The free-agent class this offseason skews geriatric. It’s bereft of strong bats and replete with only decent arms. Call it Shohei and the so-so.
The class also skews mostly idle for now.
Only a handful of unrestricted free agents predicted to land lucrative multi-year deals are key members of teams in the four playoff division series that begin Saturday. Those few, however, have an opportunity to raise their stock through recency bias, a behavioral economics phenomenon defined as a tendency to overemphasize the importance of recent experiences when predicting future events.
In other words, an impending free agent who stars in the postseason can become more desirable when bidding begins five days after the World Series.
Exhibit A: Cody Ross, an ebullient former Dodgers outfielder who in 2010 became a household name in San Francisco after being named MVP of the National League Championship Series and helping the Giants win their first World Series title since 1954. A year later, the Diamondbacks paid him $35 million over four years, but he never played another full season.
This season, starting pitchers Aaron Nola of the Phillies, Jordan Montgomery of the Rangers and Sonny Gray of the Twins could tell prospective suitors, “Look at what I’ve done lately,” if they continue to shine in the postseason.
Why not include Clayton Kershaw? Because the Dodgers’ 35-year-old ace left-hander signed a one-year contract a year ago, is highly unlikely to sign for more than one year this offseason, and, in fact, could opt to retire.
The one-year contract projection applies to numerous other impending free agents, primarily because of their age and/or injury history. Teams are reluctant to offer multi-year deals to players age 35 and older. This class includes 23 players 37 and older, plus 40 players ages 35 or 36.
That includes key members of the Dodgers’ lineup: designated hitter J.D. Martinez (36) and outfielder David Peralta (36). Outfielder Jason Heyward is 34 but nearly retired after last season. All will be free agents. All are likely to attract only one-year offers.
Here are the most intriguing names about to hit the free-agent market.
1) Shohei Ohtani, DH/SP: This can be brief. A shoo-in for the American League MVP award, Ohtani compiled a 10.0 bWAR, nearly double the next impending free agent. He probably won’t pitch next season after undergoing elbow surgery, but with his bat and long-range two-way promise, Ohtani, 29, should sign one of the most lucrative deals in baseball history.
2) Cody Bellinger, CF/1B: The comeback season Bellinger, 28, put together after he batted .210 and .165 in 2022 and 2021 with the Dodgers was astonishing. After the Dodgers non-tendered him a year ago, giving up on a player who was the NL MVP in 2019 — he signed a one-year, $17.5-million deal with the Cubs and batted .307 with 26 home runs and 97 RBIs. He struck out 63 fewer times than in 2022 and his OPS skyrocketed from .654 to .881. Prospective suitors won’t completely forget his struggles with the Dodgers, but he’s likely in line for a contract in the six-year, $150-million range.
3) Sonny Gray, SP: For the third time in 10 full MLB seasons, Gray, 33, had an ERA under 3.00 while making more than 30 starts. His bWar was 5.3 after allowing only 156 hits in 184 innings with 183 strikeouts. He threw five scoreless innings in the Twins’ shutout of the Blue Jays in Game 2 of the wild-card series Wednesday, and Gray could continue to increase his stock.
More starters: Blake Snell, Montgomery and Nola also are in line for substantial paydays and long-term contracts. Snell, 30, is the presumptive NL Cy Young winner after a slow start with five months of sustained excellence with the Padres. Like Gray, Montgomery and Nola can generate positive recency bias by continuing to pitch well in the postseason.
The unfortunate outlier is the Dodgers’ Julio Urías, only 27 and poised for a massive payday until he was placed on administrative leave Sept. 3 after being arrested and charged with felony domestic violence. He’s looking at a one-year deal if anyone signs him at all.
Relievers: Closer Josh Hader shook off a puzzling anomaly of ineffectiveness in 2022 and returned to his almost unhittable form in 2023, notching 34 saves while posting a 1.28 ERA and allowing 32 hits in 52 1/3 innings with 85 strikeouts. He’s clearly the top reliever on the market.
Aroldis Chapman, another flame-throwing left-hander, was Josh Hader before Josh Hader was Josh Hader, but he’ll turn 36 before spring training and has trouble pitching two days in a row. Still, he had 103 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings splitting the season between the Royals and Rangers.
Sluggers: After Bellinger and Martinez — who hit 33 home runs and drove in 103 runs but is confined to a DH role — the next best power hitter is Teoscar Hernández, the 30-year-old Mariners outfielder who hit 26 home runs and is two years removed from a 32-homer, 116-RBI season.
Otherwise, options included Matt Chapman, the Blue Jays third baseman who underachieved with 17 home runs this season; Jeimer Candelario, who hit a career-high 22 homers splitting the season between the Cubs and Nationals; and Adam Duvall, who hit 21 home runs with the Red Sox.
Versatility: Kiké Hernandez, and infielder/outfielder who resurrected his season with the Dodgers at the trade deadline, and Donovan Solano, a Twins infielder who has batted between .280 and .330 five seasons in a row, are attractive utility players.
Others: The only free-agent catcher who unquestionably can be signed and slotted into at least a productive platoon role is Mitch Garver, whose bat is potent. However, at 32 he can’t catch every day and, in fact, hasn’t caught more than 86 games in a season. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier is valued for his glove and left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. for his bat.
Beyond those names are 150 or so in the bargain bin. Some will, indeed, turn out to be bargains for shrewd talent evaluators. Others will become money pits, cashing checks while contributing little. And maybe a few will benefit from recency bias.