MLB free agency preview: Judge highlights position player market

New York Yankees designated hitter Aaron Judge runs after hitting a double against Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Brayan Bello during the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in New York. (Jessie Alcheh/AP)

This off-season’s free agent position player market is top heavy with a generational talent coming off one of the most prolific offensive seasons in league history and a quartet of premium shortstops. Beyond that, the dropoff is steep.

But every free agent class presents intriguing, down-market upside plays for teams looking to add impact to their roster without paying top prices. Here are 10 of the best position players available.

Aaron Judge

Coming off the walk year of all walk years, in which the outfielder hit a bonkers .311/.425/.686 with 62 homers, Judge is positioned to sign a free agent contract dwarfing the seven-year, $213.5-million extension he reportedly turned down from the New York Yankees in April. Any serious bidders will likely need to start in the high 200’s. And even entering his age-31 season, it’s not out of the question that Judge ultimately signs for a nine-figure value beginning with the number three.

That’s the cost of doing business with an extraordinary performer who spent 2022 proving he can carry a team to the post-season practically on his own. Judge’s combination of otherworldly offensive production (his 11.4 fWAR was the highest of the last 65 years by a player not named Barry Bonds), off-charts underlying metrics (he led MLB in barrel rate, average exit velocity, and hard-hit rate), and underappreciated defence (he’s produced 13 DRS split between centre and right field over the last two seasons) is unmatched across the game.

And while there was a time you could question his durability or the amount of swing-and-miss in his approach, it’s harder to do that following two seasons without an IL stint in which Judge posted a 25 per cent strikeout rate, dramatically improved from the 31.4 clip he operated at over his first five seasons. Simply put — If you grew tired of Judge dominating the MLB news cycle through spring, summer, and fall, you aren’t going to enjoy winter.

Carlos Correa

Correa was one of the top names available at this time last year but wasn’t enamoured with the long-term interest he received, which is how he ended up signing a short-term, opt-out-laden deal with the Minnesota Twins. Now, after a stellar, .291/.366/.467, 140-wRC+ campaign, the shortstop re-enters free agency hoping more favourable market conditions will help produce the sizable guarantee he seeks.

And it ought to be out there considering Correa’s only just turned 28, making him the youngest of the winter’s four premier free agent shortstops. He’s also the only one not tied to a qualifying offer. If Corey Seager could find a 10-year, $325-million deal ahead of his age-28 campaign, what’s stopping Correa from doing the same a year later?

Perhaps the right-handed hitter’s durability, which has been a question throughout his career. But Correa’s only IL stints over the last two seasons were due to COVID-19 protocols and a pitch that hit him in the right hand. What’s not in question is his bat, which has produced a wRC+ in excess of 130 each of the last three 162-game seasons. That obviously plays at shortstop, and would carry over well to third base if he ultimately moves to the hot corner in the coming years.

Trea Turner

There are a lot of great shortstops in MLB — but none of them have produced more fWAR over the last half-decade than Turner, who’s entering free agency off back-to-back six-win seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Some of that value is tied up in Turner’s legs (his 149 stolen bases lead MLB since 2018) and liable to erode quickly as he ages. But Turner’s still an uncommonly skilled hitter (he’s ridden a 78.5-per-cent career contact rate to a .302 lifetime batting average) which should keep him producing at an elite level well into his 30’s. And thanks to his athleticism and MLB’s new shift restriction, he ought to stick at shortstop for many years to come,

Turner’s a bit pull-heavy and swing-happy, but he more than makes up for it with sneaky power for his position and how comprehensive his contributions are to a team’s lineup day in and day out. There’s no obvious flaw to his game. Few players are as well-rounded offensively, defensively, and on the base paths, and although he’s battled wrist and hand issues in recent years, it hasn’t stopped Turner from accumulating the fifth-most plate appearances across MLB since 2018. Entering his age-30 season, Turner could easily come away from the winter with a deal paying him around $30 million per season over the next seven to nine years.

Xander Bogaerts

Looking for consistency? Look no further than Bogaerts, who has hit between .288 and .309 with a wRC+ ranging from 129 to 141 each of the last five seasons with the Boston Red Sox. His numbers don’t pop like some of the other hitters on the market, but the sheer quality and dependability of his production over the last half-decade — Bogaerts has accumulated 22.4 fWAR since 2018, second only to Turner among shortstops — is rare and valuable.

How valuable? We’re about to find out. Any club that signs him has little question as to what its acquiring — elite contact rates, above-average pull power, steady defence, decent base-running. But some question as to how long Bogaerts can sustain it entering his age-30 campaign and with a move from shortstop to third likely coming sooner than later.

The right-handed hitter did lose a tick off his average and maximum exit velocities from 2021 to ’22, and just posted his lowest barrel rate since 2017. But his contact ability and strike zone management ought to give him a stable enough floor to continue producing the all-around excellent seasons he’s known for in years to come.

Brandon Nimmo

Nimmo, a quietly productive on-base machine, chose a great time to put together the first injury-free season of his big-league career, batting .274/.367/.433 over 673 plate appearances in 2022 with the New York Mets. He enters the market as the second-best outfielder available after you know who and could come away from it with a guarantee approaching, or even surpassing, nine figures.

That may seem like a lot for a relatively unheralded centre fielder entering his age-30 season — but Nimmo’s worth it when healthy. He manages the strike zone as well as any hitter in the game, boasting an elite 13.6-per-cent walk rate and .385 on-base percentage for his career; outs above average graded him as a 91st percentile outfield defender in 2022 after he landed within the 84th percentile in ’21; and his combination of above-average exit velocities and premium sprint speed allows him to run high batting averages and rack up extra-base hits when he isn’t drawing free passes.

But the most imperative part of that paragraph was the phrase “when healthy.” That’s unfortunately been seldom for Nimmo, who has played 100 games only twice since he became an MLB regular in 2017. Anyone buying Nimmo’s underrated skill package this winter is also buying his extensive injury history. But if 2022 was a sign he’s finally put those durability issues behind him, Nimmo could represent a swell — and vastly more affordable — consolation prize for one of the runners-up in the Judge sweepstakes.

Dansby Swanson

While Swanson’s easily the least productive hitter of the four franchise shortstops atop this winter’s market, he’s the best defender by a mile. He just won his first career gold glove after leading all MLB shortstops in outs above average, and if he can sustain that level of play in coming seasons he can provide plenty of value with the runs he helps prevent.

Just how much value he’ll provide in the runs he produces is another question. Swanson posted only an 81 OPS+ through his first three full MLB seasons with the Atlanta Braves. But he was better over the second half of his club control years, putting up a 108 OPS+ from 2020 on. He’s coming off his best offensive season yet, hitting .277/.329/.447 with a 115 OPS+. But as much as that could be a sign of him coming into his own, it could just as easily be an outlier and the most productive campaign he ever has.

And you can make a similar case for his defence. Going forward, will Swanson be the elite defender he graded as in 2022? Or merely the above-average one he was over the five seasons prior? These questions will pose dilemmas for clubs considering Swanson and make his market tough to peg. But something in the neighbourhood of the six-year, $140-million deals Trevor Story and Javier Baez signed last winter entering their age-29 seasons — as Swanson is now — ought to be out there. Swanson may just have to wait for the three other franchise shortstops on the market to sign first.

Willson Contreras

In 2022, the league average MLB catcher hit .226/.295/.367 with an 89 wRC+. Take one look at Contreras’ .243/.349/.466 line with a 132 wRC+ and it’s evident why he’s so valuable at the position he plays.

Is Contreras a plus defender behind the plate? Nope. Does he rate well in public framing metrics? Not particularly. Does he have a strong reputation as a game manager and handler of a pitching staff? Certainly not. But the 30-year-old absolutely rakes, posting double-digit barrel rates and 94th percentile or higher max exit velocities each of the last three seasons with the Chicago Cubs.

Paired on a roster with a more defensively sound catcher and given a healthy dose of DH days throughout the season, Contreras can add considerable thump to a team’s offence. And it’s likely a club looking to juice its run production will sign him to do just that for as many as the next four seasons.

Jose Abreu

Even as he nears his 36th birthday, Abreu is showing little sign of slowing down at the plate, entering free agency off a .304/.378/.446, 137-wRC+ season with the Chicago White Sox. It wasn’t quite as dominant a campaign as the first baseman’s 2020 AL MVP-winning one, but it was still damn impressive in 2022’s suppressed offensive environment.

Abreu’s relatively low power output — he hit only 15 homers — was a little curious, but his underlying metrics don’t reveal anything alarming. Abreu actually added a tick to his average exit velocity and hard-hit rates from 2021, and shaved 5.5 points off his strikeout rate. Meanwhile, his HR/FB rate dropped off by 10 per cent into the single digits, the lowest it’s been in his career by a mile. And he hit 13 balls with exit velocities over 99 m.p.h. and distances of 380 feet or farther that didn’t result in home runs — the fifth-most of any hitter. All that considered, it’s likely Abreu’s due for some positive regression in the home run department next season

Still, Abreu’s age will no doubt limit his term. But as long as he keeps hitting like this, there’s a Nelson Cruz-blazed path Abreu can follow to a series of sizable, short-term guarantees well into his late 30’s and even early 40’s.

Andrew Benintendi

Still only 28 and coming off a .304/.373/.399 campaign that produced a 122 wRC+, Benintendi’s the best free agent outfielder available this winter after Judge and Nimmo. That says one thing about the strength of the market and another about the surprisingly robust deal Benintendi could be positioned to sign. Some outfielder-needy team is likely to look around at the options and sell itself on installing Benintendi’s steady, high on-base, left-handed approach atop its lineup for as many as the next four seasons.

Could Benintendi’s production over the back half of that deal be underwhelming? Potentially. The corner outfielder doesn’t support his strong plate discipline with much in the way of power or speed, leaving him little room to stay productive if he can’t sustain the 10-per-cent walk rate he ran in 2022 with the Kansas City Royals and Yankees. But Benintendi’s still young enough, and his track record’s proven enough, that he could be a solid everyday contributor for several years to come. He’d just look more like a middle tier option in a deeper outfield market than potentially the third-best option in this one.

Anthony Rizzo

This year’s position player market features plenty of intriguing, middle-class value plays for thrifty GMs looking to stretch as many wins as possible out of their free agent dollar — Josh Bell, Michael Brantley, Michael Conforto, Brandon Drury, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, J.D. Martinez, Trey Mancini, Joc Pederson, Jurickson Profar, Justin Turner.

But let’s use the final spot on this list to highlight Rizzo, who’s been quietly amassing above-average offensive seasons for over a decade. In 2022’s suppressed offensive environment, he reached a 132 wRC+ — his sixth time surpassing 130 in the last 9 years — with 32 homers, numbers well supported by his reliably strong strikeout (18.4 per cent) and walk (10.6) rates, not to mention a double-digit barrel rate and 91st percentile max exit velocity with the Yankees.

And there’s a case to be made that he deserved even better, as a .216 BABIP sabotaged Rizzo’s results when he kept the ball in the yard. Much of that is due to his pull tendencies and the fact Rizzo faced a shift in over 80 per cent of his plate appearances. But have you heard what defences won’t be able to do against him so aggressively next year? A 130 wRC+ could be his 2023 floor if a few more balls hit to the right side are going to sneak through.

Rizzo’s already well on his way to earning a plaque in MLB’s Hall of Very Good and is a strong bet to continue churning out strong, productive seasons into his mid-30’s. For value hunters this winter, there’s plenty to like about what the veteran first baseman could bring on a two- or three-year deal with an AAV somewhere between $15- and 20-million.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.