The options and opt-outs have been decided, the Hot Stove season is underway, and it’s time to update our list of the top 2020-21 free agents.
What was supposed to be the Mookie Market is, instead, a messy market. When Mookie Betts signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers in July, he took himself off the shelf. But the market has become more crowded by various declined options.
This list is not necessarily final, as the market will be crowded all the more at the Dec. 2 non-tender deadline, when teams must tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players or else expose them to free agency.
*Please note: For the sake of context, players are listed with their 2020 team, and ages listed are as of Opening Day '21, the point at which their next contract will begin. A player with an asterisk received an $18.9 million qualifying offer from his club, and players who accepted the qualifying offer are noted.
1. J.T. Realmuto*, C, PHI, age 30**
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) are highly valued. Realmuto is an impact talent offensively and defensively at a position that is difficult to fill. (After Realmuto, the next-best options in this market include James McCann, who served as Grandal’s backup with the White Sox in 2020, and Yadi Molina, who is 38 years old.)
2. Trevor Bauer*, RHP, CIN, age 30**
Bauer took his spin and his stuff to another level this year, and he was simply one of the best pitchers in the Majors (National League-best 1.73 ERA and 276 ERA+). He is the only member of this year’s free-agent starter class coming off an elite season. 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.
3. George Springer*, OF, HOU, age 31**
Springer’s age and injury history could limit his earning power. We’ll see what, if any, future fallout there is for position players from the 2017 World Series champs. But Springer finished the shortened season with a flourish, and his career .852 OPS and postseason pedigree make him an attractive Plan B with Betts off the board.
4. DJ LeMahieu*, INF, NYY, age 32**
LeMahieu signed a two-year, $24 million deal with the Yankees prior to 2019 and responded with a combined .922 OPS while providing value at multiple spots in the infield. He provides high and hard contact. There won’t be any sleeping on LeMahieu in his next round of free agency.
5. 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 (pre-proration) in Atlanta. He had better batted-ball luck and turned in a monster season (.338/.431/.636 slash). He is … not a good defender, and that could limit his market primarily to American League teams if the universal DH is no longer in play. But he’s the biggest pure bat in this market.
6. Marcus Stroman*, RHP, NYM, age 29**
Accepted qualifying offer, returning to NYM
We’ll rank him above some other starters because of his age and overall track record. But Stroman suffered a calf tear and then elected not to play in 2020. At least it wasn’t an arm injury, and Stroman is still on the right side of 30. The performance downside is that Stroman's not a high-strikeout arm at a time when such flash is highly prized, so he needs a strong defensive cast behind him.
7. Marcus Semien, SS, OAK, age 30
Semien took huge steps forward defensively over the past few years and offensively in 2019. He’s an impact player at a premier position. That said, he didn’t perform well in the shortened '20 (.679 OPS), and teams in the market for a shortstop could also explore trades for Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story and others.
8. 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 would see his power bat come back to life. That was certainly the case (.488 SLG), and Gregorius’ 11.8 percent strikeout rate was among the best in MLB.
9. Michael Brantley, OF, HOU, age 33
Though this year’s quad injuries add to a litany of injury trouble in his career, the man known as “Dr. Smooth” reliably turns in elite contact rates (89.8% in two seasons with Houston) and low strikeout rates (11.4%) when healthy. That skill set could continue to age well, though obviously the age and injury history will affect the years on his next deal.
10. Justin Turner, 3B, LAD, age 36
While his flouting of COVID-19 protocols is understandably the big takeaway from his World Series, Turner also defied age in 2020, remaining a genuine presence in the Dodgers’ loaded lineup. Over the last seven seasons, he had a combined .886 OPS. His age is a limiting factor in free agency, and his defense at the hot corner is not what it once was. But as we saw in the postseason, he can occasionally still do special things in the field.
11. 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-2014 and hasn’t made him miss significant time.
12. James Paxton LHP, NYY, age 32
After a knee injury hampered Paxton’s first season with the Yankees, he underwent back surgery early in 2020 and now he’s dealing with a left forearm flexor strain. So buyer beware. But Paxton’s a lefty who has struck out roughly 30 percent of opposing batters over the past four seasons, so somebody will buy in.
13. Liam Hendriks, RHP, OAK, age 32
Relievers Trevor Rosenthal, Blake Treinen, Alex Colomé, Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, Jeremy Jeffress and Brad Hand all have a strong argument to infiltrate this list and will garner interest in an increasingly relief-oriented sport. But in recognition of the volatility of the position and the difficulty of parsing those particular options with only 25 spots on this list to play with, we’re including the one free-agent reliever who clearly stands in his own class. That’s Hendriks (or “Hercu-Liam,” if you prefer), who was a force of nature in Oakland. Over the last two seasons, he had a 1.79 ERA and 6.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 110 1/3 innings.
14. Jackie Bradley Jr., CF, BOS, age 30
Bradley’s elite center-field defense is a consistent selling point (he was tied for second in Outs Above Average in 2019). It’s his bat that has made his value difficult to peg, as a pull-happy approach led to below-average production from '17-19. But Bradley’s '20 September surge, built on an approach to all fields, came at a good time. He finished the season with an .814 OPS and career-low K rate (22.1%).
15. Taijuan Walker, RHP, TOR, age 28
This might be an aggressive placement for a guy who made four total starts in the big leagues from 2018-19. Or it might not be aggressive enough given Walker’s age, his success in '20 (2.70 ERA, 161 ERA+) and how starved the pitching market appears. Time will tell.
16. Ha-seong Kim, SS, Kiwoom (KBO), age 25
The COVID-19 pandemic’s alteration of the U.S. sports calendar led to a wider audience tuned into the Korea Baseball Organization, and Kim is one of the league’s bright young stars. He slashed .308/.399/.526 with 30 homers and 24 doubles in 137 games and is widely expected to be posted this month, meaning any Major League team can sign him. How his power, contact and athleticism will translate remains to be seen, but his age and upside are strong selling points in a market light on bankable talent.
17. Kolten Wong, 2B, STL, age 30
The Cardinals declined Wong’s $12.5 million option just one year after he was second on the team in wins above replacement. Wong’s offensive performance took a downturn in 2020, and he has struggled against lefties in his career. But he provides strong defense up the middle and is capable of getting on base at an above-average rate.
18. Charlie Morton, RHP, TB, age 37
Morton became a fascinating free agent when the Rays declined his $15 million option for 2021. If he intends to keep pitching, will he still look to stay near his Florida home (an important factor in him initially signing with Tampa Bay), or will he be open to a wider market? The likelihood that he signs a short-term deal lowers him on this list, but he’s one of the best starters available. Morton did not have a strong regular season in '20 but once again he stepped up on the postseason stage. He was an AL Cy Young Award finalist in '19.
19. Nelson Cruz, DH, MIN, age 40
Forty is both his age and how many homers he can give you in a full season. Cruz sinks on this list only because he doesn’t play a position and is not likely to command more than a one-year guarantee. But with a career-best-tying 169 OPS+ in 2020, he’s still Cruz-ing at the plate.
20. Andrelton Simmons, SS, LAA, age 31
The bat has sagged the last two seasons (82 OPS+), and injuries have limited his playing time in that span. But Simmons remains a game-changing defender, as evidenced by how he fares in infield outs above average.
21. Kevin Gausman*, RHP, SF, age 30**
Accepted qualifying offer, returning to SF
Gausman’s one-year deal with the Giants worked out well for both parties, as he turned in a career-best strikeout rate while posting a 3.62 ERA and a 118 ERA+ in 59 2/3 innings. His plus velocity and whiff percentage make him intriguing in a light starters’ market.
22. Mike Minor, LHP, OAK, age 33
Minor earned down-ballot AL Cy Young support in 2019, then took a big statistical step backward in Texas in '20 before the A’s acquired him at the Deadline. But some of that could be attributable to a compromised throwing program prior to Summer Camp. His age will limit his contract, but he’s still a viable left-handed arm.
23. Joc Pederson, OF, LAD, age 28
Teams will target Pederson to do one thing and do it well -- produce against right-handed pitching. He has a career .349 on-base percentage and .501 slugging percentage against righties, with big power and postseason pedigree. But he is virtually unplayable against southpaws (career .576 OPS).
24. Jake Odorizzi, RHP, MIN, age 31
Following a career year in 2019 (3.51 ERA and 129 ERA+ in 30 starts), Odorizzi bet on himself by taking the Twins’ $17.8 million qualifying offer. It didn’t work out well, as Odorizzi battled non-arm injuries and had a 6.59 ERA in just four starts. But he could be a bounceback candidate.
25. Tommy La Stella, 2B/3B, OAK, age 32
La Stella developed his power to become a bona fide regular with the Angels (and then a trade target for the A’s). But it’s a high-contact approach in a high-strikeout baseball world that lands him here. La Stella struck out in just 5.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2020. Other position players coming off strong seasons who didn’t crack this list include Jurickson Profar, Brad Miller, Jonathan Schoop, Cesar Hernandez and Kevin Pillar.
Starting pitching is always a big market driver and, beyond those mentioned above, this market includes past aces in Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Cole Hamels, (any of whom would be intriguing on short-term deals), as well as other former All-Stars in Robbie Ray, José Quintana and Chris Archer.