Fallback Plans for Teams That Miss Out on Top MLB Free-Agency Targets

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistNovember 12, 2020

Fallback Plans for Teams That Miss Out on Top MLB Free-Agency Targets

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Things don't always go according to plan during the MLB offseason.

    The Los Angeles Angels made no secret of their interest in Gerrit Cole last offseason, and they made a serious push to sign the market's top free-agent starting pitcher. But he joined the New York Yankees, and the Angels were forced to pivot.

    That's what we're going to focus on here.

    We started by taking seven of the market's top free agents and slotting them into specific categories: J.T. Realmuto (top catcher), Didi Gregorius (top shortstop), George Springer (top outfielder), DJ LeMahieu (top contact hitter), Marcell Ozuna (top power hitter), Trevor Bauer (top starter) and Liam Hendriks (top reliever).

    Then we took a deep dive into potential fallback plans in free agency and on the trade market for teams that miss out on landing those marquee targets.

    Off we go.

Top Catcher: J.T. Realmuto

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    There is little question J.T. Realmuto is the top catcher on the market, and he is arguably the top backstop to reach free agency since Ivan Rodriguez signed with the Detroit Tigers in 2004. Realmuto's two-way ability would make him an appealing addition for a number of teams, but his price point will be prohibitive to several catcher-needy clubs.

               

    Free-Agency Fallback Plans

    Veteran James McCann was an All-Star in 2019, and he hit .289/.360/.536 for a 144 OPS+ while platooning with Yasmani Grandal this year. He will be missed on the South Side, but he's going to get starter money from some team.

    If the St. Louis Cardinals decide to move on from Yadier Molina, he still has enough left in the tank and brings next-level leadership to a clubhouse.

    Other starting-caliber backstops available this year include Mike Zunino, Jason Castro, Wilson Ramos and Robinson Chirinos, though they all have shortcomings.

               

    Trade Market Fallback Plans

    If the New York Yankees decide to pull the plug on Gary Sanchez, there will be plenty of teams interested in buying low on his power potential.

    The Cincinnati Reds could look to move the defensive-minded Tucker Barnhart if they think prospect Tyler Stephenson is ready to take over, and it looks like Francisco Mejia might be on his way out with the San Diego Padres after the team traded for Austin Nola at the deadline and with top prospect Luis Campusano knocking on the door.

    The Toronto Blue Jays' catching situation is also worth monitoring with Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Alejandro Kirk all under control for multiple seasons.

Top Shortstop: Didi Gregorius

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Didi Gregorius signed a one-year, $14 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies after a disappointing return from Tommy John surgery in 2019. The 30-year-old rebuilt his stock, hitting .284/.339/.488 with 10 home runs and 40 RBI in 60 games.

              

    Free-Agency Fallback Plans

    If Marcus Semien had hit free agency a year ago, he would have been one of the most sought-after players on the market following his third-place finish in American League MVP Award voting. Instead, after posting a .223/.305/.374 line, he could have to settle for a one-year, prove-it deal.

    The slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons is still only 31 years old and is one of the best contact hitters in baseball, so he provides enough two-way value to warrant a multiyear deal.

    Freddy Galvis has a strong glove and solid power, though he may fit best as an oft-used utility infielder. Adeiny Hechavarria and Ehire Adrianza will compete for bench jobs.

                

    Trade Market Fallback Plans

    The Cleveland Indians have given every indication they plan on trading Francisco Lindor this offseason, and he will fetch a significant haul even with just one year of club control remaining.

    The cost-cutting Texas Rangers would be happy to unload Elvis Andrus and the final two years and $28.5 million on his contract, and the San Francisco Giants would also jump at the opportunity to flip Brandon Crawford ahead of the final year of his contract after his bounce-back 2020 campaign.

    Would the Colorado Rockies consider shopping Trevor Story a year before his free agency?

Top Outfielder: George Springer

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    While a number of high-profile hitters in the Houston Astros lineup struggled in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal, George Springer was his usual dynamic self at the top of the order. After launching a career-high 39 home runs in 2019, he followed with a 140 OPS+ and 14 long balls in 51 games while continuing to play a solid center field.

               

    Free-Agency Fallback Plans

    It's slim pickings on the free-agent market for teams in need of an impact outfielder.

    Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Pillar are the only other potential everyday center fielders, and they have offensive shortcomings.

    At the corner outfield spots, Marcell Ozuna and Michael Brantley have significant offensive upside with defensive limitations.

    Platoon slugger Joc Pederson, on-base machine Robbie Grossman, former top prospect Jurickson Profar and 2019 World Series winner Adam Eaton make up the second tier of corner outfielders, and all could be in the running for multiyear contracts.

    Non-tender candidates Eddie Rosario (Minnesota Twins) and Nomar Mazara (Chicago White Sox) are also worth monitoring.

              

    Trade Market Fallback Plans

    It could be a busy offseason for the Rangers, and prolific slugger Joey Gallo is near the top of their list of trade chips. The 26-year-old has two remaining years of club control and has developed into a Gold Glove right fielder.

    David Peralta could be available from the retooling Arizona Diamondbacks, Charlie Blackmon remains a trade candidate for the directionless Colorado Rockies, and Ender Inciarte has become a highly-paid fourth outfielder for Atlanta.

    After Clint Frazier rebuilt some value with a strong season, it's fair to wonder if the New York Yankees might consider including him in a deal for a controllable starter.

Top Contact Hitter: DJ LeMahieu

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    For teams looking for contact and a spark for the lineup's batting average, there's no better target than DJ LeMahieu, who became the first player in MLB history to win an undisputed batting title in each league. He hit .364/.421/.590 and struck out just 21 times in 216 plate appearances. Will the Yankees let him get away?

              

    Free-Agency Fallback Plans

    An All-Star in 2019, Tommy La Stella could be one of the best bargains of this year's free-agent class. He hit .281/.370/.449 with 14 doubles and more than twice as many walks (27) as strikeouts (12) in 228 plate appearances for the Angels and Oakland Athletics. His defensive versatility adds to his value.

    Shifting to the outfield, Michael Brantley is one of the best pure hitters in the game and is coming off a two-year run with the Astros in which he hit .309/.370/.497 for a 126 OPS+ with an 11.4 percent strikeout rate.

    Howie Kendrick, Daniel Murphy and Nick Markakis are candidates to retire this offseason, but they have been among the best contact hitters in the game throughout their careers and could still make positive impacts in part-time roles.

               

    Trade Market Fallback Plans

    Shortstop Jose Iglesias hit .373/.400/.556 in 150 plate appearances for the Baltimore Orioles, and while his .407 BABIP is not sustainable, he does have elite contact skills with an 11.3 percent strikeout rate.

    Gold Glove third baseman Isiah Kiner-Falefa hit .280 with a 14.0 percent strikeout rate—the 15th-lowest among qualified hitters—and the Rangers will be open for business.

Top Power Hitter: Marcell Ozuna

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Saddled by a qualifying offer last offseason, Marcell Ozuna settled for a one-year, $18 million contract with Atlanta. After leading the National League in home runs (18) and RBI (56), he stands as the top target for teams looking to add power.

               

    Free-Agency Fallback Plans

    If Ozuna is the top slugger on the market, Nelson Cruz is a close second after another stellar campaign. The ageless wonder, 40, had a 16-homer, 33-RBI season for the Twins and is quietly just 83 long balls from joining the 500 club.

    C.J. Cron and Eric Thames offer low-cost pop at first base, Jonathan Schoop has four 20-homer seasons on his resume at second base, and Jake Lamb is an intriguing bounce-back candidate just a few years removed from a 30-homer, 105-RBI campaign with the Diamondbacks. Joc Pederson would fit best in a platoon role, but he had 36 homers in 2019.

    They are limited to designated hitter duties at this point in their respective careers, but Edwin Encarnacion and Matt Kemp can still crush mistakes.

                  

    Trade Market Fallback Plans

    We've already mentioned Joey Gallo as the top power bat on the trade market, but he's not alone.

    Keep an eye on Gregory Polanco as a buy-low trade target for teams looking to bolster their power production. He hit just .153 with an ugly 37.4 percent strikeout rate but also ranked among the MLB leaders in exit velocity (95th percentile) and hard-hit rate (93rd percentile).

    The Diamondbacks could make Christian Walker available if they think Pavin Smith is ready to take over at first base, the Boston Red Sox would love to unload J.D. Martinez and his bloated salary, and the Yankees would undoubtedly flip Miguel Andujar in the right deal.

    Will the Chicago Cubs shake things up and trade Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber?

Top Starter: Trevor Bauer

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Trevor Bauer is the likely NL Cy Young Award winner after leading the league in ERA (1.73) and WHIP (0.79) while holding opposing hitters to a .159 average and racking up 100 strikeouts in 73 innings. His 7.2 two-hit innings in his lone postseason start were the cherry on top of a brilliant season. Will he stick to his plan to sign only one-year deals the rest of his career?

                

    Free-Agency Fallback Plans

    With Marcus Stroman accepting his qualifying offer and Kevin Gausman potentially headed for a similar decision, it's a slim market behind Bauer.

    Taijuan Walker likely pitched his way to a multiyear deal, thanks in part to the fact that he's only 28 years old. Veterans Charlie Morton and Adam Wainwright can make impacts on short-term deals, Masahiro Tanaka still has No. 2/3 starter stuff, Garrett Richards rebuilt his stock with a healthy season, and Drew Smyly struck out 42 batters in 26.1 innings.

    Behind that group, the market is loaded with bounce-back candidates who could provide good value on one-year deals, including James Paxton, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Quintana, Mike Minor, Chris Archer, Corey Kluber, Cole Hamels and Anthony DeSclafani.

                  

    Trade Market Fallback Plans

    Rangers right-hander Lance Lynn is the top trade target for teams in need of starting pitching. The 33-year-old posted a 3.32 ERA and 1.06 WHIP with 89 strikeouts in an MLB-high 84 innings, and he is owed a team-friendly $9.3 million in the final year of his contract in 2021.

    The Pittsburgh Pirates have a few attractive trade targets in Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault, and any one of them could be on the move in the early stages of the club's rebuild.

    Kansas City Royals lefty Danny Duffy, Orioles right-hander Alex Cobb, Tigers left-hander Matthew Boyd and right-hander Spencer Turnbull and Giants right-hander Johnny Cueto are other names to monitor.

Top Reliever: Liam Hendriks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    After a breakout 2019 season, Liam Hendriks solidified his place as one of the game's elite relief pitchers with an equally impressive 2020 campaign. The 31-year-old converted 14 of 15 save chances with a 1.78 ERA, 0.67 WHIP and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 24 appearances. A four-year deal is not out of the question.

                  

    Free-Agency Fallback Plans

    A resurgent Trevor Rosenthal set himself up nicely after settling for a minor league deal last offseason. The 30-year-old had 11 saves in 12 opportunities with a 1.90 ERA and 14.5 strikeouts per innings in 23 appearances while showcasing elite velocity.

    The surprise decision by the Cleveland Indians to decline their option on Brad Hand added the three-time All-Star to the free-agent market, and he's the top available left-hander ahead of Jake McGee, Aaron Loup, Oliver Perez, Sean Doolittle and Tony Watson.

    Setup man Trevor May struck out 38 of the 96 batters he faced, tallying two saves and nine holds while posting a 3.86 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

    Kirby Yates, Blake Treinen, Roberto Osuna, Alex Colome, Mark Melancon, Ken Giles, Jeremy Jeffress, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Baez and Shane Greene have late-inning experience and should secure MLB deals.

                 

    Trade Market Fallback Plans

    The emergence of NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams could make flame-thrower Josh Hader a trade chip for the Milwaukee Brewers, who have holes to plug in the starting rotation. The 26-year-old is controllable through 2023 and arbitration-eligible for the second time this offseason.

    The controllable Richard Rodriguez (Pirates), Rafael Montero (Rangers) and Joe Jimenez (Tigers) could be attractive targets for contenders in need of quality late-inning help.

                

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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