MLB

MLB free agency: Top 10 outfielders include George Springer, Joc Pederson and Adam Eaton

1 (No. 1 overall) Springer nets the top spot over catcher J.T. Realmuto because the league has always shied away from megadeals for catchers. Only one backstop had an AAV exceeding $20 million in 2020, whereas eight outfielders did. On a talent basis, Springer is an above-average center fielder who has notched an OPS+ north of 120 in six of his seven seasons and who has homered 20-plus times in five of those seven seasons. Springer has done a remarkable job of cutting into his strikeout rate over the years without impacting his walk rate, and in 2020 he punched out in a career-best 17.1 percent of his plate appearances. The only thing Springer doesn’t do, for the most part, is steal bases. He’s succeeded in 61 percent of his career attempts, including 52 percent over the last five years, and should seldom be given the green light. It’s unclear if or how teams will hold the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal against Springer; unlike Jose Altuve, he appeared to be a willing recipient of the “bangs.” 2
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(No. 6 overall) Ozuna bet on himself last winter by foregoing a multi-year pact in favor of a one-year deal. His reasoning was sound — a big season would equal a bigger payday — and at the time he had no way of knowing the league’s economics would go to hell because of a global pandemic. Whatever the monetary value of the contract he signs is, Ozuna should take heart in knowing that he held up his end of the equation. He hit .338/.431/.636 with 18 home runs in 60 games. No free agent had a higher maximum exit velocity than Ozuna, and only one (Joc Pederson) tied or had a better average exit velocity. It’s fair to wonder if this version of him is here to stay, just as it’s fair to have concerns about his defense and his swing-and-miss tendencies. At the same time, he’s consistently been an above-average hitter throughout his career, and most long-term contracts signed this winter will probably look like relative bargains two or three years down the road. 3
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(No. 8 overall) If Brantley had recorded one more hit in 2017 — literally one more — he would have entered next spring as the only player to bat .300 or better in four consecutive seasons. Oh well. The warp and the woof of Brantley’s game is that he’s a consistent, professional hitter. He’ll provide a good average, a healthy clip of walks, and 50-plus extra-base hits. Brantley was primarily used as a DH last season for the first time in his career; it probably won’t be the last time. A team interested in maximizing his overall value should also consider parking him against lefties. For reasons unknown, he feels much older than he is: he’ll turn 34 in the middle of next May. 4
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(No. 12 overall) Bradley Jr. isn’t a freaky-deaky athlete in the vein of, say, Kevin Kiermaier or Ramon Laureano. What he is, though, is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. He darts into space as if he’s Mike Campbell, and he plays the position with an admirable precision — to the extent that his routes appear preprogrammed. Bradley Jr. isn’t a zero at the plate, either. The Red Sox allowed him to face more lefties the past two years, and he put up good numbers against them in 2020. (His next team will probably relegate him back to platoon status.) He’s good for double-digit homers and an OPS over .760 against righties. That’ll play just fine with his glove. 5
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(No. 13 overall) Pederson chose an inopportune time to have a down season, as he posted an 84 OPS+ and homered just seven times in 43 games after a 36-homer performance the year prior. His ball-tracking metrics suggest there’s no real reason to worry about him moving forward. Pederson’s 93-mph exit velocity was in the top four percent in the majors, and he hit the ball at a 10-to-30-degree angle about as frequently as he had in the past. He’s no longer a center-field-caliber defender, and you shouldn’t play him against lefties if you can avoid it. Otherwise? He’s a most-days starter who ought to provide 20-plus homers against righties. 6
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(No. 25 overall) The Nationals declined their $10.5 million option on Eaton, making him a free agent an offseason earlier than anticipated. While he’s coming off a replacement-level season, it’s worth bearing in mind that it was only 41 games. Prior to 2020, he’d hit at least .270 and had reached base at least 36 percent of the time in six consecutive seasons. It’s fair to reason that Eaton’s injury history may have hastened a quicker decline than expected, but he’s going to get an opportunity to redeem himself with someone, likely as a most-days starter in left. 7
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(No. 26 overall) Gardner earned free agency by virtue of the Yankees declining his $10 million option. It’s unclear if he’d consider playing for any team other than the one he’s spent his entire career with, or if he’d just as soon retire. Should he make himself available, he ought to draw a crowd. Gardner, though 37, hit the ball harder and walked more frequently than he had in years. He’s an attrition risk at this stage of the game, of course, but then, so is everyone else. 8
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(No. 33 overall) Grossman made the most of the truncated year, transforming himself from a low-wattage, walks-only hitter into someone whose isolated slugging (.241) was higher than his previous season’s batting average (.240). His gains in exit velocity, launch angle, and power output don’t appear to be the result of a small sample; rather, they’re the product of him adding a leg kick and becoming more pull-happy (from 29.2 percent in 2019 to 46.1 percent in 2020). Presuming some of that sticks, Grossman ought to appeal to teams as a low-cost, switch-hitting option who can handle either corner-outfield spot or the designated hitter role. 9
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(No. 40 overall) Puig isn’t the only individual on this list who did not play during the 2020 season, but he is the only individual who did not play because he went unsigned. He did reportedly reach an agreement with the Braves during the summer; that deal subsequently fell apart when he tested positive for COVID-19. There had been talk within the industry that Puig was taking teams’ criticism of his maturity seriously, and that he was making a real effort to change. Assuming there’s some validity to that, and assuming he’s healthy and won’t show too much rust from the missed year, then he could prove to be a savvy pick-up and an under-rank. 10
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(No. 55 overall) Choo has stated that he intends to play two more seasons. Whether or not he receives an opportunity in 2022 is to be seen, but he still possesses many of the attributes that have allowed him to play into his late-30s: a keen eye, an ability to hit the ball hard (albeit less frequently than at the peak of his powers); and an aptitude for the game that has enabled him to steal more bases than he should with his below-average speed. Other signs of age-related decay are present — such as his increased likelihood to whiff and to pop-up — and he’s no more of a presence defensively or against left-handers than he was when he first joined the Rangers, way back in 2014. Even so, he’s a fine candidate to slot in as a most-days DH and as a clubhouse leader.



 

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