We’re at the regular season’s halfway point, and the free-agent landscape has changed a fair bit since we last ran through our Power Rankings back in mid-April. Injuries, changes in performance — some for the better, some for the worse — and more have combined to provide more context as to what shape the top of the free agent market will take.
As a reminder, our Power Rankings are based primarily on perceived earning power. This is an exercise intended to provide a snapshot of where the top end of the free agent class is currently sitting. One player being ranked higher than another does not necessarily indicate we feel he’s the better player. Youth, health, qualifying offer status, market scarcity and myriad other factors all impact what a player can expect to earn in free agency.
Our power rankings are compiled collaboratively. MLBTR owner Tim Dierkes and writers Anthony Franco and Darragh McDonald all weighed in for this update. Players with opt-out clauses and player options are included, even if they’ve previously given indications they may forgo the opportunity to return to the market.
1. Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH, Angels: There are no surprises up top. Ohtani remains far and away the top name on this year’s list — so much so that he might even command double the No. 2 entrant on our list. That’s both a testament to his general excellence and an indictment on what is generally a weaker free agent class than is typical.
Ohtani, 29 in July, isn’t having quite as dominant a season on the mound as he did in 2022, but he’s still been quite good and is enjoying his best year to date with the bat. In 95 1/3 innings, the flamethrowing righty has pitched to a 3.02 ERA with a 33.2% strikeout rate and 10.2% walk rate. The latter is a marked uptick from the 6.7% he logged a year ago. Ohtani’s strikeout rate is only down about half a percentage point from its 2022 levels, but he’s seen more notable drops in swinging-strike rate (from 14.9% to 13.5%) and opponents’ chase rate (32.6% to 29.5%). This is also the most homer-prone he’s ever been on the mound; his 1.13 HR/9 is a career-high, and the 12 homers he’s allowed in 95 1/3 innings innings are already just two shy of last year’s total of 14 — which came over a span of 166 frames.
To some extent, that’s just nitpicking. Ohtani has still been excellent. His ERA ranks 15th among qualified starting pitchers, and only Atlanta’s Spencer Strider has a higher strikeout rate. He currently ranks sixth among qualified pitchers in K-BB% (23%), and fielding-independent metrics are generally supportive of his success (e.g. 3.40 SIERA, 3.35 xERA). Hitters simply haven’t been able to make good contact against Ohtani, outside that handful of home runs anyway. His 86 mph average opponents’ exit velocity is in the 93rd percentile of MLB pitchers. His 34.8% opponents’ hard-hit rate is in the 77th percentile. He’s induced grounders at a solid 44.4% clip. The uptick in walks is significant, but that’s only taken Ohtani from an ace-level performer to a slight step below that level.
And of course, when discussing Ohtani, the mound work is only half the equation. His work in the batter’s box this season has been nothing short of sensational. In 360 plate appearances, Ohtani is batting .309/.389/659. That’s 82% better than league-average production after weighting for home park, by measure of wRC+. Ohtani has already belted 28 home runs, and he’s added 15 doubles and five triples while swiping 11 bags (in 15 tries). This year’s 11.4% walk rate is right an exact match for his career mark (although shy of his 15.6% peak), and his 21.7% strikeout rate is the lowest of his career.
Ohtani has averaged an obscene 93.7 mph off the bat this year and ranks in the 95th percentile (or better) of MLB hitters in exit velocity, barrel rate, expected slugging percentage and expected wOBA. He’s a bona fide middle-of-the-order bat with the speed to swipe 25 to 30 bases and the power to clear 40 home runs.
When chatting about this update to our Power Rankings, Anthony Franco rhetorically asked me if I thought Ohtani the hitter and Ohtani the pitcher (if somehow separated) would both still individually rank ahead of the rest of this year’s class of free agents. We both agreed that they would. Fortunately, one team will get both this offseason — it just might cost more than half a billion dollars.
2. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, SP, Orix Buffaloes (Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball): Many people have wondered what type of contract Ohtani might have originally commanded if he’d waited two years to jump to Major League Baseball. Because he opted to make the jump at 23 years of age, he was considered an “amateur” under MLB rules and thus limited to the confines of MLB’s international free agent system. Since he’s not also a world class hitter, Yamamoto won’t give us an exact answer to that now-unanswerable Ohtani hypothetical, but he’ll show us what a 25-year-old ace can command under true open-market pricing if and when the Buffaloes post him, as expected.
Yamamoto, 25 in August, is one of the best pitchers in NPB and perhaps one of the most talented arms on the planet. The right-hander made his NPB debut as an 18-year-old rookie in 2017, stepped into the Buffaloes’ rotation full-time in 2019, and has pitched to a sub-2.00 ERA in four of the past five seasons, including this year’s current mark of 1.98. The lone exception was 2020, when his ERA ballooned all the way to… ahem, 2.20. Yamamoto has a sub-2.00 ERA in his career, and that’s including the 5.32 mark he posted in that age-18 rookie season.
So far in 2023, Yamamoto has pitched 68 1/3 innings with a 1.98 ERA, a 27.8% strikeout rate and a superlative 4.1% walk rate. Just 11 of the 266 batters he’s faced have drawn a free pass. That’s a career-best mark for a pitcher who’s long had outstanding command but has continually whittled away at his walk rate over the years. In his NPB career, Yamamoto has walked just 6.1% of opponents against a 26.5% strikeout rate.
MLBTR contributor Dai Takegami Podziewski kicked off his latest NPB Players To Watch piece with a look at Yamamoto’s recent run of dominance: a stretch of three consecutive eight-inning starts with just one run allowed and a 29.8% strikeout rate and .092 opponents’ average along the way. World Baseball Classic fans may remember Yamamoto’s performance as well: in 7 1/3 innings he allowed just two runs on four hits and two walks with 12 strikeouts. Back in April, Dai described Yamamoto as the “undisputed ace of NPB,” noting that he’s won the Sawamura Award (NPB’s Cy Young equivalent) in each of the past two seasons. He also won the pitching triple crown (ERA, strikeouts, wins) in 2021-22 and has a chance to repeat the feat in 2023.
Like so many pitchers these days, Yamamoto boasts a mid- to upper-90s heater. Scouts credit him with a potentially plus-plus splitter and give favorable reviews of his curveball and general athleticism as well. Presumably, there’s some trepidation regarding a pitcher who’s listed at just 5’10” and 169 pounds, and whoever signs him will have to pay a posting/release fee to the Buffaloes. Those are about the only “red flags” in Yamamoto’s profile.
Yamamoto’s countryman, Kodai Senga, has had some inconsistent command but generally performed well since signing a five-year, $75MM deal with the Mets. In an offseason piece, Joel Sherman of the New York Post quoted an evaluator who graded Yamamoto a full grade better than Senga on the 20-80 scale. And, it bears emphasizing, Yamamoto is five years younger than Senga. We haven’t seen a pitcher with this type of pedigree make the jump from Japan without any spending restrictions since Masahiro Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155MM deal with the Yankees. Yamamoto is younger than Tanaka was, he’s arguably better, and the price of pitching has only gone up since that time. A contract in excess of $200MM doesn’t seem outlandish if he can remain healthy and productive.
3. Matt Chapman, 3B, Blue Jays: It’s been a tale of two seasons for Chapman, who was perhaps baseball’s best hitter in April and one of its worst in May. The slump has been longer than the hot streak at this point, although the aggregate .265/.343/.457 slash is still well above league average (23% better, by measure of wRC+). Paired with his characteristically excellent defense (7 Defensive Runs Saved and 4 Outs Above Average already), and Chapman’s still been an undeniably valuable player, even if the nature of his contributions for the Jays have been quite frontloaded in the schedule’s early portion.
That said, it’s still incumbent upon Chapman to turn things around at the plate sooner than later. The weight of that early, Herculean stretch will continually diminish, and the current version of the former All-Star simply isn’t that compelling. Early in the year, Chapman was regularly making blistering contact and had dramatically cut back on his strikeouts. In writing about his brilliant start to the season in early May, I pointed out that he’d begun to let the strikeouts creep back in and wondered whether that was a mere blip or the onset of some regression.
Unfortunately, the strikeout issues that have dogged Chapman in the aftermath of his 2020 hip surgery have resurfaced. Dating back to May 1, Chapman is hitting just .203/.279/.339 with an a 30.2% strikeout rate. He’s still walking at a respectable 8.8% rate, and his quality of contact is excellent. Chapman is averaging 92.4 mph off the bat and hitting the ball at 95 mph or better in 52.7% of his plate appearances even during this prolonged slump. After benefiting from a .449 BABIP early in the year, he’s seen that mark swing down to .269 in May and June.
In all likelihood, the “true” results are somewhere between the two extremes of Chapman’s 2023 season. He’s not the hitter he was in April, but he’s certainly better than he’s been in May and June. The question is whether Chapman can curb the strikeouts moving forward. His propensity for thunderous contact (when he makes it) should lead to some positive regression and once again begin to produce better results. But if he fans at a 30% clip from here on out, there may not be enough balls in play to help him prop his stat line back up. Furthermore, it’d mark the third time in four seasons he finished at or above a 30% strikeout rate, which doesn’t inspire much confidence over the course of a long-term deal.
Chapman still ranks prominently here because the overall numbers are still good, and because, frankly, the crop of position players this offseason is dreadful. In fact, he’s the only pure position player on this installment of our Power Rankings, which is unprecedented. If Chapman can sustain his quality of contact and scale back the strikeouts slightly, he could still find a seven- or eight-year deal heading into his age-31 season. His overall production right now is comparable to the output posted by Kris Bryant in advance of his foray into free agency (which resulted in a seven-year, $182MM contract), and Chapman has far more defensive value than Bryant.
4. Lucas Giolito, SP, White Sox: It’s been a tough start to the year for a number of top free agent pitchers, but Giolito has generally pitched well. His strikeout rate is down from its 33.7% peak, but he’s still fanning more than a quarter of his opponents with his typical brand of better-than-average command (7.5% walk rate). It’s too soon to tell is this is a trend, but it bears mentioning that Giolito has upped his slider usage recently and seen a notable increase in strikeouts. Over his past five starts, he’s thrown the slider at a 35.8% clip, as compared to his prior 28.4% usage rate. It’s not a massive increase, but Giolito had just three starts with a slider rate of 30% or more in his first 11 trips to the hill; since May 30, he’s been between 31.4% and 41.2% in each start. It does seem to mark a clear change in attack plan, and after fanning 23.9% of hitters through those 11 starts, he’s up to 29.4% over his past five.
Giolito’s 93.3 mph average fastball is actually up slightly from 2022’s average of 92.7 mph. Home runs remain an issue (1.36 HR/9), and he’s been a bit more homer-prone on the road than in his hitter-friendly home park this year. That’s not the norm, however; the right-hander has allowed more than 1.5 homers per nine innings in his career at home but is at a much more palatable 1.16 mark on the road.
Giolito’s current 3.41 ERA would mark the fourth time in five seasons that he finished with an ERA between 3.41 and 3.53. Last year’s 4.90 looks like a clear outlier that was largely fueled by a career-high .340 average on balls in play. (The White Sox, notably, were among the game’s worst defensive teams in 2022.)
As with all free agents, age is crucial. In Giolito’s case, it’ll work in his favor. He’s 28 years old as of this writing and will turn 29 in mid-July. Even a seven-year contract would “only” carry through his age-35 season. It’s also worth noting that he’s been a frequently speculated trade candidate, and if he’s flipped to another club, he’d be ineligible to receive a qualifying offer. That carries significance in free agency, too.
Giolito might not be an ace, but he’s a surefire playoff starter for any team in Major League Baseball. He’s the second-youngest of the starters on this list with big league experience and has been a workhorse since 2018, ranking 10th among all MLB pitchers with 855 innings pitched in that time. Kevin Gausman (five years, $110MM) and Robbie Ray (five years, $115MM) signed similar contracts that began in their age-30 seasons. Neither had a track record as long as Giolito, who’ll be a year younger in his first free agent season. A six- or even seven-year deal could be in play, depending on how he finishes.
5. Julio Urias, SP, Dodgers: Urias is among the hardest players to peg among this year’s group. On the one hand, he posted a combined 2.63 ERA over 495 1/3 innings from 2019-22 and is slated to hit the open market in advance of age-27 season — a borderline unprecedentedly young age for a top-end starter to become a free agent. On the other, the lefty has been on the injured list for more than a month owing to a hamstring strain. He didn’t pitch all that well before landing on 15-day IL either. In 55 1/3 innings, Urias worked to a pedestrian 4.39 ERA, thanks primarily to a stunning uptick in home runs allowed; after yielding 0.98 homers per nine frames from ’19-’22, he’s allowed an average of 2.28 homers per nine innings in 2023.
That said, the rest of Urias’ numbers look quite similar to his peak output. His 23.3% strikeout rate is down a bit from the 24.7% he posted in 2019-22, but his 4.8% walk rate is notably better than his already strong 6.3% mark. His fastball velocity is right in line with last year’s level (when Urias notched a 2.16 ERA in 175 innings), as is his 10.8% swinging-strike rate. His 34.1% opponents’ chase rate remains strong.
The primary problem isn’t even an uptick in fly-balls, but rather in the percentage of those fly-balls that leave the yard. Entering the 2022 season, just 9.1% of the fly-balls allowed by Urias had become home runs. This year, it’s a staggering 20.3%. Broadly speaking, homer-to-flyball rate is susceptible to short-term spikes and tends to even out over a larger sample, but the uptick in homers hasn’t been well-timed. That’s doubly true given that for all of Urias’ success, he’s neither the flamethrowing powerhouse nor elite misser of bats that modern front offices covet. He’s succeeded thanks to elite command and by regularly limiting hard contact. Urias’ strikeout rates are typically a bit above average, but he’s never placed higher than the 67th percentile of MLB pitchers in overall strikeout rate.
That’s not to say Urias isn’t a desirable arm or won’t be a highly coveted pitcher. Prior to his injury, the MLBTR team had discussed possible contracts in excess of $200MM for the lefty, based both on his age and recent excellence. That’s perhaps a bit harder to see now, even if the current issue is a leg injury rather than an arm problem. Urias has only twice made 30 starts in a season, and he also has one major shoulder surgery already on his record (a 2017 procedure to repair a capsule tear).
A third consecutive 30-start season would’ve helped set aside a perceived lack of durability, but he won’t get there in 2023, even though he’s expected to return from the injured list as soon as this weekend. That’s not because of any arm troubles to date, and it should be noted that part of the reason for his lack of innings was some extreme workload management post-surgery that looks to have been effective, based on Urias’ 2021-22 results. Still, he hasn’t often worked a full starter’s slate of games, he won’t do it in 2023, and he hasn’t generated his typical results when healthy — even if most of the skill-oriented numbers remain similar to prior levels.
Urias will also have a qualifying offer to contend with, which isn’t true of every pitcher on these rankings. He’s undeniably talented and the clear youngest of the bunch, but it’d be easier to predict a massive long-term deal if he returns and starts producing more like he did in that aforementioned four-year peak.
6. Aaron Nola, SP, Phillies: Speaking of top-tier starters who haven’t performed up to expectations, the 30-year-old Nola finds himself in a precarious position. MLB’s consummate workhorse since his 2015 debut, Nola has pitched the third-most innings of the 2024 pitchers who’ve taken a big league mound since 2016 — his first full season in the Majors. Only Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer have topped Nola’s 1256 1/3 innings in that stretch.
For the majority of that time, Nola has operated on the periphery of ace-dom. He’s only a one-time All-Star and has never won a Cy Young, but the former No. 7 overall pick finished third place in 2017, seventh place in 2020 and fourth place just last year. During his 2017-22 peak, Nola notched a 3.48 ERA, 28.2% strikeout rate, 6.6% walk rate and 47.1% ground-ball rate. His 2022 season featured a terrific 29.1% strikeout rate and an elite 3.6% walk rate over the life of 205 innings — the second-most in all of baseball.
That version of Nola has been nowhere to be found in 2023. Through 105 2/3 innings, he’s posted a pedestrian 4.51 ERA with his lowest strikeout rate (23.9%) since his rookie season back in 2015. Nola’s 6.8% walk rate, while still a very strong mark, is his highest since 2020. He’s allowing more fly-balls than ever before, and unsurprisingly is allowing home runs at a career-worst rate (1.45 HR/9).
Fielding-independent metrics still believe Nola’s above-average strikeout rate, strong walk rate and ability to avoid hard contact ought to be translating to better results; his “expected” ERA is 3.53, per Statcast, while tools like FIP (4.28) and SIERA (4.00) agree he’s been short-changed a bit. Nola’s 65.1% strand rate, in particular, sits about eight percentage points below his career level and below the league average.
Heading into the season, a six- or seven-year deal seemed within reach for one of the game’s most durable and consistently above-average starting pitchers. He’s maintained the “durable” half of that equation, making 17 starts and averaging a hearty 6.22 innings per outing. The results haven’t been there, however, and Nola’s velocity is down about a half mile per hour on most of his pitches. It’s not the platform season he wanted, and even with the so-so results, he’ll surely still have a QO attached to him. There’s still an easy case for a long-term deal here, and a strong second half of the season would quiet a lot of these concerns. To this point, however, Nola has looked more like a mid-rotation starter than someone who’d be fronting a playoff staff.
7. Blake Snell, SP, Padres: Snell has been the best pitcher on the planet for the past month or so, generally erasing a terrible start to the season. This sort of Jekyll & Hyde performance is old hat for the former AL Cy Young winner, who closed out both the 2022 and 2021 seasons in dominant fashion, offsetting a wave of pedestrian starts in each instance. That endorsement of Snell’s past month isn’t even hyperbole; dating back to May 25, Snell has a comical 0.86 ERA with a 66-to-15 K/BB ratio in 42 innings. He’s fanned a massive 44.1% of his opponents against a better-than-average 8.1% walk rate.
Snell’s rollercoaster traits are nothing new, and they may scare some interested suitors in free agency. There’s no skirting the fact that he has a penchant for slow starts to the season, and when Snell is off his game, he can look lost. He doesn’t have pristine command in the first place, and walks become a particularly glaring issue when he’s in a rut. When he’s not as his best, Snell has a tendency to labor through short starts, which can tax a bullpen.
That said, here’s a look at Snell’s past 48 starts: 259 1/3 innings, 3.05 ERA, 33% strikeout rate, 10.1% walk rate, 0.90 HR/9, 36.9% ground-ball rate, .196 opponents’ average. The road he takes to get there may be infuriating at times, both for fans and his organization’s decision-makers, but Snell has clear top-of-the-rotation stuff. He’s currently riding a streak of four straight starts with double-digit strikeouts, during which he’s yielded just three runs.
The Padres can and very likely will make Snell a qualifying offer. He should reject while giving little, if any thought to the contrary. The qualifying offer and general inconsistency might hurt him, but there will also be teams who look at those factors as a possible avenue to signing a starter with genuine No. 1 talent at a cost that isn’t commensurate with those types of arms. Snell will pitch all of the 2024 season at age 31, and paired with his inconsistency, that might cap him at five years. But he should command $20MM per year over that five-year term, making a nine-figure deal within reach …. barring a second-half collapse that heightens concerns about the fluctuations in his performance.
8. Josh Hader, RP, Padres: Rumors of Hader’s demise as an elite closer last summer were greatly exaggerated, it seems. The four-time All-Star was struggling in the weeks leading up to his trade from Milwaukee to San Diego, and he didn’t help his cause when he allowed a dozen August runs following the swap. That slump was capped off by a six-run drubbing at the hands of a lowly Royals offense.
Since then, it’s been business as usual for Hader. The lefty quietly finished out the year with a 0.79 ERA in his final 11 1/3 innings. He was unscored upon from Sept. 7 through season’s end, and he went on to pitch another 5 1/3 shutout innings in the postseason, fanning 10 hitters in the process. Hader is now sitting on a sparkling 1.26 ERA. His 37.8% strikeout rate isn’t quite as high as his ridiculous 47.8% peak in 2019, but he still ranks among the league leaders in strikeout rate.
Since putting that six-run August meltdown against the Royals behind him, here’s Hader’s line (postseason included): 45 1/3 innings, 0.99 ERA, 38% strikeout rate, 9.8% walk rate, 29 saves.
Hader will be a year older in free agency than Edwin Diaz was when he set the relief pitcher record on a five-year, $102MM contract (which includes multiple opt-outs). That slight age gap will matter, but Hader has the longer and steadier track record of the two and could benefit from his handedness. So long as he keeps somewhere near this pace, he’ll take aim at making Diaz’s record short-lived.
9. Marcus Stroman, SP, Cubs: Stroman’s three-year, $71MM contract allows him to opt out of the final year this offseason. In doing so, he’d leave $21MM on the table, but there’s little doubt he’d be able to topple that mark in free agency. Stroman has already received a qualifying offer in his career, meaning he can’t receive a second one. He’s also the current MLB leader in bWAR (3.5) and third in the Majors in RA9-WAR (also 3.5). Through 102 innings, Stroman touts a 2.47 ERA and a 59.3% grounder rate that’s second only to Logan Webb among all qualified pitchers.
Good as Stroman’s results are, there’s some reason to be a bit skeptical on his earning power. He can surely outpace the $21MM he’d leave on the table by opting out, likely securing another multi-year deal in free agency. That said, Stroman’s profile hasn’t really changed since his last foray into the open market. He still has a below-average strikeout rate, and the lower-than-average walk rate he had last time around has crept up to about league average in 2023. He’s inducing more grounders than he has since 2018, but the primary reason for the drop in his ERA has been a career-low home run rate. Just 8.3% of the fly-balls allowed by Stroman have been homers — well shy of his 13.5% career mark.
Homer-to-flyball rate tends to stabilize over larger samples — Stroman was between 12.6% and 13.9% every year from 2018-22, for instance — so teams might essentially view him as the same pitcher he was in the 2021-22 offseason, just a couple years older. One factor working in Stroman’s favor is that the price of pitching has increased since then; Jameson Taillon, Taijuan Walker and Chris Bassitt all helped advance that market last offseason. Bassitt’s three-year, $63MM deal with the Blue Jays should be of particular note. He secured that contract despite being hit with a QO that Stroman won’t have to contend with, and did so heading into his age-34 season. Next year will be Stroman’s age-33 season. He should at least be able to secure a three-year deal at a larger AAV than Bassitt received. A four-year deal with an AAV north of $20MM is also possible.
10. Jordan Montgomery, SP, Cardinals: Montgomery had a pair of rough starts in the season’s first six weeks, allowing seven and six runs in that pair of outings and ballooning his ERA in the process. Things have largely evened out though, and Montgomery’s numbers look just as solid as they did when he was establishing himself as a mid-rotation hurler in the Bronx, Through 92 innings, he’s posted a 3.52 ERA with a 21.9% strikeout rate, 5.9% walk rate and 46.6% grounder rate that all line up neatly with his 2021-22 production.
Montgomery pitched just 31 1/3 big league innings in 2018-19 due to Tommy John surgery and struggled in the shortened 2020 campaign upon his return from that operation. Since Opening Day 2021, however, he carries a 3.66 ERA and matching secondary marks (3.61 FIP, 3.88 SIERA) in 421 innings. If the Cardinals don’t trade Montgomery, he’ll be a natural qualifying offer candidate. He’d very likely reject that one-year offer in search of a multi-year deal in free agency. Montgomery isn’t an ace, but the market rewarded both Taillon (four years, $68MM) and Walker (four years, $72MM) with four-year contracts last winter. Neither had a QO attached to him, but Montgomery, who’ll turn 31 in December, has a better recent track record than both pitchers as well.
Of course, if the Cardinals remain out of the postseason hunt in late July, Montgomery will be a sought-after trade candidate. A trade to another club would render him ineligible to receive a QO. Even if the Cardinals hang onto him and make him a QO, he’ll still reach free agency in search of a comparable or even larger deal than the ones signed by Taillon, Walker and Bassitt. As with Stroman, it’s worth noting that Bassitt was older in free agency than Montgomery will be (by a margin of three years in Montgomery’s case).
Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically): Harrison Bader, Cody Bellinger, Jeimer Candelario, Sonny Gray, Teoscar Hernandez, Shota Imanaga, Joc Pederson, Eduardo Rodriguez (opt-out), Max Scherzer (player option), Jorge Soler (player option)