The strongest and weakest free agent positions

November 15th, 2022

Need a shortstop this winter? You’re in luck, because there are four big-time stars in Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Dansby Swanson. If that’s too rich for your liking, there are competent veterans like José Iglesias or Elvis Andrus. Point is, you can staff the spot if you need to.

Need a starting pitcher? Great. There are a few high-quality top-end guys, several above-average starters, and then a near-endless number of mid-to-back-rotation arms. Dozens of them, really. Have your choice.

Now: Do you need a center fielder? Too bad; there’s only one healthy one. Do you need a top reliever? Too late; the top three all signed to remain with their current teams before even really reaching the market. How about a third baseman? Better try your luck on the trade market, friend.

These are the questions that front office executives have to ask themselves as they evaluate their own needs as well as the available players out there this winter. It’s not just about how good the player is, or what their contract asks might be. It’s about what your other options are, too. If you whiff on Correa, maybe you can still get Swanson, and that’s great. But if you don’t get Justin Turner, and you need a third baseman? That’s going to be a problem.

What that looks like, in visual form, is this. We took the 2023 projected WAR for free agents via FanGraphs, assigned any multi-positional type to the position they spent the most time in 2022 -- except, to be honest, Aaron Judge, who is considered a right fielder as that’s his likely role going forward -- and came up with this list of who’s available.

Who are the names behind those numbers? We can break down the positions based on the strength of the players included within.

What’s plentiful

1) Starting pitchers

  • 3 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 25 projected for 1+ WAR

You can find an ace. Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodón offer elite-level pitching, with a wide variety of styles, age and durability, and each will receive elite-level salaries.

You can find good mid-rotation starters. Depending on how you evaluate these guys, there are nearly a dozen pitchers who aren’t exactly the equals of the first group, but who can be useful pieces of a contenders’ rotation -- quality arms like Chris Bassitt, Jameson Taillon or Corey Kluber, or Nathan Eovaldi or a few others. Japanese import Kodai Senga, projected for 2.9 WAR next year, fits in here. Tyler Anderson would have, until he signed with the Angels.

You can find back-end veterans to fill in a gap. Maybe you like Dylan Bundy or Drew Smyly or Chris Archer or Rich Hill or José Ureña, or Wade Miley or on and on and on. Maybe you still believe in Noah Syndergaard or Zack Greinke or Johnny Cueto. Or, really, 20 others like them.

You can find starting pitchers, is the point. Lots of them.

2) Shortstops, especially high-end ones

  • 4 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 6 projected for 1+ WAR

Remember all the time we spent last winter talking about a near-historic crop of shortstops? At the time, even with Francisco Lindor taking himself off the market by signing an extension with the Mets, the available middle infielders on the market included Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Javier Báez. Four of them signed deals of $140 million or more, and the fifth, Correa, took $35 million for one year in Minnesota so he could be back on the market again.

This time, he’s joined by Swanson, Bogaerts and Turner, and we hardly need to explain why each of them -- all coming off good seasons, none yet having celebrated his 30th birthday -- will do quite well for themselves this winter. Beyond them, Andrus (who had a bit of a resurgence with the White Sox) and Iglesias are more space-fillers than long-term solutions, but they could likely hold down the position temporarily on one-year deals.

One big star, but then drops off fast

3) Catchers

  • 1 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 7 projected for 1+ WAR

Not necessarily high-end starting catchers, to be clear. Willson Contreras is the only backstop who fits that description, and whatever concerns teams may have about his defense behind the plate will be easy to look past considering how hard it is to find a catcher who can hit. (He had a 128 OPS+ this past season.)

But since most teams like to split catching duties anyway, you could find some perfectly competent veterans. Backstops like Christian Vázquez, Mike Zunino, Austin Hedges, Gary Sánchez, and Tucker Barnhart didn’t all have good seasons, but they’ve had success in the not-distant past.

4) Right fielders

  • 1 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 3 projected for 1+ WAR

The top name here is Judge, obviously, who did spend more of his time in 2022 in center than in right, but is unlikely to do so going forward.… but then, who?

The next-best 2023 projection for a right fielder belongs to Mitch Haniger, who had a great 2021 (39 homers) but has a lengthy injury history and is coming off a middling .246./308/.429 season. After that, it’s Michael Conforto, who wasn’t good in '21 and didn’t play at all in '22. After that, it’s Wil Myers, who’s an average-ish hitter who can also play first base, and, well, that's basically it.

5) Center fielders

  • 1 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 2 projected for 1+ WAR

If you thought right field was thin, welcome to center, which has a similar situation of being propped up entirely by having one star in Brandon Nimmo, who’s a very good player but not anywhere near Judge. It got a little better on Thursday, when the Rays chose not to pick up Kevin Kiermaier’s option, because he’s one of the premier defensive outfielders of his generation. He’s also 33 and coming off hip surgery that limited him to only 63 games.

It’s possible this group gets deeper, since the Dodgers have until Friday to decide whether to tender a contract to Cody Bellinger, who has remained a strong defender even as his bat has collapsed.

Interested suitors should hope that happens, because center field isn’t just shallow beyond Nimmo and Kiermaier, it’s non-existent. The Phillies simply released Odúbel Herrera in October; the Red Sox did the same with Jackie Bradley Jr. in August. They are no longer everyday options at this point.

No stars, but deep in options

6) Left fielders

  • 0 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 7 projected for 1+ WAR

There are no star left fielders here, but there are really very few star left fielders anywhere, because most good outfielders are playing center or right. So far as free agency goes, you might be best served betting on Andrew Benintendi’s up-and-down career -- he was quite good in 2017-’18, underwhelming from 2019-’21, then good-before-traded-before-injured in '22. After all that, he’s still only 28 years old.

Other options here make sense more in part time roles. Michael Brantley will be 36 and is coming off shoulder surgery; he might be a future DH. Beyond that, you’re betting on Joey Gallo’s youth (29) or Jurickson Profar’s unexciting consistency or bounce-back years from mid-30s veterans like A.J. Pollock or Tommy Pham or Andrew McCutchen or David Peralta or Corey Dickerson.

Not included, because he's yet to receive a projection, is 29-year-old Masataka Yoshida, who is expected to be posted by Orix soon.

7) First base

  • 0 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 3 projected for 1+ WAR

Your definition of “star” might vary here, to be honest, because José Abreu (2.6 WAR) is a big name coming off of a nice season. That he's not projected higher comes down a little to age (Abreu turns 36 in January) and a little to the fact that first basemen rarely offer the kind of defensive value that left-side infielders or center fielders do. Not having Anthony Rizzo here, since he decided to remain with the Yankees, doesn't help.

The best bet for upside, really, might be in Josh Bell, a 30-year-old switch hitter, who has at times looked like a superstar but also hit only .192/.316/.271 after being traded to San Diego, and was relegated to designated hitter in the playoffs. There’s also Trey Mancini, another 30-year-old 1B/DH who struggled after a trade, or bets on older players coming off poor or injured years -- like Yuli Gurriel, who will be 39, or Carlos Santana, who will be 37, or Brandon Belt, who will be 35 and is coming off knee surgery.

What’s thin

8) Relievers

  • 0 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 0 projected for 1+ WAR

WAR doesn’t always do relievers justice, but then again, top relievers only throw about one-third of the innings top starters do, so their WAR totals should be lesser. (Kenley Jansen, for example, has been credited with 5 WAR over the last five seasons.) Either way, with Edwin Díaz, Rafael Montero, and Robert Suárez all already off the market, one thing is clear: You’re betting on older pitchers here.

Consider the likely top relievers available, and note their 2023 ages. Taylor Rogers and Seth Lugo will be 33; Jansen and Craig Kimbrel, 35; Chris Martin and Adam Ottavino, 37; David Robertson, 38. Teams will sign an Andrew Chafin here and a Tommy Kahnle there, and at least one of them -- we'll take Carlos Estevez -- will be 2023's breakout reliever sensation. But you really can't build a competitive bullpen through free agency, not this year. There's just not enough there there.

9) Third basemen

  • 0 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 3 projected for 1+ WAR

It is, in some ways, a golden age of third basemen, but that only applies if you already have one, because if you don’t ... you won’t be finding one here. (One wonders what Nolan Arenado’s take might have been had he not passed up on his opt-out right with St. Louis, because he wouldn’t have just been the best third baseman available, he’d have been the only third baseman available.)

This group got a little deeper on Thursday when the Dodgers declined to pick up Justin Turner's option, but also maybe not, because the team described it as a "priority" to bring him back, and, at 38, the Los Angeles native and longest-tenured Dodger position player might just like to stay put. If not him, then you're looking at 37-year-old Evan Longoria, or a bet that 30-year-old Brandon Drury is the player he looked to be in 2022, not the one who spent years before that struggling to stick.

10) Second base

  • 0 projected for 3+ WAR
  • 3 projected for 1+ WAR

Jean Segura came up with some big moments for the Phillies on their World Series run, but they also declined his $17 million option for 2023. He might be most useful as a multi-positional type, since he can also handle shortstop and third, though he’d be fine as a short-term second baseman in the right situation.

He’s probably the only potential starter here. You could maybe get by with Adam Frazier, but he’s hit only .246/.308/.317 with four home runs in the season-and-a-half since Pittsburgh traded him in 2021. Rougned Odor and Josh Harrison are better served as backups.