One of the most intriguing groups of upcoming free agents consists of players poised to get another chance at cashing in — players who signed one-year deals last offseason and substantially improved their value in 2021.
It’s one of the reasons this year’s free-agent market is especially deep. You not only have the first-time free agents and the veteran stars wrapping up long-term deals but also a premier group of guys coming off one-year contracts, all converging on the open market.
Here are nine pending free agents who fall in the latter group and could have multi-year contracts awaiting them this time around. (Players listed based on 2021 guaranteed contract value, with 2022 ages in parentheses.)
Kevin Gausman, RHP (age 31)
2021 contract: $18.9 million with SF
It’s not that Gausman wasn’t really good in 2020. He had a 3.62 ERA with an 11.9 K/9 for the Giants after signing a one-year, $9 million deal. But teams had a reason to question the right-hander’s performance, which came in a small sample size during the pandemic-shortened season. In a much larger sample from 2013-19, Gausman recorded a 4.30 ERA and an 8.3 K/9 for the Orioles, Braves and Reds.
Instead of testing the open market, Gausman accepted San Francisco’s one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer, effectively betting on himself. The 30-year-old delivered in a big way, setting personal bests in ERA (2.81), WHIP (1.04), FIP (3.00), innings (192) and strikeouts (227) for the 107-win Giants.
Marcus Stroman, RHP (age 31)
2021 contract: $18.9 million with NYM
The only other player to accept a qualifying offer last offseason, Stroman did so after electing not to play in 2020. He returned to make 33 starts in 2021 and finished with a 3.02 ERA and a 3.49 FIP across 179 innings.
The 30-year-old doesn’t post gaudy strikeout numbers, but he’s a proven starter who has shown the ability to excel in both the American League and the National League, so the potential of a universal designated hitter under the next collective bargaining agreement shouldn’t scare off free-agent suitors.
Marcus Semien, 2B/SS (age 31)
2021 contract: $18 million with TOR
After an out-of-nowhere breakout that resulted in a third-place finish in the 2019 AL MVP Award voting, Semien struggled during the shortened 2020 season and was not made a qualifying offer by the small-market A’s. He eventually joined the Blue Jays and moved to second base, with shortstop occupied by Bo Bichette.
George Springer was Toronto’s marquee addition last offseason, signing the largest deal in franchise history (six years, $150 million), but while Springer spent half the year on the injured list, Semien played every game. He ended up leading the team in wins above replacement (7.1, per Baseball-Reference), and he set a single-season record for homers (45) by a second baseman.
Kyle Schwarber, 1B/OF (age 29)
2021 contract: $10 million with WSH (traded to BOS)
Schwarber’s triumphant return from a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee to hit .412 in the 2016 World Series was a distant memory when the Cubs opted to non-tender the former fourth-overall pick last December. The move was surprising, but not that surprising. Schwarber had just hit .188 with a .701 OPS over 59 games in 2020 and was entering his final arbitration year, while the Cubs were looking to gain payroll flexibility.
Schwarber landed in the nation’s capital in January and hammered 25 homers over 72 games for the Nats before going down with a strained right hamstring in July. By the time he returned, Schwarber was wearing a different uniform, having been shipped to the Red Sox at the Trade Deadline for Low-A pitcher Aldo Ramirez. Schwarber was one of Boston’s best hitters down the stretch, slashing .291/.435/.522 with seven homers in 41 games during the regular season before going deep three more times in the playoffs. Schwarber’s deal includes an $11.5 million mutual option for 2022, but he’s expected to decline it and take the $3 million buyout before testing free agency again. Schwarber is still a defensive liability, but his bat should draw more attention than it did a year ago, especially if there’s a universal DH.
Robbie Ray, LHP (age 30)
2021 contract: $8 million with TOR
Semien wasn’t the only one-year signing that the Blue Jays knocked out of the park. Toronto re-signed Ray shortly after the 2020 World Series despite the fact that the left-hander recorded a 6.62 ERA with 45 walks and 13 homers allowed in 51 2/3 innings a year ago. The gamble paid off when Ray led the AL in ERA (2.84), WHIP (1.04) and innings (193 1/3) and the Majors in strikeouts (248) while lowering his walk rate from 17.9% to 6.7%, a career best.
The 30-year-old has dealt with his share of inconsistency in his eight-year career, but his 2021 performance and lifetime 11.2 K/9 rate — the all-time record for pitchers who’ve thrown at least 1,000 innings — ensures he’ll have a long list of suitors in free agency.
Anthony DeSclafani, RHP (age 32)
2021 contract: $6 million with SF
Four pitchers made at least 25 starts for the NL West-champion Giants in 2021. Three — Gausman, DeSclafani and Alex Wood — signed one-year contracts last offseason. San Francisco grabbed DeSclafani for $6 million after the veteran finished 2020 with a 7.22 ERA and a 6.10 FIP over 33 2/3 innings. It’s safe to say he’ll fare better in free agency this time around.
The 31-year-old notched career bests in ERA (3.17) and WHIP (1.09) with 152 K’s over 167 2/3 innings, and he was just as good on the road (3.22 ERA, 3.56 K/BB) as he was at Oracle Park (3.10 ERA, 3.71 K/BB).
Mark Melancon, RHP (age 37)
2021 contract: $3 million with SD
Four years after inking a $62 million contract with the Giants, Melancon joined the Padres for $59 million less in guaranteed money, signing a one-year deal on Feb. 18. Melancon solidified the closer role for San Diego, notching an MLB-leading 39 saves in 45 chances and recording a 2.23 ERA in 64 2/3 innings.
Melancon isn’t a prototypical closer, but he now owns a 2.79 ERA with 244 saves in his career, pitching for eight teams in 13 years. The 36-year-old will likely decline his end of a $5 million mutual option ($1 million buyout) and become a free agent again.
Carlos Rodón, LHP (age 29)
2021 contract: $3 million with CWS
Non-tendered by Chicago last December after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2019 and returning to throw just 7 2/3 innings (with an 8.22 ERA) in 2020, Rodón sat on the free-agent market for months, only to re-sign with the White Sox. Initially viewed merely as rotation depth, the southpaw instead pitched like an ace, throwing a no-hitter in his second start of the year and registering a 2.37 ERA and a 185-to-36 K/BB ratio in 132 2/3 innings. Opponents had just a .560 OPS against him.
Injury concerns haven’t gone away; Rodón missed time in the second half with arm fatigue and has thrown a combined 365 innings since the beginning of 2017. But there should nonetheless be a robust market for an age-29 pitcher who at times looked like the most dominant starter in the game in 2021.
Kendall Graveman, RHP (age 31)
2021 contract: $1.25 million with SEA (traded to HOU)
Another recent Tommy John recipient, Graveman experienced a notable uptick in velocity while pitching out of the bullpen for the Mariners in 2020, and Seattle re-signed him a day after declining his $3.5 million club option last offseason. Formerly a pitch-to-contact starter, Graveman posted a career-high 27.5% strikeout rate in 2021, and when he did allow contact, he was incredibly tough to square up. The sinkerballer allowed a 5.3% barrel rate, which ranked in the 86th percentile, and yielded a .322 expected slugging percentage (88th percentile).
Traded from the Mariners to the Astros in July, Graveman finished the season with a 1.77 ERA and continued to burnish his résumé in the postseason as a trusted high-leverage option for manager Dusty Baker. In a year that lacks elite free-agent relievers, Graveman could be a popular target.