While there is still impact talent available in this winter’s free-agent class, the forward-thinkers among us deserve to have their appetites appeased. What follows is a very early look at the top 21 free agents for 2021.
This list is very much subject to change. Some notable players with 2021 club, mutual or vesting options include: 1B Anthony Rizzo and Carlos Santana; 2B Kolten Wong; OF Starling Marte; DH Edwin Encarnación; RHP Corey Kluber, Aníbal Sánchez, Chris Archer, Charlie Morton, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis; and LHP Jon Lester, J.A. Happ, Brad Hand and Andrew Miller.
Notable players with 2021 opt-outs include Nick Castellanos, J.D. Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton.
*Please note: For the sake of context, players are listed with their current team -- though many of them could end up as trade fodder at the July 31 Deadline -- and ages listed are as of Opening Day 2021, the point at which their next contract will begin.
1. Mookie Betts, OF, LAD, age 28
Things can and will happen over the course of the upcoming season, but Betts’ spot atop this list is unquestionable at this point.
The Dodgers will likely make an effort to lock Betts up for the long term, but to date, he has demonstrated a desire to explore his free-agent worth. Betts broke a record by scoring a $27 million deal for his final round of arbitration, and next winter he’ll be looking to break Bryce Harper’s record $330 million free-agent contract. Over the past four seasons, the only player with a higher FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement tally than Betts (30.7) is Mike Trout (34.9).
2. J.T. Realmuto, C, PHI, age 30
The Phillies will make every attempt to extend Realmuto prior to Opening Day, so he might not remain on this list long. But as we saw from Yasmani Grandal’s four-year, $73 million deal with the White Sox, big-time backstops (and there aren’t many to go around) have tremendous earning power.
3. Marcus Semien, SS, OAK, age 30
Having taken huge steps forward defensively over the last few years and offensively in 2019, Semien enters '20 in position to be one of the most coveted players in the open market. But he’ll need to prove his .892 OPS last season was no fluke.
Teams in the market for a shortstop next winter will have to keep in mind that the 2021-22 class (Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Báez, Corey Seager, Trevor Story) is a real doozy.
4. Trevor Bauer, RHP, CIN, age 30
Next winter’s starting pitching market can develop any number of ways based on 2020 performance. But while he did struggle after a midseason move to Cincinnati in '19, Bauer’s age and stuff make him worthy of the top spot on that subset of the list for now.
The interesting wrinkle here is Bauer’s stated intention of signing only one-year deals to maximize his earnings for each individual season. We’ll see if he sticks with that strategy.
5. George Springer, OF, HOU, age 31
Springer’s age and recent injury history could limit his earning power. And we’ll see what, if any, future fallout there is for position players from the 2017 World Series champs in light of recent discoveries. But his career .270/.361/.488 slash and postseason pedigree make him an attractive Plan B for teams that aren’t willing to bid for Mookie Betts.
6. Marcus Stroman, RHP, NYM, age 29
Stroman is still on the right side of 30, is entering his first full season away from the American League East and rates well in terms of limiting quality contact, so he has an opportunity to elevate his position on this list. But Stroman's not a high-strikeout arm at a time when such flash is highly prized, and he needs a strong defensive cast behind him.
7. Marcell Ozuna, OF ATL, age 30
Ozuna reportedly turned down a three-year offer from the Reds to bet on himself with a one-year, $18 million contract in Atlanta. While Ozuna’s defense comes with concerns, his upper-tier exit velocity and hard-hit percentages paint the picture of a player who, with better batted-ball luck, might see a surge in success and earning power. Playing for another contender gives him a proper platform to showcase his skills. Ozuna will be young enough to potentially command an attractive multiyear offer again.
8. DJ LeMahieu, INF, NYY, age 32
LeMahieu came through in a big way in the first season of his two-year, $24 million deal with the Yankees in 2019, banging out the highest OPS+ (136) of his career while providing value at multiple spots in the infield. His age will be a limiting factor, but there won’t be any sleeping on LeMahieu in his next round of free agency.
9. Mike Minor, LHP, TEX, age 33
Minor, another guy for whom age will tamp down the contract length, has proven himself not just a viable starter after missing 2015-16 with shoulder issues but also an upper-class one at that. He earned down-ballot Cy Young Award support with a 3.59 ERA and 144 ERA+ with Texas last year.
10. Jake Odorizzi, RHP, MIN, age 31
Following a career year in 2019 (3.51 ERA and 131 ERA+ in 30 starts), Odorizzi bet on himself by taking the Twins’ $17.8 million qualifying offer. That’ll put him in position to be free and clear of attached Draft pick compensation next winter, at a time in his career when he's formed better mechanics. So Odorizzi could rise.
11. Robbie Ray, LHP, ARI, age 29
Ray remains an intriguing trade candidate, and some teams are curious how his power arsenal would play up in the bullpen. He was basically league average from 2018-19, but he had a 2.89 ERA, 163 ERA+ and finished seventh in the National League Cy Young Award voting in '17.
12. Andrelton Simmons, SS, LAA, age 31
The bat sagged in 2019 (Simmons’ 80 OPS+ was the second lowest of his career) and injury limited him to 103 games. But he remains a game-changing defender, as evidenced by how he fared in Infield Outs Above Average.
13. Joc Pederson, OF, LAA, age 28
Teams will target Pederson to do one thing and do it well -- produce against right-handed pitching. He has a career .353 on-base percentage and .507 slugging percentage against righties, but he is virtually unplayable against southpaws (career .572 OPS).
14. Didi Gregorius, SS, PHI, age 31
Gregorius took a one-year, $14 million offer from the Phillies on the premise that his first full season removed from Tommy John surgery will see his power bat come back to life. A resurgent year will do wonders for his stock.
15. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, NYY, age 32
Tanaka has lost some velocity over the years, but he did alter his splitter grip midseason in 2019 and had some good results with it. He’s a quality arm, despite some bouts with the long ball. The big-picture worry is the partial UCL tear in his throwing elbow, but that has been a known issue since mid-'14 and hasn’t made him miss significant time.
16. José Quintana, LHP, CHC, age 32
Durability has been Quintana’s chief selling point, to date, as he has made at least 31 starts each season since 2013. He has not, however, been the same pitcher on the North Side of Chicago (102 ERA+ in 429 2/3 innings) that he was on the South Side (115 ERA+ in 1,055 1/3 innings).
17. James Paxton LHP, NYY, age 32
A knee injury hampered Paxton’s first season with the Yankees, and now he will miss the start of the 2020 season following back surgery. Durability has been a sore spot here, as Paxton has yet to throw more than 160 1/3 innings in a season. But he’s a lefty who has struck out roughly 30 percent of opposing batters over the past three seasons, so he can still climb this list with a strong return from injury.
18. Michael Brantley, OF, HOU, age 33
The man known as “Dr. Smooth” had a smooth transition to Houston in 2019, where he continued to put up one of the game’s highest contact rates (90.8 percent) and lowest strikeout rates (10.4 percent). That skill set could continue to age well, though obviously the age will affect the years on his next deal.
19. Justin Turner, 3B, LAD, age 36
Turner remains a true presence in the Dodgers’ lineup, and he has become a genuine legend of October. But Turner’s age limits his ceiling on this list, and his defense at the hot corner is not what it once was.
20. Anthony DeSclafani, RHP, CIN, age 31
Past injury issues are a red flag, but if DeSclafani can do as he did in 2019 and make around 30 starts in '20, his relatively low number of big league innings will be viewed as an asset in free agency. “Disco” had a solid 3.89 ERA and 117 ERA+ in 166 2/3 innings last year.
Regarding others in the starter’s market, veteran Cole Hamels did not edge out others on this list only because, given his age and career workload, he would be more likely to land another one-year deal than a multiyear pact. (Same goes for former teammate Jon Lester, depending on what happens with his vesting/mutual option with the Cubs.) Garrett Richards is another name to watch, as he could rocket up this list with a strong first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
BEST OF THE REST
Nelson Cruz, DH, MIN, age 40: He continues to bring big value with the bat, but the age that will likely limit him to one-year offers hinders his place on his list.
There are also a handful of relievers set to hit the market, some of whom you could choose to rank on this list. Those names include, in no particular order …
Liam Hendriks, RHP, age 32
Kirby Yates, RHP, age 34
Ken Giles, RHP, age 30
Shane Greene, RHP, age 32
Alex Colomé, RHP, age 32
The relief market is simply too fluid to forecast at this point. The above guys put themselves in a really good position with a strong 2019, but they will need to back it up this year to solidify their standing. The longest deal given to a reliever this winter was Drew Pomeranz's four-year contract with the Padres, and that was based off just two months of relief work. So stay tuned.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.