Jeff Passan’s early 2022-23 MLB free agency tiers

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Less than a month remains in baseball’s regular season, and with October bound to breeze by as it always does, free agency is nearly upon Major League Baseball.

The 2022-23 class is solid, headlined by a mix of MVP-caliber hitters and elite, wizened pitchers. If you need a difference-making shortstop, there are four. Bullpen help abounds. There are on-base savants, innings-chewing starters, a few catchers and a starter from Japan whose fastball kissed 102 mph this year.

Perhaps this won’t match the $3 billion winter of 2021-22, especially because historically the first offseason after a new collective-bargaining agreement sees a pullback in spending, but there are plenty of familiar names who will likely be on the move. To help everyone wrap their heads around the upcoming class, ESPN.com asked five writers to assign every player to a tier. The following are the results of that: four players in Tier 1, eight in Tier 2, 12 in Tier 3, 45 in Tier 4 and 43 in Tier 5.


Tier 1

Aaron Judge, OF: The walk year of walk years. His 57 home runs are 20 clear of next best in the majors. His 123 RBIs are 13 ahead. A Triple Crown isn’t out of the question. He has played a passable center field at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds. He has stolen 16 bases. He is everything a team wants, and if the only ding is his age at 30, then that is the most benign of warts. He will get $300 million-plus this winter. Question is, will the New York Yankees be the ones to give it to him?

Jacob deGrom, RHSP: This is what the evolution of pitching has wrought. Someone whose stuff is almost too good to be true. A fastball that sits at 99 mph and touches 102. A slider that whizzes in at 93 and tops out at 96. The curveball and change are great, if sparingly used, too. There is an argument to be made that this version of deGrom, 34, belongs in the pantheon of all-time greats. When he pitches, he is that much better than everyone else. And though concerns about his ability to do so long term persist, deGrom, if he stays healthy through the end of the season, almost assuredly will break Max Scherzer’s annual-salary record of $43.3 million.

Nolan Arenado, 3B: Earlier this year, Arenado said he did not plan on opting out of the final five years and $144 million of his contract. Seven-win seasons, of course, do not come around very often — there were just 43 in the previous decade — and Arenado’s brilliant year, combined with the leverage, warrants at least a renegotiation with St. Louis to prevent him from hitting the open market. Because if he were to, the 31-year-old would stand to do a lot better than five years, $144 million.

Trea Turner, SS: Imagine Turner in the coming world where pitchers are limited to two pickoff throws per at-bat. Even at 29, he still has the third-fastest sprint speed in MLB at more than 30 feet per second, and the prospect of 50-plus stolen bases is very real. And yet to look at Turner through a speed lens undersells his all-around game. He possesses tremendous bat control and unlikely power, and plays the most premium of positions. He is the jewel of another very good free agent shortstop class.


Tier 2

Carlos Correa, SS: Correa, too, has a choice. He can stay in Minnesota and make $35.1 million next year (and have the ability to do the same at $35.1 million for 2024) or hit free agency a year after the market didn’t give him what he hoped it would. Correa, who will enter next season at 28, still has youth on his side, and his 2022 slash line (.280/.358/.457) is in the vicinity of last year’s (.279/.366/.485). But his defense this year isn’t what it had been, and the prospect of a long-term deal at that $35 million-plus a year has diminished. Where he lands — both financially and physically — is one of the biggest questions of the winter.

Justin Verlander, RHSP: Well, a 1.84 ERA over 152 innings is quite the return from Tommy John surgery. And it’s not an empty number, either. Verlander is still striking out more than a batter an inning, has a career-low walk rate of 1.54 per nine and has halved his home run rate from 2019. Verlander turning down a $25 million player option is a given; what is up in the air is how many years and dollars teams will commit to a soon-to-be-40-year-old.

Xander Bogaerts, SS: Do not question the bat. Bogaerts leads the American League in batting average, and he’s slugging .512 in the second half. For teams that want a pure hitter, there might be no better bet. How teams project he’ll age will dictate where Bogaerts winds up. He will be 30 on Opening Day, and he has been solid enough at shortstop this season that a move off the position isn’t yet necessary.

Dansby Swanson, SS: At this point it’s safe to call Swanson a good offensive player. One-year defensive metrics are split on him — OAA says he has been the best shortstop in baseball, UZR deems him average — but scouts see Swanson as the guy who makes all the plays he should, which is a high compliment. Swanson, 29 on Opening Day, won’t break the bank. But he’s going to put a hefty dent in it.

Carlos Rodón, LHSP: When Rodón opts out of his $22.5 million player option, he’ll hit the market for the second straight year — this time with significant momentum toward a nine-figure deal. His stuff flashed that good last season. And it’s the same this year — his fastball is sizzling at a career-best 95.6 mph — with his 162⅔ innings going a long way to assuage fears about his arm. At 30 on Opening Day, Rodón is slightly older than Patrick Corbin was when he got six years and $140 million — and, with what he has done the past two seasons, better.

Edwin Díaz, RHRP: Are we looking at the first $100 million reliever? Díaz has struck out an otherworldly 102 batters in 54 innings, with a walk rate below three per nine, a puny home run rate and a Fielding Independent Pitching mark that backs up his 1.50 ERA. The wisdom in paying $20 million a year for 60 innings is suspect, but for teams that live in high-leverage situations — and for whom every win matters — the comfort of hearing the horns before the ninth inning might well be worth it.

Koudai Senga, RHSP: Teams have long awaited the day Senga comes to MLB, and with his free agency finally a reality, if he chooses to do so, he’ll be one of the most popular players this winter. His stuff is unimpeachable: a fastball that hit 101.9 mph earlier this year and a split-fingered fastball that moves as if possessed. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Senga isn’t necessarily imposing, but his numbers this season — 124 innings, 89 hits, 40 walks, 137 strikeouts, seven home runs allowed, 2.03 ERA — certainly qualify.

Chris Bassitt, RHSP: He’s sneaky old — 34 on Opening Day — but Bassitt’s bona fides are without question. He already has thrown a career-high 161⅓ innings. He doesn’t walk anyone, he strikes out nearly one batter per nine and has taken to New York like a rat to pizza. For those who don’t want to play in the $40 million-plus-a-year range for deGrom and Verlander, or go five-plus years with Rodon — and that’s a fair number of teams — Bassitt will be in demand.


Tier 3

Brandon Nimmo, CF: I think he deserves to be in Tier 2. Nimmo is a 30-year-old-to-be who handles the bat well, packs some pop, draws walks and plays an adequate center field. If it’s not the Mets, some team will fall in love with him and lock him up for something like the four years and $78 million New York gave Starling Marte over the winter — and perhaps more.

José Abreu, 1B: Old reliable is simply a very good hitter, and while the prospect of the soon-to-be 36-year-old leaving Chicago seems slim, he’ll find a healthy market if he so desires. Since May 16, he is hitting .343/.415/.492, a stretch during which his wRC+ is sixth in baseball and his wOBA ranks eighth.

Willson Contreras, C: Arguably the best-hitting catcher in the big leagues, the 30-year-old Contreras lacked suitors willing to pay a big bounty to deal for him at the trade deadline. This winter should treat him a little more kindly. He won’t get the five years and $115.5 million Philadelphia gave J.T. Realmuto, but Contreras’ bat is big enough to reap a fine deal.

Clayton Kershaw, LHSP: Kershaw’s free agency won’t be so much a free-for-all as a targeted operation. Some people inside the game have long expected Kershaw to play in Texas at some point, and with his good friend Chris Young now running the Rangers and ownership primed to spend after dropping more than $550 million last winter, the pairing makes sense. But then there are the Dodgers, Kershaw’s home for 16 years since they drafted him out of suburban Dallas, and one can’t ever imagine the Dodgers not wanting Kershaw — particularly when he’s posting a 2.62 ERA, albeit amid multiple stints on the injured list.

Jameson Taillon, RHSP: The stigma of two-time Tommy John surgery recipients isn’t quite as damning as it used to be. If there’s anything to hold against Taillon, and why he might be a tier heavy here, it’s that in his two seasons with the Yankees, he has been patently average — a 100 ERA+ last year, 99 this year. He’s good for five to six innings a start, a respectable strikeout rate and exquisite control, but at 31 in November, he is what he is: a back-of-the-rotation guy.

Tyler Anderson, LHSP: The Dodgers’ pitching machine’s latest monster, Anderson was essentially Taillon until this season. Now he’s 14-3 with a 2.73 ERA, a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and should near — if not exceed — his career-best 176 innings. He’ll be 33 in December, but as a command-and-control left-hander with an elite changeup, Anderson possesses the qualities that tend to age well.

Nathan Eovaldi, RHSP: Eovaldi’s propensity for allowing the long ball always has been the thing that keeps him from jumping to the next tier. Still, a true five-pitch starter who sits at 96 mph and strikes out five times as many hitters as he walks will be plenty popular, even if he’ll be 33 on Opening Day with two Tommy John scars on his elbow.

Adam Wainwright, RHSP: The artistry it takes to live at 89 mph from the right side in 2022 is notable, but then Wainwright doesn’t exactly live with his fastball. He throws nearly as many curveballs, and still a quarter of his pitches are cutters and damn if they don’t still work, even at 41. Wainwright might retire. If not, he’ll be back in St. Louis, where he has carved out a Hall of Very Good career since 2005.

Josh Bell, 1B: First-half Bell is a clear Tier 2 guy, with a .311/.390/.504 line. The same malady that turned Bell’s 2019 season from first-half MVP candidate to second-half disappointment has struck this year, as he is batting .205/.323/.323 with just four home runs in 45 games since the All-Star break. He’s 30 and a switch hitter, so there’s plenty to like, but for free agency purposes, such discouraging finishing kicks will cool what looked to be a hot market.

Andrew Benintendi, OF: Speaking of meh finishes, Benintendi established himself as a high-on-base, reliable-gloved corner outfielder in the first half. Following his trade to the Yankees, he was just OK — acceptable batting average, slightly above-average on-base percentage and next to no power — before fracturing his right hamate bone earlier this month. There’s more there with Benintendi, and he’ll do fine this winter because at least one team will bet it can extract it.

Mitch Haniger, OF: If there’s anyone in this group likeliest to accept the qualifying offer if given, it might be Haniger. In a quarter-season, he has posted a sub-.300 on-base percentage and hasn’t shown the pop of last year, when he hit 39 home runs. But with the Mariners on the books for just $72 million next year and only Luis Castillo in line for a big arbitration raise, Seattle could pony up around $19 million for Haniger in hopes of extracting a full, healthy season.

Note: Tim Anderson was at the top of this tier, but the White Sox are expected to pick up his one-year, $12.5 million club option. If triggered, Chicago has a one-year, $14 million option with $1 million buyout for the 2024 season.


Tier 4

All of the players in this class should expect to get major league contracts this winter. Some might even do better than players in the tier above. The most interesting — either because of their talent or questions about where they’ll fall — are written up.

Michael Brantley, OF

Carlos Carrasco, RHSP

Aroldis Chapman, LHRP: He’s not the Chapman of old, but he still regularly hit 100 mph from the left side, and plenty of teams will take a flier on that.

Mike Clevinger, RHSP: Gone are 2 mph off his fastball velocity and two strikeouts per nine off his career average. Whichever team signs him is simply hoping the Clevinger of old shows, because today’s version is nothing to write home about.

Michael Conforto, OF: Following shoulder surgery, Conforto missed the entire 2022 season. The best he’s likely to do going into his age-30 season is far less than he’d hoped after his standout 2020 season, because his 2021 wasn’t very good, either.

Johnny Cueto, RHSP: Of the 52 pitchers with at least 139⅔ innings, only Marco Gonzales‘ strikeout rate is worse than Cueto’s 5.67 per nine. But when you can get more than 6.4 innings per start of 3.09 ERA ball, at a reasonable cost no less, you’ll take it.

Zach Davies, RHSP

Brandon Drury, UT

Zach Eflin, RHSP

Adam Frazier, UT

Joey Gallo, OF: The Gallo the Yankees thought they traded for never showed up, and it has been pretty much the same in Los Angeles. At this point, he’s a one-year flier.

Kyle Gibson, RHSP

Sonny Gray, RHSP: Now that he is out of the Cincinnati bandbox, Gray is back to his prime self: adequate strikeouts, few walks, mediocre contact. If it were up to me, he’d be a tier higher.

Andrew Heaney, LHSP: He’s Tyler Anderson but not as healthy. Heaney’s strikeout rate of 13.26 per nine is absurd, and he still barely walks anyone. His potential excellence as a starter is apparent by the 2.84 ERA in 57 innings over 12 games, but he could also be some kind of a reliever with his fastball-slider mix.

Kenley Jansen, RHRP

Corey Kluber, RHSP

Seth Lugo, RHRP

Jordan Lyles, RHSP

Sean Manaea, LHSP: At the beginning of the season, he looked like a borderline Tier 2 guy. At 31, Manaea still will have plenty of interest. But the regression of his changeup is alarming.

Trey Mancini, 1B/OF: The ultimate is-what-he-is guy. Solid bat, OK-at-best glove, elite makeup. Someone you want in your clubhouse and on your roster.

J.D. Martinez, DH: Martinez’s power has disappeared in the second half, with a .308 slugging percentage that’s 148th among 157 qualified hitters. At 35, he’s in line for a one-year deal.

Rafael Montero, RHRP: Awful — and awfully hittable — last season, the soon-to-be-32-year-old relies on a fastball-heavy arsenal and is a candidate to close for teams looking at lower-cost options.

Matt Moore, LHRP: The group thought he belonged in Tier 5. But Moore’s performance — 63 innings of 2.14 ERA ball with 10.0 strikeouts per nine — warranted an executive decision to move him up. The performance screams multiyear deal.

Omar Narvaez, C

Adam Ottavino, RHRP

Joc Pederson, OF

Martin Perez, LHSP: If Taillon is Tier 3, surely Perez warrants inclusion there. His 172 innings are tied for seventh in the big leagues, his 2.77 ERA is 12th and his 8.16 strikeouts per nine are his most ever. Still just 31, he won’t lack courtship.

Tommy Pham, OF

Jurickson Profar, UT

José Quintana, LHSP: The second-least homer-prone starter behind Framber Valdez, Quintana would be even better if his changeup weren’t so hittable. Rarely is there upside in someone who will be 34 on Opening Day, but Quintana qualifies.

David Robertson, RHRP: Robertson is throwing harder than ever, ditching his fastball for a cutter and relying on his curveball and slider nearly half the time. It’s a tantalizing mix, and every team needs a reliever like him.

Taylor Rogers, LHRP

Jean Segura, 2B

Will Smith, LHRP

Ross Stripling, RHP: Starter, reliever — it doesn’t matter for Stripling. He’s a pitcher, and a good one, whose fastball, changeup, slider and curveball all play. He’ll be 33 in November, but that shouldn’t keep him from fetching a multiyear deal.

Noah Syndergaard, RHSP

Justin Turner, 3B

Christian Vazquez, C

Michael Wacha, RHSP: The 2.69 ERA screams big bucks for the 31-year-old. Though the expected numbers aren’t quite as sexy, in a market with limited starting pitching, Wacha stands to do very well.

Taijuan Walker, RHSP: Another guy who belongs in Tier 3, the 30-year-old has been consistently well above average. Take out the one-inning, eight-run debacle against Atlanta in early August and his season ERA is 2.96.

Options:

Andrew Chafin, LHRP: Player option, one year, $6.5 million.

Nick Martinez, RHP: Player option, one year, $6.5 million, $1.5 million buyout. (If triggered, Martinez has the same one-year option for the 2024 and 2025 seasons.)

Charlie Morton, RHSP: Club option, one year, $20 million.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B: Player option, one year, $16 million.

Chris Sale, LHSP: Player option, two years, $55 million.

Luis Severino, RHSP: Club option, one year, $15 million, $2.75 million buyout.


Tier 5

This isn’t the bottom of the barrel, just the bottom of the players our experts thought were worth calling out. It’s a mix of aging stars, injury bounce-back candidates and other familiar names likeliest to wind up with one-year deals this winter.

Here are some I’ll be watching closely: RHRP Anthony Bass, 1B Brandon Belt, RHRP Chad Green, LHRP Brad Hand, 3B Evan Longoria, UT Jace Peterson, RHRP Robert Suarez, 2B Kolten Wong.

And the rest in alphabetical order.

Hitters: 1B Jesus Aguilar, 1B Charlie Blackmon, DH Nelson Cruz, UT Aledmys Diaz, OF Adam Duvall, 1B Yuli Gurriel, UT Josh Harrison, SS José Iglesias, CF Kevin Kiermaier,, 3B Evan Longoria, C Martin Maldonado, OF Andrew McCutchen, 1B/OF Wil Myers, OF David Peralta, OF A.J. Pollock, C Gary Sanchez, 1B Miguel Sanó, 1B Carlos Santana.

Pitchers: LHSP Matt Boyd, LHRP Zack Britton, RHSP Dylan Bundy, RHRP Carlos Estevez, RHSP Zack Greinke, RHRP Luke Jackson, RHRP Craig Kimbrel, RHRP Corey Knebel, RHP Michael Lorenzen, LHSP Wade Miley, RHRP Chris Martin, RHRP Wily Peralta, RHRP David Phelps, RHSP Michael Pineda, LHP David Price, LHSP Drew Smyly, RHRP Craig Stammen, RHRP Trevor Williams.



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