With the regular season behind us and the postseason in full swing, we're taking a close look at some of the most prominent players eligible for free agency.
Name: Marcus Semien
Position: Second base/shortstop
Previous team: Blue Jays
Age (as of Opening Day 2022): 31
2021 stats: .265/.334/.538, 45 homers, 102 RBIs, 15 stolen bases
Semien struggled to find the long-term free-agent deal he desired a year ago, so the infielder bet on himself with a one-year, $18 million contract to play second base for the Blue Jays.
That gamble should pay off handsomely for Semien, who set a single-season MLB record for home runs by a second baseman (45) in 2021, joining Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernández and George Springer to form one of the fiercest lineups in the Majors.
Now, Semien is set to return to the free-agent market for a second straight offseason, albeit likely with Draft-pick compensation attached to him, assuming the Blue Jays extend him a qualifying offer. The durable Semien is one year younger than D.J. LeMahieu was during his free agency last year when he signed a six-year, $90 million deal to remain with the Yankees.
Although Semien manned second base for Toronto this past season, he has played shortstop in 796 of his 1,022 career games, putting him in the middle of one of the greatest free-agent shortstop classes in history.
But while Trevor Story, Javier Báez and Corey Seager all faced adversity in 2021, Semien -- who played in all 162 games -- joins Carlos Correa as players who thrived this past season, boosting his free-agent stock.
Toronto reportedly tried unsuccessfully to sign Semien to an extension during the season, and while the Blue Jays would love to bring him back for 2022 and beyond, the club also must try to re-sign left-hander Robbie Ray or find a way to fill that hole in the rotation. Given the strength and depth of its lineup, Toronto will likely prioritize pitching over hitting.
After dealing Nick Madrigal to the Cubs last summer, the White Sox are back in the market for a long-term plan at second base. Why not Semien, who was drafted by the Sox in both 2008 and '11, and played his first two big league seasons with the club before being traded to the A's in the December 2014 deal for Jeff Samardzija? Chicago already has more than $140 million committed in payroll (assuming it picks up Craig Kimbrel’s option), so adding a big-time bat such as Semien might not be in the cards.
Story appears to be a longshot to return to Colorado, but somebody has to play shortstop, right? New general manager Bill Schmidt has only $46 million committed to the payroll for 2022 and ’23 (a chunk of which is the money the Rockies will be sending the Cardinals as part of the Nolan Arenado deal), so while the team is seemingly in rebuilding mode, it could make a splashy move or two in order to excite the fan base.
Detroit has payroll flexibility and a need at shortstop, where the Tigers’ .595 OPS ranked 29th out of the 30 big league teams in '21. Manager A.J. Hinch’s team took a big step forward this past season, but adding a premier talent at shortstop in free agency would go a long way toward helping it challenge the White Sox in the American League Central.
Correa is part of the vaunted 2021-22 free-agent shortstop class, so if the Astros can't bring him back, they would be thrust into the throng of contenders vying for a new shortstop. Semien is four years older than Correa and should receive a shorter-term deal than the Astros' star, so if Houston shies away from giving Correa what he wants, Semien could be a strong alternative.
At 31, Semien is unlikely to receive the same type of long-term deal that some of the other members of the star shortstop class will, making him a good fit in Chicago to bridge the gap until one of the Cubs’ young prospects (No. 3 Cristian Hernandez and No. 7 Ed Howard) are ready to play every day in the Majors. Neither prospect seems close to being big league ready, but Semien has proven his ability to play second base. So even if one of the youngsters ascends rapidly, he could shift to second base at that time.
The Mariners might be satisfied with 2020 Gold Glove winner J.P. Crawford at shortstop, but with Kyle Seager likely on his way out as a free agent, Seattle could shift Abraham Toro to third base, opening the job at second. Semien would be a natural fit there, as the Mariners should look to add a power bat in the infield to replace Seager.
“Marcus has been able to duplicate what many believed was a career year in 2019, albeit in a hitter-friendly environment. He is an athletic player who, when at his best, contributes on both sides of the ball. At age 30, the offensive production has been boosted by a clear intent to get the ball in the air to the pull side. A player who has always been geared more toward contact and using the whole field has sacrificed being as complete a hitter to access his power. The position change defensively provides additional value because of the versatility, but the significant dollars will be tied to teams’ willingness to envision him as their shortstop. An impressive year from a good player, he will absolutely find the free-agent market more receptive this winter.”
Which Semien will his next team see? His two big seasons in 2019 and ’21 came with higher hard-hit rates (38.1 percent and 41.4 percent, respectively) than his career average of 34.7 percent, so teams must consider whether those two years were outliers or the type of numbers they can expect with consistency going forward. His subpar 2020 season saw him deliver a hard-hit rate of just 28.6 percent. After posting a career-best 11.7 percent walk rate in '19, Semien's walk rate has fallen in each of the past two seasons (10.6 percent in '20, 9.1 percent in '21).
For comp's sake
Semien’s career numbers are strikingly similar to those of Didi Gregorius, who was in a comparable situation to Semien after the 2019 season. Despite missing half of '19 following right elbow surgery, Gregorius’ platform season was far better than Semien’s 2020 campaign: He hit 16 home runs and had 61 RBIs in 82 games, but he had to settle on a one-year, $14 million contract with the Phillies. Gregorius inked a two-year, $28 million pact with Philadelphia the following year, though Semien’s monster 2021 -- and history of durability -- should put him in position to sign a far bigger deal this offseason.