Will this year’s MLB free agents find it easier to land a deal on the open market, or are we set for another drawn-out process spilling into Spring Training?
The winter free-agent period used to mean one thing for MLB stars on the open market — getting paid. A rise in analytics and increased emphasis on convincing young stars to give up a few years of future earnings potential for more up-front cash prior to arbitration has changed that, though. Last winter’s drawn-out free agency for superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper showed once and for all that free agents will never find it as easy to cash in as they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
This year’s class of MLB free agents doesn’t have the once-in-a-generation hype of two potential MVP candidates like Harper and Machado hitting the open market before their age-26 seasons, but the top of the class is still well stocked with stars. Right-hander Gerrit Cole will still be shy of his 30th birthday and coming off one of the best regular season and playoff performances in recent history. Cole had the highest single-season strikeout total by a right-hander ever in the modern era not named Nolan Ryan or Bob Feller. That’s pretty good company to be keeping.
On the hitter side, third baseman Anthony Rendon is also still 29 and coming off the best year of his career. He hit .319/.412/.598 with 44 doubles, 34 home runs and an MLB-leading 126 RBI in 2019. Rendon has a higher OPS+ than Harper over the last three seasons by six points. His greatness is finally receiving proper recognition.
Beyond the top pair of Cole and Rendon, there will be slightly more clarity for the rest of the class after Aroldis Chapman, Stephen Strasburg and J.D. Martinez make their decisions regarding their player options. All three should elect to seek new contracts, but Martinez is the only one whose current team would not have a strong desire to keep him.
Overall, this is another deep class of MLB free agents, but it will remain to be seen how eager front offices are to plow money into older players. The landscape has not changed much, with half the league in various stages of rebuilding efforts. That effectively limits the number of potential suitors and how quickly deals will be handed out. It still isn’t a great time (relatively speaking) to be an MLB free agent, but these top-25 stars should all find a way to cash in.
25. Yasiel Puig
Yasiel Puig may never quite live up to the massive hype that followed him to the big leagues and only grew after he hit close to .450 his first month at the MLB level before cooling to a .319/.391/.534 line with 19 home runs and 42 RBI in 104 games. The 28-year-old outfielder carries a respectable .277/.348/.475 career slash line with 132 home runs, 415 RBI and 79 stolen bases. Puig struggled with injuries in 2015 and 2016, but has hit .265/.334/.478 over the last three seasons with 75 home runs and 221 RBI, good for an OPS+ of 112.
Puig has matured for the most part, beginning to shed his reputation for bone-headed plays on the field and immature decisions off it. At 28, he is a solid veteran outfielder who hits right-handed pitching extremely well, plays solid defense and has played in the postseason six times with a .280/.351/.429 line and 14 extra-base hits in 202 plate appearances. Puig is coming off a solid season where he hit .267/.327/.458 with 24 home runs, 84 RBI and a career-high 19 stolen bases.
He had an interesting 49-game stint with the Cleveland Indians after the trade deadline where he hit .297 and walked in over 10 percent of his plate appearances but slugged only .423 with two home runs. Puig should be able to find himself a multi-year deal, as he’s still under 30 and has grown into a consistent all-around hitter when healthy.