Ranking the 2020 MLB Free-Agent Class by Position
Literally hundreds of players are looking for work on Major League Baseball's free-agent market, so to rank all of them would be too daunting of a task.
Instead, we thought we'd focus attention on which positions have the best pools of talent.
For this, we sorted position players based on their primary positions and divided starting pitchers and relief pitchers by which hand they throw with. From there, we considered each position's star power and overall depth. The more of both it had, the better.
Let's count 'em down.
13. Right Fielders
Top Star: Adam Eaton
Second Tier: Josh Reddick, Ryan Braun, Cameron Maybin
Buy Low: Yasiel Puig
Here's where things are frankly grim.
Adam Eaton played well for the Washington Nationals in 2019, posting a .792 OPS in the regular season and eventually a .993 OPS and two home runs in the World Series. Yet he missed much of 2017 and 2018 with injuries, and he's coming off a brutal season (i.e., minus-0.9 rWAR) in 2020.
Eaton, 31, is truly more of a buy-low option after having his $10.5 million option for 2021 declined by Washington. Fellow 30-somethings Josh Reddick, Ryan Braun and Cameron Maybin are merely platoon options at this point. Braun, who turns 37 on Nov. 17, might also be destined for designated hitter duty.
If anything, Yasiel Puig might be the most interesting player on this market. The 29-year-old is a one-time All-Star who's perhaps primed for a big comeback in 2021 after sitting out the 2020 season.
12. Left-Handed Relief Pitchers
Top Star: Brad Hand
Second Tier: Jake McGee, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Oliver Perez, Aaron Loup
Buy Low: Andrew Chafin, Mike Montgomery
Brad Hand wasn't supposed to be a free agent this winter, but Cleveland chose not to pick up his $10 million option.
Just like that, the open market received a three-time All-Star with a 2.70 ERA since 2016. In 2020, even diminished velocity didn't keep Hand, 30, from a 2.05 ERA with 25 more strikeouts than walks in 22 innings.
Jake McGee, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Oliver Perez and Aaron Loup offer value as lefty specialists. That role seemed to be on ice when MLB implemented a three-batter minimum for pitchers, but those five nonetheless found steady work and achieved a collective 2.67 ERA in 2020.
Though he had a tough time in 2020, Andrew Chafin was formerly a reliable lefty specialist in his own right. Before he missed much of this season with a lat strain, Mike Montgomery had a track record of effective service as a long reliever and spot starter.
11. Left-Handed Starting Pitchers
Top Star: J.A. Happ
Second Tier: Drew Smyly, Brett Anderson, Martin Perez, Rich Hill
Buy Low: James Paxton, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, Mike Minor, Cole Hamels, Gio Gonzalez, Alex Wood
After he flopped with a 4.91 ERA in 2019, nobody in New York was particularly excited about J.A. Happ going into 2020. Yet the 38-year-old reasserted himself by posting a 3.47 ERA in nine starts.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Drew Smyly quietly posted a 3.42 ERA and whiffed 42 batters in only 26.1 innings. Brett Anderson and Martin Perez both persisted as capable back-end innings-eaters. Rich Hill only made eight starts, yet the 40-year-old did his usual thing of acquitting himself well with a 3.03 ERA.
The most interesting aspect of the market for left-handed starters, however, is the buy-low options.
Each of those six guys has been an ace in the past and may be again in 2021 under the right circumstances. Because they're only 32 and 31, respectively, James Paxton and Jose Quintana may be especially likely to bounce back after having their 2020 seasons cut short by injuries.
10. Designated Hitters
Top Star: Nelson Cruz
Second Tier: Edwin Encarnacion
Buy Low: Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce, Yoenis Cespedes
Even after averaging an .897 OPS and 41 homers from 2014 to 2018, Nelson Cruz found yet another level in 2019 and 2020. In 173 total games, he slammed 57 long balls and racked up a 1.020 OPS.
Given that he's now 40 years old, there's some doubt as to whether Cruz can keep this up in 2021 or 2022. But knowing how much the two sides want a reunion, the bigger question may be whether any team other than the Minnesota Twins can sign him.
Otherwise, there frankly isn't much to see here.
After hitting an MLB-high 297 homers from 2012 through 2019, Edwin Encarnacion—who'll turn 38 on Jan. 7—mustered only a .627 OPS and 10 homers in 2020. Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce are also coming off difficult seasons, while Yoenis Cespedes hasn't had a star-caliber campaign since 2016.
9. First Basemen
Top Star: Carlos Santana
Second Tier: C.J. Cron, Mitch Moreland, Jedd Gyorko
Buy Low: Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames, Ryan Zimmerman
Cleveland wasn't necessarily wrong to deem Carlos Santana unworthy of a $17.5 million salary for 2021, yet some teams might still see him as a middle-of-the-order hitter.
Even though he only had a .699 OPS overall in 2020, Santana maintained his patient approach en route to an AL-high 47 walks and a solid .349 OBP. This came on the heels of arguably a career-best season in 2019, in which the 34-year-old had a .911 OPS and 34 home runs.
Even after missing most of 2020 because of knee surgery, C.J. Cron will get looks as a potential 30-homer slugger for 2021. Mitch Moreland (.938 OPS vs. RHP) and Jedd Gyorko (1.048 OPS vs. LHP) each maintained as a dangerous platoon threat this season.
After down years in 2020, Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames both have intriguing platoon potential in their own right. After opting out of playing this year, Ryan Zimmerman could be a comeback candidate for 2021.
8. Third Basemen
Top Star: Justin Turner
Second Tier: Jake Lamb, Todd Frazier, Asdrubal Cabrera, Brad Miller
Buy Low: Marwin Gonzalez, Brock Holt
Despite Justin Turner's reckless flouting of MLB's coronavirus protocols during the World Series, the 35-year-old figures to be in demand this winter.
His viability as an everyday third baseman is waning, but his bat should still pack a wallop in 2021. He racked up a stellar .302/.382/.503 slash line in seven seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he might have actually under-achieved in a 2020 campaign marked by a .307/.400/.460 line.
Jake Lamb fell from grace after making the NL All-Star team in 2017 but found new life (i.e., an .882 OPS) in 13 games with the Oakland Athletics at the end of 2020. Todd Frazier, Asdrubal Cabrera and Brad Miller, meanwhile, did their typical "versatile veteran hitter" thing this season.
Marwin Gonzalez and Brock Holt had less fun in 2020, but one only need to go back to 2019 to find the last time each was hitting well while playing all over the diamond defensively.
Top Star: Marcus Semien
Second Tier: Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Freddy Galvis
Buy Low: Ehire Adrianza, Adeiny Hechavarria
The big question here is obvious: What even is Marcus Semien?
For most of his eight-year career, he's been a dependable but unremarkable player. His 2019 season, however, points to much greater potential. If the 30-year-old can get back on the track that led him to an .892 OPS, 33 homers and 8.9 rWAR that year, a team stands to gain an MVP-caliber shortstop.
Otherwise, don't sell Didi Gregorius or Andrelton Simmons short. The former has hit more home runs as a shortstop since 2016 than all but three others. The latter has had issues with his ankles in each of the last two seasons, yet his defense alone might make him a Hall of Famer one day.
There's nothing special about Freddy Galvis, save for the not-insignificant reality that he's a competent everyday shortstop. Ehire Adrianza and Adeiny Hechavarria are more so utility guys, albeit ones who hit surprisingly well at certain points of the 2019 season.
6. Right-Handed Relief Pitchers
Top Star: Liam Hendriks
Second Tier: Trevor Rosenthal, Alex Colome, Mark Melancon, Jeremy Jeffress, Shane Greene, Greg Holland, Tyler Clippard, Blake Treinen, Trevor May, Joakim Soria, Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Anthony Bass, Chaz Roe
Buy Low: Kirby Yates, Roberto Osuna, Brandon Workman, Keone Kela
For teams in need of a right-handed reliever, this winter's market is practically overflowing with options.
At the top of the list is Liam Hendriks. The last two seasons have seen the 31-year-old Australian post a 1.79 ERA with 161 strikeouts, 24 walks and only six home runs allowed in 110.1 innings. By rWAR, he's been easily the most valuable reliever in MLB during this span.
Trevor Rosenthal, Alex Colome, Mark Melancon and Jeremy Jeffress were dominant closers in their own right in 2020, combining for a 1.76 ERA. The other members of our "second tier" each performed well in setup roles, and a couple of them—Shane Greene and Greg Holland, especially—also offer closer potential.
As both were formerly overpowering closers before being felled by elbow injuries in 2020, Kirby Yates and Roberto Osuna present significant buy-low opportunities. So do Brandon Workman and Keone Kela, each of whom dominated his way through the 2019 season.
Top Star: J.T. Realmuto
Second Tier: Yadier Molina, Wilson Ramos, James McCann, Jason Castro, Mike Zunino, Kurt Suzuki
Buy Low: Robinson Chirinos, Tyler Flowers, Alex Avila
Catcher is the most important position on the defensive spectrum, and J.T. Realmuto is the best there is.
Though it's not ideal that he'll turn 30 on March 18, teams can and should be more interested in his catcher-leading 14.5 rWAR since 2017. He's been good for an .812 OPS on offense, and his defense has earned elite marks for framing and catch-and-throw times.
Even at 38 years old, Yadier Molina makes the cut as a capable everyday catcher. So does Wilson Ramos, while James McCann, Jason Castro, Mike Zunino and Kurt Suzuki would each fit well as the primary part of a timeshare behind the dish.
Robinson Chirinos looked his age in 2020, but the 36-year-old previously averaged a .777 OPS and 14 homers from 2014 to 2019. Tyler Flowers and Alex Avila will be hoping to get on the comeback trail for 2021 after forgettable seasons in 2020.
4. Center Fielders
Top Star: George Springer
Second Tier: Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Pillar, Jake Marisnick
Buy Low: Juan Lagares, Michael A. Taylor, Billy Hamilton, Jarrod Dyson
If he wasn't 31 years old, George Springer would be perhaps the top position player on this winter's market.
His seven seasons with the Houston Astros yielded an .852 OPS with 174 home runs, not to mention an .895 OPS and 19 long balls in the playoffs. Though his reputation initially suffered from Houston's sign-stealing scandal, his 2020 campaign proved to be business as usual as he racked up an .899 OPS and 14 homers.
Jackie Bradley Jr. had a darn good season in his own right, tallying an .814 OPS and seven outs above average on defense. Kevin Pillar and Jake Marisnick (who admittedly only played in 16 games) each performed well as platoon outfielders in 2020.
Need defense? Consider Juan Lagares and Michael A. Taylor. Just want some speed off the bench? Billy Hamilton and Jarrod Dyson await your call.
3. Left Fielders
Top Star: Marcell Ozuna
Second Tier: Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson, Brett Gardner, Nick Markakis, Robbie Grossman
Buy Low: Domingo Santana
Marcell Ozuna bet on himself when he accepted a one-year, $18 million offer from Atlanta in January. It worked.
After posting a good-not-great .777 OPS across the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, the 30-year-old broke back out with a 1.067 OPS and NL-best 18 homers in 2020. All that stemmed from eye-popping batted ball metrics, such as his 96th percentile exit velocity.
The catch with both Ozuna and Michael Brantley is that neither should be playing left field on an everyday basis. But Brantley, 33, is a heck of a hitter in his own right, having slashed .309/.368/.484 over the last three seasons.
Even after Joc Pederson had a down year in 2020, his track record against right-handed pitching stands out. Brett Gardner, 37, and Nick Markakis, 36, are both aging well, while Robbie Grossman is fresh off posting a solid .826 OPS in 2020. For his part, Domingo Santana was a capable slugger as recently as 2019.
2. Second Basemen
Top Star: DJ LeMahieu
Second Tier: Tommy La Stella, Cesar Hernandez, Jonathan Schoop, Kolten Wong, Jurickson Profar, Enrique Hernandez
Buy Low: Jonathan Villar, Jason Kipnis, Brian Dozier, Joe Panik
Though DJ LeMahieu isn't the best position player on this winter's market, it's easy to make a case for him as the best pure hitter in baseball right now.
The 32-year-old has struck out only 111 times in 871 plate appearances over the last two seasons, and 326 of his batted balls have registered at least 95 mph in exit velocity. Accordingly, he's slashed .336/.386/.536 with 36 home runs.
Tommy La Stella (.819 OPS), Cesar Hernandez (.763 OPS) and Jonathan Schoop (.799 OPS) also hit well in everyday capacities in 2020. Kolten Wong won his second straight Gold Glove, while Jurickson Profar carved out a niche next to Enrique Hernandez as a capable super-utility man.
Jonathan Villar has also played that role well in the past and may do so again after a lost season in 2020. Jason Kipnis, Brian Dozier and Joe Panik are fallen stars who might yet have some magic left.
1. Right-Handed Starting Pitchers
Top Star: Trevor Bauer
Second Tier: Masahiro Tanaka, Charlie Morton, Taijaun Walker, Garrett Richards, Adam Wainwright, Rick Porcello, Jake Arrieta, Mike Fiers
Buy Low: Corey Kluber, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Leake, Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez, Collin McHugh
Trevor Bauer technically had competition for the National League Cy Young Award, but he rightfully won it in a landslide.
Bauer, 29, had a brilliant 2020 campaign marked by an NL-best 1.73 ERA and a 100-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 73 innings. When coupled with a 2018 season that earned him an All-Star nod and AL Cy Young votes, his recent resume mostly resembles that of a true No. 1 starter.
Masahiro Tanaka and Charlie Morton have also worn that label at times. After years of battling injuries, Taijuan Walker and Garrett Richards finally enjoyed good health and production in 2020. At the least, Adam Wainwright, Rick Porcello, Jake Arrieta and Mike Fiers fit the bill as veteran innings-eaters.
Much like with the market for lefty starters, there's also a fine assortment of buy-low options. There's none greater than two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, who'll look to stay healthy in 2021 after making only eight starts between 2019 and 2020.