We’ve reached the point of the season where roughly half the league is closing the book on 2021 postseason hopes and beginning to look toward the future. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at this year’s upcoming free-agent class in some more depth. MLBTR’s Darragh McDonald kicked things off over the weekend by previewing the upcoming class of catchers, and we’ll move onto first base today.
Before diving in, it’s worth briefly highlighting a few notable free agents who could technically be considered options at first base but will likely line up elsewhere. Kris Bryant has 212 innings at the position, including 92 this year. Eduardo Escobar had never played there prior to being acquired by the Brewers, but Milwaukee has given him 80 innings at first. The Red Sox have given Kyle Schwarber 35 frames at first base since acquiring him. Mark Canha played 537 innings there for the A’s back in 2015 but has just 203 innings there since — and only 11 in 2020-21.
It wouldn’t be an outright shock to see any of the bunch signed with the idea of a more permanent move to first base, but for the purposes of this series, they’ll all be discussed at greater length in future position previews.
Freddie Freeman (32 years old next season): The obvious top name on the market, most onlookers expected that Freeman, the reigning NL MVP, would have signed an extension with the Braves by now. A return to Atlanta still seems the most probable outcome, even though it’s taken longer than anticipated. That said, Freeman is on the cusp of at least entertaining interest from the game’s other 29 clubs. Freeman got out to slow start in 2021 (especially by his lofty standards), batting .195/.326/.407 through his first 31 games. In 116 games since that time, he’s mashed at a .327/.407/.536 rate with 23 home runs, 20 doubles and three triples. By measure of wRC+, Freeman has been at least 32 percent better than the average big league hitter each season dating back to 2013. He just wrapped up an eight-year, $135MM contract, and despite the fact that he’ll play next year at 32 years of age, he has a chance to approach or even exceed that guarantee on a shorter deal this time around. Freeman is a no-doubt qualifying offer recipient, barring an extension between now and the point at which QOs are due.
Anthony Rizzo (32): Rizzo’s bat has dropped off since his 2014-19 peak, though he’s been more productive in 2021 than he was in a career-worst 2020 season. He’s walking at a solid but still-diminished 9.6 percent clip and is still a tough strikeout at 15 percent — albeit not as tough as he once was. Rizzo has seen 13.4 percent of his fly-balls go for home runs this year — his lowest mark since 2013. Overall, he’s batting .249/.345/.439 — good for a 112 wRC+ (or 12 percent better than league-average production). Rizzo reportedly rejected a five-year, $70MM extension offer from the Cubs back in Spring Training and is now poised to reach the open market for the first time in his career. He’s ineligible to receive a qualifying offer after being traded from the Cubs to the Yankees midseason.
Brandon Belt (34): Belt’s bat looked to be on the decline from 2018-19, but he’s been better than ever from 2020-21. Over his past 142 games/531 plate appearances, Belt is raking at a .276/.384/.580 clip with 35 long balls, 26 doubles and three triples. He’s sporting a career-worst 28.4 percent strikeout rate in 2021, but he’s also connected on a career-high 26 home runs while maintaining a characteristically strong 12.9 percent walk rate. Belt entered the 2020 season with a career 88.1 mph average exit velocity and 9.8 percent barrel rate, per Statcast. In 2020-21, those numbers jumped to 89.7 mph and 16.8 percent, respectively. He’s a qualifying offer candidate himself, although not a slam-dunk to the extent of Freeman.
C.J. Cron (32): Colorado’s minor league deal for Cron paid off nicely, and while the team opted against moving him at the deadline (as was the case with nearly every Rockies trade chip), both sides have expressed interest in extending the relationship. It’s easy to see why the Rox would want to keep Cron around after he’s posted a .267/.366/.520 batting line with 27 long balls — just three off his career-best mark from 2018. As usual, Cron has crushed lefties and been solid against righties. He’s been more productive at Coors Field than on the road, but Cron has always been a better hitter at home and has been productive in the past with several other clubs. Perhaps most encouraging is that after walking at a 5.5 percent clip through his first 673 MLB games, Cron has walked at a 12.1 percent rate in 547 plate appearances dating back to his injury-shortened 2020 season. Cron’s prior OBP woes have contributed to him effectively being non-tendered on a couple of occasions, but his newfound plate discipline should serve him well in free agency. It’d be a surprise for the Rockies to issue a QO, but they march to the beat of their own drum, to say the least.