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Holiday Shopping: Ranking the Top Players on MLB’s Free-Agent Market

By: Taylor Bechtold

The market is open.

Now that the non-tender deadline has passed, we have a clearer picture of what the free-agent market looks like as we head into the thick of the offseason.

Right-handers Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman accepted qualifying offers to return to the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, respectively. Outfielder Adam Eaton inked a one-year, $7 million deal with the up-and-coming Chicago White Sox.

And Charlie Morton left the AL champion Tampa Bay Rays to sign a one-year, $15 million deal with the Atlanta Braves, but where will some of the biggest free-agent prizes land?

While we’re not going to give any predictions, we can provide a data-driven perspective on the top remaining position players and pitchers on the market. We’ve analyzed several different metrics – Raw Value+Discipline+, Contact+ and BIP+ for hitters and Raw Value-Command+Whiff+ and Strike+ for pitchers – in compiling our free-agent rankings.

As a simplistic refresher, RV+ equates to a cumulative way to measure how many total runs a hitter added relative to a league-average batter – that is, one with an RV of zero. On the pitching side, RV- is a cumulative way to measure how many total runs a pitcher took away relative to a league-average hurler (again, an RV of zero).

POSITION PLAYERS

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

1. J.T. REALMUTO, CATCHER (RV+ 111)

Realmuto might not have the highest RV+ number of those available, but he jumps to the top of the list because of the lack of catchers who can make an impact both offensively and defensively. James McCann and Yadier Molina are probably the next available backstops behind Realmuto, who posted above-average RV+ numbers  (118, 111) in each of his two seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies.

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

2. MARCELL OZUNA, OUTFIELDER (166)

Ozuna is hoping to cash in after betting on himself by taking a one-year deal with the Braves prior to last season. He finished fourth in the majors with a .338 batting average, third with 18 home runs and second with 56 RBIs while posting the fifth-best BIP+ and sixth-best RV+ among those with at least 180 plate appearances. Because he’s not considered the best defensive player, the uncertainty surrounding whether the universal DH will remain next season could hurt Ozuna’s value.

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

3. NELSON CRUZ, DESIGNATED HITTER (143)

The same could be said for the ageless Cruz, who has played just nine games in the field over the past four seasons. But there is no mistaking the 35-year-old’s ability to produce at the plate. He hit .303 with 16 home runs and 33 RBIs while ranking 11th in MLB in BIP+ in his second year with the Minnesota Twins and hasn’t hit fewer than 37 dingers in a full season since 2013.

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

4. GEORGE SPRINGER, OUTFIELDER (141)

The addition of Springer would give any club a solid center fielder and an impact bat atop the lineup after he led the Houston Astros in RV+ last season. He’s hit the second-most home runs from the leadoff spot (136) since entering the league in 2014, trailing only Charlie Blackmon (147) of the Colorado Rockies. But Springer, 31, hasn’t played more than 140 games in a full season since 2016. He hit .265 with 14 homers and 32 RBIs in 51 contests in 2020.

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

5. DJ LEMAHIEU, INFIELDER (136)

After he finished second only to Aaron Judge (148) with an RV+ of 142 in 2019, LeMahieu proved to be one of the Yankees’ best players again last season. He also won his second AL batting title (.364) and led the league in on-base percentage (.421) and OPS (1.011) while posting an RV+ of 136. He also provides value by being able to play multiple positions around the infield.

6. JUSTIN TURNER, INFIELDER (134)

7. MICHAEL BRANTLEY, OUTFIELDER (121)

8. TOMMY LA STELLA, INFIELDER (112)

9. JOC PEDERSON, OUTFIELDER (106)

10. JACKIE BRADLEY JR., OUTFIELDER (97)

PITCHERS

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

1. TREVOR BAUER, RHP (RV- 41)

According to MLB.com, Bauer is a rare gem on the market as only the eighth pitcher to become a free agent in the offseason after winning the Cy Young Award. He’s the first to do so since Roger Clemens re-signed with the Astros in 2004. The right-hander, who finished with an NL-best 1.73 ERA and led the majors with an RV- of 41, will immediately give some fortunate team a top-of-the-rotation ace.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

2. LIAM HENDRIKS, RHP (45)

UPDATE: Signed three-year, $54 million deal with the White Sox

Hendriks is our top reliever on the market after posting a 1.79 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP while converting 39 of 47 save opportunities over the past two seasons in Oakland. The right-hander also ranked second in the majors in Whiff+ (179) and sixth in RV- among relievers who faced at least 100 batters this season.

(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

3. MASAHIRO TANAKA, RHP (92)

Tanaka finished last season with his lowest ERA (3.56) since 2016 and the 32-year-old should age well considering he knows how to hit his spots. After leading the majors with a Command+ of 132 in 2019, he ranked fourth (119) among those who faced at least 180 batters last season.

(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

4. JAMES PAXTON, LHP (93)

Paxton likely wrapped up an injury-plagued two-year stint in New York by only making five starts for the Yankees in 2020. After battling a knee injury in 2019, he underwent back surgery early last season and is now reportedly dealing with a strained forearm. When healthy, the left-hander has been a strikeout machine and finished seventh in the majors with a Whiff+ of 133 in 2019.

(AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

5. TAIJUAN WALKER, RHP (111)

Walker has shown glimpses of living up to the high expectations he faced when entering the league with the Seattle Mariners in 2013. The right-hander posted a 3.49 ERA over 28 starts for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017 but has made just 15 starts over the past three seasons. Though he had a 2.70 ERA over 11 starts with Seattle and the Toronto Blue Jays last season, Walker ended up with an RV- of 111 – below the league average.

6. JAKE ODORIZZI, RHP (164)

7. COREY KLUBER, RHP (32)

8. JAKE ARRIETA, RHP (131)

9. JON LESTER, LHP (132)

10. COLE HAMELS, LHP (161)

 

Data modeling and analysis provided by Lucas Haupt.

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