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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Previewing the top 15 MLB free agents this winter

Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole celebrates in the

Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole celebrates in the locker room after Game 6 of the ALCS against the Yankees on Oct. 20 in Houston.  Credit: AP/Matt Slocum

The last we saw of Gerrit Cole was not on the mound during the World Series. It was after the Nationals’ Game 7 victory, when Cole reluctantly appeared for the media. A matter of minutes after Houston’s season ended in soul-crushing fashion, his Astros cap had been replaced by one branded with the Boras Corp. logo, as cold-blooded a move as one could imagine.

Just in case anyone needed to be reminded, yes, Cole is a free agent, and as the headliner, he’s got the right agent in Scott Boras, who is incredibly skillful at working the market for every last dollar, usually in record-setting fashion. And while we question Cole’s judgment in quickly going to the Boras cap with his teammates grieving nearby, there stands to be no bigger winner this offseason than the agent himself.

Boras represents not only Cole but also Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg (an opt-out candidate), and he could end up getting even more money for J.D. Martinez if the Red Sox DH opts out of his current contract.

With Boras holding all the big cards this offseason, you can anticipate two things. One, he tends to steer his clients to the most lucrative paydays, regardless of destination. And two, Boras doesn’t mind slow-playing the process. He took until Feb. 28 to secure Bryce Harper’s record-breaking 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, a late resolution that necessitated a news conference at the team’s spring training site in Clearwater, Florida.

So buckle up for what figures to be another protracted signing season, one that officially kicks off Monday, which is the deadline for teams to extend qualifying offers to their own free agents. The Q.O. number is $17.8 million — $100,000 less than a year ago, thanks to some market slippage among the sport’s 125 highest-paid players — and the deadline for them to accept is Nov. 14, the final day of the general managers’ meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona.

With that in mind, here’s a primer on some of the top free agents to help you start scoring at home:   

1 Gerrit Cole, RHP, Astros, 29 Few have played their walk season any better than Cole, who didn’t get a World Series ring but could edge teammate Justin Verlander for the Cy Young Award after going 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and MLB-best 326 strikeouts in 212 1⁄3 innings. Cole also had a 1.72 ERA in five postseason starts, averaging more othan seven innings, with a 0.87 WHIP and a .165 opponents’ batting average. Cha-ching.  

Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals, 31

In another episode of “Everything Coming up Boras,” the agent included a 2019 opt-out in Strasburg’s $175 million contract, and based on this season’s performance, he’ll negotiate a bump up from the four years and $100 million left on his current deal. Nothing like being a World Series MVP to help your leverage on top of a stellar regular season (18-6, 3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP).   

3 Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals, 29

“Tony Two Bags” again lived up to his moniker with an NL-leading 44 doubles, but he was tops in both leagues with 126 RBIs (in 146 games) and proved unstoppable in October, hitting .328 with three homers, 15 RBIs and a 1.003 OPS during the Nationals’ 17-game march to the title. Combine the numbers with the performance under pressure and Rendon will be writing his own check somewhere.   

4 J.D. Martinez, OF/DH, Red Sox, 32

Given his age and the $62.5 million (over three years) left on his contract, Martinez’s opt-out doesn’t really feel like the slam dunk it was when he first signed with Boston. But with Boras repping him, it’s more likely he’ll test the market, coming off a 36-homer season with a .939 OPS. He’s primarily a DH, so that slices the suitor list in half. Expect the Yankees to sit this one out.   

5  Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants, 30

The Giants had the opportunity to trade the franchise lefty during the regular season but instead clung to their icon, which could be a tip they intend to re-sign him. Bumgarner’s 3.90 ERA was easily the highest of his career, but he remains durable (34 starts) and his playoff resume is as good as it gets, which makes him well-suited for any potential Bronx adjustment.   

Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, Dodgers, 32

Ryu accepted the Dodgers’ qualifying offer after making only 15 starts a year ago, but he’s positioned to cash in this time, presumably after what should be a runner-up finish to Jacob deGrom in the Cy Young Award race. Ryu led the majors with a 2.32 ERA in 29 starts and averaged 1.2 walks per nine innings, the fewest in the sport. He’s been haunted by health issues, however.   

Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Yankees, 31

It’s a bold relief pitcher who surrenders $30 million for a chance at a bigger jackpot. Chapman is just young enough (and healthy enough) to have done better than those remaining two years as a free agent, but faced with a midnight deadline Saturday night, he elected to stay put instead of opting out. The Yankees were able to sweeten his current deal to keep him in the Bronx.   

Josh Donaldson, 3B, Braves, 33

Donaldson took a one-year, $23 million deal from the Braves last season to polish up his injury-tarnished value for another go at free agency, and he did exactly that, hitting 37 homers with a .900 OPS for the two-time NL East champs. Seeing Donaldson’s impact up close should prompt Atlanta to be very aggressive in trying to re-sign him.   

9 Zack Wheeler, RHP, Mets, 29

Maybe in a parallel universe, one in which the Mets are considered a big-market team on more than a zip code, Wheeler could have worked out an extension to remain in Flushing. Instead, he’ll get the Q.O., decline it and market himself as a solid alternative to the clubs priced out of the Cole-Strasburg sweepstakes. Wheeler has made 60 starts in the past two seasons, averaging more than 6 1⁄3 innings, with a 3.65 ERA and 8.9 K/9 ratio.   

10 Marcell Ozuna, OF, Cardinals, 28

Ozuna did the Marlins a favor by having his best season to set up the ’17 trade to St. Louis, but he didn’t plan his walk year accordingly, hitting a career-low .241 despite smacking 29 homers in 130 games — his fewest played since 123 in 2015. He’s yet another Boras client, and with the outfield market relatively thin, the selling point is the potential for a big rebound from one of the younger FA options.   

11 Didi Gregorius, SS,  Yankees, 29

Gregorius represents one of the biggest offseason questions for Brian Cashman, and based on a spotty year coming back from Tommy John surgery, would he consider coming back on the qualifying offer to reset his value? Or would the Yankees try to keep him for even less after Gregorius hit only .238 with a .718 OPS in 82 games?   

12 Yasmani Grandal, C, Brewers, 30

Disenchanted by his market a year ago, Grandal took what amounted to a little over a Q.O. with a one-year, $18.25 million deal from Milwaukee, believing that he could enhance his price tag in the process. He was right. The switch-hitting catcher had career highs in homers (28) and OPS (.848) while playing 153 games.   

13 Nicholas Castellanos, OF, Cubs, 27

Getting traded to the Cubs was the best thing that happened to Castellanos’ free agency, because he kicked into another gear on the North Side, hitting .321 with 16 homers and a 1.002 OPS in 51 games. Castellanos has the flexibility to play both corner outfield spots as well as third base, though he hasn’t been at that position since 2017.   

14 Jake Odorizzi, RHP, Twins, 29

Odorizzi had a nice renaissance in his second season with the Twins, making 30 starts with a 3.51 ERA, nearly an entire run lower than the previous year. His 10.1 K/9 ratio also was the best of his career, so he timed his walk year well.   

15 Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Braves, 31

Keuchel became a martyr of sorts for a second consecutive free-agent deep freeze, not signing until June 7 (for a prorated one-year, $13M deal) after his draft compensation expired. As a result, he made only 19 starts, posting a 3.75 ERA for the NL East champs. It will be interesting to see how Boras treats Keuchel’s free-agent strategy this time around after getting burned a year ago.

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