Most of the top free agents this offseason have already signed, a refreshing change after the last few stagnant winters. Now, with players reporting to spring training in just a few weeks, let’s turn our attention to the best players available on the open market after next season.
This list includes only unrestricted free agents, because we don’t know now if Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez or Dellin Betances will opt out of their current deals. The same is true with Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Santana and Corey Kluber, whose clubs have the option to keep them for another year.
Here are the top five free agents slated to hit the market next winter.
5. DJ LeMahieu, 2B/3B/1B, NYY
Age: 31 | 2019 Stats: .327 BA, .893 OPS, 26 HR, 102 RBIs, 5 SB, 6.0 WAR
When the Yankees signed LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million contract last offseason to be a utility infielder, he wasn't supposed to be their most valuable player. He wasn’t even in the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup. But when the year was over, he led New York in batting average (.327), hits (197), runs (109), RBI (102), total bases (312) and WAR (6.0). One win above replacement is worth about $8 million, so in one year LeMahieu’s performance was worth $48 million—double the total value of his two-year contract.
Still, LeMahieu will be 32 when he hits free agency again next offseason, and there could be some concern about giving a multi-year contract worth between $12-$15 million per season to an aging middle infielder. Also, LeMahieu has been an above-average hitter in just two of his nine seasons, based on adjusted OPS. His value next winter will depend on if he can replicate his 2019 production in 2020.
4. J.T. Realmuto, C, PHI
Age: 29 | 2019 Stats: .275 BA, .820 OPS, 25 HR, 83 RBIs, 9 SB, 4.4 WAR
Realmuto is as close to a five-tool player as you’ll get from a catcher. In 2019, his first year with the Phillies, he posted career highs in home runs (25), runs (92), RBIs (83), slugging percentage (.493), total bases (265), defensive runs saved (11) and caught-stealing percentage (47%). He’s also the best baserunning catcher in the game, per Fangraphs’ Ultimate Base Running metric.
Perhaps the one concern for Realmuto when he hits free agency will be his age (30), because he plays such a physically demanding position. Not every catcher can be Yadier Molina, who’s still kicking as the Cardinals' backstop entering his age 37 season. But, to get a glimpse at how Realmuto might fare on the open market, look at 31-year-old catcher Yasmani Grandal, who just signed a four-year, $73 million deal with the White Sox. Both players were considered the two best catchers in the National League last season, when Grandal was with the Brewers. So as long as Realmuto doesn’t regress in 2020, he should be among the best free agents when his contract expires at the end of the year.
3. Trevor Bauer, RHP, CIN
Age: 29 | 2019 Stats: 11-13, 4.48 ERA, 1.249 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 1.5 WAR
Bauer was dreadful after Cleveland traded him to Cincinnati in July, but he still remains one of the more talented starters in baseball. He’s a cerebral pitcher, one who craves any data and analytics that can help improve his craft. His eccentricities have been well documented over the years, but contending teams could use them in their favor. Bauer has said he wants to sign only one-year contracts for the rest of his career, so teams with payroll flexibility could feel comfortable throwing millions of dollars his way, knowing he’ll only be on the books for a season.
Still, this will be an important year for Bauer. He needs to prove his two-month stretch with the Reds in 2019 was a fluke; that he’s actually the pitcher we saw dominate in Cleveland who finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2018. His electric, strikeout stuff is valuable, and that shouldn’t change next year.
2. George Springer, CF/RF, HOU
Age: 30 | 2019 Stats: .292 BA, .974 OPS, 39 HR, 96 RBIs, 6 SB, 6.2 WAR
Like the rest of the Astros, Springer has a lot to prove in 2020. How much did he benefit from Houston’s sign-stealing operation? How much of an impact did former general manager Jeff Luhnow and the analytically advanced front office have on Springer and the Astros? What about AJ Hinch? These questions could end up being meaningless if Springer hits 30 homers and has a 5.0 WAR again next season. But for now, fair or not, all of his past accomplishments are at least partially in doubt.
The other concern for Springer is his durability. He played in all 162 games in 2016 but missed at least 20 games each year from 2017-19. Last season was by far his best (6.2 WAR, 150 OPS+), but he missed 40 games. Staying healthy in 2020 will be almost as important for Springer’s free-agent value as his offensive production. Teams could be hesitant to invest in an outfielder with an injury history who will be 31, regardless of how well he plays when he’s healthy.
1. Mookie Betts, RF, BOS
Age: 27 | 2019 Stats: .295 BA, .915 OPS, 29 HR, 80 RBIs, 16 SB, 6.8 WAR
The remarkable thing about Betts is that his 2019 season was considered a down year, and he still compiled the seventh-most WAR (6.8) in the majors. He’s a five-tool player who is just now entering the prime of his career. Betts has been the second most productive player in baseball since his rookie year in 2014. Over that six-season span, only Mike Trout has more WAR (52.5) than Betts (42.0).
Betts has said he wants to test free agency instead of signing an extension with the Red Sox. As he should. Already, he has won a World Series, an MVP award, four Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers and a batting title. Last March, Bryce Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, the largest ever for a free-agent position player. (Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million deal with the Angels was an extension.) Betts, who is the same age as Harper, should command at least as much money on the open market, even though Harper was two years younger when he hit free agency.
Simply, Betts is one of the top five players in baseball and his future is just as promising as his elite track record.