These upcoming FAs have a lot riding on '21

March 1st, 2021

A player’s walk-year results can carry a lot of weight in free agency, regardless of what happened in previous seasons.

Just look at . He recorded an ERA lower than 4.18 in only one of his first eight seasons, posting a 2.21 mark in 2018. But after winning the National League Cy Young Award with a 1.73 ERA and a 29.9 K-BB% in 2020, Bauer landed a three-year, $102 million deal with the Dodgers that gives him the ability to opt out after 2021 and ’22. If Bauer’s performance was closer to what he did from 2012-19 (4.04 ERA, 15.6 K-BB%), it could have cost him millions of dollars.

A lot can change between now and next offseason, but the upcoming free-agent class could be one of the best we’ve seen, and these 20 walk-year players (not including those with options) have a lot riding on how they perform in 2021.

The star shortstops

With so many excellent players at one position hitting the market at once, there’s already significant buzz surrounding this group. The only question is how many of these five will actually reach free agency, as their teams could look to sign them to extensions before the offseason.

In the meantime, they’ll jockey for position in an effort to land the biggest contract, knowing Fernando Tatis Jr. just signed a 14-year, $340 million deal with the Padres. Tatis’ deal covers what would have been his final four years before free agency plus an additional 10 years. The latter stretch, during which Tatis’ base salary will reportedly total $306 million, could be a target for these five shortstops, each of whom is between 26 and 28 years old.

Seager’s lifetime 129 OPS+ leads the group, followed by Correa (126), Lindor (117), Story (114) and Báez (102). The Dodgers shortstop is also coming off the best offensive season of the five, having produced a 152 OPS+ in the regular season before winning both the NL Championship Series and World Series MVP Awards. Story finished with a 118 OPS+, while Lindor (102), Correa (92) and Báez (59) were below their usual standards.

On the defensive end, Lindor has the top mark with +36 Outs Above Average, but Báez has recorded +23 OAA at short while playing roughly half as many games at the position as Lindor. Story (+19 OAA), Correa (+16) and Seager (+8) have proven capable with the glove as well.

The reigning MVP

Freeman has been one of the best hitters in baseball for nearly a decade, posting a 146 OPS+ since the start of ’13. The left-handed slugger peaked in 2020, winning the National League MVP Award after hitting .341/.462/.640 (186 OPS+) with 13 homers.

With Freeman set to wrap up an eight-year, $135 million pact with the Braves in 2021, the five-year, $130 million extension Paul Goldschmidt signed with the Cardinals last offseason could be an archetype for the Braves first baseman's next deal, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see Freeman top Goldschmidt’s $26 million average annual value.

The former MVP

Bryant had a rough 2020 season, struggling at the plate and missing time with a left ring finger sprain. He finished the year with a .206/.293/.351 slash line (73 OPS+) and four homers in 34 games. Now 29, the third baseman will try to rebuild his value before reaching free agency. The slugger had a 137 OPS+ over his first five seasons, winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2015 and NL MVP honors the following year.

If he can recapture his MVP form, the seven-year, $245 million deal fellow Scott Boras client and third baseman Anthony Rendon signed with the Angels in December 2019 could become a realistic target for Bryant.

The veteran aces chasing one last big contract

Scherzer ($34.5 million) and Greinke ($32.9 million) both rank among MLB’s 10 highest-paid players in 2021, and Kershaw ($31 million) isn’t far behind. Combined, this trio has won seven Cy Young Awards -- three by Kershaw, three by Scherzer and one by Greinke -- and all three remained effective in 2020. Kershaw ranked 10th among pitchers (min. 50 innings) in SIERA (3.22), while Scherzer (3.56) was 19th and Greinke (3.72) was 22nd.

However, Greinke will be 38 after the 2021 campaign, and Scherzer will be 37. Their next contracts could be their last, and they’ll try to show they are still worth more than $25 million per year on a multi-year deal. Both players jumped ship to new clubs for more than $200 million the last time they tested free agency, with Scherzer leaving the Tigers for the Nationals after 2014 and Greinke going from the Dodgers to the D-backs after '15.

Kershaw, meanwhile, has played for the Dodgers his entire career. The left-hander could have opted out with two years left on his contract after the 2018 season, but Los Angeles gave him a new three-year, $93 million pact, overriding the old one. Soon to be 33 years old, Kershaw is younger than the other two pitchers in this group, so it’s possible that he could have multiple contracts left if he signs another three-year deal.

It’s hard to envision Kershaw pitching for any other franchise, but what if he insists on a deal similar to the one the Dodgers just gave Bauer. Will Los Angeles acquiesce?

(Note: Two-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander is also eligible for free agency next offseason, but he’ll spend his walk year working his way back from Tommy John surgery.)

The pitchers with something to prove

While Scherzer, Kershaw, Greinke and Verlander will be the biggest names on the starting-pitcher market next offseason, there will also be a deep group of second-tier starters.

The headliner? Well, that’s to be determined.

Kluber is the most accomplished pitcher in the bunch, having won two Cy Young Awards, but he threw only one inning before going on the shelf with a torn teres major muscle in his right shoulder last season. Kluber also missed substantial time due to a fractured right forearm in 2019 and finished that season with a 5.80 ERA over seven starts.

Former Orioles teammates Bundy and Gausman are looking to follow up career years that didn’t really resemble their previous efforts, while McCullers is aiming to show he can stay healthy after making a solid return from Tommy John surgery in 2020. The 27-year-old owns a lifetime 3.70 ERA with a 26.4% strikeout rate, but he’s never made more than 22 starts in a season. McCullers said he would like to sign an extension with the Astros before the start of the regular season, though negotiations have yet to begin.

Syndergaard is the only pitcher in this group who can consistently dial it up to 98 mph on the radar gun, but he missed 2020 following Tommy John surgery and had a 4.28 ERA over 32 starts the last time we saw him on a big league mound. The 28-year-old posted a 3.02 ERA in the two years prior, but he made only 32 starts combined in that span.

Rodriguez and Stroman also didn’t pitch in 2020, as Rodriguez was sidelined by COVID-19 and myocarditis, while Stroman elected not to play. They’ll both try to shake off the rust and pick up where they left off in 2019, when Rodriguez finished sixth in the American League Cy Young Award race and Stroman received his first All-Star nod.

Then there’s Lynn, who had a 3.57 ERA over 2019-20 while ranking first in innings (292 1/3) and tying for fifth in strikeouts (335) during that time. Traded from the Rangers to the White Sox in December, Lynn is heading into his age-34 season. The righty signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Rangers the last time he was a free agent. Despite his age, he could command a larger contract this time around, if he sustains his recent performance.

The players looking to piggyback off recent FA deals

Conforto and Perez had a reason to keep an eye on the free-agent market this offseason, with outfielder George Springer and catcher J.T. Realmuto available. Springer ended up signing a six-year, $150 million contract with the Blue Jays, while Realmuto got $115.5 million over five years -- a record AAV ($23.1 million) for a catcher -- from the Phillies.

Springer is a center fielder, which increased his value, but Conforto’s camp could argue that Springer’s bat was largely responsible for his contract, as he is likely to move to a corner spot in a few years. Conforto is three years younger than Springer, and the two are offensively comparable.

Conforto: .259/.358/.484 (128 OPS+)
Springer: .270/.361/.491 (131 OPS+)

There could be a steep dropoff after Conforto on the free-agent outfielder market next offseason, with Starling Marte, Tommy Pham, Kyle Schwarber, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, Corey Dickerson, Mark Canha and Dexter Fowler among the other outfielders eligible for free agency.

As for Perez, he returned from Tommy John surgery to hit .333/.353/.633 (161 OPS+) with 11 homers in 37 games last season. He also showed significant improvement as a pitch framer after struggling in that department previously.

Perez probably won’t challenge Realmuto’s contract in terms of total guaranteed money, especially because he’ll be coming off his age-31 campaign, while Realmuto hit free agency after his age-29 season. But another stellar showing could nudge him closer to Realmuto’s AAV -- or at least put him north of Yasmani Grandal’s $18.25 million AAV with the White Sox.