Free Agent Power Rankings: June Edition

Free Agent Power Rankings: June Edition

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We’re around the halfway point of the 2024 season. Trade season is still a couple weeks from getting fully underway. It’s an opportune time to refresh our ranking of the upcoming free agent class.

This is the second of at least three installments we’ll do over the course of the season. Steve Adams handled our initial write-up of the top 10 players back in mid-April. This is our attempt to capture a player’s earning power, so age is big factor. This is not strictly a list of the best players in the class, though talent is obviously the starting point. There’s no change in the top two spots, but the past few months have shuffled the next tiers.

Our power rankings are compiled collaboratively. I worked with Steve and Darragh McDonald — with input from MLBTR founder and owner Tim Dierkes — for this installment. Players with opt-out clauses and player options are eligible for the list. Stats are up to date through June 26.

1. Juan Soto, OF, Yankees

No surprise here. Soto has been the crown jewel for years and is likely to go wire-to-wire as the top impending free agent. He continues to build what looks like a future Hall of Fame résumé. Soto has been an elite hitter from the moment he debuted as a 19-year-old with the Nationals. That carried over upon his first blockbuster trade to the Padres and hasn’t changed in the Big Apple.

Soto is on pace for what might be the best season of his career. He’s hitting .303/.434/.567 across 357 plate appearances. As measured by wRC+, that offense is 85 percentage points better than league average and would be a personal high over a 162-game schedule. Soto has more walks than strikeouts for a fifth straight season. He already has 19 homers, giving him a chance to exceed last year’s career-high 35 longballs.

Not only is Soto one of the top three hitters in baseball, he’s firmly in his prime. He’ll play all of next season at 26, making him three to four years younger than a typical free agent. A signing team can realistically expect Soto to remain a top-flight hitter for the first seven to 10 years of a megadeal. While the calling card is obviously the bat, Soto has turned in decent defensive marks in the Bronx. Both Defensive Runs Saved and Statcast have credited him as a slightly above-average right fielder this season.

Soto turned down a reported $440MM extension offer from the Nats a few years ago — a decision that increasingly looks like it’ll pay off handsomely. Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner has spoken of a willingness to negotiate an extension during the season, but it’d be downright shocking if Soto doesn’t test the market at this point. (The outfielder himself suggested as much on Tuesday.) The Yankees will certainly make a run at keeping him, while teams like the Mets, Dodgers, Giants, etc. figure to be involved.

Soto will be three years younger than Shohei Ohtani was during his free agency. Soto isn’t likely to accept a deal with the kind of deferrals that Ohtani took, but he should handily beat the approximate $461MM net present value of the Ohtani contract. He should top half a billion dollars and it wouldn’t at all be surprising if his camp at the Boras Corporation were aiming for something close to $600MM at the start of the winter.

2. Corbin Burnes, SP, Orioles

Burnes has been the top pitcher in the class for some time. He broke out with a 2.11 ERA during the shortened 2020 season and backed that up with an MLB-best 2.43 ERA with 234 strikeouts over 28 starts to claim the NL Cy Young the following year. Burnes punched out an NL-leading 243 hitters the following season before turning in a 3.39 earned run average during his final season in Milwaukee.

The Brewers traded the three-time All-Star to Baltimore in advance of his final year of arbitration. While Milwaukee has gotten good work out of rookie infielder Joey Ortiz (and acquired hard-throwing lefty DL Hall), the O’s can’t have any regrets with how the trade has played out. Burnes owns a 2.35 ERA across 99 2/3 innings. He’s on his way to a fifth straight top-10 Cy Young finish and should be a candidate to win the award for a second time.

Unlike with Soto, one can at least find a yellow flag on Burnes’ stat sheet. His swing-and-miss rate has dropped over the last year and a half. Burnes struck out more than 30% of batters faced in each season from 2020-22. Among pitchers with 250+ innings over that stretch, only Carlos Rodón had a higher strikeout percentage than Burnes’ 33.4% mark. That dipped to 25.5% a year ago and currently sits at 23.9%, his lowest rate since his 2018 rookie campaign. He’s getting fewer whiffs on both his cutter and curveball than he did back in 2021-22.

Teams will at least take note of the drop-off in whiffs, but it’s not likely to have too detrimental an effect on Burnes’ market. His 95 MPH cutter velocity is still as strong as ever. The bottom-line results are among the best in the league. Burnes has pristine command and is very difficult for opponents to square up even as they’re getting a few more balls in play. While every pitcher comes with some level of health risk, Burnes’ only injured list stint in the last three and a half years came as a result of a positive Covid test.

Burnes will play all of next season at age 30. Aaron Nola landed seven years and $172MM last offseason going into his age-31 campaign. Burnes is a better pitcher. He should be able to find an eight-year deal that also runs through his age-37 season, and there’s a chance he gets to nine years. While Burnes will probably come up shy of the nine-year, $324MM deal which Gerrit Cole landed a few years ago, he shouldn’t have much issue surpassing the $200MM mark and could beat $250MM.

3. Willy Adames, SS, Brewers

Adames is the biggest riser from the previous iteration of this list. We had him eighth in the class two months ago. Adames has since pulled away as the clear top shortstop and quite arguably the best infielder. The Brewers shortstop has rebounded from a pedestrian offensive season and is on pace for the best year of his career.

Over 353 plate appearances, the Dominican-born infielder owns a .238/.331/.423 slash line. He has 13 home runs and is drawing walks at a personal-high 12.2% clip. Most importantly, Adames is striking out 21% of the time. That’s trending as easily the lowest strikeout rate of his career. Whiffs have been the biggest question for the righty-hitting infielder. If he’s striking out at a league average pace, there aren’t many weaknesses to his game.

Adames has reached 20 home runs in all four full schedules he’s played. Barring injury, he’ll surpass that again and quite likely end in his customary 25-30 homer range. While Milwaukee’s American Family Field boosts power numbers, Adames has solid exit velocities and gets a lot of balls in the air. He has a decent approach and has incrementally improved his contact rate, particularly on pitches within the strike zone.

Even if Adames is more of a good hitter than an elite one, he’s a major asset on the other side of the ball. DRS and Statcast have graded him as one of the sport’s best infielders over the last six seasons. DRS has been bizarrely down on his defense this season, yet Statcast has had no such qualms. Most teams will view him as a plus or better defender, at least for the next few years. Adames turns 29 in September and should remain a sure-handed infielder with a good arm into his early-mid 30s.

On top of the well-rounded production, Adames has drawn rave reviews from teammates and coaches in both Tampa Bay and Milwaukee for his clubhouse acumen. It’s the kind of leadership and intangibles that teams love from a franchise shortstop. Players like Trevor StoryJavier Báez and Dansby Swanson all landed six- or seven-year deals between $140MM and $177MM with a broadly similar profile. None of those contracts have worked out quite as the signing team hoped — the Story and Báez deals have been unmitigated disasters — which could give teams pause. Yet those examples show the value teams place on a plus defensive shortstop with enough power to hit in the middle to upper third of a batting order.

4. Alex Bregman, 3B, Astros

Bregman’s platform year started rather inauspiciously. He hit .219/.280/.372 through the end of May, a stretch that briefly relegated him as far as sixth in the Houston batting order. Bregman was not only doing his market no favors, he was a major contributor to the Astros’ terrible start to the season.

Fortunes have changed in June for team and player alike. Bregman owns a .341/.404/.494 line through 94 plate appearances this month. His overall season slash is still fairly pedestrian, weighed down by his early-season swoon. He’s rounding into form though, and he remains one of the best hitters (non-Soto division) in the class.

Bregman has been an above-average hitter in all nine seasons of his career. His 41-homer season from 2019 looks like a clear outlier at least partially attributable to the juiced ball. Bregman has gone from an MVP candidate to “merely” a very good everyday third baseman. Over the past five seasons, he carries a .260/.355/.437 batting line — a wRC+ that checks in 23 percentage points better than league average.

Some teams could take issue with Bregman’s batted-ball profile. He has never had massive raw power that translates into eye-popping exit velocities. His game has been built around pristine strike zone feel and an innate ability to pull the ball in the air, thereby maximizing the power he does possess. This year’s 35.9% hard contact rate is below average. Bregman’s walk rate has also fallen sharply as he’s gotten a little more aggressive and pitchers have attacked him in the strike zone with higher frequency.

Bregman could wind up being something of a divisive free agent. The batted-ball data and drop in walks could strike some clubs as a harbinger of decline. Bregman’s camp will point to his preternatural contact skills, solid third base defense, excellent durability, and status as one of the faces of a team that has gotten to the ALCS in seven straight seasons. Bregman turns 31 around Opening Day and still has a shot at a six- or seven-year deal that could push into the $150MM range (or further, if he can continue his blistering June pace).

5. Max Fried, SP, Braves

A former seventh overall pick, Fried has been a top-of-the-rotation arm for most of his time in Atlanta. He turned in a 4.02 ERA in his first full season back in 2019. The southpaw hasn’t allowed more than 3.04 earned runs per nine in any of the five seasons since then. Fried got off to a rocky start this year, surrendering 11 runs in five innings over his first two outings. Set those aside, and he’s looked better than ever. Over his last 13 starts, he carries a 2.12 ERA while averaging 6.53 innings per game and holding opponents to a .191/.255/.254 batting line.

The way Fried succeeds is somewhat unconventional. He doesn’t miss bats at the level typically associated with an ace. Fried has punched out 23.8% of his opponents in his career and carries a 22.3% strikeout rate this season. That’s solid but not overwhelming. He excels behind plus command and elite contact management. Fried is routinely near the top of the league in limiting opponents’ exit velocities. He has never posted a ground-ball rate lower than 50% and is racking up grounders at a huge 60.6% clip this season.

Fried isn’t a peak Dallas Keuchel or Kyle Hendricks type who thrived despite middling velocity. He throws sufficiently hard, averaging nearly 94 MPH on his four-seam and sinker. His mid-70s curveball isn’t a power breaking pitch, but it generates so much movement that hitters have never been able to square it up. Statcast credits him with seven distinct offerings. He leans most heavily on the four-seam, curve, sinker and changeup.

Some teams could shy away from paying top-of-the-market money to a pitcher who doesn’t have elite whiff rates. Others could have some concern about Fried’s arm health. He lost three months of the 2023 season to a forearm strain. (He also has a Tommy John surgery on his résumé, although that came back in 2015 when he was a prospect.) While Fried has looked no worse for wear, that adds a little extra risk for an investment beginning in his age-31 season.

Fried’s camp will probably view the Nola and Rodón (six years, $162MM) deals as comparison points. Fried is a Southern California native, which has led some to speculate he could prefer to sign with a team on the west coast, though he hasn’t publicly tipped his hand on any geographical preferences. He and the Braves have kicked around extension terms a few times over the years without coming to an agreement.

6. Jack Flaherty, SP, Tigers

Fried’s high school teammate is the first player on this top-10 who didn’t crack the list in April. He was one of a number of rebound starting pitching targets in the class. Flaherty has pulled away from the group with a dominant first three months to his Detroit tenure. Through 14 starts, he carries a 2.92 earned run average. He has punched out a third of opposing hitters with a huge 14.2% swinging-strike rate.

It’s Flaherty’s best sustained stretch since the second half of the 2019 season, when he looked to be breaking out as one of the best pitchers in the game. The intervening four years were largely disappointments. Flaherty struggled to a 4.91 ERA during the shortened 2020 schedule. He lost extended chunks of the next two seasons to shoulder problems. The righty avoided the injured list last year but looked like a shell of his former self. He allowed nearly five earned runs per nine with a roughly average 22.8% strikeout rate between the Cardinals and Orioles. Baltimore used him in relief at times down the stretch.

MLBTR predicted Flaherty would land a mid-level three-year deal last offseason. Given his youth, that would’ve offered him a life-changing payday while still affording him the opportunity to return to the market ahead of his age-31 season. Instead, he bet on himself and took a straight one-year pact. That looks like it’ll pay out handsomely. A nine-figure contract could be on the table. He’ll play next season at age 29 and has a shot at five or even six years. It wouldn’t be without risk given the volatility of his career, but Flaherty arguably has a higher ceiling than any starter in the class beyond Burnes and Fried.

Like everyone else on this list, Flaherty is eligible to receive a qualifying offer. He’s likelier than any of the other top free agents to be traded this summer, which would take the QO off the table. (Players traded midseason cannot receive a qualifying offer.) The Tigers are still on the periphery of Wild Card contention but haven’t hit enough to be a bona fide contender. A deadline deal would allow Flaherty to hit free agency unencumbered by draft compensation.

7. Pete Alonso, 1B, Mets

Alonso remains one of the sport’s preeminent power hitters. He has hit at least 37 homers in his four full seasons (and was on a 43-homer pace during the shortened season). He’s not quite at that level this year, connecting on 16 homers with a .465 slugging mark. That puts him at a 33-homer pace, although it wouldn’t at all be surprising if he outperforms that during the summer months.

Teams know what they’re getting with Alonso. He’s incredibly durable and has only had two minimal injured list stints as a big leaguer. He’s likely to hit 35+ homers in the middle of the lineup. The average and on-base marks are fairly pedestrian, but no one has more home runs than Alonso since he came into the league in 2019. Though his hard contact rate and average exit velocity are more ordinary than one might expect, no one questions his ability to hit for power in any stadium.

Alonso has a case as the second-best offensive player in the class. There’s not much value in the rest of the profile. He’s a below-average baserunner and a limited defender. Defensive Runs Saved has graded him as an average first baseman over the course of his career; Statcast has him below average with the glove. Alonso is entering his age-30 season and will likely try to beat the Matt Olson (eight years, $168MM) and Freddie Freeman (six years, $162MM with deferrals) contracts. He might need to move to designated hitter midway through a five- or six-year pact.

The Mets have maintained they want to keep their franchise first baseman. Alonso reportedly declined a seven-year, $158MM extension offer during the 2023 season. (He’s earning $20.5MM this season in his final arbitration year, so he’d “only” need to top $137.5MM to come out ahead on that decision.) That reported offer came before the Mets hired David Stearns as president of baseball operations. The sides seem content to table discussions about a long-term deal until Alonso gets a chance to field offers from other teams. He seemed like a trade candidate when the Mets were floundering early in the season. That’s harder to envision now that New York has pulled themselves back into the Wild Card race.

8. Ha-Seong Kim, SS, Padres

Kim is one of the top defensive players in the class. Public metrics have given him strong grades for his work all around the infield. The Padres liked Kim’s glove enough to fully commit to him as their shortstop this year, bumping Xander Bogaerts to the right side of the second base bag.

The offensive profile isn’t as exciting. Kim is a decent hitter whose game is built around excellent strike zone awareness and pure contact skills. Kim has walked nearly as often as he has gone down on strikes. A dismal .236 batting average on balls in play has depressed his overall output, as he’s hitting .223/.333/.385 across 328 plate appearances. While there’s surely some amount of poor fortune in that mark, Kim’s batted-ball metrics aren’t impressive. This season’s 35.5% hard contact rate, while a career high, is still a couple points below average. The South Korea native is on pace to top last year’s personal-high 17 home runs, but he’s probably never going to be a huge power threat.

After a poor first season at the MLB level, Kim was worth around four wins above replacement annually in the next two years. He’s on a similar pace in 2024. There’s probably not much more in terms of untapped upside, but Kim’s combination of contact skills, defense and baserunning (he has 53 stolen bases over the past two seasons) make him an above-average regular. He’s going into his age-29 season and could land a five-year contract in free agency.

9. Nick Pivetta, SP, Red Sox

One of the more volatile pitchers in the class, Pivetta has somewhat quietly excelled over the past calendar year. The right-hander’s performance has long lagged behind the quality of his stuff. It seemed as if he might always be too inconsistent despite flashing mid-rotation potential. As recently as last May, he looked as if he might pitch his way off the Red Sox’ roster entirely.

Things finally clicked for Pivetta after the Sox kicked him to the bullpen in mid-May last year. The former fourth-round draftee dominated in a multi-inning relief role. He continued overpowering hitters after the Sox returned him to the rotation for the final six weeks of the ’23 campaign. Pivetta has worked exclusively out of the rotation in 2024 and is still posting a gaudy strikeout and walk profile.

Over 11 starts, he owns a 4.06 earned run average. Pivetta has fanned 27.2% of batters faced against a 6.4% walk rate. He’s giving up a lofty 1.87 home runs per nine innings, leading to an unimpressive 4.42 FIP. Metrics that normalize HR/FB are far more bullish (3.43 SIERA, 3.56 xFIP). The longball has always been an issue and is a key reason he has never posted a sub-4.00 ERA season in the big leagues. Yet it’s possible a team falls in love with the stuff and the strikeouts.

Dating back to last year’s initial bullpen conversion, Pivetta touts a 3.48 ERA with a huge 32.1% strikeout rate across 160 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .202/.263/.388 in 639 plate appearances. Pivetta lost around a month this season to a flexor strain in his forearm. That’s a potential concern, but there wasn’t any structural damage and he has held up since being reinstated on May 8. Outside of virus-related placements, that was Pivetta’s first injured list stint in his MLB career. If the forearm issue is in the rearview, he looks like a volume innings eater with the stuff to be a No. 3 starter. Even going into his age-32 campaign, he’s got a shot at a four-year deal if he can sustain this K-BB% and keep his ERA at a reasonable level.

10. Luis Severino, SP, Mets

Severino jumped across town after a terrible final season with the Yankees. The two-time All-Star signed with the Mets on a pillow contract that guaranteed him $13MM. The early returns are good. Severino has turned in a 3.29 ERA while averaging six innings per start through his first 15 outings. It’s a marked improvement from the 6.65 ERA that ended his time in the Bronx.

If one looked no further than the ERA, it’d be easy to conclude that Severino is back to the No. 2/No. 3 form he’d shown for most of his Yankee tenure. It’s not that simple. Severino hasn’t recaptured the swing-and-miss stuff that essentially evaporated after 2022. This year’s 19% strikeout rate is a match for his 18.9% mark a season ago. His 8.5% swinging-strike percentage is down slightly from last season and trending towards a personal low. Rather than overpowering hitters the way he once did, Severino has gotten by with dramatically better batted-ball results than he had during his final season with the Yankees.

The 30-year-old deserves some credit for that. Severino has incorporated a sinker that he’s using around a quarter of the time. While the pitch doesn’t miss bats, it has helped increase his ground-ball rate to a career-high 50.8% clip. Hitters have also had a significantly harder time squaring up his four-seam fastball than they did last season. Severino has said he believed he was tipping his pitches last year.

There’s certainly some amount of fortune in this year’s results. Opponents hit .326 on balls in play last season; that’s all the way down to .252. His rate of home runs per fly-ball has more than halved (from 20.9% to 9.4%). That’s not all luck, but it’d be too optimistic to wave away the role of batted ball variance entirely. As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere between the past two seasons.

Severino is not likely to secure the kind of nine-figure deal that once seemed attainable unless he dramatically improves the whiff rate. Still, there’s enough to like in the profile to warrant a three- or potentially four-year contract. Players like Taijuan Walker ($72MM) and Jameson Taillon ($68MM) landed four-year guarantees around $70MM with similar career arcs. They’d been former top prospects who once looked like potential top-end arms before settling in as mid-rotation types without a ton of strikeouts. Severino, who turns 31 in February, could be following that trajectory. He’ll be eligible for a qualifying offer unless the Mets trade him.

Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically): Cody Bellinger*, Matt Chapman*, Gerrit Cole *^, Paul GoldschmidtTeoscar HernándezClay HolmesDanny Jansen, Max KeplerTyler O’Neill, Jurickson ProfarAnthony Santander, Max ScherzerChristian Walker

* Denotes ineligible for a qualifying offer

^ Cole can opt out of the remaining four years and $144MM on his contract at season’s end, though if he signals his intent to do so, the Yankees can override his opt-out by tacking on a tenth year at another $36MM. Because Cole was only recently reinstated from the injured list and because the Yankees can effectively veto his opt-out, we’re not including him on this installment. If, as the season wears on, he’s pitching well enough to trigger that opt-out and there’s talk of the Yankees allowing him to walk, he could land on future iterations.

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