We enter the final stretch of the 2023 MLB regular season but the offseason never sleeps. Free agents and trade possibilities are in the back of everyone's mind and this offseason promises to be unlike any other because Shohei Ohtani, the game's coolest and most talented player, will be a free agent. His free agency will be fascinating.
Before the postseason races really heat up, let's take some time to look ahead to the offseason, and examine five players who improved their free agent stock this season. To put it another way, these players made themselves a lot of money in 2023. They're poised to cash in nicely in what projects to be a weak free agent class behind Ohtani.
. For this exercise, we're going to exclude Ohtani, because he was always going to get a record-breaking contract as long as he stayed healthy. He's been great this year and I'm not sure we can say he made himself more money. Ohtani was getting a huge deal either way.
Anyway, here are five free agents-to-be who have set themselves up for a very nice payday this winter.
1. CF Cody Bellinger, Chicago Cubs
This season could not be going any better for Bellinger and agent Scott Boras. When they took a one-year, $17.5 million contract with the Cubs this year, they did so hoping he would rediscover something close to his MVP form, and that is exactly what happened. Bellinger owns a .322/.370/.556 slash line with 20 home runs and a career low 15.3% strikeout rate. Since returning from a knee contusion on June 15, he's hitting .358/.393/.599 with 13 homers in 56 games. He's gotten better as the season has progressed.
It should be noted Bellinger's ball-tracking data (exit velocity, etc.) doesn't match the slash line, though the underlying data indicates he should be performing merely at an All-Star level rather than at an MVP level. I'm curious to see how teams grapple with his track record -- Bellinger hit .193/.256/.355 from 2021-22, remember -- but Bellinger turned only 28 last month, he's performing very well, and he has MVP pedigree. He'll get capital-P Paid and is the current favorite to get the largest non-Ohtani contract of the offseason.
2. LHP Blake Snell, San Diego Padres
Leading the league in walks and ERA is an unusual combination to say the least, though Snell has managed to thread the needle this year, and he's always been a top tier bat-misser. His worst strikeout rate from 2018-23 was 30.1% of batters faced in 2021. The league average is 22.4% and anything over 30% is elite, especially as a starter. Snell can be a chore to watch and he rarely pitches deep into games because the walks and strikeouts equal high pitch counts, but he's a difference-making starter who turns only 31 in December and has pitched well in October. Guys with top of the rotation ability don't become available often, and Snell has it.
3. LHP Jordan Montgomery, Texas Rangers
The bidding war for Montgomery will be fierce. He's the kind of pitcher everyone loves. Scouts love him because he's a big left-hander (listed at 6-foot-6 and 228 pounds), numbers people love him because he has an analytics-friendly five-pitch package, and fans love him because he's posted a 3.55 ERA and 117 ERA+ the last three years. Montgomery is durable and very good, and durable and very good will get you paid handsomely in this game, especially when you're putting together the contract year he has. Maybe you don't want Montgomery to be the guy atop the rotation, but, clearly, he fits in a contender's rotation.
4. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers
At the trade deadline, Los Angeles Dodgers, as was his right. That means Detroit could lose him for nothing this offseason, assuming Rodriguez opts out of the final three years and $49 million remaining on his contract (he has received the qualifying offer once before and is thus unable receive it again, meaning the Tigers will not receive draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere). Opting out seems likely given his season to date. The 30-year-old is again eating innings at an above-average rate, and he does it by missing bats and generating weak contact. It's a combination every team wants and will get Rodriguez a nice raise over what amounts to the $49 million insurance policy left on his contract (insurance in case he gets hurt between now and the offseason).
5. 1B/3B Jeimer Candelario, Chicago Cubs
The second Cubs player on our list -- Marcus Stroman was also a consideration here prior to -- Candelario came over in a deadline trade with the Washington Nationals, and his game has not slipped at all. He's hitting .339/.415/.508 with Chicago after hitting .258/.342/.481 with the Nationals. Candelario switch-hits, he has power, he is playing the best third base defense of his career (by far), and he's still only 29. There's a case to be made Candelario will be the third best position player on the free agent market behind Bellinger and Matt Chapman. Teams will need bats and there won't be many quality bats available this winter. Supply and demand says Candelario will cash in.