Predicting If the Top 10 MLB Free Agents Will Leave or Stay Next Season

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMarch 2, 2020

Predicting If the Top 10 MLB Free Agents Will Leave or Stay Next Season

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    Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    We haven't witnessed the first meaningful game of the 2020 MLB season, but it's not too soon to gaze ahead to the coming offseason and predict which impending free agents will re-sign with their current clubs or switch uniforms in 2021.

    Obviously, this involves a high degree of guesswork. The coming 162-game slate will change the calculus for all of these players, for better or worse. And spring or in-season extensions are always a possibility.

    We also didn't include players who have personal, club or vesting options.

    At the moment, here are our guesses for which surefire pending FAs will don the same or different laundry between now and next year.

10. OF Marcell Ozuna

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    Outfielder Marcell Ozuna rejected the one year, $17.8 million qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals only to accept a one-year, $18 million deal with the Atlanta Braves.

    If the 29-year-old two-time All-Star returns from last year's .800 OPS to the .924 OPS he posted in 2017 for the Miami Marlins (along with a Gold Glove), he'll earn a large long-term payday.

    From the looks of it, he liked it in St. Louis.

    "If I knew before it was going to happen like this, I would have taken [the qualifying offer]," Ozuna told reporters. "But I wanted to make sure I had a chance [at a contract] for my career."

    Those don't sound like the words of a man who'll do whatever it takes to remain in Atlanta. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised if Ozuna parlayed a strong showing with the Braves into a long-term pact with the Cards next winter.

    Prediction: Leaving

9. INF DJ LeMahieu

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    After signing a two-year, $24 million deal with the New York Yankees last offseason, infielder DJ LeMahieu hit .327 with 26 home runs and 102 RBI for the Yankees while finishing fourth in American League MVP voting.

    He'll turn 32 in July, but the three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner could set himself up for a nice payday if he comes close to replicating his 2019 output.

    As Ken Davidoff of the New York Post reported, "He won over his teammates and his fans with his low-key approach to the game and life."

    Look for the deep-pocketed Yanks to retain LeMahieu as long as he isn't hit by injury or regression.

    Prediction: Staying

8. 3B Justin Turner

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    Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner's numbers dipped a bit in 2019, but his .290/.372/.509 slash line was certainly solid.

    He's been a major part of the Dodgers' recent run of success. Whether or not they win their first title in 31 years this season, L.A. could be among the highest bidders for Turner's services next winter.

    Then again, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman could go the analytical route and give the qualifying offer to a guy who turned 35 in November and whose best days are almost surely behind him.

    Turner might accept, but given his production and track record, he's more likely to test the open market, assuming he performs roughly to par in 2020.

    If that confluence of variables occurs, Turner may have a new employer in 2021.

    Prediction: Leaving

7. RHP Marcus Stroman

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    Right-hander Marcus Stroman posted a 3.22 ERA in 32 starts between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets last season. His ERA rose from 2.96 in 21 starts with the Jays to 3.77 in 11 starts with the Mets, but the 28-year-old is a New York native.

    "To be back home, to pitch in New York, it's going to be an amazing time," Stroman told reporters after Toronto flipped him to the Mets prior to the 2019 trade deadline.

    He'll surely test the market after the season and could draw interest from the Yankees, among other clubs. The Mets already employ two top-tier starters in reigning two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and hard-throwing Noah Syndergaard.

    This one is a coin toss, but we'll guess the Queens contingent brings Stroman back.

    Prediction: Staying

6. LHP Robbie Ray

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    Left-hander Robbie Ray posted a so-so 4.34 ERA with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019, but the 28-year-old matched his career highs in innings (174.1) and strikeouts per nine (12.1).

    He misses bats. He's in his prime. Assuming he doesn't get hurt, he's on track for a healthy payday next winter.

    The D-Backs showed a commitment to winning by signing left-hander Madison Bumgarner and acquiring center fielder Starling Marte from the Pittsburgh Pirates this offseason. 

    They could whip out the checkbook and keep Ray in the desert, but he seems like a prime target for the Yankees, who, as mentioned, are suddenly in a starting pitching bind. Ray will be a coveted trade-deadline chip.

    Even if the Diamondbacks are in contention this summer, they may be unable to resist flipping him for a gaggle of prospects.

    Prediction: Leaving

5. RHP Trevor Bauer

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    Trevor Bauer is an interesting player, to say the least.

    The 29-year-old right-hander posted a 2.21 ERA, averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings and finished sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2018 with the Cleveland Indians.

    Last season, his ERA rose to 4.48, and his strikeouts per nine dipped to 10.3 between the Indians and Cincinnati Reds. In 10 starts with the Reds after a midseason swap, he put up a 6.39 ERA.

    That said, he has electric stuff when he's on and even garnered down-ballot MVP votes in 2018. He's also previously pledged to sign only one-year pacts for the duration of his career.

    "I'll go year-to-year my entire career," Bauer told reporters in February 2019. "Why would you lock yourself in a situation that may not make you happy? I think that's highly inefficient."

    If he avoids injury and produces at close to his career average, almost every general manager would at least consider a one-year contract for Bauer. Maybe he's fallen in love with Cincinnati (or will in 2020), but he sounds like a hired gun destined to roam from franchise to franchise.

    Prediction: Leaving

4. SS Marcus Semien

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    Marcus Semien hit 33 home runs with an .892 OPS in 2019 and finished third in AL MVP voting. The Oakland Athletics shortstop is set to hit free agency after the 2020 campaign and will be entering his age-30 season.

    There's an outside chance the small-market A's will decide to throw gobs of cash at him.

    But let's get real: they have a long history of bringing up talented players and keeping them only until they become prohibitively expensive...if they keep them that long.

    The best bet, assuming Oakland isn't running away with the AL West in July, is for the Athletics to trade Semien at the deadline for cost-controlled players. That's life in the small-market world.

    Prediction: Leaving

3. OF George Springer

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    Houston Astros center fielder George Springer made his third straight All-Star appearance in 2019. He hit 39 home runs with a .974 OPS and is slated to reach free agency after the 2020 season.

    He'll turn 31 in September and ought to draw ample interest. But he put up his numbers on a team that cheated, and he'll bring questions and potential distractions to any club that inks him.

    Signing an extension with Houston is probably the safest and most probable play for Springer and the Astros.

    Other teams will undoubtedly make offers, but Houston feels like the city where Springer belongs and is most likely to be embraced.

    Prediction: Staying

2. C J.T. Realmuto

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Catcher J.T. Realmuto had a strong season in his first year with the Philadelphia Phillies, posting an .820 OPS with a career-high 25 home runs and winning a Gold Glove. He's arguably the best backstop in baseball, and he's entering his age-29 season.

    Needless to say, Realmuto will be a coveted free agent next winter. Every contender will at least kick his tires, and the Phils will have to spend to keep him.

    But with Bryce Harper in the fold, the Phillies are in a win-now window. Unless another club offers an impossible-to-top deal, Philadelphia should do what it takes to retain Realmuto.

    Catchers of his caliber don't come around often.

    Prediction: Staying

1. OF Mookie Betts

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers acquired outfielder and 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts (along with veteran left-hander David Price) from the Boston Red Sox this winter.

    Already, the 27-year-old is reportedly emerging as a leader for L.A.

    Betts delivered a rousing speech about winning at the outset of spring training, and it landed with important members of the Dodgers clubhouse, including third baseman Justin Turner.

    "When you stand up in front of the team on the first day and essentially call everyone out, says he wants to hold everyone accountable for their effort...that's like, all right, you learn what he's about really fast," Turner told reporters.

    The Dodgers haven't won a title in more than three decades. Betts made his debut with the Boston Red Sox in 2014, a decade after they busted the Curse of the Bambino, but he clearly learned from a franchise that was tired of not hoisting trophies. 

    If the Dodgers claim a title with Betts on board, it's probable they'll bring him back. But even if they don't, given his early leadership role and Los Angeles' ample budget, it seems likely he'll remain in SoCal for a long while.

    Prediction: Staying


    All statistics current as of Sunday and courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.