10 Questions That Will Define 2020-21 MLB Free-Agent and Trade Markets
The confetti is just now settling on the Los Angeles Dodgers' first World Series title since 1988, but there's no rest for MLB teams in pursuit of that ultimate goal in 2021.
With free agency officially underway, teams have already addressed player options and qualifying-offer candidates to get the ball rolling on the offseason.
There's a lot to be sorted out between now and the start of spring training, and there are a few major storylines that will shape the offseason narrative.
Ahead we've chosen 10 questions that will define the MLB landscape this winter, provided some background and then made some early predictions on how things will play out.
Let this serve as a preview of what's to come during another exciting MLB offseason.
How Will 2020 Financial Losses Impact Spending?
According to Barry M. Bloom of Sportico, MLB teams racked up $8.3 billion in debt over the course of the 2020 season, and the league as a whole logged $2.8 to $3 billion in operational losses.
"We are going to be at historic high levels of debt," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told Bloom. "And it's going to be difficult for the industry to weather another year where we don't have fans in the ballpark and have other limitations on how much we can't play and how we can play."
That is undoubtedly going to have an impact on how teams spend this offseason, and teams declining reasonable options on solid players like Charlie Morton ($15 million), Kolten Wong ($12.5 million) and Adam Eaton ($10.5 million) could be an indication of what's to come.
So how exactly will the free-agent market be impacted?
I think players at the top of the market—guys like Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, DJ LeMahieu and George Springer—are still going to cash in with lucrative multiyear deals.
Where the impact will be felt is on second-tier free agents.
Kyle Gibson landed a three-year, $28 million contract from the Texas Rangers last offseason after logging a 4.84 ERA in 160 innings the previous year. That kind of multiyear offer is not going to be on the table for free agents of his caliber this winter.
Expect a lot of players to sign one-year deals in hopes of a friendlier market after the 2021 season.
Is Steve Cohen Going to Make a Splash with the New York Mets?
While other teams are expected to be pinching pennies this offseason, the New York Mets could look to make a splash now that billionaire Steve Cohen has officially been approved as the next owner of the team.
"With free agency starting Sunday night, we will be working toward a quick close," Cohen told reporters.
Once the $2.4 billion sale is officially finalized, Cohen will set to work building a front office that will be tasked with filling in the gaps on a talented roster that has fallen short of expectations in recent years.
It's easy to envision J.T. Realmuto filling a glaring void at catcher, Trevor Bauer joining Jacob deGrom in a stacked starting rotation or George Springer providing the upgrade in center field that the team has been searching for since Carlos Beltran left.
The Mets have a chance to hop into the driver's seat of free agency if Cohen decides he wants to make an immediate splash.
I put the Mets at No. 1 in a recent article ranking all 30 teams on their chances of signing Realmuto. It would address a glaring need, steal a star player from a division rival and perhaps show they're willing to go head-to-head with the New York Yankees if they too decide to pursue the market's top catcher.
Otherwise, Springer also makes a lot of sense, and I would be surprised if at least one of those players is not wearing a Mets uniform in 2021 and beyond.
Who Will Be This Year's Biggest Bargains?
It might not grab headlines, but bargain-hunting is a big part of free agency. Hitting on a buy-low target can make a huge impact, especially for small-market teams.
The San Francisco Giants did an excellent job cobbling together a starting rotation on the cheap last offseason, signing Kevin Gausman (59.2 IP, 3.62 ERA), Drew Smyly (26.1 IP, 3.42 ERA) and Trevor Cahill (25.0 IP, 3.24 ERA) to relatively inexpensive one-year deals.
Veteran infielder Brad Miller signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals and tied for the team lead in home runs (seven) while finishing second in RBI (25).
Brandon Kintzler converted 12 of 14 save chances with a 2.22 ERA in 24 appearances for a contending Miami Marlins team after inking a one-year, $3 million deal.
Which reasonably priced players could make a difference this winter?
I'm curious to see what happens with Marcus Semien, who fell flat after finishing third in AL MVP voting in 2019. He could accept a one-year deal, but that sets him up to join Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story and Corey Seager as part of the 2021-22 free-agent class. He could be a real steal on a multiyear deal.
As for potential low-cost, one-year contract targets who could pay dividends, catcher Jason Castro, corner infielder Jake Lamb, infielder Jedd Gyorko, infielder/outfielder Jurickson Profar, starter Robbie Ray and reliever Kirby Yates are some names to monitor.
My pick for best bargain signing: Anthony DeSclafani. He was knocked around to the tune of a 7.22 ERA in 2020, but he's just a year removed from posting a 3.89 ERA in 166.2 innings. On a one-year deal for less than $10 million, he could be a difference-maker in a team's rotation.
Will Anyone Want to Sign with the Houston Astros?
Players across the league didn't mince words when details of the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal broke, condemning their cheating and questioning Manfred's degree of punishment.
With that in mind, it's fair to wonder if some free agents will cross Houston off their list of potential destinations before negotiations ever start.
What's more, the Astros also have a pair of notable free agents of their own they need to either re-sign or replace in George Springer and Michael Brantley.
Patrick Creighton of ESPN 97.5 recently reported that Springer does not want to return to the Astros, the only team he's played for in his seven-year career.
The return of Yordan Alvarez after an injury-plagued season would help ease the offensive loss, but Springer walking would create a glaring hole in center field with no clear in-house solution and nothing but significant downgrades behind him on the market.
With Carlos Correa ticketed for free agency next offseason, the Astros might prioritize a long-term deal for him over Springer. Then again, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are coming off the books next winter as well, so there will be money to spend.
My guess is they make a few complementary additions to the lineup and pitching staff but fail to gain any traction from any of the market's top free agents. It's going to take some time before Houston is an attractive destination again.
Which Top Free Agents Are Most Likely to Be Re-Signed?
The biggest name on the free-agent market who looks like a clear candidate to re-sign with his current team is New York Yankees second baseman DJ LeMahieu.
The Yankees need to prioritize pitching help, but there's no denying how important LeMahieu has been to their success the past two seasons.
"The fans, who love to spend Hal Steinbrenner's money, are unanimous about the Yankees' most complete player not leaving via free agency," wrote George A. King lll of the New York Post. "Manager Aaron Boone and the players certainly want LeMahieu back, and he has indicated he would like to stay."
He's far from the only top-tier free agent who is a candidate to re-up with his current club.
The Atlanta Braves will have to at least consider keeping Marcell Ozuna around despite the removal of the universal DH, the Philadelphia Phillies didn't give up Sixto Sanchez not to make a run at re-signing J.T. Realmuto, and the Cincinnati Reds will at least make an effort to bring back Trevor Bauer.
It's probably going to cost something close to the four-year, $92 million contract that Josh Donaldson received last offseason to sign LeMahieu, and the Yankees shouldn't think twice about handing over that money.
I also see Marcus Semien finding his way back to Oakland, and I certainly wouldn't rule out J.T. Realmuto re-signing with the Phillies, but I expect Ozuna, Bauer, George Springer, Kevin Gausman and Liam Hendriks to all move on.
How Will No Universal DH Impact Marcell Ozuna's Market?
Marcell Ozuna signed a one-year, $18 million contract with the Atlanta Braves last offseason after his market failed to develop as hoped, due in part to being saddled with a qualifying offer.
The 29-year-old then went out and led the NL in home runs (18) and RBI (56) while raking to the tune of a .338/.431/.636 line and 175 OPS+ hitting in the middle of a stacked lineup.
He played 19 games in left field and two games in right field, but the bulk of his time was spent in the designated hitter role. With the universal DH no longer in play in 2021 and young outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters knocking on the door for playing time in the Atlanta outfield, it's unclear whether a serious effort will be made to retain Ozuna this offseason.
In his limited time in the outfield this season, the defensive metrics (-2 DRS, -16.1 UZR/150) were not pretty, but he played a solid left field (1 DRS, 8.6 UZR/150) for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018.
So how exactly will his market be impacted by no longer being able to DH in the National League, if at all?
J.T. Realmuto and George Springer are more complete players, but solely based on offensive production, there's a strong case to be made that Ozuna is the biggest bat on the market.
The Cincinnati Reds didn't hesitate to hand the defensively challenged Nick Castellanos a four-year, $64 million contract last winter, and that looks like the floor on Ozuna's earning power this offseason.
He could very well wind up DH'ing for an American League team, but his market won't be limited solely to that half of the league.
How Will the Trevor Bauer Sweepstakes Play Out?
Trevor Bauer is the overwhelming favorite to claim NL Cy Young honors after leading the league in ERA (1.73) and WHIP (0.80) while racking up 100 strikeouts in 73 innings and holding opposing hitters to a .159 average.
If he were any other player, we might be talking about him matching or surpassing the seven-year, $245 million contract that Stephen Strasburg signed with the Washington Nationals last offseason.
He's far from a normal free agent, though.
Bauer has indicated multiple times that his preference is to sign one-year deals for the remainder of his career as a means of maximizing his annual earning potential and ensuring he is playing for a contender.
A one-year, $40 million contract is not out of the question if he sticks to that and a contending team views him as the missing piece for a title run in 2021.
I pegged the Chicago White Sox as favorites to sign Bauer in a recent article running down all 30 teams' chances of signing him, with the Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets, San Diego Padres and New York Yankees rounding out his top five suitors.
Would I be surprised if he signs elsewhere? Stays in Cincinnati? Signs a multiyear deal after all? Signs with a Japanese League team? Not in the slightest.
But for now, I'll say he gets that one-year, $40 million deal from a White Sox team where he could legitimately be that aforementioned missing piece.
Who Is Left for Teams in Need of Pitching That Don't Sign Bauer?
Beyond Trevor Bauer, this is not a particularly deep free-agent class for starting pitching. Here's a look at the other starters who earned a spot in FanGraphs' list of this year's top 50 free agents:
- 7. Masahiro Tanaka
- 11. Marcus Stroman
- 13. James Paxton
- 14. Kevin Gausman
- 22. Taijuan Walker
- 24. Jake Odorizzi
- 25. Drew Smyly
- 27. Mike Minor
- 29. Jose Quintana
- 39. Corey Kluber
- 42. Garrett Richards
- 43. Rick Porcello
- 44. Matt Shoemaker
- 45. J.A. Happ
- 46. Robbie Ray
- 47. Adam Wainwright
- 50. Chris Archer
It's a ragtag group of aging former stars, injury returnees and reclamation projects. So who is a worthy consolation prize for teams that whiff on Bauer?
I think Marcus Stroman is going to accept his qualifying offer from the Mets, and if Kevin Gausman does the same in San Francisco, Taijuan Walker might be the only obvious candidates for a multiyear deal on the market.
Walker, 28, is on the younger end of the free-agency spectrum, and he pitched extremely well down the stretch after a pair of seasons lost to Tommy John recovery.
Will J.T. Realmuto Get the Record-Setting Deal He's Seeking?
Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported in February that J.T. Realmuto is targeting a contract that would make him the highest-paid catcher in MLB history based on annual value.
That distinction currently belongs to Joe Mauer, who earned $23 million per year on an eight-year, $184 million extension with the Minnesota Twins.
When he signed that record deal, Mauer was coming off a 2009 season where he hit .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs and 96 RBI to win his second straight AL batting title and AL MVP honors. He posted a career-high 7.8 WAR that season, marking the third time in four years he had eclipsed 5.0 WAR.
J.T. Realmuto is not Joe Mauer.
He is, however, the best all-around catcher in the game today and a dynamic two-way player capable of making a huge impact wherever he lands.
Will that be enough for him to get the payday he's seeking?
The catcher position is thin on impact talent right now, and that's going to help drive suitors toward Realmuto's asking price.
I don't think he's going to get the same length of deal that Mauer did, and that doesn't seem to be his goal, but I do think that $23 million figure is in reach.
Early prediction: He signs a five-year, $125 million deal with the New York Mets.
What Big Names Could Be on the Move via Trade?
The Cleveland Indians have already had a busy offseason, declining their club options on first baseman Carlos Santana and closer Brad Hand, and it could be just the start.
Is this the winter they'll finally pull the trigger on a Francisco Lindor trade?
The superstar shortstop will be a free agent after the 2021 season, and it has long seemed inevitable that he would be dealt with the Cleveland front office unlikely to pony up on an extension.
He is the obvious top name on the trade market, but he's not alone.
Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story are also part of the 2021-22 free agent class with futures that are uncertain at best with their current club.
The Texas Rangers are focused on cutting payroll and could shop Lance Lynn and Joey Gallo. It's not out of the question to think the Milwaukee Brewers could make Josh Hader available following the emergence of Devin Williams in the bullpen.
I think Lindor stays put until the 2021 trade deadline, at which point the Indians either ship him to the highest bidder or hold on to him for one last playoff push before extending a qualifying offer and taking the draft pick compensation.
The Cubs missed their chance on a big haul for Bryant and will hold him for a final run before Theo Epstein walks and they retool, and who knows what the Rockies are going to do.
I do think the Rangers are going to clean house, though, and that means Lynn and Gallo are both moved, along with Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus if they can find any takers.
Also, don't be surprised if the San Francisco Giants find a taker for Brandon Belt after a nice bounce-back season. That would open the door for Buster Posey to move to first base and Joey Bart to stick as the starting catcher.