Predicting Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Top Free Agents Next Team and Contracts
Following a pair of MLB offseasons that moved at a snail's pace, the free-agent floodgates have opened refreshingly early.
While the marquee superstars are still deliberating their options, a handful of significant players signed before the start of winter meetings. Will Smith (Atlanta Braves), Cole Hamels (Braves), Yasmani Grandal (Chicago White Sox), Mike Moustakas (Cincinnati Reds) and Zack Wheeler (Philadelphia Phillies) wasted little time reaching agreements.
The details of those deals should encourage others on the open market. After each taking a one-year contract with the Milwaukee Brewers last winter, Grandal and Moustakas found four-year deals with higher annual earnings elsewhere.
Wheeler, meanwhile, set a high bar on the mound by commanding five years for $118 million.
A long (and substantial) list of non-tendered players crowds the available free-agent pool, which could hurt mid-level talent looking to break the bank. The premium free agents, however, still appear poised to do just fine.
Before any more big names sign, let's predict the landing spot and contract details for the best remaining free agents.
SP Gerrit Cole
It's not hyperbolic to call Gerrit Cole the best free-agent pitcher of all time. He's at least going to get paid like it.
Although the 2019 AL Cy Young Award voters didn't deem him the top pitcher on his team, Cole led the majors in strikeouts (326), skill interactive ERA (2.62 SIERA) and FanGraphs' WAR (7.4). Per Baseball Savant, he topped the Statcast leaderboards in expected batting average (.184) and expected weighted on-base average (.238 wOBA) among starters with at least 350 plate appearances faced.
The 29-year-old enters the market in his prime after recording over 200 innings in each of the last three seasons. For good measure, he nearly led the Houston Astros to a championship by compiling a 1.75 ERA and 47 strikeouts in five superb playoff starts.
Max Scherzer similarly hit his stride right before reaching free agency at age 30. Although never as dominant before joining the Washington Nationals as Cole was in Houston, the righty fetched a seven-year, $210 contract prior to 2015.
Cole should top that easily. Factoring in MLB's offensive influx, the 2011 No. 1 pick should top David Price's record-setting $217 million pact and Zack Greinke's annual-salary benchmark of $34.4 million. According to Bob Klapisch of the New York Times, the New York Yankees are gearing up a seven-year, $245 million offer.
As the Astros and Yankees two vie for AL supremacy, the Los Angeles Angels continue to waste Mike Trout's best years. Acquiring Dylan Bundy is a nice step toward revamping their rotation, but he's far from the final ingredient.
According to SNY's Andy Martino, the Angels are "ready to go bonkers" and "spend whatever it takes" to get Cole. That type of mentality is necessary to beat the Bronx Bombers in a bidding war that will require an eighth year to win.
Team: Los Angeles Angels
Contact: 8 years, $280 million
3B Anthony Rendon
Some casual fans may still underappreciate Anthony Rendon. MLB franchises with spending power shouldn't make that mistake.
No longer the game's best-kept secret, the third baseman has transformed into a full-fledged superstar just in time to demand a discernable raise. Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger, the only two sluggers ahead of him on the 2019 NL MVP ballot, were also the only two other players to record a slash line in the exclusive .300/.400/.500 club. Rendon's .413 wOBA ranked sixth among all qualified hitters.
This is far more than a well-timed career year; Rendon leads all third basemen in WAR since the start of 2016.
It might not take long to learn where he'll play next year. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, MLB executives believe Rendon will be the first superstar to sign. Those close to the 30-year-old think he's more interested in a shorter deal with a higher annual return.
He shouldn't have to choose between major yearly earnings and long-term stability. The Athletic's Jim Bowden (subscription required) and Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors each predict him to sign for seven years with an average yearly salary at or above $33 million. Rendon could, however, surpass Nolan Arenado ($35 million) as 2020's highest-paid man at the hot corner by knocking off one year.
Since they're about to open a new ballpark, splurging on the hometown star sure makes sense for the Texas Rangers. Then again, that switch would require Rendon to leave the defending champs for a squad that has endured three straight losing seasons.
The Nationals could afford to lose Harper with Juan Soto and Victor Robles ready to headline the outfield. There's no young hotshot ready to take over at third. Typically not shy about spending money, the Nats will use their World Series profits to retain a franchise cornerstone.
Team: Washington Nationals
Contract: 6 years, $215 million
SP Stephen Strasburg
Contrary to owner Mark Lerner's recent comments, the Nationals can indeed keep Rendon and Strasburg for the long haul.
Although they are still doling out big bucks to Max Scherzer ($35.9 million) and Patrick Corbin ($19.1 million) next season, Ryan Zimmerman and Brian Dozier are both free agents after earning a combined $27 million last season. That's more than enough to cover Rendon's extra earnings, and bringing back Strasburg is mostly a matter of restructuring his deal.
For the first time since 2014, Strasburg made more than 30 starts in a season. Following a somewhat underwhelming 2018, he boasted a 3.32 ERA and career-high 252 strikeouts. Yet he still wasn't a lock to opt out of his final four years and $100 million if not for twirling a 1.98 ERA and 47:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio during a legacy-defining postseason.
By finally staying healthy for a full campaign, Strasburg should exceed the overall worth of his last seven-year, $175 arrangement with Washington. That length is risky for a 31-year-old pitcher who previously underwent Tommy John surgery.
As a result, the projections are all over the map. Bowden predicted seven years. Dierkes said six, and FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel estimated five. Let's meet in the middle, but up the overall ante to make it worth his while.
Durability fears could give the San Diego Padres cold feet. But with warm memories of October fueling the fire, Washington stops just shy of making Strasburg baseball's fourth (not including Cole) $200 million pitcher.
Team: Washingon Nationals
Contract: 6 years, $195 million
SP Madison Bumgarner
Madison Bumgarner’s extensive track record is a double-edged sword.
On one hand, teams should bend over backward to attain a 30-year-old who continues to pad a Hall of Fame-caliber resume with a 3.13 ERA and 1,794 strikeouts. He just pitched 200 innings for the seventh time in nine seasons. Of course, there’s also his 2.11 playoff ERA buoyed by one run relinquished in three World Series triumphs with the San Francisco Giants.
Some squads, however, may instead view his hefty mileage as a red flag. Despite repairing his strikeout and walk rates, Bumgarner also recorded a career-high 3.90 ERA in 2019. That’s identical to his FIP, which landed a tad lower than his rates from 2017 (3.95) and 2018 (3.99).
Had he entered the open market three years ago, Bumgarner could have struck a $200 million deal more in line with Scherzer or Price. Yet he’s still a highly decorated hurler who can regress and still resemble a dependable No. 2 or 3 starter. He should receive an offer sheet similar to Wheeler, who is only 10 months younger despite his far smaller innings odometer.
After the Minnesota Twins whiffed on Wheeler, The Athletic's Aaron Gleeman identified Bumgarner as "now clearly" their primary choice. Seemingly priced out on Cole and Strasburg, the lefty is their only remaining option to anchor a rotation unable to handle the playoff spotlight last October.
It helps their cause that the Braves already found their veteran southpaw in Hamels. San Francisco could still feasibly retain the franchise icon despite forgoing a rebuild, but Minnesota stands out as the perfect suitor in need of a front-line starter.
Team: Minnesota Twins
Contract: 5 years, $105 million
3B Josh Donaldson
After hitting .246/.352/.449 during an injury-marred 2018, Josh Donaldson bet one himself by taking a one-year deal with the Braves. He'll soon reap the rewards of that decision.
The third baseman bounced back in a major way, popping 37 home runs with a .377 wOBA and 4.9 WAR. Now he's in line to up his average annual value with a multi-year deal.
Timing could be everything. The Nationals and Rangers may view the 2015 AL MVP as their Plan B to Rendon. In a scenario where Rendon joins one of those squads first, the other emerges as a favorite to pivot to Donaldson.
Those who remember the contentious 2015 ALDS will wonder about him assimilating into Texas. Last month, per MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, Rangers manager Jon Daniels said that tension will unlikely play into his pursuit of Donaldson.
"There might be a specific instance where there is something more to it, but competitive people in the heat of the moment, things happen," Daniels said. "For the most part, I doubt it would factor in."
Needing a splash before unveiling Globe Life Field, Texas pays $25 million a year for the 34-year-old Donaldson.
Team: Texas Rangers
Contract: 3 years, $75 million
SP Hyun-Jin Ryu
Despite finishing second in the 2019 NL Cy Young Award race, Hyun-Jin Ryu is seemingly slipping through the cracks as a second-tier free agent.
Over the last two seasons, the southpaw has posted a pristine 2.22 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. No pitcher who's thrown at least 250 innings in that timeframe has a lower walk rate than Ryu's 3.7 percent.
So why isn't he drawing buzz as another potential $100 Million Man? Before logging 182.2 innings in 29 starts for the Dodgers last season, he had worked just 213.2 innings combined from 2015 to 2018. He'll turn 33 the day before MLB opens up shop for 2020.
If anything, the risks could attract more suitors unwilling to pay top dollar for Cole, Strasburg or Bumgarner. According to The Athletic's Dan Hayes (subscription required), Minnesota sees Ryu as another option beyond Bumgarner. The Toronto Blue Jays are also interested, per Heyman.
And yet the Dodgers remain the perfect fit for Ryu's strengths and limitations.
Team president Andrew Friedman typically doesn't bring in outside talent on long-term deals, but he's backed by ownership able to spend big for short-term assistance. Given their depth, they don't need Ryu to toss 200 innings in a season. Given their tendencies, they may actually prefer to preserve him for the playoffs.
The Dodgers gave Rich Hill a three-year deal deeper into his thirties despite an even messier and unlikelier breakout. Ryu, therefore, should also elicit three years at a higher going rate than the $17.9 million qualifying offer he accepted for 2019.
Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Contract: 3 years, $60 million
OF Nicholas Castellanos
Winter's most interesting litmus test, Nicholas Castellanos has a lot working in his favor.
Turning 28 next March, he's the youngest of the top free agents. A year after notching a .363 wOBA in a breakout 2018, he wielded a career-high .525 slugging percentage last season.
Momentum is on his side; he hit a scorching .321/.356/.656 in 52 games with the Chicago Cubs. Having logged over 660 plate appearances and 150 games in each of the last three seasons, he's also durable.
He's also, however, a poor defensive corner outfielder who has never hit more than 27 home runs in a season.
Essentially, he's the outfield version of Eric Hosmer. Just don't expect anyone to give Castellanos eight years for $144 million. Most projections don't see him getting half of those overall earnings.
MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi cited the Cubs, Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks as suitors. If Castellanos didn't like hitting in Comerica Park, he'd hate AT&T Park. Chase Field is also no longer a hitter's haven since installing a humidor.
He sure looked comfortable at Wrigley Field. Following a midseason trade from the Detroit Tigers, he smacked eight homers with a 1.162 OPS in 119 plate appearances at his new home.
An extended stay behooves Castellanos while allowing the Cubs to reholster their farm by shopping Kyle Schwarber or Ian Happ. A steady floor will net him a nice new income, but defensive shortcomings will shield him from a nine-figure deal.
Team: Chicago Cubs
Contract: 5 years, $75 million
OF Marcell Ozuna
Take out an explosive 2017 in which he hit .312/.376/.548 with 37 long balls, and Marcell Ozuna looks like just another guy in a game flooded with power hitters.
Ozuna at least has a superior glove on his side. For some old-fashion fans, he also has tied Harper for the eighth-most RBI (301) over the last three seasons.
For the new-aged folks, the batted-ball data points to major improvement next season. In his second season with the St. Louis Cardinals, Ozuna endured a .259 BABIP 36 points lower than his previous personal nadir despite exchanging ground balls for more line drives. Per Baseball Savant's Statcast data, he set new highs in hard hits, average exit velocity and launch angle.
If a team believes in his .288 expected batting average more than the middling .243 reality, Ozuna will still garner a nice multi-year dear entering his age-29 campaign.
As one of the top available outfielders alongside Castellanos, he's drawing widespread interest. Morosi identified five teams (Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Reds, Braves, Rangers) pursuing the righty. Conflicting reports also surfaced over the Chicago White Sox nearing a deal.
If they lose Donaldson, the Braves can shift Austin Riley back to his original position. This scenario creates a vacancy in the outfield and middle of their batting order. Ozuna will fit in perfectly as the clean-up hitter behind Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman.
Team: Atlanta Braves
Contract: 4 years, $65 million
SS Didi Gregorius
Didi Gregorius may not set the market ablaze after accruing a .276 on-base percentage in a season sliced in half due to offseason Tommy John surgery. He's an intriguing option, however, for anyone willing to bet on a rebound.
In his first four seasons with the Yankees, Gregorius placed seventh among all shortstops in WAR (14.7) while steadily progressing at the plate. He improved his slugging percentage, strikeout rate and wOBA in each season before a shoulder injury stalled the upward trajectory.
Once perceived as a glove-only shortstop, Gregorius emerged as a legitimate offensive force before getting hurt. Had he entered free agency fully healthy after tallying 27 homers and a .350 wOBA in 2018, it's not far-fetched to envision someone offering a nine-figure deal.
That club may have been the Yankees, who didn't extend the $17.8 million qualifying offer. Even if he takes another one year "prove it" deal, the 29-year-old—who turns 30 before Opening Day—will probably have to settle for a lesser salary. It's now less likely to come via the Bronx Bombers, who can move Gleyber Torres back to shortstop and keep 2019 success stories DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela in the infield.
The Cincinnati Reds threw an early haymaker by signing Moustakas. If team president Dick Williams is to be believed, they're not done spending this offseason.
While they nearly have a full lineup for 2020, shortstop remains an area for improvement. Even the 2016 version of Gregorius would represent an upgrade over Freddy Galvis, so gambling on his health completes their puzzle.
Due to their heightened sense of urgency, the Reds allot him three years. This gives Gregorius some stability while offering Cincinnati more profit potential if he puts 2019 in the rearview mirror.
Team: Cincinnati Reds
Contract: 3 years, $43.5 million
SP Dallas Keuchel
At this time last year, Dallas Keuchel likely figured he'd spend the 2019-2020 offseason preparing for his second campaign of a long-term contract. He's instead looking for a new home just six months removed from signing with the Braves.
On the bright side, there's no compensatory draft pick to drag down his value this time. His numbers after joining Atlanta in late June, however, may do the job instead.
While his ERA rose just one point to 3.75, his FIP skyrocketed to 4.72, his worst mark since 2012. Beyond his changeup, the lefty's other four pitches (four-seam fastball, sinker, cutter, slider) each induced a wRC+ of 110 or higher.
The veteran southpaw now looks like a durable No. 3 starter rather than the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner. That's still a valuable designation, and an elite ground-ball rate should draw demand amid the home run boom.
Last season, the Milwaukee Brewers won the NL Central despite not receiving 160 innings from a single pitcher. Midseason acquisition Jordan Lyles played a pivotal role in notching the division crown, but he parlayed that success into a two-year, $16 million deal with the Rangers.
Keuchel provides the perfect veteran linchpin at a mid-level price. They'll need to pay him more than Lyles, but not nearly as much as Bumgarner or Ryu. Even last season's results would immensely help Milwaukee's volatile rotation.
Team: Milwaukee Brewers
Contract: 3 years, $42 million
Note: All advanced stats are courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise stated.