Ranking the Top 25 MLB Players of the Upcoming 2021-22 Free-Agent Class

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2021

Ranking the Top 25 MLB Players of the Upcoming 2021-22 Free-Agent Class

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    A few big names have already left the 2020-21 MLB free-agent class.

    Francisco Lindor signed a 10-year, $341 million extension with the New York Mets at the start of the season, removing arguably the highest-profile player—if not the No. 1 talent—from the upcoming market.

    Catcher Salvador Perez also re-upped with the Kansas City Royals on a four-year, $82 million deal, while right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. stayed with the Houston Astros on a five-year, $85 million pact.

    Even with those three big names crossed off, there is still an abundance of impact talent set to possibly change teams this offseason, including a bumper crop of shortstops.

    Ahead we've laid out our preliminary ranking of the top 25 free agents based on expected production going forward, age and potential earning power.

    These rankings will be updated each month throughout the season, and 2021 performance will become a bigger factor as sample sizes grow.

    Players with opt-outs and team or player options were not included, but we listed them separately at the beginning.

    Off we go. 

Notable Opt-Outs and Club Options

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    Nolan Arenado
    Nolan ArenadoJeff Roberson/Associated Press


    • 3B Nolan Arenado
    • SP Trevor Bauer
    • RF Nick Castellanos


    Notable Club Options

    • C Tucker Barnhart, CIN ($7.5 million)
    • SP Johnny Cueto, SF ($22 million)
    • RP Jake Diekman, OAK ($4 million)
    • RF Avisail Garcia, MIL ($12 million)
    • 1B Yuli Gurriel, HOU ($8 million)
    • RP Craig Kimbrel, CHC ($16 million)
    • LF Andrew McCutchen, PHI ($15 million)
    • SP Wade Miley, CIN ($10 million)
    • C Roberto Perez, CLE ($7 million)
    • C Buster Posey, SF ($22 million)
    • 3B Jose Ramirez, CLE ($11 million)
    • 3B Kyle Seager, SEA ($15 million)

Nos. 25-21

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    Michael Pineda
    Michael PinedaJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    25. RHP Anthony DeSclafani, San Francisco Giants (Age: 31)

    DeSclafani appeared to be lining himself up for a nice payday when he posted a 3.89 ERA and struck out 167 batters in 166.2 innings in 2019, but an ugly 7.22 ERA in 33.2 innings last year torpedoed his stock, and he settled for a one-year, $6 million deal with the Giants. He's on his way to rebounding with a strong start, and he's just a few days removed from his 31st birthday, so a multiyear deal is a strong possibility.


    24. C Travis d'Arnaud, Atlanta Braves (Age: 32)

    A year after J.T. Realmuto and James McCann signed huge contracts, the catcher market will be relatively bare. The last time d'Arnaud hit the open market, he turned a solid year with the Tampa Bay Rays into a two-year, $16 million contract. If he can come close to matching his 2020 production, which earned him a Silver Slugger Award, another multiyear deal should be forthcoming.


    23. RHP Michael Pineda, Minnesota Twins (Age: 32)

    Pineda has been sidelined in his career by shoulder surgery, Tommy John surgery and a 60-game PED suspension. Otherwise, he's been mostly excellent since debuting in 2011 with an All-Star selection, and he has a 1.00 ERA and 0.72 WHIP through his first three starts. Age and injury history will limit his earning power, but he could still eclipse his current two-year, $20 million deal.


    22. RHP Jon Gray, Colorado Rockies (Age: 29)

    Gray has frequently teased the potential that made him the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft, but he has never put it all together. The burly right-hander has a 2.42 ERA and 3.27 FIP through four starts this year. His stock would climb even higher if he's traded, which would remove the drag of a potential qualifying offer as well.


    21. 2B/SS Marcus Semien, Toronto Blue Jays (Age: 30)

    One year after finishing third in American League MVP voting, Semien hit .223/.305/.374 and produced just 0.5 WAR in 53 games before taking his first trip onto the open market. He opted for a one-year, $18 million contract from the Blue Jays, but a loaded shortstop market could make it hard for him to capitalize, and a full-time shift to second base would diminish his value.

Nos. 20-16

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    Anthony Rizzo
    Anthony RizzoAssociated Press

    20. LHP Steven Matz, Toronto Blue Jays (Age: 29)

    The No. 13 prospect in baseball at the start of the 2016 season after an impressive six-start debut the previous year, Matz never lived up to the hype during his time with the New York Mets because of injuries and ineffectiveness. The left-hander was traded to Toronto in January and has exploded out of the gate with a 1.47 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in 18.1 innings while limiting opposing hitters to a .148 average.


    19. 1B/OF Mark Canha, Oakland Athletics (Age: 32)

    Canha is one of the biggest Rule 5 success stories in recent memory. He has a .395 on-base percentage and 142 OPS+ since the start of the 2019 season, and he has moved into the leadoff spot in the Oakland lineup this year. He fits best at a corner outfielder, but he has also proved to be a capable center fielder, which further adds to his appeal.


    18. RHP Zack Greinke, Houston Astros (Age: 37)

    The one-year, $15 million deal Charlie Morton signed with the Atlanta Braves this offseason looks like a reasonable expectation for Greinke's earning power. The future Hall of Famer has experienced a downturn in his strikeout rate (9.0 to 5.6 K/9) and an uptick in his FIP (2.80 to 4.34) in the early going, but there are few in the game who have a better feel for pitching. Don't bet against him as a contributor into his 40s.


    17. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, Boston Red Sox (Age: 28)

    Rodriguez will not turn 29 years old until after Opening Day next year, which is a major point in his favor in a pitching market that will be headlined by aging stars. After losing his 2020 season because of COVID-19 complications, E-Rod has returned with a 3.38 ERA and 0.88 WHIP through his first three starts. Command and health have always been big question marks for the left-hander, so his two walks in 16 innings are a promising development.


    16. 1B Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs (Age: 31)

    Rizzo is likely valued more by the Cubs than he will be on the open market, similar to how Justin Turner was viewed this offseason. The first major piece in a rebuild that culminated in a World Series title in 2016, Rizzo has become such a presence on and off the field that it's hard to envision his playing elsewhere. But for now, he is headed for free agency.

Nos. 15-11

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    Max Scherzer
    Max ScherzerAlex Brandon/Associated Press

    15. CF Starling Marte, Miami Marlins (Age: 32)

    Unless Michael A. Taylor puts together a breakout season with the Kansas City Royals, the center fielder class is going to be bare behind Marte. That could lead to a bidding war for him, depending on how many contenders need to upgrade at the position. With a pair of 20-20 seasons under his belt in 2018-19 and strong on-base skills, Marte is also a dynamic top-of-the-order presence.


    14. RF Michael Conforto (Age: 28)

    Assuming he snaps out of his early-season funk, Conforto should be one of the most sought-after hitters on the market. After slugging a career-high 33 home runs in 2019, he hit .322/.412/.515 with 21 extra-base hits in 233 plate appearances last year. Miscast as a center fielder early in his career, he fits well in right field and won't hurt a team defensively.


    13. RHP Max Scherzer (Age: 36)

    Scherzer is a year younger than Zack Greinke and has almost 600 fewer innings on his arm, but both pitchers are likely headed for short-term deals given their ages. After posting a 3.74 ERA last yearhis highest since 2012Scherzer is back to looking like a National League Cy Young Award candidate with a 1.80 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 25 innings. The drop-off can be precipitous, though, when a pitcher is on the other side of 35 years old, so teams will be cautious.


    12. RHP Lance Lynn, Chicago White Sox (Age: 33)

    Lynn throws almost exclusively fastballs—with a four-seamer (48.5 percent usage), cutter (25.4) and sinker (24.4)—giving him a profile similar to the late-career Bartolo Colon. He's off to a dominant start with a 0.92 ERA and 27-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19.2 innings, and he's been a top-of-the-rotation pitcher since the start of 2019.


    11. RHP Noah Syndergaard (Age: 28)

    Until Syndergaard returns to the mound and proves he's healthy following March 2020 Tommy John surgery, it will be hard to put him in the top 10 in these rankings. The 6'6" right-hander has some of the most electric stuff in baseball, but he has reached 30 starts just twice in his five-year career and comes with clear injury risk beyond the elbow injury (lat, finger and hamstring injuries).

Nos. 10-6

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    Marcus Stroman
    Marcus StromanDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    10. RHP Dylan Bundy, Los Angeles Angels (Age: 28)

    It's debatable whether Bundy will be a top-five pitcher in this loaded class, but the fact that he's only 28 years old makes him a more appealing target for a long-term investment than some of the bigger names. The No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft has been durable since becoming a full-time rotation member in 2017 after some early-career injuries, and he's fresh off the best season of his career in 2020, which resulted in a ninth-place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting.


    9. SS Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs (Age: 28)

    When things are going right, Baez is a dynamic two-way player capable of MVP-caliber production, evidenced by his runner-up finish in the balloting in 2018. However, he struggled through a brutal 2020 season that resulted in a 61 OPS+. He has five home runs this year, but he's also struck out a staggering 34 times in 73 plate appearances while hitting .206 with a .250 on-base percentage. The two-time All-Star could plummet down these rankings, or he could push for a spot inside the top five.


    8. LHP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers (Age: 33)

    Does anyone expect Kershaw to leave the Dodgers? He's several years younger than Greinke and Scherzer, but his 2,357.2 regular-season innings rank sixth among active pitchers, and he's tacked on 189 frames in the postseason. He's still pitching at a high level, and another three-year, $93 million deal is not out of the question, but there's a lot of mileage on that left arm.


    7. RHP Marcus Stroman, New York Mets (Age: 29)

    After suffering a torn left calf muscle and then opting out of the 2020 season, Stroman has returned with a vengeance after accepting a qualifying offer. The right-hander is 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA and 0.65 WHIP in 20 innings, and his bowling-ball sinker has been on point to the tune of a 59.6 percent groundball rate. Going beyond the stats, the fire and intensity he brings to the mound can be infectious.


    6. RHP Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants (Age: 30)

    As long as his splitter continues to confound hitters, Gausman is going to cash this offseason after accepting a one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer. Opponents hit .097 with a .139 slugging percentage against that offering a year ago while posting a 49 percent whiff rate, and those figures are even better (.091, .091, 50) this year. It's an elite pitch, and it's going to make him a lot of money.

5. 3B Kris Bryant

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Age: 29

    For all the flack he's taken for failing to live up to the lofty expectations that came with winning NL MVP honors in his second season, Kris Bryant has had a really good career.

    He struggled last season, just like a lot of good players, but he's not far removed from posting a 133 OPS+ with 31 home runs and 4.5 WAR in 2019.

    With a clean bill of health and an offseason of trade rumors in his rearview, Bryant is off to a terrific start for a team that has otherwise struggled mightily at the plate. He's hitting .283/.380/.617 with five doubles, five home runs and 12 RBI in 17 games.

    If the Chicago Cubs decide to blow it up this summer, Bryant will likely be the first big name they trade, and that would work to his benefit in free agency with a qualifying offer no longer in play.

4. 1B Freddie Freeman

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Age: 31

    It doesn't sound like the Atlanta Braves and star first baseman Freddie Freeman will come to terms on an extension in the near future.

    "I don't know if we can even talk right now. That would be a distraction, and I don't like distractions. My main focus is the game tonight, and I don't think there's going to be much talking any time soon," Freeman told reporters Tuesday.

    A second-round pick by Atlanta in 2007, Freeman has spent his professional career with the organization. With its title contention window wide open, it's hard to imagine the franchise would let its heart and soul walk.

    Fellow first baseman Paul Goldschmidt signed a five-year, $130 million extension with the St. Louis Cardinals that began in his age-32 season in 2020. That should be a useful starting point in negotiations, though Freeman can make a strong case to exceed that figure.

3. SS Carlos Correa

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    Still just 26 years old, Carlos Correa would be a strong contender for the No. 1 spot in the upcoming free-agent class if only he had a better track record of staying healthy.

    Since playing 153 games in his first full season in the majors in 2016, he has appeared in 65.6 percent of the Houston Astros' contests over the past five years.

    That has to be taken into account when considering what will almost certainly be a nine-figure investment.

    With a 126 OPS+ for his career, a stellar track record of postseason success that includes an .869 OPS and 17 home runs in 63 games and a rocket arm at shortstop, Correa has a superstar's toolbox.

    But similar to New York Yankees star Aaron Judge, it's tough to figure out where he ranks among the game's best when it's a roll of the dice whether he'll play 100 games.

    The Astros have no clear in-house replacement, and attracting any of the market's other top options could prove difficult, so expect Houston to make every effort to re-sign Correa.

2. SS Trevor Story

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    Let's talk about Trevor Story's home-road splits:

    • Home: 1,335 PA, .302/.367/.614, 84 HR
    • Road: 1,277 PA, .251/.316/.444, 50 HR

    They give reason for pause, but multiple players—DJ LeMahieu and Matt Holliday immediately come to mind—have succeeded after leaving the Colorado Rockies despite similarly dramatic splits.

    Looking at the bigger picture, Story is more than just offense.

    He's a stellar defender with 60 defensive runs saved at shortstop in his career, and he also makes an impact on the bases with consecutive 30-20 seasons in 2018 and 2019—and an NL-high 15 steals in 59 games a year ago.

    A midseason trade would give Story a golden opportunity to prove he can continue to produce at a high level without playing half his games at Coors Field. Then again, the floundering Rockies are inept enough to stand pat and lose him for nothing more than draft-pick compensation, so he may not become available.

1. SS Corey Seager

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    Corey Seager set a high bar with a pair of 5-WAR seasons to begin his MLB career, and after an injury-shortened 2018 and inevitable rust in 2019, he broke out as a superstar last season.

    He slugged 15 home runs in 52 games, posting career-highs in slugging percentage (.585) and OPS+ (152) to finish ninth in NL MVP voting, and he was just getting started.

    During the Los Angeles Dodgers' run to the World Series title, he hit .328/.425/.746 with eight home runs and 20 RBI in 18 games, winning National League Championship Series and Fall Classic MVP honors.

    He's a slightly below-average defender at shortstop, and there's a realistic chance his 6'4", 215-pound frame will eventually fit better at third base, but his bat will play anywhere. The fact that he's still just 26 years old makes him a great long-term investment too.

    Will the Dodgers pony up, or will they be content to slide Gavin Lux over to his natural position?


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Contract information via Baseball Reference.