Draft time! The top 30 free agents right now

Leitch and Petriello draft and predict 30 destinations

November 13th, 2020

As we continue to investigate the 2020-21 free-agent class, we've come to learn a few things. It's somewhat top heavy, with a "big four" at the top, before the elite-level talent thins out quickly. But it's deep in another sense, because there are dozens of starter-quality players available. You might be in good shape if you need help at catcher, the bullpen, shortstop or the corner outfield, but there's very little depth in center field or the corner infield. We may not yet know what shape this market is going to take, but we do know there's talent to be had.

How deep? Well, we got MLB.com's Will Leitch and Mike Petriello together to do an informal 30-player draft, with guaranteed-to-be-right predictions about where each player might end up and for how many years. And look at the names that didn't get picked: Kirby Yates. Enrique Hernández. Mike Minor. Cesar Hernandez. Chris Archer. Garrett Richards. Matt Shoemaker. Adam Wainwright. J.A. Happ. Taijuan Walker. Wilson Ramos. Mike Zunino. Brett Gardner. Rich Hill. On and on, you get the point. There might not be a Bryce Harper or Manny Machado level talent out there this year, but there's a ton of notable mid-level names.

Will gets to go first. (For the purposes of this exercise, we excluded pitchers Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman, who each accepted qualifying offers to remain with their teams, and Drew Smyly, who signed a one-year deal with the Braves on Monday.)

1) J.T. Realmuto, C

Leitch: There are some fine free agents out there, and we’re about to name a whole bunch of them. But there is only one player we can say, with nearly 100% certainty, is the absolute best at his position. That’s Realmuto, who may have had the best year of his (already excellent) career at the plate and also is a Gold Glove Award winner behind the plate. By definition, there isn’t a team in baseball that isn’t better with Realmuto on the roster. I’m very much Team Mets Are Gonna Spend Like Crazy This Offseason, and Realmuto would fill an obvious hole. The Phillies would like to keep him, too, but even in this unusual offseason, you can see the bidding getting out of control for this guy.

Prediction: 5-year deal with Mets.

2) George Springer, OF

Petriello: There are areas where this free-agent market is deep, like you can find a catcher or a reliever. But in center field, there’s Springer, then a big gap, then Jackie Bradley Jr., then … well, that’s it. There are no other starting center fielders. Springer’s value is in his consistent quality -- he has a career 131 OPS+, and he’s never been below 114 in a season -- and that, plus his status as the No. 11 overall pick a decade ago, helps him separate himself somewhat from what the 2017 Astros may have done to help (or not) their hitters. He’s a strong enough center fielder that you can keep him there for a few years without concern, and with enough experience in right field that a move there as he ages would be seamless. If I can’t take the best catcher, I’m taking the most reliable remaining position player.

Prediction: 5-year deal with Mets. (I actually wrote this before I saw Will take the Mets for five years with Realmuto. Guess we’re buying into the Steve Cohen hype.)

3) Trevor Bauer, RHP

Leitch: Bauer was obviously incredible in 2020, at the exact right moment that personally most benefited him, which is probably something we should have seen coming. It is still worth remembering that other than 2018 and 2020, he has basically been Loud Gil Meche. People will buy big on those two career years, though, and even with his, uh, polarizing personality, the suitors will line up. Cincinnati is probably the best fit, but all told, it does sort of feel like a big market, with many big microphones, is the cosmically correct place. Here’s hoping he and Gerrit Cole have officially made up.

Prediction: 5-year deal with Yankees.

4) DJ LeMahieu, 2B

Petriello: I hate to go with the chalk here, but the first three names we listed are clearly three of The Big Four of this year’s free-agent market, with a sizable gap following them. So LeMahieu it is, baseball’s most unshiftable man. He's fresh off proving that not all Rockies hitters are merely a product of their mile-high home park better than anyone could have expected by posting a .336/.386/.536 line in two years with the Yankees -- while also playing three spots and setting hearts aflutter by not striking out often and going to the opposite field. The Yankees would love to have him back, but we’ll bet they’ll first spend big on pitching and add a shortstop to move Gleyber Torres, and rather than just assume the two New York teams will gobble up every free agent, let’s send him to a National League contender in absolute desperate need of offense. Welcome back to Wisconsin, DJ. Your grandma would be excited.

Prediction: 3-year deal with Brewers.

5) Marcell Ozuna, OF/DH

Leitch: Can I just say that it’s sort of a relief that Ozuna didn’t win the Triple Crown this year? Nothing against the guy, he’s a blast, but I’m still exhausted by the great Cabrera-Trout War of 2012 and would rather just note that Ozuna was a fantastic hitter without having to get all “historic” about it. A lot of Ozuna’s market -- we’ll see this from a few guys -- is wrapped up in whether or not the National League still has the designated hitter or not. If you were to ask me to guess -- without any actionable information here, I want to be clear -- I’d wager that the DH does return to the NL, which makes Ozuna staying in Atlanta the logical bet here. But to warn: The Braves aren’t particularly eager to play him in left field if they’re forced to, and I cannot say that I blame them.

Prediction: 3-year deal with Braves.

6) Justin Turner, 3B

Petriello: I understand that the name “Justin Turner” is unable to be said without thinking about the incredibly awkward way in which the World Series ended, but MLB completed its investigation, and … wait, how has it been seven years now of high-level hitting performance with the Dodgers? Didn’t the Mets just cut him yesterday? Apparently not. Since 2014, Turner has a 139 OPS+, and it’s been high-level consistency every single year, not fits and starts. Soon-to-be 36, with an increasing list of minor injuries on his trail, you might not think he’s your 162-game third baseman for much longer, but with the bat still lethal, a near-term future as a 3B/1B/DH type seems secure. It’s hard to imagine him leaving Los Angeles. Part of the reason I picked him is so I’d get one prediction right.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Dodgers, plus an option.

7) Michael Brantley, OF

Leitch: Theoretically, Brantley is the sort of guy who should get squeezed in a market like this one. He’s older, he has an injury history and he can really only play left field. The good news is that he can still hit, consistently, and he’s looking at three consecutive years of avoiding injury, the exact opposite of what most predicted as he entered his 30s. He’s as steady a guy as you’ll find in baseball, and steadiness feels less in supply today than it has in any other time in recent baseball memory. Someone will pay for that. Someone should pay for that.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Astros.

8) Masahiro Tanaka, RHP

Petriello: We’re not drafting actual teams or rosters, so I don’t need to worry about you scooping up players at a position of scarcity before I can get to them, but with Stroman returning to the Mets and Gausman headed back to San Francisco, it’s becoming quite clear how thin the starter market is after Bauer. Tanaka isn’t really the dominating ace he once seemed like he could be when he first came to America, but despite a transition into something more like a junkballer as he ages into his 30s, he’s been good for 170 or so reliably decent innings each year. The Yankees need more than one starter, right? Might as well go with the one who’s already had success in pinstripes.

Prediction: 3-year deal with Yankees.

9) Nelson Cruz, DH

Leitch: Reason for worry: He fell off considerably in the season’s final month, with his OPS dropping nearly 200 points in September. Reason to not worry: He might have been the best power hitter in baseball before that drop, which means that last-month OPS was still better than, say, Pete Alonso’s whole season. Another reason to not worry: He’s Nelson Cruz! He’ll turn 41 right before the All-Star break next year, which means maybe you shouldn’t sign him for a whole decade. Maybe. But two years easy, and if the DH is in the NL … it honestly wouldn’t shock me if someone went nuts and gave him three.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Twins.

10) Ha-Seong Kim, SS

Petriello: I kept going back and forth between Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons here and decided to take the coward’s way out by picking a different shortstop entirely. Kim is 25, and he just hit .306/.397/.523 in Korea after being the KBO’s No. 1 prospect; you can’t translate that line directly to the Majors, but it’s still pretty good, and he’s expected to be posted soon. (On a side note: For all of the terribleness of the COVID-19 year, it is nice how much more focus the highly entertaining KBO received!) It’s hard to know how teams will value this winter’s shortstops given next year’s historic class, but it’s not like Kim couldn’t play second or third if you needed him to. He might fit best on a young up-and-coming team that doesn't need him to be The Man right away.

Prediction: 5-year deal with Tigers.

11) Kolten Wong, 2B

Leitch: That Charlie Brown walk you’ve seen Cardinals fans making for the last month is entirely due to Wong, after the team, shockingly, decided not to pick up the final year of his option. He’s unlikely to get the $12.5 million he would have gotten in 2020 on the open market, but he’ll get a heck of a lot more years. He’s the best defensive second baseman in baseball, winning a second straight Gold Glove Award, and while he was down offensively in 2020, he still put up a .350 OBP, which is more than plenty considering his defense. He was also the team’s MVP in 2019, the only time in the past five years it's won a division title. Tommy Edman is a nice player. But he’s not Wong. Someone’s going to be very happy with their second baseman for the next three years.

Prediction: 3-year deal with Red Sox.

12) Charlie Morton, RHP

Petriello: Yeah, I have absolutely no idea what to do here. Ignore the 4.74 ERA this year; Morton has been a star for four years now, and that should make for a nice deal in a pitching-hungry winter. Except … there are so many “excepts.” Except he turned 37 on Nov. 12. Except he reportedly wants to stay near his family’s Florida home. Except his fastball velocity was down from 2019 … except it was up over the course of the season, ending with a 94.1 mph in September. (Oh, and he still might retire.) Our guess is he’ll play, and he’ll be good, but it will be near his home and also not with the Rays. We’re sending Morton back to where it all began, to a contending team with a talented young rotation that could desperately use a good veteran starter. Drafted in 2002, returning in 2021: Charlie Morton, Atlanta Brave.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Braves.

13) Liam Hendriks, RHP

Leitch: Closer alert! You’d have to think the market for closers wouldn’t be booming exactly -- it is not 2003, after all -- but every team in baseball needs a Hendriks. He was mostly a traditional closer last year, but he hasn’t always been one; he’ll work wherever you put him. He’s a little older than you think he is, but unless you’re the Brewers and maybe the Rays, he’s instantly the best pitcher in your bullpen the day you sign him. Let’s see, what would-be contending team is most desperate for bullpen arms? Oh yes ...

Prediction: 3-year deal with Phillies.

14) Jackie Bradley Jr., CF

Petriello: There are only two available center fielders, and Springer is going to get a giant deal. For everyone else, the only real option is Bradley, who continues to be one of the most elite defensive outfielders in baseball, while endlessly frustrating with hot-and-cold streaks at the plate. (Seriously, though: a 53 OPS+ in 2013-14. Then a 118 OPS+ in 2015-16, when he looked like a star. Then a 90 OPS+ from 2017-19, before jumping back up to a 118 OPS+ in 2020. What do you do with that?) That, to us, calls out for a team looking to be aggressive ... one that badly needs help on defense in the outfield ... has an outfield that’s too right-handed already .. and has enough other bats in the lineup that it can live if Bradley is below average rather than above average. Bonus! By sending him to the Blue Jays, he still gets to patrol Fenway Park’s oddly shaped center field a few times a year, which he’s arguably done better than anyone in history.

Prediction: 3-year deal with Blue Jays.

15) Didi Gregorius, SS

Leitch: The good news is that he made good on his make-good one-year deal with the Phillies, putting up the second-best slugging percentage and best OBP of his whole career. The bad news is that his make-good year came this year, which is to say, as excellent as he was, he’ll still be a 31-year-old shortstop hitting the market during what might charitably be called a “dry” period, one that also has several shortstops on the market. He’ll get two years, no doubt, but more than that? Seems unlikely. So he gets another, slightly longer make-good contract. Enough make-goods, and you’re just, you know, always a free agent. And hey, aren’t we all?

Prediction: 2-year deal with A’s.

16) Marcus Semien, SS

Petriello: I know I said “I have absolutely no idea what to do here” with Morton, but that goes double for Semien, who spent five years being consistently and unendingly “fine but not great” between 2014-18 (97 OPS+, with concerning defense), then had a smashing breakout 2019 (33 homers, 139 OPS+, with improved defense), before falling back on old habits in 2020 (91 OPS+). It’s fair to point out that he was limited by a side injury, and also that it’s difficult to know how much emphasis to put on anyone’s 2020, given that the season was two months long. But as it stands now, it’s 2019 that looks like the fluke. We think he’s better than 2020, not quite as good as 2019, and that he’s probably not looking to be back on the market with Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Javier Báez and Francisco Lindor next winter. There are a few places he could land -- Phillies, Angels, perhaps -- but the Reds almost literally do not have a shortstop.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Reds.

17) Andrelton Simmons, SS

Leitch: It’s a run on shortstops! Simmons remains the best defensive shortstop in baseball, which had more value back when hitters actually put the ball in play occasionally but still comes in awfully handy. The problem is that he stopped hitting entirely in 2019 and then only played half the truncated 2020 season. He did actually put up the highest OBP of his career this year, though with zilch for power. The question is whether the ankle is healed enough to let him start hitting like a normal player again.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Phillies.

18) Joc Pederson, OF

Petriello: “Wait, the guy who hit .190 this year, really?” To which I say: Yes. Pederson’s regular season was indeed mostly rough; he missed time on the family emergency list due to circumstances around his newborn daughter (who, at last report, is doing well), before he came back to pound in the playoffs: .382/.432/.559 with a pair of homers. There’s no secret to Pederson’s game at this point, not really. He’ll hit for a low average with very good power that makes him valuable overall (.234 average, .479 slugging, 118 OPS+ between 2015-19), he’ll play a competent if unspectacular corner outfield, and he absolutely cannot face lefty pitching. There’s always a use for a powerful lefty bat to make up the strong side of a platoon, and we’d argue the best place for him is with an up-and-contending White Sox team that made an unlikely-to-work gamble on Nomar Mazara that did not, in fact, work.

Prediction: 2-year deal with White Sox.

19) James Paxton, LHP

Leitch: [Scott Boras voice] There’s a great deal of interest in him. That may or may not be true, but it’s not that absurd, after the mess that was his 2020 season -- and the general bust of his whole Yankees era -- that teams might be kicking the tires on him. He was never quite as terrific as you wanted him to be even at his peak, and he certainly has never been as healthy as you wanted him to be, but a team with reasonable expectations could maybe dream on 15-20 Hyun Jin Ryu-type starts before he breaks down. As a buy-low, one-year deal, pandemic-discount sort of guy, you could do quite a bit worse.

Predictions: 1-year deal with Red Sox.

20) Jake Odorizzi, RHP

Petriello: After a string of “decent enough” seasons for Tampa Bay and Minnesota, Odorizzi finally had that Really Very Good season in 2019, or at least as good as you can have while throwing only 159 innings. He followed that up with an injury-plagued mess of a 2020 -- don't worry about the 6.59 ERA, but do worry about the mere 13 2/3 innings. He'll only be 31 in March, so there's still some hope that a healthy version can look more like 2019. Some team in need of a third or fourth starter will be happy to give him the chance.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Cubs.

21) José Quintana, LHP

Leitch: He was never the pitcher for the Cubs that they wanted him to be -- and if you were uncertain what kind of pitcher they wanted him to be, let me remind you they traded Eloy Jiménez for him -- but he wasn’t all that bad either. He made all his starts, at perfectly league-average levels, for two seasons before the weirdness of 2020, and it’s not like he’s some flamethrower who’s going to burn out immediately. Thirty-plus starts of average starting pitching? I think I know some teams that would salivate over that.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Angels.

22) Corey Kluber, RHP

Petriello: Ah, I see we’re deep into the “throw a pitcher against the wall and see what sticks” portion of our show, and it’s hard to find a reboundier rebound bet than Kluber, the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner who was in the conversation for “best pitcher alive” between 2014-18, but who has pitched just eight times in the last two seasons due to a broken arm, a strained oblique and, most concerningly of all, a shoulder tear that limited his Texas tenure to one inning. What Kluber needs is a team that doesn’t need him, that doesn’t need to rely on him, that can view him strictly as a “yeah, but can you imagine if …” luxury item. If that’s not the Dodgers, we don’t know what is.

Prediction: 1-year deal with Dodgers.

23) Brad Hand, LHP

Leitch: Well, we definitely know a maximum for Hand: When Cleveland placed him on waivers rather than pay him $10 million next year, the club was widely derided … until no one else picked him up. So certainly expect less than $10 million AAV. But he was still fantastic last year, and he has been fantastic for five straight years now. He’s Brad Hand! He’s really good! He might take a one-year deal to re-establish his value, but that doesn’t work for relievers the way it works for third basemen. If he can get some security, he should take it.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Nationals.

24) Tommy La Stella, IF/DH

Petriello: My, how far we’ve come from the whole “La Stella leaves Cubs because he lost his job to Chris Coghlan” debacle of 2016, haven’t we? After five years of being a moderately useful bench piece in the NL (94 OPS+), La Stella transformed himself into something of a slugger (122 OPS+) who doesn’t ever strike out (40 whiffs in 549 PA) over the past two seasons in the AL. You’d think that’d be a superstar, except he’s a platoon bat who isn’t all that good defensively. That makes it hard to figure out where to fit him. Probably still in the AL, until we hear more about the DH in the NL.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Rangers.

25) Blake Treinen, RHP

Leitch: I’ve got reliever fever over here. As FanGraphs pointed out, the A’s probably overreacted to a slight drop in 2019; Treinen was awesome for the Dodgers and now will get a World Series ring for his troubles. There are so many teams with bullpen problems that someone will push a little harder for him than perhaps they should for a right-handed reliever well into his 30s. Let’s see, who should have some money to spend? Oh yes ...

Prediction: 2-year deal with Red Sox.

26) Trevor May, RHP

Petriello: Thought about Kirby Yates here, but the arm issues scare me. Thought about Trevor Rosenthal here, but the potential for absolute and total collapse also scares me. So instead, I’m going with the guy who just struck out 15 per nine and has quietly become an under-the-radar quality reliever. Who wouldn’t want that?

Prediction: 1-year deal with Phillies.

27) Carlos Santana, 1B

Leitch: So basically, Santana had the worst year of his career, and he still led the American League in walks and is (sort of amazingly) a top-shelf defensive first baseman. He’s just a year removed from 34 homers, he’s an on-base machine and he can play his position well. I mean, we used to really value guys like this, right? Am I totally crazy? We’ve just all decided to move on from Santana? If this were 2004, we’d be building golden statues out of him and worshiping him as a deity. But in 2020? Cleveland turns down his option and everyone just shrugs. Here’s a bet: Someone’s going to get Santana super-cheap this year and be incredibly happy they did.

Prediction: 1-year deal with Rockies.

28) Trevor Rosenthal, RHP

Petriello: Three years ago, Rosenthal was finishing up a successful pre-injury run as St. Louis' dominant closer. Two years ago, he missed the entire 2018 season due to Tommy John surgery. One year ago, he walked 26 in 15 1/3 innings for the Nationals and Tigers, while also walking three of the five hitters he faced in the Minors for the Yankees. It seemed like the end of the road. And then this year, seemingly out of nowhere, Rosenthal was incredible, like the old days. In 23 2/3 innings first for the Royals and then the Padres, who traded for him in August, he allowed five earned runs and walked eight. (In 10 innings for San Diego, he struck out 17 against one walk, allowing no runs.) With some history of success in his back pocket, and with that run we saw in 2020, he should really be higher than this. But he's been through so many teams the past two years, and "consistent" or "reliable" aren't exactly words you'd use here. The high-level ceiling is more than enough for teams to be interested. There's just a huge risk of implosion.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Angels.

29) Yadier Molina, C

Leitch: Yeah, I (obviously) went full Cardinal with my last pick. But that’s the question, isn’t it? Is Molina -- a player I believe is a Hall of Famer, but that’s an assignation he received at least somewhat because he’s so closely associated with the one team he’s played for his entire career -- really going to leave the Cardinals? Andrew Knizner showed a little last year, and he’s going to be 26 on Opening Day, so if you’re ever going to give him a chance, it’s now. And the Cardinals sure look like they’re slashing payroll -- witness Wong, Kolten. And Yadi is a prideful player, one who seems more likely to see any requests for a hometown discount as insulting. (Like his old pal Albert Pujols did before him.)

That said: Yadi is still a 38-year-old catcher who might have had his worst offensive season in 14 years in 2020. It’s not like he’s going to have a Pujols-level number of suitors. Here’s betting Molina and the Cardinals figure it out for a two-year pillow contract, with Knizner getting the at-bats that, say, Carson Kelly never could.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Cardinals.

30) James McCann, C

Petriello: In what’s a decently deep class of free-agent catchers behind Realmuto, McCann might be the second-best available, though I’ll admit that it’s pretty difficult to know what to make of him. He spent five years being pretty unimpressive in Detroit (76 OPS+), to the point that the Tigers simply non-tendered him after 2018, and this wasn’t exactly a roster that could easily afford to shed talent. Then in 2019, he was flukishly good for the first half (131 OPS+) before reverting to his usual self in the second half (81 OPS+), and that made him pretty easy to write off, right? It didn’t stop the White Sox from spending big on Yasmani Grandal to improve behind the plate, anyway. So of course, McCann put up a smashing 2020 (144 OPS+), but in only 111 plate appearances. So what do you even do with this? He’s a multitude of confusion even behind the plate: He’s never rated well in framing, but pitchers like Lucas Giolito swear by him. We think there’s enough here that someone will give him more than one year and a starting job to prove if he’s for real -- or not.

Prediction: 2-year deal with Nationals.