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2020 MLB Free Agents: Rumors and Predictions for Underrated Targets

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistOctober 6, 2020

Atlanta Braves Marcell Ozuna reacts crossing the plate after hitting a three-run, home run during a baseball game against the New York Yankees, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

This offseason could end up being one of significant change for many teams with the number of high-profile free agents and potential trade candidates. 

The free-agent class did lose one significant player when Mookie Betts decided to commit to the Los Angeles Dodgers by signing a 12-year, $365 million extension in July. 

Even with Betts not hitting the open market, the top of this class is still boasts All-Star-level players at key positions, including catcher, shortstop and starting pitcher. The market is light on impact hitters, but there are two notable outfielders who can change a lineup. 

Looking ahead to this winter, here are the latest rumors and predictions for players flying under the radar for teams to sign. 

   

Marcell Ozuna, OF (2020 Team: Atlanta Braves)

Marcell Ozuna is a free agent for the second consecutive year, but he would seem to be in a much better position to land a multiyear deal this winter. 

After waiting out the market last season, Ozuna accepted a one-year, $18 million deal with the Atlanta Braves in January. He was coming off an inconsistent 2019 with the St. Louis Cardinals, posting a .241/.328/.472 slash line in 130 games. 

In the shortened 2020 season, Ozuna nearly won a Triple Crown in the National League. The 29-year-old led the NL with 18 homers, 56 RBI and 145 total bases. He finished third with a .338 batting average, .431 on-base percentage and .636 slugging percentage. 

If MLB decides to make the universal designated hitter a permanent staple, that could increase Ozuna's value on the open market. His minus-16.1 UZR per 150 games played ranked eighth worst among all outfielders in 2020, per FanGraphs (min. 150 innings). 

Even though there aren't any specific rumors about Ozuna at this point, one potential landing spot could be the Boston Red Sox. 

The Athletic's Peter Gammons reported last month that Boston would like to re-sign Jackie Bradley Jr., but his agent, Scott Boras, could ask for more money than the team wants to pay. 

Gammons posited that George Springer could be on the Red Sox's radar, but Ozuna might be a somewhat cheaper alternative because of his defensive limitations. 

After spending much of the past year cutting salary to get under the luxury-tax line, Red Sox chairman Tom Werner told NESN (via Chris Cotillo of MassLive) the team intends "to be back next year."

If the Red Sox open their wallets in free agency this offseason, adding Ozuna to a lineup that includes Alex Verdugo, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers would be formidable in the always-competitive American League East. 

     

Trevor Rosenthal, RP (2020 Team: San Diego Padres)

Trevor Rosenthal had a fantastic rebound season after posting a 13.50 ERA with 26 walks in 15.1 innings in 2019 between the Washington Nationals and Detroit Tigers. 

Splitting time between the Kansas City Royals and San Diego Padres this year, Rosenthal put up a 1.90 ERA, 0.845 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 23.2 innings. The 30-year-old is poised to cash in with a nice deal in free agency after taking a minor league deal last offseason. 

That does lead to the obvious question: Where will Rosenthal end up?

While there's no definitive answer at this point, one potential option could come from the National League West. 

San Francisco Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi told reporters acquiring relievers will be a priority for the organization this winter:

"There's no organizational philosophy for or against a closer. If it works out that way, evolves that way, it makes a lot of sense. But we don't go into this offseason saying that's got to be a priority on our shopping list, to go out and get a closer, because we think it could work if we have the right group of relievers and the right level of depth in the bullpen."

The Giants ranked 25th in MLB this season in FanGraphs WAR from their relievers (minus-0.6). Their 4.24 ERA was a more respectable 12th, but their 8.09 strikeouts per nine innings was 28th. 

Trevor Gott was San Francisco's primary closer in 2020. He was horrendous with a 10.03 ERA and seven homers allowed in 11.2 innings. 

Relief pitching tends to be volatile from year to year, as evidenced by Rosenthal's transformation from 2019 to 2020. 

If the Padres opt to let Rosenthal test the market, the Giants would make a logical fit because of his experience in the ninth inning and swing-and-miss stuff they sorely lacked late in games. 

    

James Paxton, LHP (2020 Team: New York Yankees)

Things couldn't have gone worse for James Paxton in 2020. He began the year undergoing spinal surgery in February that required three to four months before returning to full strength. 

Paxton was with the Yankees to start the season in July but only made five starts before landing on the injured list with a strained flexor tendon. The 31-year-old had a 6.64 ERA when his season officially came to an end on Sept. 16. 

This was hardly the note Paxton wanted to hit before heading into free agency, but that does bode well for teams that might be in the market for a high-reward starting pitcher. 

Speaking to MLB.com's Keegan Matheson, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said the team could look to pursue a high-impact starter this winter:

"I think we are in a position where we could add to this team with talent that is condensed in one player and a super high impact. We got to the point last year where we felt like the team was competitive enough to move towards winning, and that was a big part of that decision. We're going to continue to think about how we can build upon this group, and hopefully it's both complementary as well as making as making a really high impact."

The Blue Jays' rebuild produced strong results in 2020, as they made the playoffs for the first time in four years. Their future looks strong with Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, Rowdy Tellez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. leading the offense. 

There are questions about the starting rotation behind Hyun-Jin Ryu. He was Toronto's big free-agent investment last offseason, signing a four-year, $80 million deal. The southpaw was terrific with a 2.69 ERA in 12 starts. 

Unfortunately for Toronto, the rest of its staff looks like a question mark heading into next season. Nate Pearson missed more than one month because of a strained flexor tendon in his right elbow. Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson both had ERAs over 6.00. 

Robbie Ray continued to have issues throwing strikes after being acquired in a trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks. He walked 14 in 20.2 innings for the Blue Jays. Taijuan Walker was a revelation with a 1.37 ERA in six starts, but he's eligible for free agency. 

Assuming the Blue Jays opt to invest in another starter not coming off an injury-plagued 2020—someone like Trevor Bauer would make a lot of sense for them—they can take a chance on a high-reward player like Paxton to solidify the back of their rotation. 

The left-hander has a long injury history—he's never made 30 starts or thrown more than 160.1 innings in a season—but he's got tremendous potential when healthy. The eight-year veteran has averaged 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 136 career starts between the Yankees and Seattle Mariners. 

The Blue Jays know their window to compete for playoff spots in the AL is open now. They have to get creative in some ways if they want to challenge the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East. 

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