Bowden: Where will the top remaining free agents sign? Predicting their new teams, contracts

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Bowden: Where will the top remaining free agents sign? Predicting their new teams, contracts

The Winter Meetings were quiet this year, mainly because the industry was waiting for Shohei Ohtani to sign. That wait ended dramatically on Saturday, when Ohtani agreed to a 10-year, $700 million deal with the Dodgers that includes massive deferrals. Now, who’s next?

There should be a lot of free-agent activity over the next couple of weeks, so I decided to take stock of the markets for some notable names. I looked at 17 of the top remaining free agents and made new predictions — based on my conversations with decision-makers across the game — for where they’ll sign, what contracts they’ll receive, and which teams offer the best fits.

(WAR stats are according to Baseball Reference. MLB advanced stats and percentiles are according to Statcast.) 

Age: 25
2023 (Orix Buffaloes, Japan Pacific League): Stats

Team prediction: Yankees

Yamamoto is the most sought-after free agent remaining on the market. When the offseason began, it was believed he would get a contract in the $200 million to $220 million range, but now several front-office executives believe he will get closer to $300 million. Why such a big swing? It’s rare for a top-of-the-rotation starter to hit free agency at such a young age and it’s thought that the bidding war among teams, including many big-market clubs, will drive up the price.

Best fits: Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Rangers, Giants, Red Sox, Cubs
Contract prediction: Nine years, $304 million

Jordan Montgomery delivered for the Rangers after being traded by St. Louis at the deadline. (Aiden Shertzer / Texas Rangers / Getty Images)

2. Jordan Montgomery, LHP

Age: 30
2023 (Rangers/Cardinals): 4.1 WAR

Team prediction: Rangers

Montgomery is a perfect match for teams such as the Yankees and Cardinals, but he’s already pitched for both and because they traded him isn’t inclined to return. He seemed so at home with the Rangers — playing for manager Bruce Bochy, working with pitching coach Mike Maddux, and being able to learn from future Hall of Fame hurlers like Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer — that it appears Texas would be his first choice. However, his agent, Scott Boras, tends to recommend his clients take the most years and dollars offered, and I’m not sure the Rangers will end up leading the field in those categories. Montgomery would be a difference-maker for the Orioles or Reds, but I can’t see either club stepping up financially to land him, so I’m predicting he returns to the Lone Star State, with the Giants as a sleeper team.

Best fits: Rangers, Giants, Cardinals, Yankees, Dodgers
Contract prediction: Six years, $167 million

3. Blake Snell, LHP

Age: 31
2023 (Padres): 6.0 WAR

Team prediction: Mets

Snell went 14-9 with a 2.25 ERA and 234 strikeouts over 32 starts. He didn’t allow a run in five of his last six starts and was one of the bright spots for the Padres in a disappointing season. However, he’s only pitched 130 innings or more in two of his eight seasons, although he did win a Cy Young Award both years (2018 with Tampa Bay and this year with San Diego). Snell’s market has been quiet but most team executives believe that if Yamamoto declines the Mets’ offer, they will pivot to Snell.

Best fits: Mets, Red Sox, Giants, Dodgers
Contract prediction: Six years, $162 million

4. Cody Bellinger, CF

Age: 28
2023 (Cubs): 4.4 WAR

Team prediction: Cubs

Bellinger’s free-agent market was held up by the Ohtani sweepstakes, but now the bidding can begin in earnest from interested teams. After losing out on Ohtani, the Blue Jays could quickly pivot to signing Bellinger to play left field. The Cubs would love to bring him back after a strong season in which he was named National League Comeback Player of the Year. With all the success Bellinger had last season with Chicago, a reunion makes a lot of sense; if I were him, I would re-sign with the Cubs, especially if the contract offers are in the same range.

Best fits: Blue Jays, Cubs, Giants, Angels
Contract prediction: Seven years, $181 million

5. Matt Chapman, 3B

Age: 30
2023 (Blue Jays): 4.4 WAR

Team prediction: Blue Jays

The Blue Jays want to re-sign Chapman and have made multiple aggressive proposals to try to reach an agreement. A three-time Gold Glove Award winner, Chapman remains one of the best defensive third basemen in the majors. He has 92 Defensive Runs Saved in his career after tallying 12 DRS this year. He hit 27 home runs in both 2021 and 2022 but this past season had only 17 homers with 54 RBIs. However, he also hit 39 doubles and scored 66 runs over 140 games. He ranked in the 98th percentile in average exit velocity and Barrel% while finishing in the 100th percentile in hard-hit rate. I’m predicting a return to Toronto, but he’d fit nicely in the Cubs’ and Giants’ lineups too.

Best fits: Blue Jays, Cubs, Giants
Contract prediction: Six years, $127 million

Age: 29
2023 (Padres): 2.4 WAR

Team prediction: Rangers

Hader’s free-agent market has been unexpectedly quiet, and his next team could be one that misses out on its starting pitching targets. For example, if the Rangers and/or Yankees don’t get one of the starters they’ve been pursuing, then signing Hader would be a smart pivot, as both teams could use an impact closer. He also could end up on a non-contender that becomes the highest bidder, such as the Angels. Hader remains one of the game’s most dominant closers after recording a 1.28 ERA and 33 saves with 85 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings. I originally thought he had a chance to top Edwin Díaz’s five-year, $102 million contract, but I’m lowering my projection and now predict that he beats Díaz in terms of average annual salary but gets only a three-year deal.

Best fits: Rangers, Yankees, Angels
Contract prediction: Three years, $63 million

Age: 25
2023 (Kiwoom Heroes, KBO): Stats

Team prediction: Giants

Lee was the player most-cited by executives as ranked too low in my initial top free agents list, and the main reason for that was I’d never seen him in person. However, the industry has clearly conveyed to me that he’s a top center-field target for every team with a need at the position. Major-league scouts are split on his hit tool: Some believe he’ll hit right out of the gate; others think he’ll have more of a learning curve and could take a year or two to adjust to MLB pitching. The best part of Lee’s hit tool is his contact rate and ability to draw walks. (He had more walks than strikeouts over seven seasons in the KBO.) He’s a plus center fielder with plus range and a strong arm. He gets good jumps on balls and takes good routes. He’s an above-average runner with long strides but is not a base-stealing threat. The Giants and Padres are the two teams with the biggest needs in center field and both have been linked to Lee in recent days.

Best fits: Giants, Padres
Contract prediction: Five years, $92.5 million

J.D. Martinez hits a home run in the NLDS against the Diamondbacks. Will he be playing for them next year? (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

8. J.D. Martinez, DH

Age: 36
2023 (Dodgers): 1.9 WAR

Team prediction: Diamondbacks

Martinez had to wait and see if the Dodgers landed Ohtani; if they hadn’t, in all likelihood he’d be re-signing with them. However, now it appears he might remain in the same division but join the NL champion Diamondbacks if the two sides can find common ground on a deal. Martinez was one of the best designated hitters in the league last season, with 33 home runs, 103 RBIs and a 134 OPS+. He has been to three consecutive All-Star games and continues to be a leader and mentor in the clubhouse.

Best fits: Diamondbacks, Mariners, Angels
Contract prediction: Two years, $30 million

Age: 30
2023 (Diamondbacks): 3.0 WAR

Team prediction: Diamondbacks

Gurriel slashed .261/.309/.463 last season with 35 doubles, 24 home runs and 82 RBIs. Defensively, he logged 14 Defensive Runs Saved and made eight outfield assists. Arizona would love to re-sign him. The Mariners are another possible landing spot as they’re looking for a left fielder to replace Jarred Kelenic, whom they dealt to the Braves during the Winter Meetings.

Best fits: Diamondbacks, Mariners, Marlins
Contract prediction: Three years, $39 million

Age: 30
2023 (Phillies): 0.0 WAR

Team prediction: Giants

After missing the 2023 season with a torn ACL, Hoskins’ best play this offseason is probably to sign a one-year pillow contract and then go back on the free-agent market next year; that would give him a chance to prove he is healthy, has improved defensively, and still has 25-30 home run power. I think he lands with the Cubs if they don’t get Bellinger, or with the Giants if they do.

Best fits: Giants, Cubs, Padres, Blue Jays
Contract prediction: One year, $15 million

Age: 39
2023 (Red Sox): 2.1 WAR

Team prediction: Mariners

Turner had a nice year, slashing .276/.345/.455 with 31 doubles, 23 home runs and 96 RBIs. Beyond the production, you’re also getting a leader. The Mariners and Diamondbacks both need a DH type bat; if Arizona signs Martinez, I could see Turner landing in Seattle.

Best fits: Mariners, Diamondbacks
Contract prediction: One year, $14 million

Age: 32
WAR (Padres): 2.4 WAR

Team prediction: Angels

Wacha went 14-4 this year with a 3.22 ERA over 134 1/3 innings while allowing just 113 hits and striking out 124 batters. In 2022, he went 11-2 with a 3.32 ERA, so he has been consistently solid the past two years when healthy. The Angels always need pitching and if they sign him and he performs like he did last season, he’ll be a nice trade chip at the deadline, as they try to build up their farm system.

Best fits: Angels, Giants, Cubs
Contract prediction: Two years, $28 million

Age: 29
2023 (Guardians/Angels/White Sox): 1.7 WAR

Team prediction: Dodgers

Giolito went 8-15 this season with a 4.88 ERA over 33 combined starts (184 1/3 innings) for the White Sox, Angels and Guardians. He allowed a league-leading 41 home runs yet had 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings (but also 3.6 walks per nine). He needs to sign with a team with a strong pitching coach and analytics staff that will treat him as a reclamation project. With the right pitching plan, Giolito could rediscover what he had during his best years (2019-21). The Dodgers have had a lot of success with reclamation-project pitchers and they need veteran starters for their depleted rotation, so a one-year deal makes sense.

Best fits: Dodgers, Mets, Red Sox. Giants
Contract prediction: One year, $15 million

Age: 34
2023 (Padres): 1.8 WAR

Team prediction: Royals

Several teams are in the mix for Lugo and he might end up having to decide whether to sign for less money with a contender such as the Braves or chase the best contract, which could ultimately come from the Royals. He went 8-7 this year with a 3.57 ERA over 26 starts and 146 1/3 innings. It was the first time Lugo was a full-time starter since 2017 and he relished the role. He has kept his season ERA between 3.50 and 3.60 for three consecutive years, although his strikeouts per nine innings have trended down — from 10.7 to 9.6 to 8.6 — over that span.

Best fits: Red Sox, Royals, Braves
Contract prediction: Two years, $24 million

Teoscar Hernández is a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner. (Stephen Brashear / USA Today)

Age: 31
2023 (Mariners): 2.1 WAR

Team prediction: Angels

The Angels have money to spend after losing Ohtani, they need power, and Hernández fits a profile that aligns with general manager Perry Minasian’s track record, including his trade for Hunter Renfroe in 2022. Hernández has hit 25 or more home runs in four of the past five years, including 26 last season to go along with 29 doubles and 93 RBIs. He was again among the league leaders in strikeouts (211) and had a .305 on-base percentage. He is a below-average defender in right field, finishing with 1 DRS, three errors, and in the 61st percentile in outs above average. (He was in the 78th percentile in arm strength and in the 82nd percentile in sprint speed.) However, his consistent power from the right side is enticing.

Best fits: Angels, Mariners, Marlins, Padres, Guardians
Contract prediction: Two years, $28 million

16. Jorge Soler, OF/DH

Age: 31
2023 (Marlins): 1.8 WAR

Team prediction: Mariners

Soler hit 36 homers this year and finished with a .341 on-base percentage and a 128 OPS+. He made his first All-Star team and, as expected, opted out of his contract after the season. The Mariners lost 59 home runs this offseason after trading Eugenio Suárez to Arizona and Kelenic to Atlanta and losing Hernández to free agency. Soler can make up more than half of those home runs by himself. Although the Mariners’ main offseason goal is to add contact hitters, a need Soler doesn’t address, they can’t ignore their depleted power.

Best fits: Mariners, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Padres, Guardians
Contract prediction: Two years, $32 million

17. Whit Merrifield, 2B/OF

Age: 34
2023 (Blue Jays): 0.7 WAR

Team prediction: Red Sox

Merrifield made his third All-Star team this year, slashing .272/.318/.382 with 27 doubles, 11 home runs and 26 stolen bases. His versatility — he can play both second base and the outfield — increases his free-agent value. In his career, Merrifield has led the league in doubles, triples, sacrifice flies, and in hits twice and stolen bases three times. To me, his best team fits are the Red Sox and Phillies. I think he’d get more playing time with Boston (at both second base and in left field) and would have an easier path to becoming a starter. However, he would have a better shot at a World Series championship with Philadelphia but in more of a bench role.

Best fits: Red Sox, Phillies
Contract prediction: Two years, $16 million

(Top photo of Yoshinobu Yamamoto: Eric Espada / Getty Images)