The Biggest MLB Team Needs Heading Back Into Free Agency
Take a deep breath. Exhale.
It’s been a long wait with some tense moments and days filled with doubt along the way, but the words ‘play ball’ will be shouted in 2022. Just later than everyone hoped.
The league and the union have agreed on a new CBA, and the 2021-22 MLB hot stove season is resuming after a scorching start in November.
So the storm after the calm is underway, with a free-agent frenzy set to erupt in the coming days as teams frantically look to put a roster together ahead of an abbreviated spring training.
Some clubs were able to make some massive signings before the lockout was implemented on Dec. 1, but most teams still have plenty of holes to fill.
Who needs to bolster which areas during this signing period? Using final team raw value data from the 2021 season, we’ll break down the key needs for each club.
Raw value+ (RV+) assigns value to all the different outcomes of each pitch – a batter’s discipline, contact and damage inflicted on a batted ball – instead of waiting for the conclusion of the at-bat. Raw value- (RV-) does the same, but from a pitcher’s perspective. League average for both metrics is 100.
The teams are ordered by their final 2021 raw value team ranking:
The Toronto Blue Jays should be OK in the rotation after making a savvy move to sign Kevin Gausman (14-6, 2.81 ERA) to replace AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray (13-7, 2.84) before the lockout. Gausman actually had a better RV- (75) than Ray (84) during the regular season, finishing eighth in the majors.
Marcus Semien (signed with the Texas Rangers) is a big loss after he was one of only five players to finish above 120 in RV+, discipline+ and BIP+, but the Jays should still have plenty of pop after finishing third in RV+. Toronto’s biggest need is in the bullpen.
The New York Yankees’ target areas figure to be first base with Anthony Rizzo (22 home runs, 119 RV+) hitting free agency and the rotation after Corey Kluber (5-3, 3.83) and Andrew Heaney signed elsewhere. They were uncharacteristically quiet before the stoppage.
For the Boston Red Sox, the need has been clear: Pitching. Pitching. Pitching. That was especially the case after Eduardo Rodriguez (13-8, 4.74) signed with the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox took a step toward filling the void by signing Rich Hill (97 RV-), James Paxton (93 RV- in 2020) and Michael Wacha in November. Still, there could a hole to fill in the lineup with Kyle Schwarber (.266, 32 HRs, 71 RBIs) on the market.
The Tampa Bay Rays did what they do best, getting the most (100 wins) out of a roster that did not finish high in our rankings. They signed Kluber (96 RV-) in what could be an underrated move and there are more prospects on the way, but they may want to get some pop with Nelson Cruz (.265, 32 HRs, 86 RBIs) a free agent.
Though the Baltimore Orioles’ needs are everywhere, expect some of their highly touted draft picks to start filling those spots in 2022.
Even though the Chicago White Sox ended up with our top-ranked bullpen in 2021, Craig Kimbrel (2-2, 5.09) didn’t work out after being acquired from the crosstown rival Chicago Cubs and is expected to be traded.
Nick Madrigal, who hit .340 in 103 at-bats in 2020, was moved in the deal, leaving second base as an obvious area of need. The defending AL Central champs have already signed Kendall Graveman (66 RV-) to replace Kimbrel.
With only Andrelton Simmons a free agent from one of our top-rated offenses, the Minnesota Twins should be focusing on pitching as they try to bounce back from a disappointing 2021 season. They made a move toward that end by signing reclamation project Dylan Bundy (2-9, 6.06) in November, but there’s no doubt much more is needed.
The newly named Cleveland Guardians have needs across the board as they’ve lost piece by piece from a roster that reached the playoffs four times between 2016-2020. Longtime catcher Roberto Pérez has signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and third baseman José Ramírez (.266, 36 HRs, 103 RBIs), who finished 13th in MLB with a 154 RV+, is a potential trade candidate.
The Detroit Tigers have many needs (see chart above), but they’re also a team on the rise after going 68-61 from May 8 on last season. They’ve taken another step toward contention by signing two-time All-Star shortstop Javier Báez (.265, 31 HRs, 87 RBIs) for six years and $140 million, and Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million deal.
The Kansas City Royals, who were quiet in November, finished at the bottom end of our rankings in both starting and relief pitching – places to start in addressing the club’s needs.
Though they could lose star shortstop Carlos Correa (17th in MLB with a 151 RV+) in free agency, the AL champion Houston Astros should still be able to put up runs after finishing with our No. 1 offense last season.
Bringing back Justin Verlander, who won the AL Cy Young in his last full season in 2019, on a one-year, $25 million deal should be a boost to the rotation. Héctor Neris (60 RV-, 138 whiff+) was signed from the Philadelphia Phillies after Kendall Graveman moved on to the Chicago White Sox.
The Oakland A’s have never been ones to make big offseason moves, and they’ve already watched Mark Canha (New York Mets), Yan Gomes (Chicago Cubs) and Starling Marte (Mets) leave in free agency. Expect the A’s to make some under-the-radar moves to fill the gaps, much like how they acquired former top prospect Brent Honeywell Jr. from the Tampa Bay Rays in November.
The Los Angeles Angels made certain their top-six bullpen stays sharp by re-upping with closer Raisel Iglesias (34 saves, 2.57 ERA) on a four-year deal. They’ve lost Alex Cobb (San Francisco Giants) in free agency, but they also took a big chance on Noah Syndergaard (one-year, $26 million contract) staying healthy. Offense and starting pitching remain big needs.
The Seattle Mariners played over their heads in 2021, winning 90 games despite ending up 21st in our overall rankings. They’ve opted to go all in by signing AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray (15th in MLB with a 84 RV-). The addition of Adam Frazier (.305) should help the offense, but expect more work to be done there.
The Texas Rangers haven’t wasted any time trying to dig out of last place, inking former Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager (144 RV+) to a 10-year, $325 million megadeal, ex-Toronto Blue Jays slugger Marcus Semien (129 RV+) to a seven-year, $175 million contract and former Colorado Rockies starter Jon Gray (8-12, 4.59) for four years, $56 million.
Where do you go after winning the franchise’s first World Series title since 1995?
Well, the bullpen was a weakness at 19th in MLB last season and the Atlanta Braves have opted to take a chance on Kirby Yates (41 saves in 2019) being healthy after missing 2021 while recovering from elbow surgery.
There also could be a gaping hole in the lineup if 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman (.300, 31 HRs, 83 RBIs) chooses to leave in free agency.
The Philadelphia Phillies nearly finished in the top third of our rankings, but ended up a disappointing 82-80. The rotation is a strength behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler – both finished in the top 10 in RV-, but the offense and bullpen need work. They began to address the ‘pen by picking up Corey Knebel (144 whiff+, 71 RV-) in November.
Though they lost Javier Báez to the Detroit Tigers and Marcus Stroman (10-13, 3.02) to the Chicago Cubs, the New York Mets got off to a good start in filling offensive and starting pitching needs by adding Mark Cahna (17 HRs), Eduardo Escobar (.253, 28 HRs, 90 RBIs) and Starling Marte (.310, 12 HRs, 114 RV+), and Max Scherzer (third in MLB with a 54 RV-).
It’s uncertain how the Washington Nationals are approaching this offseason while in the early stages of a full rebuild around Juan Soto, but their needs are across the board.
Derek Jeter’s departure from the Miami Marlins allegedly over how much the team would spent doesn’t exactly signal a big offseason, but the Marlins have already improved one of the worst offenses in baseball by acquiring Joey Wendle (.265, 11 HRs) and Jacob Stallings, and signing Avisaíl García (29 HRs, 126 RV+).
While pitching remains a strength behind NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes (MLB-best 32 RV- among qualified starters), Brandon Woodruff (67 RV-) and Josh Hader (MLB-best 200 whiff+, 26 RV-), the Milwaukee Brewers’ biggest area of need is offensively – especially after losing Eduardo Escobar (.253, 28 HRs, 90 RBIs) and Avisaíl García (126 RV+) in free agency.
They’ve acquired Hunter Renfroe (31 HRs, 134 RV+) from the Boston Red Sox and signed former Baltimore Orioles catcher Pedro Severino.
According to their rankings, the Cincinnati Reds were a big disappointment in 2021 and they were quiet in November aside from waiving Wade Miley (12-7, 3.37) and watching the rival Chicago Cubs quickly snatch him up. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better with Nicholas Castellanos (21st in MLB with a 144 RV+) exploring free agency.
The St. Louis Cardinals, on the other hand, played above their rankings, sparked by one historic 17-game winning streak. The Cardinals made a big move toward filling their pitching needs (J.A. Happ, Kwang Hyun Kim, Luis García, Carlos Martínez and Andrew Miller are free agents, and Jon Lester retired) by signing Steven Matz (14-7, 3.82) to a four-year, $44 million deal.
The rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t likely to do much, but the Cubs opened some eyes by inking Marcus Stroman (10-13, 3.02) to a three-year, $71 million contract in November. If they’re indeed looking to bounce back into contention quickly, a big bat could be what they target next.
Believe it or not, there are areas of need for the team that finished No. 1 in our rankings.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have holes to fill offensively (Corey Seager left for Texas), in the rotation (Max Scherzer joined the New York Mets, Clayton Kershaw is a free agent and Trevor Bauer’s status is uncertain) and in the bullpen (Kenley Jansen and Joe Kelly are free agents and Corey Knebel went to Philadelphia).
The San Francisco Giants have already brought back Brandon Belt (29 HRs, 140 RV+) and Anthony DeSclafani (13-7, 3.71) and replaced Kevin Gausman (75 RV-) with Alex Cobb (8-3, 3.76), but offense and starting pitching may still be a need with Buster Posey’s retirement and Kris Bryant (25 HRs, 125 RV+), Johnny Cueto and Alex Wood (83 RV-) free agents.
Pitching was the biggest reason the San Diego Padres couldn’t meet lofty expectations in 2021 and closer Mark Melancon has already signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Colorado Rockies have needs across the board and are likely to lose both Jon Gray (signed with Texas) and Trevor Story (.251, 24 HRs, 75 RBIs) in free agency.
The D-backs are in a similar position with a lot of needs, but they’ve already added Melancon (39 saves, 2.23 ERA) and acquired Jordan Luplow from the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rockies and D-backs, however, will need to move mountains to compete with the top three in the division.
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