Predicting 2020 Landing Spots for Each Top MLB Free Agent Post-Trade Deadline
Now that the Major League Baseball trade deadline has come and gone, up next on the list of things to look forward to are the stretch run of the regular season and, of course, the postseason.
But let's skip right past those and look ahead to free agency.
We have fresh predictions for where the offseason's top 10 free agents—all guys who come with some combination of an established track record, upside and star power—will end up. The list includes neither players with opt-out clauses (e.g., J.D. Martinez, Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman) nor players with options (e.g., Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas).
We otherwise based our predictions on team needs, payroll flexibility and old-fashioned guesswork.
We'll proceed in order from the least desirable free agent to the most desirable one.
SS Didi Gregorius: New York Mets
2020 Age: 30
Career WAR: 16.5
Didi Gregorius underwent Tommy John surgery in October, and he's posted a modest .739 OPS since returning to the New York Yankees on June 7.
Yet he's at least maintained above-average power, and his nine homers even give him an outside shot at a fourth straight season of at least 20 long balls. As it is, Trevor Story and Francisco Lindor are the only shortstops who've hit more homers than Gregorius since 2016.
Defensive metrics have generally been split on Gregorius' glove work. But he's at worst playable as an everyday shortstop, and he often looks like a good one to the naked eye.
Because not many contenders have true needs at shortstop, there might be an opening for the Yankees to re-sign Gregorius on a team-friendly contract. But since they could just as easily hand his spot to Gleyber Torres, that opportunity might shift to clubs such as the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets.
The Mets, in particular, might have it in mind to move Amed Rosario to center field and double-down on their commitment to contention by drawing Gregorius from the Bronx to Queens.
Prediction: New York Mets
RHP Zack Wheeler: Houston Astros
2020 Age: 30
Career WAR: 8.2
Even after five seasons in the majors, Zack Wheeler is still a great pitcher only in the abstract.
His 3.84 career ERA translates to a slightly below-average 98 ERA+, and he's topped out at 185.1 innings and 187 strikeouts. It also took him two years to fully recover from Tommy John surgery in 2015.
Yet Wheeler's talent is still as tantalizing now as when he first entered the majors as a coveted prospect back in 2013. He averages 96.7 mph on his fastball, and his slider checks in at 91.5 mph.
Based strictly on his upside, Wheeler figures to be a top target for starting pitching-needy teams this offseason. There are few clubs that don't match that description, but his sweepstakes may be won by one that has utmost confidence in its ability to unlock his potential.
Which is why he seems destined to be a Houston Astro.
According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Astros went hard after Wheeler before pivoting to a deal for Zack Greinke. While he's in for the long haul, the Astros will have a big pair of shoes to fill when Gerrit Cole hits the open market this offseason. To that end, their famed analytics arm could adjust Wheeler to fit them.
Prediction: Houston Astros
RF Nicholas Castellanos: Cleveland Indians
2020 Age: 28
Career WAR: 6.4
Nicholas Castellanos might generate more wins above replacement one day, but only if his defense improves.
After putting up minus-64 defensive runs saved in four seasons as a third baseman, Castellanos has carried his defensive limitations over to right field with minus-31 DRS since late in 2017.
The bright side is that Castellanos can indeed hit. Since the start of 2016, he's put up an .832 OPS with 255 extra-base hits. He's also been in salary-drive mode since going from the Detroit Tigers to the Chicago Cubs on July 31. He's rocking a 1.215 OPS and five homers through 12 games.
Because of that trade, Castellanos is also barred from receiving a qualifying offer. But while not being tied to draft-pick compensation will help his value, his shortcomings outside the batter's box and the general abundance of sluggers across MLB are likely to restrict his market.
If it's a question of which American League clubs could benefit from that, the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays are potential fits by way of their open contention windows and common need for power. If they take a break from cutting payroll—which is a big if—the Indians might just pounce.
Prediction: Cleveland Indians
RF Yasiel Puig: Chicago White Sox
2020 Age: 29
Career WAR: 19.8
Another reason Cleveland might mount an opportunistic pursuit of Castellanos is that somebody will need to fill Yasiel Puig's shoes when he's gone.
The Indians landed Puig as part of a three-team trade with the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds that notably sent ace right-hander Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati. Puig responded to his new surroundings with a .984 OPS in 11 games before submitting to a three-game suspension for his role in a July 30 brawl.
That wasn't the first altercation the "Wild Horse" has ever found himself in. Nor is it likely to be his last. Yet Puig's misadventures are generally worth living with because he's nothing if not talented. He owns an .826 career OPS and is typically rated as a well-above-average right fielder.
Come the offseason, the best fit for Puig might be a team that covets his star power just as much as his two-way ability.
It so happens the Chicago White Sox are a team with a proud Cuban tradition, a dire need for a right fielder and, based on their flirtations during the offseason, a willingness to spend big bucks on brand-name stars. And thanks to the midseason trade, signing him would only cost money.
Prediction: Chicago White Sox
LF Marcell Ozuna: Cincinnati Reds
2020 Age: 29
Career WAR: 18.9
Marcell Ozuna's 2017 season, in which he posted a .924 OPS and 37 home runs for the Miami Marlins, is a clear outlier in his track record. However, he's no longer the fallen star he seemed to be just last season.
After slumping to a .758 OPS and 23 homers in 2018, Ozuna's second year with the St. Louis Cardinals has been highlighted by an .844 OPS, 22 homers and a career-high 11 stolen bases. He's also working on a career-best walk rate and power output.
Despite one particularly damning lowlight, Ozuna is also still a reasonably capable left fielder. Add it all up, and he'll be one of the best bundles of upside money can buy this offseasoon.
The Cardinals might re-sign Ozuna, but they have plenty of outfield depth in their system to draw from instead. Otherwise, he might fit in any number of left field holes on contenders, such as those of the Reds and Colorado Rockies.
The former might just be keen to sign Ozuna. Cincinnati already has an outstanding starting rotation and the foundation for a strong offense. Adding Ozuna to the latter mix could help it make the move in the National League Central it wants to make.
Prediction: Cincinnati Reds
3B Josh Donaldson: Texas Rangers
2020 Age: 34
Career WAR: 42.4
Josh Donaldson is probably done contending for MVP Awards, but this season is proving he isn't finished as an everyday third baseman.
After calf injuries limited him to only 165 games for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017 and 2018, the Atlanta Braves nonetheless made a one-year, $23 million bet that the 2015 AL MVP could bounce back in 2019. He's done so with an .893 OPS and 26 homers in 118 games.
Granted, this is nothing like the .946 OPS and 37 homers that Donaldson averaged from 2015 to 2017. And while it's still good, Donaldson's defense is also past its elite prime. Given his age and injury history, it also can't be taken for granted that his good health will last into 2020 and beyond.
Between all this and his likelihood of receiving a qualifying offer, Donaldson's one-year deal might not be a springboard to a bevy of long-term offers. As a result, perhaps he'll find himself circling back to the Braves on another one-year contract.
But if anyone's going to get in the way, it might be the Texas Rangers. Fixing their hole at third base would go a long way toward advancing their comeback in the AL West, and Donaldson could slide into Shin-Soo Choo's spot at designated hitter after 2020.
Prediction: Texas Rangers
LHP Madison Bumgarner: Atlanta Braves
2020 Age: 30
Career WAR: 32.2
Despite constant rumors about his going elsewhere, Madison Bumgarner was still with the San Francisco Giants when time ran out on the summer trading season.
Bumgarner has lately been treating the Giants to his vintage form with a 2.61 ERA over his last 10 outings. His ERA for the season is down to 3.63, while his career ERA is holding strong at 3.09.
There are, however, still nits to pick. His body has recovered from the shoulder and hand injuries that sidelined him in 2017 and 2018, yet the velocity spike he enjoyed in the middle of the year was short-lived. Meanwhile, his hard-contact rate is trending ever upward.
Nevertheless, Bumgarner will be a hot commodity for clubs in need of a tried-and-true ace. A return to the Giants is a definite possibility, but they could face competition from teams like the Cardinals, Padres, Brewers, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins.
Yet there may be no greater threat to lure Bumgarner than the Braves. They might have to replace Dallas Keuchel atop a rotation that's long on depth but short on experience. They could also offer Bumgarner, who grew up not far from Atlanta in North Carolina, a homecoming of sorts.
Prediction: Atlanta Braves
LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu: Los Angeles Dodgers
2020 Age: 33
Career WAR: 13.8
Although Hyun-Jin Ryu finished 2018 with a 1.97 ERA, last season also capped a five-year stretch in which injuries limited him to 66 starts. He made the right call accepting the Dodgers' $17.9 million qualifying offer last November.
Ryu has since set himself up for a far greater payday. Through 22 starts this season, he's lowered his ERA all the way to 1.45. That's the lowest qualified mark since Bob Gibson finished the 1968 season with a 1.12 ERA.
It's possible Ryu's stock will be boosted even further by a Cy Young Award. To boot, the Dodgers can't make him another qualifying offer. He'll enter the open market unburdened by draft-pick compensation.
Even still, Ryu's age and injury track record will work against him. Some teams might also be cautious about taking his ultra-low ERA at face value. In light of his below-average strikeout rate, the Dodgers' outstanding defense shares some of the credit for it.
One team that likely won't hold this against Ryu, of course, is the Dodgers. And since they'll have Rich Hill coming off their roster and books, they'll have cause to aggressively pursue a reunion with a shorter yet lucrative multiyear deal.
Prediction: Los Angeles Dodgers
3B Anthony Rendon: Philadelphia Phillies
2020 Age: 30
Career WAR: 25.3
Anthony Rendon's stardom tended to come and go in his first four seasons with the Washington Nationals, but it's remained front and center in three seasons since then. To wit:
Rendon's bat has been the main driver behind this surge. He has a .943 OPS and 74 home runs since 2017, and he's been upping his game with a 1.004 OPS and 26 homers in 2019. He also boasts a .421 xwOBA, which suggests he deserves even better numbers.
Without having to share the spotlight with Nolan Arenado, Xander Bogaerts or Paul Goldschmidt, Rendon will be easily the top position player on the market this offseason. He's also a candidate to land the biggest contract, as he'll surely be aiming to match Arenado's eight-year, $260 million pact with the Rockies.
It could work in the Nationals' favor that not many clubs have that kind of money or a big enough need at third base to justify signing Rendon. But no team could burst their bubble faster than the Philadelphia Phillies, who have a huge need at the hot corner and pockets that go deep even after Bryce Harper's $330 million contract.
Prediction: Philadelphia Phillies
RHP Gerrit Cole: New York Yankees
2020 Age: 29
Career WAR: 20.7
Gerrit Cole gave everyone a scare when he backed out of his Tuesday start against the White Sox. But rather than an arm or shoulder injury, Jake Kaplan of The Athletic reported Cole was bothered by a less-than-serious hamstring injury.
That should ruin neither the Astros' season nor Cole's rapidly inflating free-agent stock. All he's done since joining Houston in 2018 is post a 2.87 ERA with 502 strikeouts and 103 walks in 357 innings.
Given all they've done to help Cole reach his potential, it would feel only right if the Astros re-signed him. But since the Greinke trade effectively preempted their need to do so, it's hardly impossible to imagine the Astros would bow out of bidding that could climb beyond $200 million.
The Angels and Dodgers could try to bring back Cole to his native Southern California. The Braves could reach for him if they don't sign Bumgarner. Ditto for the Phillies if they opt to not sign Rendon.
Yet the Cole sweepstakes may be a race to beat the Yankees. They drafted him out of high school in 2008 (he didn't sign and played at UCLA) and tried to trade for him two offseasons ago. Their latest chance at him will come just when they'll need to replace CC Sabathia and generally upgrade a rotation that's struggled with a 4.67 ERA.
Prediction: New York Yankees