MLB Free Agency 2018-19: Early Look at 1 Realistic Fit for Every Team
The MLB playoffs are nigh. That's where our focus should be...mostly.
At the same time, it's OK to gaze ahead at the upcoming 2018-19 free-agent class, which will feature some of the premier hitters and pitchers in the game.
As with any free-agent crop, this contingent contains a number of under-the-radar bargains.
With that in mind, we've highlighted one realistic free-agent fit for every team, keeping in mind need, budget and buyer vs. seller status.
One more important note: Players who have an opt-out clause won't be considered (sorry, Clayton Kershaw).
American League East
Baltimore Orioles: RHP James Shields
Let's get real. The Baltimore Orioles will be looking to dump salary and add minor league pieces after an awful season. The rebuild is on.
The O's will have to fill out their roster, however. One area of need? A starting rotation that ranks last in MLB with a 5.49 ERA.
Baltimore can't and won't fix that deficiency overnight, but it could ink an innings-eater such as veteran James Shields on a short-term, stop-gap contract. Shields owns a 4.53 ERA for the Chicago White Sox in 2018, but he has chewed through 192.2 frames and may still have a bit of gas sloshing in the tank.
Boston Red Sox: RHP David Robertson
The Boston Red Sox could splurge this winter and bring back closer Craig Kimbrel, who's set to hit free agency after three All-Star seasons in Beantown.
As the most decorated late-inning reliever on the market, Kimbrel will cost a pretty penny. With that said, there are red flags.
Kimbrel's ERA has ballooned from 1.77 to 3.44 in the second half of 2018. He's entering his age-31 season, which means the type of long-term deal he'll assuredly seek will likely sting on the back end.
Instead, Boston could sign David Robertson away from the archrival New York Yankees on a shorter contract. Robertson has posted a 2.85 ERA with 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings for the Yanks and has closing experience. Plus, given his age (33), he may be willing to accept fewer years than Kimbrel.
New York Yankees: LHP Dallas Keuchel
The Yankees are ticketed for another almost-certain postseason appearance, but their starting pitching is suspect. Yanks starters rank 15th in baseball with a 4.05 ERA, and ostensible ace Luis Severino has struggled with bouts of ineffectiveness.
You'll hear plenty of talk about New York signing shiny position-player free agents such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. It could happen. But the Yankees should target pitching, and they may zero in on left-hander Dallas Keuchel.
The Houston Astros southpaw hasn't managed to regain his 2015 AL Cy Young Award-winning form, but he posted a 2.90 ERA in 2017 and is on pace to eclipse 200 innings this season. He also has some history as a Yankees slayer.
Put him in pinstripes? Why not.
Tampa Bay Rays: C Jonathan Lucroy
The Tampa Bay Rays have a need at catcher heading into the winter. Top trade targets such as J.T. Realmuto and free agents such as Yasmani Grandal are likely outside their price range.
What about Jonathan Lucroy? The 32-year-old is a shell of the player who finished fourth in National League MVP voting in 2014. However, he could be a superb behind-the-dish mentor to promising young Rays pitchers such as Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, and he'd come relatively cheap.
Tampa Bay always shops from the bargain shelf. That's where Lucroy resides.
Toronto Blue Jays: RHP Matt Harvey
Like Baltimore, the Toronto Blue Jays need to switch into rebuild mode. They initiated the process by trading former franchise cornerstone Josh Donaldson to the Cleveland Indians.
With that in mind, Toronto won't make any big free-agent splashes this winter. The Blue Jays could add depth to a starting rotation that already jettisoned J.A. Happ, could lose Marco Estrada to free agency and ranks 28th in baseball with a 5.17 ERA.
Matt Harvey has posted a 2.50 ERA in September and has gone from formerly great bust to intriguing lottery ticket since a May trade from the New York Mets to the Cincinnati Reds.
The Jays could add him at minimal cost and cross their fingers for maximum reward.
American League Central
Chicago White Sox: LHP Francisco Liriano
It's all about the future on the South Side. The Chicago White Sox are loaded with burgeoning talent in the minors and majors and could be a serious contender in a few years.
For now, they're keeping their powder dry. A seismic free-agent signing this winter is highly unlikely.
However, they could use some filler in a starting rotation that's high on potential (see: Michael Kopech) but low on short-term certainty (see: Michael Kopech undergoing Tommy John surgery).
With a 4.54 ERA in 125 innings for the Detroit Tigers, Francisco Liriano is filler personified. The 34-year-old has extensive playoff experience, isn't quite done yet and will come at a bargain price.
Cleveland Indians: OF Adam Jones
The Cleveland Indians clinched a third straight division title on September 15, yet they're still somehow offseason underdogs.
Though the Indians don't spend with the big dogs, that won't prevent them from bolstering their roster, particularly if they fail to snap baseball's longest active title drought.
They need assistance in center field, a position that has yielded minus-0.1 WAR in 2018, better than only the Miami Marlins.
Adam Jones is a suspect defensive center fielder at best, but he's hitting .285 with 15 home runs for the Orioles. He's precisely the type of respected veteran the Tribe could ink on an affordable, get-me-to-the-playoffs pact.
Detroit Tigers: OF Curtis Granderson
Chalk this up to another rebuilding team—there a lot of them in the AL Central!—adding veteran depth while pinching pennies.
Curtis Granderson is 37 years old and is entering the final stages of his MLB tenure. Then again, he's posted an .806 OPS with 13 home runs between the Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers this season.
He has low-dollar, high-upside leadership written all over him, and he would provide depth to a Tigers outfield that's as unsettled as the rest of the club.
To put it another way: Granderson won't demand playing time from a youngster who's thriving, but he's still good enough to step in for a youngster who's floundering.
Kansas City Royals: RHP Sergio Romo
Chalk this up to another rebuilding team—there a lot of them in the AL Central!—adding veteran depth while pinching pennies.
Is there an echo in here?
The Kansas City Royals will not be in on any of the winter's top free agents. The 2014-15 glory days are officially over.
With that said, their relief corps ranks 29th in baseball with a 5.09 ERA. Even as K.C. jettisons assets and tries to rebuild its farm system, it could look for cheap veteran free agents.
The Royals could sign right-hander Sergio Romo, who has gamely been part of the Rays' bullpen experiment while notching 22 saves. Entering his age-36 season, Romo won't be expensive. But he brings intrigue and veteran panache to a squad in transition.
Minnesota Twins: RHP Kelvin Herrera
The Minnesota Twins are in a curious place. In 2017, they rebounded from a 103-loss season to claim the AL's second wild-card position. This year, they're mired under .500.
Are they rebuilding? Retooling? It's hard to say.
One thing is certain: The Twinkies need to upgrade a bullpen that's 25th in the game with a 4.68 ERA. To that end, Minnesota could bring right-hander Kelvin Herrera back to the AL Central.
Herrera was an All-Star in 2015 and 2016 with Kansas City and posted a 1.05 ERA in 27 games with the Royals in 2018. A subsequent trade to the Washington Nationals yielded mixed results and a season-ending foot injury, but the 28-year-old Herrera is an enticing comeback bet.
American League West
Houston Astros: C Yasmani Grandal
With Martin Maldonado and Evan Gattis both set to hit free agency, the Houston Astros will be in the market for a catcher this winter.
Enter Yasmani Grandal. His .233 average with the Los Angeles Dodgers doesn't leap off the stats sheet, but he's hit 23 home runs and posted a .342 on-base percentage while rating as the best pitch-framer in the game, per StatCorner.
The 'Stros don't have many holes. This is one, and they could plug it with a high-level backstop entering his age-30 season.
Los Angeles Angels: RHP Charlie Morton
The Los Angeles Angels are about to waste yet another incredible season from Mike Trout, the best baseball player on the planet.
With a so-so farm system and strained budget, they aren't primed to be big offseason players.
That said, the Halos need help in a starting rotation that ranks 18th with a 4.21 ERA. Garrett Richards underwent Tommy John surgery in July and is an impending free agent. Shohei Ohtani may also undergo Tommy John.
The Angels could land an under-the-radar bargain by snagging Charlie Morton. The 34-year-old sports a 3.15 ERA and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings for the Astros. At his age, he might be open to a less-than-ludicrous deal, provided he doesn't accept a potential qualifying offer from Houston.
Oakland Athletics: LHP CC Sabathia
CC Sabathia said in May he'd probably retire if the Yankees win a title in 2018.
Let's say that doesn't happen, and let's say the veteran southpaw elects to return. He could go back to his Bay Area roots by signing with the Oakland Athletics, the coolest story of the season and a sudden postseason contender.
One more go-round with a small-market, hometown franchise looking to sustain playoff relevance? There are worse ways for the A's to spend their limited resources, and worse ways for Sabathia to wind down his decorated career.
Seattle Mariners: LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu
The Seattle Mariners are on track to miss the playoffs for the 17th straight season. Their starting staff ranks 19th in baseball with a 4.30 ERA. This is not a coincidence.
The M's and general manager Jerry Dipoto might go the trade route this offseason; that's often Dipoto's MO.
Or, they could spend their mid-tier capital on a high-upside reclamation project such as left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Ryu has battled injuries since 2015 but is a top-of-the-rotation pitcher when he's right. He posted a 2.38 ERA in August and owns a 2.00 mark in September for the Dodgers. He'll turn 32 in March, and the disabled-list stints should keep his cost down.
Throwing his home games at Safeco Field—the 27th most hitter-friendly yard in baseball, according to ESPN's Park Factors statistic—might spark a surge.
Texas Rangers: RHP Bartolo Colon
The Texas Rangers are one of many Junior Circuit clubs staring down the barrel of a protracted rebuild. They aren't signing anyone of consequence this offseason.
How about someone with entertainment value?
Cue Bartolo Colon. The ageless 45-year-old has expressed an interest in returning next season. He'd cost the Rangers almost nothing monetarily and would be a possibly inspiring story in what's sure to be a dreary 2019 campaign.
What have they got to lose?
National League East
Atlanta Braves: C Wilson Ramos
The Atlanta Braves have blossomed ahead of schedule and are barreling unexpectedly toward the 2018 playoffs.
However that plays out, Atlanta will be in the market for a catcher this winter, with Kurt Suzuki and Rene Rivera entering free agency.
The Braves could go after Wilson Ramos, who has extensive experience within the NL East with the Washington Nationals and now the Philadelphia Phillies. Overall, Ramos is hitting .315 with an .868 OPS in 2018 and would give the emerging Braves one of the better backstops in baseball.
Miami Marlins: RHP Trevor Cahill
Like the other rebuilding teams, the Miami Marlins aren't going to ink anyone of consequence.
They could use a boost in their pitching staff, however, which ranks 27th with a 4.86 ERA.
Expect a possible signing in the Trevor Cahill mould. Or, the Fish might sign Cahill.
The 30-year-old is having a decent season with the A's. He's posted a 3.77 ERA over 102.2 innings, though he's recovering from a back strain. He won't cost a lot. His ceiling and his floor aren't far apart.
He's your big splash, Marlins fans. Get used to it.
New York Mets: C Matt Wieters
Assuming the New York Mets don't initiate a fire sale this winter (and maybe they should), they'll be on the hunt for a catcher.
They could zero in on the previously mentioned names such as Grandal or Ramos or try to acquire JT Realmuto from the Marlins.
The Mets, however, aren't typically big spenders. Instead, they might go for a reclamation project like Matt Wieters. He's been an injury-plagued mess for the Washington Nationals, but he's also a four-time All-Star (most recently in 2016) who would likely sign a one-year, show-me contract.
Philadelphia Phillies: SS/3B Manny Machado
According to unnamed MLB executives cited by Fancred Sports' Jon Heyman, the Philadelphia Phillies could sign Manny Machado and Bryce Harper this offseason.
Heyman is a reputable source, but that seems far-fetched, to put it mildly.
Instead, we'll pick one and presume the Phils will go hard after Machado. He'd likely take over at third base and turn Maikel Franco into a flawed-but-interesting trade chip.
The Phillies have the payroll flexibility to make it happen, whatever the price. And, more importantly, they have the young core to build a contender around one of baseball's best all-around players.
Washington Nationals: RF Bryce Harper
Wouldn't this be an interesting twist?
After all the speculation surrounding Bryce Harper's supposedly inevitable exit from the nation's capital, what if he re-upped with the only franchise he's ever known?
Forget the Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs and whatever other suitors line up with wallets open wide.
The Nats can offer Harper a shot at redemption and a chance to finally take the team past the division series. They have enough payroll wiggle room to make a credible offer, though it would limit their ability to keep and sign other players.
In the end, there's a decent shot Harper leaves town. But none of the teams listed above (Yanks, Dodgers or Cubs) has a glaring need in the outfield and a no-blink willingness to hand hundreds of millions of dollars to a mercurial star.
Maybe, contrary to popular belief, you can go home again.
National League Central
Chicago Cubs: LHP Tony Sipp
Barring an unexpected Harper blockbuster deal, the Chicago Cubs are probably going to tweak rather than overhaul this offseason.
If they let Justin Wilson walk, they could use left-handed relief help.
Veteran Tony Sipp has posted a 2.06 ERA with 10 strikeouts per nine innings for the Astros. He wouldn't be the big splash many Cubbies fans might want, especially if Chicago fails to hoist a second Commissioner's Trophy in three years. But he'd be a solid addition at a reasonable price for a team without any glaring weaknesses.
Caveat: This assumes $126 million right-hander Yu Darvish rebounds from injury and ineffectiveness, which is admittedly a sizable assumption.
Cincinnati Reds: RHP Anibal Sanchez
The Cincinnati Reds are rebuilding, but they're also reportedly open to raising their payroll in 2019.
Does that mean Cincinnati will sign Harper, Machado or some similarly high-profile name? Almost assuredly not.
It could mean the Reds will be active, however. If so, they'd be wise to upgrade a pitching staff that checks in at 24th with a 4.68 ERA.
Consider 34-year-old right-hander Anibal Sanchez, who owns a 3.01 ERA in 125.2 innings for Atlanta in a strong comeback season.
He won't make the Reds contenders by himself, but he'd be a step in the right direction.
Milwaukee Brewers: LHP Patrick Corbin
The Milwaukee Brewers have a hold on the NL's top wild-card slot and a chance to catch the Cubs for the division lead.
What they lack is a clear-cut ace.
That issue could be solved this offseason if the Brewers make a push for Patrick Corbin. The 29-year-old lefty has posted a 3.09 ERA and struck out 237 in 192 innings for the Arizona Diamondbacks and could be the top hurler on the market unless Clayton Kershaw opts out.
Milwaukee will have to get in line with multiple pitching-hungry contenders, but don't count the unassuming, ascendant Brew Crew out of any free-agent bidding war.
Pittsburgh Pirates: 3B Josh Donaldson
Last winter, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded ace Gerrit Cole and franchise outfielder Andrew McCutchen. Fans started a petition demanding principal owner Bob Nutting sell the team.
In 2018, the Pirates weren't awful and acquired right-hander Chris Archer from the Rays at the non-waiver trade deadline.
They won't make the postseason, however, and are stuck between a rebuild and a reboot. It's hard to say which direction they'll choose, but they could keep rolling with high-talent projects and sign Josh Donaldson.
The 2015 AL MVP has been hobbled by injuries and might be willing to ink a short-term deal to rebuild his value. If Pittsburgh has designs on contending in 2019, it could capitalize and at least kick that petition down the road.
St. Louis Cardinals: RHP Craig Kimbrel
The St. Louis Cardinals have kept their contention window open despite firing manager Mike Matheny in July and trading outfielder Tommy Pham before the waiver deadline.
This offseason, they could upgrade a bullpen that ranks 20th with a 4.32 ERA and 23rd with 486 strikeouts.
Despite the red flags we outlined earlier, Craig Kimbrel would improve the Cards measurably in both departments.
Kimbrel sports a 2.29 ERA and has struck out 13.7 batters per nine innings this season. Stack that next to his brilliant career, and it's an admittedly risky outlay St. Louis should ponder.
National League West
Arizona Diamondbacks: LHP J.A. Happ
If Corbin exits this winter, the Arizona Diamondbacks' starting corps will require reinforcements.
There will be multiple options, some of whom have been mentioned previously. Let's zoom in on J.A. Happ.
The veteran lefty has a 3.62 ERA with 179 strikeouts in 166.2 innings between the Blue Jays and Yankees. He's also thrown 19.1 innings in three different postseasons.
He has the experience. He has the credentials. And for a contending Snakes team that might spend huge (ahem, Zack Greinke) but usually doesn't, he makes a ton of sense.
Colorado Rockies: RHP Jeurys Familia
The Colorado Rockies rank 26th in baseball with a 4.70 bullpen ERA.
That's not surprising, given the Rockies' Mile High reality, but it's something Colorado must adjust for if it wants to contend.
Last winter, the Rocks inked closer Wade Davis to the richest-ever per-year pact for a reliever.
This offseason, they could add Jeurys Familia, who would be a fine late-inning option with his 3.16 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine between the Mets and A's.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 2B DJ LeMahieu
The Dodgers hope to welcome back franchise shortstop Corey Seager from elbow and hip surgeries next season. They also surely hope Kershaw will opt in or, more likely, agree to a restructured contract.
Outside of that, Los Angeles could pursue Harper or even try to re-sign Machado.
Assuming their goals are more pragmatic, however, look for L.A. to go after a second baseman.
DJ LeMahieu isn't hitting like the guy who won a batting title with the Rockies in 2016, but his .277 average and 15 home runs might be enough to warrant an offer from Los Angeles.
With touted prospect Brendan Rodgers slated to assume duties at second alongside shortstop Trevor Story, it's at least a safe bet LeMahieu won't be back in Colorado.
San Diego Padres: LHP Gio Gonzalez
Last winter, the San Diego Padres eschewed the rebuild and signed first baseman Eric Hosmer to a franchise-record eight-year, $144 million contract.
Hosmer is hitting .249 with a .711 OPS for the last-place Pads. Ouch.
At some point, the Friars will again dive into the free-agent deep end. Until then, expect San Diego to sign a guy like left-hander Gio Gonzalez, an up-and-down talent who won't break the bank but possesses the potential to rebound at pitcher-friendly Petco Park.
San Francisco Giants: 3B Pablo Sandoval
What are the San Francisco Giants doing?
They won three titles between 2010 and 2014 and made the playoffs in 2016. Over the past two seasons, however, they've vacillated between bad and mediocre. Their core is aging. Their payroll is cumbersome. Their farm system is ho-hum.
At some point, the Giants will be forced to blow it up. But with icons such as catcher Buster Posey (provided he recovers from hip surgery) and lefty Madison Bumgarner (provided San Francisco exercises his $12 million team option) in the fold, the team is almost obligated to tread water.
With that in mind, why not bring back erstwhile fan favorite and prodigal Panda son Pablo Sandoval as a bench bat or fill-in should Evan Longoria or Brandon Belt succumb to injury?
To recap: Sandoval ditched the team for Boston, imploded on the East Coast, returned and actually produced for the Orange and Black and then went down to injury.
As long as the Giants are shooting the moon, Sandoval is their man.
All statistics current entering play Wednesday and courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.