MLB free agency predictions: Landing spots for top 18 players, from Shohei Ohtani to Lucas Giolito

Remember when the Giants almost signed Aaron Judge last offseason? Or when they thought they had a done deal with Carlos Correa? 

This thrilling October proved once again that the playoffs can be unpredictable — seriously, the Rangers went 11-0 on the road in baseball’s most important month after being thoroughly mediocre away from home during the six-month regular season — but the postseason often doesn’t hold a candle to the surprises offered by a typical baseball offseason. Trades, free-agent signings, all of it. Lots of chaotic elements involved.

Which brings us to today’s piece, trying to figure out where the free-agents who might be on the market — there are club and player options still to be sorted out, plus non-tenders and outright releases — could sign. Technically these are predictions, sure, but that’s just because “guesses based on hopefully accurate reporting/information and a lot of speculation” doesn’t fit well in a headline.

Let’s jump in.

MORE: Way-too-early MLB Power Rankings for 2024

1. DH/SP Shohei Ohtani signs with the Mariners

Here’s why: The Rangers probably jumped up on Ohtani’s list with that epic run to the World Series, and just so happens that two of their most obvious long-term needs/wants are in the starting rotation and at DH. The Dodgers, obviously, make a lot of sense. They’re the favorite with the odds-makers. The Mets took a step back in 2023, but they have an owner and lead decision-maker obsessed with winning, so that works. You can make a case for the Red Sox, Phillies, Astros, Cubs, Braves, Padres and Giants, too (in no particular order). 

But Seattle just fits best. The Mariners have a core that can win, led by an outstanding rotation and a fellow superstar in Julio Rodriguez who is locked up long-term. Depending on how you define “impact players,” this Seattle roster has as many as 12 of them who were 26 or younger in 2023. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Ohtani has lived in Seattle in the offseason. 

2. SP Yoshinobu Yamamoto signs with the Mets

Here’s why: Clearly, building a rotation around starters late in their careers — not just Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, but Carlos Carrasco, too — didn’t work so well last year. Yamamoto would take the Mets’ rotation in the other direction. The right-hander is just 25 and has been lights-out in Japan his entire career, including a 1.21 ERA this season. He’d fit in nicely with Kodai Senga in a rotation that still needs a few more arms. 

MORE: Mets hire Carlos Mendoza to replace Buck Showalter

3. SP Aaron Nola signs with the Red Sox

Here’s why: Yeah, I know, it’s hard to imagine Nola pitching anywhere other than Philly. But the Phillies have had their chance to keep him around, and here he is reaching free agency. Know how many teams crave the type of reliable excellence — at least 32 starts every full season since 2018, with a 3.65 ERA in that stretch — he provides? Pretty much all of them. Nola could still stay in Philly, of course. Remember, it wasn’t long ago that J.T. Realmuto reached this same point and signed to stay. The Red Sox are a team with ever-present rotation issues — 17 pitchers started at least one game last year, and eight started at least nine times — and the best move new decision-maker Craig Breslow could do quickly this offseason is bring in a stabilizer like Nola. 

4. SP Jordan Montgomery signs with the Rangers

Here’s why: I mean, we all watched the playoffs, right? Texas would be crazy to let him leave. The lefty had a 2.79 ERA in 11 starts after the Rangers traded for him, then a 2.90 ERA in the postseason, including a 2 1/3-inning scoreless relief stint in Game 7 of the ALCS, after starting Game 5. That’s the stuff of legends. Montgomery turns 31 in December and should have several good years left in the tank. 

MORE: Can the Rangers repeat in 2024?

5. SP Blake Snell signs with the Giants

Here’s why: Think about Snell’s “audition” against the Giants in 2023. The lefty made three starts against San Francisco, throwing 18 innings. He allowed only 10 hits, struck out 26 batters and allowed, wait for it … 0 runs. Yep, that’s right. Blake Snell had a 0.00 ERA in 18 innings against a team that is looking to spend money and just so happens has a massive need in the starting rotation, with Alex Cobb undergoing hip surgery. Snell thrived with the Padres, especially in the two years with Bob Melvin as his manager, posting a 2.72 ERA in 56 starts. Guess who just happens to be the new manager in San Francisco. Yep. 

6. CL Josh Hader signs with the Orioles

Here’s why: Yeah, this one’s a bit outside the box, as pretty much everyone expects the Rangers to sign the hard-to-hit lefty closer. But Hader makes a lot of sense in Baltimore, considering the circumstances. Felix Bautista is out for a long time after Tommy John surgery. He played a huge role in the Orioles’ rather surprising success of the past two seasons. Ask managers and players, and they’ll tell you that having a lock-down closer at the back of the bullpen, a pitcher who doesn’t let leads slip away, is an enormous part of the equation, especially for a team with as many young players as the Orioles have. Bautista was just that, with a 1.85 ERA and 48 saves over the past two years. But he’s out. Do the Orioles have guys who could step in? Possibly, yes. But signing Hader would ensure that the Orioles keep winning games they lead heading into the ninth inning. And when Bautista comes back, imagine having a back-end lefty-righty duo like Hader and Bautista in the postseason. Yeah, that’s the good stuff. 

7. OF Cody Bellinger signs with the Cubs

Here’s why: Why, I guess, ruin a good thing? The Cubs needed Bellinger in 2023 and Bellinger needed the Cubs. It worked, on so many levels, in a way both sides could only have dreamed. Bellinger could sign a long-term deal, help the Cubs continue their upswing and could become an all-time Wrigley Field icon.

MORE: Craig Counsell burns bridges in Milwaukee to join Cubs 

8. SP Eduardo Rodriguez signs with the Dodgers

Here’s why: The Dodgers obviously love Rodriguez, having agreed to a deal for him at the trade deadline, only to have Rodriguez use his no-trade power to deny the deal. Not wanting to be traded in-season is a lot different then not wanting to switch teams (and cities) in the offseason, though. In a slower-paced moment, the Dodgers can sell Rodriguez on their franchise and shower him with promises of lots of wins and money. Rodriguez opted out of his deal with the Tigers, as expected, because it’s a lock he can do better than the three years and $49 million that was left on his deal. With news of the Kershaw surgery dropping on Friday, the Dodgers at least theoretically be more interested in playing at the top of the market for free-agent starters. 

9. 3B Matt Chapman signs with the Dodgers

Here’s why: Teams should be wary of Chapman, considering the size of the contract many folks are projecting. He’s an elite defensive third baseman still, but his production at the plate dropped off the table as the 2023 season wore on. He got off to a hot start in April (.384 average, 1.152 OPS) but hit just .205 with a .298 on-base percentage and .659 OPS in the final five months of the season. That’s not a small sample size. 

He’ll provide quality defense and occasionally pop a few homers over the fence from the back half of a lineup. For a lot of teams — even contenders — that’s exactly what they’d need/want because their lineup can cover for offensive struggles. Basically, he fits nicely with the Dodgers — Max Muncy can shift around and take over primary DH responsibilities if J.D. Martinez leaves as a free agent — but he’d be a disaster with the Yankees. 

10. SP Sonny Gray signs with the Cardinals

Here’s why: Feels like a lot of fan bases have talked themselves into the idea of their favorite team signing Sonny Gray as a sneaky, under-the-radar signing. And I get the logic behind it; Gray turns 34 this week, and at that age he won’t command a deal as long as some of the other pitchers on the market. 

But there’s nothing under-the-radar about a starting pitcher who fashioned a 2.79 ERA and AL-best 2.83 FIP in 2023, and only allowed 8 homers in 184 innings. He’ll command a premium AAV, even if the deal is only three (maybe four) years. Basically, only the teams that NEED starting pitching will be in that mix, not the ones what just want more rotation depth. The Cardinals fit that need category, very much so, but the shorter term deal would keep the overall commitment more palatable. Would also be intriguing to see the Reds bring him back as a veteran free agent to help anchor a young, but very talented, rotation. 

Quick-hit predictions

SP Seth Lugo signs with the Tigers: Lugo established, at 33 years old in 2023, that he can be a very good starting pitcher, posting a 3.57 ERA in 26 starts, so it made sense that he’d decline his player option for 2024. The Tigers probably will need someone to replace Eduardo Rodriguez. 

C/DH Mitch Garver stays with Texas: He didn’t catch much down the stretch in 2023, but he’s still solid as a backup, and he was a huge part of Texas’ middle of the order in October. Remember, it was his RBI single the opened the scoring — batting in Adolis Garcia’s spot — in the clinching Game 5 of the World Series.

SP Marcus Stroman signs with the Mets: Stroman declined his $21 million player option for 2024, which was surprising to some, considering he spent most of the second half on the IL and had a 5.63 ERA in his four September outings. But he was really good before the injury, and at 32 heading into Opening Day he’ll still be in line for a multiyear deal, though probably not at the AAV he would have gotten had the second half been a repeat of the first half. He’ll draw interest from lots of teams, but it’s easy to see a reunion with the Mets, who need lots of pitching and certainly remember his 3.02 ERA in 33 starts with the club in 2021.

SP Michael Wacha signs with the Yankees: The Bronx Bombers need starters, and Wacha has a tidy 3.27 ERA in 47 starts across the past two years with the Red Sox and Padres. The Padres had a two-year option for 2023-24, and reports surfaced this weekend that they were declining. That Wacha would decline his one-year player option is academic.

1B/DH Rhys Hoskins signs with the Guardians: After missing the full year with an ACL injury, he’ll likely need to reestablish value. Cleveland, a club that needs power (especially from the right side) makes sense. Hoskins can DH and play 1B when Josh Naylor is on the IL (he’s only played 312 of 486 games the past three years). He could also return to Philly.

DH J.D. Martinez signs with the Marlins: Martinez still makes sense with the Dodgers, but the Dodgers might have bigger fish to land — Ohtani? Chapman? — that would impact their ability to give Martinez time at DH, regardless how good he was there in 2023. If the Marlins don’t bring back free agent Jorge Soler, Martinez would be a good replacement DH.

SP Lucas Giolito signs with the Dodgers: The Dodgers are all about the reclamation projects, and Giolito fits the bill. With Kershaw out of the equation, the Dodgers will need options. Coming off that disastrous second half, Giolito might be happy to sign an incentive-laden contract with a team like the Dodgers. 

1B Joey Votto signs with the Blue Jays: Votto won’t say it because he’s too classy, but he deserved a better send-off from the Reds. They were never going to pick up his option, so why not announce it during the season and give him — and the Cincinnati fans — a chance to say goodbye? Sheesh. Anyway, he’d fit in Toronto. He’s from there, obviously, and the Jays are almost certainly going to lose Brandon Belt, their left-handed hitting 1B/DH, so there’s probably an opening. 

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