Dark-Horse Destinations for MLB's Biggest 2021-22 Free Agents
When we offered picks for the best and worst landing spots for the top players on Major League Baseball's upcoming free-agent market, we were doing the easy part.
Now comes the hard part: identifying teams that could emerge as dark-horse suitors for the market's leading talents.
For this, we expanded our view from just five players to 10. From there, speculating on potential mystery teams to sign them was a matter of weighing needs, positional availability, contention timelines and spending capacity, plus a little imagination.
Once again, let's count 'em down.
RHP Kevin Gausman: Colorado Rockies
In spite of his 4.42 ERA down the stretch of the regular season, Kevin Gausman is positioned to be one of the best pitchers available this winter. What's more, he isn't subject to another qualifying offer and will therefore be free of ties to draft-pick compensation.
A good guess for Gausman's next contract is somewhere in the $100 million range. The San Francisco Giants can surely afford to re-sign him at that rate, but they'll likely face competition from pitching-needy contenders such as the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners.
But what if the Colorado Rockies also get involved?
The Rockies don't have much to brag about after back-to-back losing seasons, but they might sell Gausman on fitting into a solid starting rotation headed by German Marquez and Kyle Freeland. And given that he's a Colorado native with solid numbers at Coors Field, the man himself might not mind the move.
The big question is whether the Rockies would be willing to cut Gausman an appropriately sized check. But since the team indeed owes its fans something to cheer about and new general manager Bill Schmidt recently hinted that payroll will go up in 2022, this is a never-say-never possibility.
RF Nick Castellanos: Philadelphia Phillies
There was some doubt coming into 2021 as to whether Nick Castellanos would opt out of his four-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds, but it faded as he put up career-best numbers. In August, Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported that Castellanos is "likely" to opt into the open market.
If so, it's easy to imagine him landing in right field on contenders like the Giants and New York Mets. Crucially, both of those clubs can afford a possible $100 million contract and to lose a draft pick if and when Castellanos receives and rejects a qualifying offer.
Though they already have a darn good right fielder named Bryce Harper, the Philadelphia Phillies could be in that same boat this winter.
The Phillies could be drawn to Castellanos because they didn't get much production from the right side of the plate in 2021. And while they don't have room for him and Harper now, that will change when the next collective bargaining agreement inevitably makes the designated hitter permanently universal.
Plus, this wouldn't be the first instance of Castellanos being coveted by Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. It was under his leadership that the Detroit Tigers drafted and developed Castellanos into a premier prospect back in the early 2010s.
LHP Robbie Ray: St. Louis Cardinals
After a truly awful 2020 season, Robbie Ray sought to be like Randy Johnson and actually pulled it off in 2021. His value is now sky-high and likely to get yet another boost when he wins the American League Cy Young Award.
The price for a pitcher like this? Probably well north of $100 million, plus a draft pick since he's certain to reject a qualifying offer from the Toronto Blue Jays. The bidding war for him should therefore be good fun, especially if big-money teams like the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers go after him.
But even though they've done exactly one free-agent deal worth nine figures in their history, don't rule out the St. Louis Cardinals as a candidate to steal Ray.
Though St. Louis' starting pitching was solid this season, that was in spite of the lowest strikeouts-per-nine rate by any starting staff. Ray is an ideal fix for this, as strikeouts were his thing even before 2021.
Financially speaking, the time is right for the Cardinals to make a big splash on Ray. They have the incentive of keeping up with the pitching-rich Milwaukee Brewers and also potentially the spending flexibility once they decline $35.5 million worth of options for Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez.
1B Freddie Freeman: San Diego Padres
Freddie Freeman's focus right now is all on the National League Championship Series, wherein he and Atlanta have gotten out to a 2-0 lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers. Again.
When free agency does call Freeman's number, it'll be hard to imagine him leaving Atlanta. And yet, not as hard as it used to be. Try as the two sides have to hammer out an extension, the lack of one to this point hints at a valuation gap between Freeman's camp and Atlanta's brass.
If Freeman does become available for all bidders, clubs like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will need him at first base. The San Diego Padres, though, might simply want him there.
They already have a name-brand first baseman in Eric Hosmer, but he was very much part of the problem as they got subpar production from the left side of the plate throughout their disappointing 2021 season. It wasn't the biggest surprise, then, when Hosmer's name appeared in trade rumors in July.
If San Diego manages to offload Hosmer this winter, it'll have both extra spending cash and a hole at first base. A long shot? Definitely. But nonetheless a potential route to a pact with last year's NL MVP.
RHP Max Scherzer: Toronto Blue Jays
Yet this is still Max Scherzer we're talking about. He already has three Cy Young Awards and could soon add a fourth. His age will naturally limit the length of his next contract, but his sheer talent and ineligibility for a qualifying offer could ensure an average annual value starting with a 4.
Not many teams can do a deal like that, and the ones that can could have a hard time outbidding the Dodgers if they seek to retain the veteran. But if anyone is going to, how about the Toronto Blue Jays?
To be sure, re-signing Ray should be and reportedly is one of Toronto's top priorities. But it could be cheaper for them to sign Scherzer in his stead, in which case they'll have replaced their best pitcher with an even better pitcher.
For his part, Scherzer could be interested in joining the Blue Jays for more reasons than just money. Specifically, for the chance to be the missing piece on a roster that's loaded with explosive young talent and therefore primed for a World Series run in the near future.
3B/OF Kris Bryant: Houston Astros
Kris Bryant's 2021 season got off to an exciting start, as his OPS was up over 1.000 as late as June 4. He cooled off from there, though, eventually posting a .730 OPS over his last 91 games.
Still, Bryant effectively reestablished his star power after it altogether vanished in 2020. Because he's also a Swiss army knife of a defender who can play both corner infield spots and all three outfield positions, he might attract more interest than any other free-agent on the market.
Regarding potential suitors for Bryant—who, like Scherzer, can't get a qualifying offer—the lay-up possibilities are teams like the Giants, Mets and White Sox. Yet dare we point a finger in the direction of the Houston Astros, who could put Bryant back on their radar after famously failing to draft him in 2013.
To be sure, this will only happen if the Astros replace fellow free-agent-to-be Carlos Correa by moving Alex Bregman from third base to shortstop. That would create an everyday opportunity at the hot corner for Bryant, whose bat would easily account for Correa's in the middle of Houston's lineup.
This would also be a cost-effective maneuver on the Astros' part. Though Bryant will be plenty expensive, he'll be lucky to get even half of the $300-plus million that Correa will likely be seeking.
2B/SS Marcus Semien: Miami Marlins
Marcus Semien got off to a slow start with a .658 OPS in April. After that, all he did was post a .909 OPS with 40 homers the rest of the way to reclaim his 2019 mantle as one of the best players in baseball.
In spite of his age and inevitable ties to draft-pick compensation, Semien should be looking at a deal worth upward of $100 million. The Blue Jays understandably want to keep him but could lose him if deep-pocketed contenders like the Red Sox and Mets key in on him as a solution for deficiencies at second base.
However, also keep an eye on the Miami Marlins.
They almost certainly wouldn't move Miguel Rojas off shortstop to accommodate Semien, but it's perhaps within reason that they would transition Jazz Chisholm Jr. off second base. If anything, his elite speed is wasted there and would be better suited to an everyday role in the outfield.
As for the money, the Marlins have yet to make a notable splash since Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter bought the team in 2017. But since the last four years have seen the Marlins clear their payroll while loading up on young talent, the time is right for GM Kim Ng to get a blank check for at least one major upgrade.
SS Trevor Story: New York Mets
Trevor Story's season hit a nadir on July 30, at which point he only had a .741 OPS and was left "confused" after the Rockies neglected to trade him. But after that came a happy ending marked by a .903 OPS.
The next time Story will be in the news will be when he turns down a qualifying offer from the Rockies, thereby becoming a true free agent but also tying himself to draft-pick compensation. He should nonetheless have a shot at landing a $200 million deal, potentially from the Angels, Tigers or Yankees.
But even if the Yankees have a more obvious need for Story at short, it might be the other New York team that ultimately gets to him first.
When the Mets went after Story at the deadline, they had a hole at shortstop while Francisco Lindor was on the injured list with an oblique strain. If the Mets renew their pursuit this winter, this time they'd have to sell Story on a move to second base.
This would be a hard sell in a vacuum but much less so if the Mets' offer is the best Story gets. Because team owner Steve Cohen can afford such an offer and his team badly needs another right-handed threat, this might not be a long-shot possibility.
SS Corey Seager: Seattle Mariners
It hasn't been all good for Corey Seager throughout his career. He's notably missed a bunch of time with injuries, including more than two months this year with a broken hand.
But when Seager is healthy, he's perhaps the best offensive shortstop in the game. Between that and his youth, he'll have two major things going for him as he pursues a contract that could ultimately eclipse $300 million even if it also costs a team a draft pick to sign him.
In light of their need at shortstop and how well his left-handed stroke would mesh with Yankee Stadium, Seager seems destined to end up in pinstripes. The Seattle Mariners, though, might just convince him to move to the Pacific Northwest.
To this end, they could gain a significant leg up on the competition if they bring back Seager's older brother Kyle by exercising his $20 million option for 2022. Of the possibility of teaming up with Kyle, Corey said it "would be a great experience."
The Mariners indeed already have a Gold Glover at short in J.P. Crawford, but he's not good enough to stand in the younger Seager's way even if the Mariners don't retain the older Seager. Either way, Seattle has the payroll flexibility and the elite farm system to be dreaming big right now.
SS Carlos Correa: Baltimore Orioles
Carlos Correa always was going to be one of this winter's top free agents, but he needed to recover from a mediocre 2020 season if he wanted to be the top free agent.
As he was hot throughout the regular season and still is in October, Correa's mission is well and truly accomplished. He's eventually going to be tied to draft-pick compensation, but that should barely be an impediment as he seeks a contract in the neighborhood of the $341 million deal that Lindor signed in April.
The Astros might have a shot at retaining Correa, but it's more likely that he'll end up with the Yankees, Tigers, Angels, Marlins or...the Baltimore Orioles?
Granted, Correa wouldn't join them because he sees them as a potential World Series contender for 2022. With three 100-loss seasons out of the last four, the Orioles still have work to do with their rebuild.
On the plus side, they don't have even one guaranteed contract on their books. That's an advantage for general manager Mike Elias, who played a key part in drafting Correa when he was part of the Astros front office. The Orioles also have the best farm system in baseball, so selling Correa on their future might not actually be that hard.