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2021-22 MLB Free Agency Preview

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With the 2021 World Series coming to a close last week, free agency is officially open, allowing teams to start negotiating with this year’s available players. Now is the opportunity for teams to spend big bucks or dig for diamonds in the rough. Some of the contracts signed this offseason will end up being massive steals and some may end up as huge busts, but at this juncture, we can only speculate about what will happen in the future.

Let’s preview this offseason’s free agency class by looking at the best player, the best value, and the player most likely to bust at each position. We’ll include players that have options or opt-outs and note an alternate in case those players have those options/opt-outs exercised. Players’ seasonal ages (their ages as of July 1st, 2022) are listed in parentheses. All stats via Fangraphs.

Catcher

Best: Mike Zunino (31) $4 million club option [EXERCISED]

Coming off of a career year, it is unlikely that the Tampa Bay Rays will pass up the opportunity to keep Zunino at such an affordable cost. He was a top-five offensive catcher last season, making his $4 million option a steal. Buster Posey would be the next-best option on the market, but he also has a club option attached to the end of his contract ($22 million) that GM, Farhan Zaidi, recently hinted he would be exercising (edit: Posey ultimately decided to retire).

Value: Manny Piña (34)

Despite his age, Piña has become a lefty killer at the plate and could be a solid value because of his adeptness behind the plate. He posted a 127 wRC+ vs. lefties in 2021, which could make him a perfect short-side platoon catcher on an affordable deal.

Bust: Christian Vázquez (31) $7 million club option [EXERCISED]

Not only did Vázquez take a big step back in 2021 from the levels he performed at from 2019-20, but he also severely overperformed his Statcast metrics. That combination of poor performance with batted ball metrics suggesting that that performance was unsupported makes it difficult to find an avenue for his future success, regardless of where he signs. Another bust choice could be Yan Gomes, as his skills behind the plate have diminished as he advances in age.

First Base

Best: Freddie Freeman (32)

Freeman followed up his 2020 MVP season by leading the Atlanta Braves to their first World Series triumph since 1995. He set himself up for a big payday and it would be surprising to see him sign anywhere other than Atlanta as he puts the finishing touches on a Hall-worthy career.

Value: Brad Miller (32)

With the ability to play all over the field and mash against right-handed pitching, Miller could be a sneaky value on an inexpensive deal. Whether as a bench, platoon, or full-time player, Miller should provide significant value with his bat and defensive versatility.

Bust: Anthony Rizzo (32)

Even though Rizzo was a top-tier first baseman for the better half of a decade, he has begun to fall off and could be a bust if a team dolls out too much for his services. He is still a solid fielder, but his power has been dwindling, making it hard for him to make a big impact on a lineup because of his passive approach.

Second Base

Best: Marcus Semien (31)

In 2021, Semien broke the record for most home runs in a single season by a second baseman, setting him up to be one of the most coveted free agents one year after signing a “prove it” deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. His ability to play shortstop should give him even more suitors to choose from, and he will most likely get a multi-year deal this time around.

Value: Josh Harrison (34)

Harrison finally stayed healthy in 2021, and once again, showed the competence to play all around the diamond while providing sufficient production with his bat. That, along with his attractive price tag, should make Harrison an under-the-radar utility player on the open market.

Bust: Donovan Solano (34)

Solano has been a surprisingly productive contact hitter for the San Francisco Giants over the past three seasons, but if teams that are interested in him are looking to play him every day, they will be disappointed in the results. The right-handed hitter is much better against lefties (121 wRC+ vs. L/ 96 wRC+ vs. R) and had success in San Francisco because he was used as a platoon player.

Third Base

Best: José Ramírez (29) $11 million club option [EXERCISED]

Considering that Ramírez is one of the best players in baseball, it’s hard to imagine the Indians not exercising his extremely affordable option. Nolan Arenado has an opt-out, but stated previously that he wanted to stay in St. Louis. The best free agent at third base without an option would be Kris Bryant, the former 2016 NL MVP, a player that would give a big boost to whichever team he signs with because of his defensive versatility and productive bat.

Value: Matt Duffy (31)

Duffy has shown promise in the past, can play all over the infield, and put up some solid metrics during his extended look with the Chicago Cubs down the stretch last season. The fact that he should be inexpensive to sign makes those prospects even more appealing, and any team taking a shot on him could be getting a massive value because of his potential to be an effective utility player.

Bust: Eduardo Escobar (33)

As a player who has performed exceptionally over the last few seasons, it may seem controversial to place the switch-hitting Escobar in the bust column. In reality, Escobar did most of his damage at hitter-friendly home ballparks (Chase Field and American Family Field) and is a much better hitter against lefties, negating his switch-hitting abilities. If his next team doesn’t realize those facts, Escobar could find himself in a pitcher’s park, which could really highlight his shortcomings at the dish (plate discipline, Statcast metrics, batted-ball metrics).

Shortstop

Best: Carlos Correa (27)

Correa will be the top option in a studded shortstop free agent class because of his appealing age and his on-field production. In 2021, he helped lead the Houston Astros to another AL pennant (third since 2016) and recorded the most fWAR (5.8) in his career. Correa may be the most coveted free agent regardless of position and should sign a contract well north of $100 million.

Value: Freddy Galvis (32)

Considering the amount of top-tier talent at shortstop this offseason, it’s difficult to find many values when most of the options will be singing megadeals. Galvis stands out from that group as a serviceable veteran who can play a smooth defensive shortstop. He should come significantly more affordable than the other big name, free agent shortstops, making him a value on the open market.

Bust: Trevor Story (29)

This shortstop has had a lot of success in the hitter-haven that is Coors Field, but now he must depart. Story could struggle in new threads without the help of the thin air in Coors (career 98 wRC+ on the road). Additionally, he struggled last year (100 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR), and could carry those struggles over to his next team if they can’t figure out what caused his downfall. Those weaknesses could be exacerbated if Story inks a lucrative deal.

Left Field

Best: Kyle Schwarber (29) $11 million mutual option [DECLINED]

Mutual options are rarely exercised, making it’s likely that Schwarber will end up a free agent for the second consecutive offseason. He has some of the best power on the open market and has shown he can be clutch for competitive teams. Mark Canha would be the top free agent in left field if Schwarber’s option were to be exercised. Canha has been underrated as an outfielder for the A’s, where he’s shown adept fielding and sensational plate discipline.

Value: Tommy Pham (34)

Recent performance, injury history, and age could hold teams back from trying to acquire Pham this offseason. That will not only lower his price, but will also make him an even more valuable signing because of that price drop. Pham was previously an All-Star and underperformed his Statcast metrics in 2021, suggesting that he has an elite level he could still return to.

Bust: Andrew McCutchen (35) $15 million club option [DECLINED]

At 35-years old, it may seem easy to choose ‘Cutch’ as the biggest potential bust among free agent left fielders, but his combination of diminishing contact skills as well as his declining abilities as a defender makes it hard to see success next season. Considering his $15 million option will most likely be declined, he should sign for less than that amount, but that may not stop a team from overpaying for an aging veteran who has been a liability in the field. McCutchen will most likely need to be a DH moving forward and might not have a good enough bat to pull that off. Eddie Rosario doesn’t have an option and could end up being overpaid based on his impressive postseason run. 

Center Field

Best: Starling Marte (33)

Upon his trade to the A’s, Marte started going off, looking like a game-changer. That second-half run in Oakland could make Marte one of the most sought-after free agents, especially with his ability to play center field. His 5.4 fWAR and 133 wRC+ in 2021 were career-highs and suggest that Marte could be reaching his peak right now.

Value: Kevin Pillar (33) $2.9 million player option/$6.4 million dollar club option [DECLINED]

Every team deals with injuries, and it always seems like Pillar is the one to benefit. It never seems as though a team signs Pillar with the intention of him being the everyday starter, but over a long season, he always gets his opportunity. Recently, he has taken advantage of those open roster spots by providing solid offensive contributions with the ability to play center field. Among players without options, Billy Hamilton could be an affordable value because of his blazing speed and improving bat.

Bust: Chris Taylor (31)

Following his three-homer game in the NLCS, Taylor’s stock may be at the highest it’s ever been. That is good for Taylor, as it will probably set him up for a big payday, but it’s not so good for prospective teams because they may be paying extra for an outlier performance. Taylor will be a solid utility player wherever he signs, but if he is overextended on his new team, he might not have as much success as he did with the Dodgers, where his talents were maximized.

Right Field

Best: Nick Castellanos (30) opt-out clause for final 2 yrs, $34 million of his original contract [OPTED OUT]

After signing a six-year, $64 million contract ahead of the 2020 season, Castellanos has the choice of opting out of the final two years of that deal. He set himself up for an even bigger payday with a career year, reaching career-highs in fWAR (4.2) and wRC+ (140). Avisaíl Garía is the next-best available right fielder, but he has an option, making Conforto the top free agent at the position without an option.

Value: Jorge Soler (30)

The former top prospect, Soler, set himself up for a boosted contract after carrying the Braves to the World Series and winning the World Series MVP Award. Subsequent to being acquired at the deadline, Soler went off for a wRC+ of 132 with Atlanta, and if his contract is discounted as a result of his first-half performance, he could be valuable because of his power potential (48 HR in 2019).

Bust: Michael Conforto (29)

Conforto struggled mightily right before his first foray into free agency, severely reducing his earning potential. Despite that reduction of his future contract value, Conforto could still end up being overpaid because of the previous success he’s had. If a team overpays for his 33 homers in 2019 or his .322 AVG from 2020, they may be disappointed in a player who is more of a .250 hitter with 25-homer power (2022 Steamer projections: .254 AVG, 24 HR) and little-to-no defensive value. 

Starting Pitcher

Best: Max Scherzer (37)

One of the best pitchers of his generation and a future Hall of Famer, Scherzer is still one of the most effective starters in the MLB and should be paid as such, despite entering his age 37 season. The flame-throwing righty won’t match the record-breaking deal he signed in his last foray into free agency, but he should get a lucrative short-term deal with a team that is in need of a big-game ace.

Value: Dylan Bundy (29)

Bundy fell back to Earth after a breakout 2020 campaign in which he seemed to finally be attaining the potential that made him the fourth overall pick in 2011. If he can get back to the approach that brought about his ace-caliber success, a team would be getting value because of his discounted price. Bundy threw his fastball 10% more in 2021 than he did in 2020, so if a team nudges him towards implementing his secondary pitches more often, he could once again reach the level he performed at in the pandemic-shortened season.

Bust: Carlos Rodón (29)

On the precipice of free agency, Rodón had the best season of his career, finally making his selection as the third overall pick in the 2014 Draft look prescient. The only problem with Rodón’s 2021 campaign was that it was heavily influenced by newfound fastball velocity that diminished, along with his success, as the season came to a close. He also threw just 139 innings and has constantly dealt with injuries throughout his career, which could make a large contract a bust if Rodón can’t match his success and doesn’t eat up innings.

Relief Pitcher

Best: Raisel Iglesias (32)

Iglesias was quietly one of the most elite relievers in baseball in 2021 because of his exceptional strikeout numbers and his ability to avoid dolling out free passes. Despite a relatively strong free-agent reliever class, Iglesias will be the most sought after and highest paid because of his age, strong performance (2.57 ERA, 103 Ks in 2021), and supportive underlying metrics (2.06 SIERA).

Value: Luis García (35)

The Cardinals were the first team to finally harness García’s fastball, helping him to take the steps necessary to avoid walking as many batters, and in turn, transformed him into an elite reliever. García could end up being a value because his price will be discounted as a result of his potential to revert back to his old self, but he showed last year that a significant change in his approach made him a completely different pitcher. A team obtaining the new version of García will be very happy with his affordable price and his fire-breathing fastball.

Bust: Craig Kimbrel (34) $16 million club option [EXERCISED]

Kimbrel found great success as the closer for the Cubs in 2021, but following his trade across town to the White Sox, his usage changed. Kimbrel strained to pitch effectively in the 8th inning setting up for Liam Hendricks on the South Side. If his future team elects to use him in a setup role again, they will be sorely hampered by his performance and the contract accompanying it. If the White Sox exercise Kimbrel’s option, Kenley Jansen would be the most likely reliever without an option to be a bust because of his bloated price tag and reduced velocity. 

Jake Crumpler

UCSC Literature graduate with an encyclopedic knowledge of the MLB. Bay Area sports fan.

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