Since we last checked in on the 2019-20 free agent class, seven more potential free agents came off the board: Chris Sale, Paul Goldschmidt, Xander Bogaerts, Justin Verlander, Matt Carpenter, Khris Davis, and Ryan Pressly. This came after Sonny Gray, Miles Mikolas, Aaron Hicks, and Nolan Arenado had already decided to eschew free agency. Meanwhile, pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are still without teams, serving as a warning for those thinking of testing the market.
In theory, the open market should always generate the best offers, even if the potential loss of a draft pick enters the equation. Still, for many players it isn’t worth enduring a potentially brutal free agency process in an attempt to squeeze out that last $20MM at the risk of a Keuchel/Kimbrel debacle, when you’re signing for generational money regardless. That’s why this list keeps getting less and less impressive each time we do it. As always, these players are ranked by my estimate of their 2019-20 open market earning power. To view the entire list of 2019-20 MLB free agents, click here.
1. Gerrit Cole. Cole jumps to the top of this list simply by virtue of the Red Sox locking down Sale and Bogaerts. Cole, 28, has been homer-prone in his first six starts, but it’s really just one rough outing in Texas that has thrown off his ERA. Sale is a comparable worth considering. Sale’s new contract takes him through the age of 35, one year short of David Price, Max Scherzer, and Jon Lester and two years short of Zack Greinke. Cole’s argument is that he, too, should require a commitment through age 35, which would necessitate a seven-year deal. For all that went wrong for free agents in the 2018-19 offseason, Patrick Corbin still got a strong six-year contract with a shorter track record than Cole. In the end, Cole needs a good old-fashioned bidding war to develop, and teams have become increasingly reluctant to enter into those. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic wrote on March 22nd that the Astros were discussing extensions with both Cole and rotation-mate Justin Verlander, and shortly after that they inked Verlander to a two-year, $66MM extension. I’d say that decreases the chances of the Astros extending Cole.
2. Anthony Rendon. Rendon, 28, got off to a blazing start this year for the Nationals before a Jose Urena fastball struck his elbow on April 20th and ended a 17-game hitting streak. He’s played in one game since that HBP but seems to have avoided significant injury. Jose Altuve’s five-year, $151MM extension with the Astros, signed about a year ago, lines up well with Rendon. Nolan Arenado’s deal further cemented the idea that teams are mostly willing to pay through age 34 rather than 35. The x-factor might be Paul Goldschmidt, a player perhaps inferior to Rendon who was extended through age 36 by the Cardinals. So look for Rendon to try for a six-year deal, though he could end with five. The last we heard on extension talks with the Nationals was from MLB Network’s Jon Heyman on April 18th, who tweeted that “there’s believed to be a decent-sized gap remaining” between the two sides.
3. Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna, 28, fell short of expectations last year after the Cardinals acquired him from the Marlins. It’s possible shoulder soreness was to blame, with Ozuna undergoing surgery to address the issue after the season. The shoulder doesn’t seem to be affecting his hitting early on in 2019, as Ozuna has 10 home runs in his last 79 plate appearances. With a season more like Ozuna’s 2017 campaign, he should have a good chance at a five-year deal. It’s worth noting that the three potential free agents currently topping this list are all clients of the Boras Corporation.
4. Madison Bumgarner. Despite a 4.30 ERA across six starts, Bumgarner’s early results for the Giants have been promising. After last year’s career-worst walk rate, he’s issuing free passes to a career-best 3.3% of batters in the small 37 2/3 inning sample. A vintage 200 inning campaign from Bumgarner should set him up nicely for a strong four-year deal in free agency. He’ll also be one of the best trade chips on the market in July, and a trade would remove the qualifying offer issue that has partially plagued Keuchel.
5. Zack Wheeler. Wheeler, 29 in May, has come on strong in his last three starts after a seven-walk outing on April 7th. The hard-throwing righty is now four years removed from Tommy John surgery, though he did go two and a half years between MLB starts as he recovered. The goal has to be a five-year deal through age 34, but he may have to settle for four. It’s all about staying healthy for these next 25 starts. The Mikolas/Nathan Eovaldi deals, at four years and $68MM, could be a marker for Wheeler. Unlike Eovaldi, Wheeler may be dealing with a qualifying offer.
6. Didi Gregorius. Gregorius is currently recovering from October Tommy John surgery. His recovery is going smoothly, though there’s no public timetable on his return. In the meantime, it’s mostly been Gleyber Torres holding down the fort at shortstop for the Yankees after Troy Tulowitzki strained his calf on April 3rd. With Bogaerts off the board, Gregorius will be the best available shortstop if the Yankees don’t lock him up prior to free agency. A four-year deal seems plausible if he comes back strong, though Gregorius will likely receive a qualifying offer.
7. J.D. Martinez. Martinez has been one of the game’s best hitters over the last two years. He’s off to a strong start this year, though he’s missed a few games of late due to back spasms. Martinez is, of course, limited in that he primarily serves as a designated hitter. The players union continues to advocate for the National League to get the DH, so we’ll see whether the owners agree in the near future and vastly open up Martinez’s market. Later this year, Martinez will be 32 when he’ll be faced with deciding whether to opt out of the remaining three years and $62.5MM remaining on his contract. The safe move is to just stick with his current deal, especially since the Red Sox could saddle Martinez with a qualifying offer if he opts out.
8. Josh Donaldson. After an injury-marred 2018 season, Donaldson signed a hefty one-year, $23MM deal with the Braves. A 30 home run, 80 walk type season in the middle of the Braves’ lineup would likely result in some solid multiyear offers for the former MVP. However, Donaldson will turn 34 in December, so the offers may top out at two years with a strong AAV. Another complication is that Donaldson could receive a qualifying offer from the Braves.
9. Yasmani Grandal. Like Donaldson, Grandal inked a significant one-year deal in free agency this past winter. However, Grandal turned down multiyear offers from the Mets, White Sox, Twins, and Angels, according to Robert Murray of The Athletic. The catcher explained in January at his Brewers press conference, “I had a lot of good deals. One of my responsibilities as a player is also to respect the guys going through this process before me like Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, to mention a few of them.” Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year offer from the Mets in excess of $50MM before ultimately landing his one-year, $18.25MM deal with Milwaukee. If Grandal’s strong start to the season continues, his gambit just might pay off, as even something like three years and $42MM would get him past $60MM for 2019-22. This time around, he won’t be saddled with a qualifying offer.
10. Yasiel Puig. In the first month of his Reds career, Puig has lived up to his Wild Horse nickname by, as Deadspin described it, attempting to “fight all of Pittsburgh.” He’s here on this list because of his abilities as a hitter, which have decidedly not manifested themselves through 96 plate appearances. His strikeout and walk rates are career worsts in the early going, but he has five months to turn it around and earn a multiyear contract in free agency.