baseball

Most interesting MLB free agents 2023-2024 offseason

This offseason has been crazy. We’ve seen nearly $4 billion committed to free agents, with nine players getting nine-figure deals and two getting 11-year packages. It has been the most expensive, expansive free agency in MLB history.

Next offseason will be… different.

Don’t get me wrong: It will still be crazy. Primarily because Shohei Ohtani is on track to not only reach free agency but redefine it. But next year’s class, on the whole, doesn’t look as deep or dynamic, particularly on the position-player front.

With that as a warning — and with the vast majority of free agency finished for this winter — let’s take an early gander at some of the more interesting 2023-24 free agents, one per position.

(Note: We’re not including players with options or opt-outs or those who have just recently signed one-year deals.)

Catcher: Mitch Garver, Rangers
What makes him interesting: He’s a catcher who hits (when healthy)

Last season, catchers across MLB had a collective .663 OPS. That was the lowest since 1989 and the third-worst mark of all time. So a guy like Garver, who has a career .813 OPS, is attractive … when healthy.

Alas, Garver was not healthy last year. Because of an elbow injury that required surgery, he played only 54 games (and only 14 behind the plate) for the Rangers after they acquired him in a trade with the Twins. And injuries are a big part of his story. He’s played 100 games in a season just once. But Garver was a Silver Slugger winner in 2019, when he hit 31 homers with a .995 OPS. If he can get back to something resembling that level (while sharing catching duties with Johan Heim), he’d be an attractive free agent.

First base: Rhys Hoskins, Phillies
What makes him interesting: As Katy Perry would say, he’s hot and he’s cold

We saw last October what can happen when Hoskins gets hot. In a 10-game stretch from Game 3 of the NL Division Series through Game 3 of the World Series, he banged out six homers and had one of the best bat spikes we’ve ever seen.

Then, Hoskins went 0-for-13 with five strikeouts in the last three games of the World Series because that, too, is part of the Hoskins experience. Since his 2017 debut, when he hit 11 homers in his first 18 games, Hoskins has been one of the streakiest players in MLB. He’s had six months in which he posted an OPS above 1,000 (that’s good) and six other months in which he’s had an OPS below .700 (that’s bad). It would be interesting to see how that’s valued in the open market.

Second base: Jonathan Schoop, Tigers
What makes him interesting: He’s trying to bounce back

We will not be telling our grandchildren about the 2023-24 free agent class at second base. It’s thin. So let’s just discuss Schoop as a bounceback candidate.

From 2014-21, Schoop averaged more than 20 homers and 23 doubles per year, with an OPS+ almost exactly league average (101). That’s good production from the second-base spot, especially when paired with the good defense that Schoop provides. But he was awful at the plate last year, with a .202/.239/.322 slash streak — his worst full season in the big leagues. If Schoop returns to his old levels, he could emerge as an attractive trade candidate and the best option in a weak free-agent class.

Shortstop: Amed Rosario, Guardians
What makes him interesting: He might be the best shortstop available

After consecutive jaw-dropping free-agent shortstop classes, Rosario currently figures to be the best player available at the position next offseason. He’s certainly not in the same class as Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts or Carlos Correa, but Rosario is at least a consistent provider of league-average offense.

FanGraphs had Rosario worth exactly 2.4 WAR in each of the last two seasons. He’s an iffy defender, and he doesn’t draw walks, but he is a high-hustle player who is serviceable at a premium position where teams won’t have a bunch of superstars to parse through the next offseason.

Third base: Matt Chapman, Blue Jays
What makes him interesting: He might have more in the tank offensively

In a light free-agent class, Chapman looks to be the closest thing to an MVP-caliber player this side of Ohtani (unless fellow third baseman Manny Machado opts out, which is a strong possibility). But to be that caliber of player, Chapman must combine his all-world defense at the hot corner with a scorching season at the plate. We saw signs of that potential in 2018-19 with Oakland, when Chapman had a combined .348 on-base percentage and .507 slugging percentage for the A’s. But while he hit 27 homers each of the last two seasons, his average and OBP cratered.

What’s encouraging about Chapman going into this season is that he actually had one of the highest hard-hit percentages in baseball last year (51.2%), and his .275 batting average on balls in play over the last two years is indicative of some bad. luck. Chapman is a joy to watch on defense, and an offensive surge in his walking year would vault him into another pay grade.

Left field: Ian Happ, Cubs
What makes him interesting: He’s a versatile switch-hitter who cut down on his K’s

Quite a number of teams were interested in Happ at last year’s Trade Deadline, but the Cubs opted to keep the first time All-Star. Whether or not he winds up on the trading block this summer, Happ figures to be an attractive free agent next offseason, when he’ll be 29 years old.

Happ is a switch-hitter who spent last season squashing concerns about a platoon split in which he had struggled against left-handed pitching as a right-handed bat. In 2022, his OPS marks from both sides of the plate were almost identical (. 788 vs. lefties, . 780 vs. righties). Happ also cut his strikeout percentage by six points, from 29.2% to 23.2%. And while he’s settled in left field for the Cubbies, he’s played the other two outfield spots extensively, as well as second and third base.

Center field: Harrison Bader, Yankees
What makes him interesting: He had an encouraging postseason power surge

The speedy Bader is a game-changing defender in center field, where he won a Gold Glove with the Cardinals in 2021 and has posted an MLB-best 50 outs above average since the start of 2018. Defense is the primary reason the Yankees acquired him at last year’s Trade Deadline, even though he was on the shelf with plantar fasciitis in his right foot at the time.

Upon his return, however, Bader was a huge offensive spark. He went deep five times in nine postseason games–outhomering Aaron Judge! Perhaps it was an October mirage, but it was a good sign that Bader can shake off a disappointing and injury-riddled year and return to (or perhaps exceed) the respectable 114 OPS+ he put up with St. Louis in 2021. An above-average bat, fleet feet and elite defense would be awfully valuable in free agency at a time when good center-field help is hard to find.

Right field: Teoscar Hernandez, Mariners
What makes him interesting: The rules changes could increase his value

Coming off their first postseason appearance in a generation, the Mariners have done almost nothing in free agency. But they did make Hernandez their centerpiece acquisition via trade. They received a 30-year-old corner outfielder who has posted a .283/.333/.519 slash with 73 homers and 71 doubles over the last three seasons while generally beating the hell out of the baseball (94th percentile in hard-hit). rate last year).

The rule changes make Hernandez especially interesting going into his walking year. Though he ranked in the 84th percentile in sprint speed last year, he’s stolen only 24 bases in 32 tries over the last three years. But the pickoff limits and bigger bases in 2023 might compel him to amplify that particular part of his game.

Designed hitter: Shohei Ohtani, Angels
What makes him interesting: What doesn’t?

We’ll let someone else fill the starting pitcher slot, but obviously Ohtani is the most interesting pending free agent at two positions, and that’s what would make his free agency unlike any this sport — or any sport — has ever seen.

People in the industry are floating the possibility (or likelihood) of Ohtani becoming baseball’s first $500 million man. The long-term injury risks associated with doing what Ohtani does are always going to be a major question mark, but he’s spent the last two years proving he can, indeed, fulfill both the starting pitching and DH roles at an extraordinarily high level (in fact, he’s only getting better as a pitcher). And very soon, he will be paid like it.

Starting pitcher: Jack Flaherty, Cardinals
What makes him interesting: He could vault to the top of the (non-Ohtani) pitching class

Again, Ohtani is in a category all his own. But among those who are solely starting pitchers, Aaron Nola (who might be on a sneaky Hall of Fame trajectory) currently profiles at the top of next offseason’s free-agent class.

Don’t forget about Flaherty, though. In the second half of 2019, he was an ace among aces, with a 0.91 ERA and .142 opponents’ average in 15 starts to cap just his second full season in the big leagues. It looked like the start of something special. Unfortunately, a pandemic and injuries have since intervened, and Flaherty has made just 32 starts total over the last three years. But he’s only 27, and he’s been effective enough in sporadic duty the last two years (3.54 ERA with 118 strikeouts in 114 1/3 innings) to invite the idea that a healthy Flaherty in 2023 is capable of a platform year.

Relief pitcher: Josh Hader, Padres
What makes him interesting: He could challenge Edwin Diaz’s record deal

The relief market — even more than any other — is about timing. Diaz wasn’t just a closer with an extraordinary recent track record; he was a closer with an extraordinary recent track record…on Steve Cohen’s club. It translates to a five-year, $102 million contract, the first nine-figure deal ever given to a reliever.

Hader has an even better — and longer — track record than Diaz, but we’ll see how far he fares on the timing front. If his 2023 resembles his ’22, when his ERA inflated to 5.22 thanks to some extraordinary struggles early in his Padres tenure following a midseason trade, then it’s fair to suggest he won’t be challenging the Díaz deal. But if his ’23 more closely resembles his ’21, when he put up a 1.23 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP with 102 strikeouts in only 58 2/3 innings, it’s going to get interesting.

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