MLB Mystery Teams That Can Steal Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Other Top Stars
If ever there was a time for so-called "mystery teams" to make big splashes on Major League Baseball's offseason market, it's right now.
There's plenty left in free agency, including two MVP-caliber players (Bryce Harper and Manny Machado), a Cy Young Award winner (Dallas Keuchel), an all-time great closer (Craig Kimbrel) and an All-Star center fielder (A.J. Pollock). But because their markets have been slow to develop, any one of them might be stolen away from their presumed suitors.
We've taken a whack at identifying which mystery teams might do the stealing. These clubs haven't been strongly connected to any of those five players, but they need them and seemingly have the financial means to afford them.
From a quick look at Pollock's dedicated page at MLB.com, his top suitors appear to be the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds. His door is open for others, however.
The 31-year-old began the winter looking for a deal along the lines of Lorenzo Cain's five-year, $80 million contract, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. Though his skill set is comparable to Cain's, Pollock's injury history and ties to draft-pick compensation might force him to settle for much less.
The Rockies are projected to open 2019 with a $150 million payroll, which would be a new franchise record. It's nonetheless suspicious that they haven't added anything to an outfield that produced only 0.8 wins above replacement in 2018, according to Baseball Reference.
Pollock, who has averaged an .801 OPS and 2.8 WAR since 2017, is the best addition the Rockies can make. That would equate to a better chance of taking down the Dodgers in the National League West.
The Rockies could potentially backload Pollock's deal for after 2020, when they're due substantial payroll relief. In the meantime, they'd only sacrifice their third-highest pick in the 2019 draft to sign him.
Now that Michael Brantley is gone, Cleveland has an outfield of Leonys Martin, Greg Allen and Tyler Naquin. A team that allegedly has World Series aspirations shouldn't be satisfied with that.
By all accounts, the Indians don't have a better outfield because they can't afford one. They've spent the winter cutting as much payroll as possible, and even more will be cut if they trade Corey Kluber.
Yet the Indians are projected to open 2019 with a $117 million payroll, well short of last year's $134.9 million Opening Day mark. That would seem to be enough space for Pollock. Like the Rockies, the Indians would also only sacrifice their third-highest draft pick to sign him.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants are yet another team with a dire outfield situation. Theirs produced 1.9 WAR in 2018, and that was with Andrew McCutchen for most of the year.
As for why said outfield remains unaddressed, it seems to be because new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is leaning more toward rebuilding than contending. Or maybe he's biding his time waiting for good value.
According to ESPN.com's Buster Olney, the Astros were in on Pollock before they signed Brantley. So perhaps it's cheating to include them here.
Still, they might look at Pollock and see an opportunity too good to pass up. They could work him into their outfield by having him share center field with George Springer and serve as a platoon partner for Josh Reddick and/or Brantley on the corners. An already elite lineup would get even better.
The Twins are set to roll with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler in their outfield. There's plenty of upside, but only if Buxton and Kepler live up to their potential.
The Twins might look to Pollock as insurance for either player, not to mention their lineup as a whole. He'd be another reliable bat to go with Rosario, Nelson Cruz and C.J. Cron, which would give them a better chance of overcoming the Indians in the American League Central.
Craig Kimbrel is the owner of a 1.91 career ERA, and his rate of 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings is the best among all pitchers with at least 500 major league innings.
The 30-year-old is nonetheless kidding himself if he thinks he can find a $100 million deal. Despite being frequently linked to him, the Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies don't seem to be in a hurry to grant his wish. Perhaps that will guide him into the arms of a less usual suspect.
The Cubs have a solid excuse for their visible frugality. Their luxury-tax bill for 2019 is projected at $225.1 million. That's way over the $206 million baseline threshold and less than $1 million short of the threshold for harsher penalties.
Still, some skepticism is in order. The Cubs' pockets go deep, and the franchise's eyes are on its second World Series title in the last four seasons.
The Cubs therefore shouldn't be skimping on a bullpen they knew they needed to improve over the winter. They can't be counted out on Kimbrel until he signs with another team.
St. Louis Cardinals
Contrary to their primary NL Central rival, the Cardinals have been busy. They made a big trade for Paul Goldschmidt and signed Andrew Miller to a bullpen that needed a relief ace.
However, St. Louis' pen still doesn't pass the eye test. Miller, Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil all broke down in one way or another in 2018. And for a guy who can do this with a baseball, Jordan Hicks misses curiously few bats.
Bringing Kimbrel aboard would be an ideal way for the Cardinals to balance out the downside in their bullpen. Though their $161.3 million projected payroll would set a new franchise record, a backloaded multiyear deal could soften the short-term blow ahead of increased flexibility after 2020.
Speaking of bullpens with downside, the back end of the Washington Nationals pen is headed by an injury-prone closer (Sean Doolittle), a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery (Trevor Rosenthal) and a guy with major control issues (Kyle Barraclough).
To steal borrow a suggestion from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Kimbrel could be just the fix. And in keeping Kimbrel from the Braves and Phillies, the Nats would have the added bonus of denying the enemy.
Washington's payroll is already projected at $199.4 million, nearly $20 million higher than its 2018 opening. It would, however, be in the team's character to push the envelope with a big deal for Kimbrel.
Instead of Pollock in their outfield, perhaps the Twins could use their apparent financial flexibility to add Kimbrel to their bullpen.
Their pen did have a meltdown problem in 2018, after all, and Blake Parker is the only help the Twins have added this winter. He's more of an upside play than a panacea.
Spoiler alert: Though this is already the second time the Twins have warranted a mention, it won't be the last.
Dallas Keuchel's market value was sky-high after he won the AL Cy Young Award with a 2.48 ERA over 232 innings in 2015. Injuries and regression have damaged it a bit since then, yet the 31-year-old remains a top-of-the-rotation starter. It'll be a surprise if he signs for less than $20 million per year.
Assessing the "mystery teams" in Keuchel's market is tough because he's been connected to pretty much everyone throughout the winter. But we'll give it a shot.
A's starters ranked 27th in innings pitched last year. Since only Mike Fiers is a sure bet to eat innings in 2019, Oakland's patchwork rotation may project for even fewer frames in 2019.
Keuchel, who logged 204.2 innings last year, would fix that right up. His ground-ball style would also make him a dream fit for an A's infield that allowed an MLB-low .213 average on grounders in 2018.
Trouble is, the A's are already projected to open 2019 with an $83 million payroll, which is about as high as they can go. But with a 97-win season in their rearview, now's the time for the A's to go for broke in pursuit of a World Series victory that would only help them score the new stadium they desire.
If the Rockies would rather trust in their outfield's upside, they could try to catch up to the Dodgers by putting all their chips in a rotation that's pretty good as is.
In Keuchel, the Rockies would add a 200-inning workhorse the likes of which are extremely rare in Colorado. He would also mesh well with an infield defense highlighted by Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Garrett Hampson.
Chicago White Sox
It makes sense that the White Sox have been in on the likes of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Signing either one would only fill a fraction of the empty space on their books after 2020, and the end of their rebuild would suddenly be much closer.
If the White Sox swing and miss on them, they might consider Keuchel as a Plan B. He would become a veteran leader for a rotation that leans decidedly young and inexperienced. The White Sox could then fill out their lineup with homegrown talent.
Basically, Keuchel could be for the White Sox what Jon Lester was for the Cubs in 2015.
San Diego Padres
The same reasoning that applies to the White Sox also applies to the Padres, save for a couple of differences.
One is that the Padres' long-term books are complicated by Eric Hosmer's and Wil Myers' contracts. On the other hand, another is that the Padres would only have to give up their third-highest pick in the 2019 draft to sign Keuchel, compared to Chicago's second-highest pick.
Bryce Harper is a six-time All-Star who also owns an MVP and a Rookie of the Year award. He's hit 184 home runs and racked up a .900 OPS in seven seasons. Throw in how he's only 26, and you get a crash course on why projections for his contract run as high as $400 million.
Though the Phillies, White Sox and Nationals are clearly the teams to beat in the Harper sweepstakes, according to Jon Heyman of Fancred, there are also legit mystery teams in the fold.
San Francisco Giants
As bad as the Giants outfield looks at first glance, they at least have some upside in two of the three spots. In left field, there's Chris Shaw's power. In center field, there's Steven Duggar's defense.
Right field is another matter. It appears to be up for grabs between Austin Slater and Mac Williamson, either of whom would be better off platooning with Shaw.
Such a platoon could be arranged if Harper was signed to play right field every day, and there's little question the Giants can afford to do that. The only real question is if Farhan Zaidi thinks such a volatile roster is worthy of that big a risk.
Rather than trust in Max Kepler to develop into a star in right field, maybe the Twins will open their wallet for Harper and trust him to anchor their whole lineup for years.
Of course, the Twins didn't make out so well from their last megadeal: Joe Mauer's eight-year, $184 million contract. But this time around, they wouldn't be banking on fluky power or on long-term health at a physically demanding position.
Manny Machado is practically the same age as Bryce Harper, and he's been worth more WAR since the two entered the majors in 2012. Yet his earning power is thought to be less, to a point where he may be lucky to pull in even a $300 million guarantee.
Once the New York Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu, Machado's market was thought to be down to the Phillies and White Sox. According to Andy Martino of SNY.tv, however, the Yanks aren't totally out, and there are also two mystery teams in the hunt.
If the Marlins were to sign Machado, there would be echoes from when they added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell ahead of the opening of Marlins Park in 2012. That, uh, didn't pan out.
Still, this would be a fascinating case of a prodigal son's return to his hometown, just in time for a rebrand that should give the team greater appeal within said hometown. And with virtually nothing on Miami's books past 2020, the albatross potential of a megadeal for Machado would be minimized.
Besides which, Marlins owners Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter will have to prove to Miami fans that they're not like Jeffrey Loria sooner or later. Signing and keeping Machado would do the trick
The Brewers spent 2018 proving that a team can indeed win in the offseason and go on to win on the field as well. They wouldn't have made it to the National League Championship Series if not for their surprise additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich.
The Brewers have already dug in their heels with a one-year deal for Yasmani Grandal, who was the best catcher on the market. The next logical step would be to sign Machado to plug a shortstop hole that produced minus-0.1 WAR in 2018.
Of course, Milwaukee appears to be maxed out with a $120.9 million projected payroll. But if the Brewers don't throw caution to the wind, they could always backload Machado's deal for after 2020 or 2021.
San Diego Padres
If not an experienced shortstop to keep the position warm for top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr., the San Diego Padres could certainly use a third baseman who's better than...[checks notes]...Ty France.
Machado could do either job, not to mention elevate a lineup that lacks a tried-and-true slugger. Assuming the Padres prove capable of providing their own pitching, San Diego could soon find itself watching the best Padres team in decades.
Sounds better than paying more money to put Harper in an outfield that's overcrowded anyway.
Yes, the Twins might be a home for Machado too. They could either move Jorge Polanco to make room for him at shortstop or put him at third base and task Miguel Sano with proving he deserves to play over Cron at first base.
In any case, the effect would be the same as if the Twins signed Harper, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel or A.J. Pollock: They'd get a major piece for their effort to reclaim the AL Central for the short and long term.