Early Predictions for the Biggest Shockers of the 2019-20 MLB Offseason
While the MLB postseason is still in full swing, it's never too early to start looking ahead to what promises to be another exciting offseason.
This year's free-agent market will be headlined by superstars Anthony Rendon and Gerrit Cole, with both players destined for massive paydays. Meanwhile, the trade market could feature names like Mookie Betts, Noah Syndergaard and Francisco Lindor.
Before the offseason officially begins next month, we took a crack at five of the biggest shockers of the 2019-20 MLB offseason.
No one saw Manny Machado signing with the San Diego Padres last winter. So what will be the biggest surprises of the upcoming offseason?
Here's our best guess.
Will Harris Receives the Highest AAV of Any Reliever
Let's do a quick side-by-side comparison of two of the top available relievers on this year's free-agent market.
Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP) is a gauge of what a pitcher's ERA should be, based on the factors that he can control. Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is an all-encompassing stat used to measure a hitter's contributions per plate appearance, and in this case we're looking at wOBA allowed.
While Player A has a significantly higher strikeout rate, it comes at the cost of his other peripherals being a tick behind Player B.
Player A is left-hander Will Smith, who saved 34 games for the San Francisco Giants while posting a 2.76 ERA and earning a spot on the NL All-Star team.
Player B is right-hander Will Harris, who had 26 holds and a 1.50 ERA in 68 games serving as the primary setup man to Roberto Osuna in the Houston Astros bullpen.
Teams are looking below the hood more than ever, and while Harris is older and set to enter his age-35 season, a strong case can be made that he's the top reliever available this winter. That's assuming Aroldis Chapman decides against opting out.
The fact that Smith scuffled a bit after the All-Star break with a 3.72 ERA and four blown saves in 15 chances adds a bit more fuel to this fire.
In the end, we'll say that the 30-year-old Smith secures a longer deal, but Harris walks away with the highest annual average value (AAV) of any reliever signed this offseason.
Didi Gregorius Accepts a Qualifying Offer
Rarely does a qualifying offer seem like a good idea for both player and team.
In the case of Didi Gregorius and the New York Yankees this offseason, it's easy to see the benefit for both sides.
After posting a 104 OPS+ while averaging 26 doubles, 20 home runs, 75 RBI and 3.3 WAR in his first four seasons with the Yankees, Gregorius played just 82 games in 2019.
When he was healthy enough to take the field, he looked like a shell of his former self, posting an 87 OPS+ and 0.6 WAR in his return from Tommy John surgery.
With this year's qualifying offer set at $17.8 million, it's hard to picture Gregorius topping that AAV on what has been a volatile free-agent market in recent years, especially for middle infielders. Zack Cozart had to switch positions to secure a $12.7 million AAV in 2018, while Jose Iglesias was forced to settle for a minor league deal last winter. Coming back on the equivalent of a one-year, prove-it deal would seem to be in Gregorius' best interest.
From the Yankees' perspective, it's a short-term gamble that has a great chance of making the team better in 2020, without bogging down the payroll for years to come.
When he's healthy and producing up to his full potential, Gregorius is well worth the salary equivalent of the 125 highest-paid players in baseball, which is what the qualifying offer represents.
Bringing him back to man the shortstop position would place less pressure on Miguel Andujar and the revolving door of first basemen to hold down a spot on the infield.
Instead, the Yankees could go with DJ LeMahieu at first base, Gleyber Torres at second base, Gregorius at shortstop and Gio Urshela at third base.
Since its inception in 2012, just six players have accepted a qualifying offer—Brett Anderson (2015), Jeremy Hellickson (2016), Colby Rasmus (2015), Hyun-Jin Ryu (2018), Neil Walker (2016) and Matt Wieters (2015).
Don't be surprised if Gregorius becomes the seventh this winter.
Josh Donaldson Re-Signs with the Atlanta Braves Before Dec. 1
The Atlanta Braves gave Josh Donaldson the richest one-year deal for a position player in MLB free-agency history last offseason when he was signed for $23 million on the heels of an injury-plagued season when he took the field for just 52 games.
It was a prove-it deal if ever there was one, and he did just that, posting a 127 OPS+ with 33 doubles and 37 home runs in a 6.1-WAR season that saw him play 155 games.
So now what?
After a red-hot start to his MLB career, the Braves' presumptive third baseman of the future Austin Riley hit a dreadful .161/.211/.276 with a 41.1 percent strikeout rate in 95 plate appearances after the All-Star break. The window to win is wide-open, and counting on him to fill a significant role of any sort next year seems like a risky proposition.
Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters the following with regard to Donaldson:
"He’s a key part of our team. Great player, complete player. Things we look for. Great offensive player, on-base skills, great defender, intense competitor, toughness. Fits us in every way we want to.
With that being said, when we entered into this agreement with him, the understanding and the hope was that he’d be in position to rebuild his value. And I believe we positioned ourselves, if all things are equal from a contractual standpoint—I haven’t had this discussion with him or his agent—but I believe this would be where he wants to be. I know he enjoyed it here."
While Donaldson has no doubt rebuilt his value, he's also set to turn 34 on Dec. 8, and free agency has been extremely unpredictable in recent years.
A few years back, we saw Hunter Pence sign a five-year, $90 million deal with the San Francisco Giants rather than testing the open market in earnest. There was enough mutual interest and an obvious enough fit that signing quickly made sense for both sides.
The Braves and Donaldson appear to be in a similar position this offseason.
Mookie Betts Is Traded to the Cincinnati Reds
The Cincinnati Reds showed a willingness to zig while everyone else zagged last offseason, acquiring Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood to shore up the starting rotation despite their perceived standing as a non-contender.
Then, they doubled down on that approach at the trade deadline, acquiring Trevor Bauer from the Cleveland Indians despite a 50-56 record at the time.
In other words, a Mookie Betts-to-Cincinnati trade is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first blush, especially with the Cincinnati front office eyeing the postseason in 2020.
It's also surprisingly difficult to nail down an ideal fit for Betts on the trade market despite his standing as one of the best players in baseball.
Mark Polishuk of MLB Trade Rumors ran through all 30 teams and listed the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres alongside the Reds as the most logical landing spots.
If it's suddenly January, the Red Sox remain committed to getting below the luxury tax threshold, and none of those other teams have made a compelling offer, it's not unfathomable to think the Reds might have the best proposal on the table.
What would a return package look like?
The St. Louis Cardinals were able to acquire Paul Goldschmidt entering his final year of team control last offseason in exchange for Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Andy Young and a competitive balance draft pick.
Betts will cost more, but there's still a clear ceiling on his value given the fact that he is one year removed from free agency.
Would a deal built around controllable outfielder Jesse Winker and pitching prospect Nick Lodolo be enough to get the ball rolling?
Again, it's not as far-fetched as it might sound.
Gerrit Cole Signs with the San Diego Padres
With a ton of young talent set to break through and marquee free agent Manny Machado in the fold, the San Diego Padres were expected to take a step forward in 2019.
Instead, they went 70-92 to finish in the NL West cellar, an improvement of just four wins over the 2018 season.
Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune set the scene at the team's annual Social Summit immediately following the conclusion of the regular season:
"Speaking to a group of fans Monday at Petco Park, Padres Executive Chairman Ron Fowler shared his frustration over the season that ended a day earlier.
Fowler addressed his disappointment with Wil Myers' offense and Eric Hosmer's defense, said 'heads will roll, beginning with mine' if the team does not begin to have success in 2020 and apologized profusely for an 'embarrassing' 2019."
That certainly sounds like someone who is gearing up for a busy offseason.
The Padres have long been on the hunt for a frontline starter to headline a young starting rotation, and if they're not convinced that Noah Syndergaard or Corey Kluber is the guy to go all-in on, they might finally turn their attention to the pitching side of the free-agent market.
While handing out another big contract after the Hosmer and Machado deals may seem daunting, in actuality the team has just over $100 million on the books for 2020, and with a wealth of young, cheap talent, there's no reason a megadeal for Cole can't also fit on the payroll.
The Angels and Yankees are going to be hot on his trail, but no one expected the Padres to walk away with Machado last winter, so it would be wise to consider them serious contenders for one of the best available starters in MLB free-agency history.