Free agency in Major League Baseball is officially underway as we enter an offseason anticipated to be slower than usual due to uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are already signs showing league-wide spending will significantly decrease this offseason, as solid players such as Brad Hand, Kolten Wong, and Charlie Morton have all had their team options declined, and only six players received qualifying offers from their teams.
It’s always difficult to predict MLB’s offseason, and this year will be no different. There are several impact players on the market available for teams looking to take their team to the next level in 2021 and beyond. Here are my predictions for MLB’s top 10 free agents in 2020.
1) Trevor Bauer – San Diego Padres. 4 years, $116 million.
2020 stats: IP: 73 | ERA: 1.73 | WHIP: 0.80 | SO: 100 | WAR (per Fangraphs): 2.5
Trevor Bauer, undoubtedly the best free agent on the market, is coming off the best season of his career and will likely be the NL Cy Young Award Winner, rebounding after a rough 2019 campaign where he posted a 4.48 ERA.
His last team, the Cincinnati Reds, are coming off of two postseason losses and were shutout in both of them by the Atlanta Braves, and did not make the postseason in 2019. Bauer is likely going to want to go to a team that is on the rise and has had strong success in 2020…
Enter the San Diego Padres. They have plenty of young talent with shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., in the middle of it all. The Padres finished the shortened 2020 season with a 35-25 record, second-best in the National League, with only the Dodgers ahead of them. However, they ultimately got swept in the NLDS by the eventual World Series winners, the Dodgers.
The Padres have it all: pitching, hitting, defense, power, speed. You name it, they got it. However, their starting pitching staff could use a pitcher like Bauer. Dinelson Lamet, Mike Clevinger, Zach Davies, and Chris Paddack make up a very strong rotation, but Paddack struggled this season, and Lamet and Clevinger were injured for part of the season. Adding Bauer would solidify their rotation make their team elite. Their offense is one of the best in the league and with Bauer, their starting staff could be up there as well.
Also, they were very active at the trade deadline, showing they are in a win-now mode, which means they are certainly in on Bauer. This team looks like they are going to be even better in 2020, and are going to be good for a long time. Adding Bauer would make them that much better.
2) George Springer – New York Mets. 4 years, $100 million.
2020 stats: GP: 51 | Slash line: .265/.359/.540 | HR: 14 | RBI: 32 | SB: 1 | WAR: 1.9
George Springer has been an excellent outfielder for the Houston Astros and has been a clutch playoff performer for many years. He is certainly the best position player on the market. Springer is a great fit for a team in need of a center fielder and could be the missing piece for a good team looking to be a great team…
Here you have the New York Mets, a team that disappointed in 2020 finishing 4th in the NL East despite posting good offensive numbers and having one of the best pitching staff's in baseball. They have a new owner in Steve Cohen and he certainly wants to make a big splash, and signing Springer would be just that.
The Mets’ 2020 outfield consisted of Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, and Dominic Smith. All three of them had good 2020 campaigns, but performed way above their career marks and are likely going to go back to being slightly-above to above average outfielders. George Springer’s defense would not be the difference maker here, his bat would. He has consistently put up All-Star worthy numbers and would be a much-needed presence atop the Mets lineup. The Mets did not have trouble getting on base, but they did have trouble scoring, and adding Springer, who gets on base a lot, is sure to help them score more.
With the Mets' new owner wanting to make a difference early, going after Springer is not surprising. His big bat and ability to get on base might just be what this team needs to make it back to the playoffs.
3) J.T. Realmuto – Philadelphia Phillies. 6 years, $144 million.
2020 stats: GP: 47 | Slash line: .266/.349/.491 | HR: 11 | RBI: 32 | SB: 4
It’s quite rare to find a catcher who can make a difference on both sides of the ball, and only a few teams have that luxury. J.T. Realmuto is the cream of the crop and will certainly get paid this offseason.
Coming off a strong season personally, his Phillies failed to make the playoffs, even with them being expanded this year. It is difficult to see the Phillies letting go of Realmuto, even if it costs them upwards of $200 million, potentially, in a year where they operated at a loss. Without J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies have no shot at making the postseason any time soon. No other catcher they sign will have an impact on both sides of the ball like Realmuto. Even if the Phillies sign a star position player and let Realmuto go, that player’s impact will not be as great as Realmuto’s, because of just how important the catching position is. I predict Phillies will give J.T. whatever it costs to keep him in Philadelphia long term.
4) DJ LeMahieu – New York Yankees. 5 years, $137 million.
2020 stats: GP: 50 | Slash line: .364/.421/.590 | HR: 10 | RBI: 27 | SB: 3 | WAR: 2.5
DJ LeMahieu. The guy who seems to always put the ball in play and never strikeout. He’s a free agent after declining his $18.9 million qualifying offer and will get paid handsomely for his performance over the past two years.
LeMahieu bats atop the Yankees order and is a critical part of their team both offensively and defensively, and resigning with the Yankees is probably best for both parties. LeMahieu is not a big power hitter, but benefits from the short porch in right field. Instead of hitting 15 homers throughout a 162-game season, he might hit 25, because of this.
For the Yankees, they benefit from having a player they know will hit for average and get on base consistently to start rallies and can play several positions on the infield at an above-average level. This is very valuable to any franchise, especially a team like the Yankees who are in win-now mode, as having him atop their lineup and in the field daily certainly improves their chances of winning ballgames. Simply put, if the Yankees want to win, they cannot let LeMahieu go, and I don’t think they will. They have the money that other small-market teams might not have to lock LeMahieu up in New York for years to come.
5) Marcell Ozuna – Atlanta Braves. 4 years, $113 million.
2020 stats: GP: 60 | Slash line: .338/.431/.636 | HR: 18 | RBI: 56 | SB: 0 | WAR: 2.5
Marcell Ozuna bet on himself to rebound from a mediocre 2019 season in this shortened 60-game season and boy did he ever. Ozuna will get paid very well for his performance this year, and it seems likely that it’ll be the Braves giving him that paycheck.
Ozuna seemed to enjoy his time in Atlanta much more than he did in Miami or St. Louis, which is certainly worth noting. He isn’t the best defender on any given team anymore, but he can play the corner outfield spots well enough if there is no designated hitter in the National League in 2021.
Ozuna’s contributions with the bat this season were huge. His exit velocity, hard-hit %, and barrel % were all in the 94th percentile or higher and he fits in well with a Braves team that needs an RBI man like Ozuna. There is no doubt that he will give you significant production at the top of your lineup, but his defense is what limits him. The Braves can afford to have a below-average defender in left or right field because they have very strong defenders in Acuña Jr. and either Adam Duvall or Christian Pache covering the rest of the outfield. Other teams will certainly make a push for Ozuna, but I believe the Braves retain him.
6) Masahiro Tanaka – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. 3 years, $54 million.
2020 stats: IP: 48 | ERA: 3.56 | WHIP: 1.17 | SO: 44 | WAR: 0.8
Tanaka’s days of dominance are over, but he’s still a very solid pitcher. He mixes his pitches up quite well, which is important considering opponents hit .351 with a .649 slugging percentage against his fastball this past season. Tanaka did have some trouble keeping the ball in the ballpark this year, as he allowed 1.7 homers per nine innings. He offers a high floor but a low ceiling, and the Angels are a good fit for him.
The Angels desperately need starting pitching. Their staff had a 5.18 ERA this season. Not good. Julio Teheran’s 10.05 ERA is simply not what the Angels need to make it to the postseason. However, there are some bright spots in Dylan Bundy, Griffin Canning, and Jaime Barria, who all had an ERA under four. Adding a pitcher like Tanaka, who will also likely give you a sub-four ERA will help stabilize the rotation.
The Angels offense is great with stars like Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and Shohei Ohtani leading the charge, and adding Tanaka to their rotation will strengthen it significantly. The addition of Tanaka over a full 162-game season will help them win some more ballgames and get Mike Trout to the postseason at last.
7) Liam Hendriks – Philadelphia Phillies. 3 years, $45 million.
2020 stats: IP: 48 | ERA: 3.56 | WHIP: 1.17 | SO: 44 | WAR: 0.8
Liam Hendriks has to be one of the best stories in baseball. He went from being designated for assignment four different times in his career, as recently as 2018, to making the All-star team, in only one year.
Now, he is one of baseball’s best relievers without a doubt. His last two seasons have been dominant, posting an ERA under two in both seasons. He is the top closer on the market and will be paid well.
The Philadelphia Phillies’ bullpen was downright awful. Atrocious. The bullpen’s ERA this season was 7.06 and their primary closer Hector Naris had an ERA of 4.57. Oh, and they also blew 14 saves. Yikes. Their bullpen needs a lockdown closer like Hendriks who can shut the game down in the 9th. If the Phillies hadn’t blown just half of those 14 games, they would have been tied for 1st in the N.L. East. The Phillies know what kind of impact Hendriks can have on their ballclub and will do everything in their power to ensure he calls Citizens Bank Park home for the next few years.
8) Charlie Morton – Tampa Bay Rays. 2 years, $24 million.
2020 stats: IP: 38 | ERA: 4.74 | WHIP: 1.40 | SO: 42 | WAR: 0.9
Charlie Morton’s career started off pretty mediocre. Then, he got traded to Houston and has been dominant ever since, finishing 3rd in Cy Young voting in 2019. His 2020 season was a down year, though. Morton has been clutch in the postseason for the Rays and is looking to earn another ring before his career ends. The Rays are the perfect team for him.
The Rays made it to the World Series this year, and they look like they will be a good team for a long time. Morton was a good fit in the Rays’ very analytically centered team, because he benefits from analytics. The Houston Astros use analytics with their pitchers, which helped Morton become the pitcher he is today and the Rays use even more analytics with their hurlers, which again, is benefitting him, as seen in his stats. When Morton was with non-analytically strong teams, like Pittsburgh, his stats were not nearly as good.
Ground Chuck, as some call him, needs analytics to succeed, and what better team to be on than the Rays for that. No team in baseball is as analytical as Tampa Bay. Morton’s a picture-perfect fit in the Rays’ organization and their strong roster will help both sides agree on a deal.
9) Marcus Semien – New York Mets. 2 years, $25 million.
2020 stats: GP: 53 | Slash line: .223/.305/.374 | HR: 7 | RBI: 23 | SB: 4 | WAR: 1.2
Semien had a down season in 2020 after finishing third in American League MVP voting in 2019. His power numbers were way down as well, but he could see those go back up playing in a more hitter-friendly ballpark. Now, signing Semien isn’t the best a team could do, but he’ll strengthen your infield defense if nothing else.
The Mets need an upgrade at shortstop. Their primary shortstop at the moment is Amed Rosario, who posted a negative WAR and a 76 OPS+ in 2020. He is not the starting shortstop on any decent team. Semien be provide that upgrade. He is durable, hits for power, and is much better on defense than Rosario.
New Mets owner Steve Cohen wants to win now, which is why I believe Rosario gets shipped off and Semien is the upgrade. Because Semien had a down year in 2020 but was an MVP candidate in 2019, his contract will be a high floor low ceiling deal that will not cost the Mets much and is good for both sides.
10) Brad Hand – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. 3 years, $30 million
2020 stats: IP: 22 | ERA: 2.05 | WHIP: 0.77 | SO: 29 | WAR: 1.1
Cleveland made the surprising move of placing Brad Hand on waivers to decline his $10-million option. Hand has been one of MLB’s best relievers since 2016 and was an All-star from 2017-19. This year, he did not allow a home run in 23 appearances and recorded an MLB-high 16 saves.
The Angels’ bullpen this year was awful. Their bullpen ERA was 4.63 and their closer was no better, as he had an ERA of 5.81. The team also blew 14 saves. That’s a lot of blown saves for one team during a 60-game season. Not good. They need someone like Brad Hand to enter in the 9th inning and shut the other team down and secure the win. If the Angels had held on to just half of those 14 leads, they would have finished the season at 33-27 and secured a playoff spot. Crazy, right?
The Angels are a big-market team and have the resources to sign Hand. They understand how big a difference he would make on their team and will do everything they can to sign him.
With the Angels’ strong offense, Hand will be given plenty of save opportunities and he could be exactly what the Angels need to get over the hump and finally play October baseball.
Honorable mentions: Nelson Cruz, Michael Brantley, Didi Gregorius, Justin Turner, James McCann, Taijuan Walker, Kevin Gausman, James Paxton, Alex Colome.