Ranking All 30 MLB Teams as Free-Agent Destinations This Winter

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 8, 2019

Ranking All 30 MLB Teams as Free-Agent Destinations This Winter

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    The Washington Nationals are World Series champions. They're also hiring.
    The Washington Nationals are World Series champions. They're also hiring.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The first question that comes to mind with Major League Baseball's free agency is who's available. Yet a no-less-important question must also be asked.

    Who's paying?

    We've attempted to answer this by ranking all 30 MLB teams as free-agent destinations. We considered:

    • Budgets: Or at least, the rough idea we got by comparing teams' 2020 projections (courtesy of Roster Resource) and their record-high Opening Day payrolls (courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts).
    • Needs: The more holes a club needs to fill, the more it will hypothetically be willing to spend.
    • Contention Timelines: It's not quite so clear cut, but win-now teams figure to spend more and win-later teams figure to spend less. And all things being equal, free agents presumably prefer to play for winners.

    Our rankings are wholly subjective, and we grant that the first 20 teams could be put in arguably any order.

    We did the next-best thing by breaking them up into rebuilders, in-betweeners, on-the-cuspers and cash-strapped contenders. The top 10, meanwhile, are clubs that both can and should spend big this winter.


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The Rebuilders

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    30. Pittsburgh Pirates

    2020 Payroll: $71.4 Million

    Peak Payroll: $100 Million

    There's a sizable gap between where the Pittsburgh Pirates are projected for 2020 and how high their payroll has gone in the past. And yet it's highly doubtful they'll rush to make any big splashes after losing 93 games and finishing last in the National League Central.

    Their immediate focus should be on finding out who's in charge following the sackings of their manager, president and general manager. Whoever it is, they'll hopefully install a culture that's less toxic than the last one. In short, the Pirates are a rebuilder that hasn't even started its rebuild yet.


    29. Baltimore Orioles

    2020 Payroll: $79.5 Million

    Peak Payroll: $164.3 Million

    The Baltimore Orioles should eventually get back to their previous spending habits, but it won't be in 2020. As evidenced by their 223 losses over the last two seasons and their still not-quite-elite farm system, they still have a lot of work to do with their rebuild.

    The Orioles might at least invest in some pitching, lest their staff repeat its 5.59 ERA and historic (in a bad way) home run rate from 2019. Prospective signees, however, might look at the Orioles and see only low pay and the curse of having to pitch at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.


    28. Detroit Tigers

    2020 Payroll: $90.4 Million

    Peak Payroll: $199.8 Million

    As the team continues to work on its good-not-great farm system, Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila said in January that club probably won't revisit its big-spending ways until 2021 or 2022. Even then, perhaps the Tigers will be wary of returning to the exorbitant payrolls they carried under late owner Mike Ilitch.

    But after scoring an MLB-low 3.6 runs per game in 2019, the Tigers need hitting about as badly as the Orioles need pitching. They might not pay much more for bats than the Orioles pay for arms, but at least Comerica Park is a better place to hit than OPACY is to pitch.


    27. Kansas City Royals

    2020 Payroll: $86.6 Million

    Peak Payroll: $143 Million

    The Kansas City Royals have lost 207 games over the last two seasons, and their farm system also still has ground to gain before it can be considered elite. Hypothetically, they'll only be in the market for potential trade chips this winter.

    What could make things interesting, however, is new owner John Sherman's potential willingness to invest a little more just for dignity's sake. The Royals especially need arms for a staff that's coming off a 5.20 ERA. To this end, they might sell some guys on the prospect of pitching at Kauffman Stadium.


    26. Miami Marlins

    2020 Payroll: $52.8 Million

    Peak Payroll: $115.4 Million

    Unlike the teams listed above, the Miami Marlins' rebuild has already gotten to a point where they're sitting on an elite farm system. That could embolden them to invest in free agency. 

    After scoring a National League-low 3.8 runs per game in 2019, they might at least add some hitters who could bring some legitimacy to their offense and impart some tips to their young up-and-comers. Perhaps the only question is if they're willing to offer multiyear deals to anyone.


    25. Seattle Mariners

    2020 Payroll: $105.2 Million

    Peak Payroll: $157.9 Million

    Speaking of rebuilders who've achieved a superior farm system, we have the Seattle Mariners' minor league cache ranked even higher than Miami's. Factor in how the Mariners' pivot in 2019 was less of a rebuild and more of a reimagining, and they might be a surprise spender this winter.

    Yet GM Jerry Dipoto warned everyone in September that this won't be the case. The Mariners might add to their offensive and pitching depth, but it's probably a year too early for star free agents to think about seriously engaging them in multiyear contract talks.

The In-Betweeners

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    24. Colorado Rockies

    2020 Payroll: $159.8 Million

    Peak Payroll: $145.2 Million

    Though the Colorado Rockies just signed a new local TV contract, team owner Dick Monfort told reporters that it's "not as lucrative as I wanted it to be." The Rockies may therefore need to shed salary before they try to dig their way out of a 91-loss hole with substantial free-agent investments.

    Unfortunately for them, only stars such as Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story, German Marquez and Jon Gray have any real trade value, and they're likely not going anywhere. So unless Monfort gives in to spending beyond his comfort zone, it'll be a slow winter in Denver.


    23. Arizona Diamondbacks

    2020 Payroll: $109.1 Million

    Peak Payroll: $131.6 Million

    The Arizona Diamondbacks are coming off a season in which they freed themselves from Zack Greinke's contract and still won 85 games. From here, a wild-card berth may be within their reach in 2020 if they spend a little money this winter.

    The elephant in the room, however, is just how many stars the D-backs stand to lose to free agency after 2020. That could make them think twice about multiyear deals, as they may want to keep themselves open to a post-2020 retooling phase. 


    22. Cleveland Indians

    2020 Payroll: $105.9 Million

    Peak Payroll: $134.9 Million

    The Cleveland Indians have some room between their 2020 projection and where they were as recently as 2018. That plus the 93 games they won in 2019 should be their cue to spend on free-agent upgrades.

    But if the Indians refuse to deviate from last winter's payroll-cutting mandate, their spending might be limited to essential needs such as outfielders and relievers. They'll almost certainly surpass the $2.5 million they spent last offseason, yet nobody should anticipate a bonanza.

The On-the-Cuspers

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    21. Toronto Blue Jays

    2020 Payroll: $70.2 Million

    Peak Payroll: $163.4 Million

    Though the Toronto Blue Jays still haven't busted out of their rebuilding phase, they've already begun harvesting core pieces from what had been one of baseball's best farm systems. Their bright future has thus come somewhat into focus.

    Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro nonetheless cautioned that the team doesn't want to "make moves that would limit our flexibility going forward," per Nick Ashbourne of Yahoo Sports. But Toronto could at least spend on pitching, perhaps even bring in a veteran innings-eater on a multiyear deal.


    20. Cincinnati Reds

    2020 Payroll: $119.7 Million

    Peak Payroll: $126.7 Million

    The Cincinnati Reds achieved their peak payroll just this year, and it all went for naught as they struggled offensively and finished with 75 wins. Yet they're prepared to assert themselves once again, as president of baseball operations Dick Williams promised a "nice increase" in payroll, per Mark Sheldon of MLB.com.

    Lucrative free-agent contracts are few and far between in the Reds' history, but this is a good time to get away from that trend. They only need bats to catch up in the NL Central, and they can lure said bats with both their dollars and Great American Ball Park's hitter-friendly conditions.


    19. Chicago White Sox

    2020 Payroll: $60.4 Million

    Peak Payroll: $127.8 Million

    The Chicago White Sox took a big step forward out of their rebuild in 2019. They could take an even bigger step in 2020 if they acquire the arms and bats they need, and the disparity between their peak payroll and their projection for next season would seem to suggest they can do so in free agency.

    Yet it's also possible the White Sox will deem it too soon to attempt to topple the competition in the American League Central. And even if they want to go all-out, they might still abide by a spending history that's topped out at a mere $56 million contract in free agency (Adam Dunn, 2010).


    18. San Diego Padres

    2020 Payroll: $127.4 Million

    Peak Payroll: $108.4 Million

    The San Diego Padres are already spending big money on Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers. Because they can fill in whatever cracks they have by promoting or trading from their top-ranked farm system, big free-agent splashes seem unlikely.

    But according to Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Padres are planning a run at area native Stephen Strasburg. If they're willing to spend, say, $30 million per year on him, they might be willing to reallocate that money to other needs (i.e., starters and outfielders) if they miss out. 

The Cash-Strapped Contenders

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    17. Oakland Athletics

    2020 Payroll: $111.4 Million

    Peak Payroll: $92.2 Million

    The Oakland Athletics aren't known as big spenders, but the $37.6 million they spent in free agency last winter actually qualified them as one of the market's more active teams. Since that helped enable a second straight 97-win season, perhaps more spending is in order for this winter.

    It may be just as likely, however, that the A's do nothing. Beyond already being projected for a record-sized payroll in 2020, they have shockingly few glaring needs. It's possible they'll only shop in the bargain bin for risk-free upside plays.


    16. Tampa Bay Rays

    2020 Payroll: $73.8 Million

    Peak Payroll: $76.9 Million

    Even though the Tampa Bay Rays signed Charlie Morton to team-record $30 million free-agent contract last winter, their payroll dramatically decreased from 2018 to 2019. That would seem to make it unlikely that they'll push what's already a large (by their standards) payroll for 2020 even higher.

    However, the Rays might secure extra funds from a new TV deal soon. If not, they might still double-down on their 96-win roster by outfitting it with some much-needed power and extra pitching depth. For their part, free agents might be intrigued by the club's history of having a Midas touch.


    15. New York Mets

    2020 Payroll: $181.7 Million

    Peak Payroll: $158.7 Million

    The New York Mets spent $79 million in free agency last offseason. Those investments didn't spur a playoff run in 2019, but the club at least won a respectable 86 games. The idea for 2020 should be to see to their unfinished business under new manager Carlos Beltran.

    However, the Mets' payroll situation is more complicated than their $181.7 million projection for 2020 suggests. Their luxury-tax payroll is calculated at $203.3 million, which is less than $5 million from the first threshold for a 20 percent penalty on overages. This doesn't mean they can't spend anymore, but it perhaps makes it unlikely.


    14. Boston Red Sox

    2020 Payroll: $234.4 Million

    Peak Payroll: $236.2 Million

    The Boston Red Sox have been living large with their payroll for several years now. According to team owner John Henry, this needs to stop because "we need to be under" the luxury tax. As of now, they need to cut $28.3 million in average annual value just to get down to the threshold.

    After that's accomplished, the Red Sox's next step might involve spending nothing at all in free agency. Yet you'll have to pardon us for wondering if their true fear is of the luxury tax's $248 million third rail, which comes with both heavy financial penalties and a 10-slot drop in the following year's draft. If they merely want to stay below that, they'll have a budget for free agents after all.


    13. Chicago Cubs

    2020 Payroll: $198.1 Million

    Peak Payroll: $203.1 Million

    Like the Red Sox, the Chicago Cubs are already projected to be over the $208 million luxury-tax threshold in 2020. Also like the Red Sox, they're positioning themselves for a low-spending winter, according to Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic.

    If there's a difference between these Chicago and Boston franchises, however, it's that the latter isn't nearly as close to the aforementioned third rail. If the Cubs want to use it, they have roughly $30 million in space above their $218.1 million luxury-tax projection. And there will be more if they can cut salary via trades.


    12. St. Louis Cardinals

    2020 Payroll: $162.4 Million

    Peak Payroll: $162.6 Million

    The Cubs' apparent unwillingness to spend in free agency should be music to the ears of the St. Louis Cardinals. They should perceive it as a chance to dig in after coming from behind to win the NL Central in 2019.

    Per Mark Saxon of The Athletic, however, Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt Jr. doesn't expect the team's payroll to budge from its franchise-high mark in 2019. But in being willing to discuss a multiyear deal with Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals have at least one avenue by which they might deviate from this mandate.


    11. Houston Astros

    2020 Payroll: $220.6 Million

    Peak Payroll: $160.4 Million

    There might not be a player in MLB who wouldn't want to play for the Houston Astros. They've won 311 games and a World Series title since the start of 2017, and they've done so largely because they're the class of the league at maximizing player potential.

    But even that $220.6 million projection for 2020 doesn't say it all. The Astros are also ticketed for a $239.4 million luxury-tax payroll, which puts them way over the first and second thresholds and only a few million short of the third. They might nonetheless go all-in on avenging their loss in the 2019 World Series, but team owner Jim Crane notably said in October that he would "prefer not to" incur any penalties, per the Houston Chronicle's Chandler Rome.


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10. San Francisco Giants

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    2020 Payroll: $138.9 Million

    Peak Payroll: $200.5 Million

    The San Francisco Giants are the biggest wild card of the 2019-20 offseason.

    It's possible they'll have a quiet winter. They're coming off a third straight losing season, and they've recently waved goodbye to two franchise fixtures: manager Bruce Bochy, who retired, and ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner, who's a free agent.

    These are the marks of a rebuilding team. Indeed, it should concern the Giants that their farm system only ranks in the middle of the pack even after all the losing they've done since 2017.

    Yet this club is coming off a surprisingly competitive 77-85 season. And while the Giants could go into tear-down mode, not one of their high-priced veterans—Buster Posey, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria—has any real trade value.

    The Giants might reason that their best play is loading up on veteran talent and seeing if they can improve on 2019. If they do, they'll hit the market with a lot of money to spend on impact starters, relievers and hitters.

9. Milwaukee Brewers

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    2020 Payroll: $97.6 Million

    Peak Payroll: $122.5 Million

    There was a possible scenario in which the Milwaukee Brewers began their offseason with little financial wiggle room.

    In actuality, they've had Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas decline $27 million worth of mutual options and freed up another $15 million by trading Chase Anderson to Toronto and cutting loose Eric Thames. As a result, they seem to have the ability to add tens of millions of dollars to their 2020 payroll.

    With Grandal, Moustakas and Thames gone, the Brewers need a starting catcher and at least one corner infielder. Re-signing Grandal, in particular, should be a priority after he was arguably baseball's best catcher in 2019.

    The Brewers also needed starters even before Anderson was dealt, as their rotation posted a modest 4.40 ERA and struggled to eat innings in 2019. Their bullpen could also use depth behind ace closer Josh Hader.

    There is, of course, the possibility the Brewers will simply pocket their savings. But that wouldn't mesh with their recent habits under owner Mark Attanasio, and there's no need for the team to pivot to a rebuild following its 185 wins across the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

8. Atlanta Braves

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    2020 Payroll: $98.4 Million

    Peak Payroll: $122.6 Million

    Despite their featured position here, it's hard not to be skeptical of the Atlanta Braves' intentions in free agency.

    They haven't made a big splash since they signed Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal five years ago. They've favored one-year contracts in recent seasons, and they've so far stuck to their guns by re-signing Markakis and Tyler Flowers on one-year deals for 2020.

    Even still, the Braves have a decent amount of money to spend before their 2020 payroll matches the franchise's high from 2017. And they can probably push it even higher if they want.

    After all, their revenue streams include a lucrative new TV deal and increasing attendance at SunTrust Park. There's also, you know, the reality that their contention window is wide-open by way of two straight NL East titles.

    The Braves also have plenty of needs. To name just a few, they need either Josh Donaldson or someone like him at third base, plus a catcher and arms for their rotation and bullpen.

7. New York Yankees

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    2020 Payroll: $203.5 Million

    Peak Payroll: $228.1 Million

    The New York Yankees always have been and always will be one of Major League Baseball's biggest spenders. But in recent years, they've backed off on being the biggest spender.

    This partially has to do with the luxury tax, which they're in a position to violate again in 2020 with a projected tax bill of $215.4 million. It also has to do with how they've retreated from long-term megadeals for free agents. Aroldis Chapman's five-year, $86 million contract is their high-water mark since 2016.

    But in the wake of consecutive 100-win seasons, the Yankees won't be silent this winter.

    They might use what space they have left before they hit the secondary luxury-tax threshold of $228 million. They could even venture close to the $248 million third rail and then make up the difference with a lean year in 2021 after shedding a bunch of salary next winter.

    This is to say that a megadeal for either Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon isn't out of the question. Alternatively, the Yankees could take their money and spread it around on shorter multiyear pacts like the ones that nabbed DJ LeMahieu and Adam Ottavino last winter.

6. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    2020 Payroll: $176.7 Million

    Peak Payroll: $271.6 Million

    The Los Angeles Dodgers might have a payroll north of $270 million again one day, but it won't be in 2020.

    For luxury-tax purposes, they've kept their payroll under the $200 million plateau in each of the last two seasons. Much like the Yankees, they've also been shying from free-agent megadeals. With the exception of Kenley Jansen's five-year, $80 million contract, they've stuck to three- and four-year pacts.

    But whereas the Yankees are already projected to be over the first luxury-tax threshold in 2020, the Dodgers are about $24 million under it. That should be their cue to at least re-sign MLB ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu and also patch up their much-maligned bullpen.

    Yet relatively speaking, now would also be as good a time as any for the Dodgers to stretch their budget.

    It's nice that they've been to seven straight postseasons and won over 100 games twice since 2017, but the franchise's last championship is still all the way back in 1988. Going all-in on, say, Cole or Rendon could help the Dodgers change that.

5. Texas Rangers

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    Louis DeLuca/Associated Press

    2020 Payroll: $114.8 Million

    Peak Payroll: $165.3 Million

    The Texas Rangers will move into a new stadium in 2020. Their payroll will increase accordingly.

    "It will be higher. Our major league payroll will be up from where it was this year, but I don't have an exact number yet," general manager Jon Daniels said in October, according to Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

    If the Rangers are willing to return to their peak spending level, they would seem to have a roughly $50 million budget for additions to their 2020 payroll. Money like that likely can't buy both Cole and Rendon, but it's enough for one of the two.

    Certainly, the Rangers have needs at more areas than just third base and in their starting rotation. They could also use upgrades at catcher, second base and right field, as well as in their bullpen.

    The tricky part for them might be in convincing free agents who want to win now that they're indeed ready to do so. But following their respectable 78-84 season, this shouldn't be an altogether impossible task.

4. Los Angeles Angels

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    2020 Payroll: $147.7 Million

    Peak Payroll: $166.6 Million

    The Los Angeles Angels should be commended for securing two-time MVP and franchise icon Mike Trout at fair prices through 2030. But they need more, and they know it.

    "Payroll will go up next year," team owner Arte Moreno said in October, per Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. "I'm not going to say how much."

    Take this palpable sense of urgency and combine it with the Angels' $3 billion TV deal and their steady attendance, and there would seem to be a path to a franchise-record payroll in 2020. To boot, they're nearly $60 million in average annual value away from the first luxury-tax threshold.

    The Angels' top priority must be fixing a starting rotation that ranked last in MLB in wins above replacement this season, according to Baseball Reference. They also need a new right fielder after declining Kole Calhoun's 2020 option, plus upgrades at third base, second base or first base.

    As with the Rangers, some free agents might question the Angels' win-now creds. But with the right help alongside the game's best player, they can make a leap as soon as 2020.

3. Philadelphia Phillies

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    2020 Payroll: $166.0 Million 

    Peak Payroll: $177.7 Million

    The Philadelphia Phillies spent $403 million on Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson last winter. Their prize was a deeply disappointing 81-81 season.

    The only thing to do now is keep spending and hope for better results.

    To this end, the Phillies might surpass even their record-setting payroll of 2014. That was before their $2.5 billion TV contract kicked in, and 2019 at least featured a significant rise in attendance. Meanwhile, they are still about $22 million short of the first luxury-tax threshold.

    There are any number of ways the Phillies might spend their money. They need depth and upside in both their rotation and bullpen, and their offense could use some help around Harper. In particular, they have a need at third base and a chance to upgrade at second base.

    Cole and Rendon should be on the Phillies' radar. Even if they strike out on both, they could have their pick of whatever's left on the market.

2. Minnesota Twins

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    2020 Payroll: $80.7 Million

    Peak Payroll: $128.7 Million

    The Minnesota Twins' season ended with a thud as they got swept by the Yankees in the American League Division Series. But like the Terminator, they plan to be back.

    "I feel like we're positioned pretty well to recruit certain types of players this offseason, talking specifically about free agents," chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said in October, according to Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com.

    This is the right idea, given that the Twins are roughly $50 million away from their peak payroll. If they're willing to push the envelope even further following their 101-win output in 2019, they might add $60 million or even more to their 2020 payroll.

    That should be plenty to fill out a rotation that needs bodies behind staff ace Jose Berrios. The Twins could also stand to add some relievers, and bringing in a true first baseman would free Marwin Gonzalez to play the super-utility role he's suited to.

    In short, get ready for the Twins to throw their weight around.

1. Washington Nationals

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    2020 Payroll: $121.6 Million

    Peak Payroll: $197.2 Million

    When last anyone saw the Washington Nationals, they were coming back from a 3-2 series deficit to defeat the Astros for their first World Series championship.

    Now they have money to burn and many holes to fill.

    Since Rendon and Strasburg are free agents, the Nationals at least need a slugging third baseman and a top-of-the-rotation starter. They also need a utility man, first baseman, second baseman and catcher to replace Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Dozier and Yan Gomes.

    Then there's the club's bullpen. Though they ended up surviving 2019, the Nationals shouldn't want to risk another 5.66 ERA.

    Fortunately for them, the Nats are roughly $75 million away from their record-high payroll and $86 million from the $208 million luxury-tax threshold. That's a lot of money to spend, and it's relevant that few teams like spending on free agents as much as they do.

    In so many words, the champs are hiring.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.