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WAR shows who the top 25 free agents are

@MannyOnMLB
November 8, 2020

With Hot Stove season underway, clubs around baseball will be making decisions on which free agents to pursue, and the analysis they use to arrive at those decisions will certainly include a projection of how much value specific players will have over the coming years. So it's an excellent time

With Hot Stove season underway, clubs around baseball will be making decisions on which free agents to pursue, and the analysis they use to arrive at those decisions will certainly include a projection of how much value specific players will have over the coming years.

So it's an excellent time to look at what this offseason's best free agents might produce over the next three years. MLB.com analytics guru Tom Tango devised a projection system to do just that. This system simply forecasts a player's wins above replacement (WAR) for each of the next three seasons based on his WAR from the previous three, according to Baseball-Reference.com. It's basically a WAR-based version of the Marcel projection system that Tango created years ago. (For more details on this new system, aka WARcel, read Tom's blog.)

The system gives the most weight to 2020 and the least to '18, while also adding 0.1 WAR for each year under age 30 or subtracting that same amount for each year over 30 to account for the effect of aging. For each subsequent season there is a loss of 0.4 WAR, plus the age adjustment.

Before getting to the rankings, here are a few caveats to keep in mind:

• These projections are estimates and don't take into account various circumstances -- such as recent injuries -- surrounding different players. Therefore, any players whose WAR projections are close together could easily have their order swapped.

• Because these projections are based entirely on WAR, which reflects playing time, relief pitchers (even elite closers) aren't going to rank as high as they might on a subjective list or one based on potential contract size. WAR also accounts for defense, which reflects poorly on one-dimensional players.

• This list does not include potential free agents who will have -- or have had -- their 2021 options picked up. However, don't forget that some players included here -- but not those traded during the season -- could stay with their teams if they were presented with and accept a qualifying offer.

Here are the top 25 free agents of the 2020-21 offseason, based on WARcel projections for 2021-23. (Note: Ages listed are "seasonal ages", meaning as of July 1, 2021.)

1. DJ LeMahieu, INF, Yankees
2021-23 WAR projection: 10.6
2021-23 age: 32-34

LeMahieu made a name for himself in Colorado, but once he got to the Bronx, he put together the two most productive seasons of his Major League career. From 2019-20, he gave the Yankees a .336/.386/.536 slash line with 36 home runs in 195 games, including a career-high 26 in '19 before homering at a pace that would have eclipsed that in the shortened 2020 season. The last two seasons will likely earn LeMahieu a big contract this offseason -- the question is, will it be with the Yankees, his former club the Rockies, or elsewhere?

2. George Springer, CF, Astros
2021-23 WAR projection: 9.1
2021-23 age: 31-33

Springer is the best outfielder on the market, and he's continued to show why over the past two seasons, which have been the finest of his already much-accomplished career. From 2019-20, he posted a .953 OPS (147 OPS+) with 53 homers over 173 games. And his postseason track record is matched by few -- in 63 postseason games, Springer has hit .269/.349/.546 with an incredible 19 homers.

T-3. Marcell Ozuna, OF/DH, Braves
2021-23 WAR projection: 7.5
2021-23 age: 30-32

Ozuna's breakout season came in 2017, an All-Star campaign in which he hit .312/.376/.548 (149 OPS+) with 37 homers. But the ensuing two seasons weren't as spectacular. That changed in 2020, when he vaulted himself into the Most Valuable Player conversation by posting a 1.067 OPS while leading the NL with 18 home runs, 56 RBIs and 145 total bases. Not a bad way to go into free agency -- Ozuna will likely command a pretty high price for whoever signs him this offseason.

T-3. Trevor Bauer, RHP, Reds
2021-23 WAR projection: 7.5
2021-23 age: 30-32

Bauer was one of the most dominant starting pitchers of the 2020 season, bouncing back from a mediocre campaign the prior year to post a 1.73 ERA over 11 starts (73 innings) with 100 strikeouts and just 17 walks. The NL Cy Young Award candidate is still just 29 years old, and two seasons ago had his breakout campaign, when he finished with a 2.21 ERA over 28 appearances (27 starts) for the Indians. A spin rate savant, Bauer figures to cash in this offseason after a tremendous walk-year performance.

5. Marcus Semien, SS, Athletics
2021-23 WAR projection: 7.4
2021-23 age: 30-32

Semien struggled at the plate in 2020, a far cry from his huge 2019 campaign, in which he put himself on the map by finishing third in AL MVP voting. He posted an .892 OPS with 33 homers and 10 steals, but followed that up this year with a .223/.305/.374 slash line and seven homers in 53 games. Still, Semien's 2019 could go a long way in free agency, particularly since it's tough to gauge a player on a 53-game sample. Of course, there is the chance that he's a one-hit wonder, so it'll be interesting to see what type of contract he receives this offseason.

6. J.T. Realmuto, C, Phillies
2021-23 WAR projection: 7
2021-23 age projection: 30-32

Widely considered the best all-around catcher in baseball, Realmuto will be a coveted free agent for many reasons, but one of them is pretty simple -- it's hard to find a catcher who can hit for power, run and consistently be one of the best defensive backstops in the game. He hit 11 homers, tied for most among MLB catchers, to go along with an .840 OPS in 2020, following two All-Star campaigns and a Gold Glove Award in '19.

7. Kolten Wong, 2B, Cardinals
2021-23 WAR projection: 6.4
2021-23 age: 30-32

Wong being at No. 7 may surprise some, but while he has been off-and-on with his production at the plate over the years, he regularly posts a high on-base percentage and is excellent at second base, as evidenced by a second career Gold Glove Award for his trophy shelf this year. It's no wonder, then, that he's reportedly been contacted by several teams already.

8. Jackie Bradley Jr., CF, Red Sox
2021-23 WAR projection: 6
2021-23 age: 31-33

He's one of the premier defensive center fielders in the game, and that could make him an attractive candidate for many clubs. Bradley tied for second among all players with seven Outs Above Average in 2020, per Statcast. And he had his best offensive season since 2016, hitting .283/.364/.450 with seven homers for the Red Sox.

9. Michael Brantley, LF/DH, Astros
2021-23 WAR projection: 5.9
2021-23 age: 34-36

Astros manager Dusty Baker compared Brantley's swing to that of the sweet-swinging Will Clark, and that swing is the primary reason the veteran left fielder will once again be seen as a great addition to any club's lineup. Brantley was remarkably consistent in his two seasons with Houston, but that's not exactly a surprise -- he posted an identical 126 OPS+ in both 2019 and '20. And he's got a lot of postseason experience between his years with the Indians and Astros, hitting .286/.361/.381 in 38 career playoff games.

10. Mike Minor, LHP, Rangers/Athletics
2021-23 WAR projection: 5.1
2021-23 age: 33-35

Minor wasn't able to replicate the success he had in 2019, when the left-hander posted a 3.59 ERA (144 ERA+) over 32 starts (208 1/3 innings) for the Rangers. In 12 appearances (11 starts) this past season, he had a 5.56 ERA. Nevertheless, his recent track record could certainly net him a multi-year deal, particularly with clubs who could use some balance in their rotation with a southpaw.

11. Marcus Stroman, RHP, Mets
2021-23 WAR projection: 5
2021-23 age: 30-32

Stroman isn't a high-strikeout guy, so in this era of flamethrowers who can miss bats, it's been suggested he may not do as well as he'd like in free agency. But Stroman has been very good in other areas -- as was noted by Alex Fast on MLB Network last week, Stroman threw at least 100 innings with a FIP below 4.00 in five seasons from 2014-19. Only Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Jacob deGrom are other active pitchers who can claim that accomplishment. Though Stroman didn't play in 2020, he's still in his prime years and should find a good suitor.

12. James McCann, C, White Sox
2021-23 WAR projection: 4.7
2021-23 age: 31-33

Before joining the White Sox in 2019, McCann had been a light-hitting but strong defensive backstop for the Tigers. But in the two seasons he's spent with Chicago, his bat has really come around. In 2020, he hit .289/.360/.536 with seven homers in 31 games. With a career caught-stealing rate of 36 percent and being named a Gold Glove Award finalist this past season, McCann could be a very attractive target for a club in need of a catcher -- the Phillies, perhaps?

13. Cesar Hernandez, 2B, Indians
2021-23 WAR projection: 4.6
2021-23 age: 31-33

Hernandez won his first Gold Glove Award this year, and he was pretty good at the plate, too, enhancing his free-agent value in his walk year. He's got above-average speed at 28.5 feet per second according to Statcast's Sprint Speed leaderboard, and led the NL with 20 doubles in 2020. He'll be entering his age-31 season, so he's not exactly a young player, but certainly helped his stock with a strong all-around season.

14. Jurickson Profar, INF/OF, Padres
2021-23 WAR projection: 4.4
2021-23 age: 28-30

Profar was a highly touted prospect, but things just didn't materialize at the Major League level for him until 2018 with the Rangers, when he posted a .793 OPS with 20 homers. He launched 20 homers again in '19 for Texas, and had a solid season with the Padres in '20, when he slashed .278/.343/.428 with seven homers in 56 games. He's a late bloomer, to be sure, but Profar could be a good fit, particularly because of his defensive versatility.

15. Enrique Hernández, INF/OF, Dodgers
2021-23 WAR projection: 4.2
2021-23 age: 29-31

Hernández has been a role player for the Dodgers, and he's played his role well. Outside of 2018, when he posted an .806 OPS with 21 homers, he hasn't hit especially well, but consider that 2018 season -- he played in a career-high 145 games that year, and it's not easy to be a player who comes off the bench and doesn't get at-bats every day. Hernández is also going into his age-29 season, one of the younger free agents on the market. He's got defensive versatility and some major playoff experience, including eight home runs in 142 postseason plate appearances.

16. Jonathan Villar, INF, Marlins
2021-23 WAR projection: 3.8
2021-23 age: 30-32

Villar hasn't been a particularly good defensive player in the middle infield, but he's 29 years old and as recently as 2019, had a strong season at the plate -- he hit .274/.339/.453 with a career-best 24 homers and played in all 162 games for the Orioles. He's also a speedster who has stolen 35+ bases in a season three times, and has 218 steals overall.

17. Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Tigers
2021-23 WAR projection: 3.7
2021-23 age: 30-32

Schoop was an All-Star in 2017, when he belted 32 homers with an .841 OPS for the Orioles. But he's been with four clubs in the three seasons since then. Still, following a mediocre campaign at the plate in '18, he's been solid over the past two seasons -- from 2019-20, he hit .262/.309/.474 with 31 homers in 165 games. He's also been solid in the field, with 2 Outs Above Average at second base in 2020, and 23 defensive runs saved from 2017-18 for the Orioles and Brewers.

18. Justin Turner, 3B, Dodgers
2021-23 WAR projection: 3.5
2021-23 age: 36-38

Turner is most likely 18th because of his age, since WAR projections don't take into account a guy defying time to continue producing at a high level. Turner has done that, but the problem is keeping him on the field -- injuries have cost him a significant chunk of the past four seasons, over which he was remarkably consistent at the plate. From 2017-20, Turner hit .307/.397/.513 with 66 homers in 410 games. The question for potential free-agent suitors will be pretty straightforward: Should we take a chance on a 36-year-old injury-prone slugger with a tremendous track record and tons of postseason experience?

19. Liam Hendriks, RHP, Athletics
2021-23 WAR projection: 3.4
2021-23 age: 32-34

It all started to fall into place for Hendriks in 2019, when in his age-30 season, he turned in a 1.80 ERA over 73 relief appearances and two starts. The left-hander struck out 37 percent of the batters he faced and picked up 25 saves for Oakland. And this past season, he continued his dominance and elevated himself into the discussion of best closer in the game, posting a 1.78 ERA while punching out 40 percent of batters faced. On top of that, he only walked three in 25 1/3 innings. He's another late bloomer, but Hendriks will certainly be a big get for whoever signs him.

20-T. Didi Gregorius, SS, Phillies
2021-23 WAR projection: 2.7
2021-23 age: 31-33

Gregorius hits the free-agent market for the second time in as many years. He made a name for himself in the Bronx, where from 2016-18, he averaged 24 homers and a .791 OPS for the Yankees. He had a down year in '19, in which he was limited to only 82 games because of injury. The Phillies signed Gregorius to a one-year deal, and he put up strong offensive numbers in 2020, hitting .284/.339/.488 with 10 homers while playing in all 60 games. He's on the other side of 30 now, but has established that when he's healthy, he's productive at the plate and brings postseason experience along with him.

20-T. Joc Pederson, OF, Dodgers
2021-23 WAR projection: 2.7
2021-23 age: 29-31

Pederson's rookie season in 2015 portended big things to come for the slugger, but after hitting 51 homers over his first two full seasons, he struggled at the plate in '17, giving rise to questions about his future in Los Angeles. He remained a Dodger, and the organization's patience with him has paid off -- though he only had a .681 OPS in 43 games this past season, Pederson's most productive years came from 2018-19, when he bounced back to post an .861 OPS with 61 homers over 297 games. Pederson is in many ways the prototypical hitter for this era -- a lot of strikeouts but also a lot of baseballs sailing over the wall. He's only headed into his age-29 season, meaning he should get a good look in free agency this offseason.

22. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Angels
2021-23 WAR projection: 2.4
2021-23 age: 31-33

One of the elite defensive shortstops in the game, Simmons added some pop at the plate in his last two healthy seasons -- 2017 and '18. But injuries limited him to 103 games the next year, and he only played in 30 of the Angels' 60 games in '20. Even still, Simmons has four Gold Glove Awards to his name and his glove should spark interest on the free-agent market. The glove will come with him, but will the bat?

23. Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners/Blue Jays
2021-23 WAR projection: 2.3
2021-23 age: 28-30

Walker's breakout season came in 2017, when he made 28 starts with a 3.49 ERA for the D-backs. But the following spring, he partially tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. The right-hander then sprained his right shoulder capsule as he neared the end of his rehab from Tommy John surgery in April 2019. He became a free agent that offseason and the Mariners signed him. In five 2020 starts for Seattle, he posted a 4.00 ERA before being traded to the postseason-bound Blue Jays, for whom he was stellar for six starts down the stretch, over which he gave up four earned runs over 26 1/3 innings (1.37 ERA). Walker's still just 27, and with the way he finished last season, he'll be an attractive option for a club looking to upgrade its rotation.

24-T. Carlos Santana, 1B/DH, Indians
2021-23 WAR projection: 2.2
2021-23 age: 35-37

Is age catching up with Santana? You'd never know it if you asked that question in 2019, when he smashed 34 homers for the Indians while posting a .911 OPS. But 2020 was a different story -- while Santana led baseball with 49 walks and played in all 60 games, his on-base percentage was .349 despite all the free passes because he hit just .199 for the season. His eye at the plate will still provide value, and if the designated hitter remains in the NL for 2021, it opens up more potential destinations for Santana. He was too good too recently not to have a team take a chance on him -- it's just a matter of whom and where.

24-T. Robbie Grossman, LF, Athletics
2021-23 WAR projection: 2.2
2021-23 age: 31-33

Grossman, who's been about a league-average hitter throughout his career, had a good season at the plate for Oakland in 2020. His 130 OPS+ was the best of his career so far, and he hit eight homers in 51 games. Grossman owns a career on-base percentage of .350, and over the past two seasons is 17-for-22 in steal attempts. For a club looking to fill out its outfield, Grossman might offer upside without a heavy financial investment.

Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @MannyOnMLB.