This season was owned by Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto.
Following Ohtani’s record-breaking 10-year, $700 million deal with the Dodgers and Soto traded to the Yankees last week, teams will now focus on the remaining free-agent hitters to bolster their rosters. Given that Ohtani and Soto are likely to hold the market, few players have signed deals so far. Of MLB.com’s top 25 free agents, Ohtani and Jeimer Candelario (Reds) are the only players who have signed deals.
While none of the remaining free agents will come close to Ohtani and Soto (obviously), there are still plenty of quality hitters on the market. Who is the best among them? Although there is a certain level of subjectivity in this, taking a look at their track record, and their most recent performance in 2023, the basic metrics and expectations for next year can give us an idea of who might be the best non-OT batsmen in free agency.
Let’s dive into the best remaining hitters (not including defense and baserun value).
case for: After a rough 2021-22 with the Dodgers, Bellinger was non-tendered and was signed by the Cubs, who reaped the rewards of a player who won the 2023 NL Comeback Player of the Year award. He appears to have fully recovered from 2020 shoulder surgery., Bellinger has produced a line .307/.356/.525 with 4.1 wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) while making the All-Star team and finishing 10th in NL MVP voting. Bellinger lowered his strikeout rate to a career low of 15.6% and became more of an elite contact hitter.
Case against: MLB.com’s Mike Petrillo looks at Bellinger’s free agency case and the questions that have arisen from his strange season. As Petrillo pointed out, Bellinger produced an SLG over .500 despite an abysmal batting average in the 10th percentile. Bellinger outperformed its WOBA forecast – based on call quality and quantity – by 43 points, a larger gap than all but Four eligible hitters. Bellinger has made some real changes and will bring great value as a legitimate defensive midfielder and a good starter, but his attacking profile moving forward is unclear.
case for: Chapman has never fallen below a league average of 100 OPS+ in a season and has been at 108 or higher all but once (2021). With that relatively high floor comes some pop. He has a career slugging percentage of .461, has hit 24 or more home runs in four seasons and has excellent contact quality. He ranked in the 98th percentile or better in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and swipe rate in 2023, indicating the potential for more damage in the future.
Case against: Is it trending down? Chapman’s OPS+ dropped from 127 (2017-20) to 108 (2021-23), and last year he had a 1.152 OPS in March/April but a 0.659 OPS the rest of the season. While Chapman continues to make good contact, his strikeout rate hasn’t ranked better than the 16th percentile since 2019. He’s still a talented defender, but the offense comes with real questions as he enters his age-31 season.
case for: According to wOBA projections, Soler (.374) was the best free agent hitter behind Ohtani (.426) in 2023 and Rank 18 Among all eligible hitters. Soler lowered his whiff rate to a career low of 27.6%, while his expected wOBA, expected SLG and barrel rate ranked in the 91st percentile or better.
Case against: Soler is coming off a great season with encouraging underlying numbers but consistency has been an issue. He was fantastic in 2019 (48 home runs, 137 OPS+) and last year, he played in at least 137 games in each of those seasons. In Soler’s only other seasons (2015 and ’21) when he played at least 100 games, he produced nearly a 99 OPS+ average each year. To make matters worse, Soler’s defensive value has slowly pushed him closer to a permanent DH role.
case for: Martinez began to show signs of decline in his final years in Boston before rejuvenating his career in his first year with Los Angeles. He was reunited with Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc – for whom he played integral part On Martinez’s success in the MLB – Martinez came back with 33 home runs and a .572 SLG in 113 games. Martinez’s underlying numbers supported the rebound, with the right-handed hitter finishing in the 91st percentile or better in xwOBA, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate.
Case against: The explosion of power came with a sharp decline in plate discipline and ball-striking skills. For the first time in his career, Martinez’s strikeout rate exceeded 30% (24.7%) while his walk rate dropped to 7.1%, its lowest level since 2014. Most of that came against off-fastballs, which Martinez swung and hit. He missed a whopping 45.8% of the time. While he’s still a healthy .563 against those pitches, there’s a potential weakness that pitchers could target in Martinez’s 36-year-old season in 2024.
case for: MLB.com’s Thomas Harrigan recently looked at how Hernandez has been an under-the-radar free agent hitter. Even with a down 2023 season (106 OPS+), there were encouraging signs. Hernandez’s expected wOBA (.336) was 19 points higher than his actual wOBA, while his barrel rate ranked in the 88th percentile and his hard-hit rate ranked in the 90th percentile. He might benefit from leaving Seattle for a more hitter-friendly environment.
Case against: After posting a career-best 146 OPS+ in 2020, Hernandez has seen that number decline each year, due to worsening swing-and-miss issues. He struck out a career-high 211 home runs last season, chased more times than ever before (35.2%) and posted a career-low walk rate of 5.6%. The 31-year-old Hernandez can still play hard right field and run the bases well, giving him more value than some of the DH-only players on this list, but there are red flags in his profile.
case for: Similar to former teammate Chapman, Gurriel has a high floor of offensive production. Gurriel has a career 115 OPS+ and has never dipped below 106 in six big-league seasons. The 30-year-old doesn’t strike out much (19.6% career average), hits with power (.466 SLG) and provides good defense in left field for teams looking to use him as an everyday outfielder.
Case against: While the floor is high, the ceiling is lower compared to others on this list. His career-best 138 OPS+ came in the truncated 2020 season and has ranged from 108-114 in his three seasons with 100+ games played (2021-23). Gurriel is also coming off a year in which he posted a career-worst .309 OBP, which could make him a tough sell at the top or middle of the lineup.
case for: Unfortunately, Hoskins tore his ACL in spring training this year, wiping out his entire season before free agency. It was a blow to Hoskins, who has a track record of offensive production that would have led to a bigger payday without the injury. Although Hoskins has never come close to his impressive 50-game stint as a starter (162 OPS+ and 18 home runs), he does have a 125 OPS+ and has hit 148 home runs. His attacking prowess is also supported by Excellent batted ball numbers.
Case against: Any player coming off a torn ACL — especially a first baseman who already had defensive questions — while missing an entire season is going to raise questions. Hoskins will turn 31 before Opening Day and with no MLB at-bats since late 2022, it is unclear if the same version of Hoskins will return. With his previous defensive limitations as well, Hoskins could end up as a DH-only bat soon.
case for: Since his career turn with the Dodgers in 2014, Turner has never had a bad year at the plate. His 114 OPS+ last year with the Red Sox was his lowest since ’13 and he’s been at 120 or above every other season. Even if he’s not at his peak anymore, Turner still has a healthy .345 OBP and hit 23 home runs for Boston in 2023. He’s also been extremely reliable, playing in at least 103 games a season since all but 2014 and the ’20 season.
Case against: Father time comes even for some of the best players and Turner is no different at 39 years old. While Turner has consistently managed a 130 OPS+ or better for years, he has hit 120 in each of the past three seasons. Turner’s pitching is still very good — making his pitch very high — but he’s not quite crushing baseballs like he used to. Having just played 98 league games, teams also won’t get the defensive value he was providing.
case for: Garver may not be a household name but he has certainly helped his case as an integral part of the Rangers’ World Series run in 2023. Set to turn 33 before Opening Day, Garver has a career 123 OPS+ thanks to his ability to get on base (.342) and sluggard (.483). Garver is also one of the best hitters of this generation when it comes to doing damage against fastballs (career .982 OPS) and has consistently crushed left-handed pitching (.885 OPS).
Case against: Garver suffered from a variety of injuries that limited him to just one 100-game season. He’s averaged just 70 plate appearances per season since 2021 — which is partly why he’s spent more time at DH than catcher in recent seasons. Given his injury history and the fact that he only played 28 games behind the plate in 2023, Garver’s days as a true catching option appear to be dwindling.
case for: Pederson is a 10-year veteran with a career 116 OPS+ and has always mixed a good combination of pop (.464 SLG) and eye at the plate (11.5% walk rate). After years of being overshadowed by star-studded teams like the Dodgers and Braves, Pederson has taken on a more prominent role with the Giants in the last two seasons, hitting 38 home runs with a 129 OPS+. The 31-year-old has a track record of offensive success and has consistently crushed righties (.490 SLG).
Case against: Although good against right-handers, Pederson never handled left-handed pitching well (.622 OPS), which capped his overall production and forced him into a platoon role. Like others on this list, Pederson has also seen his defensive struggles push him closer to everyday DH duties (career-high 79 games in 2023). Teams will still value Pederson as a left-handed mash-up who crushes right-handed pitching — more limitations than the others mentioned here.
Honorable mentions: Brandon Belt, Tommy Pham, Michael Brantley
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