The Perfect Landing Spot for Top MLB Free Agents Still on the Board

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 20, 2021

The Perfect Landing Spot for Top MLB Free Agents Still on the Board

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Whether it's next week or the week after that or so on, Major League Baseball's lockout will eventually end and the free-agent market will open back up again.

    In the meantime, let's speculate on the best possible home for each of the top 10 players left on the board.

    On this list are a closer, two left-handed aces and a veritable menagerie of sluggers and star position players. Where they fit best is naturally subject to debate, but we made our picks based on needs, contention timelines and hypothetical payroll flexibility.

    Starting with the closer, let's count 'em down.

10. RHP Kenley Jansen: Toronto Blue Jays

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 69 G, 52 GF, 69.0 IP, 36 H (4 HR), 86 K, 36 BB, 2.22 ERA, 185 ERA+, 2.3 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: No

    After cycling through different closers in April and early May, the Toronto Blue Jays found a good one when they handed the role to Jordan Romano. Between his first save on May 11 and the end of the season, he pitched to a 1.99 ERA with 77 strikeouts in 54.1 innings.

    However, Romano also injured his knee somewhere along the line and is now recovering from surgery. Toronto's pen also still needs a late-inning reliever even after the club's signing of Yimi Garcia.

    There's no better move the Blue Jays can make than to also bring aboard Kenley Jansen. He's 34 now, but he still has his legendary cutter and he's fresh off a dominant run. He finished 2021 with a 0.44 ERA over his last 21 regular-season appearances and was then unscored upon in eight playoff outings.

    The Jays can sign Jansen and still not be close to their peak payrolls of 2017 and 2018. They perhaps wouldn't need to make additional moves, as they otherwise have the offensive firepower and starting pitching depth they need to continue their ascent as an American League superpower.

9. 1B Anthony Rizzo: Minnesota Twins

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 141 G, 576 PA, 22 HR, 6 SB, .248 AVG, .344 OBP, .440 SLG, 111 OPS+, 1.7 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: No

    It's easy to speculate about Anthony Rizzo ending up back with the very team that drafted him way back in 2007: the Boston Red Sox.

    Trouble is, Rizzo isn't the right-handed hitter that chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said (per Alex Speier of the Boston Globe) the team is seeking. And in the person of B/R's No. 17 prospect, Triston Casas, the Red Sox have a talented left-handed-hitting first baseman who's about ready to break in.

    The Minnesota Twins, on the other hand, should seriously consider Rizzo as a much-needed upgrade over Miguel Sano at first base. Rizzo is a steadier hand offensively, not to mention a better defender by several orders of magnitude. He doesn't have those four Gold Gloves for nothing.

    Signing Rizzo would also give further legitimacy to a contention window that, in spite of the hit it took amid a last-place finish in 2021, is still open. Or so the Twins clearly think, as they otherwise would not have extended Byron Buxton for $100 million over the next seven years.

8. LHP Clayton Kershaw: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 22 G, 22 GS, 121.2 IP, 103 H (15 HR), 144 K, 21 BB, 3.55 ERA, 115 ERA+, 2.1 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: No

    There would seem to be only two practical suitors for Clayton Kershaw—one of which is a team that's already committed itself to contending by way of a massive $560 million splurge in free agency.

    That's the Texas Rangers, who are also the Dallas native's hometown team. There are already a few familiar faces on the Rangers, including Los Angeles Dodgers coach-turned-Rangers manager Chris Woodward and shortstop Corey Seager, who says he's "had some talks" with Kershaw since signing with Texas.

    Yet it would be an upset if the three-time Cy Young Award winner and future Hall of Famer actually left the Dodgers behind. There's just too much history there, and his needs match up with the Dodgers' better than they do with those of the Rangers.

    Especially after dealing with forearm pain late in 2021, the 33-year-old just isn't the kind of guy who can carry a rotation anymore. That's the role the Rangers would need him for, while the Dodgers have the depth to accommodate Kershaw as more of a middle man in a rotation headed by Walker Buehler and Julio Urias.

7. LHP Carlos Rodon: Chicago White Sox

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 24 G, 24 GS, 132.2 IP, 91 H (13 HR), 185 K, 36 BB, 2.37 ERA, 183 ERA+, 5.0 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: No

    There's no shortage of teams that could benefit from taking a chance on Carlos Rodon. To name just a few, the Dodgers, Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners.

    But since we're merely trying to narrow down ideal fits, it's frankly hard to see a better one than the only team that Rodon has ever known.

    Before the lockout hit, the Chicago White Sox weren't able to land the "front-line starter" that Bob Nightengale of USA Today said they were seeking. That would indicate that they're comfortable pushing their payroll even higher, and Rodon is the only true No. 1-type starter on the market at this point.

    Besides, Rodon leaving the White Sox would mean leaving pitching coach Ethan Katz, who was responsible for the mechanical overhaul from which the lefty's excellent season eventually sprung. There would be some risk for Rodon in breaking their partnership, compared to potentially only reward if he chooses to continue it.

6. LF/1B Kyle Schwarber: Milwaukee Brewers

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 113 G, 471 PA, 32 HR, 1 SB, .266 AVG, .374 OBP, .554 SLG, 148 OPS+, 3.1 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: No

    Even though they ultimately won 95 games, the Milwaukee Brewers developed a fatal flaw toward the end of the 2021 season: they just couldn't score runs.

    They averaged only 3.6 per game over their last 18 contests of the regular season, and then just six in four games against Atlanta in the National League Division Series. Among their chief problems in both instances was a general shortage of power.

    This, of course, is something that Kyle Schwarber has a lot of in addition to his OBP-friendly eye for the strike zone. And because he bats from the left side, he'd be an ideal counterpart for the 30-homer power that newcomer Hunter Renfroe possesses on the right side of the plate.

    Where Milwaukee would play Schwarber is the tricky part for now, but much less so if the National League permanently gets the DH in the next collective bargaining agreement. And while he won't come cheaply, the Brewers' win-now contention window necessitates even further stretching of their budget.

5. RF Nick Castellanos: San Diego Padres

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 138 G, 585 PA, 34 HR, 3 SB, .309 AVG, .362 OBP, .576 SLG, 136 OPS+, 3.2 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    At least in the National League West, probably the best pure fit for Nick Castellanos is on the San Francisco Giants. Sans Buster Posey, who retired, and Kris Bryant, who's a free agent, they're lacking an impact right-handed hitter for the middle of their batting order.

    According to ESPN's Kiley McDaniel, however, there's a belief within the league that the Giants don't want to sign any free agents with nine-figure price tags. That almost certainly rules them out on Castellanos, who's surely in the market for north of $100 million after a career year.

    Elsewhere in the NL West is another team that Nightengale says has "strong interest" in the 29-year-old slugger: the San Diego Padres.

    On paper, the Padres could accommodate Castellanos by moving Wil Myers to left field or simply using the two of them in a timeshare at right field and designated hitter. They also just plain need his bat, even if it means further stretching their payroll and sacrificing not one but two draft picks.

4. 1B Freddie Freeman: Atlanta

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    Megan Varner/Getty Images

    2021 Stats: 159 G, 695 PA, 31 HR, 8 SB, .300 AVG, .393 OBP, .503 SLG, 133 OPS+, 4.7 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    On Dec. 1, Jon Morosi of dropped something of a bombshell rumor that the Dodgers and Yankees are both among the teams interested in Freddie Freeman.

    He'd certainly fit well on the Dodgers, who need a left-handed bat and an insurance policy for the wounded Max Muncy. He'd fit even better on the Yankees, whose own need for a left-handed bat also comes with the carrot that is Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch.

    And yet, we're not even remotely tempted to say that the 2020 NL MVP's best choice is somewhere other than Atlanta. 

    The 32-year-old was vocal about wanting to stay following the team's World Series triumph, and it hasn't yet replaced him with another lefty-hitting first baseman. Money is the only holdup, though the team's stated desire to increase payroll after its World Series championship should mean there's still a deal to be made.

3. SS Trevor Story: Houston Astros

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 142 G, 595 PA, 24 HR, 20 SB, .251 AVG, .329 OBP, .471 SLG, 103 OPS+, 4.2 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    We've already tipped our hand here, as it was only last week that we tabbed the Houston Astros as the best fit for Trevor Story after weighing all his other options.

    To be sure, some of those other options are good ones. The Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, for example, could all use a middle infielder of Story's caliber. So could the Seattle Mariners, though they'd probably have to move him to third base in deference to Gold Glover J.P. Crawford and All-Star Adam Frazier.

    The Astros, on the other hand, don't have a clear plan to replace Carlos Correa at shortstop. Alex Bregman is ready to take up the position if need be. The Astros could otherwise go with Jeremy Pena, yet he only has 30 games' worth of experience at Triple-A.

    Since neither of these is a particularly safe route, MLB Network's Jon Heyman's report on Houston's interest in Story makes sense. He could conceivably even be an upgrade over Correa, provided he were to avoid further elbow trouble and get back to producing like he did between 2018 and 2020.

2. 3B/OF Kris Bryant: Philadelphia Phillies

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 144 G, 586 PA, 25 HR, 10 SB, .265 AVG, .353 OBP, .481 SLG, 124 OPS+, 3.3 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: No

    The Philadelphia Phillies added a much-needed late-inning reliever when they signed Corey Knebel, but they still need to see about an offense that was overly reliant on NL MVP Bryce Harper in 2021.

    Said offensive upgrade could go just about anywhere, but there are especially wide-open holes on the left side of the infield and in left field and center field. Plus, all but one of those spots is currently occupied by a left-handed hitter.

    Which is to say that instead of Castellanos—who's on the team's radar, according to Morosi—the Phillies should really have their hooks out for Kris Bryant.

    As he was for the Giants in the latter half of 2021, the 2016 NL MVP could serve the Phillies as a jack-of-all-trades defender and middle-of-the-order slugger. It's a bonus that signing him would only cost money, which the Phillies have plenty of as they seek to snap a 10-year playoff drought.

1. SS Carlos Correa: New York Yankees

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2021 Stats: 148 G, 640 PA, 26 HR, 0 SB, .279 AVG, .366 OBP, .485 SLG, 131 OPS+, 7.2 rWAR

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    Considering that he's easily the best free agent available, Carlos Correa's corner of the market has been oddly quiet throughout the winter.

    The Detroit Tigers made a run at him before signing Javier Baez, according to ESPN's Buster Olney, and yet their offer was for $50 million less than what Seager got from the Rangers. Correa will surely need to at least match his $325 million guarantee, though the question now is which teams might relent to such a big ask.

    The Dodgers and Yankees are obvious possibilities on account of their bottomless pockets. The former, however, doesn't even like going above $100 million for free agents. The latter, meanwhile, is supposedly fine waiting on top shortstop prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza.

    But if either club is merely playing chicken with Correa's market, it has to be the Yankees, right? Correa is the defensive upgrade they need at shortstop, and his prolific opposite-field power is an ideal match for Yankee Stadium. Once the lockout lifts, it's easy to imagine them dropping the act and moving quickly to sign him.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.