Free Agent Rankings and Predictions
Where are the top free agents going and how are the Royals going to afford all of them?
The 2023 season has come to an end with the Texas Rangers emerging as World Champions. But that’s not the story. The story is that now those who were scheduled to become free agents have become, well, free agents. And that means it’s time to predict where these guys go. This is an exercise I do every year. And every year, I’ll get one right and get excited and then look at the list and realize how terrible a job I did. And yet, I keep doing it. Every. Single. Year. When will I learn? Not this year because I’m doing it again. It’s an interesting exercise because sometimes while I’m picking the teams, I learn that this team was way better at this spot than I expected or that team was way worse. I watch a lot of baseball, but I’m so Royals-centric that sometimes teams will surprise me.
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I’ll also admit that there is a lot of dart-throwing in this exercise. There are anywhere between two and 10 teams that make sense for basically any of these players. But if you’re really putting yourself out there, you have to pick one. It’s at least fun and what’s the offseason without some fun?
Without further ado…
Now my thoughts:
I reached out to a couple of people I trust around the game to see if any of this was just absolutely ridiculous. One responded with one word, “Dumb.” I asked if they were bad predictions. He said, “All free agent predictions are bad predictions.” The other sent me this gif:
I asked him a pretty similar question. All he said is that I’m an idiot for even doing this. So we’re off to a great start! But I will not be knocked off course.
Okay, but for real. I think Shohei Ohtani is a Dodger and if he wasn’t going to be, then they would have done a lot more that would have led to more payroll this past season that might have helped them get past the juggernaut Diamondbacks in the playoffs. I think there are other fits for him, but with reports that the Padres are trying to cut salary and Ohtani’s West Coast preference from back when he came to the U.S., I just feel like the Dodgers are the logical team for him. Which means enjoy him as a Miami Marlin or something.
This class does have some pretty awesome top-end talent along with a few very interesting Japanese players. It’s also a bad class overall. I like to say that top-100 prospect lists are really top-50 lists with preferences after that point because I believe there are arguments for about 100 players in that back half. This free agent list is really a top eight to 10 and then there are a bunch of guys who can slot in for here. I actually extended out to 35 instead of just the 25 above, but I’m looking at it and I could make an argument for 35 (Andrew Heaney) to be in the top-20. At some point, I just had to decide and go with it.
Now, as for some of the choices. I think the Giants will be quite aggressive, as they have been the last couple of off-seasons. But I think they’ll be a lot more successful this time around. I’m not sure how real the Gabe Kapler impact was, but one of the scouts I spoke with about this list thinks he played at least some role in keeping players away. That surprised me and it’s just one-man’s opinion, but I thought it was interesting. Bob Melvin will help them there. They need help and with the Dodgers a perennial 100-win team and the Diamondbacks coming off a World Series appearance, they need to do something, and I think they go really big with Bellinger and Yamamoto and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there are a couple more on this list who end up in San Francisco. It’s a great place to play and they’ve got loads of money to spend.
My lone Royals prediction is Seth Lugo. At least from this list. I’ll get to more Royals signings that I’m predicting in a bit, but they were in pretty hard on him last year before he ultimately went to San Diego. He had a really nice season for them and has earned himself a multi-year deal, but Kansas City is a nice landing spot with a solid defense, a big park and a definite opportunity to start every fifth day with very little else available. From the perspective of the Royals, he’s a potential trade piece at the deadline as well, so it’s a good fit all the way around.
I do think the Royals will be in the conversation on Jordan Montgomery, Sonny Gray and even Eduardo Rodriguez, but I just don’t think they will or should go high enough above the market value to pay the bad team tax on any of them. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that Montgomery would have probably been attainable before his stretch run with the Rangers, but I think the price tag just went up to a point that they shouldn’t even pay that extra money or year.
Some of the above targets I’d be on if I was with the Royals are Lourdes Gurriel, Shoto Imanaga, Lucas Giolito and Robert Stephenson. Those feel like four guys who, if their market doesn’t develop like they expect, would be really nice additions to the roster.
Here’s who I think the Royals ultimately sign throughout this off-season:
Emilio Pagan (2 years, $12 million)
Frankie Montas (1 year, $4 million with heavy incentives)
Eric Lauer (1 year, $2.5 million)
Ryne Stanek (1 year, $4 million)
Phil Maton (2 years, $10 million)
That’s three relievers to boost a bad bullpen, one starting pitcher and two guys who can only be considered reclamation projects for the rotation in Montas and Lauer. I’m not sure if Montas fits as a reliever, but Lauer can work as a bulk guy/long reliever if things don’t work out for him as a starter, but the upside with those two is pretty big. Even if you just get the 2022 Montas, that’s 144.1 innings of a 4.05 ERA. The 2022 Lauer is 158.2 innings of a 3.69 ERA. That is absolutely worth the risk for the Royals.
There’s still a lot of hoping and praying in the Royals rotation, but adding Lugo and those two along with having guys like Alec Marsh, Daniel Lynch IV and Angel Zerpa allows for a rotation that at least has some experience and guys who have had varying levels of success. If Chandler Champlain and Mason Barnett can be ready by mid-season with Kris Bubic returning, suddenly a paper-thin rotation has some real depth to it. Again, lots of ifs, but it’s also a lot of darts to miss with and you want to give yourself as many chances as possible.
You’re probably thinking that there isn’t a single bat here and they promised outfielders. You’re right. I’m looking at this free agent list and I just don’t see it. I think they’re going to have to make a trade for one or two if they’re really looking to beef up this unit. Among free agents, Adam Duvall makes sense, but I think he’s at the point of his career that he’s still good enough to sign with a winner and would prefer that. They could take a shot on someone like Wil Myers or Jurickson Profar or Jesse Winker and hope for a bounceback, but I’d almost rather just give those at bats to Tyler Gentry if that’s the plan. It’s just a bad free agent market for bats, but I do think there are some arms out there for the taking and I think they spend some money to shore up the bullpen, as you can see above.
All in all, that’s a total outlay of $62.5 million spread across six players in free agency with none signing for more than two years, which keeps roster flexibility in years where they should theoretically be capable of contending. Don’t get me wrong. I’d have no problem with giving someone like Aaron Nola five years or Gray three or even going five for Imanaga, but I just don’t think that opportunity presents itself for this team at this time.
Not to always be looking ahead, but when the team is coming off 106 losses, you’re sort of looking ahead, and the 2024/2025 free agent class is one that offers a lot more promise in terms of some impact arms the Royals might find themselves able to dive into, especially after hopefully going through a season where they see enough progress to really determine the final pieces they need to acquire to get over that hump. There’s a lot of power scheduled to be a free agent, some middle infield talent and a few big name starting pitchers who have just enough of a history that the Royals may not have to go too far out of their comfort zone to lure.
As always, I’m ready to be wrong here on, well, everything. But it’s fun to go through this every year and fun to give myself a bigger picture look at what the rest of the league looks like and is after.