The free agent period officially opened at 5 p.m. yesterday, and already we’ve heard the rumblings of the winter hot stove as it begins to heat up. Most of the moves made are of the run-of-the-mill roster housekeeping variety — tendering qualifying offers, placing players on waivers to clear 40-man roster space, and decisions on player and club options — and the Yankees have been one of the busier teams in that regard. With the CBA expiration looming, it’s no surprise to see teams attend to some business before a potential transactions freeze descends on the winter.
That’s not what y’all are here for, however. I think we can all agree that free agency is one of the most exciting parts of the year for baseball fans. We watch in anticipation as teams try to outbid one another and prices rise for the marquee names on the market. We are somehow simultaneously jaded yet optimistic as we wonder what additions, if any, our team will make. And throughout it all, we get to play GM for the day, trying to predict who will sign where, for how many years and how many dollars.
Well, that’s the plan for today. Last week I asked my fellow PSA coworkers to make predictions for those whom I (arbitrarily) deemed as the top-30 free agents on the market and the contracts they could sign. For each free agent, I requested a prediction on years and average annual value (AAV), and then I took the median of all the guesses just to quiet down the noise of some outlier predictions.
For those unfamiliar, the idea for this undertaking was inspired by the Contract Crowdsourcing series run by FanGraphs every winter, where they ask their readers to predict contracts for notable free agents, and then publish the results before the start of each season. Before we begin, I’d like to thank Andrew, Jake, Ryan, Josh, Matt, John, Erica, Jesse, Dan K., Estevão, and Andres for being generous enough with their time to fill out the spreadsheet and make this exercise possible!
The story of this year’s free agent class is the generational group of shortstops all hitting the market at the same time. We likely will not see another class like this in a long time, so teams needing an upgrade at the position may not get a better shot than this winter. Shortstop is the only position that Yankees GM Brian Cashman explicitly mentioned as an area the team will address, so expect New York to dictate the shortstop conversation this offseason.
Carlos Correa and Corey Seager are the two big prizes, so it’s no surprise to see them predicted for the most money and years. Correa’s superior defense and slightly better recent health track record pushed him over the edge for the biggest projected deal. Marcus Semien just logged what is likely his second top-five MVP finish in the last three seasons, and only his age (31 come Opening Day) keeps him out of the Correa/Seager stratosphere. Javier Báez rebounded nicely after being traded to the Mets, but is in a clear tier below the top options. Finally, Trevor Story may look to sign a one-year pillow deal to recover his earning potential after a disappointing 2021.
Next, we move on to the first basemen and Nelson Cruz. It’s certainly an area of need for the Yankees after Anthony Rizzo’s departure and Luke Voit’s chronic injury issues. Freddie Freeman is far and away the top choice on the market and will be compensated thusly. Though he is expected to return to the Braves, interest from other teams can only drive the price up. In the tier below, Rizzo and Brandon Belt will get significantly fewer years due to consecutive years of decline in Rizzo’s case and age in Belt’s (he turns 34 in April). Finally, we have the ageless wonder Cruz, who proved he can still slug at a decent clip, if not at the levels of the last handful of seasons.
Starling Marte put up career numbers between Miami and Oakland, rocketing to the top of the free agent outfielder list. He led MLB with 47 stolen bases, and even entering his age-33 season, should get a handsome multi-year deal. Michael Conforto had an opposite walk year to Marte, and will likely look to rebuild value ahead of next winter by accepting the qualifying offer. Mark Canha is quietly one of the more attractive options of the entire winter, while Eddie Rosario’s postseason heroics with Atlanta likely earned him a raise over the one-year, $8 million deal he signed with Cleveland last winter.
Kris Bryant put up above-average offensive production while playing at least 90 innings at first, third, and all three outfield positions between Chicago and San Francisco. He’ll probably never achieve the heights of his MVP-caliber years with the Cubs, but he is still the clear prize of this year’s infielder/utility player class. Chris Taylor started the season on a tear before cooling off in September and the postseason. However, his ability to serviceably man every position except catcher — most importantly: shortstop and centerfield — along with an above-average bat will earn him a nice multi-year deal. Eduardo Escobar is one of the lesser-known free agent infielders despite clubbing at least 20 home runs in each of the last four full seasons and probably won’t require a long-term commitment.
At last, we move on to the pitchers, what a group from which to choose. Max Scherzer is the king of this year’s class, and despite turning 37 in July, will still command ace money at least from an AAV standpoint. That said, his desire to play for a contender, West Coast preference, age, and asking price conspire to limit his suitors. For teams looking for a longer term top of the rotation arm, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, and Marcus Stroman all put up career years and all figure to command at least five years.
Moving down the list, we arrive at the starters with greater injury concerns. We predicted that Carlos Rodón, Noah Syndergaard, and Anthony DeSclafani will all accept the qualifying offer (as an update, Rodón did not end up receiving a QO). Clayton Kershaw proved he still has some left in the tank, but missed the end of the season with a worrisome forearm injury. Eduardo Rodríguez, Jon Gray, and Steven Matz have all battled either injury or ineffectiveness for stretches of their careers, but each member of the trio pitched well enough in 2021 to earn multi-year deals.
Last but not least, we have the relievers. Kenley Jansen had a bounc-eback campaign in LA after making some tweaks to his repertoire, and enters his first foray into free agency as the best relief option on the market. Raisel Iglesias was traded from the Reds to the Angels prior to the season to save money, and proved he is still a top-10 closer in the league with the Angels. Kendall Graveman was also traded, in his case from the Mariners to the Astros at the deadline — and in the middle of a series between the two teams no less! — and his performance in the postseason likely earned him a bumper deal from teams looking for a closer.
So there you have it, PSA’s 2022 free agent predictions! Please note that predictions were made last week, so before you yell at us in the comments: yes, we know, many of the players we predicted would accept the qualifying offer did not have it offered to them.