Top 10 at each infield spot: Is Freeman No. 1 at 1B? Which SS is best?

MLB

The intrigue around the greatest class of free-agent shortstops is down to a final pair. Soon after the next collective bargaining agreement is concluded, Carlos Correa and Trevor Story will sign whopper deals, and then a lot of the sport’s transactional focus will shift to another position — third base, including the guy who is ranked No. 1 among our top 10 players at that spot.

A year ago, it appeared there would be six premium shortstops up for bidding this offseason, and their respective journeys have generally lived up to the hype. Francisco Lindor landed with the Mets and signed the biggest contract ever for a shortstop. Corey Seager became a Texas Ranger for the sweet sum of $325 million, alongside Marcus Semien, who shifts permanently from shortstop to second base for a guaranteed $175 million. Javier Baez signed with the Tigers. After Correa and Story find deals, those six shortstops will have collectively landed contracts worth about $1.5 billion.

There won’t be as much cash invested in third basemen, but there will likely be a lot of talent on the move. Some of the many the questions that must be answered in the months ahead:

1. How long will the Cleveland Guardians hang on to Jose Ramirez? He is widely appreciated for the relentlessness and fight in his plate appearances — much in the same way that the Dodgers’ Justin Turner is — and for his range of skills. He is a very good defender, he gets on base a ton, he hits for power, he’s a switch-hitter, and he can steal bases (averaging about 22 a year since the start of the 2016 season). In four of the past five years, Ramirez finished in the top six in the AL MVP voting.

But the Guardians will soon have to decide if and when to deal him, to maximize possible return in a trade, just as they did with CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Lindor. As Ramirez moves closer to the end of his contract, the deal is absurdly team friendly, without risk. Cleveland picked up his 2022 option for $12 million, and Ramirez has another club option in place for 2023, for $13 million.

The per-dollar return for the Guardians on Ramirez is so extraordinary, sources within the organization speculated in the past year that getting equal return for Ramirez in a trade is just about impossible, given how teams increasingly cling to their best prospects these days.

But for any team shifting into win-now mode, Ramirez would be a really, really attractive player. The Red Sox have quietly delved in the infield market this winter — more on that later — and Ramirez would be a perfect fit. Toronto’s front office, with its Cleveland roots, knows Ramirez well, and the Blue Jays have to fill in the gap of production created with Semien’s departure. Many other contenders, from the Mariners to the Dodgers to the Giants and others, would probably happily find room for Ramirez, if they could pry him away from Cleveland.

The Guardians have strong pitching and could try to contend, again. If they struggle in the first half of the 2022 season, it would make sense for them to earnestly listen to Ramirez offers at the deadline — or next winter at the latest. It’s always possible, given how team-friendly his deal is, that the Guardians and Ramirez could explore an extension that would get him paid sooner. Ramirez is 29.

Jump to the rankings: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B

2. Will the Red Sox shift All-Star Rafael Devers to another spot, and if so, how will they do that? Devers is a high-end offensive player, and his defense is erratic at best. The fact that Boston has explored the shortstop market this winter is a clue about what might be on the horizon — maybe a shift of Xander Bogaerts to third, with Devers moving to some other spot, like first base, or even second (where his defensive issues could be more readily masked with shifts, and where he would have more time to make less difficult throws). Alex Cora could use Devers like the Dodgers deploy Max Muncy, with a mix of innings at first, second and third. But it’s hard to imagine that the composition of the left side of the Boston infield will be the same for much longer. The Red Sox ranked dead last in defensive efficiency last season (66.4%).

3. Where will Gold Glover Matt Chapman land in a trade? It’s taken as a fait accompli among other teams that when baseball business resumes, the Athletics will execute a mass sell-off. Chapman played through injury in 2021 and had a bad offensive season, and any acquiring team would need to bet on a bounce-back performance at the plate — Chapman generated an OPS of .716 last season, with 202 strikeouts and 27 homers. Chapman turns 29 in April.

4. Who will pay Kris Bryant big bucks? MLB Trade Rumors projected a contract of $160 million for Bryant just a few months ago, but there was very little buzz around the former Cub before the owners’ lockout went into effect — other than word that the Giants were generally underwhelmed by what he contributed after they traded for him in July. He got off to a great start in Chicago last year, but after June 4, he batted .233/.326/.404 for the Cubs and then the Giants.

Evaluators generally view him along these lines: He gets on base, he’ll hit his share of homers, and he has demonstrated he can play multiple positions — but there is concern about how his swing will translate as he gets older and loses bat speed.

So who will pay him?

5. How long will the Pirates keep Ke’Bryan Hayes?

The future star has a year and 75 days of service time, and if Pittsburgh’s going to invest a long-term deal in him, as they did with Andrew McCutchen, it’ll probably happen in the next year — or never. And the Pirates are very unlikely to win in the next couple of years.

Hayes is among the infielders, and catchers, ranked within the Top 10 at his position, based on the input of industry evaluators, as well as seamheads Paul Hembekides of ESPN and Sarah Langs of MLB.com.

Top 10 catchers

1. Yasmani Grandal, Chicago White Sox

He had an OPS+ last season of 157, while reaching base in 42% of his plate appearances and slugging .520. Think about this: The last year Grandal failed to reach the postseason, LeBron James was playing with the Miami Heat.

2. J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies

The three-time All-Star played through injuries last season, so it would not be a surprise to see him bounce back offensively and become the No. 1 catcher in the game again.

3. Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

He bashed 48 homers last year, while playing in a staggering 161 games — but that was possible only because of how the Royals protected him by using him as a DH in a quarter of the games. K.C. appears to have developed a perfect way to transition Perez through the last half of his career — catching prospect MJ Melendez had a strong 2021 year, with an OPS over 1.000 in a season that concluded with 44 games in Triple-A. There might be a time soon when Perez and the left-handed hitting Melendez can share the workload at catcher and DH.

4. Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers

His early-career slash line of .262/.365/.527 is damn impressive among those at his position. Barring injury, he’s likely to be No. 1 on this list in a couple of years.

5. Mike Zunino, Tampa Bay Rays

He had the best offensive season of his career in 2021, with 33 homers and an OPS+ of 138.

6. Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs

The Cubs have added Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley in the offseason and could theoretically compete in a relatively weak NL Central. But if they slog through the first half, it would make sense for them to listen to offers for Contreras, who is on track to be a free agent next fall.

7. Jacob Stallings, Miami Marlins

The NL Gold Glove winner seems to be a perfect match, at this stage in his career, for the talented and young Marlins rotation after coming to Miami in an offseason trade with the Pirates.

8. Sean Murphy, Oakland Athletics

He is the reigning Gold Glove winner among AL catchers. Oakland is expected to deal away a lot of players, but Murphy is still relatively young and cheap, and could help in the Athletics’ turnover.

9. Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals

He turns 40 this summer and this will be his last year in the majors, in theory. With another 120 games at catcher, he would move into second place all time at that position, passing Bob Boone (2,225) and Carlton Fisk (2,226). Ivan Rodriguez is No. 1, at a seemingly unreachable 2,427. Think about this: In his 118 games at catcher last year, only 44 runners tried to steal and Molina threw out 41% of those.

10. Omar Narvaez, Milwaukee Brewers

When Milwaukee traded for him, the Brewers believed the staff could help him defensively and that’s what has happened.

Honorable mention

Top 10 first basemen

1. Freddie Freeman, free agent

Braves ownership has managed to turn its negotiation with Freeman into a competition. Never a good thing.

2. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

He is naturally compared to his father, a member of the Hall of Fame, but he might be more like Manny Ramirez because of his strike zone discipline and his excellence against breaking pitches. He is 22 years old and last season, he crushed sliders and curveballs for a .539 slugging percentage, 10th among batters with at least 150 plate appearances that ended on breaking stuff. According to Sarah Langs, he had seven extra-base hits on pitches with a spin rate of 2,700 rpm or more, tied for the most in the majors. Vlad Jr.’s expanding knowledge of how pitchers are trying to work him will only grow.

3. Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals

Sometime in 2022, he’ll hit his 300th career home run and pick up his 1,000th career RBI. He has been named on MVP ballots in each of the past seven seasons, and given his career trajectory, Goldschmidt could be the last player in Cardinals history to wear No. 46.

4. Matt Olson, Oakland Athletics (for now)

He’ll be one of the biggest names in the trade market once teams can wheel and deal again, with clubs like the Yankees showing interest. He is a left-handed slugger who generates fly balls, and would be capable of exploiting Yankee Stadium’s famed short porch in right field — but he has increasingly hit the ball to all fields during his career.

5. Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

Abreu turns 35 later this month, but he has worked hard on his defense, to the degree that there can be a reasonable expectation he’ll remain at first base for the immediate future.

6. Pete Alonso, New York Mets

He has hit 106 homers in 370 games, with an OPS of .890. He cut down on his strikeout rate markedly last season, from 25.5% in 2020 to 19.9% in ’21.

7. Max Muncy, Los Angeles Dodgers

There will be a lot of lingering injury questions whenever MLB restarts, and the condition of Muncy’s elbow will loom large for the Dodgers. If not for that uncertainty, he might be higher on this list.

8. Yuli Gurriel, Houston Astros

He hit .319 last season, with a .383 on-base percentage.

9. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

He has an acute understanding of hitting, and of the strike zone, but for Votto, there have been constant adjustments, often from the first half to the second half of seasons — and 2022 was no different. He had an OPS of 1.057 after the All-Star break, with an wRC+ of 165, 10th best in the majors among all players with at least 100 plate appearances. That fuels hope that Votto, 38, will finish his career strongly, and if the universal DH becomes a reality, some of his at-bats could be in that spot.

10. Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

He’s far more effective against fastballs on the inner half of the plate than he was a few years ago, and with Giants manager Gabe Kapler being more selective about when he played, his slugging percentage of .597 was the highest of his career.

Honorable mention

Top 10 second basemen

1. Marcus Semien, Texas Rangers

In his age 30 season last year, he had his career highs in home runs, slugging percentage and steals, and finished third in the AL MVP voting for the second time in three years. The Rangers bet heavily that the prime of his career will continue.

2. Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

He has moved within range of 2,000 career hits (he has 1,777), 1,000 runs (he has 883), and 200 homers (164, after hitting 31 last season). Altuve turns 32 in May, and has three seasons remaining on his current deal.

3. Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves

Most switch-hitters tend to become better as lefties later in their career, but so far, Albies continues to be much, much better as a right-handed hitter — last year, he had a .940 OPS from the right side, .749 from the left side side, a difference of almost 200 points.

4. Brandon Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays

He racked up 70 extra-base hits last season, including 39 homers.

5. Jonathan India, Cincinnati Reds

His serious approach to his work reminded some folks in the industry of Chase Utley, including the fact that he led the league in HBPs with 23, a very Utley-type of number.

6. Jake Cronenworth, San Diego Padres

He’s listed at second base here, but he played three different infield positions last year.

7. Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals

He is a 2020s version of Cal Ripken: Whitfield has played in every Kansas City game over the past three seasons, and last year, he compiled league-highs in doubles (42) and steals (40, in 44 attempts) while scoring 97 runs.

8. Chris Taylor, Los Angeles Dodgers

Dave Roberts constantly shifts and juggles the pieces on his roster, and Taylor is right in the middle of that movement. But with Corey Seager now in Texas, it’s possible Taylor will get more time at second, with Trea Turner at short — depending on how L.A. deploys Gavin Lux.

9. Jean Segura, Philadelphia Phillies

10. Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees

Once he was relieved of the responsibilities of playing shortstop, he seemed to completely relax and finally settle in offensively. In the 19 games after that change was made, Torres batted .300/.372/.443, more in line with what the Yankees envisioned from their young infielder (he just turned 25).

Honorable mention

Top 10 shortstops

1. Carlos Correa, free agent

One of the most-asked questions in the industry since the owners’ lockout began is this: What team will have the kind of money Correa apparently is looking for, after turning down a 10-year, $275 million overture from the Tigers? He is coming off the best season of his career, and in the postseason, he showed the full range of his talents. But some teams complained privately in the fall that they didn’t have the kind of access they want to see his medical records, given his history of back trouble.

2. Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

The Padres’ coaching staff believed Tatis was much better defensively in 2020 than in ’21 largely because of limited preparation. With the shoulder issue he had last year, Tatis was not able to go through regular defensive drills as he did in ’20. That Tatis did not have surgery last fall was a surprise within the industry, given the nature of his injury. The Padres probably won’t have a clear idea of how his shoulder issue will impact his defense until spring training begins. He is a high-impact offensive player — but unless the glove work steadies, there will be a conversation sooner rather than later about whether shortstop is the best place for him to play.

3. Trea Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

The conventional wisdom within baseball, among team executives and agents, is that Turner will not be with the Dodgers beyond 2022. He will be eligible for free agency a year from now, at age 29, and he might well get the biggest deal of the next offseason. Turner has had more than his share of injuries, but his impact when he plays is undeniable — over the past three seasons, he has a .317/.370/.530 slash line, with 59 homers, 79 stolen bases, and 249 runs in 329 games.

4. Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

He’ll have some contractual leverage in the months to come because he can opt out of his contract at season’s end, and Bogaerts is an exceptional offensive player. Because he debuted at such a young age, it feels like he has been around forever, but Bogaerts is 29.

5. Corey Seager, Texas Rangers

Many rival evaluators believe Seager will need to move to third base eventually, but for now, he’s one of the most productive offensive players at his position, after the Rangers’ investment of $325 million.

6. Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox

He has a .322 average over the past three seasons, and a great reputation as a teammate.

7. Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants

The Giants rewarded Crawford for his strong 2021 season with a contract extension. Think about this: Crawford finished fourth in the NL MVP voting despite playing in just 138 games, scoring 79 runs and accumulating 144 hits.

8. Bo Bichette, Toronto Blue Jays

He is a powerhouse of production — last year, he had 191 hits, 30 doubles, 29 homers, 25 steals in 26 attempts, 121 runs, 102 RBIs. He’s still just 23 years old.

9. Francisco Lindor, New York Mets

It was a rough first year for Lindor in New York, but his performance improved throughout the season — after July 2, Lindor batted a respectable .262/.354/.506. With a full winter to make swing adjustments, and with the Mets’ lineup beefed around him, he will be a premier bounce-back candidate in 2022.

10. Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays

You can apply numbers to how good Franco already is, at age 20 — and maybe no number is more telling than the $182 million contract he signed with Tampa Bay this winter. He’s like the Juan Soto of shortstops, with the outward confidence he exudes, and the Rays will be able to build around that for years.

Honorable mention

  • Willy Adames, Brewers. Maybe the most underrated player of 2021, in how he impacted the Brewers.

  • Trevor Story, free agent. His physical state will probably be among those most closely watched once baseball resumes, with club evaluators looking to assess how healthy he is and how well he is throwing before they commit the big offer likely needed to sign him.

  • Javier Baez, Detroit Tigers. The disciplined manner in which he took his plate appearances in the last weeks of 2021 was unlike any other stretch in his career — Baez had a .352 average and a .439 on-base percentage in the final 20 games of last season, while hitting for less power (four doubles, three homers). Will he go back to his former aggressive approach? Will Miguel Cabrera have some impact on Baez’s thinking as a hitter?

  • Nicky Lopez, Kansas City Royals

  • Jorge Polanco, Minnesota Twins

  • J.P. Crawford, Seattle Mariners

Top 10 third basemen

1. Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Guardians

2. Manny Machado, San Diego Padres

If the Padres bounce back from their incredibly disappointing ’21 showing, Machado will undoubtedly be right in the middle of the comeback.

3. Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals can have some degree of confidence Arenado will be better in his second season in St. Louis. His production against fastballs dipped dramatically last summer, which, despite his move away from Coors Field, is almost certain to be an outlier. Sarah Langs sent along this thought: “Even in 2020 when he also wasn’t his prior self, he hit .287 and slugged .521 in AB ending in fastballs. His production vs. fastballs by year:

2021: .221 BA, .440 SLG
2020: .287, .521
2019: .337, .649
2018: .308, .631
2017: .340, .687
2016: .292, .590
2015: .324, .652
2014: .283, .557
2013: .302, .464

He was less aggressive against fastballs than in the past, Langs notes. Arenado had a 46.8% swing rate vs. fastballs, lowest of his career. It was 49.6% in 2020, and in 2017 (his best year vs. fastballs) it was 50.0%. His highest was 56.8% in 2013 as a rookie.

4. Alex Bregman, Houston Astros

The fact that Bregman hit .270/.355/.422 last season in spite of a wrist and hand issue provides a lot of hope for the Astros that he’ll bounce back from his postseason problems.

5. Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox

He just turned 25 years old and already has 2,344 plate appearances in the big leagues, and the trends reflected in his swing are all good — his flyball and home run rates are climbing, and his rate of swings outside of the strike zone in ’21 was the best since he became a regular. Keep in mind that Devers was dealing with a forearm issue, and wound up with a wRC+ of 134 last season.

6. Austin Riley, Atlanta Braves

Atlanta won the World Series, but if the Braves re-sign Freeman, they could be a far better regular-season team in 2022 — now that Ronald Acuña Jr. is due back from his knee injury, and now that Riley has evolved into a legitimate star. Remember all the Kris Bryant and Kyle Seager rumors? The Braves’ patience with Riley is being rewarded.

7. Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers have typically spread playing time among a wide swath of players since Dave Roberts took over as manager, but they leaned heavily on Turner last year. He played 143 games at third base last season, the most games at third base for any player at least 36 years old since Vinny Castilla played 148 in 2004. According to Sarah Langs, the only other third baseman that age or older to play in 140-plus games was Adrian Beltre, with 142 in 2015 and 141 in 2016.

8. Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics

Rival evaluators view his strikeout rate (32.5% in 2021) as alarming, and over the past two seasons, he has an on-base percentage of .306. But he hits for power and has high impact on defense.

9. Josh Donaldson, Minnesota Twins

He ranked fifth among all third basemen last season in wRC+, at 124.

10. Yoan Moncada, Chicago White Sox

He posted the highest on-base percentage among all regular third basemen last season.

Honorable mention

  • Kris Bryant, free agent. He actually played far more games in the outfield last season (93) than he did at third base (55). It might be that another category needs to be created for players like Bryant, DJ LeMahieu, Chris Taylor, Enrique Hernandez — those who play daily, but often move around. How about: Regular utility?

  • Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Angels. Joe Maddon needs him back on the field.

  • Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates. Correa was the only infielder with more Defensive Runs Saved last season than Hayes’ 16. Hayes has 20 DRS in his first 119 games. His offensive production seemed severely hampered by a wrist injury last year, his first full season in the big leagues.

  • DJ LeMahieu, New York Yankees. It’s not entirely clear where he will play in 2022, because the Yankees still need to identify a shortstop and might be in the market for a first baseman. Down the stretch, LeMahieu mostly played third base. Wherever he plays, he’s an excellent candidate for a rebound following surgery for a hernia, which might have been at the root of his offensive decline from ’20 to ’21.

  • Jeimer Candelario, Detroit Tigers

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