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Also in this series: Part 2, covering free agents 21-50.

Below is Part 1 of our annual list of the top 50 free agents, covering the first 20 players and ranked from first to last in talent and value. If you’re wondering if this list is a carefully curated collection of projected WARP for 2017 and beyond, it’s not. If you’re wondering if I just sorted by recent performance, I didn’t. I simply used my own expert (add air quotes if you want) judgment, as much objective data as I can, and whichever context clues I could scrounge up in order to rank and predict–likely badly–a few landing spots.

I also allowed our intern "Randy" to make his own predictions. Randy is incredibly bad at this, in no small part due to him literally being a random number generator. (Even still, he’s just awful.)

1. Yoenis Cespedes

Position (Bats): OF (R)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 31

Observations: It’s telling of this free agent class that Cespedes–coming off a world-class season for a pennant-winning club–rockets from no. 6 on last season's list to no. 1 this year. However, Cespedes has established a new normal of excellent offensive performance (.326 True Average in 2016), even though he dealt with minor injury issues throughout his go-round with the Amazins. Considering he can play a decent left field and pass for a center fielder in a pinch, he’s more mobile than the other high-end bats available this year, which is a nice complement to his righteous power numbers.

Prediction: Cespedes leaves the Mets, because if the team wanted to make it work, they probably would’ve put it together before La Potencia opted out. As for a landing spot, I think it’s the time for the Astros to make their big move.

Randy’s Prediction: Marlins

2. Edwin Encarnacion

Position (Bats): 1B/DH (R)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 34

Observations: Only Chris Davis (197) has more home runs than Encarncacion over the past five years, a testament to the big guy’s power and willingness to walk the parrot. Add that to his solid approach, and you’ve got a fearsome offensive force, but with a few negatives. A late bloomer, there’s no doubt he’d earn more if he weren’t entering his age-34 season, and he’s likely locked into a DH role unless your team really doesn’t care about defense. He’s also coming off his worst offensive season of the past five years, so there’s some chance he’s already headed downhill.

Prediction: If he weren’t a right-handed hitter, I’d follow the conventional wisdom and predict the Red Sox. Since he is, I could certainly see the Blue Jays hanging onto one of their two offensive centerpieces, and Edwin’s the guy I bet on sticking around.

Randy’s Prediction: Mets

3. Kenley Jansen

Position (Bats): RHP

Age (as of 4/1/17): 29

Observations: You only really need one pitch to be a shutdown reliever, and Jansen’s got it–his cutter is the bee's knees. The converted catcher used it to do what he always does: strike out 13-plus hitters per nine and close out games. He’s demonstrated his ability in the clutch again after strong showings in the postseason, including a masterful three-inning outing in Game 6 of the NLCS. Jansen is young enough to think he’s still in his prime, and consistent enough to break a record for largest contract ever given to a reliever.

Prediction: I really think that a number of contending teams will be looking to shore up the ninth inning, but I’ll put my money on the defending World Champion Cubs–that’s still very bizarre to say–who may be looking for a Chapman replacement.

Randy’s Prediction: Reds

4. Aroldis Chapman

Position (Bats): LHP

Age (as of 4/1/17): 29

Observations: Since 2012, Chapman hasn’t just been the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball (history?), he’s also been a stone-cold elite reliever. His career DRA is 1.84, he hardly ever allows home runs, and his strikeout rate is somewhere so far north of the norm that it could have been part of the Sever-2 expedition. He might be the best reliever on the market, but he sits behind Jansen due to his history of domestic violence. Some team will pay him to bring his signature southpaw heat to the ninth inning.

Prediction: All the buzz has Chapman returning to New York to rejoin the Yankees, and that move makes a lot of sense for team and player. I expect the bidding to get high and the Yankees to try to make it under the luxury tax, so it's certainly possible he’ll surface somewhere else.

Randy’s Prediction: Cubs

5. Justin Turner

Position (Bats): 3B (R)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 32

Observations: From an afterthought in places like Baltimore and New York to a critical cog in Los Angeles, the flame-headed third baseman for the Dodgers has (somewhat) quietly emerged as one of the game’s most fearsome hitters. At this point in his career, he’s starting to tap into his power, flirting with 30 homers last year and–perhaps most importantly–staying upright for a full year. Injuries may be a lingering concern, but there are few other infield bats with Turner’s profile available in this thin market. After years of hard work and precious little hype, it’s time for him to get paid like a star.

Prediction: Turner’s got too good of a thing going in Los Angeles to make a prediction on anything other than the Dodgers. I think they’ll be motivated to keep him around during a winter when plenty of teams will be trying (and failing) to land a big bat.

Randy’s Prediction: Red Sox

6. Dexter Fowler

Position (Bats): OF (S)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 31

Observations: Before these past two seasons, it was easy to say that Fowler was an on-base magnet but a liability on defense. Today … well, the same thing’s probably true–at least according to an FRAA metric that put him a win to the negative on defense last year–but his offense has perked up to game-changing levels. Though his glove may continue to be a question mark, if not a liability, his switch-hitting skills make him a prototypical modern leadoff man and well worth his qualifying offer status.

Prediction: It’s tough to imagine a world where the Cubs change things up dramatically from their World Series win, but Fowler should be a man in demand. I believe the market is ripe enough that he’ll get a huge offer from a team like the Cardinals or White Sox or Giants, and yet I’m going off the board and picking the Cubs’ World Series opponents, the Indians.

Randy’s Prediction: Tigers

7. Ian Desmond

Position (Bats): CF/SS (R)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 31

Observations: For the second year in a row, Desmond falls just behind Fowler in these rankings. For the first year in a row, Desmond displayed an ability to play an above-average outfield after moving off his native middle-infield position. While normally that kind of shift depresses a player’s value, Desmond was solid in an outfield corner, passable in center, and able to reverse his downhill trend on offense. Now, it appears he’s ready to enter a second act as a super-utility power bat whose approach and defense make for boom-or-bust outcomes with every new day.

Prediction: In a perfect world, Desmond will find a home with a team that values his athleticism and newfound versatility rather than simply shoehorning him into an outfield corner. If they lose two of the Encarnacion-Bautista-Saunders trio, I could certainly see the Blue Jays as an intriguing fit, with Desmond manning right field and perhaps picking up Troy Tulowitzki’s slack in case of the inevitable injury.

Randy’s Prediction: Angels (editor's note: lol, nope)

8. Rich Hill

Position (Bats): LHP

Age (as of 4/1/17): 37

Observations: Undoubtedly our biggest climber in the rankings between this year and last, Hill only cemented his place as one of the best stories in baseball and one of the league’s best starting pitchers, when healthy. The master of the curveball is unreliable due to the injury issues that have plagued his whole career, but he’s also been one of the three best pitchers in baseball on a rate basis (2.00 ERA, 2.37 FIP) over the past two seasons. Don’t expect a lot of innings from Hill, but expect shoving when he’s on the bump.

Prediction: The most talented free agent pitcher on the market could go almost anywhere there’s money to be spent. He’s not likely to take another make-good contract, and plenty of teams will be willing to offer rich (ha ha) two- or three-year deals. If there’s a bidding war, I think the Red Sox could win it.

Randy’s Prediction: Reds

9. Wilson Ramos

Position (Bats): C (R)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 29

Observations: Finally delivering on the offensive potential from earlier in his career, Ramos raised his True Average by more than 70 points in his breakout season. He’s established himself as an above-average contributor at the dish while playing solid defense behind it. The big question, of course, will be his recovery from offseason knee surgery–it’s his ability to stay healthy that has made him so valuable. But the combination of now-stellar offense and solid defense is too much to ignore in a world where many catchers are, uh, not great.

Prediction: Ramos returns to the Nationals on a make-good contract, as both parties could still greatly benefit from the other.

Randy’s Prediction: Diamondbacks

10. Neil Walker

Position (Bats): 2B (S)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 31

Observations: There aren’t many players whose trend line looks like a bond investor’s bank account, but there is Walker–every season, his WARP trend line ticks up just a touch. A model of consistency, the trade that brought Walker to New York looks like an absolute heist in hindsight as he posted the best season of his career filling in for the departed Daniel Murphy. He’s got a back issue, his 30s coming, and a qualifying offer in hand, so there’s more than just a chance that he’ll see his production slip for the first time in 2017 on a bigger deal. Nevertheless, he’s a solid investment.

Prediction: It makes too much sense for Walker to pick up the Mets’ qualifying offer, bank a cool $17.2 million, and take another crack at this free agency thing next year.

Randy’s Prediction: Cubs

11. Josh Reddick

Position (Bats): OF (L)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 30

Observations: Reddick was cruising through a career year with Oakland before his trade to the contending Dodgers, but his performance took a nosedive once he saddled up with L.A. That’s a shame for his free agent prospects–before that run in Tinseltown, Reddick could rightly be considered as consistent as they come, balancing slightly above-average offense (.276 True Average, but well above that over the last three years) with well-regarded defense. Still, teams looking for workaday performance and a void in a corner outfield spot could do a lot worse than Reddick, poor summer aside.

Prediction: A return to the Bay Area seems in order for Reddick, who would make for a snug fit alongside Hunter Pence and Denard Span in the Giants’ outfield. Something seems very right about those three patrolling the grass in San Francisco.

Randy’s Prediction: Yankees

12. Jose Bautista

Position (Bats): OF/DH (R)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 36

Observations: Was 2016 the new normal for Joey Bats or a late-career hiccup? The poster child for “you can’t predict ball”-style late-developing superstardom finally showed his age this year, as his slugging percentage crashed from .536 in ’15 to .452 in ’16. Was it due to advancing age or injury or both? Probably both. But Bautista still possesses game-changing power and an approach that could give him a rebound and more graceful denouement. There’s no real hope for Bautista to return to his prime form, but he’ll also likely demand a shorter-term commitment than many other free agents.

Prediction: It’s hilarious, but I think the Rangers are perhaps the team that’s the best fit for Bautista. Of course, they’re probably the one team that Bautista might say “nah, man” to after the bat flip and the punch and all that. His defensive issues probably mean an American League club, so I’ll go with the Red Sox.

Randy’s Prediction: Astros

13. Jason Castro

Position (Bats): C (L)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 29

Observations: No player has a longer Astros tenure, and perhaps no player on the team is more emblematic of the franchise’s shift under Jeff Luhnow. In 2013, Castro was undoubtedly the team’s best player–posting a .276/.350/.485 slash behind the dish–but our current numbers saw him as costing his team a win or so with his pitch framing. Over the last few years, Castro has completely changed his skill set. Thanks to an improved focus on that part of the game, he’s developed into one of baseball’s better framers (17 framing runs added in 2016), even as he’s settled in as a guy who kind of hits like a good defensive catcher (.239 True Average). Though this is actually a decent market for catchers despite a weak free agent class, a player with Castro’s skill set could find many suitors as teams continue to start players like Rene Rivera and Luke Maile.

Prediction: There are more than a few teams with interest in upgrading at catcher, and two of those teams are in the American League Central. While the White Sox would also benefit from Castro’s framing, the Twins have expressed interest, and have a huge hole to fill–I think they could be a match.

Randy’s Prediction: Pirates

14. Carlos Gomez

Position (Bats): OF (R)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 31

Observations: If one only knew which version of Go-Go will show up, he could be either 10 slots higher or 40 slots lower. As was well documented, the former All-Star was so bad with the Astros that they gave him away for free to their division rivals. Once in Arlington, he started mashing again, making a (somewhat sketchy) case for single-handedly derailing the Astros’ playoff hopes. Gomez definitely is not the 27-homers-and-40-steals-with-world-class-defense player he was in 2013, but if he puts the ball in the air and leans into his new life as a power-hitting, defensively-solid corner outfielder, he’ll be well worth whatever modest contract the market brings him.

Prediction: The vogue prediction is that Gomez is a seamless fit with the Cardinals. I’m not creative enough to find a way around their devil magic, so sure, St. Louis it is!

Randy’s Prediction: Marlins

15. Jeremy Hellickson

Position (Bats): RHP

Age (as of 4/1/17): 29

Observations: Slightly worse than average, but more reliable than most–that’s Hellickson. DRA and cFIP indicate that, both over his career and in his effective 2016 season, Hellickson doesn’t quite fall onto the plus side of average. Yet, he’s more reliable than Nova and younger than Bartolo Colon, so that makes him the second-best starting pitcher in this free agent class. He’ll likely never give up less than a homer per nine innings, but putting him in a pitchers' park with a decent framer behind the plate may make the former Rookie of the Year a perfectly acceptable no. 3 starter. Being some team’s excellent no. 5 starter or awful no. 1 starter are two other outcomes in play.

Prediction: Someone is going to pay this man to shore up a rotation. Since I don't think he takes the qualifying offer, I think the Phillies are out. He’d be best suited for a park that limits homers and won’t focus too much on his FIP. Oh no, it’s going to be the Royals, isn’t it?

Randy’s Prediction: Royals

16. Mark Trumbo

Position (Bats): OF/1B (R)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 31

Observations: Dingers. So many dingers. But despite leading baseball in home runs–and wicked heavy metal guitar licks–the powerful righty isn’t a transcendent offensive player. Right-handed power is great, and talking to front office types might make you think finding it is like trapping Sasquatch, but Trumbo’s a miserable outfielder who needs to mash in order to carry value. In addition, his career OBP (.313) is dire enough to require 40 bombs or so just for him to be a solvent hitter. He’s consistently a slightly-above-average hitter–there’s no denying his career True Average of .274–but every other aspect of his game drags down his value. Buyers should be aware that last offseason he was valued roughly equal to Steve Clevenger, and not all that much has changed in his profile since.

Prediction: There’s a match here that allows Trumbo to augment his strengths as a hitter while playing the position that best fits his skill set and value: first base. If he signs with the Rockies, 50 homers are in play, and both teams might be happy with the fit.

Randy’s Prediction: Angels

17. Mark Melancon

Position (Bats): RHP

Age (as of 4/1/17): 32

Observations: It’s not safe to conflate Melancon with the other premium relievers on the market in Jansen and Chapman. Think of them as one tier, and Melancon in the tier below. While those other guys post unbelievable strikeout numbers and provide the dominance that only a few pitchers in history have, Melancon is just … very good. Instead of striking out the planet, Melancon gets a perfectly acceptable eight or so per nine, but augments it with a cutter and curve that get bashed into the dirt more often than not. Melancon has kept his ERA below 2.00 in three of the last four seasons, but he does it in a way that could be viewed as likely to shift if his velocity fails him. Melancon is very good and incredibly consistent–he may not be as flashy (or as expensive) as the other relievers on the market, but he’s also another closer who could be well worth a three- or four-year deal.

Prediction: Someone has to lose out on the Jansen and Chapman sweepstakes, and Melancon will be a very fine consolation prize. If I believe that those other two go elsewhere, then Melancon is the new closer that the Giants so desperately need.

Randy’s Prediction: Dodgers

18. Ivan Nova

Position (Bats): RHP

Age (as of 4/1/17): 30

Observations: After coming over from the Yankees midseason, Nova went supernova in 11 starts for the Pirates. Only one really major thing changed in Pittsburgh: he walked just three hitters. Nova worked in the zone more than half the time after his transition to the NL, and missed big less often, limiting his home runs as well. The trick will be holding onto his gains–if he does, he’s a viable no. 3 starter despite not working with outlandish stuff. If he goes back to nibbling at the corners of the plate, he could wind up costing a team quite a bit of money over the long term.

Prediction: The Marlins will probably have to go out and sign someone to fill the hole in their rotation left by the death of Jose Fernandez. Nova feels like the guy.

Randy’s Prediction: Mariners

19. Michael Saunders

Position (Bats): OF (L)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 30

Observations: We may all need to agree to start treating Saunders like a pitcher. Ever on the cusp of a breakout, Captain Canada actually delivered on one this year, earning an All-Star spot and posting a .273 True Average that was mostly in line with his career numbers. He’s a solid hitter, if a flawed defender, and he had historic struggles in the clutch last year, but he’s likely to hit perfectly well for a left fielder. If he can stay healthy. After missing almost all of 2015 with an injury and a laundry list of ailments that predated that, Saunders stayed mostly upright at the perfect time: right before free agency. If he can find a team with a tolerance for risk, he could be a solid second or third outfielder until he breaks again.

Prediction: I could see the Phillies ponying up for Saunders as an intriguing pump-and-dump candidate for a trade on a multi-year deal. If he stays healthy and productive to start 2017, they deal him for young talent. If not, they wait and try again in 2018.

Randy’s Prediction: Royals

20. Matt Wieters

Position (Bats): C (S)

Age (as of 4/1/17): 30

Observations: Are we allowed to talk about Wieters’ famous PECOTA projection? Once projected to be the catching equivalent of Mike Trout, the Orioles’ (former?) backstop hasn’t even cracked 1.0 WARP in any of the last three seasons due to either health or performance. Look, there are a half-dozen reasons to think that he could be could improve­­–from continued recovery from Tommy John surgery causing an offensive bounceback to his previous years of solid framing numbers to just a change of scenery–but maybe it is time for us to recognize that he’s just a kinda average catcher with a great pedigree and injury risks

Prediction: He’ll sign with the White Sox and be a massive disappointment to fans expecting an All-Star level of performance. He’ll be OK.

Randy’s Prediction: Angels

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dgalloway15fish
11/10
Randy is making the Reds and Angels look like contenders in 2017. Seems legit
bgrosnick
11/10
Don't forget the Marlins adding Carlos Gomez and Yoenis Cespedes to flank, uh, Ozuna, Stanton, Yelich, and Ichiro!

(I like to imagine that in that circumstance, they move Ichiro to the rotation, Cespedes to third base, Prado to second,, and Gomez to first.)
touchstoneQu
11/10
Some obvious LA bias from Randy. Why am I not surprised? Typical of a number generator to kiss up to California, probably looking out for a sweet gig churning out box office numbers for Hollywood.
somerford
11/10
Has Randy ever seen a baseball game?
lipitorkid
11/11
No, Randy is just celebrating Proposition 64 with bowl of Girl Scout Cookies. I hope his picks weren't too much of a Trainwreck for you.
jkaflagg
11/10
Turner back to LA makes sense, except giving a big contract to a 32 year old with some injury issues is exactly the type of deal the Friedman brain trust abhors......Turner deserves to be paid, and this will be his last chance; will be interesting to see if the Dodgers step up and give him a little more than they want.

Interesting how everyone seems to think a pressure-free month of fattening up on September call-up pitching has obscured the horrifying year and a half failure of Carlos Gomez.....somebody will pay, but they might end up getting burned even worse than the Astros if Gomez goes on another walkabout....
lipitorkid
11/11
Am I stupid to think that the Angels would do well to sign Neil Walker?
Robotey
11/11
Whoa! I checked the Randy's Prediction before I read about who Randy was. As a Met fan, I could believe they'd go after Encarnacion, for a moment at least. Now, I've just got Wilco's Random Generator going through my head.