The road to next offseason is a long and treacherous one. Countless obstacles will present themselves along the way, none bigger than the Dec. 1 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. More pressing are the inevitably contentious negotiations needing to play out between the owners and players to commence the 2021 season as they bicker over many of the same issues (length of season, timeline of season, salaries) they did a year ago.
But when (if?) we reach next offseason's free agency, a gloriously talented class awaits. Headlining it are four elite shortstops—Javier Báez, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager and Trevor Story–not to mention four Cy Young winners, five MVPs and six rookies of the year.
With that, let’s dive into a way-too-early ranking of next winter's top five free agents. Absent from these rankings are Nolan Arenado and José Ramírez, among others who have player or club options for the 2020 season and aren't guaranteed to be available.
*The stats included are the three-year averages for the 2018–20 seasons, per 162 games. WAR values are for the three-year averages per 650 plate appearances, using Baseball-Reference’s version. The ages displayed are for the 2022 season.
5. Clayton Kershaw, SP, 34:
17-7, 34 GS, 210 IP, 2.78 ERA, 1.013 WHIP, 7.3 H/9, 1.2 HR/9, 1.8 BB/9, 9.2 K/9, 4.4 WAR
Kershaw is the lone pitcher to crack the top five. His age is what separates him from the three other former Cy Young winners set to hit free agency next offseason. In 2022, Kershaw will be 34, at least three years younger than Max Scherzer (37), Zack Greinke (38) and Justin Verlander (39). As Kershaw showed in 2020, he has learned how to pitch well as he gets older. In mid-October, Sports Illustrated's Stephanie Apstein wrote, “As the weapons in his arsenal should be dulling, Clayton Kershaw is pitching better than he has in years.” Apstein detailed how the notoriously stubborn Kershaw began altering the way he trained and restructuring the way he moved after an appointment at Driveline Baseball, the data-driven pitching facility.
Of course, chronic back pain has ailed Kershaw since his late 20s, and it's hard to imagine that will subside as he reaches his late 30s. It’s also difficult to envision Kershaw pitching for a team other than the Dodgers. Still, he’s the youngest of the future Hall of Fame pitchers and the best of the under-35 free agents.
4. Trevor Story, SS, 29:
.292/.355/.554, 122 OPS+, 28 HR, 100 RBI, 108 R, 30 SB (8 CS), 5.9 WAR
Story’s case as one of the best free agents definitely looks better following the success DJ LeMahieu has had since leaving Colorado. In fact, as we learn more about the Coors Field Effect, it’s becoming clearer that playing home games in Denver could actually hinder Rockies players. As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello wrote in this analysis, playing home games at Coors Field generally makes hitters worse on the road. So, when Rockies players leave for another team, their offensive production at home typically declines. But, their road performances tend to improve, which can compensate for the worse hitting at home. Also, consider park-adjusted metrics to assess Story’s offensive production. His 122 OPS+ over the previous three seasons is the same as that of Lindor and Seager.
We also know the toll playing so many games at such high altitudes can take on a player’s body. Yet Story has remained rather healthy during his career, averaging 149 games per year from 2017–19, and missing just one 2020.
Another thing to consider is just how rare it is to get a shortstop like Story, one who can hit for power, play exceptional defense and run. Since his rookie season in 2016, only two shortstops have at least 80 home runs, 40 stolen bases and 40 defensive runs saved: Lindor and Story, who each have at least 120 homers, 80 stolen bases and 42 defensive runs saved.
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B, 32:
.308/.400/.544, 144 OPS+, 32 HR, 116 RBI, 110 R, 8 SB (3 CS), 5.1 WAR
As Freeman put together his best season yet in 2020, leading the Braves to a division title and winning the NL MVP award, it felt like he was a veteran movie star just now getting the critical recognition he has so long deserved. Over the last five seasons, Freeman leads all first basemen with 23.9 WAR, 136 home runs, a .306 average and a 149 OPS+. Like Kershaw with the Dodgers, it’s probable Freeman re-signs with the Braves (either via an extension or in free agency). Because Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies are both under club control on team-friendly deals until at least 2027, Atlanta should have the financial flexibility to bring back Freeman.
2. Corey Seager, SS, 28:
.281/.342/.499, 122 OPS+, 28 HR, 108 RBI, 102 R, 2 SB (0 CS), 4.3 WAR
Seager’s three-year numbers are not as great as the other top free agent shortstops, Lindor, Story and Báez. However, the context here is that Seager had Tommy John surgery in April 2018, missed the rest of that season and wasn’t quite back to full strength until at least the second half of 2019.
Perhaps last season is the best representation of what Seager can do when fully healthy. In 52 games, he slashed .307/.358/.585 with 15 home runs and was worth 2.1 WAR—or 48 home runs per 162 games and 5.9 WAR per 650 plate appearances. Should prospective teams expect Seager to hit close to 50 homers? Probably not. But, Seager is just entering the prime of his career and could hit 40.
1. Francisco Lindor, SS, 28
.277/.343/.502, 122 OPS+, 36 HR, 87 RBI, 117 R, 24 SB (6 CS), 5.5 WAR
Younger than Story and better defensively and on the bases than Seager, Lindor is the best all-around player at a premium position. Since 2015, his rookie year, Lindor ranks sixth overall with 28.7 WAR and first among shortstops. The superstar factor also cannot be overlooked when it comes to Lindor and free agency. He’s flashy, smooth and charismatic, with his signature smile and easy-looking talent. He is the perfect face of a franchise for the next decade.