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Tiers and Tears: Ranking the Top 45 MLB Free Agents

We all know that Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Stephen Strasburg are the jewels of this class. But in a suppressed spending environment, they’re not the only players who can impact a team’s playoff hopes.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the 2019 World Series squarely in the rearview mirror, the most important baseball news for the next three months or so will come from the free agent market. The power of players like Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Stephen Strasburg to influence a World Series was on full display just last month. Not only can a team bolster its title aspirations by signing one of those players, but this offseason is slightly unusual in that most of the top free agents come from teams that made the playoffs in 2019.

This means clubs like the Astros, Nationals, Braves, and Twins will all be playing defense to some extent, not only trying to offset the gains their competitors make, but patch holes on their own rosters should they be unable to re-sign their own key players. The next few months will show which clubs are most serious about chasing the 2020 title, as well as which clubs are most capable of making such a challenge. All of this activity, of course, is set against a backdrop of top MLB teams choosing cost reduction over competitiveness in a (possibly concerted and leaguewide) effort to curb spending.

In other words, this is a complicated free agent season, with the potential to either reinforce the current status quo or blow it to smithereens. So in the interest of balancing completeness with clarity and brevity, I’ll be not only ranking the top 45 free agents, but breaking them down into tiers. (This is not to be confused with what White Sox fans did last winter, as their team signed Manny Machado’s brother-in-law, his eighth grade social studies teacher, and his dogsitter, then lowballed the All-Star infielder himself. That’s breaking down into free agency tears.) The value of a given player varies wildly from team to team—for instance, I have Rendon ranked above Strasburg, though to the Padres, who have a dire need for a player like Strasburg but zero need for Rendon, that order would flip. This list represents players’ value in a vacuum, and presents a picture of who’s available to fill various positions of need around the league.

Tier I: The Super-duper Stars

1. Gerrit Cole, RHP
2. Anthony Rendon, 3B
3. Stephen Strasburg, RHP

Last year’s top-tier free agents, Machado and Bryce Harper, generated oodles of headlines, but this group might be even better in terms of simple on-field production. Machado and Harper hit free agency at an unusually young age, 26, and both are unusually charismatic (or notorious, for those less inclined to be charitable) in addition to being top-end ballplayers. That led to lots of discussion over the duo’s value, and emboldened the Padres to sign Machado for 10 years and the Phillies to sign Harper for 13.

This trio is older, as Cole and Rendon are both 29 and Strasburg is 31, and much quieter, ranging from introverted to downright reclusive in Rendon’s case. But all three are coming off outstanding seasons: 6.9 bWAR for Cole, who broke the K/9 record and might win the AL Cy Young, and 6.3 each for Rendon and Strasburg. And all three were superb in the playoffs. Rendon hit .328/.413/.590; Cole posted a 1.72 ERA, struck out 47 batters in 36 2/3 innings, and held opponents to a .515 OPS; and Strasburg went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA, struck out 47 in 36 1/3 innings, and won World Series MVP honors.

Cole’s dominant 2019 makes him the clear no. 1 free agent; in addition to his jaw-dropping strikeout totals, he ripped off a string of 25 consecutive starts from May 27 through Game 3 of the ALCS without taking a loss. He combines power, precision, and durability in a manner unlike any pitcher of his generation, and when he’s on, he’s as close to the perfect starter as a team will find. Strasburg is two years older and was not quite as dominant in 2019, but aside from Cole, he’s better than any free-agent starter since David Price in 2015-16.

That year, Price set the current record for a free-agent pitcher with his $217 million contract, and both Cole and Strasburg should challenge that sum. It’s a powerful statement about the depressed contemporary free agent market that the question is whether Cole and Strasburg will beat Price’s record, rather than by how many tens of millions they’ll beat it. Rendon should be in line for something similar to what two other top third basemen signed for last winter: Machado’s $30-million-a-year deal with San Diego, or Nolan Arenado’s’s eight-year, $260 million extension with the Rockies.

Tier II: Players Who Should’ve Gotten Paid a Year Ago

4. Josh Donaldson, 3B
5. Yasmani Grandal, C
6. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP

Under normal circumstances, all three of these players would have been in line for multiyear contracts on the order of $20 million a year or more last offseason. But Donaldson, coming off an injury-plagued 2018 season, settled for a one-year contract with Atlanta, while Ryu accepted the Dodgers’ qualifying offer. Grandal also received a qualifying offer from Los Angeles, rejected it, and for reasons passing understanding could eke out only an $18.25 million deal with Milwaukee.

All three showed a lot on their show-me deals: Donaldson hit .259/.379/.521 with good third-base defense, and more importantly stayed healthy enough to play 155 games. Grandal was a six-win player, according to Baseball Prospectus, and the most valuable catcher in baseball. Ryu’s ERA was below 2.00 into mid-August, and he will finish in the top three in NL Cy Young voting after throwing more innings (182 2/3) than he had in any season since his rookie year in 2013.

These three players represent solid fallback options from the top tier, with an opportunity to take on slightly more risk than Strasburg, Cole, and Rendon, with the chance for star-level production (Donaldson, for instance, trailed Rendon by just two-tenths of a win last year) for less money.

Tier III: Big-Name Mid-Rotation Starters, Part I

7. Madison Bumgarner, LHP
8. Dallas Keuchel, LHP
9. Jake Odorizzi, RHP
10. Cole Hamels, LHP

There’s only one of each of Cole, Strasburg, and Ryu, which leaves open rotation spots for the … let’s see here … 30 teams that will need to add some form of competent starting pitching to get through 2020. Most of those teams don’t even need to acquire an ace in order to upgrade, just someone who can throw 150 innings of league-average ball and has a decent shot of making it through five innings of a playoff game. For all the attention Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin gobbled up in pitching the Nationals to a title, they also needed every inning no. 4 starter Aníbal Sánchez could provide in order to make it through the playoffs.

The good news is there’s no shortage of solid mid-rotation starters in this free agent class, though the names involved are somewhat gaudier than usual, with a pair of World Series MVPs (Bumgarner and Hamels) and a pair of Cy Young winners (Keuchel and Rick Porcello, relegated to a later group by his 5.52 ERA) available to eat innings. You probably won’t see any of these pitchers on the 2020 Cy Young ballot, but you’ll probably see at least a couple in next year’s playoffs.

Tier IV: Infielders Who for Some Reason Won’t Get Paid Nearly As Much As They’re Worth

11. Didi Gregorius, SS
12. Mike Moustakas, 3B

A team that misses out on Rendon and Donaldson could do worse than these two.

Shortstop, somewhat unexpectedly, has become a position of great leaguewide strength, which is bad news for Gregorius, who averaged 4.0 bWAR per year in his age-27 and -28 seasons, then missed half of his walk year while recovering from Tommy John surgery. With the emergence of Gleyber Torres as a bona fide star, and with DJ LeMahieu in the fold to slide over to second base, Gregorius is suddenly no longer a necessary cog in this Yankees lineup. And yet he’s still entering his age-30 season, with a long track record of good defense at shortstop and a .270/.312/.467 batting line over the past four years, making Gregorius a good buy-low candidate.

Meanwhile, one of the first signs that modern free agency was broken came after the 2017 season, when Moustakas, having just turned 29 and hit 38 home runs the year before, received so little interest he had to take a pay cut to return to the cellar-dwelling Royals. In 2018, Moustakas posted a 107 OPS+, helped the Brewers to the playoffs after a midseason trade, and once again had to settle for a one-year deal to return to Milwaukee. In 2019, he played 143 games, hit .254/.329/.516 with 35 homers, played solid defense, and will probably end up with an unpaid internship or something.

Tier V: Sluggers in Need of a Change of Scenery

13. Marcell Ozuna, OF
14. Nicholas Castellanos, OF

If the mid-2010s Marlins outfield was Nirvana, Ozuna was its Krist Novoselic, the third dude in a group with two generational icons. Nevertheless, he made two All-Star teams and hit .312 with 37 home runs in 2017, inspiring the St. Louis Cardinals to send a four-player package to Miami in order to acquire him. In two seasons with the Cardinals, Ozuna struggled to get going, hitting just .263/.327/.452. Even so, the Cardinals extended a qualifying offer to Ozuna, which is a testament to how hard it is to find a 29-year-old corner outfielder coming off four straight 20-homer seasons on the free agent market. An even more compelling testament to that fact is that Jon Heyman reports that Ozuna is likely to turn down the qualifying offer. At best, the team that signs Ozuna will see him tap into the potential he showed in Miami; at worst, they’ll be acquiring a solid left fielder.

Castellanos so badly needed a change of scenery that he talked his way out of Detroit this past July, then went berserk once traded to a Cubs team that looked like a ship of the damned to most but must have felt like Xanadu for a player escaping a 114-loss Tigers club. In two months with the Cubs, Castellanos hit .321/.356/.646 with 16 home runs and 21 doubles, and enters free agency at age 27, making him one of the youngest major players on the market. There are plenty of flaws to Castellanos’s game—he doesn’t walk a lot, and he’s a very, very bad defensive outfielder—but he can flat-out hit. And perhaps if he spends the next few years playing for a winning team in a ballpark less hostile to offense than Comerica Park, he’ll hit even better than we’d realized he could.

Tier VI: Darren Dreiforts

15. Zack Wheeler, RHP
16. Kyle Gibson, RHP

The 2000-01 free agent class was one of the best in the sport’s history, headlined by Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers. That winter, Manny Ramírez and Mike Mussina also signed huge, career-defining contracts with the Red Sox and Yankees, respectively. Left-hander Mike Hampton rang the bell for eight years and $121 million, which was a coup for public education in the Centennial State, if not for the Rockies themselves.

The Dodgers’ contribution to that offseason was re-signing right-hander Darren Dreifort to a five-year, $55 million contract. Los Angeles had taken Dreifort with the second overall pick out of Wichita State in 1993, but while he flashed tantalizing potential from time to time, he had yet to evolve into a reliable big league starter through his age-28 season. But the Dodgers paid him three-quarters of what Mussina was making on the hope that his ship would finally come in.

It did not. Hampton’s Rockies deal is derided as one of the biggest boondoggles in the history of MLB free agency, but Hampton, in his first year with Colorado, posted a 99 ERA+ in 203 innings. After signing his Dodgers deal, Dreifort posted an ERA+ of 87 in 205 2/3 innings over the rest of his MLB career.

It might be a little harsh to compare Wheeler—like Dreifort a former top-10 pick who was hurt or bad or both for much of his mid-20s—to the doomed Dodger right-hander. Since returning to the majors in 2017, Wheeler has posted good peripherals and been fairly reliable, making at least 29 starts in each of the past two seasons. But he’s also posted a worse ERA+ in that time than any of the seven pitchers listed above him here. Wheeler also has a mild case of James Paxton’s Disease, in which people confuse lack of a big league track record for youth, when Wheeler is less than a year younger than Odorizzi or Bumgarner, and doesn’t have anything like Paxton’s peak performance.

Gibson, despite being 32 years old, could also earn a surprisingly large contract based on potential. For most of his career, the right-hander was a victim of a hopelessly outmoded Twins pitching development track, which emphasized pitching to contact and viewed hard four-seamers as evidence of witchcraft. But in 2018, Gibson was genuinely good, with a 118 ERA+ in 32 starts, and in 2019 he posted career highs in strikeout rate and fastball velocity. Some GM is going to sign Gibson and think he’s got the next Charlie Morton, and whoever does so will have to ignore Gibson’s 5.60 DRA in 2019, which gives me pause about ranking him even this high.

Tier VII: Relievers Named Will

17. Will Smith, LHP
18. Will Harris, RHP

Both of these pitchers have been among the quieter elite relievers in baseball for the past few years; neither throws a triple-digit fastball, neither has a signature post-save celebration, but they get outs, reliably and in high volume. Smith is the only reliever with a qualifying offer hanging around his neck this year, and given the state of the free agent market, it’d make a lot of sense for him to take the easy $17.8 million payday and re-enter the market in 2020.

Harris, who just turned 35, was not so endowed. The burly right-hander was last seen surrendering the decisive run of the World Series, but that shouldn’t overshadow his 1.50 ERA in 68 appearances in 2019, his 2.36 ERA since joining the Astros in 2015, or the 17 scoreless postseason appearances out of his first 21, before he allowed home runs in games 6 and 7 of the 2019 World Series. Harris ought to be in line for a substantial payday, despite his age and lack of track record as a closer, ending his run as one of the best-kept secrets and biggest bargains in the game.

Tier VIII: Other Notable Veteran Starters

19. Julio Teheran, RHP
20. Rich Hill, LHP
21. Michael Pineda, RHP
22. Adam Wainwright, RHP
23. Wade Miley, LHP
24. Tanner Roark, RHP
25. Homer Bailey, RHP
26. Josh Lindblom, RHP
27. Rick Porcello, RHP
28. Gio González, LHP
29. Ivan Nova, RHP

Signing one of these guys beats the heck out of starting Randy Dobnak in a playoff game or signing Drew Smyly off the street in the middle of a pennant race—to use two examples from last season—but while eight of the 10 pitchers who played in MLB last year threw significant innings for teams that made the playoffs, only two, Hill and Wainwright, actually made a postseason start. Still, getting there is half the battle, and woe unto the team that misses the postseason because they passed on an affordable and competent veteran big league starter in free agency.

Lindblom is the wild card in this group. The 32-year-old spent parts of five seasons in MLB as a replacement-level reliever before decamping for South Korea in mid-2017. In two and a half seasons in KBO, Lindblom moved to the rotation and mowed hitters down; in 30 starts for Doosan in 2019, Lindblom went 20-3 with a 2.50 ERA and struck out 6.52 batters for every walk. Maybe that success won’t translate, but both Miles Mikolas and Merrill Kelly went abroad as anonymous quad-A guys only to return as good big league starters, so Lindblom represents some upside.

Tier IX: Man, It Will Be Weird to See These Guys in a New Uniform

30. Brett Gardner, OF
31. Kole Calhoun, OF
32. Yasiel Puig, OF

These three players have a combined 27 years of MLB experience, and until Puig was traded twice in the past year, all of them had been one-club men. All three players enter free agency for the first time with questions about their bats: Calhoun is just recovering from a disastrous two-year offensive outage in 2017 and 2018, while Puig’s walk year was the second-worst offensive season of his career. Even Gardner, who slugged .503 in 2019, was an uninspiring hitter in 2018 and carries serious questions about how much of his power is owed to the juiced ball.

Still, all three are solid veterans with playoff experience who carry at least some defensive value, and shouldn’t cost that much on the open market.

Tier X: Have Bat, Will Travel

33. Howie Kendrick, UTIL
34. Avisaíl García, OF
35. Corey Dickerson, OF
36. Edwin Encarnación, 1B/DH
37. José Abreu, 1B/DH
38. Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, OF/DH
39. Hunter Pence, OF
40. Eric Thames, 1B/OF

If one of these players is a foundational offensive player—as Abreu was to the White Sox in 2019—that’s bad news for the team that acquires him. But Kendrick, García, Encarnación, and Thames were all valuable secondary hitters for playoff teams, able to get on base and provide some power for teams with more formidable offensive threats elsewhere in the lineup. The one unfamiliar name in this group is Tsutsugo, a career .285/.328/.528 hitter in NPB who’s entering his age-28 season; he represents a younger alternative to the others in this group, but a similar offensive profile.

None of these players are foundational middle-of-the-order bats, though a couple of them used to be, but they can all provide solid offensive production, likely on a one-year deal, as long as the team that’s signing them doesn’t ask for much defensively.

Tier XI: The Seventh-Best Position Player on a Good Team

41. Travis d’Arnaud, C
42. Brock Holt, UTIL
43. Robinson Chirinos, C
44. Jason Castro, C
45. Asdrúbal Cabrera, UTIL

Not every free agent signing has to be a splashy All-Star. Sometimes injury strikes, or a prospect struggles to adjust to the big leagues quickly, leaving a gaping hole in a would-be contender’s lineup. In such cases, a playoff hopeful is obliged to fill that hole with a competent big league starter. Much as these guys have bounced around in recent years—Holt from position to position, the rest from team to team—it’s worth pointing out that they’ve all tended to end up playing substantial roles on good teams, even if none of them will make headline news when they sign for 2020.

The free agent who puts the 2020 world champion over the top could come from anywhere on this list, or even off it—Daniel Hudson, who closed out the 2019 World Series, is a free agent, as are a handful of useful relievers and utility players, and the odd bounce-back rotation candidate. But each team’s approach to free agency will determine public expectations until meaningful games start up again next spring.