MLB Players with the Most to Prove Ahead of 2020-21 Free Agency
A contract year carries different levels of importance for different MLB players.
Mookie Betts was always going to get paid, regardless of how his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers went. He signed a 12-year, $365 million extension just before the 2020 season began.
Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, Houston Astros outfielder George Springer, Cincinnati Reds right-hander Trevor Bauer and New York Mets right-hander Marcus Stroman are among the other established stars set to hit the open market, and they will have no problem finding a new contract to their liking, regardless of how 2020 plays out.
Others, such as Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson and Texas Rangers left-hander Mike Minor, are known commodities. Their stock is unlikely to shift greatly based on their 2020 performance.
However, there are some players with a lot riding on the shortened season if they hope to make the most of their impending foray into free agency.
Ahead we've highlighted 12 upcoming free agents with the most to prove in 2020.
Other 2020-21 Free Agents Who Need to Earn a Multiyear Deal
- SP Homer Bailey, MIN
- RP Dellin Betances, NYM (player option)
- SP Kevin Gausman, SF
- RP Shane Greene, ATL
- SP Rick Porcello, NYM
- SP Garrett Richards, SD
- SP Drew Smyly, SF
- SP Michael Wacha, NYM
- SP Taijuan Walker, SEA
- RP Tony Watson, SF
- SP Alex Wood, LAD
- 1B C.J. Cron, DET
- SS Freddy Galvis, CIN
- 1B Yuli Gurriel, HOU
- C James McCann, CWS
- 2B Jurickson Profar, SD
- OF Steven Souza Jr., CHC
- C Mike Zunino, TB
SP Jake Arrieta, Philadelphia Phillies
Jake Arrieta signed a three-year, $75 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies following a five-year run with the Chicago Cubs that included NL Cy Young honors in 2015 and a World Series title in 2016.
After logging a brilliant 2.73 ERA and 147 ERA+ in 803 innings with the North Siders, he has failed to find that same success in Philly.
The 34-year-old tossed 172.2 innings with a 104 ERA+ in his first season with the team, and he regressed even further in 2019 with a 4.64 ERA and 97 ERA+ over 135.2 frames.
His contract carries a pair of club options for 2021 and 2022 valued at $20 million each, and it's unlikely the Phillies will exercise that first option year this winter.
That will put him on the open market ahead of his age-35 season. Even considering what great shape he's in and the limited mileage on his arm, he still has a lot to prove if he wants another multiyear deal.
CF Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox
Jackie Bradley Jr. was a 5.8-WAR player in 2016 when he posted a 118 OPS+ and played Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field. He started the All-Star Game that year and had a 29-game hitting streak.
In the subsequent three years, he had a 91 OPS+ and has averaged 2.5 WAR on the strength of his defense.
Viewed by many as a non-tender candidate for the cost-cutting Boston Red Sox this past offseason, he instead returned on an $11 million salary in his final year of arbitration eligibility.
The Red Sox were "actively trying to trade" him at the winter meetings, according to Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe, but couldn't find a taker.
The 30-year-old is off to a hot start at the plate, going 8-for-20 with two doubles in his first six games, and a strong offensive season would go a long way toward convincing teams he deserves to be an everyday center fielder.
After Springer, he'll be the best available option at the position this winter.
LF Yoenis Cespedes, New York Mets
Injuries limited Yoenis Cespedes to 119 games over the first three seasons of his four-year, $80.4 million contract with the New York Mets, including a 2019 season that was lost to a right ankle injury.
He has a career 126 OPS+, and the last time he played more than 100 games in a season, in 2016, he finished eighth in NL MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger Award.
But does the 34-year-old have anything left?
That's the question he will need to answer if he hopes to find a robust market. Otherwise, he risks suffering a similar fate to Hanley Ramirez, who simply ran out of MLB opportunities late in his career.
The addition of the universal DH should help keep him fresh, and he's gone 4-for-22 with two home runs and 12 strikeouts through his first six games.
SS Didi Gregorius, Philadelphia Phillies
Didi Gregorius was one of the most productive shortstops in baseball from 2016 to 2018, posting a 108 OPS+ while averaging 27 doubles, 24 home runs and 81 RBI for the New York Yankees.
Tommy John surgery sidelined him to begin last season, and he showed obvious rust upon returning in June, hitting .238/.276/.441 for an 87 OPS+ with 16 home runs and 61 RBI in 82 games.
It was an inopportune time for a down year as he reached free agency for the first time last winter, and he settled for a one-year, $14 million contract from the Philadelphia Phillies.
A prove-it deal if ever there was one.
The 30-year-old is 4-for-11 with two home runs in the early going this season, and he'll join Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons in the top tier of available shortstops if he can keep swinging it well.
IF Tommy La Stella, Los Angeles Angels
If you forgot Tommy La Stella was an All-Star in 2019, you're not alone.
He hit .300/.353/.495 with 16 home runs and 44 RBI in 312 plate appearances during the first half of the season in his initial year with the Los Angeles Angels. Unfortunately, he suffered a fractured tibia on July 2 and played just two more games the rest of the way.
Now he's out to prove that stellar first-half performance was no fluke.
The 31-year-old is penciled in as the team's starting second baseman once again this year, and he's gone 5-for-21 with two doubles and a .385 on-base percentage through six games.
His defensive versatility gives him mass appeal, but proving he can once again be a productive everyday player will be the key to his cashing in with a multiyear deal.
SP Jake Odorizzi, Minnesota Twins
Jake Odorizzi started the 2019 season with a bang, posting a 1.92 ERA and 0.97 WHIP with 78 strikeouts in 70.1 innings over his first 13 starts.
He earned a spot on the AL All-Star team, but he fell back to earth a bit during the second half with a 3.97 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in his final 13 starts.
Facing an uncertain free-agent market, he accepted the Minnesota Twins' qualifying offer and the one-year, $17.8 million deal that accompanied it.
"This was the toughest decision I've had in baseball, because there's what-ifs on both sides," Odorizzi told reporters after accepting the offer. "There's just so much that goes into it in a short amount of time. So I decided this was the best avenue, and be prepared for the upcoming season. There's a peace-of-mind factor in it."
Now he's pitching for a multiyear pact in a thin starting pitching market in which he'll jockey for position with Bauer, Stroman, Minor, Robbie Ray and others.
LF Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves
Over the past four full seasons, Marcell Ozuna has posted a 119 OPS+ while averaging 28 home runs and 94 RBI for the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals.
Despite his steady middle-of-the-order production, he was one of the late notable free agents left this past offseason after he turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.
He eventually signed with the Atlanta Braves, inking a one-year, $18 million contract on Jan. 21 to fill the offensive void left by Josh Donaldson.
Had he not been hindered by the draft-pick compensation that accompanies a qualifying offer, he may have had a broader market. That will not be a factor this offseason.
The 29-year-old is 8-for-22 with three doubles and two home runs this season. If he can keep it up, he'll be one of the most sought-after bats on the market, alongside Springer and Semien.
SP James Paxton, New York Yankees
James Paxton has been a confounding pitcher throughout his MLB career.
He has a 3.53 ERA, 116 ERA+ and 804 strikeouts in 734 career innings, and over the past three seasons he has punched out batters at an elite 11.1 K/9 clip.
However, he has topped 160 innings just once and has never made 30 starts in a season during his eight-year MLB career.
Despite those red flags, it's hard to ignore the numbers he has posted when healthy. The 31-year-old went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA, 116 ERA+ and 186 strikeouts in 150.2 innings in his first season with the New York Yankees last year, and he threw a gem in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros.
His 2020 started with a thud when he allowed five hits and three earned runs while recording just three outs, and his second start has been pushed back.
If he can return to form and stay healthy for the duration of the season, he'll be one of the top starting pitchers on the market. Otherwise, he could be looking at a one-year, prove-it deal.
SP Jose Quintana, Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs paid a steep price to acquire Jose Quintana from the crosstown Chicago White Sox before the 2017 trade deadline, shipping out top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease to acquire the left-hander for the stretch run.
He went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 98 strikeouts in 84.1 innings and 14 starts in helping the Cubs win an NL Central title.
Unfortunately, his lackluster performance the past two seasons has made that trade look more and more lopsided.
There will always be value in a pitcher who can eat innings at a league-average rate, and that's exactly what he's done the past two years, posting a 4.35 ERA and 99 ERA+ while averaging 32 starts and 173 innings.
If he wants to cash in with a multiyear deal, he'll need to show he's capable of more in 2020.
Starting the season on the injured list after cutting his thumb on a wine glass before the beginning of summer camp is not the ideal first step.
SP Robbie Ray, Arizona Diamondbacks
Robbie Ray has always had some of the best swing-and-miss stuff in baseball.
He racked up 235 strikeouts in 174.1 innings last year, good for the third-highest strikeout-per-nine-inning mark among qualified starters, behind only Gerrit Cole (13.8) and Max Scherzer (12.7).
His command has kept him from emerging as a true top-tier starter, and he walked batters at a 4.3 BB/9 clip last year. A mechanical change during the offseason provided optimism that he might be ready to break out, and his 2020 debut started on a high note.
The 28-year-old retired the first eight batters he faced, striking out five of them, before the wheels fell off in the fourth inning, when he surrendered two walks, a single, a double and a home run.
When the dust settled, it had taken him 97 pitches to record 11 outs.
He didn't fare much better in his second start on Thursday, allowing five hits, six walks and five earned runs in 4.2 innings. Still, there is enough potential that he'll continue to be monitored closely all season.
He's perhaps the biggest boom-or-bust candidate of the upcoming free-agent class, with the potential to take a Patrick Corbin-esque leap or a Drew Pomeranz-esque tumble.
SS Marcus Semien, Oakland Athletics
There is no question Semien is one of the top players in the upcoming free-agent class and a two-way standout at shortstop.
But is he 2019 good?
The 29-year-old hit .285/.369/.522 for a 139 OPS+ last year, tallying 43 doubles, 33 home runs, 92 RBI and 123 runs scored in an 8.9-WAR season to finish third in AL MVP voting.
In the four years prior, he posted a 97 OPS+ and averaged 2.9 WAR.
Those are solid numbers, but the difference in earning power between an 8.9-WAR player and a 2.9-WAR player is staggering.
He will be the top shortstop on the market and should have no problem securing a multiyear deal, but how close he comes to matching last year's output will be a major factor in determining his earning power given his limited track record of elite production.
RP Blake Treinen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Sinkerballer Blake Treinen had one of the best seasons by a reliever in recent memory for the Oakland Athletics in 2018.
He nailed down 38 of 43 saves chances and posted a 0.78 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 11.2 K/9 in 68 appearances to finish sixth in AL Cy Young voting and 15th in AL MVP balloting.
The 32-year-old failed to duplicate that success last season and was ultimately removed from the closer's role at the end of June in favor of Liam Hendriks. He finished the year with a 4.91 ERA in 57 appearances and saw a significant spike in his opponents' batting average (.158 to .257) and his walk rate (2.4 to 5.7 BB/9) en route to an ugly 1.62 WHIP.
Since he had a projected arbitration salary around $8 million, the cost-conscious Athletics non-tendered him at the start of the offseason, and the Los Angeles Dodgers rolled the dice with a one-year, $10 million deal.
He's opened the season with three scoreless appearances, and a rebound year could make him one of the most sought-after relievers on a free-agent market that will be headlined by Kirby Yates, Hendriks, Ken Giles, Brandon Workman, Keone Kela and Sean Doolittle.