Two factors make this year’s free agent class particularly hard to predict. The first, MLB’s “competitive balance tax” (CBT) complicates things for teams who have exceeded the CBT payroll in three consecutive seasons. The Yankees, Padres, and Phillies have all exceeded it the past two years, and if their payrolls do so again this season, they are subject to a 50% tax on their payroll (The Dodgers are already subject to the highest tax level, having exceeded it for the past three seasons).
Those teams all remain firmly in a competitive window and also have been big drivers of free agent spending the past couple of years. If those teams decide to try and re-set their CBT this season, it could mean a slower-than-usual market. And with the Mets presumably sitting out (or at least reducing) their free agency spend in this offseason, that’s a fifth team that’s usually in the mix of every high-profile free agent pursuit.
The second complicating factor is Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani might be the most compelling free agent ever, even with surgery costing him his 2024 as a pitcher. The teams vying for the highest profile free agents (and there’s a lot of overlap with the aforementioned CBT teams) are likely going to wait and see what happens with MLB’s (potentially) first $500 million man before filling out the rest of their rosters.
All that is to say, picking where free agents will go is tough.
To help sort my thinking, I’ve once again sorted all 30 teams along a matrix of “willingness to spend” and “readiness to contend.” The higher you are in both, the more likely the team should be to pursue free agents. (And, to be clear, every team can afford any free agent, but that’s an article for another time.)
Of course, this is different from predicting other buying patterns. You can safely predict I’m going to spend money on sage sausage and cornmeal next month for my Thanksgiving cornbread stuffing. However, in MLB free agency we’re dealing with people– people who have, well, agency in choosing where they’re going to play baseball. There are several factors that will determine where a player wants to play and it’s obviously not as simple as “they need a second baseman, so they’ll get him.”
If for some reason you’re disappointed in my predictions for your team here, please note that it’s simply due to my personal animus toward [YOUR TEAM’S NAME]. Also, why would a free agent even go there, [CITY NAME] smells weird.
All that said, let’s dust off the crystal ball and see where every free agent will definitely go.
Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” The experiences and points of view are so different, in Wittgenstein’s mind, that it is impossible to have some shared understanding or reference points so as to communicate effectively.
How can we expect to know what’s in the mind of Shohei Ohtani, a once-in-a-lifetime ballplayer? After Ohtani signs, there will be a lot of ink on what led to his decision, and after-the-fact rationalizing about his desires and mindset. The money will be there, and he’ll certainly set a record for a free-agent contract. Ohtani can name his own number, so what will be important to him? Being on the West Coast? Playing with other greats? It’s impossible to know.
Until that time, the Dodgers are the favorites. They’re willing to spend and are in the mix for every major free agent or name available for trade until further notice.
However, if you’re looking for reasons the Dodgers wouldn’t sign Ohtani, there’s certainly enough to believe he’d end up somewhere else. For one, the last Ohtani-palooza left a bad taste with Dodgers players involved. Clayton Kershaw called the meeting a “gigantic waste of time,” and Kershaw and others were fairly publicly critical of Ohtani for it. Will that matter now that both leagues have the designated hitter?
Consider the Giants as the next favorite. They reportedly matched the Yankees’ offer for Judge last offseason, and were involved in the Carlos Correa pursuit until his medicals scared them off. Clearly, the Giants are looking for, and willing to pay for, a star-level player and have the hole in their rotation and lineup that Ohtani would fit perfectly, while also allowing him to stay in California.
The Giants also have significantly more payroll flexibility at the moment, not having to worry about the CBT for another few years at least. The Dodgers have previously worked to re-set their payroll to get under the CBT, but a lineup that includes Ohtani, Freddie Freeman, and Mookie Betts would be hard-pressed to do so over the next several years at least.
The Cubs surprised the NL Central, getting as close as a game and a half back of the division leaders down the stretch run, and just missed a playoff spot after a late-season swoon. The Cubs have shown themselves to take some chances and spend some free-agent dollars, especially with short-term free-agent contracts (Gray will be 34 to open 2024) as they did in 2023. A top three of Justin Steele, Marcus Stroman, and Sonny Gray would be pretty formidable in a middling NL Central.
The Dodgers are going to need starting pitching help, whether they sign Ohtani or not. Montgomery is probably the most Dodger-y free agent pitcher available, in that he’s still just 30 and hasn’t posted an FIP above four since 2018 in just 27 innings with the Yankees. He’s also fairly durable, eclipsing 150 innings in each of the past three seasons. That’s the kind of solid production the Dodgers rotation desperately will need.
The Diamondbacks are probably a bat and a high-level starting arm away from going from surprise Wild Card to legitimate division contender (though in fairness, this year seemed to work out ok for them as-is). Snell will probably be the second-most sought-after arm on the market after Ohtani, but Arizona has plenty of salary room to make a move to go in with their young core and has shown a willingness to surprise with some free agent signings (notably Madison Bumgarner in 2019).
Cody Bellinger (OF) – Yankees
The Yankees are definitely going to need some outfield help, and Bellinger acquitted himself more than capably in a bounce-back season that saw him slash .307/.356/.525 and with a 20/20 season. I can’t quite divine how MLB teams are going to view Bellinger and weigh his last couple of seasons in LA compared to his Chicago renaissance. There’s not a super deep roster of free agent sluggers on the market this offseason, though, and Bellinger’s defense provides a solid floor (88th percentile in range and 5 outs above average in 2023) that the Yankee outfield absolutely needs if it’s going to retool into a winning club in 2024.
With the departure of Evan Longoria, the Diamondbacks could use a new third baseman, and Chapman can replace the outstanding defense Longoria has flashed in the postseason and provides a decent floor offensively with his ability to get on base. Chapman and the aforementioned Snell could be two all-in moves for Arizona to set them apart.
Jeimer Candelario (3B) – Oakland A’s
There just aren’t a lot of teams in the market for third basemen this offseason. There were only seven MLB teams that saw less than 1.0 WAR from the position in 2023, and Chapman, Candelario, and Evan Longoria comprise the biggest names available at the position. Among probable contenders in 2024, the Brewers are the other team that should be on the lookout for an upgrade at the hot corner but haven’t been willing to wade deep into the free-agent pool. The A’s could make a surprise move here (they have to play someone, after all!), sign Candelario to a short-term contract, and look to flip him at the trade deadline. Consider this less a prediction and more commentary on the state of the third base free agent market.
Nola’s strikeouts and walks each trended in the wrong direction this season, and he posted the highest FIP of his career to go along with a career-high in homers. That said, Nola still pitched an effective season, with 4 fWAR across nearly 200 innings. I like when teams give their players a hometown contract offer, but given the Phillies’ flirting with the CBT threshold, I’m not sure Nola will get the Stephen Strasburg deal even after leading them to two straight championship series.
The Giants might make some sense here, as Ross Stripling is better suited to a swing or relief role than a starter who can give a reliable 200 innings. I like this move for the Giants on its own, but perhaps even they would pair this with an Ohtani signing to make a real “all-in” commitment to Ohtani as he rehabs his shoulder.
Kiermaier is another high defensive floor player who could slot into the Yankee outfield. With the Yankees approaching the CBT, this might be more likely than the Bellinger signing, even if Bellinger represents higher upside and fills a more pressing need for the Yankees at the moment.
It feels as though this is an option every offseason, and you get the sense the Dodgers and Kershaw just have a mutual understanding he’s there forever, even if the contracts just go year-to-year. A lot is obviously dependent on Kershaw’s health, but again the Dodgers are going to need a lot of arms with uncertainty in the rotation and there’s something to be said for comfort for both the pitcher and club.
If you’re looking for a dark horse candidate, maybe the Cardinals could consider swooping in and making a short-term contract offer to Kershaw to fill some rotation holes?
The Pirates are often loathe to sign free agents, but Gibson would represent a significant upgrade to a team that had a surprisingly good first half and hopefully will have a healthy Oneil Cruz behind their pitchers for a full season. Pittsburgh, if history is any guide, will never be players in the Ohtani sweepstakes for instance under their current ownership group, but Gibson would be a fairly interesting mid-rotation piece that could push the Pirates further into contention in short order.
The Cubs were fairly average at the plate at the DH position last season, and Martinez would be a significant and immediate upgrade. Martinez might be firmly approaching the “Nelson Cruz” portion of his career where he’s on short contracts to mid-contenders every year, and the Cubs had some success with a similar dart throw with Bellinger last year.
A veteran pitcher that’s generally underperformed his peripherals, while still just 28 (and probably won’t be the highest contract awarded to a pitcher this offseason) would, on the surface, make perfect sense for a team like the Cardinals with major rotation holes and a chance to compete for the division. Unfortunately, it seems like that particular pairing has run its course, however. Flaherty’s destination is the one on the list I probably struggled with the most. The Rays might be able to get Flaherty into their pitching laboratory and bring down the walks that have haunted him the past couple of seasons while maintaining the strikeouts.
With Teoscar Hernández’s upcoming free agency, the Mariners could use some offense in their outfield to partner with Julio Rodríguez and Jared Kelenic. Pham has been up-and-down a bit over the past few seasons, but if he’s at his best could be a decent speed / on-base guy in Seattle.
This is the Rockies’ one “huh” signing they make each year. It wouldn’t be a bad move though, as the Royals benefitted greatly from having a short-term contract for a veteran reliever. Chapman doesn’t throw a curve anyway, so let his fastball eat in Coors and see what happens.
The Twins could use some power in their outfield, and probably another right-handed hitter as well, as they currently project to be pretty lefty-heavy. The AL Central continues to be wide open so really even moderate upgrades can be meaningful in a division in which no one really seems bent on setting themselves apart.
This makes too much sense not to happen. The Rangers have proven they’re ready to push the chips in, and it has worked out pretty well! Meanwhile, they stand to lose Aroldis Chapman and Will Smith, two major pieces in what was already a shaky bullpen throughout 2023. Hader would be a significant upgrade for a team that should be doubling down this offseason.
Santana makes a pretty solid fit with his current Brewers team, which has struggled offensively at both first base and DH. But should he move elsewhere, the Tigers would be a decent fit. Detroit found themselves in an unexpected second-place division finish (albeit below .500), so an upgrade with a short-term contract for Santana could be a way to take a tepid step toward competing in the Central and either stay pat or flip at the deadline.
The Phillies will have to fill the hole in the rotation left by Aaron Nola, but given they’re coming up against the CBT tax, I’m not convinced they’ll be players in the higher-end free agent starters. Maeda won’t replace Nola but can fill in capably for a team possibly looking for its third deep run in as many years.
The Guardians could probably use more bullpen depth to help out Emmanuel Clase, and the Fresh Prince is a low-risk investment that the Guardians would probably be comfortable with. He could also go to the Padres, but I’ve heard that Parents Just Don’t Understand.
Kimbrel is another player who seemingly just finds himself on a playoff contender each year. As mentioned, the Diamondbacks should be going all-in, and Kimbrel could be a complementary piece in a championship-level bullpen (again).
The Blue Jays are more free-agent active than you might think and need to fill the defensive hole left by Kevin Kiermaier. Bader is an excellent defensive center fielder and could allow the Blue Jays to upgrade elsewhere without really missing a beat in center.
Like Carlos Santana, Robertson could represent another “dip our toes in” move for the Tigers. A solid reliever, Robertson could help anchor a late-inning relief corps but also be traded at the deadline to a contender if things don’t work out for Detroit.
The Orioles have a ton of vacancies in their starting rotation this upcoming season, but I’m fairly skeptical that they’ll be a major player for the high-end contracts in the free-agent market. To be clear, the Orioles absolutely should be going after Ohtani, Nola, or Sonny Gray. But with Orioles owner John Angelos already talking about not being able to afford their young stars that any team would bend over backwards to have as a core, it seems like it’d take a dramatic turn of events to sign one of the top free agents. Giolito has been up and down and might be the highest bid the Orioles would be willing to make, even as they desperately need starting pitching.
The Brewers have struggled mightily at first and DH in 2023, and his left-handed power would fit in well in the Brewers’ home park. Milwaukee has made a living at signing short-term, low-cost free agent contracts, and may be intrigued at Gallo’s bat but also his past defensive performances, which were overall solid before he landed in New York.
Brandon Belt is a free agent this season, and the Jays finished middle of the pack in homers this season. Hoskins has been pretty durable up until this past season, and his ability to slug and get on base would fit in nicely in the middle of the Blue Jay lineup.
Get in loser, we’re going shopping for starting pitching. Seriously, the Orioles need to find a lot of innings and I’d be extremely surprised if they don’t end up with at least a couple of the free-agent pitchers on this list, even if it’s not at the highest offers on the market. Ryu pitched fairly capably in an abbreviated 2023, and is going into his age-36 season, which probably makes him both appealing and affordable for the Orioles’ self-imposed budget.