MLB Free Agent Stock Watch: Who Made and Lost the Most Money in 2020 Season?

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2020

MLB Free Agent Stock Watch: Who Made and Lost the Most Money in 2020 Season?

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The 2020 season has been strange for a lot of reasons, including the truncated schedule and the ongoing reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon, we'll add the expanded 16-team postseason to the mix.

    Like every year, though, it's been a chance for players to raise or lower their stock heading into free agency.

    Some will get significantly larger contracts due to their strong 2020 output than they would have had they hit the market after last season. Others torpedoed their earning power with declining stats, injuries or both.

    Let's take a look at some big-name guys who fit one of those two categories. But first, we'll examine a handful of high-profile impending free agents who've basically kept their value steady.

    One other note: We're excluding players with opt-outs, including Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos (who might exercise his) and Boston Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez (who almost certainly won't).

High-Profile Free Agents Who've Basically Kept Their Value Steady

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    RHP Alex Colome

    Right-hander Alex Colome was an excellent closer last season for the Chicago White Sox with a 2.80 ERA, 30 saves and 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He's repeated the feat in 2020 with a minuscule 0.89 ERA, though his K/9 has dipped to 6.6. He'll be part of a fairly deep late-inning reliever market, but he should get a nice payday from a bullpen-hungry contender, which is to say pretty much every contender.

         

    DH Nelson Cruz

    Nelson Cruz is once again defying Father Time with a superlative offensive season. The 40-year-old Minnesota Twins designated hitter owns a 1.026 OPS with 16 home runs in 50 games. He posted a 1.031 OPS last season before the Twins exercised the $12 million club option on the two-year, $26 million deal they gave him prior to the 2019 campaign. Even entering his age-41 go-round, the ageless Cruz might be able to net a similar payday.

         

    RHP Liam Hendriks

    Liam Hendriks was an All-Star in 2019 with a 1.80 ERA and 13.1 K/9. This year, the Oakland Athletics closer has a 1.23 ERA and an identical 13.1 K/9. The 31-year-old will surely price himself out of the small-market Athletics' range this offseason and should net a significant multi-year pact from a deep-pocketed club that's willing to pay top dollar for top-shelf relievers.

          

    INF DJ LeMahieu

    DJ LeMahieu hit .327 with an .893 OPS for the New York Yankees last season. This year, he's improved those stats to .361 and 1.033. He's also missed some time to injury and will turn 33 in July. But given his defensive versatility—he's logged innings at second base, third base and first base in 2020—and continued high-level offensive output, he's done nothing to diminish his free-agent stock.

          

    OF George Springer

    George Springer posted a .974 OPS and finished seventh in American League MVP voting in 2019. His numbers have dipped a bit this year, but he still owns an .875 OPS and has swatted 13 home runs in 46 games. Plus, after Mookie Betts signed a massive extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers in July, Springer became the top option in a weak outfield market. The 31-year-old may carry the stain of the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal, but expect the 'Stros to have competition from multiple clubs for his services.

          

    RHP Marcus Stroman

    Marcus Stroman will be the highest-profile test case of how teams deal with players who skipped the 2020 season. He suffered a torn calf muscle prior to Opening Day and subsequently opted out, citing COVID-19 concerns. The calf shouldn't be an issue by the 2021 campaign, but after a year away from the big leagues, will Stroman's value be diminished? We say no (or not by much, anyway) considering he's on the right side of 30 and was an All-Star in 2019.

          

    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

    Masahiro Tanaka was an All-Star last season with the New York Yankees. This season, the right-hander owns a 3.27 ERA in 44 innings, lower than any full-season ERA he's posted since 2016. Tanaka will turn 32 in November, and there will always be some questions about the partially torn ulnar collateral ligament that was diagnosed in 2014 when Tanaka opted for rest over Tommy John surgery. But given his track record and continued strong results, the Yankees—or possibly someone else—should open their wallet wide.

           

    3B Justin Turner

    Justin Turner hit .290 with an .881 OPS last season. So far in 2020, he's hitting .296 with an .811 OPS. He missed time with a hamstring injury but has gone 7-for-18 since his return on Sept. 15. The Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman is entering his age-36 season, so he may have to settle for a shorter deal. But the annual dollars should be high for a veteran with consistently solid production and ample postseason experience.

Loser: LHP Mike Minor

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Mike Minor posted a 3.59 ERA with 200 strikeouts in 208.1 innings last season for the Texas Rangers and finished eighth in AL Cy Young Award voting.

    This year, between the Rangers and A's, his ERA has ballooned to 5.92. He turns 33 in December.

    The left-hander still has value and will surely find a contract. He can miss bats, as evidenced by his 9.6 K/9, up from a career average of 8.2.

    But while Minor could have possibly commanded top-of-the-rotation dollars after his superb 2019, he's more likely to get paid like a back-end starter this offseason.

Gainer: DH/OF Marcell Ozuna

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Marcell Ozuna rejected the St. Louis Cardinals' $17.8 million qualifying offer last offseason and wound up signing an almost identical one-year, $18 million show-me contract with the Atlanta Braves.

    Show us he has.

    So far in 2020, Ozuna owns career highs in batting average (.317) and OPS (1.005) with 15 home runs and 48 RBI in 53 games.

    His outfield defense remains an issue, which is why he's seen the bulk of his action at designated hitter. If the universal DH goes away in 2021, it could limit the list of prospective suitors, though some National League clubs would surely take the big bat with the questionable glove.

    Here's what's certain: Ozuna's muscle-flexing career year will lead to far more than a one-season deal from someone.

Loser: RHP Jake Odorizzi

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Unlike Ozuna, Jake Odorizzi accepted a qualifying offer from the Minnesota Twins in 2019. He had a solid season with a 3.36 FIP and 10.1 K/9 in 159 innings and could have secured a multi-year deal.

    Instead, Odorizzi bet on himself to increase his value. That bet is not paying off.

    A series of injuries, including a back strain, a chest contusion and a finger blister, have limited the 30-year-old right-hander to 13.2 innings, during which he's posted a 6.59 ERA.

    It's highly unlikely the Twins will extend him the qualifying offer again, and Odorizzi will have to settle for a less-lucrative short-term contract.

Gainer: SS Didi Gregorius

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    After hitting .238 in 82 games with the New York Yankees in 2019 and undergoing Tommy John surgery, shortstop Didi Gregorius signed a one-year, $14 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.

    The 30-year-old has come back strong with nine home runs, eight doubles, 35 RBI and an .845 OPS in 53 games. His 11.5 strikeout percentage is a career low while his .348 on-base percentage is a career high.

    His defense at shortstop remains marginal, but Gregorius has answered any questions about his health and ability to be a stout offensive contributor.

    A multi-year deal with an average annual value higher than his 2020 salary surely awaits.

Loser: OF Joc Pederson

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Joc Pederson belted a career-best 36 home runs for the Dodgers last year and posted an .876 OPS in 149 games. In 2020, he's taken a massive tumble.

    Through 38 contests, Pederson owns an anemic .174/.268/.376 slash line, though he does have six homers and four doubles.

    He's always struggled against left-handers with a .187 career average. This year, he's been given a scant seven at-bats against southpaws and has collected one hit. But he's also gone just 18-for-102 against right-handers.

    In short, he's scuffling against all competition, and it's going to cost him dearly as he hits free agency ahead of his age-29 season.

Gainer: RHP Blake Treinen

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Blake Treinen was among the most dominant late-inning relievers in baseball in 2018, posting a 0.78 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 80.1 innings for Oakland.

    In 2019, injuries and underperformance caused his ERA to balloon to 4.91, and the Athletics non-tendered him after the season.

    Sensing a reclamation project, the Dodgers swooped in and inked Treinen to a one-year, $10 million deal.

    The 32-year-old right-hander has rewarded them—and himself—with a 2.78 FIP in 22.2 innings. His K/9 is down to 7.1 from a career mark of 8.7 and a high-water mark of 11.2 in '18. And he coughed up three earned runs Sunday against the Rockies in Colorado. 

    Mostly, though, Treinen has been very good for Los Angeles and should be among several top-shelf relievers to earn a nice multi-year pact this offseason.

Loser: SS Marcus Semien

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Marcus Semien mistimed his breakout by one season. In 2019, the Athletics shortstop posted career bests in batting average (.285), OPS (.892), home runs (33) and RBI (92) while putting up 12 defensive runs saved.

    He finished third in AL MVP voting and appeared ticketed for both stardom and, after 2020, a major free-agent payday.

    Instead, Semien has taken several steps back. Through 47 games, he's slashing .229/.310/.394, and his DRS has dropped to minus-five.

    Plenty of teams will at least kick the tires on the 30-year-old, hoping for a return to his '19 form. But next offseason's free-agent shortstop class could be ludicrously loaded with Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story and Javier Baez all potentially on the market.

    That may cause many clubs to save their cash, and it could further diminish Semien's value following a down year.

Gainer: C J.T. Realmuto

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Like Semien, J.T. Realmuto had an eye-opening stat line in 2019. The Philadelphia Phillies catcher posted an .820 OPS and 25 home runs while rating as the sixth-best pitch-framer in baseball, according to Statcast data.

    Unlike Semien, Realmuto has built on that success in 2020. In 41 games, he's slashing .267/.357/.527 with 11 home runs and now checks in as the game's No. 2 pitch-framer.

    Realmuto is close friends with Phillies star Bryce Harper, who has been vocal about his desire for the team to re-sign the All-Star backstop. But the Phils will have to participate in a bidding war with myriad other teams.

    A hip injury has kept him out since Sept. 12 but shouldn't diminish his free-agent stock. Top-notch defensive catchers with middle-of-the-order bats entering their age-30 seasons don't become available every year.

Loser: LHP James Paxton

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    James Paxton posted a 3.82 ERA with 11.1 K/9 in 150.2 innings for the New York Yankees in 2019. He began his 2020 by undergoing back surgery, and things haven't gone well since.

    In five starts with the Yanks this year, he posted a 6.64 ERA and was placed on the 45-day injured list with a strained tendon in his throwing arm.

    Paxton has bat-missing stuff and did strike out 26 over 20.1 innings in his otherwise forgettable and abbreviated campaign.

    But given his injury history and the fact that he's entering his age-32 season, the best he'll likely get is a short-term deal potentially laden with performance incentives, even in a weak pitching market.

Gainer: RHP Trevor Bauer

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    After posting a 4.48 ERA with 10.7 K/9 in 2019 between Cleveland and the Cincinnati Reds, Trevor Bauer owns a 1.80 ERA and MLB-leading 269 ERA-plus with 88 punch-outs in 65 innings for the Reds this season.

    As he enters his age-30 campaign, he'll be the most sought-after starting pitcher on the market and could land a prolonged, lucrative contract.

    Here's the wrinkle, though: In August, Bauer reiterated his plan to sign one-year deals for the remainder of his career and stated a desire to only pitch for contending teams. 

    If he's serious, it will limit the number of clubs in the mix for his services. But it could be enticing to wealthy contenders who would love to pay top dollar for a year of Bauer without the increased risk of injuries and decline that are built into every long-term pact.

    Needless to say, the always-enigmatic right-hander will be a fascinating free agent to follow this winter.

Loser: RHP Kirby Yates

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    It's possible no player lost more earning power this season than San Diego Padres right-hander Kirby Yates.

    Last year, Yates established himself as one of the top closers in baseball with a 1.19 ERA, an MLB-leading 41 saves and 101 strikeouts in 60.2 innings. He even finished ninth in NL Cy Young Award voting.

    This year, he surrendered seven hits, four walks and six runs in 4.1 innings before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery.

    Someone will take a flier on Yates being healthy and effective again in 2021, but it'll likely be on a short-term contract.

    It's safe to say we can add his name to the long list of people who won't have any safe-for-work thoughts about 2020.

       

    All statistics current as of Monday and courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs; all contract information courtesy of Spotrac.