Way-Too-Early Rankings For MLB's 2022-23 Free Agent ClassJanuary 5, 2022
Major League Baseball's 2021-22 free-agent market hasn't yet closed up shop, so saying it's "too early" to be looking ahead to next winter's market is an understatement.
But in our defense, there's not a whole lot else to do with the end of the lockout nowhere in sight. So we figured, what the heck?
Though the 2022-23 class of free agents doesn't look quite as top-heavy as the one for this winter, to our eyes it's deep enough to warrant a more thorough preview than a simple ranking of the best players.
Which is to say that, while we will eventually make our way to a top five, we first have to check off all the breakout hopefuls, lesser stars and proper stars who will be worth monitoring in free agency following the conclusion of the 2022 season.
These Guys Have a Lot Riding on 2022
This might as well be known as the "Marcus Semien Bracket" of next year's free-agent class. As awful as his 2020 was, Semien saved face in 2021 by having his second MVP-caliber season in three years. His reward: a seven-year, $175 million deal with the Texas Rangers.
There's no better candidate to follow in Semien's footsteps in 2022 than Noah Syndergaard.
After Tommy John surgery in 2020 and just two return appearances in 2021, the right-hander's one-year, $21 million pact with the Los Angeles Angels is the very definition of a "prove it" contract. And prove it he just might, so long as he stays healthy and cranks out fireballs like he did while he was pitching to a 132 ERA+ between 2015 and 2018.
In the same boat as Syndergaard are fellow starters Mike Clevinger and Jameson Taillon in 2022. If there's a reliever to be thrown in there, it's Corey Knebel. This year is a prime chance to show he can stay healthy and that he can handle the ninth inning as the Philadelphia Phillies' new closer.
On the position player side, 2022 could be Gary Sanchez's last best chance to show he can still be a star behind the plate. Heck, anything less than a 30-homer season like the ones he had in 2016 and 2018 could spell the end of his days as an everyday catcher. As it is, his hold on that role with the New York Yankees is already tenuous.
Though it's commendable that he won a Gold Glove in 2021, Andrew Benintendi's future may also hinge on his bat. The 27-year-old looked like an advanced hitter with developing power back in 2017 and 2018, but has since toed the league average with a 99 OPS+ and 30 homers in 286 games.
The Not-Quite Stars
Contrary to this winter's weak crop of backstops, there's actually going to be some good catching talent available next offseason even if Sanchez doesn't turn things around. Christian Vazquez and Tucker Barnhart are excellent everyday defenders, while Omar Narvaez and Max Stassi at least receive well and can also hit a bit.
There will also be a solid collection of second-tier outfielders, including Adam Duvall, David Peralta, Robbie Grossman, Manuel Margot, Tyler Naquin and maybe Lorenzo Cain, provided he can stay healthy in 2022 and is game to return for his age-37 season in 2023
Speaking of veterans who may yet have something left in the tank, 34-year-old J.D. Martinez isn't yet an afterthought even after a dismal 2020 and an up-and-down 2021. The same goes for Jesus Aguilar, who's continued to be a mostly above-average hitter following his 35-homer peak with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018.
On the border of stardom is where we put Enrique Hernandez and Adam Frazier. They've certainly hit like stars in spurts, but the more reliable aspect of their games is their versatile defense. That's especially true of Hernandez, who's won a Fielding Bible Award as a utility man in each of the last two seasons.
On the mound, Cy Young Award winners Corey Kluber and David Price are positioned to reestablish value after mostly falling off the radar—save for when Kluber did, you know, that last May—over the last three seasons. If not, the likes of Kyle Gibson, Wade Miley, Merrill Kelly, Zach Eflin and Andrew Heaney will be the top mid-to-back-end rotation options.
Among relievers, Zack Britton will represent a significant upside play once he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Otherwise, Chad Green, Michael Fulmer, Matt Wisler, Daniel Hudson, Pierce Johnson, Luke Jackson and Trevor May will be semi-affordable options for the late innings.
The Actual Stars
The catchers mentioned above are good, yet not on the same tier as Willson Contreras and Mike Zunino. The former is a two-time All-Star with a career 112 OPS+, while the latter is fresh off being an All-Star for the first time amid a 33-homer outburst in 2021.
There's also going to be a good assortment of sluggers at first base, including established, yet aging, stars like 2020 American League MVP Jose Abreu, 2021 AL batting champion Yuli Gurriel and Brandon Belt, who's put up an elite 165 OPS+ when he's been healthy over the last two seasons.
On the younger end of the spectrum, there will be Josh Bell and Trey Mancini. Sure, both come with defensive limitations. But if all you want is 30-homer power, you could do worse. Bell topped out with 37 in an All-Star season in 2019, while Mancini hit 35 that same year.
In the outfield, Mitch Haniger will be yet another source of 30-homer power on next winter's market. Teams could otherwise look to Michael Brantley and Brandon Nimmo, who more so specialize in batting average and on-base percentage, respectively. Brantley has hit over .300 in each of the last four seasons, while Nimmo boasts a stellar .393 OBP for his career.
At least as far as the batsmen are concerned, maybe the biggest wild card for next winter's market is Dansby Swanson. The shortstop hasn't quite lived up to being the No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft, yet he's at times been a plus defender and he ran into some power by hitting 27 homers in 2021. He'll only be 28 on Feb. 11.
For teams in need of arms next winter, Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Bassitt, Joe Musgrove, Sean Manaea will make for a solid foursome of No. 2-type starters. Each provided north of 150 innings of above-average pitching in 2021, and Eovaldi was even third among all qualified starters in FanGraphs WAR.
Next winter's market for late-inning relievers will notably be headlined by Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman, who boast 678 combined saves and the two highest strikeout rates in major league history. Yet each will also be coming off his age-34 season, so closer-needy teams would be justified in preferring Ryan Pressly, Edwin Diaz or Taylor Rogers.
This winter's market has already paid out nine-figure deals to six different players, and there's a good chance that Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Kris Bryant and Trevor Story will join the club on the other side of the lockout.
At least for now, the 2022-23 market doesn't look like it's going to have that many stars with that much earning power. Yet there are at least five players who we think will head into free agency with superstar credentials worthy of $100 million or more.
5. RF Joey Gallo, New York Yankees
Yankees fans who watched Gallo hit just .160 in 58 games after coming over from the Rangers in July might bristle at the idea that he's a superstar. And to be sure, no honest assessment of him can ignore that he strikes out more than any other hitter.
Yet power and defense are certainly Gallo's two best calling cards. He had 40-homer seasons in 2017 and 2018 and is fresh off a 38-homer campaign in 2021, many of which were of the no doubter variety. He's also won back-to-back Gold Gloves, for which he can thank both his range and his tremendous arm strength.
In spite of the strikeouts, Gallo led the AL with 111 walks in 2021. He's also a better baserunner than you'd expect a 6'5", 250-pounder to be. And since he'll only be off his age-28 season when he enters free agency, he should be a couple years away from his twilight.
4. RF Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
If there are worries about Judge's future beyond 2022, they're his age and durability. He'll be 31 before the end of April 2023, and it's no great surprise that he's had issues keeping his 6'7", 282-pound frame healthy. Frankly, there's a lot of him that can get hurt.
But when Judge is healthy, he hits. So much so that he ranks third behind Mike Trout and Juan Soto in OPS+ among hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances since 2017. This is to say nothing about his colossal power, which produced 52 homers in '17 and 39 in '21.
Though he doesn't have Gallo's Gold Gloves, metrics like defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating tag Judge as a quality defender in his own right. Throw in how an altered offseason routine helped lead him to the healthiest season of his career in 2021, and he's trending nowhere but up at just the right time.
3. RHP Jacob deGrom, New York Mets*
This is assuming that deGrom will opt out of his contract with the Mets, which is slated to pay him $32.5 million in 2023 with a $32.5 million option for 2024. Which, of course, requires also assuming that the sprained UCL that ended his 2021 season after 15 starts stays in the past.
But if it does, the two-time Cy Young Award winner will have little reason not to use his opt out. Numerous stats point to deGrom as the best pitcher in baseball over the last four years, up to and including his league-best WAR at FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.
Though deGrom will be off his age-34 season, even a shorter deal for him could potentially top Max Scherzer's record-setting average annual value of $43.3 million.
2. SS Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox*
Bogaerts would be turning away $60 million guaranteed through 2025 if he were to opt out after 2022, yet ESPN's Joon Lee reported that's what the 29-year-old plans on doing.
Understandably so, at that. Five shortstops have signed for upwards of $140 million just since last spring, and Bogaerts indeed has the goods to be next in line. Shortstop is a relatively light offensive position, so it's no small thing that he's been the most valuable offensive player at the position since 2018.
The only thing that keeps Bogaerts from claiming the top spot on this list are the questions hanging over his glove. His metrics are not good, and arguably even bad enough to necessitate conversations about a move to second or third base.
1. SS Trea Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers
Considering what he's capable of, it's a little astonishing that Turner only just earned his first All-Star nod in 2021.
As he leads the majors with 201 thefts since 2016, nobody is doing more to keep the stolen base alive than Turner. The 28-year-old has also really come into his own at the plate over the last two seasons, hitting an MLB-high .330 while also slugging .551. The latter is up from .470 between 2016 and 2019.
Turner's defensive metrics at shortstop have gone up and down, but have generally leaned positive. That's not the only advantage he has over Bogaerts, as he's also younger even though both players will technically play their age-29 season in 2022.
Even if his personal statistics in the playoffs aren't much to speak of, yet another bullet point on Turner's resume is that he has a World Series ring from the Washington Nationals' victory in 2019. So as he's otherwise done it all, signing a megadeal is the next logical step for him.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.