The Perfect Fit for Biggest Names of 2021-22 MLB Free-Agent Class
The 2021 MLB free-agent class is loaded, and there are teams that badly need some of the players on the market.
For the next week, until the anticipated work stoppage on Dec. 2 following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, baseball fans should be on the edge of their seats to see how the market plays out.
It would be wise, from both a player and team perspective, to take the bird in hand before the uncertainty of baseball's labor dispute becomes a factor in decision-making.
Either way, let's take a look at the perfect fits for 10 of the biggest free agents available.
We are looking for ideal matches between the players, their priorities (or what they should be) and what the teams' needs are this offseason and in the bigger picture.
Freddie Freeman: Atlanta Braves
It is easy to assume Freeman will return where he has become a franchise icon over the past decade-plus. Freeman's legend in Atlanta—which includes a National League MVP, three Silver Slugger awards, All-MLB honors and five All-Star selections—culminated in a World Series title this season.
Freeman was in Atlanta for some down years, including four straight losing seasons from 2014 to '17. Now, he became a champion in the final campaign of the eight-year, $135 million extension he signed in '14.
Freeman is a free agent for the first time and is expected to be paid handsomely.
At age 32, his next contract won't be as long, but he'll probably get more than $135 million. Think in the five-year, $150 million range (maybe more).
It is curious Atlanta did not agree to an extension with its superstar first baseman. But there is no question where he fits best, and that's in the city with which he's been synonymous since finishing second to Craig Kimbrel in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2011.
Next-best fit: San Diego Padres
Starling Marte: Philadelphia Phillies
Starling Marte split his time between the Miami Marlins and Oakland Athletics in 2021, hitting .310 with 12 home runs, 55 RBI, 27 doubles, an .841 OPS and an MLB-leading 47 stolen bases.
The 33-year-old appears to be the most coveted center fielder in this free-agent class. He would make any team better, but the Philadelphia Phillies need help at that position.
Signing Marte would be substantially better than internal options either Roman Quinn (.173/.306/.288) or Adam Haseley (.190/.190/.238).
National League MVP Bryce Harper carried the Phillies last season, and it's clear he needs help in the outfield, especially with the possible departure of free agents Andrew McCutchen and Odubel Herrera, the latter of whom played the majority of games in center for the Phillies.
Pair Harper with Marte, who had his best season in 2021, and it shows they're trying to avoid wasting prime years of one of the game's best players.
According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, the Phillies, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, New York Mets, Texas Rangers and Miami Marlins are all interested in Marte.
Dave Dombrowski said the Phillies will be aggressive and win a championship next year and this would be one way to do it.
The Astros also make sense, as they have been trying to figure out center field since they lost George Springer in the last round of free agency.
Next-best fit: Houston Astros
Marcus Stroman: Seattle Mariners
The Seattle Mariners are close to being contenders but are at least one starting pitcher away from being serious.
Seattle's starters gave up the fifth-most home runs and seventh-most hits in the American League last season. The Mariners' 1.32 WHIP among starters was middle-of-the-pack in baseball and seventh-highest in the American League.
The group was mostly solid but could use a boost, as injuries tested its depth toward the end of the season.
Marcus Stroman's reliability and durability stand out. He shoulders a heavy workload consistently, having posted the 15th-most innings pitched since 2016.
The 30-year-old is coming off a career high in strikeouts per nine innings (7.94).
If it takes five years and roughly $110 million to get Stroman in their rotation, that's a reasonable spend for someone with ace potential.
The Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels and incumbent Mets are all reportedly interested in Stroman. All of them would be good to great options.
Next-best fit: San Francisco Giants
Javier Baez: New York Mets
Javier Baez played well for the New York Mets after the Chicago Cubs traded him last July. He slashed .299/.371/.515 in 47 games, watching his numbers surge from .248/.292/.484 in the 91 games he played for Chicago in 2021.
Not only did his offense improve in New York, but at second base, Baez formed a pairing with shortstop Francisco Lindor that can be special both at the plate and in the field.
The Mets led baseball in outs above average and runs prevented at second base, per Statcast, with Baez and Jeff McNeil combining to play 114 games at the position.
Mets hitting coach Hugh Quattlebaum talked about the positive impact of Baez's friendship with Lindor with The Athletic's Tim Britton, calling them accountability partners:
"They talk a lot, and Francisco is pretty dialed in generally on approach and how to beat guys. I really think they enjoy joining forces to beat this guy with their knowledge base added together. Everybody wants to make good swing decisions, but there's a lot of things that pull you out of that between the on-deck circle and the box. You need somebody that you trust that's giving you good information and holds you accountable to the things you said you wanted to do before you walked up there."
An underrated possibility is a Cubs reunion, which was suggested by MLB insider Jon Heyman. It's worth a reminder that people in Chicago always considered one of those stars traded in the midseason fire sale could return soon.
Next-best fit: Chicago Cubs
Robbie Ray: Los Angeles Angels
Stop if you've heard this before: If the Angels could just figure out their pitching situation...
And there is not a better way for the team to address the issue than by bringing in a pair of proven arms at the top of the rotation.
The Angels just signed Noah Syndergaard to a one-year deal worth $21 million. Adding Robbie Ray if they can pull it off is a no-brainer.
MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi reported earlier this month that the Angels have already looked into Ray and Eduardo Rodriguez, who later signed a five-year, $77 million deal with the Detroit Tigers.
L.A. had one of the worst rotations last season, tied for the third-highest WHIP in the American League and seventh-highest in baseball (1.38).
Ray earned the AL Cy Young Award with a 2.84 ERA (1.05 WHIP) in 193.1 innings pitched. He recorded 6.7 WAR (a top-10 mark in MLB), and he posted a 13-7 record for the Toronto Blue Jays.
A rotation with Ray, Syndergaard and Ohtani (3.18 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 156 strikeouts in 130.1 innings) at the top is one that can compete in the AL West.
Next-best fit: Toronto Blue Jays
Marcus Semien: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers already have their contingency plan at shortstop if they can't re-sign Corey Seager: They can just move Trea Turner from second base to his natural position.
But that creates an opening at second base, where the Dodgers would do well to sign Semien.
Consider that he was not known for defense early in his career but then last season evolved as one of the better defensive second basemen in the game.
The 31-year-old ranked sixth at the position with seven outs above average, according to Statcast. His reputation as a power hitter is well settled after he hit 12 September homers and 45 overall in his first All-Star season.
For the Dodgers, bringing in a player such as Semien, who is the only one to produce at least 6.0 bWAR in multiple seasons since 2019, per MLB.com's Brian Murphy, would soften the blow of losing a homegrown star like Seager in free agency.
Next-best fit: Boston Red Sox
Trevor Story: Seattle Mariners
This is just the bat Seattle needs in the middle or at the top of its order. The two-time Silver Slugger Award winner dealt with arm troubles in 2021, with right elbow inflammation putting him on the injured list early in the season.
It's likely what led to Story's numbers (.251/.329/.471) being below his career average (.272/.340/.523).
Story is still the player who became the fastest shortstop to reach 100 homers (448 games), doing so in 2019. He is tied with Francisco Lindor for the fourth-most home runs at the position of all active players to play at least half of their games at shortstop with 158, per MLB.com's Nick Aguilera.
Seattle gets a franchise player, and Story goes to a place that sports a good amount of young talent and is nearing the end of a rebuild. With J.P. Crawford already at shortstop, the Mariners would not necessarily have to play Story there, especially with the arm concerns. He could seamlessly move to second base, or maybe third, with free-agent Kyle Seager's possible departure.
The Mariners need a starting pitcher and an impact bat. They hit .226/.303/.385 on the season and their .688 OPS ranked fourth-lowest in baseball.
Next-best fit: Philadelphia Phillies
Max Scherzer: St. Louis Cardinals
It would be on-brand for the St. Louis Cardinals to invest in an older pitcher and maximize him. Max Scherzer, 37, did not garner a ton of interest at the trade deadline despite the Dodgers' surprise deal for him and Trea Turner with the Washington Nationals.
The Cardinals' biggest offseason needs are adding a left-handed bat and a starting pitcher. Last year, they relied heavily on Adam Wainwright's renaissance but also saw big innings from trade-deadline acquisitions J.A. Happ and Jon Lester, who are now free agents.
Scherzer was his usual dominant self in 2021, finishing with a 2.46 ERA, 34.1 strikeout percentage that ranked second in the National League and a 5.2 walk percentage that ranked fifth.
The only question is whether the Cardinals will outbid the Dodgers, who have the inside track as the incumbent team. While the Cardinals are not known for spending a ton in free agency, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported mutual interest between the three-time Cy Young winner and St. Louis.
Next-best fit: Los Angeles Dodgers.
Kris Bryant: Philadelphia Phillies
When the San Francisco Giants traded for Kris Bryant last July, it seemed like the perfect fit. Of course, a player with his positional flexibility fits well with any contender.
Yet it was apparent after the season that the Bryant trade was not necessarily a long play.
Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi was clear when speaking with reporters last month that 2021 was front of mind with the trade for the 2016 NL MVP during the Chicago Cubs' fire sale of their World Series core.
The Phillies' biggest needs are in the rotation and bullpen, but they could also stand to upgrade the outfield outside Bryce Harper and the left side of the infield.
Bryant has the profile for all of it. He's been a third baseman throughout his career and spent time at all three outfield spots last season. While Bryant was not great at any particular position, it will help wherever he goes to settle into one primarily.
Meanwhile, the Phillies have to look at Bryant's career .749 OPS in the playoffs across 44 contests—which include his sublime five-game performance in the 2021 NLDS against the Dodgers (.471/.500/.647 with a home run in 18 plate appearances)—and think that's exactly what they are missing.
Next-best fit: Seattle Mariners
Corey Seager: New York Yankees
The New York Yankees need a shortstop, and Seager is in line for a big payday. It's a match made in heaven.
ESPN's Jesse Rogers polled 20 team executives and MLB insiders from across both leagues about free-agent landing spots, and one of them had this to say about Seager to the Bronx:
"The Yankees need Seager. They can't add another right-handed bat when a lefty-hitting shortstop is staring at them. It makes too much sense. And we know he can handle the spotlight after playing in Los Angeles. I pick him as the guy least fazed by accepting a huge free-agent contract to play in New York."
While injury history is a concern for both of the top free agent shortstops, Seager and Carlos Correa, the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year is a proven high-level performer at the plate.
Seager has hit at least .295 with an .850 OPS in five of his seven big league seasons. The Yankees, meanwhile, struggled mightily from the left side of the plate ranking 26th in OPS (.671).
It would be shocking if the Yankees don't make a big slash at shortstop, one of their biggest needs, with all of this young talent on the market.
The Yankees and Dodgers are both reportedly interested in Seager, according to MLB Network's Jon Heyman.
Next-best fit: Los Angeles Dodgers
Carlos Correa: Houston Astros
Carlos Correa won't be back in Houston, but make no mistake: This is the best fit. Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel have started more postseason games together (73) than any four teammates in MLB history.
With nine RBI last postseason, Correa moved into sixth all-time in MLB playoff history and has the most among active players (59).
Expect the 27-year-old to be excellent wherever he goes, which again, probably won't be Houston. That's still where success is most likely. But the Astros' most recent offer of five years, $160 million did not begin to approach Correa's asking price (closer to Francisco Lindor's 10-year, $341 million deal).
Only the Cardinals were better in outs above average and runs prevented in 2021, per Statcast. With the other three infielders locked up either long term, or at least for 2022, bringing back Correa would maintain what's been an outstanding status quo.
Detroit makes sense for Correa because it would reunite him with former manager A.J. Hinch, and the Tigers desperately need a superstar as they try to close the gap in the AL Central.
The Yankees make sense for Correa because they shell out the kind of money he's looking for, and they need a high-level shortstop.
The Texas Rangers only make sense because they could be desperate enough to find themselves as the highest bidder.
But for the Astros' No. 1 overall pick in 2012, there is no place quite like home.
Next-best fit: Detroit Tigers