Upcoming MLB Free Agents Boosting Their Stock the Most in 2021

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2021

Upcoming MLB Free Agents Boosting Their Stock the Most in 2021

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Superstars Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant and Trevor Story have long been expected to be the headliners of the 2021-22 MLB free-agent class, and they are all poised to cash in this winter.

    Other high-profile players like Freddie Freeman, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Javier Baez, Marcus Stroman and Anthony Rizzo are also headed for the open market, and their stock has been largely unchanged during the 2021 season.

    However, there are a handful of players who have considerably boosted their free-agent profile thanks to a strong showing this year.

    Ahead we've highlighted the six upcoming free agents who have done the most to improve their earning power during the 2021 campaign.

    Included for each player you'll find a pair of statistical reference points of my own creation:

    • WAR/100 (Pitchers): A pitcher's WAR total divided by his total innings pitched and then multiplied by 100, thus giving us his WAR per 100 innings pitched. The idea is to make it easier to contextualize WAR totals across different sample sizes.
    • WAR/500 (Hitters): A hitter's WAR total divided by his total plate appearances then multiplied by 500, thus giving us his WAR per 500 plate appearances. The idea is to make it easier to contextualize WAR totals across different sample sizes.


Honorable Mentions and Notes

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    Brandon Crawford
    Brandon CrawfordAaron Gash/Associated Press

    Here are a few notes on guys who were not included in the list before we get started:

    • San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford is having a fantastic bounce-back season with 4.1 WAR and the best offensive numbers of his career. However, he'll turn 35 years old in January and the offseason shortstop market is deep. Chances are he's still headed for a short-term deal.
    • Los Angeles Dodgers super-utility man Chris Taylor was an All-Star for the first time this year, and with a 138 OPS+ and a terrific .377 on-base percentage he has developed into an impact player offensively. That said, he was already a well-regarded player coming off a 2.0-WAR season in 56 games last year. His 2021 performance has served more to solidify his free-agent stock than to boost it.
    • Relievers Yimi Garcia (HOU) and Heath Hembree (CIN) are pitching in a high-leverage role for the first time in their career this season and have no doubt raised their profile as a result, though not enough to earn a spot on the list.
    • Don't sleep on Tyler Anderson as a candidate for a multi-year deal thanks to a 4.35 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 93 strikeouts in 113.2 innings. The 31-year-old has battled injuries throughout his career, but he's been a workhorse this season for the Pirates and Mariners.
    • Anthony DeSclafani was one of the more appealing buy-low candidates on the pitching market last offseason when he signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the Giants. The 31-year-old has a 3.28 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 118 strikeouts in 126.1 innings this year and should be a lock for a multi-year pact.
    • Tip of the cap to Josh Harrison who appeared to be coming to the end of the road when he was released by the Detroit Tigers in 2019. The 34-year-old is hitting .293/.362/.432 for a 121 OPS+ with 32 extra-base hits in 385 plate appearances this season. He doesn't have a ton of earning power, but he's a useful bench piece capable of filling a bigger role.

2B/3B Eduardo Escobar, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    2020 WAR/500: -1.13

    2021 WAR/500: 2.97

    It's a good thing Eduardo Escobar was not a free agent last offseason.

    After posting a 110 OPS+ with 29 doubles, 10 triples, 35 home runs, 118 RBI and 3.3 WAR during the best season of his career in 2019, his production fell off a cliff.

    He hit just .212/.270/.335 with four home runs in 222 plate appearances during the pandemic-shortened campaign, and his stock bottomed out heading into the final year of a three-year, $21 million contract.

    Luckily, he has righted the ship in his contract year, logging a 110 OPS+ with 24 home runs and 71 RBI to earn an All-Star nod as the lone representative for the lowly Arizona Diamondbacks.

    The 32-year-old was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers at the deadline and he's hitting .273/.368/.576 with two doubles, one triple and two home runs in nine games with his new team.

    His on-base skills are a bit lacking, but his defensive versatility and over-the-fence power should be enough to secure him another multi-year deal on the back of a bounce-back season.

RHP Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    2020 WAR/100: 2.18

    2021 WAR/100: 3.55

    Kevin Gausman bet on himself when he accepted the San Francisco Giants qualifying offer last season.

    There was little doubt he could have inked a multi-year deal on the heels of a 3.62 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 79 strikeouts in 59.2 innings in 2020, but it likely would have been for an annual salary well short of the one-year, $18.9 million contract he signed.

    Now he's raised his asking price even higher and could be the most sought after arm in a free-agent market full of aging aces.

    Still just 30 years old, Gausman has a 2.31 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 157 strikeouts in 132.1 innings, fronting the rotation for an upstart San Francisco Giants team.

    He hit a rough patch in July where he failed to make it out of the fifth inning in three straight starts, but he rebounded last time out with six innings of five-hit, one-run ball for his 15th quality start in 22 appearances.

    With the Giants headed for the postseason, he'll have a chance to further vault his stock in October.

RHP Kendall Graveman, Houston Astros

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    2020 WAR/100: -1.65

    2021 WAR/100: 5.09

    Once upon a time, Kendall Graveman was a promising young starter for the Oakland Athletics who tossed 186 innings of 4.11 ERA ball in his age-25 season in 2016.

    He earned the Opening Day start the following year and continued to pitch well, but shoulder issues limited him to just 19 starts and that was the beginning of a series of injury issues.

    Between more shoulder soreness, Tommy John surgery and subsequent recovery and a benign bone tumor on his cervical spine, he pitched just 158.1 innings total during the four-year span from 2017 through his return from Tommy John with the Seattle Mariners last year.

    The 30-year-old re-upped with the Mariners on a one-year, $1.25 million deal this season and he made the full-time move to the bullpen. With that came a change in his repertoire, as he started throwing his slider more and his changeup less.

    The result has been nothing short of dominance.

    In 34 games, he has a 0.72 ERA, 0.67 WHIP and 9.9 K/9 with 10 saves and seven holds, and he has made four scoreless appearances since joining the Houston Astros at the trade deadline.

    Drew Pomeranz made a similarly dominant transition to the bullpen in 2019 and turned it into a four-year, $34 million contract with the San Diego Padres.

LHP Robbie Ray, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    2020 WAR/100: -0.39

    2021 WAR/100: 3.30

    Who remembers when I picked Robbie Ray to win the 2020 NL Cy Young?

    After piling up 235 strikeouts in 174.1 innings in 2019 and then dominating during spring training while making a noticeable mechanical tweak, he looked poised for a huge season.

    The left-hander ended up posting an ugly 6.62 ERA with 45 walks in 51.2 innings, but he showed enough in five late-season appearances with the Toronto Blue Jays for the team to bring him back on a one-year, $8 million deal.

    That's proven to be one of the biggest bargains of the offseason.

    In 22 starts, Ray has gone 9-5 with a 2.90 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 159 strikeouts in 130.1 innings, and a year later he is very much a part of the AL Cy Young conversation.

    The fact that he's still just 29 years old also works in his favor when in free agency.

LHP Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox

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    John Fisher/Getty Images

    2020 WAR/100: -3.91

    2021 WAR/100: 3.46

    Anyone could have signed Carlos Rodon.

    After another injury-plagued season where he pitched just 7.2 innings and posted an 8.22 ERA, the Chicago White Sox non-tendered a pitcher who was once viewed as a future ace after going No. 3 overall in the 2014 draft out of NC State.

    He sat on the free-agent market until Feb. 1 when he ultimately returned to the South Side on a one-year, $3 million contract.

    The 28-year-old has been worth 10 times that amount while posting a 2.38 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 160 strikeouts in 109.2 innings in a long-awaited breakout season. There is still a lot of season left, but right now he's arguably the co-favorite for AL Cy Young honors alongside teammate Lance Lynn.

    His injury history and spotty track record is going to give teams some reason for pause, but his age and truly dominant performance this year is going to mean a significant raise and the first multi-year deal of his MLB career.

2B/SS Marcus Semien, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    2020 WAR/500: 0.85

    2021 WAR/500: 5.34

    Marcus Semien was one of the best players in baseball in 2019.

    He hit .285/.369/.522 for a 140 OPS+ with 43 doubles, 33 home runs, 92 RBI and 123 runs scored to finish third in AL MVP voting, and his 8.6 WAR trailed only Alex Bregman (8.9) and Cody Bellinger (8.7) among all players.

    That production was nowhere to be found in a contract year last season. He hit .233/.305/.374 with 17 extra-base hits in 236 plate appearances and tallied 0.4 WAR to send his free agency stock spiraling, and he wound up settling for a one-year, $18 million prove-it deal to play second base for the Toronto Blue Jays.

    Suffice to say he has proven it.

    The 30-year-old is hitting .274/.337/.528 for a 133 OPS+ with 30 doubles, 26 home runs, 68 RBI and 82 runs, and his 5.2 WAR leads all position players.

    He has also made a smooth transition from shortstop to second base, posting stellar metrics (10 DRS, 7.6 UZR/150) to add some defensive versatility to his profile.

    The middle infield market is crowded this winter, but he's going to get paid.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, and accurate through Monday's games.