The Hot Stove hasn’t yet surpassed warm in Major League Baseball, but things are about to pick up in a hurry: The Winter Meetings are set to take place in Nashville, from Dec. 4-7, and they usually present front offices across the league with the perfect setting to agree on trades and negotiate with free agents face to face.
In this exercise, we will be doing a positional breakdown of the best free agents available ahead of the meetings, ranked by raw value. You’re welcome, general managers.
Raw value, often presented as RV+/- in its rate form, is a metric that evaluates performance on a per-pitch basis, rather than just looking at the outcome of an at-bat. It analyzes elements such as plate discipline, quality of contact and more.
For this metric (expressed as RV+ for hitters and RV- for pitchers), 100 is considered league-average performance. For hurlers, lower is better, and the opposite is true for batters.
Onto the positional breakdown of free agents ahead of the always-important meetings.
Mitch Garver is, by far, the best catcher available. He is not a particularly good framer or even a league-average defender behind the plate but, boy, he can rake. His 141 RV+ was tops among free-agent backstops, and he also hit 19 home runs and drove in 50 RBI for the World Series-winning Texas Rangers. Pairing him with a defensive-minded catcher (like the Rangers did with him and Jonah Heim) would give that team an ideal tandem.
Although Tom Murphy’s framing skills have had fluctuations over the years, he does a decent job behind the plate and, if deployed correctly, he could return excellent offensive performance like he did for the Seattle Mariners in 2023 (140 RV+).
Gary Sanchez had quite a career revival this past season, with 19 home runs and a 126 RV+ in 75 games. He also did well behind the plate and could be a value option for a team even though his batting average likely won’t be higher than .220 (it hasn’t been since 2019).
Carlos Perez, Zack Collins and Victor Caratini are the remaining catching options with above-average performance according to RV+.
The first base market is rather thin. There are no elite options, and you could argue that Rhys Hoskins, who didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Philadelphia Phillies, is the top alternative. He is coming off missing the 2023 campaign with major knee surgery, though.
Ji-Man Choi actually led free-agent first basemen in RV+ with a 141 mark, but he only made 117 plate appearances. Brandon Belt, who racked up 403, was next with a 118 mark and could make for a fine lefty hitter for any lineup.
C.J. Cron (110 RV+) and Carlos Santana (103) are the only ones, besides the aforementioned couple, with an above-average RV+ among first basemen.
If there isn’t a lot of talent at first base, then the keystone is even worse. Donovan Solano, with his 113 RV+, is the best the position has to offer when it comes to offense.
Solano has hit .280 or better in each of his last five seasons and has been above average in most of them, but he will be 36 on Opening Day.
Brad Miller (92 RV+) and Adam Frazier (86 RV+) are at least decent, but there is a huge drop-off after that and the former barely played in 2023. One has to think that middle infielders in the trade market have a lot of value this offseason.
Drew Ellis is atop the above list, but he made 29 plate appearances last season and has a .563 OPS in 47 career MLB games, so he is not exactly the best third baseman available. That title belongs to Matt Chapman and his 118 RV+.
Chapman cooled off significantly after his explosive April (1.152 OPS), but he remains powerful and supremely gifted as a defender. Someone will pay him dearly to be their third baseman.
Josh Donaldson hit .152 in 51 games with the Yankees and Brewers but could bat around .220 with impact power if healthy enough, so he should get a contract. Justin Turner (112 RV+) and Evan Longoria (110 RV+) are viable veteran options, particularly the former. Jeimer Candelario should also generate some interest.
Well, it’s certainly not the best year in free agency for teams looking for an infielder, huh? Solano, who can theoretically play shortstop, qualifies as the best hitter available. After him, we have Amed Rosario and his 87 RV+. Yikes.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s ceiling is very limited, and Paul DeJong, who makes too many bad decisions at the plate to offer any consistency but has some power, reportedly signed a one-year deal with the Chicago White Sox. Former batting champ Tim Anderson is also available.
Joc Pederson and Tommy Pham, two veterans who posted a rock-solid 128 RV+ in 2023, headline a left field class that also includes the solid Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (110 RV+) and David Peralta (108 RV+).
There are also a couple of potential value plays here: Michael Brantley (93 RV+ in very limited playing time due to a shoulder injury) and Eddie Rosario (92 RV+).
Despite hitting 26 home runs and posting a .881 OPS with the Chicago Cubs this past campaign, Cody Bellinger had a slightly above-average 107 RV+, so the model is not exactly a fan of his plate skills. Nevertheless, he produced solid numbers with a career-best .307 average to complement 26 home runs and 97 RBIs and is getting enough attention to suggest he will be a very wealthy man in a matter of weeks.
One outfielder to watch could be Jung-Hoo Lee, who will be posted in early December by the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). Incredible bat control and contact ability (plus doubles power and some speed, too) give him a solid MLB floor, but there are questions about how he will adjust to high-end velocity. He is also a very solid defensive center fielder, so all things considered, he will be landing a nice contract.
Other than Bellinger and Lee, there really aren’t that many prominent names in free agency at the position. Kevin Pillar (103 RV+), Michael Taylor (90 RV+), Harrison Bader (83 RV+) and Kevin Kiermaier (83 RV+) are known more for their defense but offer at least modest power-speed numbers to remain interesting.
J.D. Martinez might be getting up there in age, but he did post a thoroughly impressive 146 RV+ in 2023. He is more of a DH at this point, but teams looking for offense should be lining up for his services.
Impressive veteran Andrew McCutchen (123 RV+) keeps producing at 37 and just posted a .776 OPS with the Pirates. Teoscar Hernandez and Adam Duvall can provide some power, while Jesse Winker offers bounce-back potential.
Shohei Ohtani is likely the best free agent MLB has seen in its history. Anyone capable of posting a 3.14 ERA and striking out 167 hitters in 132 innings while also hitting 44 home runs with a 1.066 OPS in one roster spot is guaranteed to make historic amounts of money. The question is where? The Los Angeles Dodgers? San Francisco Giants? New York Mets? Chicago Cubs? Just as there’s no matching him as a player, there’s no matching his raw value with the bat among free agents.
As a DH alternative, Jorge Soler hit 36 home runs for the Miami Marlins this year. Yes, it’s safe to say he has some impact power.
Pitchers are starting to fly off the board, slowly but surely. Aaron Nola was the first major name to go, having resigned with the Philadelphia Phillies, but Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson and Sonny Gray (St. Louis Cardinals), as well as Kenta Maeda (Detroit Tigers) have also committed their future to MLB organizations.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who posted a 1.21 ERA in 164 innings in Japan this year, is perhaps the top pitcher available. The New York Yankees are said to be more in on the Yamamoto sweepstakes than Ohtani after missing the postseason. But they’re certainly competing with AL East rivals the Boston Red Sox and others for his services. Cy Young award winner Blake Snell is another top option, as are Eduardo Rodriguez and Marcus Stroman.
Left-hander Shota Imanaga, with an impressive World Baseball Classic showing and a 2.80 ERA in 148 frames in Japan this year, will be officially posted this week.
Clayton Kershaw and Brandon Woodruff would definitely get more money if they weren’t hurt and expected to miss several months of the 2024 campaign.
Josh Hader is obviously the prize of free agency when it comes to relievers. He had a 1.28 ERA (not WHIP, ERA) this year with the San Diego Padres, with 85 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. With a 150 whiff+, he showed the world that his bat-missing ability is intact. Oh, and he also brings 165 career saves to the table.
Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson and Will Smith are all seasoned veterans who remained quite effective in 2023, at least according to raw value.
Hector Neris, Jakob Junis and Matt Moore are also names to follow in the market. Keep in mind the Braves have already snagged Joe Jimenez and Reynaldo Lopez on three-year deals.