Predicting where the best remaining MLB free agents will sign now that lockout is over

Welcome to Fast and Furious 10: Free Agent Frenzy. It’s going to be a wild rush to Opening Day as the remaining free agents find a place to play as spring training camps open — and while there was a wave of signings before the lockout began Dec. 10 of Kiley McDaniel’s top 21 free agents entering the offseason, several remain unsigned. Let’s re-examine those players and predict — good luck! — where they may end up.

2022 age: 27 | Initial FA ranking: 1

Potential landing spots: Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies, Cubs, Blue Jays

Correa is not only the youngest player included here, but he’s coming off a 7.2-WAR, Gold Glove season in which he finished fifth in the AL MVP voting. With new agent Scott Boras, Correa is no doubt seeking a deal that approaches or exceeds the 10-year, $341 million extension Francisco Lindor signed upon joining the Mets and Corey Seager’s $325 million deal with the Rangers.

There isn’t an obvious fit here, however. The Red Sox would have to reconfigure their infield by moving Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, which would improve the team defensively but bruise some egos — and perhaps secure the departure of Bogaerts after 2022, when he has an opt-out clause. The Yankees have prospects Anthony Volpe (No. 6 on McDaniel’s top 100 prospects list) and Oswald Peraza (No. 25), so they may just be looking for a temporary placeholder at shortstop for 2022. Meanwhile, the Phillies have Bryson Stott (No. 66), who should come up sometime midseason (and still have Didi Gregorius under contract, although he was terrible in 2021). The Dodgers can move forward with Trea Turner and Gavin Lux up the middle and perhaps focus on a long-term extension with Turner.

So maybe that leaves the Blue Jays and Cubs. Before the lockout, the Blue Jays had pursued Seager and attempted to re-sign Marcus Semien before the Rangers added both players. Correa would be a significant defensive upgrade over Bo Bichette, who could slide over to second to form a dynamic middle infield duo. As for the Cubs, remember they signed Marcus Stroman and acquired Wade Miley, a sign they’re ready to move past their 2021 retooling season. If so, they still need an offensive cornerstone and Correa is the perfect fit — Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal have combined for five home runs in 638 career at-bats, so that’s two powerless middle infielders. Chicago’s current payroll sits about $88 million below where it was in 2020.

Wild idea: The Tigers already splurged for free agents Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez, but they remain well below the collective bargaining tax threshold and will also get Miguel Cabrera’s $32 million salary off the books after 2023. Baez would have to move to second base, but he might be fine with that to accommodate Correa — especially considering Baez has played over the diamond during his major league career.

Prediction: Cubs. The Cubs are the big-market team that best matches need with the payroll flexibility to blow away Correa with a big offer. The current payroll sits at $128 million, well below 2021’s $165 million, let alone 2019’s $237 million.

2022 age: 32 | Initial FA ranking: 3

Potential landing spots: Braves, Dodgers, Yankees

Liberty Media, owners of the Braves, recently released its 2021 earnings report and showed the Braves generated $568 million in revenue ($526 in baseball revenue) — up from $476 million in 2019 — with an operating profit of $104 million. In other words: Why hasn’t franchise icon Freeman already signed with Atlanta? Reportedly, Freeman has desired a six-year deal while the Braves countered with five; maybe they will work something out, but they also had all of 2021 to do that.

That’s why you can’t rule out the Dodgers or Yankees. The Dodgers could use a left-handed bat to replace Seager. Right now, their top lefty hitters are Max Muncy (coming back from a torn UCL suffered in the final regular-season game of 2021), Cody Bellinger (who hit .165) and Gavin Lux (.692 OPS last season). Even with a full season of Joey Gallo, the Yankees could use another lefty hitter and Freeman, given his age, should command a contract about half the size of Correa’s — giving the Yankees a lot more room to ante up a long-term deal for Aaron Judge.

If the Braves do fail to re-sign Freeman? A’s first baseman Matt Olson, a Georgia native, becomes an even hotter trade commodity — but the more dominoes a team requires, the less likely all of it gets accomplished. (The A’s, if they do intend on trading Olson, would certainly be wise to wait until after Freeman and Anthony Rizzo sign.)

Wild idea: The Rangers have had above-average production at first base just once since 2006. Sure, they committed $500 million to Seager and Semien, but what’s another $180 million for one of the best hitters in the league?

Prediction: Dodgers. History suggests when a player of Freeman’s magnitude gets to this point he ends up with a new team.

2022 age: 29 | Initial FA ranking: 4

Potential landing spots: Cubs, Mariners, Nationals, Angels, Cardinals, Yankees, Blue Jays, Phillies, Twins

Story’s market is thinner than it was at the outset of free agency, when many thought he might end up with his hometown Rangers. Instead, the Rangers signed Seager and Semien, Baez went to the Tigers and the Yankees don’t seem to be aggressively pursuing a top shortstop. Some teams — like the Mariners — might look at Story as a third baseman, but sources told the Denver Post’s Patrick Saunders in February that Story doesn’t want to switch positions.

The question is how teams will evaluate his defensive future. A shoulder issue affected his throwing in 2021 and Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric graded Story near the bottom of all shortstops after he was near the top in 2019 (although he did rate plus-9 in Defensive Runs Saved). His offense also tailed off, although the underlying metrics remained similar to previous seasons. He’s still in his prime and a fast, skilled player, so if the shoulder is healthy I would project a return to his 2018-2020 form, when he averaged 6.5 WAR per 150 games. Still, it all makes Story one of the more difficult players to evaluate and predict into the future.

Wild idea: Instead of turning to rookie Jeremy Pena, the Astros sign Story to replace Correa.

Prediction: Tough one. It’s possible that Story signs a one-year deal — the Yankees fit here — and proves the shoulder is healthy. The Mariners make sense from a need and payroll perspective, but they’ve publicly committed to J.P. Crawford as their shortstop. I’ll go with the Twins, who can keep Jorge Polanco at second base and use Luis Arraez in a utility role.

2022 age: 30 | Initial FA ranking: 8

Potential landing spots: Mariners, Giants, Phillies, Padres, Marlins, Blue Jays

Ever since the Cubs held Bryant back in the minors at the outset of the 2015 season, we’ve been waiting for him to reach free agency. He’s finally here and bounced back from a rough COVID season (when he initially tried to play through a wrist injury) to hit .265/.353/.481 with 25 home runs for the Cubs and Giants — solid enough, although after a hot start in April and May he hit just .232/.324/.409 the rest of the way. Estimates of his contract at the outset of free agency ranged from five years/$90 million (ESPN) to six years/$160 million (MLB Trade Rumors).

Despite relative consistency at the plate (other than 2020), that wide range in salary outcomes points to some uncertainty about Bryant’s future production. His hard-hit rate was in the 42nd percentile in 2021, which was actually up from the previous three seasons. His Statcast defensive rating was at the bottom of the barrel: in the first percentile. His best fit is probably as a Swiss Knife at third base, first base and the outfield, making him a good fit for the Mariners or Phillies (or a return to the Giants).

Wild idea: If Freeman doesn’t re-sign with the Braves, how about Bryant? He could play some first base and left field, allowing the team to slide Marcell Ozuna into a full-time DH role.

Prediction: Phillies — a reunion with Vegas buddy Bryce Harper.

2022 age: 34 | Initial FA ranking: 12

Potential landing spots: Dodgers, Rangers

After 14 seasons in the majors, Kershaw reached free agency for the first time. He missed two-plus months in the regular season and then the entire postseason with an elbow injury that required a PRP injection but didn’t require surgery. When on the mound, he was still effective in 22 starts, going 10-8 with a 3.55 ERA and 144-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio — although that was the highest ERA since his rookie season for the future Hall of Famer.

One anonymous former teammate recently told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that he expects Kershaw to either sign with the Rangers or retire. The stronger indicators that landing with his hometown Rangers is a strong possibility is that manager Chris Woodward — a coach with the Dodgers from 2016 to 2018 — had said before the lockout that the club had reached out to Kershaw. And after signing with the Rangers, Seager admitted that “I’ve had some talks with Kersh, for sure.”

Wild idea: None. It’s Dodgers or Rangers.

Prediction: Rangers. It won’t feel right and this could depend on what else the Dodgers do, but as with Freeman, the lack of a deal so far points to a departure.

2022 age: 30 | Initial FA ranking: 13

Possible landing spots: Marlins, Padres, Mariners, Rangers, Phillies, Red Sox, Braves

Castellanos is coming off his first All-Star appearance and best season at the plate, hitting .309/.362/.576 with 34 home runs and 38 doubles in 138 games for the Reds. He doesn’t walk much and he’s a below-average corner outfielder, but he’s a line-drive machine (second in the majors in extra-base hits over the past three seasons) and the universal DH makes him an attractive signing for teams in either league.

Before the lockout, the Marlins were reportedly a favorite — or even the favorite — to sign Castellanos, who is from the Miami area. While the Marlins signed Avisail Garcia, they still need another bat or three, but reports surfaced that Derek Jeter’s resignation as Marlins CEO was at least partially related to a decision in future spending plans (the Marlins disputed that claim to the Miami Herald). That opens it up for any number of landing spots.

Wild idea: Do the Dodgers need more good players? Hey, every team needs more good players. With the versatile Chris Taylor back, maybe the Dodgers just rotate players through the DH spot. But what about hedging against the loss of Seager’s production, Muncy’s elbow and perhaps an aging Justin Turner by bringing in a big stick?

Prediction: Phillies. They need a left fielder. They need a center fielder. They need a DH. Castellanos can help at two of those positions.

2022 age: 29 | Initial FA ranking: 14

Possible landing spots: Just about any playoff contender

After making just nine total starts over 2019 and 2020 due to Tommy John surgery, Rodon landed back with the White Sox and had a remarkable season, going 13-5 with a 2.37 ERA and 185 K’s in 132⅔ innings. Always a pitcher who battled the strike zone, he changed his delivery and cut his walk rate by a third while recording the highest strikeout rate among AL pitchers with at least 100 innings. That would have made him one of the most sought-after free agents on the market — except his velocity dropped in the second half, he pitched sparingly in August and September and then struggled in his playoff start. The White Sox, clearly concerned about Rodon’s health, declined to give him a qualifying offer.

Wild idea: The Mariners got burned last year with James Paxton, who lasted just five batters before going down for the season. That shouldn’t prevent them from rolling the dice on Rodon, who could make for a dynamic 1-2 punch with Cy Young winner Robbie Ray. What, you forgot Ray signed with the Mariners? And that Ray won the Cy Young Award?

Prediction: Yankees. The Yankees showed last year they’re willing to gamble on pitchers with upside but potential health concerns when they traded for Jameson Taillon and signed Corey Kluber. The Yankees have just one division title since 2012, but a rotation with Gerrit Cole, Rodon, Taillon and Luis Severino has best-in-the-AL potential.

2022 age: 29 | Initial FA ranking: 15

Possible landing spots: Phillies, Rangers, Padres, White Sox, Cubs, Royals

Conforto hit .265/.369/.495 from 2017 to 2020, then slumped to a .232/.344/.384 line in 2021, eliminating his chance at a potential $100 million payday. His wOBA from 2017 to 2020 ranked in the top 25 among players with at least 1,500 plate appearances — better than, among others, Seager, Baez and Semien. In free agency, timing is everything. Conforto turned down the Mets’ $18.4 million qualifying offer, so back in November he was at least banking on a similar one-year deal if he wanted to bank on a better season and return to free agency.

Wild idea: In 2019, the Guardians ran a $129 million payroll. In 2018, they ran a $150 million payroll. In 2021, they ran a $62 million payroll, which is about where they sit right now. Their outfielders ranked 27th in the majors in OPS in 2021.

Prediction: Rangers. Why stop at Seager, Semien and Kershaw? Rangers’ outfielders were even worse than Cleveland’s in 2021, rankings last in the majors in OPS.

9. Seiya Suzuki

2022 age: 27 | Initial FA ranking: 17

Possible landing spots: Giants, Mariners, Red Sox, Padres, Rangers, Cubs

Arguably the best player in Japan in recent seasons, the right-handed slugger remains “100%” committed to playing in the majors, according to his agent, after hitting .317/.433/.639 with 38 home runs for the Hiroshima Carp. He led Japan’s Central League in batting average, OBP and slugging while winning his fourth Gold Glove as a strong-armed right fielder. He projects to hit 20 to 25 home runs with a solid OBP (he drew 88 walks against 89 strikeouts in 2021). The Mariners fit, especially if they think Suzuki can play center field, and the Red Sox perhaps traded Hunter Renfroe to clear right field for Suzuki. If the Padres can find room in the budget, they only list three outfielders on their 40-man roster in Trent Grisham, Wil Myers and Jurickson Profar.

Wild idea: The Yankees need a left-handed bat, but, really, they just need a bat after ranking 10th in the AL in runs scored. How about signing Suzuki to play left field, alongside Gallo in center and Judge in right?

Prediction: Mariners. They still have money to spend and need another middle-of-the-order bat, even with Julio Rodriguez‘s imminent arrival.

2022 age: 29 | Initial FA ranking: 21

Potential landing spots: Blue Jays, White Sox, Brewers, Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees, Nationals, Phillies

Schwarber followed up being non-tendered by the Cubs after hitting .188 in 2020, with the best offensive season of his career. He hit .266/.374/.554 with 32 home runs in 113 games — including that incredible stretch in June when he belted 16 home runs in 18 games. What pops almost as much, however, is the sudden improvement in his walk rate after joining the Red Sox. He had 88 strikeouts and 31 walks with the Nationals and then 33 walks and 39 strikeouts in 41 games with Boston. Maybe it was Fenway Park or the lineup around him, but I wonder if something else happened and he might suddenly be a hitter who chases .400 OBPs moving forward. While he fights left field the best he can, the universal DH gives him more options and his all-fields power means he’s a good fit in any park.

Wild idea: I know Miguel Cabrera is still under contract for two more seasons. But Tigers DHs hit .192 with 11 home runs. Schwarber can still play some left field to let Miggy play a few times a week, but let’s add Schwarber and Correa to form this ridiculously fun lineup:

LF Robbie Grossman
SS Carlos Correa
DH Kyle Schwarber
1B Spencer Torkelson
3B Jeimer Candelario
CF Riley Greene
2B Javier Baez
RF Akil Baddoo
C Tucker Barnhart

(Yes, adding both Correa and Schwarber easily fits in the budget.)

Prediction: Blue Jays. The Blue Jays hit with the platoon advantage just 38.1% of the time, lowest in the majors. They could use a left-handed batter — and, no, you can’t have too much offense.