The intrigue around the greatest class of free-agent shortstops is down to a final pair. Soon after the next collective bargaining agreement is concluded, Carlos Correa and Trevor Story will sign whopper deals, and then a lot of the sport's transactional focus will shift to another position -- third base, including the guy who is ranked No. 1 among our top 10 players at that spot.
A year ago, it appeared there would be six premium shortstops up for bidding this offseason, and their respective journeys have generally lived up to the hype. Francisco Lindor landed with the Mets and signed the biggest contract ever for a shortstop. Corey Seager became a Texas Ranger for the sweet sum of $325 million, alongside Marcus Semien, who shifts permanently from shortstop to second base for a guaranteed $175 million. Javier Baez signed with the Tigers. After Correa and Story find deals, those six shortstops will have collectively landed contracts worth about $1.5 billion.
There won't be as much cash invested in third basemen, but there will likely be a lot of talent on the move. Some of the many the questions that must be answered in the months ahead:
1. How long will the Cleveland Guardians hang on to Jose Ramirez? He is widely appreciated for the relentlessness and fight in his plate appearances -- much in the same way that the Dodgers' Justin Turner is -- and for his range of skills. He is a very good defender, he gets on base a ton, he hits for power, he's a switch-hitter, and he can steal bases (averaging about 22 a year since the start of the 2016 season). In four of the past five years, Ramirez finished in the top six in the AL MVP voting.
But the Guardians will soon have to decide if and when to deal him, to maximize possible return in a trade, just as they did with CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Lindor. As Ramirez moves closer to the end of his contract, the deal is absurdly team friendly, without risk. Cleveland picked up his 2022 option for $12 million, and Ramirez has another club option in place for 2023, for $13 million.
The per-dollar return for the Guardians on Ramirez is so extraordinary, sources within the organization speculated in the past year that getting equal return for Ramirez in a trade is just about impossible, given how teams increasingly cling to their best prospects these days.
But for any team shifting into win-now mode, Ramirez would be a really, really attractive player. The Red Sox have quietly delved in the infield market this winter -- more on that later -- and Ramirez would be a perfect fit. Toronto's front office, with its Cleveland roots, knows Ramirez well, and the Blue Jays have to fill in the gap of production created with Semien's departure. Many other contenders, from the Mariners to the Dodgers to the Giants and others, would probably happily find room for Ramirez, if they could pry him away from Cleveland.
The Guardians have strong pitching and could try to contend, again. If they struggle in the first half of the 2022 season, it would make sense for them to earnestly listen to Ramirez offers at the deadline -- or next winter at the latest. It's always possible, given how team-friendly his deal is, that the Guardians and Ramirez could explore an extension that would get him paid sooner. Ramirez is 29.
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2. Will the Red Sox shift All-Star Rafael Devers to another spot, and if so, how will they do that? Devers is a high-end offensive player, and his defense is erratic at best. The fact that Boston has explored the shortstop market this winter is a clue about what might be on the horizon -- maybe a shift of Xander Bogaerts to third, with Devers moving to some other spot, like first base, or even second (where his defensive issues could be more readily masked with shifts, and where he would have more time to make less difficult throws). Alex Cora could use Devers like the Dodgers deploy Max Muncy, with a mix of innings at first, second and third. But it's hard to imagine that the composition of the left side of the Boston infield will be the same for much longer. The Red Sox ranked dead last in defensive efficiency last season (66.4%).
3. Where will Gold Glover Matt Chapman land in a trade? It's taken as a fait accompli among other teams that when baseball business resumes, the Athletics will execute a mass sell-off. Chapman played through injury in 2021 and had a bad offensive season, and any acquiring team would need to bet on a bounce-back performance at the plate -- Chapman generated an OPS of .716 last season, with 202 strikeouts and 27 homers. Chapman turns 29 in April.
4. Who will pay Kris Bryant big bucks? MLB Trade Rumors projected a contract of $160 million for Bryant just a few months ago, but there was very little buzz around the former Cub before the owners' lockout went into effect -- other than word that the Giants were generally underwhelmed by what he contributed after they traded for him in July. He got off to a great start in Chicago last year, but after June 4, he batted .233/.326/.404 for the Cubs and then the Giants.
Evaluators generally view him along these lines: He gets on base, he'll hit his share of homers, and he has demonstrated he can play multiple positions -- but there is concern about how his swing will translate as he gets older and loses bat speed.
So who will pay him?
5. How long will the Pirates keep Ke'Bryan Hayes?
The future star has a year and 75 days of service time, and if Pittsburgh's going to invest a long-term deal in him, as they did with Andrew McCutchen, it'll probably happen in the next year -- or never. And the Pirates are very unlikely to win in the next couple of years.
Hayes is among the infielders, and catchers, ranked within the Top 10 at his position, based on the input of industry evaluators, as well as seamheads Paul Hembekides of ESPN and Sarah Langs of MLB.com.