The baseball free-agent market is stocked with quality starting pitchers. Yet it’s a starter who can’t pitch until 2025 that could sign the largest contract in baseball history.
So even though recovery from surgery to repair a torn UCL in his right elbow will restrict him to designated hitter duties in 2024, Ohtani is projected to come away with a contract worth in excess of $500 million over 10 to 12 years.
What uniform will he be wearing? MLB.com canvassed 14 executives at the general managers meetings and 10 said they believed Ohtani will end up with the Dodgers, with the other four declining to choose a favorite. The Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, New York Mets and Texas Rangers were mentioned as other viable destinations, and the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners could be in the mix. A return to the Angels is a remote possibility.
No other free agent this offseason will come anywhere close to $500 million, although the next-most lucrative contract could also be a player from Japan: right-handed starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
Starting pitchers are prominent among the rest of the top free agents, and the first big name off the board was Aaron Nola, who re-signed with the Philadelphia Phillies on a seven-year, $172-million deal.
Only one closer — left-hander Josh Hader — seems a sure thing. And most position players are on the wrong side of age 30, lack a track record of consistent production or have identifiable flaws in their game.
Here are the top 35 free agents. Career and 2023 wins above replacement (WAR) are included from Baseball-Reference.com.
This story will be updated throughout the offseason as players sign.
NAME, AGE, POSITIONS, WAR 2023, CAREER
Shohei Ohtani, 29, RHP/DH, 10, 34: Greatest player in the history of baseball? Impossible to say. Highest paid player in the history of baseball? Anyone will be able to do the math after Ohtani signs a contract this offseason. The most lucrative contract to date is Mike Trout's 12-year, $426.5 million deal with the Angels.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, 24, RHP, n/a, n/a: Yamamoto was dominant last season in Nippon Professional Baseball, posting a 1.16 earned-run average over 179 innings. In seven seasons, he’s logged nearly 1,000 innings while giving up only 6.2 hits per nine innings. A team signing Yamamoto must pay a posting fee of 20% of the first $25 million on his contract, 17.5% of the next $25 million and 15% of anything over $50 million.
Blake Snell, 30, LHP, 6.0, 21.1: The probable National League Cy Young Award winner (he won the 2018 Cy Young with Tampa Bay) blazed into free agency by posting a 1.20 ERA over his last 23 starts with the San Diego Padres. The pitcher best known for being lifted too soon against the Dodgers in the 2020 World Series should field offers of more than $100 million.
Aaron Nola, 30, RHP, 2.1, 31.7: A mainstay of the Phillies rotation for nine seasons, Nola has logged more than 200 strikeouts in each of the last five non-COVID-19 seasons. However, he surrendered a career-high 32 home runs while posting an unsightly 4.42 ERA last season. With 235 starts and 1,422 innings under his belt, his best years might be behind him.
SIGNED: Nola will return to Philadelphia after agreeing to a seven-year, $172-million contract.
Jordan Montgomery, 30, LHP, 4.1, 12.5: What have you done lately? The recency effect could tilt a team toward overpaying for Montgomery, whose trade deadline acquisition by the Rangers was key to their World Series title run. Injuries early in his career have kept the mileage on his arm reasonable, and he’s quietly put together three consecutive strong seasons for three different teams.
Cody Bellinger, 28, OF/1B, 4.4, 22.1: The former Dodgers enigma turned a one-year "pillow contract" with the Cubs into a springboard by batting .307 with 26 home runs, 97 RBIs and 20 stolen bases while continuing to be a plus center fielder. This, after the Dodgers non-tendered him following three horrendous seasons at the plate. That, after being named NL MVP in 2019. Which Bellinger will a team get when his agent Scott Boras negotiates a five- or six-year deal at close to $30 million a year?
Clayton Kershaw, 34, LHP, 3.7, 79.9: As he did last offseason, Kershaw is mulling either a return to the Dodgers, a relocation close to home with the Rangers, or hanging them up. How his left shoulder responds to recent surgery will be a factor. For their part, the Dodgers declined to make him a qualifying offer, giving him ample time to make a decision.
Eduardo Rodriguez, 30, LHP, 3.5, 17.6: The pitcher who refused a trade to the Dodgers at the deadline now has his pick of suitors after opting out two years into a five-year, $77 million contract with the Detroit Tigers. He's banking on another five-year deal at a slightly higher average salary per year.
Sonny Gray, 34, RHP, 5.3, 30: Gray, a 5-foot-10 overachiever with Vanderbilt roots, bounced back from several injury-plagued seasons to post a 2.79 ERA while giving up only eight home runs over 184 innings with the Minnesota Twins. Gray was runner-up to Gerrit Cole in AL Cy Young Award voting.
SIGNED: Gray became the third starting pitcher to come to an agreement with St. Louis in November, following Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. While those two settled for one-year deals, Gray will receive $75 million over three years.
Marcus Stroman, 32, RHP, 1.6, 21.7: Stroman continues to exhibit electric stuff, although injuries caused his production to plummet during the second half of the 2023 season. He declined a $21 million player option with the Cubs after making $50 million the last two seasons. He'll likely get a multi-year offer at around that $21 million per year mark.
Josh Hader, 29, LHP, 2.4, 11.7: Teams that still value an old-fashioned ninth-inning specialist who strikes out a ton of batters will court Hader, who has 165 career saves and a ridiculously high 15 strikeouts per nine innings. He was as effective as ever last season with the Padres, posting a 1.28 ERA and notching 33 saves.
Matt Chapman, 30, 3B, 4.4, 31.2: The promise Chapman exhibited when he slugged over .500 three seasons in a row for the Oakland A's has dissipated the last three years. He hit only 17 home runs in 2023, yet should land a multiyear deal for around $20 million per year because he's an elite defender at third base and proven power hitters are scarce in this free-agent market.
Shota Imanaga, 30, LHP, n/a, n/a: Imanaga relies on impeccable command, issuing only 24 walks while striking out 188 in 159 innings last season in the NPB. Only 5-10, he gained stature by giving up two runs in six innings while striking out seven in the World Baseball Classic final against the U.S. As with Yamamoto, a team signing Imanaga must pay a posting fee of 20% of the first $25 million on his contract, 17.5% of the next $25 million and 15% of anything over $50 million.
Lee Jung-Hoo, 25, OF, n/a, n/a: Lee, who bats left-handed and throws right-handed, is an acclaimed hitter in South Korea, slashing .340/.407/.491 over nearly 4,000 at-bats in six seasons. How that translates to major league pitching is an open question. He stands out from other free-agent outfielders with his youth and ability to play center field. The team that signs him will be subject to the same posting requirements as teams that sign Imanaga and Yamamoto.
Jeimer Candelario, 30, 1B/3B, 3.1, 10.4: Non-tendered by the Tigers after a subpar 2022 season before his third arbitration year, Candelario rebounded with 22 homers and 70 RBIs in 2023 for the Nationals and Cubs and is a decent power option in a shallow corner infielder market.
Michael Wacha, 32, RHP, 2.4, 13.0: Wacha has put together consecutive stellar seasons, going 11-2 with a 3.32 ERA for the Red Sox in 2022 and 14-4 with a 3.22 ERA for the Padres in 2023. Nevertheless, San Diego declined his two-year, $32 million option for 2024 and 2025. Wacha has pitched for five teams in the last five seasons and hopes to sign a multiyear deal that enables him to slide into the middle of a rotation.
Seth Lugo, 34, RHP, 1.8, 10.5: Like Wacha, Lugo was a dependable starter for the Padres in 2023, posting a 3.57 ERA in 146.1 innings. The difference is that this was Lugo's first year as a full-time starter since 2017. The switch from swingman to the rotation should increase the curveball specialist's value on the open market.
Lucas Giolito, 29, RHP, 1.6, 12.4: A first-round pick out of Studio City Harvard-Westlake High in 2012, Giolito lived up to his promise for several years with the White Sox and seemed on the verge of a huge payday via free agency. Then came a trade at this year's deadline to the Angels, and it was like he forgot how to pitch. Giolito lost five of six starts across a 6.89 ERA in Anaheim, then was even worse when the Guardians picked him up on waivers, posting a 7.04 ERA over six starts.
Rhys Hoskins, 30, 1B/LF, n/a, 11.1: A torn ACL sidelined Hoskins the entire 2023 season, but he was a proven power hitter for six seasons with the Phillies, posting a lifetime slugging percentage close to .500. He might choose a one-year pillow contract to prove his knee isn't an issue, and should have plenty of suitors wanting a middle-of-the-order bat.
Jorge Soler, 31, DH/OF, 1.8, 5.9: The premier home run threat in this free-agent market, Soler opted out of the last year of his contract with the Marlins after hitting 36 homers in 2023. Soler, MVP of the 2021 World Series with the Braves, might be approaching full-time designated-hitter duty, but he's probably going to land a three-year deal at $40 million or more.
Teoscar Hernandez, DH/OF, 31, 2.1, 12.8: Like Soler, Hernandez is destined for DH duty, probably sooner than later. He strikes out a lot and doesn't walk often, but has displayed consistent power, hitting 139 home runs over the last six seasons. His production is too good for a platoon role, but it's worth noting that he leads MLB with a .626 slugging percentage against left-handed pitching the last four years.
Jordan Hicks, 27, RHP, 0.8, 1.6: Hicks possesses the best raw stuff of any pitcher on the market and is coming off a season that general managers can dream on. Result? He'll likely get a three-to-five year deal at about $12 million per. Hicks once threw a pitch 105.1 mph and still sits at 100 mph. He might issue too many walks to be handed a closer role, but could earn it over time.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., 30, OF, 3.0, 10.8: An integral part of the Arizona Diamondbacks' World Series team, Gurriel is something of a throwback, possessing solid bat-to-ball skills. In five seasons with the Blue Jays, the Cuban native never batted under .276, and in his lone season in Arizona hit a career-high 24 homers. He's an acceptable glove in left field, although a liability in the infield.
Justin Turner, 39, DH/1B/3B, 2.1, 36.5: The wildly popular former Dodger continued to rake in his one season in Boston, hitting 23 homers, driving in 96 runs and posting an OPS of .800. His quest for a two-year deal last offseason resulted in him leaving L.A., and he'll likely again need to settle for a one-year contract despite his continued impressive offensive production.
J.D. Martinez, 36, DH, 1.9, 30: The man who replaced Turner in the Dodgers lineup enjoyed a rebirth with 33 home runs, 103 RBIs and an .893 OPS. He can only DH, however, and with the Dodgers presumably chasing Ohtani, Martinez might need to find another lineup to serve as a middle-of-the-order run producer.
Mitch Garver, 32, DH/C, 2.1, 9.8: Like Montgomery, Garver might cash in on the fresh memory of his contributions to the Rangers' World Series title. He also has undeniable power, belting 19 home runs in 296 at-bats during the regular season, conjuring memories of the 31 homers he hit in 311 at-bats for the Twins in 2019. Garver needs to DH to keep his bat in the lineup and should be viewed as a backup catcher.
Jason Heyward, 34, OF, 1.9, 40.7: After resuscitating his career with the Dodgers after all but retiring when the Cubs released him in 2022, Heyward is an appealing addition as a clubhouse leader as well as a productive fourth outfielder.
SIGNED: The Dodgers reached an agreement with Heyward on a one-year, $9-million deal with no incentives or options. He has earned more than $200 million during his 14-year career.
Kenta Maeda, 34, RHP, 1.1, 8.6: The former Dodger rebounded with a solid season in Minnesota after missing 2022 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and sitting out two months early last season with arm soreness. Maeda's savvy and ability to miss bats with a fastball that barely reaches 90 mph should get him a one-year deal and spot in a rotation.
SIGNED: Maeda agreed to a two-year, $24-million contract with the Tigers, adding a veteran presence to a young starting staff.
Jack Flaherty, 28, RHP, 0.8, 10.1: Like Giolito, Flaherty is a former Harvard-Westlake High star who pitched well for years only to experience recent struggles. After pitching to a 4.43 ERA in 20 starts with the Cardinals, he was traded to the Orioles at the deadline and got hammered in nine appearances, posting an ERA of 6.75. He might consider a one-year pillow contract.
Robert Stephenson, 30, RHP, 1.1, 0.8: Stephenson is one of the top middle relievers on the market after becoming one of the Rays' most reliable bullpen pieces in 2023. He's also had strong seasons with the Reds and Rockies, but something clicked in Tampa Bay and could result in a multi-year deal.
Mike Clevinger, 33, RHP, 3.3, 17.5: Amid the White Sox debacle, Clevinger found some footing and turned in his best season since 2019, posting a 3.77 ERA over 24 starts. No longer the hard-throwing phenom that came up with the Indians, Clevinger survives with guile, striking out 30% fewer batters than he once did.
Hyun-jin Ryu, 36, LHP, 0.4, 20.1: In 2019 Ryu was a Dodger, leading the NL with a 2.32 ERA, establishing his free-agent market and signing a four-year, $80 million deal with the Blue Jays. Several injuries and some solid pitching later, he's again a free agent but probably looking at a one-year deal in the $10 million range.
Tim Anderson, 30, SS, -2.0, 16.2: An enigma and a gamble, Anderson needs to find a team that remembers who he was and not who he morphed into last season with the White Sox when he inexplicably hit .245 with one (count it, one) home run and became a liability defensively. Anderson batted over .300 the previous four seasons, including leading the AL with a .335 average in 2019.
Tommy Pham, 35, OF, 1.5, 17.9: Pham batted .421 in the World Series for the Diamondbacks, that memory hopefully supplanting the one of him slapping Joc Pederson over a fantasy football spat in 2022. Pham has become a journeyman outfielder, playing for six teams since leaving the Cardinals in 2018. His strong 2023 season, however, should get him a reasonably lucrative one-year deal.
Kevin Kiermaier, 33, CF, 3.9, 35.5: In a market pocked with offense-first outfielders, the four-time Gold Glove winning Kiermaier (including in 2023) will appeal to teams wanting to shore up their defense. But like many of the offense-first crowd, he'll likely settle for a one-year deal in the $10 million range.
Other free agents to watch:
Reynaldo López, signed: The Braves continue to shore up their bullpen, signing Lopez, who had 83 strikeouts in 66.2 innings for three teams in 2023, to a three-year, $30-million deal.
Lance Lynn, signed: The Dodgers starter best known for giving up 44 homers during the regular season and four in a row in a playoff loss to the Diamondbacks, signed a one-year, $10-million deal with the Cardinals, the team that made him a first-round draft pick in 2008.
Kyle Gibson, signed: The Cardinals added a second free-agent starter a few days after signing Lynn, bringing hometown right-hander Gibson to St. Louis on a one-year, $12 million deal. Gibson, an 11-year veteran who was 15-9 with a 4.73 ERA with the Orioles last season, has never played for the Cardinals but was drafted out of Missouri in 2009 and lives a short distance from Busch Stadium.
Emilio Pagán, signed: In a signal that the Reds want to win now, they signed veteran right-handed reliever Pagán to a two-year, $16-million deal, making him easily the highest paid player on the roster. The 26-year-old posted a 2.99 ERA and a stellar WHIP of 0.952 in 66 outings for the Twins last season. In seven seasons, he's made 469 appearances — all but one in relief.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.