MLB Players with the Most to Prove for Rest of 2022 Regular Season
Everyone who takes the field in a Major League Baseball game has something to prove, but several players have much more to prove than others do over these final two months of the regular season.
Each of the eight players on this list will either become a free agent after this season, or there is a player option in his contract which gives him the ability to hit free agency. That means there is quite a bit of money at stake.
Each of these eight players also plays for a team that at least has a realistic shot at making the playoffs this season. That means a big opportunity to contribute to a playoff push and/or a World Series run.
In several cases, the player is either recovering from an injury or attempting to prove in advance of free agency that he can actually stay healthy for an entire season for a change. There are also multiple cases in which the player was traded prior to the August 2 deadline and now needs to prove himself in his new threads.
However you want to slice it, these guys potentially stand to gain a ton of money, respect and/or legacy with a strong finish.
Players are presented in no particular order.
Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
After missing all of 2020 and all but two innings in 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, this was always going to be a "prove it" year for Noah Syndergaard.
He signed a one-year, $21 million deal with the Angels, hoping to show there's enough left in his surgically repaired, 29-year-old arm to be worthy of a long-term deal this coming offseason. And with a 3.83 ERA and 7.2 K/9 through his 15 starts in Los Angeles, it's unclear if he has done enough to get a four-year, $100 million type of offer. (At least he has been able to stay healthy, though.)
But now that he was traded from an Angels team with no postseason hope to a Phillies team clinging for dear life to the final wild-card spot, the one they call Thor has that much more to prove.
Syndergaard's first start in his new threads was less than stellar. He got the win in a rain-shortened game, but he gave up 11 hits (second-most in his career) and struck out just two batters against the hapless, Juan Soto-less Nationals.
If he's able to start every fifth game (and if there aren't any rainouts), his next five projected starts will be against the Marlins, the Reds, the Mets, the Pirates and the Diamondbacks. And, without question, the Mets one is the big one. It will be his first time pitching against his former team, and it will be a critical one in Philadelphia's quest for the postseason. If he can put forth a seven-inning, one-run, six-strikeout type of effort in that start, it might single-handedly get him that long-term deal.
Joey Gallo, LF, Los Angeles Dodgers
From 2017-21, Joey Gallo routinely mashed baseballs for the going-nowhere-fast Rangers. Had he done the same in New York, he would have become a very rich man when he hits free agency this offseason—nothing near what Aaron Judge is going to fetch, but some team surely would have ponied up something in the range of six years, $140 million for a 28-year-old slugger who homers at a 162-game pace north of 40.
With the short porch in right field, Yankee Stadium should have been the ideal launching pad for Gallo.
To put it lightly, it didn't work out that way. In 68 games played there since last year's trade deadline, Gallo hit .163 and slugged .361 with just 11 home runs. And one year after giving up four players to get him (and Joely Rodriguez), the Yankees unloaded the remainder of his $10.275 million salary to the Dodgers for a single minor league pitcher with a 5.75 ERA this season.
Can he at least show signs of life in Los Angeles and possibly convince someone that he's still worth an eight-figure-per-year, multiple-season contract this offseason? Or will he look hopelessly lost at the plate for yet another contender and end up settling for a one-year, $7 million type of deal with a team like the Reds or Tigers, hoping that a rebound year in 2023 will lead to a big payday next offseason?
Sean Manaea, LHP, San Diego Padres
Among Padres, one could easily argue that Fernando Tatis Jr. has the most to prove down the stretch, since they've been waiting forever for his wrist to heal and built one heck of a contender at the trade deadline. But they're committed to FTJ through 2034, and it's impending free agent Sean Manaea who has the most to gain or lose with his play the rest of the way.
Manaea got out to a sensational start in San Diego, tossing seven no-hit innings against the Diamondbacks in his Padres debut. He followed up that gem with back-to-back quality starts against the Giants and Reds. But he has a 6.60 ERA over his last nine starts, most recently getting bludgeoned for eight earned runs in Friday's loss to the Dodgers.
FanGraphs still believes in Manaea a little bit, giving him a 1.1 WAR for the year. Baseball Reference is nowhere near as kind, putting him at a negative-0.5 WAR. Among pitchers who have logged at least 90 innings pitched this season, only Patrick Corbin (negative-2.5 WAR) rates worse than Manaea in the eyes of Baseball Reference.
If he doesn't figure things out soon, the Padres may have no choice but to replace Manaea in the starting rotation with Nick Martinez.
Boston did that with Martin Perez around this time last August, and he ended up needing to settle for a one-year, $4 million deal in free agency. Granted, Manaea's track record before this season (3.86 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.9 K/9) was much more impressive than Perez's pre-2021 numbers (4.71 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 5.9 K/9), so he'll surely fare better than $4 million.
However, Spotrac's calculated market value of six years, $122 million for Manaea feels like a pipe dream at this point. Maybe with a respectable finish, though, he can get something close to that as opposed to taking a one-year, $13-ish million deal with the goal of getting that big payday next offseason. And if he does finish strong, San Diego should make the playoffs.
Aaron Judge, OF, New York Yankees
What does Aaron Judge have left to prove after getting through the first two-thirds of the season on pace for around 65 home runs?
Well, that he can stay healthy for the latter third, which is what this season was all about for his contract situation.
Judge reportedly turned down New York's offer of a seven-year, $213.5 million extension before this season began, meaning he will become a free agent this offseason. He knew that if he could stay healthy in 2022—after missing a combined total of 156 games from 2018-21—he would be able to prove himself worthy of more than $30.5 million per year.
Even if he were to suffer a season-ending injury today, given how dominant he has been over the past four months, Judge would get better offers than the one the Yankees made him in the spring. Teams would likely be wary of committing to seven or more years (unless it's a contract loaded with "games played" incentives), but five years for $200 million is within the realm of possibility.
But if he stays healthy, keeps destroying baseballs and actually breaks Roger Maris' single-season Yankees record of 61 home runs, the subsequent contract offers will be outrageous. Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg both signed seven-year, $245 million deals in 2019, but a seven-year deal for Judge would presumably be more in the $275 million range.
That's without accounting for any potential postseason heroics, either. If he hits 62-plus home runs during the regular season and then swats another 8-10 en route to New York's first World Series title since 2009, he might make more in 2023 than the entire payroll of several teams.
Carlos Rodon, LHP, San Francisco Giants
From 2015-20, Carlos Rodon had a cumulative ERA of 4.14 and was seemingly incapable of making it through a season without a trip to the IL. So even after flirting with the 2021 AL Cy Young (in 24 starts), no one was willing to commit to a long-term contract with him.
He ended up with the Giants on a two-year, $44 million deal, in which the $22.5 million player option for the second season would only be available to him if he pitched at least 110 innings.
Rodon has already reached that innings threshold, and if the season ended today, there is no question that he would be declining that player option and getting a longer-term, higher-paying deal on the open market. He has a sub-3.00 ERA and has made seven starts in which he went at least six innings, allowed one or zero runs and struck out at least eight batters.
Can he stay healthy for the next two months, though, and in the process obliterate his previous career highs of 28 starts and 165.0 innings pitched, both set back in 2016?
Moreover, could his pitching prowess potentially help bring the Giants back into the postseason picture? They entered play Sunday seven games back for the last wild-card spot, but Rodon could do some serious damage in the 10 or so starts that he has left to come.
Taylor Rogers, LHP, Milwaukee Brewers
On August 1, Josh Hader was leading the majors with 29 saves. Taylor Rogers was in second place with 28. But when the Padres traded Rogers and three other players (Dinelson Lamet, Esteury Ruiz and Robert Gasser) to the Brewers for Hader, the unanimous reaction was that the Brewers got fleeced in the deal.
What a slap in the face for Rogers, who started out this season almost as well as Hader did.
Through his first 20 appearances, Rogers had a 0.44 ERA and a 0.64 WHIP with 17 saves. At the time, he was well on his way to a second consecutive trip to the All-Star Game, but an 8.16 ERA over the course of the next six weeks kept that from happening.
So which one is the real Rogers?
From 2018-21, he had a 2.91 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and 50 saves. Per FanGraphs, he was the fifth-most valuable reliever over the course of those four years. And his fielder independent pitching (2.34 this season; 2.52 from 2018-21) suggests he's still that same stud. He has just had a few unlucky stretches this season.
If his luck turns and he starts putting up solid numbers again over these next two months in Milwaukee, that would be huge for the 31-year-old, left-handed reliever who is about to hit free agency for the first time in his career.
There are only about a dozen relief pitchers making eight figures per year, but three of those highest-paid arms are lefties Aroldis Chapman, Will Smith and Zack Britton. Rogers could join that club with a strong finish.
Nolan Arenado, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals
A seven-time All-Star, nine-time Gold Glove recipient and four-time Silver Slugger at 31 years of age, Nolan Arenado is already a borderline Hall of Fame third baseman.
But is he still good enough to opt out of the five years, $144 million left on his contract after this season and get a better deal elsewhere?
As things currently stand, the answer is a resounding "yes."
Teammate Paul Goldschmidt has way better odds of being named NL MVP, but Arenado has been every bit as valuable as Goldy. In fact, both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference say Aaron Judge is the only hitter who has been worth more wins above replacement in 2022 than Arenado.
While it's highly unlikely he would get a five-year deal worth $200 million, he's easily on track for better than five years, $144 million if he declines his 2023 player option and hits free agency.
Before worrying about what to do in the offseason, though, Arenado wants to prove in the current campaign that he can be an asset in the playoffs.
He'll first need to help carry St. Louis to that finish line, whether it's as the NL Central champs or as a wild-card team. But Arenado has played in just six postseason games thus far in his career with a pedestrian .428 OPS in those contests. That includes an 0-for-4 dud (with at least one man on base in all four at-bats) in last year's Wild Card Game loss to the Dodgers.
Similar to Aaron Judge, if Arenado keeps up his current pace for the rest of the regular season and has a strong showing in the playoffs, he might as well be printing money.
Jacob deGrom, RHP, New York Mets
When healthy, Jacob deGrom is as good as it gets. He has a 2.49 career ERA since his debut in 2014 and an even more absurd 1.94 ERA since the start of 2018. Last year, he made 15 starts with a 1.08 ERA. It was the first time a pitcher finished a season with a sub-1.10 ERA and at least 90 innings pitched since Ferdie Schupp in 1916.
Best in more than a century? Not too shabby.
And after an absence of nearly 13 months, he's back. He only threw 59 pitches in his five-inning debut against the Nationals, but he looked great, topping out at 101 MPH while allowing just three hits.
If he stays healthy for the rest of the season and plays a key role in the Mets holding off the Braves and Phillies for the NL East crown, buckle up for a fascinating offseason bidding war.
He has a $30.5 million player option for 2023, followed by a $32.5 million club option for 2024. But one year removed from 37-year-old Max Scherzer getting a three-year, $130 million deal in free agency, you've got to think 34-year-old deGrom would be worth something close to five years at $200 million—say it with me this time—if he stays healthy.
So long as he doesn't suffer an injury that necessitates Tommy John surgery, he's all but certain to opt out this offseason. There's no question he could do better than two years for $63 million on the open market, even if he sputters through the rest of this season. But both the average salary and the number of years on the deal will surely hinge on how these next two to three months play out.