Best fits for the top 2023 MLB free agents

Thursday, November 9, 2023

The day after the Texas Rangers won their first World Series title in franchise history, 130 players became free agents as baseball's offseason season began.

While this year's free-agent class doesn't have as many big names as last year's -- when players such as Aaron Judge, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson were available -- one of the best, and most coveted, players in the game, Shohei Ohtani, headlines this year's group.

Who are the other free agents to watch as the hot stove season begins? We asked ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Buster Olney, Jeff Passan and David Schoenfield to give their best fits -- or the pairings they would most want to see -- for the biggest free agents this season.

Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH (29 years old)

Doolittle: Los Angeles Dodgers. All along I've thought he's going to sign with the Dodgers, and I suspect that is the strongest possibility. The Dodgers went a little light on maximizing their roster last year in order to stay flexible enough for this pursuit. So I'm going to go with them, though I could see the San Francisco Giants or Seattle Mariners, or even the Rangers, leaping into this race. But I just think the Dodgers are the perfect fit for Ohtani, with their history of working with starting pitchers, the availability that they have at the designated hitter slot and the fact they always win -- not to mention the continued visibility for Ohtani in the L.A. market. In terms of money, there isn't an offer that the Dodgers can't match.

Olney: Dodgers. A friend of Ohtani said he believes Ohtani already knows where he wants to sign. He'll go through the process -- standing back as his agent negotiates and works to goose the final numbers -- but in the end, Ohtani will drive this thing. So maybe the bidding doesn't matter that much, so long as the team he wants to play for steps up with a decent offer. And my guess is that'll be the Dodgers. One person in the Dodgers' organization said president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman is "obsessed" with Ohtani and that Friedman will put L.A. in position to land him. Ohtani would make the most sense, at this moment, for the Rangers -- they have a blank checkbook and the time to let him heal as a pitcher -- but I think Ohtani picks Southern California, again.

Passan: Dodgers. If there is a chalk pick to make, this is it, though I offer it with a low degree of confidence because there are plenty of viable suitors for Ohtani. The New York Mets have the owner most willing to spend money. The Giants have the greatest need for a franchise player. The Boston Red Sox are looking to overhaul their roster, and adding the best player in baseball certainly would do that. The Rangers would love to add to their championship squad. The Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago Cubs have the money and the need. Even though Ohtani won't pitch in 2024 because of elbow surgery, the sheer number of options will make him the first $500 million player in North American professional sports history.

Schoenfield: Rangers. Look, we don't know yet if Ray Davis is the type of owner to push the pedal to the metal and go even higher on his payroll, but I just wanted to type out this potential lineup:

2B Marcus Semien

SS Corey Seager

DH Shohei Ohtani

RF Adolis Garcia

CF Evan Carter

3B Josh Jung

1B Nathaniel Lowe

C Jonah Heim

LF Wyatt Langford

That could be the first 1,000-run lineup since Cleveland in 1999. The Rangers would soar past the luxury tax in 2024, but Martin Perez ($19.65 million), Brad Miller ($4 million), Mitch Garver ($3.9 million), Ian Kennedy ($2.25 million), Robbie Grossman ($2 million) and Jake Odorizzi ($2 million) are off the books. That's almost $34 million. Max Scherzer (they're responsible for $23 million of his salary), Nathan Eovaldi ($17 million) and Andrew Heaney ($13 million) are free agents after 2024 (Eovaldi has a vesting option), so the Rangers will be looking for rotation options anyway for 2025, when Ohtani would pitch again. But that lineup would be absolutely spectacular.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto, SP (25)

Doolittle: Red Sox. Yamamoto is picking a perfect time to come over. Everyone got to see him in the World Baseball Classic, and that was impressive enough, but then he put up a 1.16 ERA over 171 innings in Japan this season while allowing just two home runs. He played in a league with a much lower homer rate than MLB, but that's still sick. On top of all that, there are a lot of teams in need of a top-of-the-rotation starter. One of those teams is the Red Sox, whose new GM, Craig Breslow, is a former MLB hurler and whose rookie left fielder last season was Masataka Yoshida. As recently as 2022, Yoshida was the top hitter on the Orix Buffaloes. The top pitcher on that team? Yamamoto, of course.

Olney: New York Yankees. You might have heard that they had a down year in 2023, and if you look back at GM Brian Cashman's history, whenever he gets into trouble, he has the same reflex -- he grabs for pitching, perhaps believing it provides the best and quickest jolt. After a rough 2008, he coaxed Hal Steinbrenner into paying record-setting money for CC Sabathia, and then he did the same after the Red Sox won in 2018, landing Gerrit Cole. And my bet is that with the back end of the rotation thinned out, New York will make a move on Yamamoto.

Passan: Yankees. While it's true the Yankees have a full rotation already, with Cole, Carlos Rodon, Nestor Cortes, Michael King and Clark Schmidt, the prospect of adding Yamamoto is too tempting to pass up. It's not just that they've had great success with Japanese pitchers -- such as Hiroki Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka, the latter of whom is perhaps the most comparable to Yamamoto in age and success when he came to MLB -- but the Yankees need to get younger, and they would be getting a prime-aged player without having to trade away any talent. Building around starting pitching is not the sort of strategy most modern teams embrace, but with a weak class of bats, it's the best option for the Yankees.

Schoenfield: Mets. New president of baseball operations David Stearns played it down the middle in his introductory news conference, saying the goal is to make the team as competitive as possible in 2024 "while understanding that the long-term goal and the way to win a World Series is to have a truly sustainable competitiveness." Yamamoto fits both criteria: He can help immediately -- and the Mets need starters after trading Verlander and Max Scherzer -- and he's young enough to anchor the rotation for years to come. The Mets had great success with Kodai Senga in 2023, and Yamamoto is even better.

Cody Bellinger, OF (28)

Doolittle: Yankees. They are the perfect fit, both for Bellinger's swing and in terms of positional need. Bellinger is a lefty-swinging pull hitter, too aggressive to be called a pure take-and-rake guy, but the Yankees need some of that. He very much fits their mold, except that he also happens to be an exceptional athlete. You start an outfield with Bellinger and Judge, you're most of the way there to an elite, two-way outfield (one eventually bolstered by the return of Jasson Dominguez, though perhaps not next season). Someday, when needed, Bellinger can shift back full time to first base and remain the right two-way player in the right ballpark. And on top of everything, Bellinger's father, Clay, played for the Yankees during the Joe Torre era. Nothing but fit in this pairing.

Olney: Giants. He makes a ton of sense for the Yankees, for sure, as a left-handed hitter who has played and thrived in big markets, in L.A. and Chicago. They wouldn't have to worry about whether he could handle the pressure of New York, and whether he'll turn into another version of Joey Gallo. But he has had such a long history of peaks and valleys, and if the Yankees choose to dole out one big contract, my guess is it'll go to a pitcher -- their investment in a left-handed hitter will be more short term. The Giants want a star and are prepared to go above and beyond to make that happen, and they could sell Bellinger to their fans as a headliner, a former MVP who once played for their division rival. Bellinger goes for the biggest dollar here and in the end, that could be the team that has had trouble getting stars to take its money.

Passan: Giants. Farhan Zaidi, San Francisco's president of baseball operations, has a history with Bellinger: He was the Dodgers' general manager when Bellinger debuted and won Rookie of the Year. But this is less about shared experience than pure need. One look at the Giants' offensive production last year and it's clear they could use as much help as possible. After two brutal seasons, Bellinger spent this past season with the Cubs looking like his 2019 MVP self. Most telling: His strikeout rate dropped from 27.6% to a career-low 15.6%. In addition to his home runs, stolen bases and solid defense in center field and first base, Bellinger is the sort of all-around player around whom the Giants can build if they don't win the Ohtani sweepstakes.

Schoenfield: Seattle Mariners. This is a long shot given their reluctance to sign free agents under president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, but they have to be looking at the Rangers and thinking, "We have to spend some money if we want to compete with them" (and the Houston Astros). The Mariners need a left-handed, middle-of-the-order bat and, after ranking second in the majors in strikeouts, perhaps one that puts the ball in play. Bellinger did that in 2023, striking out just 15.7% of the time. He could replace Teoscar Hernandez in right, giving the Mariners a stellar defensive outfield, or play first base, allowing Ty France to slide into a DH role the Mariners have had trouble filling in recent years. Obviously, he comes with a large degree of risk given what he hit in 2021 and 2022, but some mechanical tweaks certainly helped, and that contact rate is a good sign for future productivity.

Aaron Nola, SP (30)

Doolittle: Philadelphia Phillies. Nola didn't have the best platform season, though he did perform well enough in the playoffs. His track record remains top of the charts in terms of durability and volume, qualities that should attract plenty of attention. His numbers were worse in 2021 than they were in 2023 but, in between, he enjoyed a 2022 season that was pretty close to Cy Young-caliber. So he has some variance in results even as the metrics on his pitches remain steady, meaning I think you pay him to be more a 2-3 pitcher than a 1-2, staff-saver type. And it's hard to see a team where he fits better than the one with which he has been since being drafted seventh overall by the Phillies in 2014. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has said retaining Nola is a priority, and that's a big reason I think he eventually stays put after a little spin around the free agent market.

Olney: Phillies. Owner John Middleton has demonstrated he'll go above and beyond for the Phillies family, and Nola is family. Knowing that Zack Wheeler will be a free agent after next season will also nudge the Phillies' offer to Nola, and I don't think he's worth more to any team than he is to the team that drafted him. I don't think the offers in free agency will be as robust as maybe some expect, and in the end, the Phillies will pay him well to stay home.

Passan: Atlanta Braves. Atlanta will prioritize starting pitching in free agency -- as it should, with Kyle Wright out for 2024 following shoulder surgery. (Charlie Morton's $20 million club option was exercised after Atlanta went back and forth on whether to do so.) Adding Nola to a rotation with Spencer Strider, Max Fried and Morton would make for a rotation worthy of the Braves' lineup. Nola certainly fits what the Braves prioritize in starting pitchers: low walks, high strikeouts, lots of innings. And while his 2023 left plenty to be desired, his expected numbers weren't nearly as rough as his 4.46 ERA. Nola has never been a stuff guy, so in order for him to age gracefully, he'll have to rely on control and command. And going from a catcher with some of the worst framing numbers in baseball in J.T. Realmuto to a team with two elite framers in Sean Murphy and Travis d'Arnaud will only behoove him.

Schoenfield: Cubs. We know that when players reach free agency, the vast majority of them end up signing with a new team. It's hard to imagine the Phillies not finding a way to re-sign Nola, but maybe they believe they have enough rotation depth with the emergence of Cristopher Sanchez -- and they might be looking to pour big money into re-signing Zack Wheeler after 2024. The Cubs, meanwhile, are ready to make a big push for a division title after just missing a wild-card spot. Their rotation was 14th in the majors in ERA, and Marcus Stroman exercised his opt-out clause, so they have to replace him. Nola's track record of health, durability and results makes him a pretty safe bet, even if he didn't have his best season in 2023. That was mostly due to a spike in home run rate, and his strikeout-to-walk rate remains exceptional.

Matt Chapman, 3B (30)

Doolittle: Milwaukee Brewers. Chapman is a fit for a lot of teams -- the Cubs, Mariners, Blue Jays, perhaps Yankees. Because of that and a relative scarcity of top position players in this year's free-agent class, he should make out well. Milwaukee is an upset pick, but I love the fit. Chapman would give the Brewers someone capable of hitting in the middle of the order while actually improving an already-airtight defense. The Brewers are rich in young position players, but Chapman wouldn't really be blocking anyone in the system. I could see him playing across from Christian Yelich at some point if Yeli is moved to first base to make space for the Brewers' surfeit of outfielders. As for the money, obviously there is a price point to which the Brewers aren't likely to go. But a few years ago, they were ready to make a dual splash when they acquired (and paid) Yelich and Lorenzo Cain at the same time. This is a team trying to get over the hump, and landing Chapman is a good way to move in that direction.

Olney: Cubs. There is a ton of concern in the industry about Chapman's slide after a hot start and his struggles against fastballs, so it'll be interesting to see if he gets any big, big offers. Rival executives predicted Kris Bryant would get under $100 million, and he wound up getting $182 million from the Colorado Rockies, making you wonder if there's some team that'll bet really big that Chapman's offense comes back. His defense provides a strong baseline of performance, and if you added him to an infield with Swanson and Nico Hoerner, that would make free agent pitchers dream of taking the mound for the Cubs. I'm guessing Chicago.

Passan: Mets. Third base has been a bugaboo for New York since David Wright's retirement, and with Brett Baty perhaps not the solution and no third basemen in the Mets' system near big league-ready, Chapman solves an immediate and clear problem. Further, Stearns long prioritized infield defense in his previous job with Milwaukee, and for all of the warranted concerns about Chapman's bat, his glove remains tip-top. The Mets have plenty of holes to fill, yes, and they're not likely to go on a spending spree like they did last offseason. Chapman would provide a solid addition to a team that's far closer to being good than its record last season indicated.

Schoenfield: Arizona Diamondbacks. I'd be wary of Chapman given his second-half slide (.663 OPS), concerns about declining bat speed (he had only one extra-base hit to the pull side against pitches 95 mph or faster) and defensive metrics that, while still above average, aren't as elite as a few years ago. The one contending team with an obvious hole at third base is the Diamondbacks. They ranked 27th in the majors in OPS at third base and got little from Evan Longoria or backup Emmanuel Rivera in their postseason run (.200/.237/.255). They could slide top prospect Jordan Lawlar over there, but I don't know why you would move him off shortstop (a trade of Geraldo Perdomo seems more likely if Lawlar is ready). Chapman fills a need and has averaged 3.8 WAR the past three seasons.

Blake Snell, SP (30)

Doolittle: St. Louis Cardinals. I'm fascinated by the comparison of free agents Snell and Jordan Montgomery, two lefties who are almost the same age (Monty is 23 days younger) and go about things very differently. The Cardinals have said that landing veteran starting pitching is an offseason priority. While going after Montgomery, with whom they are so familiar, makes sense, Snell might be the better pursuit because he's a pure power pitcher with the kind of strikeout rate the St. Louis staff desperately needs. Snell, coming off a likely Cy Young Award win, will have robust interest, and perhaps the Cardinals are something of an upset pick here. But I'm going with it.

Olney: Yeah, I agree with Brad: Cardinals. St. Louis is desperate for help and seems to be more likely to overpay and overlook possible concerns, like Snell's walk rate. Other teams will be scared away by some of the peripheral numbers, but the Cardinals aren't really in position to turn their noses up at a left-hander who has won one Cy Young Award and will soon win another -- not when there are so many empty slots in their rotation.

Passan: Phillies. If Nola leaves, the Phillies are unlikely to go into next season without addressing their rotation. And while they could do so via trade -- Tyler Glasnow would be a pretty great fit, as would Shane Bieber -- getting someone like Snell, whose strikeout and weak-contact rates align well with the Phillies' below-average defense, fits quite well. Add in the fact that the Phillies boast a deep bullpen, and it allays fears that Snell not going deep into games is problematic. Philadelphia isn't scared of high-walk pitchers -- especially if they have the stuff and the ability to limit damage like Snell does, with the second-highest strikeout rate and fourth-lowest homer rate among starters in 2023.

Schoenfield: Dodgers. They have seen plenty of Snell in recent years, and he has a 2.59 ERA against them in 13 regular-season starts -- and that doesn't include his infamous World Series start in 2020. With the news that Clayton Kershaw will undergo shoulder surgery and be sidelined until next summer (he's a free agent but said he wants to keep pitching), the Dodgers' rotation is in even more disarray than it was in the postseason. They need starters. Snell's year-to-year inconsistency and durability can be frustrating, but the upside -- one Cy Young Award with a second on the way -- is so high that the Dodgers should be willing to take the gamble. Sure, Ohtani would be the dream, but you can make the case that with Ohtani's pitching future uncertain, maybe they should spread their money out to a couple of starting pitchers this offseason.

Jordan Montgomery, SP (30)

Doolittle: Rangers. Montgomery fit so well with Texas, and developed such a quick and close relationship with catcher Jonah Heim, it's really hard to envision him wanting to leave the world champions. But of course, free agents do leave good spots all the time because it usually comes down to the best offer. The Rangers are willing to spend but the thing is, by next October they could have a rotation that has Scherzer, deGrom and Nate Eovaldi. That could push someone even as good as Montgomery, who pitched so well in this year's postseason, into the fourth role. Also, even with the Mets picking up a sizable chunk of Scherzer's tab, Texas is already committed to a lot of money in its rotation. But keeping Monty is too good to pass up. Let's say the Rangers get back to October. They could have Scherzer, deGrom and Eovaldi lined up, with Monty and Jon Gray in hybrid roles behind them and -- just maybe -- Josh Hader waiting at the back of the bullpen. Get used to those parades, Arlington.

Olney: Rangers. For many years, the owner who was most willing to spend from his personal fortune -- rather than within the revenue constraints of the team -- was the Detroit Tigers' Mike Ilitch, and then in recent years, that has been the San Diego Padres' Peter Seidler and the Mets' Steve Cohen. Quietly, the Rangers' Ray Davis has joined that group. At 81 years old, he has decided he wants to win baseball championships, and he's doing everything he can to make that happen. Like signing Marcus Semien and Corey Seager for a half-billion dollars. Like outbidding the rest of the industry for deGrom by about 80%. Like giving up a top prospect to deal for a future Hall of Famer in Scherzer at the deadline. Montgomery thrived with Texas after joining them from the Cardinals, and he seemed to really enjoy working with pitching coach Mike Maddux and manager Bruce Bochy, winning a championship. It seems inevitable that the Rangers will give the lefty whatever he needs to re-sign.

Passan: Red Sox. They want to win now, and while they have spent some in free agency in recent years -- Masataka Yoshida and Trevor Story were nine-figure signings -- they have no money committed to starting pitching beyond this season. Not only is Montgomery a veteran of the AL East, having come up with the Yankees, he more than proved himself a playoff-capable pitcher, helping lead the Rangers to a World Series title this year. Boston's new chief baseball officer, Breslow, made his mark with the Cubs as their director of pitching, and he knows if the Red Sox are to improve, complementing their strong bullpen with an equally robust rotation is a good place to begin.

Schoenfield: Cincinnati Reds. I'd put the Rangers as the favorite here, too, but file this one under the category of, "They could really use him and it would be fun to see." Yes, the Reds never spend in free agency (except for that one offseason when they signed Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas), but they have an exciting young core and a super inexpensive roster -- one in need of a veteran guy like Montgomery who can chew up innings. Hunter Greene, Brandon Williamson, Andrew Abbott, Graham Ashcraft and Nick Lodolo all have intriguing upside, but none of those players have proven they can make it through a full season and remain effective at the same time. The Reds ranked 25th in rotation ERA and could use a stabilizing presence on the mound. Do I expect the Castellini family to spend? Of course not. But Reds fans can hope for a surprise.

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