1 Big Warning to Each MLB Team Before Free Agency, Trade Season
When the 2020-21 Major League Baseball offseason begins after the World Series, teams will have plenty to be excited about.
And yet, there should also be some nerves.
Because we prefer to be helpful, we've come to warn each of MLB's 30 teams about something they should be wary of this winter. Maybe it involves players who might not have the trade value their teams think. Maybe it involves corners that simply can't be cut. Maybe it involves hard truths they'd just rather not hear. And so on.
We shall proceed in alphabetical order by city.
Arizona Diamondbacks: The Offense Won't Fix Itself
Though there were many reasons that the Arizona Diamondbacks sunk to last place in the National League West in 2020, their offense was arguably the biggest culprit.
There's hope where 27-year-old star Ketel Marte is concerned. The 249-point dip in his OPS from 2019 to 2020 is simply too bad to be true, and may therefore be reversed in 2021.
The D-backs should otherwise take nothing for granted with Eduardo Escobar, David Peralta, Kole Calhoun and Nick Ahmed, each of whom is on the wrong side of 30. If they want to contend next year, they must force the issue by adding an impact bat or two.
Atlanta: Tread Carefully with Marcell Ozuna
In lieu of re-signing Josh Donaldson, Atlanta sought to replicate its successful experiment on him in a one-year, $18 million deal with Marcell Ozuna.
It worked, as Ozuna bounced back from two mediocre seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals to post a 1.067 OPS and 18 home runs in 2020.
But for Atlanta, this is also kinda-sorta the bad news. Ozuna will likely be in the market for a nine-figure deal this winter. That would be a first for Atlanta, which has never spent that much on a free agent.
If Atlanta re-signs Ozuna at his price, it will be risking him reverting to his mediocre St. Louis-era self. But if it lets him go, the risk will be that of missing out on more of what he gave the team in 2020.
Baltimore Orioles: Chris Davis Isn't Worth a Roster Spot
The Baltimore Orioles have mostly stripped away the mainstays from their run of contention between 2012 and 2016. Save, of course, for Chris Davis.
Judging from what general manager Mike Elias told reporters in September, the slugging first baseman is still part of the club's plans: "He is under contract and there is a lot that goes into that, and we do not have plans to alter that fact."
Davis, 34, is indeed under contract through 2022 for a total of $46 million. The O's will have to pay that money unless Davis voluntarily retires, which simply isn't going to happen.
Nevertheless, this is a guy with an MLB-low minus-6.4 rWAR since 2017. Rather than stick with him, the O's would be foolish not to release Davis and pass his roster spot to a younger player.
Boston Red Sox: Don't Count on Trading J.D. Martinez
How the Boston Red Sox will proceed after finishing in last place in the American League East is anyone's guess, but their preferred way forward might involve a trade of J.D. Martinez.
The veteran slugger immediately justified his five-year, $110 million contract with a brilliant season in 2018, in which he slammed 43 home runs in a World Series-winning campaign.
Now that the Red Sox are mired in a retooling phase, they don't really need Martinez anymore. If they can find a taker for the $38.7 million he's owed through 2022, they'd probably be all too happy to move him.
But in posting just a .680 OPS and seven home runs, the 33-year-old effectively killed his trade value in 2020. Boston's best move will probably be to hold on to him and hope that said value recovers in 2021.
Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant Might Not Have That Much Trade Value
Contrary to their lifeless slog through the 2019-20 offseason, this winter is bound to be a season of change for the Chicago Cubs.
The twist is that they're more so a candidate to subtract than to add. They might be willing to put anyone on the trading block, up to and including Kris Bryant.
After nabbing an $18.6 million salary for 2020, Bryant is due another raise via arbitration for his final season under club control in 2021. The Cubs could therefore save substantial money by trading him. Ideally, the 2016 NL MVP would also fetch a haul of young talent.
But this is assuming that other teams still see Bryant as a star. In light of the ugly .644 OPS that he posted in only 34 games in 2020, that might not be the case.
Chicago White Sox: Don't Get Too Comfortable
With their first postseason berth since 2008 in their wake, the Chicago White Sox are now headed for what looks like a relatively low-stress winter.
To wit, they have only four players ticketed for free agency. The Minnesota Twins, who've won back-to-back AL Central titles, have it worse than that. The division otherwise includes two rebuilders and a one-dimensional contender that might trade (stay tuned) its best player this winter.
Standing pat would nonetheless be the wrong idea for the White Sox.
They should instead look to dig in their heels, both for the sake of maintaining their status in the AL Central and for that of preparing themselves for contenders from outside the division in 2021. An upgrade in right field would be a good idea, and more pitching depth is never a bad idea.
Cincinnati Reds: Don't Let Trevor Bauer's Shoes Go Unfilled
As opposed to the Diamondbacks, the Cincinnati Reds offense might actually fix itself in 2021.
Said offense was downright bad in 2020 to the tune of an 87 OPS+. Yet this had much to do with down years by Eugenio Suarez and Nick Castellanos, both of whom will enter 2021 as rebound candidates.
In the likely event that the Reds lose Bauer, they must not shrug their shoulders and tab an incumbent to fill his shoes. Their best play would be to attempt a low-risk, high-reward move not unlike the club's trade for Sonny Gray in 2019.
Cleveland: With or Without Francisco Lindor, the Offense Won't Fix Itself
In theory, Cleveland might be in the same boat with Francisco Lindor this winter as the Cubs with Kris Bryant.
Maybe not, however. Though Lindor endured a difficult season in 2020, he continued to play strong defense at shortstop while maintaining above-average (see his 102 OPS+) offense. The 26-year-old should still have plenty of value for 2021, which will also be his final season before free agency.
But regardless of what Cleveland does with Lindor, it simply can't go into 2021 without offensive upgrades.
By way of its 86 OPS+, Cleveland's offense was one of the very worst in baseball this year. Though the club managed to sneak into the expanded playoff field anyway, it may not be so lucky again in 2021 after MLB (hopefully) shifts from a 60-game sprint back to a 162-game marathon.
Colorado Rockies: Don't Count on Trading Nolan Arenado
Following their second straight fourth-place finish in the NL West, it's clear that the Colorado Rockies need to make some changes.
The one they might prefer is a trade of star third baseman Nolan Arenado. He hasn't bothered to hide his unhappiness with the current state of the franchise. For their part, the Rockies would probably like to be out from under the $199 million remaining on his deal through 2026.
But good luck with that.
By virtue of its size, its no-trade clause and its looming opt-out after 2021, Arenado's contract seemed immovable even before 2020. After a season marked by a shoulder injury and just an 84 OPS+, it's probably even more so now.
Detroit Tigers: Don't Neglect Chances to Add Prospects
The Detroit Tigers' rebuild could be going worse.
We had their farm system ranked as the sixth-best in MLB as of the passing of the trade deadline, and its top talents should soon make an impact in the majors. Namely, pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning and third baseman Spencer Torkelson are candidates to make noise in 2021.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean the Tigers are nearing the end of their rebuild.
They simply have too much ground to make up after posting the worst winning percentage of any team across the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Rather than expect to make it all up at once, they should continue to be patient and listen if anyone comes calling about, say, Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd this winter.
Houston Astros: Don't Let George Springer's Shoes Go Unfilled
After nearly pulling off a rare 3-0 comeback in the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros are now headed for a winter in which star outfielders Michael Brantley and George Springer are free agents.
The Astros can probably re-sign Brantley at a reasonable rate, but Springer won't come even remotely cheap. Since 2015, Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich are the only outfielders with more rWAR than him.
If Houston can't re-sign Springer, it must consider all options that don't involve simply trusting his vacated role to a lesser incumbent.
Ozuna, for example, has offensive upside that more or less matches Springer's established floor. The Astros could also take a flier on a pillow deal for a fallen star, such as Joc Pederson.
Kansas City Royals: Keep an Open Mind About Trade Offers
There's something admirable about the way the Kansas City Royals have gone about their rebuild.
By all rights, they should have blown everything up and traded Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain while they were still in town. The Royals nonetheless held on to them and have since been reluctant to trade other stars, yet have gradually built a top-10 farm system anyway.
Even still, Kansas City's contention timeline would be better in better shape if it the team had a top-five or even a top-three system. And for now, trades are the only way it can get there.
So if teams come calling after Whit Merrifield, Jorge Soler and Salvador Perez, the least the Royals can do is listen.
Los Angeles Angels: Don't Skimp on Starting Pitching
The Los Angeles Angels went into 2020 ready to mash with Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon at the heart of their lineup, but there ended up being a major problem.
Their starting pitching was, in a word, appalling. That was a case of more of the same, as Angels starters now bear a 5.61 ERA since the start of the 2019 season. Only Tigers starters have done worse.
The Angels' solution to this problem might be to seek more additions like Dylan Bundy. As in, low-risk, high-reward reclamation projects who find what they're missing and break out accordingly.
An even better idea, though, would be to spare no expense and go all out for proven aces like Bauer and Marcus Stroman. After all, time's a-wasting to make the most of Trout's and Rendon's prime years.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Don't Skimp on Relief Pitching
If things go well for the Los Angeles Dodgers, they'll finally go into the offseason without having to wonder what they must do in order to win the World Series.
In either case, one thing the Dodgers must not do this winter is play it safe with their bullpen.
Said bullpen's 2.74 ERA was the best in the National League during the regular season. Yet it also melted down more often than a pen with its ERA should have, and it hasn't exactly been airtight during the playoffs.
The Dodgers will need to either re-sign or replace pending free agents Blake Treinen, Pedro Baez and Jake McGee. They might also consider seeking an heir apparent for Kenley Jansen, who's simply no longer an elite closer.
Miami Marlins: The Offense Won't Fix Itself
Above all, there were two things that contributed to the Miami Marlins' surprise playoff run in 2020.
One was their resilience both during and after their early-season coronavirus outbreak. The other was their pitching, specifically that of talented young hurlers like Sandy Alcantara, Sixto Sanchez and Pablo Lopez.
Yet the Marlins won games in spite of their below-average offense, at least until it was finally outclassed by Atlanta in the National League Division Series. As such, bats should be Miami's focus this winter.
At the least, the Marlins should pick up center fielder Starling Marte's $12.5 million option for 2021. Otherwise, right field and second base are prime spots for upgrades.
Milwaukee Brewers: Don't Play Hard to Get with Josh Hader
The Milwaukee Brewers are still another team that struggled offensively in 2020. But come 2021, Lorenzo Cain's return and better years from Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura should fix that.
Rather, the big question concerning Milwaukee's winter is whether the team will trade star closer Josh Hader.
He was on the block ahead of the August 31 trade deadline, but the Brewers' asking price was said to be "bananas." That made sense, given that Hader was arguably baseball's top relief pitcher at that point.
But in ending the season with a 7.45 ERA in 12 appearances, Hader failed to overcome his issues with his control and velocity. His trade value will only diminish if those issues persist into 2021, so Milwaukee shouldn't draw such a hard line in trade talks this winter.
Minnesota Twins: Don't Skimp on Starting Pitching
The Minnesota Twins also fell short offensively in 2020, wherein the "Bomba Squad" was barely above average in terms of OPS+.
It's unlikely, however, that the Twins will fail to re-sign ageless slugger Nelson Cruz. Otherwise, they can look forward to better things from Donaldson and Jorge Polanco in 2021.
Minnesota stands to have bigger needs in its starting rotation. Jake Odorizzi, Rich Hill and Homer Bailey will be free agents, and the Twins would be wise to re-sign or replace at least two of them.
Though the Twins did fine with a relatively low-risk approach to their rotation last winter, now would be a good time to push the envelope by signing a Bauer or a Stroman. After all, the White Sox aren't going to stop pushing them for AL Central superiority.
New York Mets: Don't Skimp on Starting Pitching
As always, the New York Mets could rely on Jacob deGrom in 2020. The two-time Cy Young Award winner posted a 2.38 ERA and struck out a whopping 13.8 batters per nine innings.
New York's rotation was otherwise a mess, finishing the year with a 5.37 ERA. And things don't look so great now with Stroman, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha ticketed for free agency and Noah Syndergaard still recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Such things should be the Mets' cue to go all-out on pitching this winter. Bauer and Stroman should be on their wish list, as should just about every other top-tier starter on the open market.
Assuming the sale to him goes through, new owner Steve Cohen will ideally be all too happy to put his billions toward signing whatever arms the Mets need.
New York Yankees: Don't Skimp on Starting Pitching
Apologies for how this exercise has suddenly turned into a broken-record thing, but the other New York club isn't much better off with its own starting pitching.
The Yankees should be happy so far with their $324 million investment in Gerrit Cole, but Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ were otherwise the only consistently productive members of their rotation in 2020.
Along with injured left-hander James Paxton (forearm), Tanaka and Happ are now slated to test the open market. New York will thus need to add at least two and arguably three starting pitchers this winter.
Even given how much money they already have committed to Cole, nobody should be out of the Yankees' price range. Because elsewhere in the AL East, the Toronto Blue Jays are rising and the Tampa Bay Rays aren't going anywhere.
Oakland Athletics: Pick Your Battles in Free Agency
The Oakland Athletics and high payrolls simply don't go together, as their Opening Day payroll has ranked no higher than 25th in any of the last 10 seasons.
Knowing this, it figures to be an interesting winter in Oakland.
They must earmark money for arbitration, for which Matt Chapman and Matt Olson will notably be eligible for the first time. The A's also have some key free agents, including shortstop Marcus Semien, second baseman Tommy La Stella, closer Liam Hendriks and starter Mike Fiers.
The A's probably can't afford to re-sign all their free agents, so they will have to prioritize. Frankly, any wish list that doesn't have Semien, who was an MVP finalist in 2019, at the top must be amended.
Philadelphia Phillies: Don't Skimp on Relief Pitching
The Philadelphia Phillies' top priority for the winter will be re-signing J.T. Realmuto, who's established himself as the best all-around catcher in the majors over the last four seasons.
Even if the Phillies do bring back Realmuto, however, it won't matter if they don't also completely overhaul their bullpen.
To say said pen was bad in 2020 would be a criminal understatement. Its 7.06 ERA was the worst in MLB, as was its minus-7.4 win probability added. In plain English, Philly's bullpen was the reason the team missed out on the playoffs yet again.
Luckily for the Phillies, the winter relief market is set to include luminaries like Hendriks, Alex Colome, Shane Greene and Kirby Yates. All of them should be on the organization's radar.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Don't Blow It All Up at Once
No franchise in MLB is in a worse spot than the Pittsburgh Pirates.
After losing 93 games in 2019, they dropped 41 out of 60 games in 2020. And as of the August 31 trade deadline, we had their farm system ranked in the bottom half of the league.
The Pirates are surely going to be active on the trade market this winter, with pitchers such as Joe Musgrove, Richard Rodriguez, Chad Kuhl and Chris Stratton being among their most valuable assets.
Yet they shouldn't put everyone on the table this winter. First baseman Josh Bell and outfielder Bryan Reynolds, for example, will have more trade value in the future if both can rebound from down years in 2020.
San Diego Padres: Don't Low-Ball Fernando Tatis Jr.
In 2020, the San Diego Padres were very much a reflection of Fernando Tatis Jr.
After a brilliant rookie year in 2019, the 21-year-old shortstop became arguably MLB's best two-way player in 2020. He ranked in the 98th percentile for xwOBA—a hitting metric based on contact quality—and in the 99th percentile for outs above average.
The Padres, meanwhile, became a fan-favorite contender and ultimately claimed their first playoff berth since 2006. Understandably, general manager A.J. Preller has said that the organization will "look more seriously" at signing Tatis to a long-term extension this winter.
The Padres better be serious, because Tatis is already just one year from arbitration and four years from free agency. San Diego might have to offer him a nine-figure deal just to get his attention.
San Francisco Giants: Wait Until Next Winter to Spend Big
Not unlike the Royals, the San Francisco Giants are rebuilding on the fly in lieu of pursuing a tear-it-down, build-it-back-up road to contention.
It's going well. The Giants have been competitive in each of the last two seasons while also building a respectable farm system. At some point, their next big step will involve spending heavily in free agency.
That could be this winter, wherein the Giants could target both arms and bats. But in their case, patience would be a virtue.
Next season will give them a better idea of what they have in catcher Joey Bart and other young players. And once the season is over, the amount of money they have coming off their books will be their ticket to the top talents in what looks like a loaded free-agent class.
Seattle Mariners: Don't Overestimate Your Readiness
From one angle, the Seattle Mariners aren't far off from making the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
The Mariners were surprisingly competitive in 2020, and along the way they established a strong core headlined by AL Rookie of the Year contender Kyle Lewis.
From here, the M's might be sleepers to make some noise in free agency. They don't have much money tied up long term, after all, and the free-agent situations in Oakland and Houston could open a power vacuum in the AL West.
But Seattle should be patient. The team had to overachieve just to get to 27 wins this season. Like the Giants, the Mariners should use 2021 to get a better idea of what they have in-house, and then go on a splurge next winter if it's looking good.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Offense Isn't Going to Fix Itself
After they scored just six runs in a sweep in the National League Championship Series, the St. Louis Cardinals went into last winter with a clear need of bats.
Instead, they let Ozuna go and neglected to add any offensive upgrades. This had a predictable effect in 2020, wherein the Cards had a 90 OPS+ and scored only 4.1 runs per game.
This is as telling a sign as any that the Cardinals must be more proactive in fixing their offense this winter. Specifically, they could use sturdy producers in their outfield and at third base.
Because they have a bunch of payroll space freeing up after 2021, the Cardinals might prefer to wait until next winter to spend. But that would amount to punting the '21 season, which obviously isn't advised.
Tampa Bay Rays: Don't Get Too Comfortable
Regardless of whether they ultimately overcome the Dodgers in the World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays will go into the winter as the class of the American League.
What's more, the Rays won't have many pressing needs this offseason. Left-handed reliever Aaron Loup is their only pending free agent, while ace Charlie Morton ($15 million) and catcher Mike Zunino ($4.5 million) have contract options for reasonable amounts.
But while the Rays could stand pat this winter, they'd be better off pressing their advantage by upgrading wherever they can.
Because no matter what happens, the Yankees and Blue Jays will be coming after them this winter. If the Rays give them an opening, the Red Sox might also try to reassert themselves in the AL East.
Texas Rangers: Don't Sell Low on Joey Gallo
For the Texas Rangers, this winter may be more about subtracting than adding.
Their dismal 22-38 showing in 2020 ran their streak of losing seasons to four. They also have one of the worst farm systems in MLB. In tandem, such things tend to signal that it's time to rebuild.
The Rangers will almost certainly shop ace right-hander Lance Lynn, who has a 3.57 ERA over the last two seasons, this winter. They could also look to move slugger Joey Gallo, who's notably under team control through 2022.
Gallo, however, has value to rebuild after hitting just .181 with a .679 OPS in 2020. The Rangers should let him do so in 2021, and then swap him for a haul of prospects.
Toronto Blue Jays: The Defense Won't Fix Itself
The Toronto Blue Jays exited their rebuild in 2020, winning 32 games and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
There's little question that even better things await the Jays in 2021 and beyond. Their lineup consists almost entirely of up-and-coming 20-somethings, and hard-throwing righty Nate Pearson could become a co-ace for Hyun-Jin Ryu as soon as next season.
Toronto did, however, have a fatal flaw in 2020: Per its minus-39 defensive runs saved, its defense was the worst in the American League.
The Blue Jays thus need to prioritize defense this winter, whether it means adding specialists to their bench or subtracting from their starting lineup for the sake of installing new regulars.
Washington Nationals: Don't Make the Same Mistake at Third Base
This time last year, the Washington Nationals were on their way to defeating the Astros for their first World Series championship.
Much has changed for the Nats since then, and mostly not in good ways. All sorts of questions materialized during the club's 26-34 flop in 2020, including this one: What are they going to do about third base?
The position didn't respond well to losing Rendon last winter, ultimately producing just a .575 OPS and 0.1 rWAR in 2020. That was mostly Carter Kieboom's doing, as the former top prospect started 30 games and managed only a .556 OPS.
Rather than trust in Kieboom's ability to break out in 2021, the Nats would be better off looking into Bryant and other possible upgrades on the winter market.