical convenience from Bryant’s hometown, but Bryant seems more like a fit for a contending team than a rebuilding Rockies team recently hitting rock bottom.
Prediction: Phillies. He’s going to join fellow Vegas native Bryce Harper in the outfield.
3. Freddie Freeman (1B) – Seriously, what is up with this Freddie Freeman market? Is he going back to Atlanta or not? Why does Atlanta keep considering Matt Olson and Anthony Rizzo if Freeman is returning?
If Freeman decides to look elsewhere, after spending his whole career with Atlanta, Freeman is going to be a nice asset to the team that acquires him. The 32-year-old is coming off another strong season, in which he hit .300/.393/.503, for a 135 wRC+, and recently won an NL MVP award. He doesn’t strike out a lot, he walks a fair amount, and is fairly passable on defense. And, of course, he played well in the playoffs. The first baseman’s age could catch up with him soon, but he will be 32 for almost all of the 2022 season and doesn’t appear to be falling off a cliff just yet. As such, Freeman will probably fetch a nice deal for whatever team that is willing to pay up for the World Series champion.
Freeman is not the only first baseman to have spent a large portion of his career with one team and ended up on the free-agent market in his early 30’s. You may remember a guy named Albert Pujols, who entered free agency at 31 (but would be 32 for the entire first season of his new deal) after 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals. Coincidentally, Freeman has also spent 11 full seasons with Atlanta. Is Freeman just the next first baseman to sign an albatross of a deal? Maybe. But Freeman doesn’t have the career numbers of Pujols, so he’s probably not going to sign a 10-year deal with a $25 million AAV.
But, which teams have checked in on Freeman? Freeman is from Orange County, so the Angels could be in play. He’s an aging position player, so Arte Moreno has to be at least interested in that, although the fit is pretty poor, considering the Angels cut bait with Pujols in time for Jared Walsh to have a breakout season at first base. Los Angeles is not too far of a drive from Orange County, and the Dodgers recently lost Corey Seager, so Freeman could move Max Muncy to second. Atlanta, of course, is a great fit. The Yankees are apparently interested in Freeman with Anthony Rizzo departing in free agency. The Yankees still have Luke Voit and DJ LeMahieu to plug up first base innings, but it depends on how the Yankees feel about Voit defensively. It seems like he’s going to soak up a lot of DH at-bats, so Freeman could be in play. The Rangers also have reportedly looked into acquiring Matt Olson and have already spent a whole lot of money in free agency, but they’re still missing a quality first baseman by my estimation. Nate Lowe could be that guy, but if the Rangers are doing their due diligence on Olson, perhaps they would be open to signing Freeman and moving Lowe elsewhere?
Prediction: Probably still Atlanta.
4. Clayton Kershaw (SP) – I could just cut and paste some of the same stuff about Freeman as with Kershaw. Is Kershaw going to be a Dodger for life, or what? I know the Rangers are checking in on him and all, but is he really going to go pitch in Texas?
If Kershaw decides to look elsewhere, after spending his whole career in Los Angeles, Kershaw will be a rock-solid second option for the team that acquires him. Kershaw pitched to a 3.17 xERA and 3 FIP (3.55 ERA), although he reached his lowest innings limit in a full season since 2008. That was due to an elbow injury, as Kershaw lost 3 months to the elbow injury earlier in the season and then missed the playoffs with the same injury.
Clayton Kershaw said he was given a PRP injection in his left flexor tendon recently. He said that will be the only treatment he should need and won’t undergo surgery. He said he expects to be ready for spring training.
— Jorge Castillo (@jorgecastillo) October 9, 2021
I do wonder if the Dodgers decided not to give Kershaw a QO out of concern for his elbow health. It seems really strange not to offer a long-time franchise cornerstone a 1-year deal at a fairly reasonable $18 million salary unless there are circumstances that we don’t know about.
Of course, there is still a very good chance that Kershaw returns to Los Angeles, as the failure to offer one may have been a sign of the Dodgers wanting to give Kershaw a long-term, lower-salary deal. He is squarely in the back half of his career, as Kershaw will turn 34 just in time for the 2022 season, but as you can see from glancing at his profile, Kershaw is still a very good pitcher. He’s no MVP anymore, but he’s still an asset that all MLB teams would be happy to have.
Who’s realistically “in” on Kershaw when the lockout ends? It starts with the Dodgers, I would think. Once again, he’s a franchise legend with a ring, an MVP, and 14 great seasons with the team. The fans — I assume, as a non-Dodger fan — would love to have him finish out his career in Los Angeles, and he seems like a good influence in the clubhouse. If it doesn’t work out with the Dodgers, Kershaw could look to go home to Texas, where he could join Dodger teammate Corey Seager on the Rangers. That would be an intriguing rotation, with Kershaw and Jon Gray filling out a 1-2 punch in the Rangers’ rotation. The Rangers would be that much closer to contention with Kershaw on the hill every 5th day. Speaking of close to contention, the Angels (sorry, they have to be mentioned for pretty much every free agent, I don’t make the rules) would love to steal Kershaw away from their big brothers up north and stick Kershaw in their 6th-man rotation. Pitching a little less often could be attractive to Kershaw as he attempts to recover from elbow surgery, as the 6-man rotation theoretically would put less of a toll on his arm. I think the Yankees would also love to get their hands on Kershaw. Their starting pitching leaves a little to be desired, and Kershaw could be a steadying presence behind Gerrit Cole in that rotation. Now, hang with me here, but the Giants could also be interested in Kershaw. The Giants just lost Kevin Gausman to the Blue Jays, and while they did add Alex Cobb to the rotation, he’s not exactly a needle-mover at this point in his career. Luring Kershaw away from LA, which would strengthen San Francisco’s rotation and weaken the Dodgers’ rotation, would be a huge get for Farhan Zaidi and Co.
Prediction: Probably back to Los Angeles, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Anaheim pushed hard for him.
5. Trevor Story (SS) – It was a difficult decision between Kershaw and Story for the #4 spot on this list, but Kershaw gets the bump for historical consistency and the relative scarcity of frontline starting pitching. I still see Kershaw that way, as any team would be lucky to have a starter that throws 120+ innings at a low-3 ERA. Story, however, is a lesser-known commodity. What will his play look like away from Coors? Is his power on the decline, as it has appeared to be since 2019? Even so, is that rare SS power enough to get him “the bag” that he deserves?
His defense has been anywhere from excellent (DRS), to above-average (UZR), to awful (OAA), depending on the metric you choose. He didn’t seem like he was at full strength for large stretches of 2021, which hurt his defensive ratings across the board. He is also going to be 29 years old for all of 2022, and any team that signs him will likely get a few more years of Story at close to peak performance before he declines.
Who’s in on Story at this point? There are plenty of teams that have checked in, so I’ll just list them:
- Red Sox – This one makes a little less sense since the Red Sox have Xander Bogaerts holding down the fort, but supposedly Bogaerts is open to a position change. Bogaerts could be moved to second, Story to short, and Rafael Devers at third. That is one heck of an infield.
- Yankees – An obvious fit, as the Yankees currently list Gio Urshela and Gleyber Torres as their top two starting options at shortstop. Plus, we’ve had a disturbing lack of Yankees news this offseason, which seems so unusual.
- Astros – Assuming Carlos Correa departs, this seems like a good fit. Story’s contract will be a little smaller than Correa’s contract, so the Astros can cut their costs a bit. But, if the Astros are hoping to avoid paying heavily for free agents, as they have in past years, then Story doesn’t make a ton of sense.
These options seem less likely:
- Mariners – Story would be an instant upgrade for the offense at shortstop. Unfortunately, as a J.P. Crawford truther, I have to reject this one right away. If the Mariners want to keep Crawford at short (as Jerry Dipoto apparently stated), then I’m not sure where to slot Story into the Seattle lineup. The Mariners recently acquired Adam Frazier to play second base and Abraham Toro played pretty well down the stretch at third base. They certainly aren’t better than Story, I just wonder where he would slot in.
Rangers– I’m pretty sure the Rangers are out on Story, even though he’s from their local area, after investing heavily in Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.
- Angels – Fulfilling my contractual obligation to mention the Angels as a position player free-agent destination. If they’re interested in Correa, then they would presumably be interested in a slightly cheaper option at shortstop.
- Phillies – Philadelphia would presumably be interested in Story if the DH was instituted for 2022 or 2023. They don’t have a ton of options to play the DH spot, nor am I particularly enthused by Didi Gregorius and Jean Segura playing shortstop for 2022.
- Cubs – They seem to be interested in making a big splash or two this offseason (why did they sign Marcus Stroman, again?) Story would be an instant upgrade over Nico Hoerner or Sergio Alcántara or anyone else the Cubs could throw out there at short.
Prediction: The Yankees get their guy.
Still Good But Not Elite
6. Nick Castellanos (OF) – And there’s a deep drive into left field, and that’ll be a home run.
This man can R A K E. Deriving nearly all of his WAR value from his offensive prowess, Castellanos generated 4.2 fWAR last season, his best mark yet. He also cut his strikeout rate to its lowest number yet, hit a career-high 34 home runs, and slashed .309/.362/.576 (for a 140 wRC+). That .576 SLG was the second-highest of any qualified outfielder, falling nearly forty points behind Bryce Harper but a solid 20 above Tyler O’Neill. The point is, Castellanos has game power (interestingly enough, his Max EV from 2021 was only good for 65th among qualified players).
Castellanos hasn’t had a wRC+ below 100 since 2015, his second full season in the majors. Take a look at his wRC+ numbers in full seasons:
- 2016: 119
- 2017: 111
- 2018: 129
- 2019: 122
- 2021: 140
Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.
As much as I love looking at Castellanos’ offensive numbers, his defense leaves a whole lot to be desired. He ranks below average in UZR, poorly in DRS, and among the worst in baseball according to OAA. This defense will be the cap on Castellanos’ value, so if he were to find his way to a team with a DH, he would be a much more palatable acquisition.
Who’s in on Castellanos? I would guess the Phillies are heavily in, due to their current dearth of playable outfielders, although if they also go after Kris Bryant, then Castellanos is less likely. Might the Mariners be in on Castellanos as well? I’m not sure I believe in Jake Fraley, but the Mariners have a fella named Julio Rodriguez waiting to be called up soon. The Mariners might not want to block Rodriguez’s assent to the Show, but he would certainly be an upgrade over Fraley or Kyle Lewis. The Marlins still reportedly have interest in adding to their outfield, and they’ve checked in on Castellanos as a potential option. Castellanos is from the Miami area, so the interest in his homecoming could be mutual. Even the Padres have supposedly checked in on Castellanos, which would be an intriguing addition to San Diego’s OF. Presumably, Castellanos would take the place of Jurickson Profar or Wil Myers at one of the corner OF spots.
Prediction: Castellanos goes home to Miami and joins Avisaíl García in the OF.
7. Carlos Rodón (SP) – After a handful of inconsistent seasons, Rodón finally broke through to have a dominant season for the White Sox and finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting. Over 132.2 innings, Rodón upped his K% to 34.6%, dropped his BB% to 6.7%, a career-low. Rodón ended the season with a 2.37 ERA, a 2.68 xERA, and a 2.65 FIP. He’s not a guaranteed frontline starter, based on his inconsistent track record, but he sure did pitch like one in 2021. Even some negative regression (and 40 more innings, to qualify) towards his xERA and FIP numbers would still put Rodón in the top tier of starters.
Here's a list of free agent pitchers by 2021 fWAR:
5.4 Max Scherzer
4.9 Carlos Rodón
4.8 Kevin Gausman
3.9 Robbie Ray
3.4 Clayton Kershaw
3.4 Marcus Stroman
3.0 Anthony DeSclafani
2.8 Steven Matz
2.5 Alex Cobb
2.5 Alex Wood
2.3 Jon Gray
2.1 Tyler Anderson
2.0 Raisel Iglesias
— Michael Mayer (@mikemayer22) November 18, 2021
Rodón will be 29 for all of 2022, so any team that signs him should get a handful of good years out of him. It seems doubtful that Rodón will get a real long-term deal, due to his injury history and inconsistency. He might look for a short-term, “prove it” type of deal, where he can re-enter free agency after attempting to repeat his success from 2021.
Who’s in on Rodón? Well, it seems that several pitching-hungry teams are interested. The Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Mariners, and Dodgers are all in on Rodón. The Mariners landing both Rodón and Robbie Ray would be a huge get; their rotation would be a whole lot deeper with Ray and Rodón as two of their top options, supplemented by the young arms in their farm system. The Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Angels all need rotation depth, but the Angels likely need it more than any of the others. I would also bet that the White Sox have some interest in retaining Rodón as well.
Prediction: The Angels go hard (and get desperate after failing to land other starters) after Rodón and get another guy for their 6-man rotation.
Now, here’s where I see a big ol’ drop in the quality of free agents available.
8. Michael Conforto (OF) – I am not a big fan of Conforto at this point, but he’s had a handful of pretty good seasons since entering the league in 2015. Take a look at his stats by year:
- 2017 (age 24): .279/.384/.555 (147 wRC+)
- 2018 (age 25): .243/.350/.448 (119 wRC+)
- 2019 (age 26): .257/.363/.494 (127 wRC+)
- 2020 (27): .322/.412/.515 (158 wRC+)
- 2021 (28): .232/.344/.384 (106 wRC+)
2021 was a down year and 2020 was a short year. Which Conforto are we going to get in 2022? The 2017-2019 Conforto? or the 2021 version? It’s tough to say, and it’s unfortunate for Conforto that the one year he happens to struggle is his platform year. At any rate, teams will get Conforto at 29 years old, and he could be open to taking a shorter, prove-it deal before re-entering the free-agent market. However, he’s shown enough in a couple of full seasons that he shouldn’t need to take a short-term deal.
Who’s interested? Probably the Phillies. It’s that pesky problem of only having Bryce Harper and Matt Vierling ready to man 3 outfield spots. Plus, stealing a player away from the Mets would be quite fun for the rivalry. An outfield of Harper, Conforto, and Bryant would certainly be a fun sight. The Marlins, who reportedly are interested in adding to their outfield, could also be interested in retaining Conforto’s services. The Guardians are somewhat allergic to spending money in free agency, but adding Conforto to their outfield would be a better option than trying to throw their collection of mediocre outfielders out there for 162 games. The market for Conforto’s services doesn’t appear especially large at this point, but we’ve had plenty of ‘mystery teams’ swoop in and grab players when we least expect them to.
9. Kyle Schwarber (OF/DH): A bit of a Castellanos-lite player, Schwarber has elite power with little else to go along with it. He’s not particularly disciplined at the plate, a la Joey Gallo, and he can’t play defense, but boy can he rake. He improved on his plate discipline a bit during 2021, as he swung at a career-low 23.3% of pitches outside the zone and a career-high 67.6% of pitches in the zone. His overall K rate was a palatable 27% in 2021, which was several ticks below his career K%.
The problem is that Schwarber’s skill set is pretty limited these days. He’s got the weeks (or even a month) where he can’t miss, as in June 2021. Then, there are weeks or months where he’s average or below-average, and he can’t play the kind of defense needed to justify playing every day or even most days of the week. So, he’s certainly going to be a better fit for teams with a DH spot to fill.
Who’s in on Schwarber? Well, I hate to keep beating a dead horse here, but the Phillies certainly would be interested in having another power bat in the outfield, whether or not the DH is added for 2022. The Marlins could also benefit from having Schwarber’s pop in their lineup for a few hundred plate appearances. I’m also intrigued by Schwarber going to the Rockies, just for the fun of seeing him play half of his games at Coors. Imagine that power in the Mile High City. Now, what about Schwarber going to the Rays? Tampa acquired Nelson Cruz for the stretch run last season, and I think Cruz and Schwarber have similar-ish skill sets. Both are renowned for hitting a whole lot of home runs, but Schwarber is a few years Cruz’s junior at this point. I’m not sure if the Rays have the space for Schwarber in their regular lineup, but I like the idea of the Rays adding that kind of left-handed power protection.
10. Anthony Rizzo (1B): Had Rizzo entered the free-agent market about two years ago, this would have been a completely different story. Rizzo would have been coming off a season with 3.9 fWAR, a 140 wRC+, and a .925 OPS. Since then, Rizzo has struggled a bit, compiling a wRC+ of just 102 in 2020 and then 112 in the full 2021 season. Rizzo put up 1.3 fewer fWAR from 2020-21 (199 games) than he did in the entire 2019 season (146 games). He is now 32 and will be 32 for most of 2022, so Rizzo isn’t really young anymore and his performance appears to be on the decline (I know, it stinks to hear that).
He’s only 2 years removed from his last solid season, but those years where Rizzo was putting up 4 or 5 fWAR are getting further and further away in the rearview mirror. So, what is Rizzo’s new team going to be getting from him? They’re getting a pretty disciplined hitter (15% K rate, which has remained pretty consistent throughout his career) and a guy who gets on base. His defense isn’t really up to snuff these days, but he can be a nice left-handed bat that plays 4-5 days a week.
Who’s in on Rizzo? The Yankees reportedly have interest in retaining Rizzo for next year. He would be a cheaper option for New York, who would be able to mix and match with Luke Voit or DJ LeMahieu at first base. The Brewers have checked in on Voit, so presumably, New York signing Rizzo would mean dealing Voit to Milwaukee or perhaps elsewhere to clear a logjam at first. Atlanta remains in the market for a first baseman, pending Freddie Freeman’s decision, so Rizzo could be an insurance option if Freeman goes elsewhere and Atlanta refuses to pay the price for Matt Olson. Other than that, it seems Rizzo’s market has been pretty light, so we’ll see how that unfolds.
— Graphic by Michael Packard (@designsbypack)