The Most Important Question Every MLB Team Must Answer in 2020 Offseason

Martin FennCorrespondent IIOctober 24, 2020

The Most Important Question Every MLB Team Must Answer in 2020 Offseason

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    All 30 MLB teams will be faced with important decisions this offseason.

    Some squads are still in early rebuilding stages, while others will look to make moves to vault into contention. 

    There will be plenty of talk about certain teams making significant change to the roster and breaking up their respective cores. But some of those clubs could just as easily attempt to reposition for a playoff push.

    Of course, the specter of COVID-19 figures to hang over the free-agent market. Stars will get paid, but what about mid-tier guys? Will most free agents have to settle for one- or two-year deals? How will the upcoming season impact the looming CBA battle?

    Just about everyone in the game has something at stake this offseason. First and foremost, however, front offices will be looking to address on-field issues and set themselves up for success, whether now or in the near future.

    Here are the most important questions all 30 MLB organizations must answer heading into the 2020 offseason, based on each team's outlook.

Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    Cut fat or spend again?

    The Diamondbacks faced a choice last offseason: play conservatively, or buy to improve 2019's 85-win team.

    Arizona chose to spend, giving veteran left-hander Madison Bumgarner a big contract and also trading for Starling Marte. The decision backfired, as Bumgarner labored through an injury-riddled season, while Marte was dealt at the deadline. 

    This season presents a similar dilemma for the D-Backs. There is still talent on the roster, and they have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball. But Arizona also has some interesting trade chips. 

    Third baseman Eduardo Escobar is heading into a contract year. Escobar had a woeful .605 OPS this season, but he also had an OPS above .800 the past two years, including in 2019, when he hit 35 homers with 118 RBI.

    Meanwhile, veteran outfielder Kole Calhoun is under contract for 2021 and has a $9 million club option for 2022. He is coming off a year where he hit 16 homers with a career-high .864 OPS and has now strung together two quality years at the plate.

    Arizona might hope the likes of Ketel Marte and Carson Kelly will bounce back in addition to a rejuvenated Bumgarner. In that case, they are likely to pursue more upgrades in free agency.

    But the Diamondbacks might also explore trade options to reposition and add to their crop of young talent.

Atlanta Braves

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Can they add an impact starter?

    The Braves have just about everything a contender needs. Heck, they nearly made it to the World Series on the strength of a deep lineup and promising pitching staff.

    But Atlanta came up short, and it's clear it needs to add another rotation fixture this offseason.

    Mike Soroka will be back after tearing his Achilles early in the year. Left-hander Max Fried was a Cy Young candidate, and 22-year-old Ian Anderson has the makeup to be a tremendous starting pitcher.

    However, the rest of the rotation is a question mark. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson each showed some promise, but both have produced inconsistent results during their brief big league stints.

    The Braves could use another starter to bolster the roster. Trevor Bauer is the ideal target for Atlanta, especially if he wants to sign a one-year deal at a high annual value. Perhaps a reunion with Kevin Gausman is in the cards after Gausman had an impressive 2020 with the San Francisco Giants.

    Atlanta will also prioritize re-signing Marcell Ozuna and adding bullpen depth. But grabbing an impact starter could put the Braves over the top in the National League.

Baltimore Orioles

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Just how good is Ryan Mountcastle?

    The Orioles are still a rebuilding club, and much of their future is predicated on the guys they have coming through the pipeline. 

    One of those guys, first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, dazzled in his MLB debut in 2020.

    Mountcastle slashed .333/.386/.492 with five homers, 23 RBI and a 140 OPS + in 35 games this year. The 23-year-old got legitimate experience in a year when MLB canceled the minor league season and many young player were essentially in flux.

    Now, it would seem Mountcastle is destined for a full season with the big league club. He has hit everywhere along the way, so there is no point in sending him back to the minors.

    Baltimore is still awaiting the arrival of guys like Adley Rutschman, Yusniel Diaz, DL Hall and Michael Baumann. For now, however, the Orioles will continue to see what they have in guys like Dean Kremer and especially Mountcastle, who looks more and more like a potential cornerstone.

Boston Red Sox

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Is Chaim Bloom willing to spend?

    The Red Sox traded away a generational superstar in Mookie Betts to get closer to the competitive balance tax (CBT) threshold.

    Now that Boston's financials are somewhat in order, will chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom show more willingness to spend this offseason?

    Red Sox fans suffered through a last-place finish in the American League East, but the truth is this team might not be all that far away from contention. 

    Nathan Eovaldi had a strong 2020, and rookie Tanner Houck was dominant in his early showings. Not to mention, Chris Sale will be back to anchor the rotation. 

    Plus, the Red Sox got underwhelming seasons from a number of core players, including J.D. Martinez (.680 OPS) and especially Andrew Benintendi (.442 OPS).

    The Red Sox absolutely need to add to the pitching staff, especially the bullpen. It also remains to be seen whether Boston will try to bring back Jackie Bradley Jr.

    Regardless, the Red Sox still have the makings of a potential playoff team. But Bloom and the front office will need to spend some cash and be more aggressive for Boston to return to October baseball.

Chicago Cubs

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    Will Theo Epstein blow it up?

    The Cubs' bats went silent over the last month-plus of the season, especially in the Wild Card Round.

    This is the third straight year the offense has floundered down the stretch, prompting president of baseball operations Theo Epstein to suggest "significant changes" might be necessary in the offseason, per Jordan Bastian of MLB.com.

    However, Epstein has hinted at big changes before, and the Cubs have subsequently been quiet in the last couple offseasons. Of course, things are a bit different this winter.

    Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber will all be free agents after the 2021 season. Given ownership has made concerted efforts to get closer to the CBT threshold, it seems unlikely Chicago will retain all four players.

    But this Cubs core does not have a ton of trade value, either. Bryant is coming off the worst year of his career and has also dealt with injuries the past three seasons. Schwarber had a .701 OPS and is a poor defender.

    Baez had the worst OBP among qualifiers, per FanGraphs, but is unlikely to be going anywhere. The same can probably be said for Rizzo, who was the first piece to Chicago's championship puzzle and has become one of the best players in Cubs history.

    Perhaps Ian Happ is an option, but the 26-year-old is coming off a breakout season, and the Cubs lack MLB-ready outfield assets. Dealing Yu Darvish would net a huge return, but Epstein would immediately be signaling a transition phase.

    Regardless, the Cubs face big decisions this winter.

Chicago White Sox

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    Will they add more pitching?

    The question for Chicago's AL team could also be "Who will be the next manager?" But the pitching issue is more pertinent to the team's on-field success in 2021. 

    Lucas Giolito has established himself as the ace of the staff, and Dallas Keuchel had a sensational 1.99 ERA in 63.1 innings this season. Those two guys will anchor next year's staff, but the rest is up for grabs.

    Right-hander Dylan Cease has yet to harness his command and had trouble with the home run ball. Michael Kopech is coming back from Tommy John surgery, and Reynaldo Lopez had a 6.49 ERA and 7.63 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark this year. 

    Dane Dunning will get a more extended look, but 2020 was his first chance to throw against big league hitters. The White Sox need more depth in the rotation, and they could certainly benefit from a stronger mid-rotation starter, if not someone like Trevor Bauer.

    Do not be surprised if the White Sox are in the market for some of the same pitchers as Atlanta. Both clubs are looking for added pitching to bolster their rosters, and each club figures to have money to spend.

Cincinnati Reds

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Can they re-sign Bauer?

    The Reds have a plethora of needs in the outfield and the bullpen as they hope to continue their progression up the NL Central standings. 

    But Bauer is the marquee free agent in this year's class, and there figures to be plenty of intrigue as to whether the Reds can keep him in Cincinnati.

    The Reds acquired the outspoken right-hander from the Cleveland Indians at last year's deadline, and he struggled. Bauer had a 6.39 ERA in 10 starts with the Reds, giving up 12 homers in 56.1 innings.

    However, Bauer increased the spin rate on his fastball over the offseason and saw immediate results in 2020, posting a 1.73 ERA in 73.0 innings while striking out a career-high 12.3 hitters per nine innings. He also ranked in the 99th percentile in expected ERA, per Baseball Savant.

    Bauer has suggested he could be open to returning to Cincinnati, per Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer, so a reunion between the two sides is possible. But can the Reds pony up enough to retain the marquee free-agent pitcher while also having the cash to address other needs? That part remains to be seen.

Cleveland Indians

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Will they trade Francisco Lindor?

    This might be the singular question of the 2020-21 MLB offseason.

    Francisco Lindor is one of the definitive stars of this generation. Not only is he a switch-hitting shortstop who can slug and steal bases, but he is also a wizard with the glove and one of the most marketable faces of the league.

    Needless to say, any number of franchises would love to have a player like that on their team. But will the Indians really move Lindor this winter?

    The reality is the 26-year-old's value has lessened, at least somewhat. Lindor will be a free agent after the 2021 season, and any team acquiring him takes the risk he will walk unless they have the future payroll to sign him to a big extension.

    Lindor suspended extension talks with the Indians in March, per Jason Lloyd of The Athletic, and it seems less and less likely he will be in Cleveland by the time the 2022 season rolls around.

    But the Indians are still a competitive club with a strong foundation of young pitching. Might they choose to retain Lindor for one more run at a title? If things go south, they can try to trade him at the deadline.

    At the same time, Cleveland is a low-payroll club, and it might feel the urgency to move Lindor—who could make up to $20 million in arbitration—in the offseason to maximize his value, much as the Red Sox did with Mookie Betts.

Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Will they trade Nolan Arenado?

    The Rockies have their own superstar conundrum on their hands.

    Nolan Arenado lashed out at management last season after the team failed to make any consequential offseason moves to improve upon 2019's 71-win team. The Rockies started the season on a high note but went 9-16 in September to fall out of the playoff hunt.

    So, will Arenado want out this offseason? More importantly, will he opt out next offseason?

    Indeed, the five-time All-Star can opt out of the remaining five years and $164 million on his current contract after the 2021 season, per Spotrac

    This is a scary proposition for the Rockies. Colorado would much rather get value from any interested clubs than risk Arenado walking because it fails to remain competitive.

    It should also be noted Rockies owner Dick Monfort said last year the team's TV deal was set to kick in for the 2021 season, per Nick Groke of The Athletic. But it is possible those gains could be negated by the losses caused by the pandemic, which would mean the Rockies still have relative payroll inflexibility.

    Arenado is the team's most notable homegrown star since Troy Tulowitzki, but the Rockies do not have the pitching to compete in a top-heavy NL West, and they also need to prepare for a possible Trevor Story extension.

    All eyes will be on Lindor, but Arenado is another big name to watch.

Detroit Tigers

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    How will the young pitchers progress?

    The Tigers are certainly still in the midst of a rebuild, but their promising young arms are coming through the system in a hurry.

    2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize made his MLB debut this past season, as did left-hander Tarik Skubal. Next up is likely to be Matt Manning, who did not appear in a shortened 2020 season with expanded rosters but posted a 2.56 ERA in 24 Double-A starts in 2019.

    How these guys develop will be a major storyline for Detroit in 2021. Mize had a 6.99 ERA in seven starts, and he struggled to command the zone. But he also has a five-pitch arsenal and should learn to harness it with more experience. 

    Skubal had a 5.63 ERA, but his debut was slightly more promising. Although Skubal was plagued by the home run ball, he has a fastball that can get into the mid- to upper-90s and a wipeout slider. He ranked in the 69th percentile in whiff rate and 68th percentile in expected batting average (xBA), per Baseball Savant, both very encouraging numbers for a rookie hurler.

    The Tigers actually have an intriguing rotation once Manning joins the big league club, especially with Spencer Turnbull coming off a breakout year. But intrigue and results are two very different things.

    How Detroit fares next season is mostly dependent on the progression of the young starters.

Houston Astros

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Which outfielder(s) will they re-sign? 

    The Astros' 2020 season was an up-and-down, roller-coaster ride all the way up until being eliminated in Game 7 of the ALCS. 

    Justin Verlander's early-season "forearm strain" eventually required Tommy John surgery. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa struggled during the regular season, only to break out in October. Alex Bregman had a mere .343 OPS in the ALCS, and Yuli Gurriel had a rough go of things pretty much from beginning to end. 

    Two of the most consistent offensive threats in Houston's lineup were George Springer and Michael Brantley. Springer clubbed 14 homers and posted an .899 OPS, the second-best mark of his career. Meanwhile, Brantley hit .300 with an OPS above .800 for the fourth consecutive season. 

    Both players hold vital roles in Houston's lineup. Springer jumpstarts the Astros offense from the leadoff spot, while Brantley is one of the best contact guys on the roster (and in baseball). However, both are free agents this offseason. 

    The two will have different markets, to be sure. Springer, 31, could command a long-term deal, while 33-year-old Brantley might have to settle for a shorter contract given his defensive limitations.

    Houston will have to decide whether to lock up Springer or possibly pass in favor of a shorter deal with Brantley as the Astros look to potentially extend Correa. 

    Oh, and just for good measure, Josh Reddick is a free agent as well, though he could be another candidate to return on a short-term deal.

    In any case, much of Houston’s offseason focus will be on the outfield situation, as the Astros lack depth there outside of Kyle Tucker.

Kansas City Royals

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Is Whit Merrifield available?

    Kansas City Royals utility man Whit Merrifield is one of the most intriguing players in baseball.

    Merrifield was something of a late bloomer. He arrived at the major league level in 2016 at the age of 27. By the next year, he was leading the AL in stolen bases. In 2018, he led all of baseball in both hits (192) and steals (45) while hitting .304 with an .806 OPS.

    The past two seasons have been every bit as intriguing. Merrifield led the bigs in hits (206) for the second consecutive year in 2019, but he was also caught stealing an MLB-high 10 times against just 20 successful attempts. He saw a dip in OPS (.764) this past year, but he swiped 12 bags and was caught just three times.

    In other words, he is one of the more exciting and unpredictable players in baseball. He is also under contract through 2022 on a very team-friendly deal, with a club option for 2023. That makes him a massive trade commodity.

    Any number of teams could use a throwback, high-contact guy like Merrifield, who can also steal bases and play in the infield or outfield. Meanwhile, the Royals, who are years away from being competitive, could fetch a decent haul for Whit.

    But Kansas City’s front office needs to decide just how highly it values Merrifield, and whether it is worth it to deal him now or hold off. There is no urgency, but it's possible this is the best time to sell high.

Los Angeles Angels

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    How many starting pitchers will they sign?

    Here's the wild thing about the Angels: Despite the aura of failure surrounding the club and its inability to get Mike Trout to the playoffs, the pieces are there.

    The Anthony Rendon signing paid immediate dividends, as Rendon had a .915 OPS and ranked fifth in fWAR, per FanGraphs. David Fletcher can slug and play excellent defense. Shohei Ohtani had a down year at the dish, but he still plays with power and speed. Jared Walsh had a huge year with nine homers and a .971 OPS in 32 games. Jo Adell should only get better given the tools he possesses.

    But the talent is not there when it comes to the pitching staff.

    The Dylan Bundy acquisition was a major success, as the 27-year-old posted a 3.29 ERA and 2.95 FIP in 11 starts. Left-hander Andrew Heaney is a strikeout pitcher with decent peripherals, and both Griffin Canning and Jaime Barria could be options going forward. However, the Halos lack the kind of starting depth needed to go deep, especially given Ohtani's persistent arm troubles.

    Billy Eppler is out as GM, and whoever takes over will almost certainly go after some of the top starters on the market. Will Arte Moreno give the new GM a green light when it comes to spending?

    If so, Bauer is likely at the top of L.A.'s wish list. Marcus Stroman would also be a good option as a ground ball-heavy pitcher with an excellent infield defense behind him. Either way, the Halos figure to pursue multiple starters.

    This feels like a consequential offseason for the Angels. They need to make tangible strides in building sustained success with Trout and Rendon as centerpieces, and that process starts by getting more pitching.

Los Angeles Dodgers

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    Will they trade for Francisco Lindor?

    The Dodgers' future is solidified. They have one of the strongest groups of position players with bullpen depth and horses in the rotation. David Price will also be back this year.

    Los Angeles' questions are more internal in nature. Blake Treinen rediscovered his sinker and threw plenty of high-leverage innings this season. Will the Dodgers try to re-sign him? What about veteran third baseman Justin Turner, who has an .886 OPS in seven seasons with the Dodgers and hit over .300 again this season?

    Yet, despite the fact they are already one of the best teams in baseball, there is a real possibility the Dodgers still make an effort to trade for Lindor.

    For starters, L.A. has any number of top prospects to offer. Cleveland could have legitimate interest in Gavin Lux, Keibert Ruiz and/or Josiah Gray.

    In fact, USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported in December the two sides were in discussions centered around Lux and Dustin May. While L.A. might be reticent with respect to May, it could be more open to dealing Lux and Gray, or perhaps someone like Kody Hoese.

    Then again, that report was nearly two months before the Dodgers acquired Betts, and they've since signed him to a $365 million extension. But the Dodgers' future payroll looks pretty good.

    Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen are both off the books after 2021. Price will be a free agent a year later, opening up a lot of payroll. There is also the fact Corey Seager will be a free agent in 2022, barring an extension, and Lindor could be the long-term replacement.

    As good as the Dodgers are, it's not inconceivable they make a big move for Lindor this winter.

Miami Marlins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Will they employ the same strategy?

    The Marlins' 2019-20 offseason plan was pretty clear: sign veteran players to short-term deals in the hopes they would supplement the young core and help the team be more competitive. 

    It would seem that blueprint worked well.

    Miami made its first postseason since 2003, going 31-29 and even beating the Cubs in the Wild Card Round before falling to the Braves in the NLDS. Granted, it was a shortened season, but it's hard to ignore the strides the Marlins made in 2020.

    Pablo Lopez, Sixto Sanchez and Sandy Alcantara are the standout arms in a budding rotation that is beginning to define the rebuild. Miami's young starters should continue to improve, but the positional talent is not quite at that level yet. 

    With that in mind, will Derek Jeter's team continue to stock up on veteran pieces? It certainly seems to be trending that way early, as Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported Jeter and the Marlins plan to exercise Starling Marte's $12.5 million option for next year.

    Guys like Garrett Cooper and Brian Anderson are potential building blocks, but the Marlins do not have the MLB-ready talent and payroll capacity to be big-time spenders and contenders in the market.

    Instead, it is possible Jeter once again resorts to short-term deals to fill holes and bolster the team's bullpen.

Milwaukee Brewers

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    What is Josh Hader's future with the club?

    There is no denying lefty Josh Hader is one of the most dominant relievers of the last four years.

    However, he is also the Brewers' best trade asset, and Milwaukee desperately needs impact prospects and fast risers to compete during the life of Christian Yelich's contract.

    So, will the Brewers move Hader? They made the two-time NL Reliever of the Year available at the August deadline, but only at a "bananas price," per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. 

    The Brewers have every reason to sell high on Hader. He is an impressive bullpen weapon capable of entering a game at any time and throwing multiple, high-leverage innings. He also has three more seasons of arbitration before becoming a free agent in 2024.

    Still, Hader is projected to make $5.7 million in arbitration this season, per Spotrac, and that figure will keep rising.

    The 26-year-old is hardly a commodity for a low-payroll team like Milwaukee, and it might be worth it for the Brewers to move off him after a season in which his ERA rose to 3.79 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio went from 6.9 to 3.1. Not to mention, the Brewers have a budding gem in Devin Williams who can fill Hader's shoes.

    Simultaneously, it is hard to ignore just how crucial Hader has been to Milwaukee's success the last three years. The Brewers will face tough decisions with respect to the left-hander this winter.

Minnesota Twins

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    Are they going big again?

    The small-market Twins made a big-market play when they signed veteran third baseman Josh Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million deal last winter.

    Will Minnesota be a big spender once again this offseason?

    It seems likely the team will pursue a contract with designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who will be a free agent. Cruz had another big year in 2020, hitting .303 with 16 homers and a .992 OPS. The veteran ranks second behind only Mike Trout in wRC+ in the last two years, per FanGraphs, and also ranks third in average exit velocity.

    Re-signing Cruz would solidify the lineup, as most of Minnesota's key pieces are under contract. The rotation, however, might be in need of another arm. 

    Kenta Maeda had a terrific Twins debut, going 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA in 11 starts. Veteran left-hander Rich Hill provided stability, and Michael Pineda returned from suspension to post a 3.38 ERA in 26.2 innings. Right-hander Randy Dobnak also looks like he'll be staying in the rotation.

    But even so, there are questions. Hill is a free agent. So is Jake Odorizzi, who made just four starts due to injury after taking the qualifying offer last year. Jose Berrios has plenty of talent, but the Twins are still waiting for him to live up to his full potential.

    Will Minnesota go big to add to the rotation? It certainly seems the Twins could make overtures to Trevor Bauer, Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman, among other starters. They could also use added relief depth, though part of that might come from re-signing Tyler Clippard.

    Despite their playoff struggles, the Twins have the roster to compete for a World Series. Whether they spend more to get the jump on other AL contenders remains to be seen.

New York Yankees

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Will they spend to keep DJ LeMahieu?

    The Yankees have a number of questions to answer this offseason, including how they will improve the rotation and how to handle Gary Sanchez's future.

    But New York's decision on whether to re-sign DJ LeMahieu is the one that could influence the rest of the Bronx Bombers' offseason. 

    LeMahieu has been an anchor for the Yankees as their roster was decimated by injuries the past two seasons. The veteran infielder slashed .336/.386/.536 over the last two years, and this past season he won the batting title (.364) while also leading the AL in OBP (.421), OPS (1.011) and OPS+ (177).

    There was nothing fluky about LeMahieu's success, either. Not only does he not strike out—100th percentile in "K" rate and 99th in whiff rate—but he also ranked above the 80th percentile in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, per Baseball Savant.

    The 32-year-old is a hitting machine who can play multiple infield positions. LeMahieu is going to get paid big, but will the Yankees make the best offer? New York would love to bring him back. It almost feels like the Yankees have to, given all he did in the last two years. But it's hard to ignore the needs in the rotation, and that's before even mentioning both Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton will be free agents.

    If the Yankees do re-sign LeMahieu, they will probably have to pursue marginal upgrades in the staff. But if they let him walk, they could pour more money into the rotation.

    Of course, being the Yankees, they could certainly do both. But New York is already in a tight spot with its payroll, and GM Brian Cashman has been slightly more measured in the contracts he doles out in recent years.

    In that regard, it feels like the decision on LeMahieu will set the tone for the Yankees this winter.

New York Mets

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    How much money does Steve Cohen have?

    This is a rhetorical question, of course. The answer is: Cohen has a lot of money.

    In fact, the newly approved Mets owner's net worth ($14.6 billion) is more than three times higher than Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner, the next highest on the list.

    Cohen has plenty of funds to spend and has the potential to be a force in an uncertain market next year. We have yet to see how much teams will be willing to spend given the financial fallout from COVID-19, but this might not apply to Cohen.

    If he green-lights big spending, the Mets could be in play for just about every star free agent on the market. The most obvious fits are J.T. Realmuto and Trevor Bauer.

    The Mets will probably decline Wilson Ramos' club option, and Realmuto can make a case as the best catcher in baseball. Signing Bauer, meanwhile, would form an imposing top three along with ace Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard (if healthy).

    Of course, the Mets will also need to add bullpen arms to the mix and could probably benefit from signing more than just one starter.

    But Cohen would seem to have the capital to allow the Mets to make multiple splashes this winter in order to vault New York into contention in the NL East.

Oakland Athletics

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    What do they make of their own free agents?

    The A's have a number of impending free agents. Ten of them, to be exact.

    Bullpen staples like closer Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria and Yusmeiro Petit are all available this winter. Shortstop Marcus Semien will be a free agent, as will second baseman Tommy La Stella. Veteran hurlers Mike Fiers and Mike Minor are also headed for the open market.

    Will the A's try to re-sign most of these guys?

    Soria and Petit seem like good bets to return. Neither will get more than one- or two-year deals given their respective ages, and those short-term contracts are right in Oakland's wheelhouse. 

    Hendriks could be harder to bring back given he will have a far larger market as one of the best—if not the best—closers in baseball in the last two years. La Stella might be back in the infield, but it will be interesting to see how the A's handle Semien.

    The 30-year-old finished third in AL MVP voting in 2019 after a career year, but he came back to earth in 2020 with a .679 OPS and a 91 OPS+ that is mostly on par with the rest of his career.

    Semien is still a terrific defensive shortstop, but it is unlikely the A's will re-sign him if he gets multiyear offers. Oakland can pivot to a player like Didi Gregorius (depending on his market) or replace Semien with Andrelton Simmons and his terrific glove.

    It is not unlike the A's to have some roster turnover, and that might be the case again this winter.

Philadelphia Phillies

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Can they re-sign J.T. Realmuto?

    The Phillies are going through a transition period with former GM Matt Klentak stepping down. Whoever replaces Klentak has their work cut out this winter. 

    Philadelphia could potentially lose a pair of key players in Didi Gregorius and J.T. Realmuto, with the latter likely to have one of the most lucrative markets of any player available.

    It might not seem super consequential, but the ability to re-sign Realmuto—or lack thereof—is an absolutely pivotal question for the Phillies at this juncture. 

    Bryce Harper has lobbied endlessly for the Phils to bring J.T. back into the fold. What might it say about the organization if they ignore the wishes of the guy they brought in to be the face of the franchise? 

    Of course, it's not quite that simple. Realmuto also has to look out for himself, and it could be hard to turn down a massive offer from, say, Cohen and the Mets if that's on the table. Still, Realmuto is arguably the best player at a premium position. He is worth every penny of what he will get on the open market.

    Harper's contract and a number of club options actually give the Phillies some financial flexibility. They can re-sign Realmuto and still go after pitching.

    The question is, can Philadelphia outbid Realmuto's other suitors?

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    How good can Ke'Bryan Hayes be?

    The Pirates are in a full-scale rebuild, and Bucs fans do not have a whole lot to celebrate. However, Pittsburgh could have a future star in Hayes. 

    Yes, the highly touted prospect had a fairly small sample size this year. Hayes played in 24 games and had less than 100 plate appearances. Still, the results are hard to ignore. The 23-year-old slashed .376/.442/.682 with five homers and a 202 OPS+. That is an immensely impressive run for someone with no big league experience prior to this season.

    Hayes had an average exit velocity of close to 93 mph in 65 batted-ball events this past season, per Baseball Savant. He absolutely crushed fastballs, hitting .423 with a .731 slugging percentage against heaters, and also had success against off-speed.

    The Texan has a tremendous feel for the zone, and he showed the ability to hit all over the field. But the most intriguing part of Hayes' rookie debut is his hit tool was not even regarded as his best quality. No, that would be his glove and range at the hot corner. 

    Pirates fans will likely suffer through a lot of losing again in 2021, but it should be intriguing to watch Hayes develop into a potential cornerstone player.

San Diego Padres

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Will they extend Fernando Tatis Jr.?

    The Padres officially arrived as a contender in 2020, and the offseason will, in part, be dedicated to finding more pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen.

    However, it's hard to ignore the speculation regarding a possible extension for star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.

    Tatis has not even played the equivalent of a full MLB season. Yet just 143 games into his big league career, he has already become one of the most definitive superstars in baseball. The 21-year-old hit 17 homers, stole 11 bases and had a .937 OPS this season. He finished fourth in fWAR, and he (along with three others) led baseball at seven outs above average, per Baseball Savant.

    Tatis is a legitimate five-tool player and a marketing phenomenon. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that Friars general manager A.J. Preller said there is "interest on both sides" in terms of an extension for Tatis, per AJ Cassavell of MLB.com

    That said, "interest" does not guarantee a deal will get done. The Padres might see Ronald Acuna's extension with the Braves as a model for a new contract for Tatis, but it would hardly be a surprise for Tatis to sell high on himself. 

    Preller is trying to build a sustainable winner in San Diego. Inking Tatis to a long-term deal would certainly be a start.

San Francisco Giants

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    One more playoff run?

    The Giants have had a pretty identical trajectory in each of the last two seasons.

    San Francisco did not have the makings of a serious contender in the National League in 2019 or 2020. But, as was the case last year, the Giants found themselves just outside playoff position on deadline day. They were essentially inactive in the hopes the current roster would keep plugging away.

    For the second consecutive year, however, San Francisco faltered late. The Giants played better than .500 ball after the deadline, but they lost three of four to the Padres in the final series of the year to miss out on the postseason. 

    Once again, the Giants find themselves in limbo, so to speak. They have the talent to be competitive, as Mike Yastrzemski blossomed as a two-way star and the likes of Alex Dickerson and Donovan Solano also had big seasons. 

    That said, San Francisco is still nowhere close to competing for a World Series. The Giants do not have the arms, and two of their best starters—Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly—are bound for free agency. 

    The most likely offseason strategy for the Giants might involve re-signing Gausman and Smyly and adding bullpen depth.

    San Francisco's books are pretty clear next season, when both Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt will be free agents and the team also has club options on both Buster Posey and Johnny Cueto that they are almost certain to decline. This gives the Giants plenty of future spending capital.

    It is certainly possible president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi opts for something of a retention strategy and hopes the current roster can put together a possible playoff run again next season.

Seattle Mariners

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Is another Jerry Dipoto sell-off in the cards?

    Unlike the Orioles and Pirates, the Mariners are a rebuilding club with a number of interesting trade assets. 

    Marco Gonzales is probably the most valuable chip. In 2020, the 28-year-old went 7-2 with a 3.10 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in the best year of his career. Gonzales led all of baseball with a 9.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he managed to generate weak contact despite lacking velocity and ranking in the ninth percentile in whiff rate, per Baseball Savant.

    Gonzales is under contract through 2024, with a club option in 2025. Given the team-friendly nature of his contract, the need for starting pitching and a somewhat shallow crop of free agents, Gonzales could be in high demand. 

    Third baseman Kyle Seager could also be available. The Mariners lifer got off to a fast start and stayed hot through mid-August, hitting .301 with five homers, 22 RBI and a .939 in his first 27 games. But he hit just .193 with a .684 OPS in the final 34 games. Still, Seager offers some left-handed pop, and he could be fairly cheap considering he turns 33 in November and is on an expiring deal. 

    General manager Jerry Dipoto has never had an issue dealing or even packaging some of the best players on his roster. Look no further than the Edwin Diaz-Robinson Cano deal that brought Jarred Kelenic to the M's. That one seemed to work out quite well for Seattle, as Kelenic is one of the best prospects in the game.

    The Mariners have a strong foundation with Kyle Lewis and Ty France, among others, and Kelenic could very well be in the majors next season.

    Dipoto could be looking to move some of his top players so as to acquire more future value and stack his assets.

St. Louis Cardinals

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    How will they improve the lineup?

    Most Redbirds fans probably have a different question in mind: Will the team re-sign franchise staples Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright?

    The veteran backstop and right-handed pitcher will be free agents this winter, but there is uncertainty as to whether president of baseball operations John Mozeliak will bring them back.

    Molina initially said he would retire after the 2020 season if he did not return to St. Louis, but he now is open to the idea of possibly playing for another team, per Marly Rivera of ESPN. It's possible the Cardinals could feel pressure to re-sign Yadi and Wainwright, who was already on a team-friendly $5 million deal.

    But the real issue is the Cardinals offense.

    St. Louis elected not to re-sign Marcell Ozuna last year. That decision backfired, as Ozuna had a sensational year in Atlanta. The Cardinals, meanwhile, ranked 14th out of 15 NL teams in runs scored, slugging and OPS.

    It stands to reason the Redbirds will pursue an upgrade in the lineup. The Cardinals' payroll looks pretty solid, and it's possible they could decline Kolten Wong's club option to pursue DJ LeMahieu. Or, perhaps St. Louis will try to sign George Springer, or even swing a deal for Nolan Arenado.

    Regardless, the Cardinals need more run-producers in the lineup if they hope to be serious contenders in the NL.

Tampa Bay Rays

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    What happens with Charlie Morton?

    The Rays are already one of the best teams in baseball. A 96-win season in 2019 and a World Series berth this year proves as much.

    All of Tampa Bay's key bats are either under contract, pre-arb or in the arbitration period. The Rays should also have more than enough to bring back left-handed reliever Aaron Loup.

    But the Rays cannot strictly rely on openers. They need all the arms they have, including and especially in the rotation. That makes Morton the pivotal figure this offseason. 

    The soon-to-be 37-year-old had his roughest season since 2016, but he's returned to dominant form in the rotation. Morton had given up just one run in 15.2 postseason innings prior to Friday's outing against the Dodgers, and he dominated the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS. 

    He has a $15 million club option for 2021, and Tampa Bay figures to exercise it, but the question is whether he will keep pitching or hang up the spikes. He said he would return if the Rays picked up the option, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. However, winning a World Series could possibly alter Morton’s future. 

    If the Rays pick up the option and the right-hander wants to keep pitching, this team should be pretty well set for 2021. But if Morton retires, the Rays will either have to rely on the arms in their pipeline or pursue fringe upgrades, if not both.

Texas Rangers

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Will they avoid the mistakes of last offseason? 

    Jon Daniels and the Rangers seemed to be in a fairly good position last offseason.

    Texas had money to spend, and it was expected the Rangers would be in the running to sign any number of marquee free agents, notably Houston native Anthony Rendon.

    Instead, the Rangers were mostly idle. The biggest move Texas made was trading for Corey Kluber, an acquisition that flamed out when Kluber was lost for the year after the former AL Cy Young Award-winner suffered a muscle tear in his shoulder during his first start.

    Kluber's injury was essentially a precursor for the rest of the year. The Rangers finished with the second-worst record in baseball, ranking dead-last in the AL in nearly every major hitting category. The pitching staff was hardly any better outside of Lance Lynn, and he struggled down the stretch.

    Will Daniels and the Rangers make the same mistakes in terms of their failure to land big free agents this winter?

    Texas has more money coming off the books, as Shin-Soo Choo will be a free agent. The Rangers could also very well free up even more cash by declining Kluber's $18 million option.

    Management will have plenty of cash to throw around, and Rangers fans need a reason to come to games at the brand-new Globe Life Field. That would suggest the Rangers are in more of a position to spend big instead of trading Lynn and starting over.

Toronto Blue Jays

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Is it time to spend big?

    The Blue Jays might have benefited from the expanded playoffs, but this team still took a big step in its development. Will Ross Atkins be willing to spend to get Toronto to the next level?

    The youngsters are progressing as hoped. Cavan Biggio had an .807 OPS and played multiple positions. Bo Bichette had an .840 OPS and looked even better before a knee injury led to some regression late in the year. Meanwhile, the outfield duo of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez combined for 27 homers, and Rowdy Tellez had an .886 OPS.

    In the rotation, the Hyun-Jin Ryu signing proved to be a good one, as the left-hander had a 2.69 ERA in 12 starts. The bullpen also held up despite an early-season injury to closer Ken Giles.

    However, the Blue Jays need more pitching and perhaps another bat to seriously contend in a crowded AL picture. The starters struggled outside of Ryu. While young right-hander Nate Pearson is in the picture next year, Tanner Roark's performance (6.80 ERA) gives reason for pause.

    Meanwhile, Matt Shoemaker, Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker will all be free agents, and Chase Anderson could join them if the Blue Jays decline his $9.5 million club option. Giles is going to be a free agent, as will right-hander Anthony Bass.

    Toronto has some payroll flexibility, and the positional pieces are (mostly) in place. This might be the offseason to make a big push as the Blue Jays hope to go from upstarts to legitimate contenders.

Washington Nationals

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    How do they bounce back?

    The Nationals were still expected to contend in 2020, but a number of position players underwhelmed, and Stephen Strasburg's carpal tunnel issue was the cherry on top of a slew of disappointing performances from the pitching staff.

    Still, Washington profiles as a club that can make another playoff push in 2021. How do the Nats get to that point?

    Anibal Sanchez and Adam Eaton have club options, which the Nationals might end up declining to free up payroll and make a run at some free-agent pitchers. Washington could also use positional depth, given Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera (among others) will be free agents.

    Unless the Nats feel sure that Carter Kieboom can handle himself at the hot corner, they could very well pursue an infield upgrade. Really, though, this team figures to reap the benefits of internal improvements. 

    Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin will both be looking to rebound from poor years, Strasburg will be hoping to put together a healthy campaign, and the Nationals will hope center fielder Victor Robles resembles the 2019 version of himself rather than the 2020 edition.

    Juan Soto and Trea Turner are two of the top talents in baseball, and the top three in the rotation is still as good as any in the game. The Nationals will have to figure out how to navigate payroll constraints and improve the roster, which could mean signing a number of veterans to short-term deals.

         

    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, FanGraphs or Baseball Savant, unless otherwise noted.