10 Teams That Could Heat Up MLB's Chilly 2020-21 Free-Agency Market

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 18, 2020

10 Teams That Could Heat Up MLB's Chilly 2020-21 Free-Agency Market

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    The Dodgers always have needs to fill and money to spend. Now, they also have a championship to defend.
    The Dodgers always have needs to fill and money to spend. Now, they also have a championship to defend.Associated Press

    Following a pandemic-shortened, fan-less season in which Major League Baseball teams reportedly lost about $3 billion collectively, it may take a while for this winter's free-agent market to heat up.

    But don't worry. We see at least 10 teams that should eventually come running with open checkbooks.

    In coming up with this list, we looked for clear contenders with needs to fill and money to spend. We also considered less successful clubs that can and potentially will try to buy their way into contention.

    Let's start with some honorable mentions and then count down to the top candidate to carry out a free-agent spending spree.

Keep an Eye on These Teams

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    The Twins have priorities beyond re-signing Nelson Cruz.
    The Twins have priorities beyond re-signing Nelson Cruz.Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    Atlanta

    Atlanta has only one free-agent contract worth as much as $75 million in its history, and it may not be likely to add more to the pile this winter. But as last winter's $117.8 million splurge goes to show, the club could be willing to spread money around.

          

    Detroit Tigers

    The Tigers are more of a candidate to spend big next winter after they add more homegrown talent to their major league core in 2021. But with only Miguel Cabrera on their long-term books and AJ Hinch installed as their new manager, preemptive action on the open market can't be ruled out.

         

    Minnesota Twins

    Given the less-than-great early returns on Josh Donaldson's $92 million contract, the Twins might be a little wary about going big in free agency again. But because their to-do list includes re-signing Nelson Cruz and adding depth to their pitching staff, they're worth keeping an eye on.

         

    Philadelphia Phillies

    The Phillies don't even have a general manager right now, so there's something to the notion that they won't be major players in free agency anytime soon. But with J.T. Realmuto in need of re-signing and their bullpen in dire need of repair, the Phillies definitely have excuses to spend.

         

    Seattle Mariners

    Like the Tigers, they're more so a candidate to spend big next winter after adding uber-outfielder Jarred Kelenic and other prospects to their homegrown core. Yet there's something of a power vacuum in the American League West at the moment, so perhaps the M's will force the issue.

         

    Washington Nationals

    According to Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic, the Nationals should be expected to end up in the "middle of the pack" in free-agent spending. That might be true, but it would certainly be like them to shake things up with at least one big splash.

10. Miami Marlins

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Now that the Miami Marlins have made history by hiring Kim Ng as the first female GM in major league history, one outstanding question is what kind of budget she'll have for free agency.

    This is where skepticism is an appropriate knee-jerk reaction. After all, the Marlins typically live in the bottom third of MLB in payroll. There was that one time they had a top-10 payroll in 2012, but that experiment with big spending ended up being a short-lived farce.

    But that was when Jeffrey Loria was signing the checks. That task now belongs to owners Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter, who are perhaps willing to sign some big ones following the club's surprise playoff run in 2020.

    As it is, the Marlins are projected to spend only $62 million in 2021 with zero guaranteed salaries on their books for 2022 and beyond. All this would seem like license for Ng to aggressively fill the club's needs for impact hitters (ideally with power) and back-end relievers.

9. Houston Astros

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Houston Astros are already projected to have $155 million worth of salaries on their 2021 payroll, which is about as high as they've gone in the past. Justin Verlander ($33 million) accounts for about a third of that money, and he won't even pitch next season after having Tommy John surgery in September.

    And yet we propose that the Astros don't have much choice but to spend this winter. 

    They have too much talent to consider entering a retooling period, and their list of needs isn't exactly short. They're tasked with re-signing or replacing free-agent outfielders George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick. They must also upgrade a bullpen that had a penchant for melting down in 2020.

    Even if the Astros ultimately have to push their payroll beyond their comfort zone for 2021, it would only be for one year. Between Verlander, Zack Greinke and others, they're due to have a lot of salary come off their books next winter.

8. Los Angeles Angels

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Angels welcomed a new general manager last week, hiring Perry Minasian away from his post as Atlanta's assistant GM.

    Minasian is inheriting a payroll that owes $118.2 million to just four players in 2021. He's also saddled with one of MLB's worst starting pitching staffs, as Angels starters ranked 29th with a 5.52 ERA in 2020.

    Because of the former issue, Angels owner Arte Moreno might have tasked Minasian with fixing the latter issue on the cheap. If so, he would have had to cut corners in adding much-needed rotation depth and a shortstop to fill in for free agent Andrelton Simmons.

    However, Moreno himself said Tuesday that the club's payroll will not be going down in 2021. That's as good a sign as any that he has an appropriate sense of urgency about building a winner around superstars Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon while they're still in their respective primes.

7. Chicago White Sox

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    From some perspectives, the Chicago White Sox admittedly don't look like a candidate to throw their weight around on this winter's free-agent market. 

    It was only last offseason that they carried out a $150 million spending spree that netted them Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel. The White Sox are also projected to spend $113 million on payroll in 2021, putting them more or less in their previously established comfort zone.

    However, the White Sox are also a rising contender that just snapped an 11-year playoff drought. And they've already locked up 20-something stars Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, only one of whom (Moncada) will make eight figures annually.

    Besides, Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf might want to distract from the disaster that has been his hiring of Tony La Russa as the club's new manager. Filling the team's bullpen needs and further upgrading its offense or starting rotation might do the trick.

6. Toronto Blue Jays

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The Toronto Blue Jays have already made a ripple on the free-agent waters, as their $8 million contract with left-hander Robbie Ray was the first deal struck on this winter's market.

    There will almost certainly be more where that came from. The Blue Jays have only $89 million in salaries projected for their 2021 payroll. That's about half of the organization's peak payroll from 2017, which saw it pay out over $160 million.

    To be sure, Toronto would be wise to set aside payroll space for potential extensions for some of its homegrown stars. Young lineup stalwarts such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Teoscar Hernandez will need that kind of attention before long.

    Yet the Blue Jays should also be willing to spend on the pitching and defensive upgrades they require right now—especially given that some free agents may be all too happy to join the team while it's on the upswing.

5. Boston Red Sox

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    After flouting the luxury tax in 2018 and 2019, the Boston Red Sox got cheap and traded Mookie Betts and David Price last February.

    Once they subsequently lost ace Chris Sale to Tommy John surgery, it was no great surprise when the Red Sox landed in last place in the American League East in 2020. From here, it might take a few years before they're comfortable spending big bucks again.

    Or not, perhaps. It's not as if the Red Sox are utterly devoid of impact talent, after all. They have Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and up-and-comers Alex Verdugo and Bobby Dalbec on offense. They can also look forward to getting Eduardo Rodriguez and, at some point, Sale back healthy in 2021.

    The Red Sox might therefore see the free-agent market as their ticket back to contention. If so, they could put their roughly $40 million in luxury-tax wiggle room toward a center fielder, a second baseman or especially much-needed pitching depth.

4. San Francisco Giants

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The San Francisco Giants would seem to have another year of rebuilding left.

    As in, 2021 will be their best chance to get a sense of what they really have in catcher Joey Bart and other prospects. And out of the six players who'll make at least eight figures in '21, only Evan Longoria isn't 
    due to come off their books next winter.

    Yet the Giants have good reasons not to act like a typical rebuilder this winter. For one thing, they've been competitive in each of the last two seasons. For another, they're certainly capable of spending. Even their $141 million in projected commitments for 2021 puts them about $60 million short of their peak payroll.

    If the Giants use all this as an excuse to force the issue this winter, they could spend big on an impact pitcher such as Trevor Bauer or an impact hitter such as George Springer.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Dodgers had to spend actual billions to make it happen, but they're finally World Series champions for the first time since 1988.

    What's more, they already have a good foundation to pursue a second straight title in 2021. Most of their core players from this past season are due back, including star hitters Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger and aces Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler.

    But in Justin Turner, the Dodgers did lose their everyday third baseman to free agency. The open market has also claimed outfielder Joc Pederson and utility man Enrique Hernandez, plus relievers Blake Treinen, Jake McGee and Pedro Baez.

    The Dodgers thus have quite a few holes to fill. Luckily for them, they can add close to $20 million in average annual value before having to worry about the luxury tax for 2021. Should they go over the $210 million threshold, well, they can afford it.

2. New York Yankees

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    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    True to form, the New York Yankees are already projected for a substantial $175 million payroll in 2021.

    In October, principal owner Hal Steinbrenner seemed to warn fans not to expect that number to significantly increase when he said "there's no doubt we sustained significant losses this year, more so than any other team in baseball."

    Still, these are the Yankees. They're the most valuable and potentially (we frankly don't know for sure) the most profitable team in baseball. Accordingly, even their current projection for 2021 is about $75 million short of what they would have spent in 2020 if the pandemic hadn't come through.

    So, it's fair to expect the Yankees to spare no expense as they fill their needs. Those include re-signing or replacing second baseman DJ LeMahieu and starters Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton. In the event that they trade Gary Sanchez, they'll also be in the market for a new catcher.

1. New York Mets

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Under the Wilpons, the New York Mets spent years operating with middle-of-the-road payrolls despite playing in the sport's biggest media market.

    Now, the team has a new owner in billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, who's already promised that the Mets will "act like a major-market team" under his watch.

    Granted, the Mets already have $160 million on their projected payroll for 2021. Yet they're nonetheless about $50 million in average annual value short of the luxury tax threshold, and it would certainly be like a major-market team to blow right past it anyway.

    So whenever the Mets eventually hire a general manager, he or she may have no limits regarding the club's need for starting pitching, bullpen depth and potentially new starters at catcher and in center field. Everyone from Trevor Bauer to J.T. Realmuto to George Springer is in play for these openings.

         

    Salary and payroll data courtesy of FanGraphs and Cot's Baseball Contracts.