13 MLB Players Primed for Massive Paydays in 2021-22 Free Agency

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 31, 2021

13 MLB Players Primed for Massive Paydays in 2021-22 Free Agency

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The 2021 Major League Baseball season is only about a third of the way done, so there's still plenty of time for members of the upcoming free-agent class to gain or lose value.

    For now, though, it's becoming clear which stars stand to strike it rich this winter.

    We see 13 players in particular who have put themselves in line for massive paydays—i.e., either huge overall guarantees or sizable average annual values—on the 2021-22 market. Some were already positioned well coming into the year, while others have sent their stock soaring with their work in April and May.

    Let's start with some honorable mentions and then count 'em down according to their presumed value.

Honorable Mentions and Opt-Out Candidates

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    Michael Conforto
    Michael ConfortoJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    RF Michael Conforto, New York Mets

    He's only 28, and he had a 133 OPS+ and 97 home runs between 2017 and 2020, but right now he's a guy with a 99 OPS+ and a serious hamstring injury. So while he may yet rescue his stock, his current track might force him to bet on himself in a one-year contract.


    1B Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs

    His credentials speak for themselves, but the fact that he's hit only 16 home runs in 104 games since the start of last season raises questions as to whether he still has power worthy of a star first baseman.


    1B Brandon Belt and SS Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants

    Belt (133 OPS+) and Crawford (143 OPS+) are having strong offensive seasons, and they figure to benefit accordingly in free agency. Yet both are also well north of 30, and neither is going to be the top option at his respective position on the winter market.


    Other Honorable Mentions

    • LF Mark Canha, Oakland Athletics
    • SP Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals
    • SP Jon Gray, Colorado Rockies
    • SP Zack Greinke, Houston Astros
    • SP Lance Lynn, Chicago White Sox
    • RHP Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres
    • INF/OF Chris Taylor, Los Angeles Dodgers


    Potential Opt-Out Candidates

    • 3B Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals
    • SP Trevor Bauer, Los Angeles Dodgers
    • RF Nick Castellanos, Cincinnati Reds
    • DH/OF J.D. Martinez, Boston Red Sox

13. RHP Matt Barnes, Boston Red Sox

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Age: 30

    2021 Stats: 23 G, 18 GF, 24.0 IP, 11 H (2 HR), 41 K, 5 BB, 2.63 ERA, 168 ERA+, 1.0 rWAR

    Matt Barnes cemented himself as a quality reliever between 2017 and 2020, specifically to the extent that he could rack up strikeouts. Among relievers, only Edwin Diaz and Brad Hand whiffed more batters in that span.

    Barnes was vulnerable, though, because he was prone to the home run ball (24 HR) and free passes (111 BB). That obviously hasn't been the case in 2021, so what gives?

    For starters, he's simply attacking the strike zone more aggressively than he had between 2017 and 2020. That's specifically benefited his first-pitch strike percentage, and getting ahead in the count like that has made it that much easier for him to get hitters to chase his curveball.

    Ultimately, a .138 average against and 41 strikeouts out of 85 total batters faced underscore just how dominant Barnes has been so far in his walk year. If he keeps it up, he can go into free agency with eyes on a rare reliever contract for $50-plus million.

12. SP Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    2021 Stats: 8 G, 8 GS, 48.2 IP, 23 H (7 HR), 72 K, 12 BB, 1.29 ERA, 318 ERA+, 2.1 rWAR

    As he's made only eight starts this season, it's perhaps premature to assume that Carlos Rodon has put himself in line for considerable riches in free agency. Yet it's amazing that it's even a possibility.

    Rodon was in the big leagues less than a year after the Chicago White Sox drafted him third overall in 2014, but he could never quite break all the way out in his early years. Then his career got derailed by shoulder surgery in 2017 and Tommy John surgery in 2019.

    But now Rodon is healthy and, at least per his .137 batting average against, the most unhittable starting pitcher in MLB. Chalk that up to a fastball that's sitting at a career-high 95.3 mph, but even more so to a slider against which hitters are just 1-for-52 with 37 strikeouts.

    Because of durability and workload concerns, it's hard to say whether teams will rush to sign Rodon to a long-term deal this winter. But even in a shorter contract, his average salary could approach 10 times the $3 million he's making this season.

11. 2B Marcus Semien, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Mike Carlson/Associated Press

    Age: 30

    2021 Stats: 52 G, 233 PA, 13 HR, 8 SB, .297 AVG, .365 OBP, .550 SLG, 152 OPS+, 2.9 rWAR

    Marcus Semien was one of the best players in baseball in 2019, as he finished with a 140 OPS+ and 30 home runs while also ranking third among all position players with 8.6 rWAR.

    However, Semien had never been that good before and he immediately backtracked to a 90 OPS+, seven homers and 0.5 rWAR. That took the helium out of his free-agent stock, forcing him to settle for a one-year deal that also necessitated a move from shortstop to second base.

    Semien's willingness to bet on himself is paying off. He already has four outs above average at his new position. Further, about 21 percent of his batted balls are in the sweet spot to his pull side—the likes of which have a 1.396 slugging percentage league-wide.

    So when he reaches free agency this winter, Semien will be able to market himself as both a slugger and a versatile defender. His current $18 million salary could be the baseline AAV for a multiyear deal.

10. SP Marcus Stroman, New York Mets

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Age: 30

    2021 Stats: 10 G, 10 GS, 58.1 IP, 48 H (6 HR), 46 K, 13 BB, 2.47 ERA, 155 ERA+, 0.9 rWAR

    After opting out of last year's shortened season, Marcus Stroman could have sought a multiyear deal in free agency. Instead, he went the value-building route by accepting the New York Mets' qualifying offer.

    That decision is going well so far. Thanks to his trusty sinker, Stroman is once again one of the league's top ground-ball artists with a 54.2 ground-ball percentage. His slider, cutter and splitter have also been in fine form, as opposing hitters are under the Mendoza line against all three pitches.

    As a free agent, Stroman's market might be hindered by a couple factors. For one, he's not the kind of strikeout specialist that teams like to have atop their rotations. For two, some teams might figure it's only a matter of time before his undersized 5'7", 180-pound frame breaks down.

    Other teams, however, might simply see a guy who gets outs and who's also a terrific athlete with efficient mechanics. One of those is bound to sign him for multiple years and up to nine figures in dollars.

9. SP Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

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    Mike Carlson/Associated Press

    Age: 36

    2021 Stats: 11 G, 11 GS, 69.1 IP, 43 H (11 HR), 95 K, 14 BB, 2.34 ERA, 163 ERA+, 1.8 rWAR

    Max Scherzer is at an age where he ought to have no right looking anything like the pitcher who was an annual All-Star and three-time Cy Young Award winner between 2013 and 2019.

    And yet he does.

    Though it's not quite vintage, his 94.0 mph fastball is still very good. His slider and changeup are likewise in fine form, holding hitters to a combined .136 average. And much of his dominance still comes within the strike zone, where he has the second-lowest contact rate among NL starters with at least 60 innings.

    Because of Scherzer's aforementioned age, he can probably only hope for a two- or three-year contract as a free agent this winter. However, even one of those should pay him easily north of $30 million per year.

8. SP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Age: 33

    2021 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 70.1 IP, 55 H 8 HR), 77 K, 13 BB, 3.33 ERA, 112 ERA+, 1.3 rWAR

    Clayton Kershaw has it all now. Five ERA titles. Three Cy Young Awards. An MVP. And most recently, and perhaps most crucially, a World Series ring.

    And he's still going strong.

    To be sure, Kershaw isn't the same guy who led all pitchers (by far) with 47.0 rWAR between 2011 and 2017. But even his diminished fastball is still above the 90 mph threshold, and he has the right idea in using his deadly slider for nearly 50 percent of his pitches. His command, meanwhile, remains impeccable. 

    At his age, Kershaw isn't going to be in the market for a long-term contract as a free agent this winter. But even if it's just in a two- or three-year pact, he should match or even top the $31 million average annual value of his current deal.

7. SS Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    2021 Stats: 47 G, 190 PA, 11 HR, 8 SB, .254 AVG, .291 OBP, .480 SLG, 114 OPS+, 1.7 rWAR

    As always, you just never know when Javier Baez is going to do something amazing.

    At the plate, there's no telling when he might uncork a titanic home run. In the field, he's a Gold Glove-winning shortstop with range, quick hands and a strong arm. And on the bases, he's capable of stealing a base or doing something to bamboozle the opposition.

    Trouble is, it simply can't be ignored that Baez has struck out 131 more times than he's walked over 106 games since the start of last season. His zone discipline has never been worse than it is right now, and the same is distressingly true of his in-zone whiff rate.

    Because his very real upside is matched by very real downside, Baez figures to be the least desirable of the four star shortstops slated to hit free agency this winter. Yet he's still a candidate for a multiyear deal, the guarantee for which could approach nine figures.

6. 1B Freddie Freeman, Atlanta

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Age: 31

    2021 Stats: 49 G, 216 PA, 12 HR, 2 SB, .239 AVG, .366 OBP, .472 SLG, 122 OPS+, 0.6 rWAR

    This is a weird thing to say about a guy who just won the NL MVP in 2020, but Freddie Freeman is probably still underrated.

    Even at just 21 years old, he was a pretty good hitter in his first year as a full-time major leaguer in 2011. He was a great hitter by 2013, and he's remained as such ever since. As of now, he's the only player who's topped 200 plate appearances and a 120 OPS+ annually over the last nine seasons.

    Freeman may never have another season like his 2020 campaign, in which he hit .341/.462/.640 with an MLB-high 37 extra-base hits. But even if his results don't reflect as much, he's retaining above-average offensive metrics pretty much across the board in 2021.

    Given that Freeman is also a Gold Glove-winning defender, he might have a shot of at least matching Paul Goldschmidt's five-year, $130 million contract this winter.

5. SS Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Age: 27

    2021 Stats: 37 G, 169 PA, 4 HR, 1 SB, .265 AVG, .365 OBP, .422 SLG, 120 OPS+, 0.7 rWAR

    With regard to the injury bug, Corey Seager hasn't caught many breaks in recent years. He had both Tommy John and hip surgery in 2018, and he's since landed on the injured list with hamstring and hand injuries.

    At this point, it's also fair to wonder if Seager is long for shortstop. At 6'4", 215 pounds, he's always been on the big side for the position. And while the small sample size must be noted, his metrics (see here and here) for 2021 have leaned decidedly on the below-average side.

    Nevertheless, a healthy Seager is one heck of a hitter. He showed as much as recently as last season, in which he had a .943 OPS in the regular season and a 1.171 OPS in the playoffs. He gets by on aggressively attacking pitches in the zone and generating exit velocity that few other shortstops can contend with.

    So even if some teams think Seager would be better off at third base or first base, he's bound to have a strong enough market for a multiyear, nine-figure deal.

4. SP Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    Age: 30

    2021 Stats: 11 G, 11 GS, 70.2 IP, 41 H (4 HR), 83 K, 16 BB, 1.40 ERA, 269 ERA+, 3.6 rWAR

    One only needs to go back to 2019 to find a time when Kevin Gausman was a barely functional major league pitcher. He pitched 102.1 innings that year and allowed 113 hits and 65 earned runs.

    He's since pitched 130.1 innings for the San Francisco Giants over the last two years, allowing only 35 earned runs on 91 hits and 32 walks with 162 strikeouts. So what, exactly, changed?

    For one thing, he's throwing his four-seam fastball higher in the zone. For another, he's sticking with the increased splitter usage that he experimented with in 2019. Each of those two pitches is among the most valuable in baseball right now, and he's apparently been doing all of this even with a bothersome hip issue.

    Because of his spotty track record and the small sample over which his recent dominance has occurred, Gausman might not be looking at a megadeal in the $200 million range. Even still, the $150 million threshold should be in play for him.

3. SS Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    2021 Stats: 50 G, 205 PA, 5 HR, 8 SB, .255 AVG, .322 OBP, .424 SLG, 95 OPS+, 0.5 rWAR

    Between 2018 and 2020, Trevor Story arose as possibly the best shortstop of them all as he averaged a 123 OPS+ with 28 home runs and 22 stolen bases. In all, his 15.8 rWAR led all shortstops.

    Even before he landed on the injured list with elbow inflammation, Story's numbers painted a picture of a step back. But some of that is bad luck. His strikeout rate is down and his rate of batted balls in the sweet spot is within normal parameters. Ultimately, he deserves more than twice as many homers as he has.

    From a long-term perspective, Story's home/road splits raise a question as to whether he'll be able to succeed away from Coors Field. But thanks to DJ LeMahieu's success in New York and Nolan Arenado's recent achievements in St. Louis, that question might not loom as large as it has in years past.

    So when teams look at Story, they might simply see the best of a very strong class of free-agent shortstops. It'll be a surprise if his next deal doesn't eclipse $200 million.

2. SS Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    2021 Stats: 50 G, 216 PA, 8 HR, 0 SB, .274 AVG, .356 OBP, .458 SLG, 127 OPS+, 2.0 rWAR

    The tale of Carlos Correa is one of two careers.

    In his first three seasons between 2015 and 2017, his rising superstardom was marked by a 137 OPS+ and 18.5 rWAR. Over the last four seasons, however, he's been more good than great in the process of compiling a 113 OPS+ and 10.4 rWAR

    But if nothing else, Correa will have youth going for him when he hits the open market. Teams will also have reasons to buy into his offensive upside. Beyond just his track record, there's the reality that he's still making both consistent and generally loud contact in 2021.

    Especially according to outs above average and defensive runs saved, Correa is also a standout defensive shortstop in spite of his 6'4", 220-pound frame. So even if he can't get into the exclusive $300 million club, he should be able to make a run at $200 million.

1. 3B/OF Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    Age: 29

    2021 Stats: 49 G, 208 PA, 11 HR, 2 SB, .320 AVG, .404 OBP, .586 SLG, 177 OPS+, 2.2 rWAR

    Even though he was an All-Star in 2019, Kris Bryant simply wasn't the same player between 2018 and 2020 that he had been between 2015 and 2017.

    In those first three years, he was a Rookie of the Year and MVP who averaged a 141 OPS+ and 31 home runs per season. In the latter three, he slipped to a 122 OPS+ and 22 homers per year. Injuries to his shoulder and finger didn't help, yet the league also adjusted to his launch-angle-focused swing.

    Now Bryant has a new swing that's more direct to the ball, allowing him to make up for a diminished launch angle with a higher rate of batted balls per swing and his highest hard-hit rate since his rookie season.

    Because he can ably play third base, right field and left field, Bryant will also have defensive versatility going for him in free agency. So as long as his revitalized offense lasts the season, he should have a shot at a $200 million contract.