Projecting the Contracts for the Top 10 MLB Free Agents of the 2020 Class

Martin FennFeatured Columnist INovember 17, 2020

Projecting the Contracts for the Top 10 MLB Free Agents of the 2020 Class

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The 2020-21 MLB offseason will not be anything like the previous one.

    Last winter included megadeals for Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon, the top two players in the free-agent class. There was an abundance of starting pitchers to sign, and numerous teams appeared to be in on multiple star players.

    Of course, the situation is vastly different this year. The 30 clubs are coming off a 60-game season that was shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, and many have laid off employees and declined club options.

    Naturally, the absence of financial clarity makes it difficult to predict how free agency will play out. One thing is for sure, however: The top stars will still cash out.

    Here are predictions for the contracts that will be inked by the game's 10 best in the coming months. The following players were chosen based on the extent of their expected markets as well as past production.

Trevor Bauer

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Unlike last offseason, there is a shortage of premium starting pitching—which became even more apparent when Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman accepted qualifying offers last week.

    That likely made Trevor Bauer the most coveted free agent on the market.

    The 29-year-old captured the National League Cy Young Award after posting a 1.73 ERA in 73 innings. Bauer led the NL in ERA+ (276) and WHIP (0.79) while also pacing the majors with 5.1 hits allowed per nine innings. He struck out 100 hitters.

    Will Bauer maintain his stance on signing one-year deals or commit to a long-term pact? It seems unlikely he would pass up a multiyear offer at a high average annual value, and he will almost assuredly get those offers.

    The question will be which team can make Bauer the best offer that balances years and dollars. Perhaps he would seek a three-year deal so he can reenter the open market ahead of his age-33 season.

    The Chicago White Sox could be an ideal suitor. But Bauer has questioned their hiring of new manager Tony La Russa.

    Andrew Friedman and the Los Angeles Dodgers could get involved considering Clayton Kershaw will be a free agent after next year. But L.A. still has plenty of arms and might be better off shoring up the bullpen.

    The Cincinnati Reds will do everything they can to bring Bauer back into the fold, but Cincy lacks the competitive framework he desires.

    Meanwhile, the New York Mets have pitching needs, even after Stroman accepted his qualifying offer. New York could be motivated to make a strong move to sign Bauer with Steve Cohen taking over as team owner. And the Mets have the payroll flexibility to go after other marquee free agents, which could appeal to Bauer.

    Prediction: Bauer signs with the Mets for three years and $96 million

J.T. Realmuto

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Mets also have catching needs, making J.T. Realmuto another ideal target for them.

    Realmuto has been one of the best catchers in baseball in the last three years. The 29-year-old ranks first among catchers in fWAR over that span. He made the NL All-Star team in 2018 and 2019 and hit 11 homers and posted a career-high .840 OPS last season.

    Realmuto is also one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. He threw out an MLB-high 46.7 percent of would-be base-stealers in 2019 and ranked second in pitch framing in 2020.

    The Philadelphia Phillies should have extended Realmuto almost as soon as they acquired him from the Miami Marlins in February 2019. But former general manager Matt Klentak failed to do so, and now Philly is going through a front-office overhaul.

    The New York Yankees could show some interest given the shaky ground Gary Sanchez is standing on. The Bronx Bombers, however, also need to improve the rotation and bullpen, which could prohibit them from making a top offer.

    The Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels could show interest but also have pitching needs.

    The Mets are looking for a catcher after declining Wilson Ramos' $10 million club option. Cohen even indicated in his introductory news conference the team would look for a catching upgrade, per Jon Heyman of MLB Network.

    Todd Zolecki of reported Realmuto could be seeking a contract close to $200 million. That might be excessive, but the Mets are likely to come close and also pay Realmuto well over $23 million per year, which would surpass the previous record for annual salary held by Joe Mauer.

    Prediction: Realmuto signs with the Mets for six years and $175 million

George Springer

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    George Springer is the top outfielder on the market.

    The 31-year-old solidified himself as one of the best players in Houston Astros history. Springer has clubbed 174 homers and posted an .852 OPS and OPS+ of 131.

    Despite getting off to a slow start, Springer finished the 2020 campaign with 14 homers and an .899 OPS. He was a threat at the top of a lineup whose stars experienced their share of struggles.

    Springer might have been an ideal candidate to return. The Astros have three free-agent outfielders, and Springer has become a franchise favorite. But Houston seems to be going in a different direction.

    Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported the Astros were working to bring back Michael Brantley, which could indicate they are prepared to move on from Springer and pursue low-cost options to replace him.

    A couple of American League upstarts figure to get involved in Springer's market.

    The Blue Jays could use an upgrade over Randal Grichuk in center field, though they owe Grichuk $31 million over the next three years. But Toronto could still sign Springer and then try to package some of its young talent to acquire pitching.

    Meanwhile, the White Sox have a need in right field. The Nomar Mazara experiment was a failure, and Adam Engel is a defensive specialist who would be best used as a platoon option.

    It remains to be seen whether the La Russa hiring will scare off Springer and other top names. But the three-time All-Star would have the chance to join an exciting young corps set up to contend for years to come.

    Chicago missed out on a top outfielder in Bryce Harper two offseasons ago. But the White Sox have all the makings of a World Series contender—and the flexibility to sign Springer to a big deal.

    Prediction: Springer signs with the White Sox for five years and $135 million

DJ LeMahieu

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    DJ LeMahieu has always been a premium infielder, but he became a star in the Big Apple.

    The 32-year-old hit .327 and drove in 102 runs last year and then won his second batting title and led the AL in OBP (.421), OPS (1.011) and OPS+ (177) this season.

    There is nothing fluky about LeMahieu's power, either. He ranked above the 80th percentile in both average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. The California native is also one of the toughest outs in the game, ranking in the 100th percentile in strikeout rate and 99th percentile in whiff rate.

    LeMahieu's hit tool, paired with his defensive versatility, will make him highly sought-after, even though he's entering his age-32 season.

    Rosenthal reported re-signing LeMahieu is a "priority" for the Yankees, but they may be stretched for funds after exercising Zack Britton's $14 million club option for 2022. The move will help limit the number of possible holes in the bullpen, however, and perhaps allow Brian Cashman to spend elsewhere.

    "People connected to the team say that LeMahieu is even more essential to the clubhouse culture than his quiet persona might suggest," Andy Martino of SNY reported in August.

    The Blue Jays, Angels and Washington Nationals might pursue LeMahieu, but Cashman will make him the best offer.

    Prediction: LeMahieu re-signs with the Yankees for four years and $88 million

Marcell Ozuna

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Perhaps no player did more to bolster their impending free agency than Marcell Ozuna.

    The Atlanta Braves signed Ozuna to a one-year deal in January, and he promptly gave them one of the best seasons of his career.

    Ozuna led the NL in homers (18), RBI (56) and total bases (145) while posting career-high marks in OPS (1.067) and OPS+ (175). He also ranked third in the majors in weighted runs created plus.

    The 30-year-old is primed for a massive payday. Ozuna figures to have a decent market, though questions about his defense could shrink it a bit.

    There is still uncertainty about whether the universal designated hitter will be in play for 2021, and Ozuna has been a below-average defender since undergoing shoulder surgery in October 2018.

    However, Rosenthal reported Braves coaches said Ozuna worked to strengthen his arm and that it could be serviceable. That says nothing for his questionable routes and range limitations, but it's encouraging.

    The Blue Jays and White Sox would make sense. So would the Nationals, who declined their club option on right fielder Adam Eaton.

    But it seems like a good bet the Braves will retain Ozuna. He provided perfect lineup protection for Freddie Freeman, who turned in an MVP season.

    Ozuna also boasts some of the most impressive advanced hitting stats in baseball. He ranked in the 94th percentile or better in terms of barrel percentage, average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and expected wOBA.

    Atlanta still has a pair of impact outfield prospects in Cristian Pache and Drew Waters and might regard them as part of the future in addition to Ronald Acuna Jr. But Ozuna is in the midst of his prime, and the Braves could flip Pache or Waters for starting pitching if they so choose.

    Prediction: Ozuna re-signs with the Braves for four years and $80 million

Charlie Morton

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    There are a number of starting pitchers who might settle for one-year deals. Morton will probably be one of those to ink a one-year contract, though it would hardly be "settling."

    The 37-year-old right-hander is one of the most effective starters on the open market after the Tampa Bay Rays declined his $15 million option.

    Morton had a 4.74 ERA in nine starts last season, but he had a more respectable 4.01 xFIP. He still struck out 9.9 opponents per nine innings and gave up just one earned run in his first 15.2 postseason innings before struggling in his lone start of the World Series.

    Though Morton might hope to return to Tampa, the Rays could be ready to move on. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported they still hope to re-sign Morton but that general manager Erik Neander has also stressed the need to be "flexible."

    Additionally, Morton already has a large market. Mark Feinsand of reported eight to 10 teams have "already expressed some level of interest" in Morton. It seems likely at least one would be willing to outbid the Rays.

    Topkin reported Tampa Bay's offer could be $8 million to $12 million. Considering the number of big-market teams likely to pursuing pitching, however, Morton may recoup nearly all the money he lost when his option was declined.

    The White Sox and Chicago Cubs would fit, especially if the latter decides to keep its core together. The Mets could figure into Morton's market, as well.

    But the Yankees might make the most sense. They have rotation holes to fill with Masahiro Tananka and James Paxton in free agency and might be willing to spend a little extra to sign Morton for 2021 while keeping their future books clear.

    Prediction: Morton signs with the Yankees for one year and $13.5 million

Nelson Cruz

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Nelson Cruz can do only one thing, but he has done it about as well as anyone else in the last seven years.

    The 40-year-old leads all players with 260 homers since 2014. In the last two seasons, he ranks behind just Mike Trout in wRC+ (163). Cruz still hits the ball as hard as anyone, and he hardly slowed down in 2020.

    Cruz mashed 16 homers and tied his career high with a 169 OPS+. The Minnesota Twins lineup was disappointing because of injuries and down years, but its designated hitter kept mashing. Will the Twins re-sign him?

    It sure would make sense. Minnesota will return its key pieces and has a dangerous lineup despite last season's struggles. But Cruz holds things together as the imposing run producer in the middle of the order.

    However, Cruz's market—like Marcell Ozuna's—could expand significantly if the universal DH is kept for next season. After all, what team would turn down the chance to sign one of the most prolific hitters of the last decade-plus?

    Still, the Twins make the most sense. Not only is Cruz productive on the field, but he's also a model of leadership off the diamond. He won the 2020 Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award for his work in the Dominican Republic.

    La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune reported the Twins and Cruz have mutual interest in reaching a new deal and that Cruz may want to sign for two years.

    Prediction: Cruz re-signs with the Twins for two years and $28 million

Liam Hendriks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Liam Hendriks is the unquestioned top relief target on the market.

    The closer has been nothing short of dominant in the past two years for the Oakland Athletics, easily pacing all relievers with 5.2 fWAR.

    Hendriks was nearly untouchable in 2020, posting a 1.78 ERA in 25.1 innings and 12.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also converted 14 of 15 save attempts. In 2019, Hendriks had a 1.80 ERA and 237 ERA+.

    The 31-year-old is all but guaranteed to get a multiyear deal, especially considering he has only elevated his performances in the last couple of years. Oakland did not extend him a qualifying offer, which is hardly a surprise considering the A's are a low-payroll club. But it also suggests Hendriks will be pitching elsewhere in 2021.

    Relief pitchers are always in high demand considering their year-to-year volatility. Plus, there are a number of contenders that need to replace late-inning arms. This includes the defending champion Dodgers.

    Blake Treinen, Jake McGee and Pedro Baez may depart via free agency.

    Moreover, there are some questions about Kenley Jansen's status as the team's closer. Jansen was still effective in 2020, posting a 3.33 ERA and saving 11 games in 13 tries. But the 33-year-old's velocity declined steeply during the postseason, and he will be a free agent after the 2021 season.

    All these factors make Hendriks the perfect target for the Dodgers as they launch their quest to repeat. Los Angeles will be aggressive in inking him to a multiyear deal.

    Prediction: Hendriks signs with the Dodgers for three years and $33 million

Justin Turner

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Justin Turner has quietly been one of the steadiest hitters in baseball since signing with the Dodgers ahead of the 2014 season.

    The 35-year-old slashed .302/.382/.503 in his seven years with L.A. while also becoming one of the best postseason performers in the modern era. Turner has a .295/.392/.507 career slash line in October, including the 2020 World Series in which he hit .320 with a 1.066 OPS.

    But the Dodgers may not pursue an extended partnership with Turner. Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times reported in May the two sides had yet to discuss an extension, though Pedro Moura of The Athletic reported last week Turner is considered "a likely returnee" to L.A.

    Moura suggested the Dodgers might pursue DJ LeMahieu or a trade for Francisco Lindor. Los Angeles also has top infield prospect Gavin Lux in the pipeline, and the Dodgers could shift Corey Seager to third. These are factors to weigh when considering the viability of a Turner return.

    Turner's consistency at the dish will make him appealing teams looking for offense at the hot corner. The Nationals could be chief among these suitors.

    Washington declined Howie Kendrick's mutual option, and Asdrubal Cabrera and Ryan Zimmerman are also free agents. Meanwhile, top prospect Carter Kieboom struggled in his brief showing at the big league level.

    The Nats need more production in the lineup, and they also need infielders. Signing Turner could be the best route forward, especially because such a move would not have the drastic future payroll implications that will come with som of the other marquee free agents.

    Prediction: Turner signs with the Nats for two years and $30 million

Ha-Seong Kim

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    Toru Takahashi/Associated Press

    Francisco Lindor's future with Cleveland will dominate the narrative at the shortstop position, and Didi Gregorius and Marcus Semien should garner some interest.

    However, teams looking for an upgrade might express more interest in Ha-Seong Kim.

    The 25-year-old has been an offensive weapon in seven seasons with the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization. Kim slashed .294/.373/.493 during that span, hitting 133 homers and stealing 134 bases. He also walked (75) more times than he struck out (68) last year.

    Kim's combination of power and speed are appealing. Though there are no guarantees those numbers would translate to MLB, the upside is there.

    Additionally, Kim might be cheaper than Gregorius or Semien in terms of annual salary, and his age could be a big plus.

    Projecting where Kim could land is harder. The A's, Angels, Phillies and Reds would all make sense. But rebuilding clubs hoping to make Kim a part of the process might also show interest.

    Daniel Kim of ESPN reported last week the Heroes are expected to post Kim shortly after Thanksgiving. There will probably be a mad dash to sign him, which could benefit more established front offices.

    Jon Morosi of reported in October the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants are "viewed as suitors," and San Francisco could win the race if it is willing to spend a bit more this offseason.

    Prediction: Kim signs with the Giants for five years and $42 million (plus posting fee)


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