Major League Baseball's regular season is only in its second week, but for a certain kind of fan it's never too early to think about this upcoming winter's free-agent class.
Besides, the news cycle as of late has made it difficult to avoid looking ahead. Between the New York Yankees failing to extend outfielder Aaron Judge and the Boston Red Sox making an underwhelming offer to keep shortstop Xander Bogaerts in town beyond his opt-out date, this offseason already looks like it could feature more starpower than previously expected.
The sagas of Judge and Bogaerts are just two of the storylines worth watching. For a better idea of who else might be available, and what other developments merit tracking, let's turn to an always reliable format by attempting to answer five big questions about MLB's prospective 2022-2023 free-agent class.
1. Will Yankees keep Judge?
The Yankees, by virtue of their financial might and prestige, almost never allow homegrown stars to leave. That's partially why Robinson Canó's signing with the Mariners in December 2013 was such a notable story. Whether or not Judge follows Canó's path is to be seen, but the chances seem better than they were a year ago.
For those who are out of the loop, the Yankees offered Judge an extension worth more than $210 million prior to Opening Day. Judge declined that offer, seemingly ensuring that he'll test the free-agent waters. Rival talent evaluators expressed surprise to CBS Sports that Judge turned down the offer, citing his age (he'll turn 30 in a week) and his injury history as reasons he's unlikely to get much more on the open market.
Judge is clearly betting on himself, and that's a free-agent storyline worth tracking.
2. To opt-out or not?
We mentioned Bogaerts in the introduction. He's the biggest opt-out candidate on the side of the hitters, as he'll have upwards of four years and $80 million remaining on his deal. Injuries happen, and so you never want to assume that a decision is a given, but it seems more likely than not that Bogaerts can and will top that on the market.
The pitching side is littered with interesting opt-out decisions.
Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom (two years, $62 million) has affirmed his desire to opt-out -- even after suffering an injury that will cause him to miss most of the first two months of the season. Elsewhere, Astros righty Justin Verlander (potentially one year, $25 million) and Giants lefty Carlos Rodón (potentially one year, $22.5 million) could also take their chances on the market if they hit certain innings thresholds.
3. Who are the other top hitters?
Once you get past that tier, there's a lot of uncertainty. Will Joey Gallo (who we'll touch on more in a later question) rebound? Will teams view Willson Contreras as a franchise-level catcher? Can Enrique Hernández and Josh Bell cement their standings as above-average players? How will the market view J.D. Martinez given his advanced age and limited defense? Would José Abreu leave Chicago? And so on.
At least at this point, it seems unlikely that this year's class will match the breadth of last winter's. The top three to five could be very strong, however.
4. Where's the pitching?
Outside of deGrom, the top of the pitching market is likely to entail some combination of Joe Musgrove, Noah Syndergaard, Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Eflin, Jameson Taillon, and Mike Clevinger -- plus give or take a few of those veterans with opt-out clauses, be it Verlander, Rodón, or whomever.
It's not the most star-laden group, but there's enough talent there to envision teams happily bolstering their rotations and bullpens all the same.
5. Any make-or-break seasons?
It wouldn't be a free-agent class without a few wild cards. In our estimation the following three players have the most riding on this season.
Joey Gallo, OF, Yankees: Prior to being sent to New York last deadline, Gallo had established himself as an All-Star-caliber player. He was known for slugging and walking and being athletic enough to play center. Putting him in Yankee Stadium seemed like a perfect pairing. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out. Gallo is off to a tough start this season, and if he continues to underwhelm then he might have no choice but to take a short-term deal to reestablish himself.
Gary Sánchez, C, Twins: From a current Yankee to a former Yankee, Sánchez became a polarizing figure in New York because of his defense and his fluctuating offense. He has a chance to use his fresh start in Minnesota as a springboard to a lucrative multi-year deal, depending on how well he slugs and takes to a new pitching.
Dansby Swanson, SS, Braves: Swanson has been reliably worth one to two wins throughout his career. That's a useful profile, but it's not the kind that teams like to pony up for in free agency. It would behoove him, then, to have a season more reminiscent of his 2020 campaign, when he earned MVP consideration.
The good news for those three players, and for anyone who is tired of thinking about the transactions side of the game, is that there's a long way to go between now and the opening of free agency.