For some players, their walk year is one of the most important seasons of their careers. It is the year that has the most impact on a player’s future. This season’s final weeks could make a big difference in some free-agent negotiations as players will use these games to pad their season totals which will be critical during the offseason. These are the top 10 free agents who need to perform the most in these final weeks of the regular season to get the contract they want.
MLB’s Top 10 Free Agents With Something To Prove
1. Blake Snell, RHP, San Diego Padres
Blake Snell is having possibly the best season of his career this season and looks like a strong candidate to win the Cy Young award for the second time. His great season couldn’t have been timed better for his sake as he now enters the offseason as the top starting pitcher on the market. At 29 years old he looks like he will get a good long-term deal, but he still has something to prove as the season ends.
Inning for inning Snell has been probably the best pitcher in baseball with a 2.43 ERA and a 31.4% strikeout rate. However, he doesn’t have the volume other great pitchers have, he rarely goes past the sixth inning averaging around 5.2 innings per start, and has a walk problem. He has the highest walk rate among all qualified pitchers at 13.4%, which is 2.2% higher than second-place Kodai Senga. If Snell performs well in his final few starts, he will have the opportunity to get paid like one of the best pitchers in the sport.
2. Cody Bellinger, CF, Chicago Cubs
Well, it looks like he’s back. It took a while for him to find it again after his elbow surgery but this year Cody Bellinger has re-emerged as an all-star caliber player. After a dreadful two-season stretch from 2021-2022 when he had a wRC+ of 69 (100 is league average and that is a stunning 31% worse than average) he has come back to the tune of a 139 wRC+ and 4.2 fWAR that essentially makes him a shoo-in for the comeback player of the year award. His decision to bet on himself and sign a one-year deal with the Cubs has paid off better than anyone could have imagined, not only will he go into the open market as an elite outfielder with MVP potential, but he is almost certainly going to be the best position player on the market not named Shohei Ohtani.
The thing holding him back from getting a massive contract is whether or not teams will fully buy into this resurgence. Bellinger’s underlying metrics don’t paint an optimistic picture, his percentile rankings in average exit velocity, hard hit rate and barrels are all poor (21st, 11th, and 29th respectively). He is also chasing more than ever and walking less than he ever has. His chase rate is up above 30% and he is walking around 6.5% of the time. That is compared to a 23.8% chase rate and a league-leading 14.4% walk rate in his MVP campaign in 2019. All Bellinger needs to do is prove that this season isn’t a fluke, which just means showing teams that he is fully healthy, hitting the ball hard, and making sound swing decisions.
3. Marcus Stroman, RHP, Chicago Cubs
Marcus Stroman has more incentive to prove himself in the last few weeks of the season than almost any other player as he will not necessarily be a free agent. Stroman holds a $21 million player option for next year in his contract and right now he is on the border between picking it up and electing free agency. If he chooses to decline the option and hit the open market, he will have to show the league that he is consistent enough to be a legitimate number-two starter in a competitive rotation.
At times this season Stroman has looked like an ace, from the beginning of the season through June 30th, he had an ERA of 2.47 and was considered a Cy Young Candidate. However, since then he has not been good, with a 9.11 ERA in July followed by a rib injury he is still rehabbing from. That kind of second-half disaster will make teams significantly less interested in giving out long-term deals, especially for starting pitchers in their 30s. If Stroman can come back from the injury and be at all effective, even in a relief or spot starter role, he can show teams he is good enough to be a key part of their rotation and feel confident about declining that player option.
4. Charlie Morton, RHP, Atlanta Braves
It may seem odd to have Charlie Morton as someone with something to prove, especially since he has been one of the most consistent starters in the majors in the last five years and has been on very good teams. However people often forget that Morton was a journeyman starter just trying to stay in the league, it wasn’t until he joined the Astros in 2017 when he was already 33 years old that he became a consistently effective starting pitcher. Next season he will be entering his age 40 season still being an effective option for the best team in the league. The one question that Morton needs to answer is whether or not he is going to decline as he enters his forties.
His stuff doesn’t seem to be declining, the run values on all of his pitches are pretty much the same as they have always been. If anything, his curveball, changeup, and cutter have all been rated better in 2023 than they have been since 2019. The results back this up too, he has a 2.9 fWAR and a 3.42 ERA, pretty similar to his last several years of performance. The concern for Morton will be his control of the three true outcomes, his strikeout rate is the lowest it has been in a full season since 2016 and his walk rate is the highest it has been since 2016. The good news for Morton is he has been better lately, he is sporting a 2.74 ERA over the last four weeks and if he can keep that up he looks like he will get a very solid short-term deal with a competitive team.
5. Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds
Joey Votto is indisputably one of the most interesting players in all of baseball. Now, he is one of the most interesting free agents in baseball. Assuming he doesn’t decide to retire at the end of the season what Votto does in these final few weeks of the season may be crucial for his perceived value in the offseason. Votto is a future Hall of Famer and one of the best hitters of his generation but he is now 40 years old and coming off the last year of his massive contract with the Reds after the two least productive seasons of his career. He hasn’t played a full season since he became a power hitter in his resurgent 2021 campaign and since then, he has not nearly been the impact bat he once was.
Every team knows Votto is not going to be a good first baseman, most teams will likely value him primarily as a DH but what he needs to prove is whether or not he can still hit. No team will be expecting the slugger we saw in 2021 but teams may be hesitant to sign him if he continues his poor offensive play this season. If he can finish the season strong, maybe have a decent on-base percentage, and hit for some power then there will certainly be teams willing to take a chance on him as he enters his forties.
6. Lance Lynn, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
There was a time when Lance Lynn was one of the best pitchers in the sport. from 2019-2021 he was top six in CY Young voting each year and was given a big, multi-year deal with the White Sox that will likely be remembered as a disaster. When he was traded to the Dodgers at this year’s trade deadline he was statistically one of if not the least effective starting pitcher in the MLB. He went to the Dodgers and started pitching extremely well and many thought that this was the return of Lance Lynn, it was not.
Lynn has been better in LA, but he still has a 4.60 ERA and has not been very effective. His underlying numbers are even worse if that’s possible. His statcast pitching run value is a stunning -30. His fastball and breaking ball values are in the first and second percentile in the whole league. His off-speed stuff has been his best and is still rated at -2 runs. This shouldn’t be overly shocking though, after all, he is 36 years old so his decline is expected. He is still a tantalizing free agent because, throughout the last couple of years he has shown signs of being who he once was. The metrics don’t consider Lynn to be a good enough pitcher to play in the major leagues but if he can finish the season strong he may get an opportunity in the big leagues next season.
7. Josh Bell, 1B, Miami Marlins
Josh Bell has always been a guy who had a lot of potential. He was a top 50 prospect before he made his debut in 2016 and was a Rookie of the Year finalist in 2017. Many thought he would become one of the best power threats in the league. That has not happened, and he has been very inconsistent in the last several years.
His 2019 was fantastic to the tune of a 135 wRC+, his 2020 was terrible (76 wRC+), and then he was very good again in 2021 with a 119 wRC+. Then he really started to get unpredictable. He was one of the league’s best hitters in 2022 until the trade deadline, then after he was dealt to the Padres he was horrible again (74 wRC+). This year he started with the Guardians as a league average hitter but after being dealt for the second year in a row he has been really good for the Marlins.
All of that is really to say that he has been extremely unpredictable, a trait teams don’t usually like in free agents. He for sure isn’t going to get a long-term deal because of his inconsistencies, but teams will still consider him a valuable bat. Bell is only 30 years old so you still have a few more good years before he starts to decline and with the thin position player market this year there will certainly be multiple teams bidding for his services. He just needs to continue to play well through the season finale and he should be in line for a very solid payday.
8. Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP, Detroit Tigers
This has been a resurgent season for Eduardo Rodriguez, after a down year last year he is now pitching the way the Tigers would have expected when they signed him to a five-year, $77 million contract in 2021. That contract also included an opt-out after the 2023 season which made this year very important for him. He has statistically had a good season with a 3.32 ERA across 135.2 innings this season, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Before Rodriguez suffered a left finger injury in late May he was one of the best pitchers in baseball with a 2.13 ERA in 67.2 striking out pretty much a batter per inning. Since then he has been significantly worse, sporting a 4.50 ERA in 68 innings. Obviously, ERA isn’t a great way to measure a pitcher’s ability but it still gives a general idea of the difference the injury has made to Rodriguez’s season. Whether or not he decides to opt out is yet to be determined, if he pitches well these next few weeks there is a good chance he decides to test the open market. If he doesn’t pitch well, it makes the decision much tougher for him and could affect his future pay cheques.
9. Teoscar Hernandez, RF, Seattle Mariners
Teoscar Hernandez has been one of the better and most consistent outfield bats in the MLB over the last four seasons. From his breakout season in 2020 to 2022 he had a wRC+ between 130 and 142 each season which is consistent all-star level production. Although in his first season after being traded to the Mariners he has not been quite as productive with a 110 wRC+ and a good but not great .765 OPS. While those are not bad stats, they are not what the Mariners thought they would get when they acquired him.
Hernandez is almost exclusively a right fielder, an offense-first position where above-average production is expected and not so hard to come by on the open market. As well, Hernandez’s defense has always been very poor, so his value is almost entirely reliant on the quality of his bat. He needs to regroup in these final weeks and bring his numbers up a bit otherwise he falls into a crowd of above-average-hitting corner outfielders that teams often treat as interchangeable.
10. Matt Chapman, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays
Remember when Matt Chapman was one of the handful of top third basemen in the MLB? Well, that has not been the case this year. Remember when he was the AL Player of the Month in April? Well, that MVP-level production didn’t last very long. In 2023 he is having what will end up as the least productive season of his career, his 3.1 fWAR would be the lowest of his career in a full season and his 111 wRC+ would be his second lowest. The latter makes his season look better than it has been, since May 15 his wRC+ is a dismal 89. His defense hasn’t been as good as it once was either, his outs above average (OAA) numbers over the last couple of seasons with the Blue Jays are down substantially since he left the Athletics. His four OAA in 2023 and one in 2022 are not bad but are a significant decline from the 17 he had in 2021 alone.
All of that isn’t to say that Chapman is a bad player, he has been a very solid player this season. He just needs to perform like a top player to get the contract he wants. When he was with Oakland he was a top 10 player in MVP twice, an all-star, and a Gold Glove award winner. Now, entering his age 31 season no one should expect that kind of production from him again unless he can recapture whatever it was that made him the best hitter in the world in April. Teams will just have to see it to believe it.
Every offseason brings the opportunity to look at some interesting players and figure out how much they are worth to teams around the league. Those 10 are not the only guys who will be evaluated, those are just the players who have the most control over how their free agency is viewed over the next 15 to 20 games.
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