Ranking All 30 MLB Teams as a Free-Agent Destination for the 2021-22 Offseason
There has already been and will continue to be plenty of ink spilled about which free agents will sign where during Major League Baseball's 2021-22 offseason, but our aim is to answer a different question.
Where can the best players sign?
Such was our jumping-off point in ranking all 30 teams as free-agent destinations, which mainly involved weighing three things:
- Budget: Only teams know exactly how much they have to spend in free agency, but we got a rough idea by comparing clubs' 2022 projections (courtesy of FanGraphs) and past payrolls (courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts).
- Needs: The more holes a team needs to fill, the more it will hypothetically be willing to spend.
- Contention Timelines: With some exceptions, win-now clubs figure to spend more, and win-later teams figure to spend less. All things being equal, free agents generally prefer to play for the former.
To one degree or another, the top 10 teams on our list check all three boxes. The other 20 were harder to sort, but it helped to divide them into four categories: Rebuilders, In-Betweeners, Cash-Strapped Contenders and Dark Horses.
Now then, let's count 'em down.
30-26: The Rebuilders
30. Pittsburgh Pirates
2022 Payroll: $40 Million
Peak Payroll: $99.9 Million
The Pirates have lost 64 percent of their games over the last two seasons, but the good news is general manager Ben Cherington has made such good progress with the club's rebuild that its farm system is one of the five best in MLB.
Even still, the Bucs are likely a couple of years away from emerging from their rebuild. And even then, owner Bob Nutting can't be counted on to invest heavily in free agency. Under his watch, the team has yet to invest so much as $40 million into an individual player on the open market.
29. Arizona Diamondbacks
2022 Payroll: $80 Million
Peak Payroll: $131.6 Million
Contrary to the Pirates, the Diamondbacks do have a history of big spending in free agency. Zack Greinke's $206.5 million deal was only six years ago, while Madison Bumgarner's $85 million pact is only two years old.
But after a brutal 110-loss season in 2021, GM Mike Hazen has said he's "not going to be unrealistic" about where his team is. It's safe to translate that to mean that, save for a handful of minor league deals and low-risk major league pacts, he won't be active on the open market.
28. Baltimore Orioles
2022 Payroll: $56 Million
Peak Payroll: $164.3 Million
The Orioles are four seasons into a rebuild that began in earnest in 2018. Though they don't have much to show for it at the major league level, they're sitting on perhaps baseball's best farm system and oodles of payroll space. Hypothetically, there's an argument that it's time to put the latter to use.
And yet, it doesn't sound as if GM Mike Elias is ready to break the bank in the wake of a 110-loss campaign. As anybody destined for the bargain bin would, he's merely promised to entertain deals that are "the right player and the right fit and the right value."
27. Kansas City Royals
2022 Payroll: $86 Million
Peak Payroll: $143 Million
In outlining his strategy for the winter, Royals president Dayton Moore told reporters earlier in November: "Like always, what we'll do in building our team is, we'll look internally. Then we'll look to make trades. Then we'll explore the free-agent market."
But as much as that sounds like a "no promises," it was only last year that Moore surprised with multiyear deals for Mike Minor and Carlos Santana. If ownership is comfortable with pushing the team's payroll above its 2021 level ($86M), Moore could produce yet another surprise by signing a much-needed starting pitcher.
26. Washington Nationals
2022 Payroll: $115 Million
Peak Payroll: $197.2 Million
The Nationals traded pretty much all their sellable pieces at the July 30 deadline. However, GM Mike Rizzo prefers the term "reboot" to "rebuild," which might be taken to mean that he could add to his track record of high-profile signings.
But while Rizzo did tell reporters he wants to acquire pitching, he recently alluded to wanting to establish a young core before he determines it's time to "go out and get your guys to finish it off." There's a non-zero chance of this being a smoke screen, but it nonetheless hints that the Nats will take the winter off from big deals.
25-23: The In-Betweeners
25. Colorado Rockies
2022 Payroll: $104 Million
Peak Payroll: $145.2 Million
As the Rockies' season was otherwise marked by front-office turmoil, the 87 games they lost don't really capture how much of a slog 2021 was for them. Yet there's some optimism in Denver, with president Greg Feasel telling reporters the team plans to "gain ground" in 2022.
But lest anyone mistake this for a promise of big spending, Feasel also clarified that the club won't revisit its peak payrolls until 2023. So even if the team makes necessary upgrades this winter—probably on bats for its curiously bad offense—they'll probably be via short-term, relatively low-money deals.
24. Minnesota Twins
2022 Payroll: $91 Million
Peak Payroll: $128.7 Million
Though the Twins didn't go full fire sale, they did subtract key pieces Nelson Cruz and Jose Berrios ahead of the trade deadline. They nonetheless don't see themselves as rebuilders, with president of baseball operations Derek Falvey saying: "We're going to find a way to invest in next year's team."
This is the right attitude for a club that won division titles in 2019 and 2020, yet the Twins rarely do big-money deals in free agency. Per Dan Hayes and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, they're also still open to either trading or extending Byron Buxton. Such things create a picture of a team that's neither all-in nor all-out and that could thus be reluctant to make any moves of note.
23. Chicago Cubs
2022 Payroll: $82 Million
Peak Payroll: $203.1 Million
Holy moly, do the Cubs have a ton of payroll space following their trade deadline fire sale. And if you're a fan of the North Siders, you might remember when GM Jed Hoyer promised to be "really active in free agency" in September.
More recently, though, Hoyer backtracked and said he only wants to spend in an "intelligent way." That's GM-speak for "don't expect any big gifts under the tree." So while the Cubs will almost certainly add pitching, any moves they make will likely be in the Wade Miley mold: low-risk options with modest salaries.
22-17: The Cash-Strapped Contenders
22. Oakland Athletics
2022 Payroll: $85 Million
Peak Payroll: $92.2 Million
Nobody ever looks to the A's as a candidate to cut big checks. They've never opened a season with so much as a $100 million payroll, in part because they've never spent more than $36 million—fun fact: the Yoenis Cespedes deal will be 10 years old on February 12—on a free agent.
Nowadays, Oakland's payroll situation is even less rosy. GM David Forst recently lamented having to abide by the team's "cycle" of cutting payroll, per MLB Network's Jon Heyman, and Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that it could go as low as $50 million for 2022. If the team does add, chances are it'll merely be relievers on club-friendly deals, per MLB.com's Martín Gallegos.
21. Cincinnati Reds
2022 Payroll: $131 Million
Peak Payroll: $122.3 Million
After never spending so much as $50 million on a free agent, the Reds broke the bank with $64 million contracts for both Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas just two winters ago. That opened a contention window that, at least in theory, is still open.
But in reality...well, Tucker Barnhart (trade) and Wade Miley (waivers) are gone, and Castellanos might as well be after he opted out. With GM Nick Krall insisting the Reds "must align our payroll to our resources," more cuts might be necessary before any additions can be made.
20. Cleveland Guardians
2022 Payroll: $50 Million
Peak Payroll: $134.9 Million
As much as it may seem like the Guardians have a ton of payroll flexibility, it might be more instructive to point out that their 2022 payroll is already brushing up against what they spent in 2021. So, definitely don't anticipate an $80 million to $90 million spending spree.
Yet according to president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti, the team does plan on pursuing "internal investments as well as external ones." That might not mean matching the club's record payout of $60 million, but it could mean spending on the offensive upgrades it needs to reassert itself in the AL Central.
19. Tampa Bay Rays
2022 Payroll: $77 Million
Peak Payroll: $76.8 Million
Sure, the Rays are already projected to spend more than they've ever spent. But they also lead the American League in wins over the last two years, so GM Erik Neander told reporters at the GM meetings earlier this month there's "more urgency to build on the wins that are in front of us."
The catch? He also said the team's preferred path forward is a "steady, sustained climb." So while a surprise or two can't be ruled out, the Rays aren't likely to add much to a free-agent track record that includes just two deals for north of $20 million.
18. Milwaukee Brewers
2022 Payroll: $123 Million
Peak Payroll: $122.5 Million
Like the Reds, the Brewers are already in uncharted payroll territory. One key difference between the two clubs, however, is that Milwaukee has a division title to defend after winning the National League Central on the strength of 95 wins in 2021.
To this end, the Brewers know as well as anyone that they need to improve an offense that was mediocre at its best in 2021. Even if it means first jettisoning, say, ace closer Josh Hader in a trade, that need could push them to move their payroll higher still with some free-agent additions.
17. San Diego Padres
2022 Payroll: $192 Million
Peak Payroll: $174.1 Million
Following a peak in May, the Padres began suffering from diminishing returns and clubhouse problems under then-manager Jayce Tingler. But given that Bob Melvin is now at the helm of a roster that was still highly talented even at the worst of times, the Padres once again look like an attractive destination on paper.
The iffy part is the team's payroll. Though Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Padres are "capable of spending more this offseason," their payroll is already so bloated that subtractions (i.e., Wil Myers or Eric Hosmer) might have to preempt any high-profile additions.
16-11: The Dark Horses
16. Texas Rangers
2022 Payroll: $51 Million
Peak Payroll: $165.3 Million
The Rangers have been terrible over the last two seasons, losing 38 of 60 games in 2020 and then 102 in 2021. And while their farm system is in good shape, it's not so good that it's in baseball's top 10. Realities such as these won't exactly help them to attract free agents who value winning.
The money, though, is there. As president of baseball operations Jon Daniels told reporters, "there's nobody we're going to rule out" based on price. So even if the team's iffy contention timeline puts some players out of reach, it's doubtful that Texas will be shut out on everyone it covets for a lineup and a pitching staff that need as much help as they can get.
15. Miami Marlins
2022 Payroll: $56 Million
Peak Payroll: $115.4 Million
After taking control of the Marlins in 2017, the first thing Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter did was strip the team of star players. That meant substantially cutting payroll, and the club has yet to significantly increase it in four years since then.
That could change this winter. Though fresh off a 95-loss season, GM Kim Ng told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand the team will pursue "some really good offensive players" to complement its impressive homegrown pitching staff. To this end, reuniting with free-agent outfielder Starling Marte—whom they made an offer to, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson—might be just the first move in an exciting offseason.
14. Detroit Tigers
2022 Payroll: $106 Million
Peak Payroll: $199.8 Million
The Tigers started rebuilding in 2017, so they should probably be closer to World Series contention than they are after an 85-loss season in 2021. At least in theory, this could keep some of the market's bigger-name free agents from signing up for a long-term haul in Detroit.
In reality, the Tigers have already reeled in Eduardo Rodriguez on a five-year, $77 million deal. That won't necessarily beget further multiyear deals, but the Tigers are clearly willing to spend money, which they have a lot of. So, Carlos Correa—whom they are a suitor of, per Heyman—or whoever else they put their eyes on can't be ruled out.
13. St. Louis Cardinals
2022 Payroll: $142 Million
Peak Payroll: $163.5 Million
In describing his approach to the winter market when speaking with reporters, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak didn't use words like "aggressive" or "proactive," but rather "open-minded" and "opportunistic." And with most of this year's 90-win squad returning, the team is arguably short on needs anyway.
But especially with Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez out of the picture, the payroll space for upgrades is there. The Cardinals might at least put it to use on pitching depth and could get involved in the shortstop market if they're uneasy about sticking with a Paul DeJong-Edmundo Sosa tandem.
12. Chicago White Sox
2022 Payroll: $168 Million
Peak Payroll: $128.7 Million
The White Sox are not just well past the $129 million payroll with which they opened 2021, but also the $140 million they had spent by the year's end. Between this and what other teams might call an enviable shortage of true needs, the White Sox could get away with skipping free agency.
And yet, Nightengale tweeted that the Pale Hose were in on Justin Verlander before he came off the market, and that the team is generally looking to be "aggressive" this winter. If so, then the White Sox have rightfully calculated that they should be pushing the envelope after winning their first AL Central championship since 2008 last season.
2022 Payroll: $144 Million
Peak Payroll: $131.4 Million
As GM Alex Anthopoulos told reporters earlier this month, Atlanta's payroll will go up in 2022. Specifically, over the $145 million where it ended last season. Because this is the same team that just won the World Series, this should be music to fans' ears.
However, Anthopoulos didn't specify how much payroll will increase in 2022. It might only rise by a little. And if it increases by a lot, it might only be for Freddie Freeman and nobody else. As it is, it doesn't sound as if Atlanta is enthusiastic about retaining the 2020 NL MVP on the six-year deal Heyman reported he covets.
10. New York Mets
2022 Payroll: $184 Million
Peak Payroll: $195.4 Million
Rejoice, for the New York Mets are finally close to hiring a new general manager (pending a background check, per MLB.com's Anthony DiComo). And if Billy Eppler operates in any way, shape or form under Steve Cohen like he did under Arte Moreno in Anaheim, he won't mind spending money.
Eppler is the guy who pulled off both Mike Trout's $360 million extension and Anthony Rendon's $245 million free-agent contract. If Cohen is willing to push the team's payroll north of the as-yet-undetermined luxury-tax threshold in 2022, similar expenditures could be in order this winter.
To this end, Cohen hasn't sounded afraid of the tax when he's discussed it in the past. And if he's ever going to act on that fearlessness, the time is now.
Not just because his team is looking to wash away the bad taste of an 85-loss season, but also because it's going to take some big moves for that to even be possible. The Mets need at least two starting pitchers and could also use an outfielder and perhaps a third baseman.
With the right moves, the Mets could not only retake the NL East from Atlanta but perhaps also become the latest team to break out of a long-running championship drought.
9. Los Angeles Angels
2022 Payroll: $150 Million
Peak Payroll: $181.9 Million
The Los Angeles Angels have already struck for one of the winter's biggest deals, adding former Mets ace Noah Syndergaard on a one-year, $21 million contract.
Hey, Angels GM Perry Minasian did tell reporters he wanted to add "front-line" starting pitching this winter, and he should after his starters mostly struggled with a 4.78 ERA in 2021. The team's deal with Syndergaard might not preclude another big-ticket addition. To wit, the Angels had been interested in Verlander, per The Athletic's Sam Blum.
Other needs include shortstop, where they can do better than Luis Rengifo. And sans Raisel Iglesias, they would do well to bring in another closer. Heck, re-signing him shouldn't be out of the question.
If there's something that could keep the Angels from loading their payroll to the max this winter, it's the knowledge that two-way wonder and newly crowned AL MVP Shohei Ohtani will need extending before long.
But for Ohtani, "the biggest thing" is that he wants to win. That would require the Angels to break out of a cycle of losing seasons that dates back to 2015, so their attitude should be (and apparently is) to spend first and worry about Ohtani later.
8. Philadelphia Phillies
2022 Payroll: $171 Million
Peak Payroll: $191.1 Million
The Philadelphia Phillies have been walking a winding road back to contention, as they rebuilt from 2012 to 2017, only to fall into a .500-ish no man's land over the last four seasons.
Nonetheless, this is a Dave Dombrowski-led team that, according to the man himself, is planning on acting like a Dave Dombrowski-led team this winter. Speaking to the media in October, he vowed to be "aggressive" on the winter market.
Dombrowski has since clarified that he has gotten a budget from ownership, albeit not one that he deems "restrictive," per The Athletic's Matt Gelb.
If so, there should be money for rotation and bullpen depth. Ideally, there's also enough for upgrades at shortstop and center field. For the former, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Trevor Story could be in play. For the latter, Starling Marte is already on the team's radar, per Heyman, following a year in which he hit .310 and stole 47 bases.
If the money is good, prospective suitors need not fret about the difficulty that Philly has had in ending its playoff drought. The team was at least good enough to win 82 games in 2021, mostly thanks to NL Cy Young Award runner-up Zack Wheeler and NL MVP Bryce Harper.
7. New York Yankees
2022 Payroll: $216 Million
Peak Payroll: $228.1 Million
The New York Yankees haven't made any moves yet, but they're already in a position to exceed the luxury tax in 2021. In recent years, that's basically been a no-go for team owner Hal Steinbrenner.
To hear from Dan Martin of the New York Post, though, Steinbrenner "has given GM Brian Cashman the OK to go above the luxury-tax threshold, whatever it turns out to be."
This would indicate that even Steinbrenner, who's a bit more patient than his notoriously impatient father, George, is growing tired of a World Series drought that extends back to 2009. In turn, it could indicate that no expense will be spared in improving a roster that was already good enough to produce 92 wins in 2021.
Whether it's Carlos Correa or Corey Seager, and they've talked to both, per The Athletic's Jim Bowden, shortstop is the area most in need of upgrading. The Bombers could also spring for Freeman at first base—they've met with him as well, per Heyman—or for a needed co-ace to pair with Gerrit Cole. To the latter end, the Yanks were in on Verlander before he re-upped with Houston.
It was almost a decade ago, in 2013, that the Yankees' payroll hit a high that it still hasn't surpassed. Given the humongous resources at the team's disposal and the palpable hunger for the club's 28th championship in the Bronx, it's past time for the team to up the ante.
6. Boston Red Sox
2022 Payroll: $173 Million
Peak Payroll: $236.2 Million
With Eduardo Rodriguez signing with the Tigers, the Boston Red Sox have already missed out on one of their top offseason priorities.
It's not for nothing, though, that the Red Sox at least made the left-hander a multiyear offer. And while that offer clearly wasn't good enough, it's possible that was less because of stinginess and more because the Red Sox have set their sights on bigger targets.
To wit, the Red Sox have a sizable hole at second base and might even seek to upgrade over whiff-prone slugger Bobby Dalbec at first base. They also need at least one starting pitcher, as well as impact arms for a bullpen that fell apart in the latter half of 2021.
Players Boston has been linked to include Javier Baez and Steven Matz, per Heyman and the New York Post's Joel Sherman, respectively. At least in theory, the team could also go after Marcus Semien, Freddie Freeman and any number of the market's top relievers, including Raisel Iglesias and Kenley Jansen.
In addition to good money, it helps that the Red Sox can also offer their prospective targets a chance to win. They came just two victories shy of going to the World Series in 2021, and the road ahead is buoyed by the third-best farm system among this year's 10 playoff teams.
5. Houston Astros
2022 Payroll: $162 Million
Peak Payroll: $187.6 Million
Houston Astros owner Jim Crane hasn't been shy about his reluctance to go over the luxury-tax threshold in the past, citing it as a hurdle to re-signing Gerrit Cole in 2019. GM James Click also cited it as "a factor" ahead of last year's trade deadline, via the team's radio broadcast.
Though Astros fans won't fondly remember these comments, they should know the good news: The team avoided the luxury tax in 2021 and thus has that much extra cash to invest in needed upgrades at shortstop and in its pitching staff.
"The budget will be at the top of baseball," Crane told reporters earlier this month.
The Astros have already taken a big step in that direction, re-signing Verlander to a one-year deal worth $25 million Wednesday. Some quick back-of-the-envelope math suggests the Astros could still add as much as $25 million in salaries, and potentially more depending on where the luxury-tax threshold ends up for 2022.
Granted, Correa likely won't be back after the Astros low-balled him with a $160 million offer, a figure Fox 26's Mark Berman relayed. But they could do well just by spreading that money around to multiple other players, who would have the added incentive of joining a team that just played in its third World Series in the last five seasons.
4. Seattle Mariners
2022 Payroll: $59 Million
Peak Payroll: $157.9 Million
It was only two years ago that the Mariners lost 94 games, and yet they won 27 of 60 in 2020 and then 90 games last season. In the meantime, they also stocked their farm system and cleaned up their payroll.
Thus, it came as no great surprise when Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said in October: "We do have payroll flexibility, and we're going to use it to make the team better. We are definitely committed to making this team better. That's exciting for us."
Mariners fans might be less excited to hear that Dipoto doesn't want to add one of the market's top shortstops, as he's happy with Gold Glover J.P. Crawford at the position, per the Seattle Times' Ryan Divish.
The hole right next to Crawford at second base, however, could be filled by AL MVP finalist Marcus Semien. Then there's Kris Bryant, who could fill Kyle Seager's shoes at third base. The Mariners could also use a top-end starting pitcher, whether it's Robbie Ray or Marcus Stroman.
Regardless, there might not be a splash too big for the Mariners to make this winter. And whoever they add, they can look forward to being granted lifetime royalty status in Seattle upon ending the team's 20-year playoff drought.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
2022 Payroll: $115 Million
Peak Payroll: $163.4 Million
Whatever kind of budget the Toronto Blue Jays had at the start of the offseason, it's surely smaller after the team inked right-hander Jose Berrios to a $131 million extension.
There should, however, still be enough for a splash. Or two.
Said splashes could be on Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray—as the team wants the pair back, per The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal—the latter of whom was named as the runaway winner for the AL Cy Young Award on Wednesday. Even if the Blue Jays can only keep one of them, that alone would qualify as one of the winter's bigger moves.
Otherwise, Toronto GM Ross Atkins didn't rule out adding a closer, per TSN's Scott Mitchell. That's where he could break from the frugality with which he's generally approached relievers, perhaps to a point where he could even strike a deal with Raisel Iglesias or Kenley Jansen.
Whatever the case, the Blue Jays can also hope to sell their targets on what they have going on. After making the playoffs in 2020, they were arguably the most exciting team in baseball this season even though their 91 wins left them short of the postseason. Basically, they have "World Series contender" written all over them.
2. San Francisco Giants
2022 Payroll: $97 Million
Peak Payroll: $200.5 Million
Just as jarring as the San Francisco Giants' 107-win effort in 2021 is the speed with which the roster that made it happen dissolved in the opening weeks of the offseason.
First, longtime catcher Buster Posey retired. Then, free agency came calling for Kris Bryant, Brandon Belt and basically every one of their starting pitchers not named Logan Webb.
Even then, though, the bright side was that the team's suddenly barren books pointed toward a massive offseason splurge. Mark Polishuk of MLB Trade Rumors speculated that the amount of salary added by the Giants just for 2022 could total $100 million.
With Belt accepting his qualifying offer Wednesday, the Giants have already taken an $18.4 million step in that direction. Now they just need to load up on starting pitching and add a hitter or two, specifically for their outfield.
Otherwise, joining the Giants would mean working with Manager of the Year Gabe Kapler and under a Farhan Zaidi-led front office that's developed an innovative reputation while also building an elite farm system. So even if another 107-win season is a tall order, San Francisco is an attractive destination.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2022 Payroll: $206 Million
Peak Payroll: $271.6 Million
You know things are going good when you can win 106 games and make it to the National League Championship Series and still have your season be called a disappointment.
So it goes for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who since 2013 have won more games than any other team while also making the playoffs each year. They went to the World Series in 2017, 2018 and 2020, winning it in the latter year.
To keep the good vibes going in 2022, the Dodgers will need to add to a rotation that's gained Andrew Heaney but which also stands to lose aces Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw to free agency. They also have to re-sign or replace Kenley Jansen at closer, and account for Corey Seager's and Chris Taylor's absences from their lineup.
As offseason shopping lists go, this is a long one. And while president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman would simply like to re-sign the team's free agents, he was also realistic in telling reporters that ownership probably won't green-light the $300 million budget he would need to make that happen.
Nonetheless, it'll be a shock if the Dodgers don't add tens of millions of dollars' worth of salaries this winter. That's their ticket back to the World Series, which is something they can't not covet at this point.