MLB free agency: Carlos Correa, Kyle Schwarber among players who boosted their stock most in postseason

No matter what happens the rest of the way, the 2021 World Series and the 2021 baseball season will be over one week from Thursday. Game 7 of the World Series is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 3, so the offseason will begin next Thursday at the latest. The Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves are currently tied 1-1 in the Fall Classic.

Once the offseason begins, the 30 MLB teams will hunker down and evaluate the free agent market, and determine who they want to sign and who they’re fine living without. Teams are smart enough and so process-oriented these days that a great (or terrible) postseason won’t change how they value a free agent-to-be too much. It does happen on occasion though.

The most notable recent example: Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi had a brilliant postseason with the 2018 Red Sox, and turned it into a four-year, $68 million contract that offseason. He received the second largest pitching contract of the winter (behind Patrick Corbin) despite a career plagued by injury and inconsistency, and not yet throwing a full season following his second Tommy John surgery.

World Series champions tend to re-sign their own free agents more often than other teams — it’s the “we want to keep the band together” effect — though they’re not the only teams guilty of signing a free agent to an inflated contract following a dominant postseason run (see: Joe Kelly and the Dodgers). It’s happened before and it will almost certainly happen again.

With that in mind, let’s rank the 10 free agents-to-be who have improved their stock this postseason, even if only slightly. To be clear, this is not a ranking of the 10 best free agents playing in the postseason. It is the 10 free agents-to-be who have improved their stock this most, relative to their free agent-to-be brethren.

The last 11 months or so have been a whirlwind for Rosario. The Twins non-tendered him last offseason rather than pay him roughly $9 million through arbitration, then Cleveland wanted so little to do with him this summer that they salary dumped him at the trade deadline. The released the player they received in the trade (Pablo Sandoval) hours later.

Now Rosario is a reigning NLCS MVP and in the World Series. The 30-year-old hit .254/.296/.389 with Cleveland before the trade and .271/.330/.573 with the Braves after the trade. He had two hits in World Series Game 1, including a double, and his 14 hits in the NLCS tied the MLB record for hits in a single postseason series.

Postseason aside, Rosario is what he is at this point. He’s going to hit .260-ish with 20-plus home runs if given enough at-bats, though he rarely walks and will post an on-base percentage closer to .300 than .350. Also, he’s never rated as a particularly adept defender. Rosario has power and he doesn’t strike out much, and that’s not nothing. The rest of his game is just OK.

One comp jumps to mind: Angel Pagán. Pagán was good with the 2012 Giants during the regular season (.288/.338/.440), then he provided several timely hits in October that made him the center of attention. San Francisco won the World Series that year and quickly re-signed Pagán to a four-year, $40 million contract. The postseason undoubtedly helped him land that nice deal.

In 2021, no team is going to say “Rosario was great in the postseason, let’s give him a big contract.” That’s not how they operate. Rosario’s postseason could prompt a team to say “let’s take another look at this guy, just in case” though, and really, all it takes is one team to buy into the postseason. Rosario’s done nothing but help his free agent stock this postseason.

Jansen’s reinvention occurred at midseason, when he went from 90 percent cutters to 60 percent cutters, and began throwing more sliders and sinkers. He was dominant the final two months of the regular season (held hitters to .087/.168/.141 in his final 27 2/3 innings) and out of this world good in October, retiring 21 of the 25 batters he faced with 14 strikeouts.

Even at age 34, Jansen remains a lockdown closer, and he showed the willingness and adaptability to pitch earlier in the game in the postseason as well. Three of his eight appearances came in the eighth inning, which is something we’ve seen other established closers struggle with at times (see: Craig Kimbrel). Jansen is excellent and can pitch whenever he’s needed.

Kenley is all but certain to have to take a pay cut given his age (his just completed contract averaged $16 million per year), though he should be able to command multiple years given his dominance the final three months of 2021. Jansen is still an elite closer and it’s hard to see him with a team other than the Dodgers, but we don’t know the team’s plans just yet.

Hitting a walk-off home run in the NL Wild Card Game and then three home runs in an elimination game is a good way to make a name for yourself in October, eh? Also, Taylor has been to the postseason enough times with the Dodgers that his body of work in October isn’t that small a sample size anymore:

  • Taylor in regular season: .264/.341/.458 in 657 games (Dodgers only)
  • Taylor in the postseason: .259/.364/.478 in 62 games

Taylor is the kind of player who could fit with every team because he’s productive at the plate and can play just about any position on the field. His age (31) will prevent him from securing a massive payday, though he was always heading for a lucrative multi-year contract. The strong postseason run (particularly in the NLCS) will only heighten his value.

Truth be told, there wasn’t much Correa could do this postseason to change his free agent stock in either direction. He’s going to be the No. 1 free agent on the market as a just turned 27-year-old superstar shortstop. A case can be made Correa will be the most desirable free agent since Alex Rodriguez in 2001. He’s excellent in all phases of the game and still so very young, and if you think the sign-stealing scandal will cost him, I will politely remind you George Springer did just fine last winter.

Correa’s overall postseason numbers are good and he’s had a handful of big moments, like his go-ahead two-run double in ALDS Game 4 against the White Sox and his game-winning home run in ALCS Game 1 against the Red Sox. It speaks to Correa’s excellence that he’s been as productive as he’s been this postseason, and it just kind of flies under the radar. A bad postseason wasn’t going to cost him and a good postseason wasn’t going to up his payday, but he took no chances. Correa’s been great. 

At 28, Rodriguez will be one of the youngest free agents on the market this offseason. He missed last year after developing a heart issue related to COVID-19, and his return this season was only so-so. In 31 regular season starts (plus one relief appearance) Rodriguez pitched to a 4.74 ERA with a career worst 1.39 WHIP. He took the ball every fifth day following the lost season and that’s a plus. Overall though, he wasn’t great.

The underlying numbers suggest Rodriguez was better than the ERA would lead you to believe (3.32 FIP, 3.55 xERA, 4.18 DRA), and Rodriguez pitched well in his final two postseason starts, striking out 13 in 11 innings against the high-scoring Rays and Astros. He looked much more like the guy we saw prior to 2020, when he was a notch below a true ace. Rodriguez’s age and resurgent postseason could be enough to push him from one-year “prove yourself” contract to a multi-year deal.

Joctober is real, folks. Pederson has been a good regular season player (career .232/.332/.462) and a great postseason player (career .265/.335/.500) throughout his career and that has continued in 2021. He has three homers despite only nine starts, and he’s driven in a run in six of his 12 games. Thanks to all his time with the Dodgers, Pederson has played in 76 postseason games, so this isn’t a small sample blip. He raises his game in October, and while his platoon corner outfielder profile isn’t the most lucrative, another excellent postseason could land him multiple years.

Like most Red Sox hitters, Schwarber limped to the finish in the ALCS (0 for 12 in Games 4-6), though he was dominant in his first eight postseason games, going 9 for 32 (.281) with three home runs and four walks (.361 on-base percentage). He took Gerrit Cole deep in the Wild Card Game and Drew Rasmussen, a pitcher who surrendered only three home runs in 59 1/3 regular season innings with the Rays, deep in the ALDS. The 32 regular season home runs are Schwarber’s ticket to a multi-year free agent deal. Doing damage in those first eight postseason games certainly won’t hurt his case.

Moreso than the performance (two runs and 11 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings), Knebel upped his free agent stock this postseason by showing some nice versatility. He started two games as an opener and also entered games in the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings. Knebel made an All-Star Game as a closer with the Brewers in 2017, though being a malleable relief weapon who can pitch at any point in the game is his best chance as a multi-year free agent contract with a contending team.

Graveman earned his upcoming free agent contract during the regular season, when he threw 56 innings with a 1.77 ERA and held opponents to a .180/.284/.253 batting line with the Mariners and Astros. He’s done nothing to hurt his free agent stock in October, allowing just one run in eight innings. Most notably, Graveman threw two scoreless innings against the middle of the Red Sox lineup in hostile Fenway Park in ALCS Game 4, giving his offense a chance to get back into the game. Graveman set himself for a nice payday during the regular season and now he’s proven he has big game chops as well.

I’m a sucker for long shot success stories and Chavez certainly qualifies. The 38-year-old was a 42nd round pick in 2002 and he’s since carved out a 14-year (!) big league career, including throwing 33 2/3 innings with a 2.14 ERA with the Braves this season. In the postseason, he’s yet to allow a run in 4 2/3 innings, and he’s started a game as an opener and also entered games in the fourth, sixth, and eighth innings. If the Braves win the World Series, Chavez just might hang up his spikes and call it a career. If he wants to keep going, the overall body of work could land the rubber-armed righty a guaranteed one-year contract after he had to settle for a minor league deal this year.

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