Shohei Ohtani and the rest of the contract-year stars to watch

Anaheim, CA - June 20: Starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers throws to the plate againtst Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Angels in the sixth inning of a baseball game at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. Ohtani flied out to left field. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Shohei Ohtani and Clayton Kershaw are shaping up to become two of the top free agents this offseason in MLB. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Baseball, as an industry, uses its mountain of information much more intelligently than it used to. Still, there’s no getting around good ol’ recency bias.

Every winter, the stars who hit free agency coming off a big season — or, in Aaron Judge’s case, one of the biggest seasons ever — draw huge bidding wars. The one-time or would-be stars whose contract years didn’t go as swimmingly fall back a bit, often taking short-term deals to get a second crack at it.

Players do their best to block out the swirl of financial incentives and familial uncertainty that accompanies impending free agency, but the next month-and-a-half will undoubtedly carry huge sway for a great many of them.

As the MLB season heads into the home stretch, let’s take an early look at the 10 most impactful players set to headline the free agent class this winter.

As the Angels fall farther behind the AL postseason pack, more attention is going to shift from their last-ditch effort at contending with Ohtani to the two-way superstar’s future. Already a virtual lock for AL MVP honors, the main questions remaining about his 2023 circle the question of whether he’s having the best season of all time.

The questions about 2024 and beyond, however, are legion. Ohtani’s preferences — and eventual price point — promise to be the biggest hot stove storyline in at least a decade. Whoever successfully woos him will need to help him continue the routines that have made his impossible-seeming gambit a reality. If they do, they will be signing the default MVP favorite for the foreseeable future.

Nola’s 2023 ERA (4.49) doesn’t look pretty, and he has actually been an uneven performer this season for the first time since his sophomore campaign. Still, the ZiPS projection system as FanGraphs views Nola as the second-best starting pitcher going for next year and 2025. That’s partially a product of his pure innings total, but also a reflection of his strong underlying metrics. He logs strikeouts, walks almost no one and gets hitters to swing when they shouldn’t. A strong finish could dispel any clouds of doubt, but Nola is likely to get an ace’s pay day either way.

Top-line stats also show a down year for the Dodgers lefty, mostly due to a bout of homer-itis. Potential suitors, however, will be more focused on a velocity dip that might hint at an underlying health concern. If teams come away from this season relatively confident about Urías’ arm, he stands to earn more than any other non-Ohtani pitcher. He just turned 27 on Saturday — making him a full three years younger than Nola — and has one of the strongest recent track records in baseball. Since the start of the 2020 season, Urías has logged the 24th-most innings and the eighth-best ERA among qualified starters.

The jaw-dropping hot corner defender seems healthier than he has been since 2019, and it’s showing through in his slugging percentage, which is at its highest full-season mark since that 5.7 WAR season. He’s never going to sniff batting titles — a ding that will keep him just outside serious MVP contention — but if Chapman can hold the fort around .245 or better with this level of pop, his mastery on defense likely makes him an automatic 4 WAR player for the next three or four seasons. That’s extremely valuable even before you factor in his heady approach to the game and sterling clubhouse reputation.

Chicago Cubs' Cody Bellinger scores on Christopher Morel's single off Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Bryce Elder during the fifth inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

5. Cody Bellinger, Chicago Cubs center fielder

Pillow contract? Try trampoline contract.

The former NL MVP who fell upon hard times with the Dodgers has discovered a slightly different route to excellence on a one-year deal at Wrigley Field. With a monster strikeout problem seemingly tamed (at least for now) and stellar defense still a staple of his game, Bellinger figures to decline a mutual option with the Cubs and test the market. Expect significant multi-year offers to roll in this time.

Snell has the lowest qualified ERA in the majors this year and a walk rate that might give general managers (or fans) night terrors. Even acknowledging the lefty, who will turn 31 in December, might have one of the highest ceilings among free agent starters, most projection systems and evaluation models don’t love his chances of hitting it consistently. The 2018 AL Cy Young winner has always had amazing stuff, most notably a terrific high-spin fastball, but hasn’t proven to be nearly as trustworthy across seasons or months as the pitchers ahead of him on this list. And that will ultimately tug any long-term talks downward.

7. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Orix Buffaloes pitcher

The top player expected to make the leap from Japan this winter, Yamamoto has been dominating NPB hitters for the past few seasons. Given that he doesn’t turn 25 until later this week, the market for his services should easily surpass that of Kodai Senga, who the Mets signed for five years and $75 million.

8. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher

Yes, Kershaw will technically be a free agent again. The future Hall of Famer has repeatedly hit the market and then re-signed with the Dodgers in recent years — though his hometown Texas Rangers are viewed as the one team that might appeal to him. And while his durability is diminished, his effectiveness is intact. Relying heavily on his slider, Kershaw has a 2.38 ERA across 226 2/3 innings since the start of 2022.

9. Josh Hader, San Diego Padres closer

After a blip last season, Hader has returned to total dominance. His 0.86 ERA leads all relievers and his 38.2 K% is fourth. Back in Milwaukee, Hader pushed to be used in the traditional one-inning closer role for precisely this moment, when he hits the market and cashes in on an excellent track record.

He will be 34 in November. His fastball goes about only 93 mph. Yet Gray, whose main drawback is his relatively advanced age — he’ll turn 34 in November — is the platonic ideal of a modern, veteran pitcher. He has successfully diversified his arsenal with a sweeper, then a cutter, and used his vast array of weapons to limit home runs better than any other starter this season. That level of long ball prevention probably won’t last, but Gray’s dexterity with new pitches and sneakily solid strikeout rate make him a solid candidate for a Chris Bassitt-style contract that might pay dividends.

This is admittedly a tough choice among a tier of obviously useful starting pitchers. You could easily make a case here for Eduardo Rodriguez, Marcus Stroman or Jordan Montgomery. It’s safe to say the pitching market will be far more flush than the hitting market.