Fresh Predictions for Top 2021-22 MLB Free Agents with Offseason Approaching
The last time we looked ahead to Major League Baseball's upcoming free-agent market was right after the July 30 trade deadline, which was perhaps premature on our part.
Well, much has changed since then, and now the offseason is only weeks away. So, right now is a good moment for a fresh round of predictions.
This time around, we have projections not only for where the 2021-22 market's top 10 free agents will end up, but also how many years and how many dollars they'll sign for. This involved reading any available tea leaves and otherwise trying to make educated guesses.
Let's count 'em down.
10. Marcus Stroman, RHP, New York Mets
2022 Age: 31
As it was only after his most recent outing that his ERA finally reached the 3.00 threshold, Marcus Stroman has been about as consistent as any pitcher in the majors this year.
Between his 5'7", 180-pound frame and modest strikeout numbers, Stroman doesn't resemble the modern No. 1 starter. Yet he did save himself from wear and tear by opting out of the 2020 season, and his bona fides as a pitcher show best in his 85th-percentile walk rate and seventh-ranked ground-ball percentage.
After accepting one last November, Stroman will be exempt from receiving the qualifying offer again this winter. He thus won't be tied to draft-pick compensation, which can only help him find a deal to his liking.
Such a deal might reside somewhere between where Madison Bumgarner (five years, $85 million) and Zack Wheeler (five years, $118 million) ended up two years ago. But since Stroman is a year older now than they were then, he might have to settle for one fewer year.
The Mets can certainly afford to re-sign Stroman, and he might not need much convincing if the money is right. He is, after all, a New York native whose style works well in tandem with an infield defense that ranks second in MLB in outs above average.
Prediction: Mets for 4 years, $92 million
9. Kevin Gausman, RHP, San Francisco Giants
2022 Age: 31
Unlike Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman wasn't already proven as an All-Star before 2021. And though he did suit up for the National League squad in July, he then fell into a slump in which he's posted a 4.99 ERA over 12 starts.
Still, there's little question that Gausman has raised his profile since he joined the San Francisco Giants.
He was an overlooked gem in posting a 3.62 ERA with 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings last season, so what he's done in 2021 is basically a case of more of the same. The catch is that he only has two viable pitches in his four-seamer and splitter, but both are among the game's most effective offerings.
By also accepting a qualifying offer last winter, Gausman will be in the same boat as Stroman in that he'll be exempt from another and, in turn, from being tied to draft-pick compensation. And in spite of the latter's reliability advantage, Gausman's ability to miss bats could make his market livelier.
There ought to be nothing stopping the Giants from re-signing Gausman, but it's also easy to see the Toronto Blue Jays circling back around on him after missing out last winter. Plus, he should be cheaper than a certain left-hander who's likely to win the American League Cy Young Award.
Prediction: Blue Jays for 4 years, $100 million
8. Robbie Ray, LHP, Toronto Blue Jays
2022 Age: 30
Just three years removed from an All-Star season in 2017, it was hard to understate just how broken Robbie Ray was last season. He put up a 6.62 ERA with nearly as many walks (45) as innings pitched (51.2).
Well, now he's leading the American League in ERA, innings, strikeouts, WHIP and WAR. He should win the AL Cy Young Award, and it shouldn't be close.
It's a big key that the left-hander's average fastball is up .9 mph from last season, but it's just as crucial that he's reinvented himself as a strike-thrower. He's gone from throwing fewer than 40 percent of his pitches in the zone between 2018 and 2020 to a sturdy 44.1 percent this season.
Unlike Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman, Ray will be subject to a qualifying offer this winter. Yet he's also more dominant and a year younger than those two, so even ties to draft-pick compensation shouldn't stop him from finding more years and more dollars.
As far as where Ray could fit this winter, the Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels will be a California trio with cash to burn and holes in their respective rotations. In light of their rotation's 5.20 ERA since 2019, there's little question that the latter needs him the most.
Prediction: Angels for 5 years, $135 million
7. Max Scherzer, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
2022 Age: 37
Even before he joined the Dodgers in July, Max Scherzer already had three Cy Young Awards and a 2.76 ERA to his name for the season.
Still, even the Dodgers must be blown away by the 0.78 ERA and 79 strikeouts he's posted in nine outings for them. He now leads the NL in ERA and WHIP, which arguably give him the inside track to another Cy Young.
At this age, the caveat with Scherzer should be that he can't keep doing this forever. And yet there's little to no evidence in real life that he can't. His stuff is about as electric as it's ever been, and his competitive fury is still there. Just ask Dodgers manager Dave Roberts.
What's more, the trade that sent him from the Washington Nationals to the Dodgers nixed him from being eligible for a qualifying offer. So even if it's only on a two-year deal, he could set a new record for average annual value this winter.
There are very few teams that can afford to pay Scherzer north of $36 million per year, but he happens to be playing on one of them. And with Clayton Kershaw likewise ticketed for free agency and Trevor Bauer's career on thin ice because of legal issues, the Dodgers may indeed be willing to pay.
Prediction: Dodgers for 2 years, $80 million
6. Marcus Semien, 2B/SS, Toronto Blue Jays
2022 Age: 31
After Marcus Semien struggled to the tune of an 89 OPS+ and 0.3 rWAR in 2020, his MVP-caliber performance in 2019 looked like an anomaly.
Apparently not. This season may yet see him break the single-season home run record for a second baseman. And while he trails teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in hype for the AL MVP award, Semien has been perhaps the best player in MLB since the start of May.
All this plus Semien's defensive versatility bode well for his upcoming trip to free agency. In fact, he'd have a case as the top player on the market if not for his age and eligibility for the qualifying offer.
It's a good guess that Semien will beat the six-year, $90 million deal that DJ LeMahieu scored last winter, when he was coming off winning the batting title in his age-31 season. As for how much better, nine figures should be in order if nothing else.
The Blue Jays reportedly want Semien back, but they could be outbid by a richer team. That could be the Giants, for whom second base has been a relative weakness. And should they go after Semien, his familiarity with the Bay Area from his time at the University of California-Berkeley and with the Oakland Athletics could only help.
Prediction: Giants for 5 years, $125 million
5. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta
2022 Age: 32
Remember when Freddie Freeman got off to a sluggish start, prompting concerns in Atlanta that he wouldn't be able to recapture the magic of his MVP-winning 2020 season?
Yeah, that was a while ago. Though Freeman's OPS dipped as low as .804 as recently as June 22, since then he's gone off for a .360/.430/.578 line and 15 home runs. He almost certainly won't win another MVP, but he should finish in the top 10 in the voting for a fourth straight year.
To the organization's credit, Atlanta has been trying to prevent Freeman from reaching free agency by signing him to an extension. But there's a "gap" between the two sides, according to MLB Network's Jon Heyman, and time is obviously running out.
Assuming Freeman does reach free agency, Atlanta could hinder his prospects elsewhere by tying him to draft-pick compensation via a qualifying offer. Even then, though, the price to retain him will likely be upward of nine figures.
Has Atlanta ever done a $100 million deal in free agency? No. But it has done a couple for in-house stars, including Freeman's eight-year, $135 million pact from 2014. Another of those should be doable.
Prediction: Atlanta for 5 years, $130 million
4. Kris Bryant, 3B, San Francisco Giants
2022 Age: 30
Though he was teasing the possible return of his MVP-caliber self earlier in 2021, Kris Bryant has since leveled off and played like the mere All-Star-caliber player he turned into in 2018.
This is at once kind of a bummer and also not at all a bad thing. Even in spite of an awful 2020 season, Bryant has averaged a 124 OPS+ over the last four seasons. And while his defense has let the Giants down since they got him at the deadline, his versatility on the infield and in the outfield remains an asset.
Plus, the trade that sent Bryant from the Chicago Cubs to the Giants exempts him from getting a qualifying offer. He'll head out onto the open market free of ties to draft-pick compensation.
Bryant could have it in mind to match Anthony Rendon's contract, especially given that he's the same age now that Rendon was when he secured his megadeal after the 2019 season.
The Mets made a play for Bryant at the deadline and could do so again this winter. But until they get their messy house in order, Bryant might be more likely to end up elsewhere in the NL East with the Philadelphia Phillies. That's where he could finally play alongside friend and fellow Las Vegas native Bryce Harper.
Prediction: Phillies for 7 years, $250 million
3. Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies
2022 Age: 29
Like the rest of us, Trevor Story was baffled that the Colorado Rockies didn't trade him ahead of the July 30 trade deadline. As a double whammy, that decision is also sure to result in him getting a qualifying offer.
In the meantime, Story has come alive in posting a .927 OPS since the deadline. So even though his 103 OPS+ is the second-worst mark of his career, some version of the guy who led all shortstops in rWAR between 2018 and 2020 still exists.
Even still, the struggles Story had earlier in 2021 and his inevitable ties to draft-pick compensation won't help him on the open market. Whereas he might have hoped for a $300 million deal coming into the year, the ceiling for his next contract is probably lower.
There's thus a chance Story could bet on himself with a one-year deal, but that's certainly his worst-case scenario. If he does settle, it'll presumably be for a contract that, while lucrative, attracts him just as much with its early opt-outs.
The Houston Astros might go for something like that. Story would fill the hole that Carlos Correa is poised to leave, yet his potential for a short stay wouldn't necessarily complicate a long-term future that's uncertain enough as it is.
Prediction: Astros for 5 years, $150 million
2. Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
2022 Age: 28
For a guy who's ostensibly one of baseball's bright young stars, Corey Seager sure has missed a lot of time with injuries in recent years. Including this one, in which he sat for two-and-a-half months with a broken wrist.
When Seager is healthy, however, he's about as good as shortstops get offensively. That's been the case even post-hand injury, as he's put up an .869 OPS in 47 games since his return.
There's little question that Seager will get a qualifying offer. And while the Dodgers could easily re-sign him, they could just as easily move Trea Turner back to shortstop and leave Seager to take his chances on the open market.
Seager will surely set his sights on a $300 million contract. But based on his injury history and the relative wealth of star shortstops on this winter's market, he might have to settle for something more like Anthony Rendon's seven-year, $245 million contract. A fate worse than death, to be sure.
Whether you heard it from us, Joel Sherman of the New York Post or whomever, chances are you've already caught wind of speculation that Seager will end up with the New York Yankees. With the short porch in right field and a lineup loaded with right-handed power, his left-handed bat has loomed as a good fit for them for a while—and even more so now that the Yankees have given up on Gleyber Torres as a shortstop.
Prediction: Yankees for 8 years, $280 million
1. Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
2022 Age: 27
Carlos Correa picked a heck of a time to have the most productive season of his career.
He's not only been more durable than usual, but truly excellent on both sides of the ball. His 132 OPS+ is second among qualified AL shortstops, and both his 19 defensive runs saved and nine outs above average put him among the game's top defenders at the position.
Sure, Correa will get a qualifying offer from the Astros this winter. But that's only going to be a minor hindrance as he seeks a massive contract. The $340 million heights reached by Francisco Lindor and Fernando Tatis Jr. this past winter should also be open to him.
In theory, only big-market teams can afford a deal like that. But quite a few are already set at shortstop, and the Dodgers and Yankees will be as well if things go according to plan laid by our previous predictions.
So, how about the Miami Marlins as a dark horse? They have a good young core in place, but they could stand to jump-start a run of sustained contention with a big free-agent splash. To this end, it's notable that they have an MLB-low $8.5 million on their books for 2022.
Prediction: Marlins for 10 years, $340 million