False dawns don’t get much more false than baseball’s 2019-20 offseason. After a multiyear capital strike that threatened to toss MLB into its first protracted labor war in more than 20 years, an exceptional free agent crop pried open owners’ purses and enriched some of the game’s biggest stars. Business as usual.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered commerce and travel for … well, eight months and counting. As a result, baseball’s schedule, rules, and financial future were tossed into chaos, as the global economy was shaken to its very core.
Even though the rich-enough-to-own-an-MLB-team class was pretty much the only sliver of society not imperiled by the pandemic, most of MLB’s franchises have taken this moment of uncertainty as an opportunity to furlough and downsize. Regardless of whether spending rollbacks are necessary, they’re happening, as evidenced by the relatively cheap options of Charlie Morton and Brad Hand being declined last week. All signs point to this season unfolding like a lava flow: slowly, destructively, and in a manner that resets the sport’s landscape.
Nevertheless, this year’s crop of free agents will sign somewhere, so I’m not only ranking them but breaking them down into tiers, as I did last year. Each player obviously has a different value to each team, but if a club is looking for a shortstop, or a veteran mid-rotation starter, here are their options.
Tier I: Recession-proof Two-way Stars
1. J.T. Realmuto, C
2. George Springer, OF
This looks like a pretty deep free agent class in terms of quality players, but it’s very light on the top-end superstars that dominated discourse over the past two offseasons. Realmuto, my top free agent, is comparable to last year’s top free agent catcher, Yasmani Grandal. (I’d rate Realmuto higher than Grandal on the strength of his athleticism and all-around defense, but it’s close enough that the comparison is still useful.) I had Grandal as last year’s no. 5 free agent, and was probably higher on him than most.
With no Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, or Stephen Strasburg this year, Realmuto is the most likely player to take home a nine-figure contract. That’s not only because he’s the best player on the market, but because there’s simply no other way to get a catcher with Realmuto’s two-way prowess.
The demands on a catcher are so vast that most MLB teams—even good ones—are willing to endure severe compromises in order to get one who does something well. For example: The Rays made it to Game 6 of the World Series while toting Mike Zunino’s .147 batting average because he’s an exceptional defender and can hit for power on those rare occasions he makes contact. There are no compromises with Realmuto, and there’s no equivalent player on the trade market. Then there’s the fact that Realmuto stands to leave a team that ought to be highly motivated to keep him. The Phillies waited too long to lock Realmuto up, and now face the prospect of losing one of their best all-around players. Their competitors, including the newly Axe Cap’d up Mets, know this, and could leverage that into a bidding war.
As for Springer, it feels weird to say that a former World Series MVP and three-time All-Star is underrated, but he is. Springer is hitting .274/.363/.494 since 2015, good for an OPS+ of 132—that ranks 13th among players with at least 3,000 plate appearances over that time period. Among players who are expected to spend most of the 2021 season in the outfield, he trails only Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Christian Yelich, and Mookie Betts.
At age 31, Springer will probably not be a center fielder for the duration of his contract, but his bat and arm are more than adequate enough for him to slide back over to right field and remain an impact player. He doesn’t have the kind of MVP-level upside that Harper and Manny Machado presented two years ago, or what Betts would have brought to the table if he hadn’t signed his extension, but four or five years from now we’ll get to the end of Springer’s contract and marvel at what a bargain it was.
Tier II: Definitely Good, Maybe a Star
3. Trevor Bauer, RHP
4. DJ LeMahieu, INF
5. Marcell Ozuna, OF
6. Charlie Morton, RHP
It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Bauer ends up with the richest contract of any free agent this offseason. In the shortened 2020 campaign, he led the NL in ERA and allowed fewer hits per inning than any starter in the majors. Not to mention his stuff has always been ace-caliber or close to it. But I have lingering questions, not just about pine tar, or his sometimes grotesque off-field behavior, but about how big a role a high strand rate and low caliber of competition played in his 2020 numbers. Depending on how the market shakes out, the smart play might be to try to grab Morton or Masahiro Tanaka on a shorter-term deal rather than tie up a ton of money on a pitcher who isn’t in that Cole or Strasburg tier.
Then there’s an even bigger Bauer-related question, which concerns a 2018 interview in which Bauer said he’d sign only one-year deals in free agency. In fact, he said he’d made a deal with a friend that would entitle said friend to shoot the ex-Reds right-hander in the crotch with a paintball gun if he ever signed a multiyear contract. As a rule, top free agents tend to sign longer deals for less annual money than they’re worth in their prime; this protects players against risk of injury or decline, and since you’d have to be a Bond villain to spend even $100 million in one lifetime, most players are on board. But a player who’s willing to accept more risk could maximize his earnings by going year-to-year, as Bauer suggested. Two weeks ago, Bauer’s agent walked back the one-year contract claim.
But what about the friend? Has Bauer been released from his pact, or has he merely accepted the fact that there’s some dude out there rummaging through his garage for a half-rusted Tippmann paintball marker in case Bauer signs a five-year contract? We need answers.
As for the rest of this tier: LeMahieu and Ozuna were two of the very best hitters in baseball this year, and both capitalized on short-term make-good contracts (a one-year deal for Ozuna, a two-year deal for LeMahieu). LeMahieu in particular would interest me because of his ability to play every infield position apart from shortstop, while Ozuna is stretched defensively anywhere except left field.
Morton has been vocal about his ambivalence toward playing in 2021; the right-hander, who turns 37 next week, could call it quits if the right situation and salary don’t present themselves. But even after a 2020 season curtailed by a minor shoulder injury, the Rays look pretty foolish not to exercise Morton’s $15 million option. Morton’s been both effective and durable since 2017 in the regular season, and near-unhittable in the playoffs; in four winner-take-all games since 2017, Morton is 4-0 and has allowed one earned run against 19 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings. He’d be an ideal short-term, high-average-annual-value signing as either the high-ceiling no. 3 starter he was in Houston, or as the veteran leader on a talented but inexperienced staff, as he was in Tampa Bay.
Tier III: Shortstops
7. Marcus Semien, SS
8. Didi Gregorius, SS
9. Ha-seong Kim, SS
If Semien had gone on the market last year, he could have sold himself as an elite defensive shortstop who combined 30-homer power with a strikeout rate of just 13.7 percent. That combination of skills would have put him in the Realmuto tier in this class. In 2020, however, the former MVP finalist’s offense regressed to league-average levels as he battled through a core muscle injury. If he believes that injury was the sole cause of his 200-point drop in OPS from 2019 to 2020, he could take a one-year deal and cash in, as Ozuna did last year and Josh Donaldson and Grandal did the year before. If not—and at age 30 and with just $15.8 million in career earnings, it’s easy to understand why he’d want to avoid risk—Semien could be in for a longer deal on a lower AAV.
Gregorius missed the first half of 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and returned to find Gleyber Torres sleeping in his bed and eating his porridge. After taking a one-year deal to rebuild his value in advance of another free agent campaign, Gregorius hit .284/.339/.488 with 10 home runs, and became an instant fan favorite in Philadelphia, as he will be anywhere he signs this winter. Pay the man.
Kim is the cream of the international crop, and since he’s still a member of the KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes, he’s not a free agent in the strictest definition of the term. But he can be had for cash alone, so he’s included here. There’s an inherent risk when players transition from the KBO to MLB, but at age 25, Kim is five years younger than the other top position players in this class. If he can make the leap, he could be an above-average shortstop or better for the next decade. The ZiPS projection system has Kim penciled in to hit .274/.343/.477 next year in MLB, and to remain at that level through 2025; if that happens, it would make him almost exactly the kind of hitter Gregorius is when healthy. Kim is risky in a different way than his older contemporaries, but perhaps not riskier in absolute terms.
Tier IV: The Veteran Gardeners
10. Justin Turner, 3B
11. Nelson Cruz, DH
12. Michael Brantley, OF
In other words, old dudes who rake. Turner’s behavior after his positive COVID test at the World Series makes him look like a tool, but unfortunately most MLB players probably would have done the same thing. It also does not change the fact that even after his age-35 season, Turner absolutely shreds opposing pitching. Cruz turned 40 this past July, but if you prorate his numbers over 162 games, this would have been his seventh straight season with at least 37 home runs and 89 walks. He’s a middle-of-the-order hitter until he proves otherwise.
Ultimately, both of these free agents have a good thing going with their respective teams, as both the Dodgers and Twins should be back in the playoffs for the foreseeable future. And neither team has any pressing need to move on from their current lineups—unless, of course, anything ever comes of those Francisco Lindor trade rumors. So the smart money is on both Turner and Cruz staying put in 2021.
At 33, it’s a stretch to call Brantley “old,” but he’s a known quantity in the same mold as Turner and Cruz. An injury-plagued 2016 and 2017 notwithstanding, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more consistent player in all of baseball. After years of watching Brantley hit about .300/.360/.460 for Cleveland, Houston turned to the first-time free agent two winters ago and said, “How about we give you $16 million a year over two years for you to come do that for us?” And sure enough, in two seasons with the Astros, Brantley hit .309/.370/.497. Any team with designs on a playoff berth and a hole in left field should call Brantley up and offer him the exact same deal.
Tier V: Starting Pitchers, for Those Interested In Understated Luxury
13. Marcus Stroman, RHP
14. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP
15. Jake Odorizzi, RHP
16. José Quintana, LHP
These are the Michael Brantleys of pitchers. Stroman, who was outstanding in 2019 but opted out of the 2020 season, is one of two players who received a qualifying offer and should consider accepting it. He was fantastic in 2019, but it’s hard to imagine a nine-figure deal coming his way in this climate—and Stroman would have little trouble pitching his way into that type of contract with a solid 2021.
Tanaka has been a strong no. 2 or no. 3 starter throughout his MLB career despite pitching the past few seasons through a partially torn UCL; for that reason, plus the fact that he always seems just short of ace quality in strikeouts and innings, another seven-year, $155 million contract is unlikely. But he should be the next call for any team that’s priced out of Bauer and unable to sign Morton.
Odorizzi and Quintana both missed essentially all of 2020 due to injury, but they’re broadly cut from the same kind of high-volume, medium-strikeout cloth as Stroman and Tanaka. Because of those injuries, and a somewhat higher upside for Tanaka and Stroman, I’d expect Odorizzi and Quintana to sign later in the winter, and for less. They’re solid mid-rotation starters, but not the type of big-splash free agents that contending teams will be fighting over early.
Tier VI: Starting Pitchers, for Those Who Want to Ride the Lightning
17. James Paxton, LHP
18. Kevin Gausman, RHP
I have an ongoing feud with Ringer colleague Zach Kram—who’s very rarely wrong and therefore not a good person to get in feuds with—over whether Paxton is actually good. Kram thinks Big Maple is an ace-quality starting pitcher when he’s healthy, while I contend that it doesn’t matter if he’s an ace because he’s never healthy. I own too many shares of stock in the Garrett Richards Could Win a Cy Young If He’s Healthy Corporation to completely discount Paxton, but he turns 32 this week and has never qualified for an ERA title. If he can be had for a two-year deal in the high seven figures per year range, he’d be a bargain, but we should know better than to build a rotation around him by now.
This offseason, there were six players who received qualifying offers: Among them were my top four of Bauer, Springer, Realmuto, and LeMahieu. Stroman also got one, and given his performance in 2019, I’d understand anyone who thought I’d been unkind to rank him outside the top 10. Then there’s Gausman.
The Gas Man was awesome in 10 starts for the Giants in 2020, with outstanding underlying numbers that suggest that maybe the former no. 4 overall pick is finally putting things together. What gives me pause is how similar the case for Gausman sounds to the case for Kyle Gibson last year. Gibson got a three-year deal out of the Rangers based on peripherals and Statcast numbers, and not only did the results fail to catch up in 2020, they went backward. Gausman’s results and DRA- are better than Gibson’s from a year ago, but I remain wary of buying high on a pitcher who’s put together excellent 10-start stretches but then reliably fallen back to reality.
Tier VII: Relievers Worth Paying Extra For
19. Liam Hendriks, RHP
20. Brad Hand, LHP
There are reasons not to believe in both of these guys, from Hendriks’s huge postseason workload to Hand’s velocity drop. But in a world where relievers can lose it in an instant, these are the two most reliable bullpen arms on the market. If Tampa Bay can lose the World Series on one elite reliever having a bad inning, then every team can use another relief ace.
Tier IX: Platoon Hitters Who Could End Up Starting Full Time
21. Joc Pederson, OF
22. Tommy La Stella, INF
23. James McCann, C
We almost got to see Pederson outside of his pseudo-platoon role with the Dodgers this year thanks to a last-minute appendage to the Mookie Betts trade tree, but the part of the deal that would’ve sent him and Ross Stripling to Anaheim fell through. Should Pederson leave Los Angeles, his new team will have to figure out how to best deploy a player that has a career .849 OPS against right-handed pitching but hits just .191/.266/.310 against lefties. La Stella is an infielder and his platoon split isn’t quite as bad as Pederson’s, but otherwise he’s the same player.
McCann is the best catcher on the market apart from Realmuto, but the drop-off is steep. In 2019, McCann made the All-Star team with the White Sox, who responded by going out and signing Grandal. The team that lands McCann will get a solid backstop, but will spend his tenure frustrated by his defense and platoon splits—which perhaps only reinforces how important Realmuto is.
Tier VIII: Up-the-Middle Defensive Wizards Who Might Not Hit
24. Andrelton Simmons, SS
25. Jackie Bradley, Jr., CF
26. Kolten Wong, 2B
27. Yadier Molina, C
Not every lineup can afford a glove-first position player, particularly at a position other than catcher, but over the past five to seven years, Simmons and Bradley have proved their defensive prowess. And while we equate defense with speed, neither Simmons nor Bradley were ever plus-plus runners, instead relying on their intelligence, ability to read the ball, and strong throwing arms to conjure outs.
Both have also occasionally been plus offensive contributors, but that hasn’t stuck in either case for more than a season or two at a time. Simmons could hit .290 and never strike out, or he could hit .250 with no power and never walk. Bradley could hit .270 with patience and power, or he could hit .220 and strike out 165 times. That’s the risk with both players, and that’s why they’re in the 20s on this list.
As a second baseman, Wong doesn’t represent the same kind of defensive value as a shortstop or center fielder, but he’s an outstanding defender and just a year removed from hitting .285/.361/.423 with 24 stolen bases and grabbing a few down-ballot MVP votes. He won’t be a fit everywhere, but on a team with an opening at second and a deep lineup that doesn’t necessarily need him to hit, he could be a tempting target.
As far as Molina, I know better than to, say, promise to walk to St. Louis if he leaves, but he’s not leaving St. Louis.
Tier IX: Relievers Named Trevor
28. Trevor Rosenthal, RHP
29. Trevor May, RHP
The closers for the Padres and Twins, respectively, are out of work this offseason. Rosenthal bounced back from a nightmarish 2019 to post a 1.90 ERA in 2020, while May recorded a career high K/9 ratio of 14.7 for the Twins. He also DJs in his spare time—his alter ego in the minors was DJ HEYBEEF—which is good news for the beat writers on his new team, who will be in need of human interest stories next Spring Training.
Tier X: The Rest of the Starting Pitchers
30. Garrett Richards, RHP
31. Adam Wainwright, RHP
32. Corey Kluber, RHP
33. Taijuan Walker, RHP
34. J.A. Happ, LHP
35. Cole Hamels, LHP
36. Jon Lester, LHP
37. Mike Minor, LHP
38. Robbie Ray, LHP
39. Mike Leake, RHP
The truncated 2020 season left behind an unusually large crop of pitchers who are coming off injury or some other misfortune, which means that this section of the list—ordinarily composed of Sacrifices to the Innings God—contains plenty of pitchers with long track records, upside, or both.
Even beyond this tier, there are plenty of pitchers who won’t get ranked on a top 49 list—Chris Archer, Rick Porcello, Jake Arrieta, Martin Perez—but have enough recent success to warrant more interest than a guy off the street. Which brings up an interesting subplot for this offseason: the musical chairs routine of starting pitchers. In addition to contenders with holes to fill in their rotations, the Yankees are letting three starters walk, the Blue Jays four, the Cubs two, the Reds two. It’ll be fascinating to see which teams let old, hurt, or mid-tier starters go only to end up back on the same carousel at a different spot.
Tier XI: The Last Group of Position Players Who Can Play a Significant Role on a Good Team
40. Enrique Hernández, UTIL
41. Jurickson Profar, UTIL
42. César Hernández, 2B
43. Carlos Santana, 1B
44. Brad Miller, UTIL
45. Robbie Grossman, OF
There are 41 active MLB players (42 in this search, including the just-retired Francisco Cervelli) with at least 2,500 big league plate appearances and a career OBP of .350 or better. Try to name as many as you can without looking up the answers. How many guesses would you have needed in order to get to César Hernández and Robbie Grossman? That’s how far out of mind these players tend to be, but even total afterthoughts who do one or two things well can turn into a cog on a winning team. As evidence—or at least a really fortuitous coincidence—all six of these players took part in this past postseason.
Tier XII: Relief Pitchers Worth Taking a Flyer On
46. Blake Treinen, RHP
47. Kirby Yates, RHP
48. Alex Colomé, RHP
49. Mark Melancon, RHP
50. Jeremy Jeffress, RHP
There are reasons to dislike every pitcher in this tier—and in the implied non-ranked tier that includes Shane Greene, Greg Holland, and others. But Treinen, Colomé, Melancon, and Jeffress all pitched high-leverage innings for playoff teams in 2020. Yates would have too, but after two years as one of the best one-inning closers in baseball, his campaign was scuttled by bone chips in his elbow. It’s a buyer’s market for experienced relievers, and unless the century-long trend toward heavier bullpen usage reverses itself, there’s never been a better time to stock up on arms like these.