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OC Register: Hoornstra: MLB’s Top 10 free agents fill a variety of needs

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The first week of free agency has been a busy one – for managers.

Ron Washington is an Angel. Bob Melvin is a San Francisco Giant. Stephen Vogt is a Cleveland Guardian. Carlos Mendoza is a New York Met. Even one team that already had a manager decided a change was in order. Within a week after the World Series ended, Craig Counsell was a Chicago Cub and David Ross was a free agent too.

Soon, the attention will shift to the players, and the annual game of musical chairs that reshapes the major league landscape every winter. Here are this offseason’s Top 10 free agents, ranked in order of (approximate) demand.

1. Shohei Ohtani

The two-way superstar won’t throw a pitch in 2024 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. How will that impact the unprecedented contract he is likely to receive?

It’s possible Ohtani will sign a short-term “bridge” contract in the range of two to three years, allowing him to re-enter the market as an actual two-way player a couple of years from now. More likely, Ohtani’s next contract will allow him to opt out after, say, Year 3, or allow the team to re-negotiate the deal in light of his recovery.

For comparison’s sake, outfielder Julio Rodriguez last year signed a contract extension with the Seattle Mariners that could pay him up to $470 million over 18 years, but that deal contains a club option after Year 7 – Rodriguez’s age-28 season.

If Ohtani, 29, is able to opt out of his next contract, whichever team gets him this offseason is not necessarily his last MLB employer. We could be looking at another Ohtani Derby a few years down the road.

2. Cody Bellinger

MLB Trade Rumors, a reliable predictor of salary arbitration winnings, pegged Bellinger’s next contract at a mind-boggling 12 years and $264 million. It wasn’t that long ago that the Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $254 million contract; at the time he was one of the best hitters in baseball and a near-lock to make the Hall of Fame.

Bellinger is neither. Yet, in a shallow market for free agent position players, the versatile 28-year-old could be able to cash in at just the right time.

A reunion with the Dodgers seems unlikely, as they never could coax Bellinger’s bat out of its injury-induced slumber, but a reunion with the suddenly gung-ho Cubs could make a ton of sense.

3. Blake Snell

The likely National League Cy Young Award winner is not an archetypal ace. He practically matched a career high in innings pitched (180) and walks per nine innings (five) with the Padres in 2023, neither a traditional hallmark of excellence.

But if you want a left-handed pitcher with electric stuff who can deliver 20 to 30 starts a season – who doesn’t? – the 30-year-old is your man. A team in need of a front-line starter (like the Angels) could do much worse.

4. Yoshinobu Yamamoto

At 25 years old, Yamamoto will arrive from Japan as the youngest free agent on the market. He’ll also arrive with question marks around his height. Listed (perhaps generously) at 5-foot-10, Yamamoto must overcome questions about his durability – particularly after pitching more than 684 innings over the last four NPB seasons.

The right-hander also has a 1.57 ERA over that time. Between his recent performance and his age, some teams might have him higher on their want list than Snell.

5. Jordan Montgomery

On the other end of the height spectrum, 6-6 Jordan Montgomery faces an entirely different question: was his dazzling late-season performance for the eventual champion Texas Rangers (4-2, 2.79 in 11 regular-season starts, 3-1, 2.90 in the postseason) the real deal?

Before this season, Montgomery had been a slightly above-league-average starting pitcher with a slightly below-league-average strikeout rate. It will be a gamble for some team, but Montgomery might also be hitting the market at the right time to cash in on his change-of-scenery success.

6. Josh Hader

He already has the best (only?) free agent hype video of the offseason, and has the market cornered on “impact closers available for only the cost of money.”

With 165 saves over seven seasons, Hader has already reached a point when many high-leverage relievers burn out. Yet his 2023 season in San Diego (33 saves, 1.28 ERA in 61 games) was the best of his career. Not many left-handers are better at mixing a 96-mph fastball with a slider, a well-suited mix for a team looking to make a statement – like the Padres a year ago. He’s the rare reliever who can leverage for a long-term deal.

7. Clayton Kershaw

While some viewed his recent shoulder surgery as a tepid endorsement for his major league future, Kershaw could have delayed the procedure or foregone it altogether. By addressing his health early in the offseason, Kershaw made a statement of intent more powerful than his surprise Instagram announcement.

Now, the question is where does he want to pitch – or, more accurately, spend most of 2024 rehabbing: Los Angeles, Camelback Ranch (the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Arizona), or closer to his Dallas home, with the Texas Rangers? Some believe Kershaw’s expected absence improves the Rangers’ chances; the Dodgers would like their franchise icon to retire where his career began.

8. Aaron Nola

Few pitchers have seen their good work go to waste behind a poor defense more than Nola, who is better than his one All-Star appearance and back-of-the-baseball-card stats would suggest.

Start with his durability: he’s averaged 30 starts and 200 innings in every non-pandemic season since 2018. At 30, he’ll be hard-pressed to continue that into the future, but plenty of teams will put stock in his mighty potential outside of Philadelphia.

9. Eduardo Rodriguez

It’s no surprise Rodriguez opted out of his contract after a bounceback season with the Detroit Tigers (13-9, 3.30 ERA) to take advantage of a relatively weak free agent class. Teams who covet a left-hander and lose out on Snell might quickly pivot to the 30-year-old Venezuelan, who blocked a trade to the Dodgers at last season’s trade deadline.

His decision to block the trade raises the possibility that Rodriguez prefers to remain close to the East Coast. Even the Tigers, who seem to be on the upswing after years in the rebuilding desert, could choose to bring Rodriguez back to anchor a relatively young rotation.

10. Matt Chapman

Chapman struggled at the plate (.240, 17 homers, 108 OPS+) in his only season in Toronto, but still managed to win a Gold Glove at third base – still the best selling point for the Orange County native.

An All-Star and MVP candidate with the Oakland A’s from 2017-22, Chapman might prefer to return to the West Coast, where the Giants (among other teams) could use a steady-fielding third baseman.

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