With just a few weeks left in the regular season, the free agents for the class of 2022 are running out of time to establish their value before hitting the open market. Many of them—such as Carlos Correa, Max Scherzer and Freddie Freeman, among others—have already established their price range. But there are many veterans with expiring contracts who could enhance—or hurt—their cases for better deals by finishing strong into the fall. Just last year, Drew Smyly parlayed five starts with the Giants in which he exhibited increased velocity and spin rates into an $11 million deal from Atlanta. Maybe that should serve as a cautionary tale to general managers; Smyly has struggled for much of the second half, prompting the Braves to shift him from the rotation to the bullpen. Still some clubs undoubtedly will be swayed by what unfolds over the next month or so.
Here are a handful of high-profile names who have a lot to gain with good performances down the stretch, led by one of the most accomplished players in the league who returned from a lengthy stay on the injured list Monday night.
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, SP
After Kershaw pitched just three innings in his only rehab start last week, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts left his ace out on the mound for 4 1/3 innings and 50 pitches Monday against the Diamondbacks in his first MLB outing since early July. He allowed four hits and one run, issuing one walk with five strikeouts. Kershaw even got a single to boost his batting average to .258. Pretty good, right?
Well, the bad news is that the average velocity of Kershaw’s four-seam fastball was 89.2 mph, down from his 90.7 season average and many ticks below what it was during his peak. With the 33-year-old having just been sidelined a couple months by forearm tightness—an ailment that can serve as a precursor to elbow injuries and Tommy John surgery—that’s not something to gloss over.
If there’s any modern pitcher who can adjust to diminished velocity, it’s Kershaw, whose legacy is secure after winning the 2020 World Series. It seems a foregone conclusion he’ll end up returning to the only franchise he’s ever known. But the fact that an agreement hasn't yet been reached likely means his agent at least wants him to hit the open market. It could also mean there’s some trepidation on the Dodgers’ part to pay Kershaw like an elite starter for many more years. In addition to his missing over a month due to injury, Kershaw also has his highest ERA (3.33) since his 2008 rookie season. Some of his underlying metrics, even with diminished velocity, suggest he's still got it; his 2.93 FIP is his best mark since 2015. Proving it over the remaining weeks and during the playoffs would go along way to convince the Dodgers or another team that he's still worthy of the deal he'll be seeking.
Anthony Rizzo, Yankees, 1B
Rizzo has recorded nearly identical statistics for the Cubs and Yankees this year on either side of the trade deadline. It's sort of eerie, save for a modest difference in exit velocity that Rizzo will look to make up in the season's final weeks:
You wouldn’t expect those splits to be so similar, given Rizzo’s memorably scorching start in pinstripes and Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch. But after posting a .963 OPS in his first nine games with New York, he struggled after a return from a stint on the COVID-19 reserve list in August, going 3-for-36 (.083) with just one extra-base hit and two walks in nine games back before turning it back on as of late. Another surge should be enough for prospective suitors to attribute that woeful stretch to his recovering from the coronavirus.
The Cubs reportedly offered Rizzo a five-year, $70 million extension before the season, and after the nine-year, $74 million extension he signed with them in 2013 ended up being a major discount, it’s understandable he’d want to see what else is out there. Paul Goldschmidt signed a five-year extension for nearly double Chicago's reported offer covering the same years, and the 32-year-old may see himself in the same light. But he hasn’t been Goldschmidt’s equal on offense or defense for a few years now, and given the depressed market for aging corner infielders without a ton of power, it’s hard to imagine any team will top the offer he already refused.
Still, Rizzo's glove remains elite. That should quiet any concerns from teams that he'll follow the typical progression of aging, power-hitting first basemen and need to fill a primary DH role in the final years of his career. The big thing he'll need to show the rest of the way is that he's still a productive No. 2 or middle-of-the-order hitter.
Kris Bryant, Giants, 3B/OF
It seems likely Bryant will never again reach the heights he did alongside Rizzo while winning Rookie of the Year, MVP and the Cubs’ first World Series in over a century. But few players ever do, and no one else can match those specific accomplishments. Still, the 29-year-old has gone a long way toward alleviating concerns of last year’s miserable campaign with his fourth All-Star appearance this summer, exhibiting more defensive versatility than ever before along the way.
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His first 15 games with the Giants reflected just how valuable a player he still can be. He slashed .321/.377/.571 with three homers and five doubles, while also playing four different positions in that span. They've kept winning since trading for him, and with their 9–1 win over the Padres on Monday night, they became the first team this year to clinch a playoff spot. However, he hit a bit of a cold spell after his strong start with San Francisco. Over the last 19 games, he's hit .233 with a .706 OPS.
Bryant's free agency will come down to how much longer he plays this season. Leading the Giants on a deep playoff run will make the difference between his getting the short-term deal of a versatile former MVP or the robust contract of a top-tier talent whose stardom is still shining.
Anthony DeSclafani, Giants, SP
During his awful 2020 campaign, DeSclafani was bumped from Cincinnati's rotation in September and excluded from the team’s postseason roster entirely, He was forced to sign a one-year, prove-it deal worth $6 million with San Francisco during the offseason. If he didn’t succeed, it could have been his last major-league contract. Instead, the 31-year-old has turned out to be one of baseball’s most surprising success stories of the season, and he seems set for a more lucrative multi-year deal this winter. He’s only given up more than three runs in two of his 27 starts this season.
That being said, DeSclafani’s second-half ERA of 5.12 is nearly double that of his 2.68 ERA in the first half. The righthander has also failed to make it through the fifth inning in three of his last four starts, albeit with one or two of those outings affected by a barking ankle that sent him to the injured list last month. The Giants also have tried to save some of the veteran’s bullets for October; after throwing at least 100 pitches four times in the first half, he’s yet to cross that threshold since the All-Star Break. Assuming the Giants hang on and win the NL West, DeSclafani will be slated to make his playoff debut in the divisional series and have a prime opportunity to avenge the indignity of being skipped over last year.
Trevor Story, Rockies, SS
With a disappointing platform year, Story has slid down the 2022 free-agent shortstop hierarchy that also includes Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien and Javier Báez. The soon-to-be former Rockie who should already be a former Rockie has mostly rediscovered his power stroke in the second half, launching 10 home runs in 205 plate appearances. But his batting average and on-base percentage are both still way down from their previous levels, making him a roughly league-average hitter, and his slash line away from Coors Field is an ugly .197/.291/.417 on the season.
After finishing in the top 12 of NL MVP voting in each of the last three seasons, Story will receive a smaller contract than he was expecting before this one. But a torrid final few weeks could help him recoup some value and end his time in Denver on a high note.
Michael Conforto, Mets, OF
Once regarded as the next big thing in Queens, Conforto has long ceded that designation to Pete Alonso. But a terrific 2020 campaign renewed hope that the left-handed hitting outfielder could reach an extension to remain in New York and play a leading role in helping the Mets win a World Series. Instead, the 28-year-old struggled out of the gate, strained his hamstring in May and seemed to be on the verge of losing his starting job in early August, when manager Luis Rojas said Conforto was “thinking too much” at the plate. In short, the 2017 All-Star has been one of many Mets hitters who’ve failed to live up to their career standards in spectacular fashion.
To his credit, Conforto seemed to take the public warning from his manager to heart. He’s slashed .273/.384/.469 since the beginning of August, an improvement upon his career norms. And when adjusting for the league-wide environment, his strikeout and whiff rates for the entire season are at career-best levels. This winter’s outfield market isn’t especially crowded, with Nick Castellanos, Mark Canha, Starling Marte, A.J. Pollock and Avisail Garcia representing Conforto’s stiffest competition. If he can keep it up through the end of the season, it’s not difficult to envision the Mets extending him a qualifying offer given the perilously thin depth chart of impact outfielders in their farm system—especially if they embark on a miraculous run to the playoffs. Either way, netting close to $20 million on the one-year pact would represent a win for Conforto given how he started this year.
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