Bryce or Manny? Cole or Rendon? These were the binary questions being asked during the past two offseasons when discussing who was the best available free agent.
This year, that question is a bit more complicated.
In trying to determine who should be considered the crown jewel of the 2020-21 market, MLB.com polled 21 executives around the Majors. The question posed to the execs was simple: Who is the best free agent this offseason, and why?
Their answers displayed a diversity of opinions, showing how disparate the thought processes in front offices around the league can be.
Four players, four positions. Beautiful.
Although Realmuto received a plurality of votes, no player garnered a majority. It was hardly a surprise that all three position players mentioned play premium defensive positions, though Realmuto stood out to some based on the infrequency of the game’s top catcher hitting the open market.
“The simple fact is that he’ll be the only free agent who is probably the best player at his position,” one National League executive said. “And having a top-tier catcher is a big advantage because there are so few of them across the league.”
Multiple executives cited Realmuto’s athleticism, both behind the plate and on the bases, as the tipping point in their decision.
“Position, impact on both sides, makeup,” another NL executive said of Realmuto. “And he’s still a plus runner, which signals he’s aging well.”
A third NL executive wrestled with his answer, ultimately choosing Realmuto ahead of Bauer.
“Although I’m tempted to say Bauer, I think Realmuto is the one impact-up-the-middle player this year that could really take someone over the top,” he said.
“Any catcher who is a plus defender with plus offense, I will gladly spend money on,” an NL talent evaluator said. “Plus, there are strong leadership skills with plus game-calling ability. All the intangibles are there, as well as the tools at the most important position in the game.”
An American League executive who chose Springer cited the outfielder’s power and defense, noting that even at 31 years old, he “can play that position for years to come.” That was the executive’s primary concern with Realmuto, who is “playing an aging position that’s susceptible to injury relative to other positions.”
“The impact of Springer is too much for me to overlook,” he said.
“The combo of a premium bat at a premium position is hard to pass up,” an NL executive said of Springer. “He’s the type of player who would immediately be one of the two or three best players on whatever team signs him. He can hit anywhere in the lineup, and you can pencil him into center field every day. That’s quite a luxury.”
Springer’s postseason history was a big plus in the eyes of one AL executive.
“The conventional answer may be Bauer or Realmuto; they are both excellent players,” the executive said. “Springer is also an excellent player and a proven champion. When identifying the ‘best’ free agent, we all strive to pinpoint the player who marries unquestioned talent with the innate ability to elevate the team’s chance of excelling in the playoffs. George Springer is that player.”
When it comes to pitchers on the market, Bauer is the definitive No. 1 choice, with one exec saying the right-hander “has clearly separated himself” from the rest of the pitching pack after posting an NL-low 1.73 ERA.
“How many guys win the Cy Young and become a free agent?” another NL executive said.
Not only is Bauer the favorite to take home the NL Cy Young Award, but he’s also one of the few frontline starters in his prime who will hit the free-agent market in the near future.
Next offseason’s potential free-agent class is headlined by a quartet of veteran starters in their late-30s (Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander) and a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery (Noah Syndergaard). Bauer might represent the only chance to sign a No. 1 starter in his prime prior the 2022-23 offseason.
“There are just so few legitimate impact pitchers available, and he’s proven both extremely effective and durable,” said an AL executive who chose Bauer as his top free agent. “I love Realmuto, Springer, LeMahieu and even [Michael] Brantley and a few others on next tier, but Bauer is one of the very few impact pitchers available this year or next.”
An AL executive who chose Springer praised Bauer for what he brings to the mound, though the exec noted the risk involved with signing pitchers to huge contracts has grown in recent years.
“Pitchers are tough because of the significant injury risk and 130 games they don’t participate in,” he said.
While most executives polled were able to give a clear answer, others had to talk it out before coming to a conclusion.
“I guess it depends on your needs,” an AL executive said. “Bauer, Realmuto and Springer stand out. In a vacuum, I’d bet on Bauer having the most single-season impact for a championship-type team and Springer being the safest bet. Realmuto wins the positional-rarity race. In a vacuum where needs didn’t matter, I’d take Springer.”
The one NL executive who chose LeMahieu factored in the expected cost for the top free agents and what the signing teams will get for their financial commitment.
“For the cost, it would be hard to get more return on investment than LeMahieu,” he said. “Otherwise, Springer would be tough to beat.”
In the end, free-agent beauty is in the eye of the beholder. All four players should have no shortage of suitors this offseason, but for nearly half of those polled, Realmuto is the cream of this year’s crop.
“Realmuto is the best at his position,” an NL exec said. “He’s the only free agent who can say that.”
Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.