There is danger in looking too far ahead in baseball … or in any other element of society right now. But with the necessary caveat that a lot can change in a year, Major League Baseball might be headed toward the deepest free-agent class at one particular position in the history of a process that dates back to 1976.
So, let’s put that group in perspective.
Check out the Baseball Reference-calculated wins above replacement tally for these five players over the 2017-19 seasons combined. Because '20’s shortened schedule affects the totals, we’ll leave it out, but note that two of these guys -- such as Seager and Story -- were excellent in '20, while Lindor, Báez, and Correa had relatively down years:
PLAYER (2017-19 WAR)
Story: 14. 6
A little perspective on the above: According to the data available at Baseball Reference, never in the history of free agency have five position players from the same exact position entered the process having logged double-digit WAR tallies in the three seasons prior.
While there are a few examples of five starting pitchers fulfilling those parameters (most recently Zack Greinke, David Price, Hisashi Iwakuma, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann in the 2015-16 offseason), and there is one example of six players from the more broad-based “outfielder” group doing the same (Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Torii Hunter, Shane Victorino, Angel Pagan and Nick Swisher in '12-13), the potential '21-22 shortstop free-agent field currently projects to be special both for its positional specificity and the age of those involved:
PLAYER (2022 seasonal age)
Again, using a three-year WAR tally of 10 or more as a prerequisite, there has only been one free-agent class that included at least five players (from any position, pitcher or hitter) that young (under 30) and that accomplished -- the 2004-05 group featuring J.D. Drew (29), Placido Polanco (29), Edgar Renteria (28), Carlos Beltrán (28) and Adrián Beltré (26).
(And even there, for the record, we had to round Polanco’s WAR up from 9.8 to help him qualify.)
That’s a long-winded, math-heavy way of saying: This could be fun!
Of course, it goes without saying that this fabulous fivesome will have to be healthy and productive in 2021, and it remains to be seen if any of the five will sign an extension between now and next offseason. Actually, knowing how free agency has evolved, it might behoove one or two of these guys to lock in with their current clubs before they all find themselves in a game of musical chairs that will coincide with the next collective bargaining agreement discussions (and who knows what impact the pandemic will continue to have on baseball next year).
But with ready acknowledgement that it’s impossible to forecast what the next year holds, here’s one person’s best guess as to how these five players will rank in terms of free-agent value after the 2021 season:
1) Francisco Lindor, Indians
From 2016-19, only Mike Trout (44.9), Mookie Betts (39.7), Nolan Arenado (30.9) and Jose Altuve (29.4) ranked higher in WAR than Lindor (28.6). It’s hard to know how to balance that against Lindor’s disappointing '20, in which his batting average (.258), OPS (.750) and OPS+ (102) were all career lows, and he made some crippling mistakes on the basepaths. Lindor comes across as a player who feeds off the energy of crowds more than most, so perhaps that played into it.
But Lindor does have a high WAR floor because of his defensive value (he’s third among shortstops in outs above average going back to 2017). He was a legitimate power hitter with at least 40 doubles and 30 homers in three straight seasons from '17-19. And he’s on the short list of the game’s most magnetic -- and, ergo, marketable -- stars. That’ll add to his free-agent allure.
You could ask me on a different day and get a different answer. And it’s hard not to let recency bias seep in. But remember: We’re projecting a year out. Lindor has a greater likelihood of sticking at shortstop long-term than others on this list, and I think he’ll have a bounceback walk year. He’ll be No. 1 in this loaded class.
2) Carlos Correa, Astros
First and foremost, being the youngest player on this list aids Correa’s cause. He looked like an MVP waiting to happen when he burst onto the big league scene with a 22-homer, 22-double output in just 99 games in his American League Rookie of the Year Award season in 2015. Because of a myriad of injuries that limited him to just 294 games from '17-19, Correa has had trouble living up to that early acclaim. Furthermore, Correa’s size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and the back issues that limited him in '18 and ’19 might make him a candidate to shift to third base at some point.
But when on the field from 2017-20, Correa posted a 125 wRC+ mark (or 25% better than league average) -- the best of any shortstop in that span. And even though his '20 regular season was nothing special, he once again rose to the occasion in the postseason, where he’s had some huge moments in his career.
Even if Correa doesn’t meet that once-prescribed MVP level in 2021, somebody will bet big on the pedigree and remaining upside.
3) Corey Seager, Dodgers
I know, I know. Ranking the reigning National League Championship Series and World Series MVP third on this list is awkward. Like Correa, Seager has an argument to be No. 1. His terrific 2020 (.307/.358/.585 slash, 152 OPS+), as well as his incredible postseason, was affirmation that he was something of a sleeping giant at this position.
But missing the vast majority of 2018 with Tommy John surgery and hip surgeries and missing several weeks of '19 with a hamstring issue has lessened Seager’s overall impact, to date. Defensively, he graded out as average, per outs above average, in '20, and ranks 13th among shortstops in that department going back to '17. Because of his size and the beating his body has already taken, Seager could one day be a candidate for a position shift. That’s why I’m putting him third here.
But Seager does pretty much everything well, with a good approach and good power. And his extensive experience in October -- and his bonkers 2020 postseason -- will be taken into account in free agency.
4) Trevor Story, Rockies
In terms of games played, Story was the fastest shortstop in history to 100 homers, and he is the only player in MLB who had at least 35 homers, 35 doubles and 20 steals in both 2018 and '19. So he brings a rare blend of speed and power -- and oh, by the way, he’s a plus defender, too. He’s the total package, with plenty of “story” puns, to boot.
But look, we’ve got to at least mention Coors Field here, right? (Sorry, Rockies fans.) Story has a .994 career OPS and 60.3% of his career extra-base hits at Coors. It’s likely true that the altitude adjustment negatively impacts the road performance of Rockies players, and Story is, by no means, a bad offensive player on the road, with a .760 OPS. DJ LeMahieu is a recent example of how talent translates.
The home park, though, has certainly impacted Story’s power numbers, and that will be something to take into account in his market.
5) Javier Báez, Cubs
Somebody had to rank fifth, OK? So try not to take Báez’s position on this particular list as a knock on him. Every guy on this list is awesome, and that’s why we made the list.
“El Mago” is one of the most electric players in the sport, dazzling with his arm, instincts, slides, even his tags (seriously, how many of us paid any real attention to the skill of tagging before Báez came along?). Like Lindor, his pure joy adds to his allure and appeal. And he did just take home his first Gold Glove Award.
The primary knock on Báez, though, is his plate discipline. When he had an MVP-caliber 2018, he did it with a 126 OPS+, 167 strikeouts and only 29 walks. No qualified hitter in Major League history had ever had an OPS+ that high with a strikeout total that high and a walk total that low. Sure enough, in '19, the strikeout (156) and walk (28) totals were roughly the same, while the OPS+ dropped to 113 -- still very good (especially at shortstop, where he became a fixture) but not MVP-caliber. In '20, his strikeout rate jumped to 31.9% (a career high for a “full” season) and his walk rate fell to 3% (a career low). Báez’s ceiling, therefore, is limited by his plate profile, which, combined with his age relative to the others on this list, will likely affect his free-agent price tag.