10 Way-Too-Early Predictions for the 2019 MLB Offseason
Nobody knows how the 2019-20 Major League Baseball offseason will play out. Yes, that includes us.
But for kicks and giggles, we're going to pretend like we do anyway.
Despite having very little to go off of at this juncture, ahead are 10 predictions for the coming hot-stove season that we feel reasonably confident about. They cover basic things like rough estimations of free-agent contracts, which stars will or won't be traded and which young superstars will be extended.
Let's begin with what awaits the top free agent on the market.
Gerrit Cole Will Become the Highest-Paid Pitcher in MLB History
This is probably a gimme, but Gerrit Cole is absolutely going to beat David Price's $217 million guarantee on the open market.
After posting only one great season out of five with the Pittsburgh Pirates between 2013 and 2017, Cole has experienced nothing but greatness with the Houston Astros over the last two years. He's racked up a 2.68 ERA and struck out 602 batters in 412.2 innings.
To boot, Cole is going into free agency off the walk year to end all walk years. He finished 2019 with an American League-best 2.50 ERA and set an all-time record with a rate of 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings en route to 326 total punchouts.
If there's a hurdle in Cole's way, it's just how stingy teams have gotten in free agency in recent winters. But since good arms are hard to come by in baseball's current era of extreme offense, teams are nonetheless likely to line up for him.
Anthony Rendon Won’t Match Nolan Arenado's Contract
Anthony Rendon, on the other hand, probably won't get the kind of contract that would permit him to neener-neener his third base brethren.
According to Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post, the Washington Nationals have already made Rendon an offer for seven years and "in the range" of $210 and $215 million. But it would be a surprise if he actually accepted Washington's offer and not just because it contains deferred money.
The 29-year-old was one of the National League's more underrated stars before 2019. Now, he's a full-blown superstar after setting new career highs in basically every major offensive category, including OPS (1.010) and home runs (34).
Rendon's sights are presumably on the eight-year, $260 million pact Nolan Arenado signed with the Colorado Rockies in February. Rendon is a year older than Arenado, however, and his seven career seasons haven't been as valuable as the six that preceded Arenado's deal.
Even if Rendon matches Arenado's $32.5 million average annual value, it's doubtful anyone will offer him a deal as long as eight years. What he finally ends up with may not be drastically better than what the Nationals are offering.
Stephen Strasburg Will Opt out and Sign for Jon Lester Money
The 31-year-old can do so by exercising the opt-out in his contract with the Nationals. He would be leaving four years and $100 million on the table, but a pitcher of his caliber should be worth more than that.
With a 3.32 ERA and 4.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2019, Strasburg effectively matched his career marks (3.17 and 4.5) in both categories. And he did so over an NL-high 209 innings, which ought to dispel fears that his injury history is weighing him down as he gets older.
Between his age and his career production to date, Strasburg bears a striking similarity to Jon Lester when he signed his six-year, $155 million contract with the Chicago Cubs in 2014. Moreover, that was when good starters were relatively easy to find amid a leaguewide offensive drought.
So, rather than take the easy four years and $100 million, Strasburg has every reason to bet on himself on the open market.
For the Boston Red Sox, J.D. Martinez Is out and Mookie Betts Is in
The Boston Red Sox should keep Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, but they're making no promises.
"There is a way, but obviously it will be difficult given the nature of the agreements and the contracts we have in place," team president Sam Kennedy told reporters in September.
In light of Betts' and Martinez's extraordinary production over the last two years, it's frustrating that both stars are on the bubble in Boston. The luxury tax is indeed bad for business, but surely it can't be that bad for a franchise that's valued by Forbes at $3.2 billion.
Still, the Red Sox may at least keep one of the two this winter, and the choice will be obvious if Martinez exercises the opt-out in his contract. His age (32) and limited skill set outside the batter's box add risk to that calculation, but the shortage of impact hitters on the market lessens it a little.
If Martinez does opt out, a $23.8 million salary will vanish from Boston's 2020 books. Rather than trade Betts, the Red Sox could earmark that space for Betts' salary, which MLB Trade Rumors projects at $27.7 million. Then, they'd just have to hope he has another MVP-caliber season before free agency beckons him at the end of the season.
For the Chicago Cubs, Kyle Schwarber Is out and Kris Bryant Is in
The Chicago Cubs have already parted ways with manager Joe Maddon just three years after he led them to their first World Series championship since 1908.
Now, even Kris Bryant might not be safe. Though he was the NL MVP in 2016 and he's still under club control for two more seasons, ESPN's Jeff Passan reported in August that the Cubs will "at the very least listen" to offers for the slugging third baseman.
Yet a Bryant trade is a long shot. The Cubs are likely to demand the sun and stars for the 27-year-old, but other teams may not deem him worth that much in the wake of two straight seasons marred by injuries and slumps. Especially not when Rendon and Josh Donaldson are available on the open market.
Kyle Schwarber, however, has perhaps never been more likely to be moved. Though he's a limited defender who's failed to blossom into the elite hitter he was supposed to be, his 94 homers since 2017 give the Cubs recourse to market him as a reliable source of power. He also has two more years of club control.
Schwarber ought to interest American League clubs that see him as a primary designated hitter. If the Cubs have their way, said clubs will offer a spare arm or two.
Francisco Lindor and Noah Syndergaard Will Also Stay Put
In addition to Bryant, Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard are two more stars who could be traded before reaching free agency after 2021.
But don't count on it.
The Mets have already strongly indicated as such with regard to Syndergaard, as general manager Brodie Van Wagenen told reporters the 27-year-old "will be on our team next year."
Rightfully so. Syndergaard still has an ace reputation that's rooted in his league-best 97.7 mph average fastball velocity, yet he's also fresh off leading the National League with 94 earned runs allowed. If the Mets were to trade him this winter, they'd be selling low.
It makes a bit more sense for the Indians to shop Lindor in the wake of his ho-hum .854 OPS, 32 homers, 22 stolen bases and 4.7 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Plus, they'd stand to cut a projected $16.7 million salary from a 2020 payroll that can only take so much.
However, the Indians haven't given any indications they want to rebuild. Until they do, it's safe to assume they'll keep baseball's best shortstop and cut payroll by other means.
Starling Marte Will Be the Best Player Traded
All right, so, which players will be traded this winter?
Probably a bunch, but none better than Starling Marte.
The 31-year-old's star faded when he was hit with an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in 2017. But Marte has quietly come back around in the two years since, particularly in a 2019 season marked by an .845 OPS, 23 homers and 25 steals.
Go back to 2013, and only four outfielders have produced more WAR than Marte:
- 1. Mike Trout: 61.5
- 2. Mookie Betts: 42.0
- 3. Christian Yelich: 33.6
- 4. Lorenzo Cain: 33.2
- 5. Starling Marte: 28.2
The Pittsburgh Pirates can keep Marte through 2021 by exercising his $24 million worth of options. But after losing 93 games and generally wallowing in dysfunction in 2019, some kind of pivot seems necessary.
Which is to say, now is the time for the Pirates to save some money and secure some prospects by shopping one of baseball's better outfielders.
The Los Angeles Dodgers Will Extend Cody Bellinger
Though the focus tends to be on potential trades and free-agent signings, the winter is also contract extension season in Major League Baseball.
Arenado, Mike Trout, Chris Sale, Paul Goldschmidt, Jacob deGrom, Xander Bogaerts and Ronald Acuna Jr. all cashed in for at least $100 million last offseason. More stars could do the same this time around, but perhaps nobody is in a better position to cash in than Cody Bellinger.
Though the Los Angeles Dodgers can't be happy with how their 2019 season ended, they must be thrilled with how Bellinger broke out with a 1.035 OPS, 47 homers and MLB-best 9.0 WAR in 2019. He's likely to add an MVP to a trophy case that already features a Rookie of the Year award from 2017.
Bellinger is only 24 years old and still four years away from free agency, yet the Dodgers may nonetheless feel a sense of urgency to lock him up this winter. He's due for his first trip through arbitration, which means he'll be negotiating his future earnings one way or another.
If the Dodgers were to offer him something akin to the six-year, $144.5 million extension Trout signed in 2014, Bellinger may be willing to sign away a couple of free-agent years in exchange for a well-earned windfall.
The Minnesota Twins Will Be the Winter's Biggest Spender
The Minnesota Twins are next to the Dodgers in the disappointment boat after getting swept by the New York Yankees (again) in the American League Division Series.
On the bright side, the Twins did join baseball's inner circle of elite teams with 101 wins in the regular season. Still another bright side, meanwhile, is that they're lined up for a bombastic hot stove season.
Even with Nelson Cruz's option already picked up, Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors figures the Twins will enter the winter with only $64.1 million on their books for 2020. That's roughly half of what they spent on their peak Opening Day payroll in 2018, and there may be room for even greater spending after a season like the one they just had.
That kind of flexibility buys a lot of talent on the modern free-agent market, and it so happens the Twins will indeed need a lot of talent.
They'll have at least three openings in their starting rotation—Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda are free agents—and room for upgrades in their bullpen and their lineup. If the Twins favor free agents as a solution to these issues, then no team is likely to invest more in the open market than them.
The New York Yankees Will Sit This One Out
Though the Yankees were expected to be a major player on the 2018-19 market, they settled for short-term, low-risk contracts on players like DJ LeMahieu, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and J.A. Happ.
We'd previously been thinking the Yankees will get back to their big-spending ways this winter. But upon further thought, that's not such a given after all.
The Yankees do have some money set to come off their books, yet they're already looking at a $171.5 million luxury-tax bill for 2020. Throw in another $37.6 million in projected arbitration costs, and they're due to collide with the $208 million tax threshold just with the players they already have.
Can the Yankees free up some space by cutting costs here and there? Sure, but only a few million bucks through non-tenders of players like first baseman Greg Bird and left-hander Tyler Lyons. Since they're likely paying the luxury tax one way or another, their focus may be on minimizing the damage.
Such an outlook would likely be informed by the reality that they won't actually need a whole lot. Rather than add new faces, the Yankees could simply trust that the Giancarlo Stanton-, Miguel Andujar- and Luis Severino-sized holes in their 2019 roster will be filled by healthy versions of those very players in 2020.