2021-22 MLB free-agent superlatives: The player most likely to …

24 Nov 2021 | 09:09

We’re back with the fourth edition of free-agent superlatives — and this year’s free-agent class is certainly the most super we’ve seen in several years. What’s not so super is an offseason that may hit a wall thanks to the impending work stoppage at midnight on Dec. 1, when the owners will lock out the players, freezing transactions and signings, unless a last-minute deal can be struck on a new CBA. Let’s dig into some of the subplots and hope the owners and players can eventually agree to a new working agreement.

Most likely to get the biggest deal: Carlos Correa

This was not a foregone conclusion back in spring training. While one of the big-name shortstops would likely land the largest contract in free agency, all appeared capable of getting deals approaching or exceeding $200 million. Here’s how their seasons played out:

Francisco Lindor: Lindor signed a 10-year, $341 million extension with the Mets on April 1, forgoing free agency. Unfortunately for the Mets, Lindor hit just .230/.322/.412 in his age-27 season, missed time with an oblique injury and thought it was a good idea to “boo” the fans. The extension doesn’t even start until 2022. The agents for Correa (Jon Rosen) and Corey Seager (Scott Boras) will understandably link the Lindor contract as the basis for their clients, but teams may also view the deal more as a cautionary tale than an applicable comparison.

Correa: He had his best all-around season, hitting .279/.366/.485 with terrific defense (he deservedly won his first Gold Glove) and, most importantly, playing 148 games, after missing an average of 64 games per season from 20172019. Correa’s previous back issues will be a long-term concern and it’s worth noting the inconsistency in his slugging percentage through the years: .512, .451, .550, .405, .568, .383, .485. His two best slugging seasons came in 2017 (when he played 109 games and may have had a little extra help) and 2019 (when he played just 75 games). Still, he will be 27 on Opening Day and his combination of defense and power is too hard to resist.

Seager: He hit .306/.394/.521, with an otherwise excellent season interrupted when he missed 65 games with a broken bone in his hand. Like Correa, Seager’s injury history raises concerns. He missed the 2017 NLCS with a lower back injury, had Tommy John surgery in 2018 and sustained a hamstring injury in 2019. Due to the injuries and COVID, Seager hasn’t hit 20 home runs since 2017 and his career high is just 26. While his left-handed bat makes sense for the Yankees, note that Seager does not have a swing tailor-made for Yankee Stadium, as he pulled just seven of his 16 home runs and only three of those went to straightaway right field or down the line. The other long-term issue is how long he stays at shortstop. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric ranked him in the ninth percentile of shortstops. The Dodgers do a great job of positioning their fielders, but Seager’s range is limited, and the general belief is he may have to move to third base early on in a long-term deal.

Trevor Story: From 2018 to 2020, Story actually led all shortstops in Baseball-Reference WAR at 15.7 — but he hit .251/.329/.471 in 2021 and suffered a shoulder injury that affected his throwing. That leaves evaluators in a tough position of projecting not only his offense away from Coors Field, but his defense: Outs Above Average has him way down in the fourth percentile, but DRS (defensive runs saved) has him at plus-9 runs saved in 2021 and has always rated him an above-average defender.

Javier Baez: Baez was actually second behind Story in shortstop WAR from 2018 to 2020 (13.8), but after a miserable COVID season (.203/.238/.360) he needed to re-establish himself at the plate. He did that, especially after joining the Mets, although most are skeptical whether he can maintain the slightly improved plate discipline he showed in the Big Apple. He’s also two years older than Correa. The Mets may look to bring him back as a second baseman, but if he’s not playing alongside Lindor, Baez will look for a shortstop job somewhere else.

Marcus Semien: After setting a record for second basemen with 45 home runs, winning a Gold Glove and finishing in the top three of the MVP voting for the second time in three seasons, the industry mostly views Semien as a second baseman now. He’ll be 31 on Opening Day, so he won’t get the number of years that Correa or Seager will get, but he’s durable (10 missed games over the past four seasons), regarded as a great clubhouse guy and may be the most valuable of the group over the next three years.

Kiley McDaniel, in his rankings of the top 50 free agents, projects Correa getting shy of $300 million, Seager getting just north of $200 million and the other three well below that.

Best hitter available: Freddie Freeman

The MLB average OPS (not including pitchers) was .739 — and yet eight teams received production below that from their first basemen, including the Yankees, who will have to decide whether they want to move on from Luke Voit. The point here: Don’t put Freeman in a Braves uniform just yet, even if that remains the most likely ending. If the Yankees miss out on Correa or Seager, maybe they turn to Freeman as a backup plan.

We all know Freeman has been a model of consistent excellence (his shortened 2020 MVP season stands out as the outlier, albeit in a good way). He’s also entering his age-32 season, so the question isn’t what he’s done, but what he will do moving forward. The obvious contract comparison is the five-year, $130 million extension Paul Goldschmidt signed with the Cardinals that covered his age-32 to age-36 seasons. From 29 to 31, Goldschmidt had a 133 OPS+ (which included a down 2019 season after he signed the extension). In 2020-21, he’s at 144. So far, he’s held his value.

I’ve always compared Freeman to John Olerud — similar long-limbed build and all-fields style of hitting, although Freeman has more power. Through his age-31 season, Olerud had a 132 OPS+; through his age-31 season, Freeman has a 138 OPS+. Olerud played at that level for two more seasons. That’s just two examples. Should we point out Albert Pujols left the Cardinals for the Angels for his age-32 season? Or that Miguel Cabrera’s last big season was his age-33 season? Or that Mark Teixeira had a 132 OPS+ through age 31 and 107 after? Of course, Pujols and Cabrera broke down and Teixeira was a different style of hitter. Freeman should have many more years of elite production, but history tells us that’s not guaranteed.

Best fit for contenders who need a center fielder: Starling Marte

It’s not the best offseason if you need a center fielder. Other than Marte, Chris Taylor is the only other solid option and most teams will view him as a Swiss-knife utility player. But that’s good for Marte! He’s essentially one of a kind, coming off a 4.7-WAR season for the Marlins and A’s in which he hit .310/.383/.458 and stole 47 bases in 52 attempts. He’ll have many suitors, either as a center fielder or corner outfielder. Among the potential contenders who could use a center fielder: Mariners, Yankees, Mets and Phillies. The Tigers could be surprise bidders and the Braves have to decide if Cristian Pache will hit enough. If the Giants don’t re-sign Kris Bryant, Marte would be perfect to play all over the outfield. The Marlins (and A’s) could use him, but aren’t likely to spend the money.

A couple warnings. Marte rode a .372 BABIP to that .310 average, compared to career marks of .344 and .289. He’s also entering his age-33 season and center field is generally a younger man’s position. The only center fielder 33 or older who played 100 games at the position in 2021 was Brett Gardner. No. 2 and 3 on the list were Lorenzo Cain (70 games) and Shogo Akiyama (44 games). In 2019, only Cain played 100 games and only Gardner and Jarred Dyson also played more than 80. Still, Marte’s skills remain supreme, as he ranked in the 85th percentile in Outs Above Average and 83rd in sprint speed.

Potential bargain slugger: Kyle Schwarber

One aspect of the game that continues to baffle me is the anemic production teams are willing to receive from the DH slot. The Tigers (.537), A’s (.644), Rangers (.687), Mariners (.700) and Blue Jays (.707) all received a below-average OPS from their DHs. A couple other AL teams were barely above that .739 mark. National League DHs produced a collective .690 OPS in over 600 plate appearances. Many teams just prefer to rotate players through the position as an off day from playing defense, but that means teams aren’t necessarily maximizing offense at the position. The Mariners, for example, need offense and their DHs have been terrible since Nelson Cruz left, but president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has already said the team will use the DH slot to rotate players.

That gets us to Schwarber. With the universal DH likely coming in 2022, Schwarber should have interest across the sport, coming off a .266/.374/.554 season with 32 home runs in 113 games. Of course, he’s one offseason removed from the Cubs non-tendering him to save money, but he did also hit 38 home runs and slugged .531 in 2019. With the Nationals, Schwarber made a concerted effort to be more aggressive early in the count and that paid off with that historic stretch in June when he mashed 16 home runs in 18 games. What’s even more intriguing, however, is that after joining the Red Sox, he drew nearly as many walks (33) as he had strikeouts (39), leading to a .435 OBP in 41 games with them. If that is a real change in skill, you might get Freeman-like numbers for one-third the total price. Kiley projects Schwarber receiving a three-year, $45 million contract. I would love that deal if I’m looking to add a middle-of-the-order bat. Plus, he’s not a DH-only player. He’s passable in left field and learning first base.

Nick Castellanos is another DH/corner outfielder coming off a 3.2-WAR season. He might get paid a little more than Schwarber — Kiley predicted three years, $54 million — but note that 23 of his 34 home runs came at the cozy Great American Ball Park and his aggressive approach could become problematic as soon as his bat speed deteriorates, although a three-year deal should be fairly safe.

Most likely to put his team over the top: Max Scherzer

I usually like to pick a starting pitcher in this category, even if starting pitching has become devalued in the postseason. In 2019, I nominated Patrick Corbin and — ka-ching! — the Nationals won the World Series. In 2020, I went with Anthony Rendon, expecting him to sign with the Dodgers. Instead, the Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts and won the World Series. Right idea, wrong player. For 2021, the choice was Trevor Bauer, who got into legal hot water, which led to the Dodgers acquiring Scherzer, who came up with a dead arm in the postseason at exactly the wrong time.

Anyway, Scherzer is the most dominant starter available and due to his age he’ll be available on a short-term contract — think of the two-year, $66 million extension Justin Verlander signed with the Astros in 2019, or even Bauer’s complicated three-year contract with the Dodgers. All the big boys will be in the running, starting with the Dodgers looking to bring him back, not to mention the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Astros, Mets and maybe his hometown Cardinals. The deep sleeper teams include the Mariners and Tigers, both with money to spend.

What to expect in his age-37 season? He ended the season with that dead arm, perhaps the result of his relief appearance in the division series. He had two shorts stints on the IL with groin inflammation and triceps discomfort and also pitched through a sore hamstring in early September. He missed a few starts in 2019 with a back strain. All minor setbacks for a player who has been healthy in his career, but also signs he’s getting older. It’s hard to compare anybody to Scherzer, but since 2010 only three 37-year-olds have produced a 3.0-WAR season: R.A. Dickey (5.7 in 2012), Hiroki Kuroda (5.3 in 2012) and Charlie Morton (4.2 in 2021). At age 38, it’s just Kuroda and two relievers. Go back to 1995, and then you see some Scherzer-like talents pop up: Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, John Smoltz. Verlander finally broke down in 2020, in his age-37 season, so Scherzer isn’t risk-free. But the upside is so high.

Bad free agency timing award: Michael Conforto

From 2017 to 2020, Conforto hit .265/.369/.495 and averaged 3.9 WAR/150 games. He may have been in line for a multiyear deal approaching $100 million. His numbers dipped in 2021 to .232/.344/.384 — the stink of the Mets rubbing off on him. Statcast numbers suggest he was a little unlucky, but his hard-hit rate (balls hit at 95 mph or higher) has been in steady decline, peaking at the 88th percentile in 2017, dropping down to the 49th percentile in 2018-19 and down to the 39th percentile the past two seasons. He’s also declined in his sprint speed, so he could be starting to lose some of his skills. Kiley projected a three-year, $51 million deal — so he will still have plenty of money to invest in Rivian — but he may also end up taking the Mets’ qualifying offer.

Most likely to be the biggest steal: Chris Taylor

A year ago, I nominated Korean shortstop Ha-Seong Kim, who signed with the Padres and struggled at the plate. Taylor is a little old to be a premium free agent (entering his age-31 season), but if he comes in at Kiley’s projection (three years, $39 million), that feels like an absolute steal for a player who has produced 14.9 WAR since 2017 — more than Seager (granted, an injury in there), Marte or Conforto. The strikeout rate is a concern, but he’s not a hacker (92nd percentile in chase rate), gives you solid-to-plus defense all over the field, can run and hits for enough power. He’s also been an excellent postseason player. The Dodgers extended him a qualifying offer — a sign they would like to have him back, even if Taylor doesn’t accept it, but also damaging Taylor’s value as teams will now have to lose draft pick compensation if they sign him.

Most likely to be a bust: Carlos Rodon

Didi Gregorius was the correct answer here a year ago. I hope I’m wrong about Rodon, because he was so good in his comeback in 2021, going 13-5 with a 2.37 ERA in 132⅔ innings and whiffing batters like a left-handed Bugs Bunny (minus the slow ball). He missed time in August with shoulder fatigue and his velocity was down in September (although he was back up to 95 in a playoff start that lasted just 2⅔ innings), so this is more about potential health issues and durability than his ability. The White Sox did not extend Rodon a qualifying offer, which hints at what they think about his future health.

Helped himself the most in October: Eddie Rosario

This is a tricky category — front offices are smarter than a generation ago, so they know not to overrate one hot month. Indeed, the Twins non-tendered Rosario a year ago to save money and his half-season with Cleveland didn’t exactly inspire any standing ovations. Then he hit .383/.456/.617 in October with eight walks (one intentional) and 10 strikeouts. He seemed laser-focused on every pitch. His chase rate, 35% in the regular season, improved to 30%, although maybe that’s not significant over a small sample size. His other metrics were essentially the same, so it wasn’t really like it was a new-and-improved Eddie Rosario. Still, before October, he looked like a player who might have to scramble for a job. Now he’s in line for a one-year, $10 million deal — maybe back in Atlanta.

Most fascinating free agent of all: Robbie Ray

Ray won the Cy Young Award after leading the AL in ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched and WHIP, but this was also a player who walked 7.8 batters per nine innings in 2020 and who owns a 4.00 career ERA. Is he an ace, a solid mid-rotation starter, or whatever you want to call the 2020 version? As Kiley wrote in his list of the top of free agents, there are a lot of similarities to Corbin, who had a career year in 2018 and signed a six-year, $140 million deal with the Nationals that … well, the Nationals got a ring in 2019 out of it. The Hyun-Jin Ryu contract ($20 million per season) over four years is a more likely scenario for Ray, but maybe some team goes an extra year to something like five years, $100 million.

Most in-demand reliever: Andrew Chafin

If baseball is a copycat sport, watching the Braves win the World Series with Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter and Will Smith dominating in October means lefty relievers will be the new “Scott Hatteberg can play first base.” Chafin had been a LOOGY during his Diamondbacks days (70-plus games each season from 2017 to 2019, but with a high of 52 innings pitched), but with the three-batter rule he pitched 68⅔ innings and posted a 1.83 ERA for the Cubs and A’s, holding both lefties and righties to a sub-.200 batting average. He’ll be affordable (projected contract of two years, $18 million), which will increase demand.

The legend looking for a job: Albert Pujols

After he hit .196 in 24 games to begin the season, the Angels released Pujols in May and his career appeared to be over. The Dodgers, however, signed him four days later — Cody Bellinger, Seager, A.J. Pollock and Edwin Rios were all injured at the time (the Dodgers signed Pujols the day after Seager landed on the IL with his broken hand). Pujols hit .254/.299/.460 with the Dodgers — not great, but a league-average OPS. He also hit .304/.348/.568 against southpaws with the Dodgers (including the postseason). OK, a platoon DH is still hard to fit onto a roster in this era, but maybe there’s a role for an all-time great like Pujols, who has said he wants to keep playing. He can barely run and you have to note that he hit just .235/.288/.453 against lefties from 2018 to 2020, but I suspect some team will give him a chance to play. If the DH does come to the NL, how about a reunion with the Cardinals, him and Yadier Molina going out together?