It’s an MLBTR tradition to maintain a list of not only the immediately pending group of free agents, but also those next in line. As part of the festivities, a certain number of folks fail to read the headline and prefatory language closely, thus prompting vehement protestations about players wrongly included or excluded.
To forestall that outcome to the extent possible, we just ran through the full 2020-21 free agent class on a position-by-position basis. (Catchers, first basemen, second basemen, shortstops, third basemen, corner outfielders, center fielders, designated hitters, starting pitchers, lefty relievers and righty relievers.) Please explore those lists for the players who’ll be on the open market after the 2020 season.
What follows is a list of certain players — specifically, catchers — who are presently slated to qualify for free agency after the 2021 season. We’ve already run through the amazing group of shortstops in that class and taken a look at the veteran backstops coming to the market. It’s important also to understand that this list is far from exhaustive, in that many first basemen set for free agency in 2020-21 will ultimately ink one-year deals that put them back on track to return to the open market post-2021.
This is how the 2021-22 first base market shapes up at this point (season-age for 2022):
Top of the Class
- Freddie Freeman (32): He’s such a franchise icon that the club’s former GM preferred Freeman to his own right arm … and that we forgot to include him in the initial version of this list. Gulp. It is indeed hard to imagine Freeman in another uniform after so many great seasons in Atlanta. Then again, an elbow injury did crop up in 2019. And the team’s current executive leadership may not have quite the same attachment to a much older version of the slugger. We’ll see whether and when serious talks on a second extension. If Freeman does reach the market, there’s a good chance he’ll be one of the most hotly pursued players. But teams are only going to pay so much for a first baseman of this vintage in the current environment.
- Anthony Rizzo (32): He isn’t sure to be part of this class, as the Cubs could in theory decline their option next winter and let Rizzo sign a multi-year deal elsewhere. That’s … unlikely. Through nine years and over five thousand plate appearances in the majors, Rizzo is a .273/.373/.488 hitter who has launched 218 home runs. He has been a steadily excellent producer since his breakout 2014 season. We’ll see what the intervening seasons bring, but the odds are good that Rizzo will be one of the best bats available in the 2021-22 offseason. You might think the Cubs would be interested in pursuing an extension, particularly given Rizzo’s central role in the club’s identity, but the team declined the advances of the star first bagger this offseason. Future talks remain possible, but this was perhaps the most promising window.
- Brandon Belt (34): Long a high-quality but under-appreciated hitter, Belt has also dealt with significant concussion issues over the years. He was healthy in 2019, but also drooped in the power department — already a source of consternation for many Giants fans — over the past two campaigns. There are some rays of hope. Belt’s plate discipline was as good as ever last year (13.5% walk rate, 20.6% strikeout rate). And by measure of Statcast, he has produced better contact than the results would suggest (.327 wOBA vs. .355 xwOBA in 2018; .319 vs. .346 in 2019).
- Matt Carpenter (36): While he’s not playing first base at the moment, Carpenter has plenty of experience there and will likely be viewed as a first bagger when he reaches free agency. It feels rather likely that the Cardinals will end up paying a $2MM buyout rather than exercising a $18.5MM vesting option. Then again, couldn’t Carpenter’s sudden fall-off in 2019 represent a blip? He was a top-notch offensive producer for years before. I can’t think offhand of a player whose Statcast readings dove so dramatically. Carpenter dropped from a 44.7% hard contact rate in 2018 to a miserly 31.1% rate in 2019, while he sunk from a .392 xwOBA (his fourth-straight season ranking in the top ten percent leaguewide by that metric) to a middling .332 mark. Carpenter ended the year with a .225/.334/.392 batting line and personal-high 26.2% strikeout rate. He could be a big factor in this market, but he’ll have to figure out what went wrong.
Other Option Possibilities
Like Rizzo, several other notable players can each be controlled for the 2021 season through club options. Should that come to pass, those players would play out their contracts before returning to the open market. If they don’t perform well enough, there’s still a good chance they’ll end up in the 2021-22 free agent class.
- Carlos Santana (36; $17.5MM option, $500K buyout) and Edwin Encarnacion (39; $12MM option, no buyout) lead the way here. It’s not certain they’ll be in this class: their options are expensive enough that they could conceivably be sent onto the open market after a good-but-not-great season and still end up signing a multi-year deal. And Encarnacion, at least, is getting up there in years. Another player with a lot of money at stake is Daniel Murphy (37), who’ll either receive a $6MM buyout or play for a $12MM salary in 2021.
- Todd Frazier (36; $5.75MM option, $1.5MM buyout), Justin Smoak (35; $5.5MM option, $1MM buyout), Eric Thames (35; $4MM mutual option, $1MM buyout), and Mitch Moreland (36; $3MM option, $500K buyout) are all also possibilities to become parts of this class.
Names to Watch
- Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (30): The Japanese star inked a two-year deal with the Rays this past offseason. It’s anyone’s guess how it’ll look when Tsutsugo is ready to return to the open market. While he has historically spent most of his time in the outfield, he’s being given time in the infield in Tampa Bay and has experience at first base in Nippon Professional Baseball.
- Mark Canha (33): He’s currently finding success ranging on the outfield grass, but Canha came up primarily as a first baseman. And if he can sustain his monster 2019 output — .273/.396/.517 — then the bat will play anywhere on the diamond.
- Ian Desmond (36): It’s all but inconceivable that the Rockies will exercise their $15MM club option ($2MM buyout) over the struggling veteran, so he’s sure to be a part of this class. Even with a bounceback platform season, though, teams aren’t likely to relish the idea of plugging Desmond into their first base mix. Though he was rather oddly plugged in at first when the Rockies signed him, the former shortstop and center fielder’s real potential value lies in his defensive versatility.