Way-Too-Early MLB Free-Agency Predictions Post-2021 Trade Deadline
- Who needs them?
- Who can afford them?
- Who might want them the most?
Now that one of the wildest trade deadlines in history has come and gone, Major League Baseball's next major period of player movement won't be here until free agency opens up after the World Series.
Is it too early to tell where this winter's top free agents will end up? Well, of course. But we have a fresh round of predictions anyway.
For this, we focused on the top 10 players available this offseason and picked where they'll sign based on three considerations:
Alrighty then, let's count 'em down.
10. 2B/SS Marcus Semien: Seattle Mariners
2022 Age: 31
After an MVP-caliber season for the Oakland Athletics in 2019, Marcus Semien tanked his free-agent value as he put up just 0.4 rWAR in 2020.
Rather than insist on a multiyear deal, Semien bet on himself with a one-year, $18 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays that, in something of a twist, also necessitated a move from shortstop to second base.
Semien has more than just met the challenge, as he co-leads American League position players in rWAR alongside teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. So barring a total collapse in the season's final two months, he could be in line for a deal approaching nine figures this winter.
The Bay Area native could return home to join the San Francisco Giants, as Brandon Crawford's and Donovan Solano's upcoming free agency will open up needs at shortstop and second base. But if they opt to focus on re-signing the newly acquired Kris Bryant and perhaps seek other big fish, Semien will have to look elsewhere.
To pick one team out of the hat, the Seattle Mariners should be ready to make moves this winter after what's been a rebuild-busting season. They could see Semien as a nice fit next to Gold Glove-winning shortstop J.P. Crawford, and they'll certainly have the flexibility to sign him.
9. SS Javier Baez: Toronto Blue Jays
2022 Age: 29
Where players want to end up in free agency is typically not for public consumption, but Javier Baez went ahead and spilled the beans in a recent radio interview:
"If I go to the free agency, I would like to play with Francisco Lindor. I loved playing with him in the World Classic. It is the only option I would take to play second base if it is to play with him, otherwise I stay playing at shortstop."
The New York Mets granted Baez's wish ahead of time by acquiring him from the Chicago Cubs on deadline day. This winter, they could re-sign Baez so he can play alongside Lindor for years to come.
Given what's happened with Lindor in 2021, however, there is the nagging suspicion that the Mets will be reluctant to spend up to nine figures on another volatile middle infielder. They might not be alone there, as Baez hasn't exactly boosted his stock by hitting just .230/.270/.439 over his last 151 games.
Yet there might be a place for Baez in Toronto. He would fit in well with the team's free-swinging offense and, as a Gold Glover and four-time Fielding Bible award winner, he'd be a substantial defensive upgrade over Bo Bichette, who could move into Semien's vacated shoes at second base.
8. SP Clayton Kershaw: Los Angeles Dodgers
2022 Age: 34
Alas, both legendary hurlers are also ticketed for the open market this winter. And while he's still a very good pitcher, it's no secret that Kershaw isn't what he once was. It's perhaps even less of a secret that he's good for at least one stint on the injured list per season at this stage of his career.
If the Dodgers opt to move on from Kershaw this winter, the native of Highland Park, Texas could seek out a homecoming with the Texas Rangers or perhaps wind up elsewhere in California with the Los Angeles Angels or Giants—the latter of whom are headed by former Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi.
But if this sounds like mere lip service, well, that's because it frankly is.
Even if he has to take a significant pay cut on the $31 million he's made in each of the last three seasons, it's just plain hard to imagine Kershaw leaving the Dodgers. It's simply too good of a partnership, and it doesn't sound as if Kershaw himself has any designs on leaving.
7. SP Max Scherzer: Los Angeles Dodgers
2022 Age: 37
Even though he's older than Kershaw by a couple years, Scherzer is showing very few signs that he's about to stop being a No. 1 starter any time soon.
It's not just his numbers. It's also the extraordinary lasting power of his stuff. Scherzer still sits in the mid-90s with his fastball, and his rate of in-zone contact is the second-lowest among qualified starters.
Scherzer will only be in the market for short-term deals that likely won't exceed a three-year commitment. He's nonetheless going to be expensive, presumably with a salary in the $30-35 million per year range.
It's also easy to assume that Scherzer will only want to pitch for a World Series contender, so his market is going to be limited. If he sticks to his preference to pitch on the West Coast, he'll also only have six real options: the Dodgers, Giants, San Diego Padres, Angels, Mariners and Oakland Athletics.
Perhaps the most likely scenario there is a bidding war between the Dodgers and Giants. Even if they also re-sign Kershaw, the former's deep pockets and loaded roster—just look at how many key players San Francisco stands to lose to free agency—could be the difference in reeling Scherzer back in.
6. 1B Freddie Freeman: Atlanta
2022 Age: 32
Freddie Freeman hasn't been quite as dominant in 2021 as he was in 2020, in which he overcame a bad case of COVID-19 to win the National League MVP.
Freeman has nonetheless been very good as he's added to a track record that is almost unfathomably consistent. As of now, he's the only player in baseball to have put up a 130 OPS+ over at least 250 plate appearances in each of the last nine seasons.
There's no shortage of teams that would love to have that kind of consistency at first base. To name just a few suitors for him this winter, it's possible to imagine Freeman eventually manning first base for the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees or the Giants if they don't retain Brandon Belt.
However, this hinges on Freeman actually leaving Atlanta, which has always had the likelihood of a pig sprouting wings and taking to the sky.
5. SP Kevin Gausman: Los Angeles Angels
2022 Age: 31
Though his post-All-Star slump is raising alarms, Kevin Gausman has arguably raised his stock more than any other impending free agent throughout the 2021 season.
After a successful yet obviously abbreviated breakout in 2020, Gausman has ridden his deadly fastball-splitter combination into the conversation for the National League Cy Young Award. He ranks fourth among NL hurlers in both rWAR and strikeouts.
After retaining him via the qualifying offer last winter, the Giants will actually have to play ball with Gausman if they want him to stick around this winter. That could involve paying him upward of $100 million, which, to be fair, should be within the organization's price range.
There will certainly be competition for Gausman, however. The Dodgers could try to poach him, and other potential fits include the Mets, Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays and Houston Astros.
But if it's a question of which team could be especially desperate for Gausman, the Angels might see him as a fix for a starting rotation that's put up a 5.30 ERA over the last three seasons. With him, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon all on the same roster, maybe then they would finally be able to make the playoffs.
4. SS Trevor Story: San Francisco Giants
2022 Age: 29
Poor Trevor Story. As if it wasn't bad enough that he was having a down year, the Colorado Rockies seemingly blindsided him when they failed to rent him out to a contender ahead of the deadline.
"I don't have really anything good to say about the situation and how it unfolded," he said, according to Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post.
On the plus side, Story only has to put up with the Rockies for two more months. And in spite of the numbers he's put up this year, it's hard to see him having to make a Semien-like gamble on himself with a one-year deal. This is, after all, a guy who led all shortstops in rWAR between 2018 and 2020.
The Yankees could circle back on Story after expressing interest in him before the deadline. What would be more interesting, though, is if the Giants also rekindle the interest they showed in Story.
With Brandon Crawford headed for free agency and top prospect Marco Luciano not quite ready, the Giants might be willing to back up the truck for Story. As a member of the National League West, they can also offer him something the Yankees can't: regular chances to stick it to the Rockies.
3. SS Corey Seager: New York Yankees
2022 Age: 28
From start to finish, it's possible that nobody had as good of a season as Corey Seager in 2020.
In the regular season, he slashed an excellent .307/.358/.585 with 15 home runs in 52 games. He was then even hotter in the postseason, hitting .328/.425/.746 in an 18-game journey that culminated in him winning World Series MVP honors.
Granted, all this looks like an outlier relative to Seager's performances in 2018 and 2019, as well as this year, in which he missed significant time after breaking his hand on a hit-by-pitch. But because of his youth and his proven offensive upside at a premium position, he's bound to be a hot commodity on the open market.
If the Dodgers don't re-sign Seager—which is less likely now that Trea Turner is in town—he could move north to San Francisco to reunite with Zaidi and Gabe Kapler, who was the Dodgers director of player development when Seager was in the minor leagues.
Yet our eye is on the Yankees, who could see Seager as both an improvement over Gleyber Torres at shortstop and as the kind of capable left-handed hitter they're going to need this winter. Though they have Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo for now, the latter is due for free agency.
2. 3B/OF Kris Bryant: New York Mets
2022 Age: 30
Prior to the deadline, there was perhaps no sweepstakes more interesting than the race to acquire Kris Bryant.
The instant the Giants ended up with him, Bryant's upcoming free-agent value got a boost from his immediate disqualification from receiving a qualifying offer. With the Giants in first place, he should also get a shot to further boost his value with a heroic performance in October.
As it is, Bryant's track record already includes a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, four All-Star nods and a World Series ring. He's been an above-average hitter in all but one of his seven seasons (2020), and he's a capable defender at third base, first base, left field and right field.
So no matter what happens in October, Bryant's market should be huge. The Giants will surely try to re-sign him, though they're bound to face stiff competition from one team in particular: the Mets.
Before ending up with Baez, the Mets were known to be interested in Bryant. Come the winter, they'll need a replacement for Michael Conforto (an impending free agent) and could also stand to upgrade over J.D. Davis at third base, so they may deem it worthwhile to circle back on Bryant in an effort to kill two birds with one stone.
1. SS Carlos Correa: Philadelphia Phillies
2022 Age: 27
It hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows for Carlos Correa since he joined the Astros in 2015. He's had his share of injuries, and he was something of a central figure in the team's cheating scandal from 2017.
But do you know who leads all shortstops in rWAR over the last seven seasons? That's right. This guy.
The numbers that Correa is putting up this year are a reminder that he's one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball when he's right. With more outs above average than all but three other shortstops since 2018, he's also a lot better than he gets credit for on defense.
Factoring in how Correa will be unusually young for a free agent, there's little question that he stands to be the top player on the market. He'll surely be eyeing a $300 million deal, which will naturally limit his options to a small handful of teams.
The Giants could certainly favor Correa over Story, and he could fit with the Yankees and Blue Jays as well. But after getting MLB-worst production from shortstop this season, it should surprise nobody if Philadelphia Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski makes Correa a priority this winter.