Previewing the 10 Biggest Storylines of the MLB Offseason
The World Series already feels like a distant memory, and plenty of decisions have already been made on options, opt-outs and qualifying offers.
This is to say that Major League Baseball's 2019-20 offseason is in full swing, which makes now a perfect time to get caught up on all the essential hot-stove storylines.
We've picked out 10, in particular, that should be on everyone's radar. They range from which teams are buying and selling to trade dilemmas to scandals to the earning power of a select few free agents.
Let's count 'em down.
The San Francisco Giants Must Control the Damage and Rebuild
Though the San Francisco Giants' offseason has barely begun, they already have some goodwill to win back.
Their first major move of the winter was to hire Gabe Kapler as the successor to longtime manager Bruce Bochy. This required them to effectively disregard Kapler's mediocre track record and controversial past. As covered by Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle, many in the Bay Area are none too pleased.
Still, the Giants might clear the stench of Kapler's hiring by constructing a roster capable of snapping the club's streak of losing seasons at three. To this end, they at least plan to try.
"We're still in a mode where we want to compete next year. We want to play meaningful baseball as deep into the season as we can, which was our stated goal in 2019," president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said, per John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Giants seem to have plenty of money to spend, so it's not out of the question that they'll go get the pitching depth and power hitting they require. If they do, they may indeed recapture their National League West relevance in 2020.
The Philadelphia Phillies Look to Climb the NL East Ladder
Meanwhile, in Kapler's old stomping grounds, the Philadelphia Phillies are set for another active offseason.
In replacing Kapler with former New York Yankees skipper Joe Girardi, the Phillies have already scored one significant victory. But they must now secure the parts he needs, which won't be an easy task.
Even after splurging on Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson and trading for J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura last winter, the Phillies only improved from 80 wins in 2018 to 81 wins in 2019. And based on their runs scored and allowed, they probably deserved even fewer victories.
Better things will await the Phillies in 2020, but only if they add pitching depth in between ace Aaron Nola and closer Hector Neris, not to mention another impact bat for either their infield (e.g. third base) or outfield (e.g. center field).
If there's a complication, it's that the Phillies are only about $22 million in average annual value away from triggering the $208 million luxury-tax threshold in 2020. They may have to decide whether to play it safe and stay under or go all-in by going all-out on the open market.
The Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers Look to Shake Up the AL West
Speaking of teams looking to make a move, the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers each seem ready to mount a charge in the American League West.
The AL West has recently been the dominion of the Houston Astros, whose last three seasons have consisted of 311 regular-season wins, an AL pennant and a World Series championship. But with the Astros suddenly in various forms of trouble—more on those later—they're ripe for challenging.
The Angels started off right by hiring distinguished manager Joe Maddon as their new skipper. Yet it's little secret they won't contend unless they add more star power around three-time AL MVP Mike Trout. Specifically, they need starting pitching, relief pitching and an upgrade at catcher.
The Rangers, meanwhile, did better than many expected by winning 78 games in 2019. Yet they have plenty of their own needs, including starters and impact hitters at multiple positions.
The Cleveland Indians Face a Francisco Lindor Dilemma
Elsewhere in the American League, the Cleveland Indians might have to trade their best player.
There's certainly an argument that Francisco Lindor should go nowhere this winter. According to Baseball Reference, the four-time All-Star leads all shortstops with 28.6 wins above replacement since 2015. He's due to make a reasonable $16.7 million in 2020, and he won't reach free agency until after 2021.
The Indians are also very much a contender, as they won three straight AL Central titles between 2016 and 2018 and finished with 93 wins in 2019. And contrary to last offseason, their payroll is in good shape.
One way or another, however, Lindor has reached a point at which he isn't long for Cleveland. He almost certainly won't be signing a contract extension, so the Indians' choices are to let him reach free agency in two years or to trade him beforehand.
Hence all the calls they're getting about him now, per Jon Heyman of MLB Network. Though the Indians certainly don't need to rush into a deal, they have to keep their ears open for an offer they can't refuse.
The Boston Red Sox's Payroll Goals May Cost Them Mookie Betts
The Indians aren't the only AL powerhouse that might have to make an unpopular trade. The Boston Red Sox are right there with them.
The Red Sox are only a year removed from winning 108 games and the World Series, yet the 2019 season threw them for a loop. In addition to winning only 84 games and missing out on the playoffs, they also parted ways with president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and are now drawing up blueprints for a whole new direction.
Even before hiring former Tampa Bay Rays executive Chaim Bloom as their new chief baseball officer, Red Sox owner John Henry set a mandate for getting under the luxury-tax threshold in 2020. As of now, that will require cutting roughly $23.5 million in average annual value.
Which brings us to Mookie Betts.
All he's done for the Red Sox since 2016 is rack up four All-Star nods, an AL MVP and more WAR than every player except Mike Trout. Yet he's due for free agency after 2020, and cutting his $27.7 million salary represents a convenient path under the luxury-tax threshold.
Provided somebody makes a good offer, the Red Sox might have to take it.
The Chicago Cubs May Be Ready to Break Up Their Core
In the same boat as the Red Sox, you'll also find the Chicago Cubs.
When the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series in 2016, they seemed to just be getting started on a long-lasting dynasty. In actuality, they disappointed in 2017 and 2018 and all but fell apart in 2019. They won only 84 games and missed out on October.
As expected, the Cubs' 2019 flop cost Maddon his job. Due to the club's diminishing returns, bloated payroll and weak farm system, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has hinted that core members of the Cubs roster may also have to go.
"We'll have to see what's available to us," he said at the general managers meetings, according to Tony Andracki of NBC Sports Chicago. "This is the start of that process, really seeing what are realistic paths we can take, not just these sort of idyllic paths that we try to create in our mind."
Presently, 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant and two-time All-Star Willson Contreras are getting the most play as potential trade chips. Even if the Cubs prefer to hang onto them, they might still trade slugger Kyle Schwarber or lesser core pieces such as Ian Happ or Albert Almora Jr. instead.
The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers Face Pressure to Act
Decidedly not in the same boat as the Red Sox and Cubs are the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, each of whom has the leeway to make big additions this winter.
There's certainly pressure on the Yankees and Dodgers to be active buyers after what befell them in 2019. Though both won over 100 games in the regular season, the Yankees were bounced out of the playoffs in the League Championship Series round, and the Dodgers didn't even make it that far.
For the Yankees, avoiding the same fate in 2020 may be as simple as adding the starting pitching depth they lacked in 2019. The Dodgers also need starting pitching, not to mention relief pitching and potentially a right-handed slugger to help balance their left-leaning lineup.
Filling these needs shouldn't be a problem for either team. The Yankees and Dodgers are the two most valuable franchises in Major League Baseball, according to Forbes, and both are just a year removed from resetting their luxury-tax penalties.
Yet the Yankees and Dodgers being in similar spots last winter didn't keep them from giving risk a wide berth, as A.J. Pollock's four-year, $55 million contract was the largest deal handed out by either team. Any more of that and the door will be open for other teams to rule the free-agent market.
The Washington Nationals Have a Champion to Rebuild
If the Yankees and Dodgers do indeed neglect to make any seismic moves, no team may benefit more than the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals were the best team in baseball when last anyone saw them. Following a slow start to the regular season, they tied for the National League's best record after May 23 and then overcame obstacle after obstacle in October en route to their first World Series championship.
What's left of the Nats now, however, hardly resembles what everyone saw during the season.
The list of players they've lost to free agency is headlined by star third baseman Anthony Rendon and ace right-hander Stephen Strasburg, as well as fellow postseason hero Howie Kendrick. Elsewhere on it are ol' standby Ryan Zimmerman, closer Daniel Hudson, catcher Yan Gomes and infielders Brian Dozier and Asdrubal Cabrera.
Fortunately for the Nationals, the number of holes on their roster has also created a great amount of payroll space for them to fill. Between that and their track record of doing huge free-agent deals, there's reason enough to believe they'll be the winter's biggest buyer.
The Houston Astros Are in for a Rough Winter
In Houston, things aren't getting any happier for the team the Nationals beat in the World Series.
Even before the Astros took a 3-2 lead only to end up on the losing side in the Fall Classic, their reputation as MLB's model franchise was already under siege. They had themselves to blame for that, as the scandal that resulted in assistant general manager Brandon Taubman's firing was entirely self-inflicted.
In the wake of a report from Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic on their extensive system for stealing signs during the 2017 season, the Astros are now at the center of a whole new scandal. According to ESPN's Jeff Passan, the severity of MLB's response "could be unlike anything seen in the sport's recent history."
All the Astros can do in the meantime is try to maintain their dominance in the AL West. But that's a window to still another issue. Though team owner Jim Crane has said he prefers not to exceed the luxury tax in 2020, the club's payroll is already projected way over the $208 million threshold.
Because of that, the Astros could have a tough time re-signing or replacing their free agents. And that group is topped by none other than AL Cy Young Award runner-up Gerrit Cole.
The Markets for Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg
Whether they end up back with their original teams or elsewhere, the cost to sign Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg will surely be very high.
Cole is a shoo-in to move the record payout for a pitcher far above David Price's seven-year, $217 million contract with the Red Sox. Though he didn't capture the AL Cy Young Award, he arguably deserved it based on his league-best 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts. He then embarked on a thoroughly dominant postseason.
Because of his age and injury history, Strasburg won't do as well as Cole on the open market. But he otherwise has a similar profile in that he's also coming off a spectacular regular season and an even better postseason. The latter, especially, featured a 1.98 ERA and ended in him winning the World Series MVP.
Rendon was a clutch October performer in his own right with a 1.003 OPS and three huge home runs. And preceding all that was a career-best regular season marked by a 1.010 OPS, 34 homers and an MLB-high 126 RBI.
It's doubtful any of these three will rise to the $300 million level Bryce Harper and Manny Machado got to last winter. But Cole and Rendon should easily clear $200 million, and Strasburg's deal should end up closer to $200 million than $100 million.