MLB free agent tiers: Which stars are true difference-makers for 2021?

Yahoo Sports Staff
·17 min read

With baseball’s offseason beginning — even in uncertain, murky times — it’s time for teams to make their moves. There may not be any record-smashing numbers on this offseason’s contracts, but the effects of a star changing uniforms could still alter the landscape of divisions.

We took the top 30 free agents, plus five big names you might have forgotten were available, and put them in tiers to organize your winter wish list.

(Michael Wagstaffe / Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe / Yahoo Sports)

Difference-makers

Trevor Bauer — We can weigh the value of this year’s free agents and make a case for a few different options at No. 1. But there’s no doubt which free agent is the most fascinating — that’s Bauer, who comes into free agency after a dominant season in which he was a Cy Young finalist for the Cincinnati Reds. Bauer looked at his absolute best in 2020, with a 1.73 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 73 innings. He’s surely the best starting pitcher on the market, but this won’t be a normal winter courting.

Bauer is as unconventional as MLB players come. He’s already been teasing various fan bases on Twitter since the Reds’ season ended, trying to get them engaged on his free agent decision. This whole thing will play out very publicly on his social media platforms. It has the potential to be part sports and part reality show. Given that the Yankees are assumed to be a top contender, along with the Mets, this has all the makings of an offseason spectacle.

And the kicker? Bauer previously vowed that he would only sign one-year contracts in free agency. Now that big money is on the table, will he back off that promise? His agent has already said they’ll consider any and all offers — and if Bauer does indeed sign just a one-year contract it will be a surprise. But with Trevor Bauer, you never know.

George Springer — After seven seasons with the Astros, we know plenty about what makes Springer special. He’s a top-of-the-lineup spark plug that can make an offense hum. He’s clutch. Just look at any October he’s played. As good as he’s been, Springer has always been second, third or even fourth fiddle on a talented Astros team with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.

Now it’s Springer’s time in the spotlight. After another strong postseason, Springer comes into free agency as arguably the most attractive, most complete player. Fact is, just about every team can use a Springer in their lineup. He has 40-homer potential, gets on base and can drive in 80 or 90 runs per year. He’s pretty good on defense too. At 31, he’s capable of being both a missing piece for a contender or the veteran star a young squad builds around. The Astros figure to make a serious offer to keep Springer around, but he’d also fit well with the Mets, where new owner Steve Cohen will certainly be making a splashy move or two.

J.T. Realmuto — It’s widely believed that Realmuto is looking to become the highest-paid catcher of all time, which really isn’t all that surprising given the way MLB free agency generally works. Records are set every year. But there aren’t many catchers like Realmuto — who is stellar on defense, great with pitchers and durable, while also wielding a dangerous bat. He’s the best of both worlds. It’s Joe Mauer/Buster Posey territory, and Realmuto is looking to get paid like them now.

In 2019, his only full season with the Phillies after the trade from Miami, Realmuto hit 25 homers and drove in 83 runs. Any team will take those numbers from their catcher — but not many can afford them. A reunion with the Phillies seems like a good possibility. Bryce Harper has made it clear on a few occasions that he wants Realmuto back. The Mets figure to be players here too, since they’ll have money to spend and catcher is a need. The Yankees could be a dark horse if they decide to move on from Gary Sanchez as their backstop.

DJ LeMahieu — The Yankees got a steal two years ago when they signed LeMahieu to a $24 million dollar contract. They will have to pay more than that to keep him around now. He’s been worth every bit of $12 million per season in the Bronx. Sure it was just 60 games, but he had a .421 on-base percentage this season. Last year, he was an MVP candidate who hit 26 homers, drove in 102 runs and kept the Yankees afloat while their sluggers were injured.

Now that he’s a free agent again, LeMahieu won’t be such a bargain. He’s proven that his bat wasn’t just inflated by playing in Colorado. He can be the glue of any offense in baseball. The Yankees realize this and will certainly make LeMahieu one of their biggest priorities. He’s a great fit in their lineup, honestly, so him landing anywhere else would be a surprise. LeMahieu has even said he wants to stay in New York, which may not be the best negotiating tactic. But he might have proven himself enough the past two years that they’ll pay him what he wants.

Marcell Ozuna — The most powerful bat on the market belongs to Marcell Ozuna, who bet on himself last offseason and should be rewarded this time around. Ozuna, soon to be 30, led the league in homers and RBIs after agreeing to a one-year deal with the Braves worth $18 million. Basically, he was their 2020 Josh Donaldson. And now, like Donaldson, he enters free agency with plenty of teams that could use him, but also a few question marks lingering.

We know the bat plays for all 30 MLB teams, but his defense isn’t what it once was, which could limit his market. In a 2020-type season, he’s a great DH possibility for any team. If the universal DH doesn’t stick around, that could work against Ozuna. The Braves will still be in the mix to retain him to complement their young core, but the Nationals, Cardinals, White Sox and Astros have all been mentioned as Ozuna destinations. Put another way: The field is wide open. - Mike Oz

New York Mets starting pitcher Marcus Stroman reacts as he is pulled during the fifth inning of a baseball game, against the Cincinnati Reds Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
After opting out of the 2020 season, where will starter Marcus Stroman land? (AP Photo/Gary Landers)

Interesting gambles

Marcus Stroman — Stroman could end up being a difference-maker (wouldn't that infuriate Mets fans if he leaves?), but he's not quite a lock coming off an inactive 2020 season. Initially, Stroman was sidelined by a calf strain suffered on the eve of opening day. Then he elected to opt out as a “collective family decision” due to concerns about the pandemic. Now the question is, how will that impact his market?

Perhaps it won't at all. After all, he's still just 29. There should be plenty of gas left in his tank. And while he might not be an overpowering presence, he's an effective pitcher because he does just that — he pitches. He hits his spots, gets ground balls, and chews up innings. Those are all plusses that SHOULD make him the top pitching choice after Bauer.

Justin Turner — The last time we saw Justin Turner he was celebrating with his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates and ... well, you know the rest of that story. Will he be wearing a different uniform the next time we see him? Possibly. The Dodgers did not extend him a qualifying offer, so he’s free to test the open market without draft pick compensation tied to his signing.

In reality, Turner is probably more valuable to the Dodgers than anyone else. At 36, he's not a guy another team can build around, but he's also yet to see a notable decline in production after posting a strong slash line at .307/.400/.460 in 2020. If he leaves Los Angeles, he could help a borderline contender get to the next level.

James Paxton — When the Yankees acquired James Paxton from the Seattle Mariners prior to the 2019 season, they likely viewed him as a long-term answer. Those visions didn't last long. After injuries limited him to just 34 starts since the trade and after his inconsistency quickly grew old for Yankees fans, Paxton will more than likely move on this offseason. Can that change of scenery set him up as a bounce back candidate?

The circumstances are a little different than Sonny Gray, who's gone on to rediscover his old form with the Reds. But it's difficult to not make the comparison, or at least wonder if something similar could happen. After all, "Big Maple" has had some dominant stretches before, including a 2018 no-hitter against Toronto. When healthy, he's also a strikeout machine. His market will be among the most interesting to watch this winter.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 08: Didi Gregorius #18 of the Philadelphia Phillies during a game against the Boston Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park on September 8, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 6-5. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Is Didi Gregorius the best shortstop on the free agent market? (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

LeMahieu-style sleepers

Didi Gregorius — The market wasn't ideal for Gregorius last winter coming off Tommy John surgery, so he signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia. The gamble should pay off after he slashed .284/.339/.488 with 10 homers and 40 RBIs in 60 games. Given his consistent offense, he should be the preferred target for teams seeking a shortstop.

Marcus Semien — Teams that miss on Gregorius should pivot to Semien. Though we also wouldn’t be surprised if some teams rate him higher. After all, he’s only one season removed from hitting 33 home runs and finishing as an MVP finalist. Of course, he didn’t repeat that production in 2020, meaning a one-year deal might be his goal in order to rebuild value.

Masahiro Tanaka — It's hard to believe Tanaka's seven-year, $155 million deal is already over. While he hasn't quite developed into a dominant ace, he's held steady as a solid mid-rotation starter. That, of course, carries quite a lot of value in today’s game. While signing Tanaka isn't the most exciting move in 2020, it should be an effective one.

Michael Brantley — Brantley didn't get a lot of attention in Houston (there was a slightly bigger story dominating headlines) but he was excellent there after signing a two-year, $34 million deal in 2019. Most importantly, he finally got healthy. Over those two seasons, he hit .309/.370/.497 with 27 home runs. That will have strong appeal for 2021 contenders.

Liam Hendriks — Hendriks has had an interesting journey, going from an unclaimed pitcher on waivers in 2018 to an All-Star closer for Oakland in 2019. Now he has an opportunity to cash in on that success. Here are the numbers teams will be salivating over: Since the start of 2019, Hendriks has a 1.79 ERA and 13.1 K/9 over 110 1/3 innings, not to mention he's the WAR leader among all relievers at 4.9. That will play anywhere and everywhere. - Mark Townsend

Chicago White Sox's James McCann (33) celebrates as he crosses home plate after hitting a solo home run off Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher JT Brubaker during the third inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
After two strong seasons, James McCann is the most coveted catcher on the market after J.T. Realmuto. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

So you didn’t get your top choice

James McCann — Despite being far less proven than headline offseason target J.T. Realmuto, there’s some chance McCann is almost as good? After a breakout 2019 that even the Chicago White Sox weren’t willing to bank on, McCann kept up his newfound offensive pace in 2020. So over the past two seasons, his OPS is .808 to Realmuto’s .825. The Baseball-Reference WAR model says McCann has been MLB’s second best catcher over that span (behind Realmuto), while FanGraphs has him fifth. In other words, whoever winds up pivoting to McCann may be pleasantly surprised.

Nelson Cruz — Over the past three seasons, Cruz has been one of the five best hitters in baseball by OPS+, and he has at least a decade on the rest of that group. Now 40 years old, the universally adored DH has shattered expectations on three separate contracts that were maybe supposed to be his last. Until the production stops, someone is going to happily slot him into the lineup.

Charlie Morton — Fresh off another strong postseason — 2.70 ERA in 20 innings — Morton will turn 37 as he considers where (and if) to play in 2021. The Tampa Bay Rays declined his $15 million option, but Morton has previously said he would likely retire before he roamed too far afield of his family’s Florida home. The league’s loss is probably the Rays’ gain, as Morton was an AL Cy Young finalist in the most recent 162-game season. Those don’t grow on trees.

Joc Pederson — For all of the ways the 28-year-old Pederson can feel inconsistent (he’s nearly unplayable against left-handed pitching), his production winds up looking awfully steady in retrospect. Limit his exposure to bad matchups and you’ll get 25 homers, an .840 OPS and a consistent, experienced postseason bat.

Jake Odorizzi — Odorizzi and his agent mostly proved that they didn’t possess a crystal ball last winter. After accepting the Twins’ qualifying offer following his stellar 2019, Odorizzi’s 2020 was wiped out by injuries. If the All-Star version that struck out 10.1 batters per nine innings in the last full campaign is still there, he’s a sneaky great rotation addition. - Zach Crizer

Boston Red Sox's Jackie Bradley Jr. celebrates his two-run home run with third base coach Carlos Febles (52) during the second inning of the team's baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Red Sox mainstay Jackie Bradley Jr. is a free agent this offseason. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Potential supporting cast members

Jackie Bradley Jr. — JBJ made his mark in Boston with great defense and some clutch hits. He’s a solid acquisition for a team that needs a defense-first center fielder who can help with the bat sometimes. But if you’re hoping for Springer and get Bradley, it’s not quite the same thing.

Taijuan Walker — Walker has bounced around the league a bit since his days as a top prospect with the Mariners. He was great in the second half of 2020 after a trade to Toronto, with a 1.37 ERA across six starts. He’s not a front-of-the-rotation arm, but he’s proven he can be helpful. And at 28, he’s still young enough that his best days could be ahead.

Andrelton Simmons — Simmons is a slick-fielding shortstop who isn’t quite built from the same modern mold as Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and others. His defense is usually quite good, and he hits for a decent average, but you’re not getting much power.

Kolten Wong — Wong hit free agency after the Cardinals declined his $12.5 million option for 2021. There’s a chance he returns to St. Louis on a lesser deal, but other teams could come calling for Wong too. He’s won two straight Gold Gloves at second base. He’s not a great hitter, but he has his moments and he can steal bases.

Ha-Seong Kim — Kim is the best international name to watch this year. He’s a 25-year-old shortstop and third baseman who has starred in Korea since he was 18. He’s coming off a season in which he hit 30 homers with 109 RBIs in the KBO, but remember that’s roughly equivalent to Double-A. - Mike Oz

FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2020, file photo, Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Brad Hand delivers to Pittsburgh Pirates' Josh Bell during the ninth inning of a baseball game in Cleveland. The Cleveland Indians have declined contract options on Brad Hand and first baseman Carlos Santana for next season, decisions that will initially cut $27 million from the team's payroll. (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)
Closer Brad Hand was a surprised addition to the free agent class after Cleveland declined is option. (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)

Not glamorous, just necessary

Brad Hand — Hand should not be a free agent this winter. He had a $10 million option — which feels like a bargain given his closing experience and status as an elite left-handed reliever — but that was declined by Cleveland. He was once again brilliant in 2020, earning 16 saves while posting a 2.05 ERA. Basically, he should be in high demand on the open market.

Ken Giles — Giles is another free agent with closing experience, but there's a caveat to his market. He's coming off Tommy John surgery and may not pitch again until 2022. History suggests he'll land a team-friendly, two-year deal that will allow him to rehab next season and rebuild value when he's ready to return.

Trevor Rosenthal — Rosenthal is one example of a reliever returning to form following Tommy John, though it did take a couple years and uniform changes before he was all the way back. The former Cardinals closer returned to that role in 2020, earning 11 saves between the Royals and Padres while posting a collective 1.90 ERA.

Blake Treinen — Treinen was the best reliever in baseball in 2018, posting a 0.78 ERA in 80 1/3 innings for the Oakland A's. Then he suffered a rotator cuff strain and a stress reaction in his back in 2019, which limited his effectiveness. He took a step forward for the Dodgers in 2020, posting a 3.86 ERA in 25 innings. That could make him a complete bounce back candidate in 2021. - Mark Townsend

St. Louis Cardinals' Yadier Molina celebrates after hitting a single for his 2,000th career hit during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Yadier Molina is a free agent, but can anyone envision him in a different uniform? (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Guys who will shock the world if they move

Yadier Molina — Could Yadi play somewhere else? The most beloved of the current Cardinals is a free agent for the first time ever at 38. Could he actually leave? Well, yeah. But it would be a shocker if he did. He’s not going to get paid $20 million like he did last year, but if Molina accepts a pay cut, a reunion with the Cardinals makes the most sense.

Adam Wainwright — Pretty much everything above, just with Wainwright instead. Wainwright is 39 and isn’t an ace anymore, but wasn’t terrible in 2020. The first question is whether he wants to play again, if not he’ll likely have a TV gig waiting for him. If he does return to a non-Cardinals team, the Braves would figure to be an option since he’s from Georgia.

Brett Gardner — Gardner has spent his entire career in pinstripes and while he’s never been a face-of-the-franchise star, he’s been a valued Yankee since 2008. At 37, his production is slipping, but it’s hard to imagine him anywhere else.

ARLINGTON, TX - JULY 04: Texas Rangers starting pitcher Corey Kluber (28) winds up and pitches during day 2 of summer camp workouts for the Texas Rangers on July 04, 2020 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
A few years removed from Cy Young contention, Corey Kluber is looking to put together a healthy season. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Five names you may have forgotten about

Corey Kluber — On the plus side, Kluber finished 2020 with a 0.00 ERA. On the flip side, he only pitched one inning as a member of the Texas Rangers before an injury ended his season. Now the two-time Cy Young winner enters free agency at 34 with questions about how much is left in the tank. Surely, some team will roll the dice on Kluber and hope they’re getting the 2017-18 version.

Jake Arrieta — Arrieta’s tenure in Philadelphia came to an unspectacular end with a 5.08 ERA in 2020. It wasn’t a fluke. He was at 4.64 the prior year. But Arrieta is still just 34 years old. While decline seems to have hit, his past will have some teams calling.

Jon Lester — Sensing a theme here? Lester is yet another ex-ace on the market this year. He’ll be 37 by opening day, so his best starts are behind him, but he can still make a difference as a veteran presence who needs to eat some innings and contribute to a contender.

Yasiel Puig — Even though he was unsigned in 2020, Puig may be the best right fielder on the market this year. That says as much about the market as it does about him. His talent will raise some eyebrows, but his baggage is also well known at this point.

Yoenis Cespedes — Is there another chapter to come in the Yoenis Cespedes saga? We’ll find out. The ex-Mets outfielder is a free agent again, but he’s played in just eight games the past two seasons and only 127 since signing that $100 million deal after 2016. This past season, he played in six games, hit two homers and then opted out of the season. - Mike Oz

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