Which MLB Teams Will Be Most (and Least) Aggressive in Free-Agent Spending?

Martin FennFeatured Columnist INovember 20, 2020

Which MLB Teams Will Be Most (and Least) Aggressive in Free-Agent Spending?

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Baseball tradition usually suggests big-market teams routinely have the highest payrolls and are the biggest spenders in free agency.

    But MLB's landscape is vastly different heading into this winter.

    All 30 clubs are dealing with financial losses sustained during the coronavirus pandemic. The New York Mets have new ownership, while the Chicago Cubs front office is on to a new chapter after president of baseball operations Theo Epstein stepped down earlier this week. 

    Despite all the moving and shaking, the game goes on, and free agency still offers teams the opportunity to bolster their rosters. 

    Here are the clubs that will be the most and least aggressive with free-agent spending, based on payroll flexibility, competitive status and the latest rumors.

Top Dogs: New York Mets

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    When Steve Cohen purchased the New York Mets in September, he was expected to hike payroll.

    And all indications are the club will indeed be aggressive. Cohen said during his introductory press conference the Mets would act like a big-market team.

    The Yankees are typically the New York cub that dominates the narrative every winter. But the Mets have a host of needs—notably catching and starting pitching—and an owner motivated to field a consistent winner in a hurry.

    There is also the fact that Robinson Cano forfeited his $24 million salary for 2021 after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, resulting in a yearlong ban.

    It wouldn't be surprising to see the Mets land multiple stars this offseason. They could throw the kitchen sink at catcher J.T. Realmuto, and 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer was impressed with Cohen's introduction, which adds intrigue to New York's possible pursuit of the top pitcher available.

Top Dogs: Chicago White Sox

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    The South Siders are no longer the future. They are the now.

    Chicago earned its first playoff berth since 2008 this past season and boasts some of the game's most talented youngsters. The club also showed a willingness to spend last offseason, when it signed key contributors like catcher Yasmani Grandal and starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, among others.

    The White Sox will look to build on their foundation. They have a clear need in the outfield alongside Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, which could make George Springer the ideal target. 

    General manager Rick Hahn could dole out high-priced, one-year deals to any number of relievers to bolster the pitching staff. He could also pursue multiple mid-rotation starters to fill in behind Keuchel and Lucas Giolito.

    Regardless, the White Sox are no longer rebuilding. They are striving to compete for a World Series and have the flexibility to add, given most of their key players are either pre-arbitration, in arbitration or—like Jimenez and Robert—had those arbitration years bought out.

Top Dogs: Toronto Blue Jays

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Although the Toronto Blue Jays haven't fully emerged from their rebuild like the White Sox, they are close.

    Toronto has a strong group of young position players, and signing Hyun Jin Ryu last winter paid major dividends, as he finished third in the AL Cy Young vote. However, the Blue Jays need more pitching.

    The team brought back Robbie Ray after acquiring him at the 2020 trade deadline, and top prospect Nate Pearson still figures into the equation. But Chase Anderson, Matt Shoemaker and Taijuan Walker are all free agents, leaving multiple holes in the rotation. 

    Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said the team would pursue at least one upgrade in free agency, per Gregor Chisholm of the Toronto Star. Indeed, ESPN's Buster Olney reported Toronto's interest in Jake Odorizzi.

    Atkins said during a recent appearance on MLB Network Radio that this offseason is a chance for the Blue Jays to pursue some of the top players available. In addition to starting pitchers, this could mean a look at someone like Springer or even Realmuto. 

    Toronto is motivated to make another leap, and Atkins has been transparent about being active this winter. Count on the Blue Jays to spend.

The Next Tier

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    San Francisco Giants

    The Giants seemingly do not have the incentive to spend a lot, considering their lack of impact players.

    However, San Francisco has a ton of money coming off the books after 2021, which could lead to some activity from president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and Co. 

    The Giants already made a fairly aggressive play by extending starting pitcher Kevin Gausman a qualifying offer, which he accepted. Olney also reported San Francisco had interest in Odorizzi.

    Keep an eye out for Zaidi's potential courtship of Korean Baseball Organization star Ha-seong Kim, who is expected to be posted this winter. Morosi reported last month the Giants were seen as "suitors" for the infielder, and Kim would be a perfect long-term replacement for shortstop Brandon Crawford, who is a free agent next year.


    San Diego Padres

    The Friars have concrete needs in the rotation and bullpen. Mike Clevinger will miss the 2021 season after he undergoes Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, both Kirby Yates and Trevor Rosenthal are free agents, which could leave the back end of the bullpen thin.

    Padres general manager A.J. Preller showed aggressiveness when signing Manny Machado ahead of the 2019 campaign. Preller backed that up by trading a slew of prospects for Clevinger and others at the deadline last season.

    The Friars seem to have immediate payroll flexibility too. San Diego has an estimated $131 million on the books for next year, down from $157 million in 2020, which should give Preller some leeway in adding a couple of impact players.


    Atlanta Braves 

    Atlanta is typically one of the more cautious teams in free agency, hence general manager Alex Anthopoulos' tendency to hand out one-year deals.

    But Anthopoulos and the Braves paid a fairly steep price for left-hander Drew Smyly (one year, $11 million) earlier this week, considering Smyly made just five starts last season. Is this a sign they'll flex their muscle this winter?

    The Braves could use more starting pitching depth, and Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported they are interested in re-signing outfielder Marcell Ozuna.

    Atlanta came within a game of reaching the World Series. Perhaps that gives Anthopoulos cause to establish continuity by re-signing Ozuna while also searching for pitching upgrades.


    Los Angeles Angels

    The Angels could go after any number of big-name free agents.

    Bauer fits the need for a front-line starter. Los Angeles could keep David Fletcher at shortstop should it sign LeMahieu.

    The Halos have a new general manager in Perry Minasian, and Angels owner Arte Moreno said his payroll is "not going down," per J.P. Hoornstra of the Southern California News Group. The club has a projected $159 million on the 2021 books, $20 million lower than last year.

    Will the Angels have the sway to go after the top guys? Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon provide a strong foundation, and perhaps the presence of Joe Maddon can be an influencer. Still, this is a franchise that has not made the playoffs since 2014.

    That said, the Angels have been able to sign marquee names like Rendon and Shohei Ohtani in recent years. Los Angeles could be spenders given Moreno's comments regarding payroll. Don't forget: Albert Pujols and Justin Upton are off the books after 2021 and 2022, respectively.

Big-Market Teams Unlikely to Spend Big on Outside FAs

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    New York Yankees

    The Yankees need starting pitching and bullpen depth. Unfortunately, they do not have a ton of cash to throw around.

    New York's estimated payroll stands at $175 million for next year, which does not account for the fact that the Bronx Bombers have multiple starters—Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton—heading for free agency. Oh, and infielder DJ LeMahieu is also a free agent.

    General manager Brian Cashman might have to be choosy. As Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported, Cashman has said he will not "telegraph" the team's payroll for next year. But Sherman noted club officials continue to speak about losses sustained because of the pandemic, which could indicate New York would prefer to stay below the $210 million competitive-balance-tax threshold (CBT).

    Sherman guesses the Yankees will come in somewhere close to $200 million, which might endanger the team's chances of re-signing DJ LeMahieu.

    However, after he put up 8.7 WAR in 195 games with New York, it's hard to imagine Cashman will let the two-time batting champion walk. Not to mention, Ken Davidoff of the New York Post noted LeMahieu previously iterated a desire to stay in New York City.

    Still, that means the Yankees will have to resort to lesser options in the rotation or hope someone like Charlie Morton would take a bit of a discount to pitch in New York. 


    Philadelphia Phillies

    The Phillies are not established contenders like the Yankees, even if they hoped they would be by now.

    Philadelphia has made significant moves in each of the past two winters, signing Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler while trading for Realmuto. But the team missed the playoffs in both 2019 and 2020.

    Moreover, it appears Philadelphia will proceed with caution this offseason. Club president Andy MacPhail said it was unlikely the team would make a "significant add" in the near future, per Meghan Montemurro of The Athletic.

    This makes sense given the front office is still in a state of flux after GM Matt Klentak's resignation. It is possible the Phillies will go with stopgaps or cheaper options, though they have plenty of needs in the bullpen and—if Realmuto leaves—behind the plate.


    Houston Astros

    The Astros are in a weird spot.

    Houston's 2021 payroll estimate sits at $155 million (after finishing the 2020 at roughly $213 million), and the 'Stros have three outfielders—Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick—all headed for free agency. 

    Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported the Astros have already gotten a jump on talks with Brantley, but that could mean they will not pursue Springer.

    Although both Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are off the books after next year, the Astros will have to consider extensions for guys like Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. Plus, signing both Brantley and Springer would push the Astros right up against the CBT, and they need to fill out the roster.

    Matt Young of the Houston Chronicle noted the Astros owe close to $150 million on just nine players. Aside from the outfield situation, Houston has a host of bullpen needs after waiving Roberto Osuna and with Chris Devenski also a free agent. The Osuna move likely saved about $10 million, per Young's colleague Chandler Rome, but it could also be an indication the Astros hope to spend smarter in filling out the roster.

Clubs That Could Go Big…or Spend Smartly

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Dodgers 

    The Dodgers don't need to hit a hot-stove home run. Even with a number of players bound for free agency, L.A. is still the game's most talented team. 

    That said, team president Andrew Friedman is never afraid to shake things up. The Dodgers could use an impact arm in the bullpen given the uneasiness surrounding Kenley Jansen as the closer, not to mention his free agency looms after 2021.

    Perhaps L.A. will try to sign the market's best closer in Liam Hendriks. Maybe the Dodgers will even go after Bauer, though doing so would almost certainly put the team over the initial CBT threshold in 2021.

    Or, Friedman could resort to a number of depth plays (and possibly sign internal FAs like Justin Turner) to bolster a roster coming off a World Series win.


    Minnesota Twins 

    Much like the Dodgers, the Twins could merely re-sign some of their guys headed for free agency, especially designated hitter Nelson Cruz.

    Still, the Twins have more flexibility than the Dodgers. Most of their core group is under contract, and there's $33 million of wiggle room between 2020's payroll and their 2021 books.

    Twins president Derek Falvey spent big on Josh Donaldson last winter (four years, $92 million). At the same time, however, most of Minnesota's positions are filled, and the starting pitching market—one area of need—is fairly weak.

    Although the Twins could make a play for Bauer, the better guess is they re-sign Cruz and scour the pitching market for one-year deals to improve the bullpen and rotation.


    Washington Nationals

    It should hardly come as a surprise the Nationals declined club options on Adam Eaton, Anibal Sanchez and Howie Kendrick, among others, given their unimpressive performances and advanced ages. 

    But declining these options is not necessarily an indication the Nationals will spend big this winter. Sure, guys like Springer and Realmuto could make sense, and the Nats also need back-end starting depth and bullpen upgrades.

    However, Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic suggested Washington will be "middle of the pack" in terms of free-agent spending after it doled out lucrative long-term contracts to Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in each of the last two years.  

    Look for the Nats to seek mid-tier veterans. Turner could make perfect sense on a short-term deal given positional and offensive needs.

Teams That Should Throw Money Around but Probably Won’t

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Boston Red Sox

    Boston's 2019-20 offseason was motivated by one thing and one thing only: getting under the CBT threshold. After all, why else would it trade a generational talent like Mookie Betts? (It shouldn't have anyway, but I digress.)

    Well, mission accomplished. The Red Sox have breathing room this year and are likely hoping the return of both Chris Sale—though he will miss the start of the regular season after he underwent Tommy John surgery in March—and Eduardo Rodriguez (heart inflammation) to the rotation can make a big difference. 

    Paired with improvement from stars like Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez, this should put Boston in a position to spend a bit more to get back into contention. Indeed, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said he did not like "ruling out" signing any given player, per Julian McWilliams of the Boston Globe.

    At the same time, it is important to remember Bloom comes from a small-market background in Tampa Bay. Additionally, the Red Sox have only just worked their way below the tax after leading MLB in payroll in both 2018 and 2019. 

    Boston might be more likely to re-sign outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. while going after fringe rotation adds such as Rich Hill, Mike Minor or Cole Hamels, among others.


    St. Louis Cardinals

    St. Louis made the playoffs again in 2020 and should have every opportunity to win an up-for-grabs NL Central in 2021 if it can add impact pieces.

    But the Cardinals don't appear overly motivated to spend. They bought out Kolten Wong's option, even though he was only set to make $12.5 million in 2021.

    Moreover, there could be pressure to re-sign fan favorites Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, both of whom have already seen feelers from other clubs. Atlanta's shown interest in Wainwright, per the The Athletic's David O'Brien and Rosenthal. Meanwhile, Heyman reported both New York teams are kicking the tires on Molina.

    It's possible the Redbirds explore the trade market for a Francisco Lindor or Nolan Arenado. However, the decision to decline Wong's option might be indicative that team president John Mozeliak is not overly keen on spending big this winter.


    Arizona Diamondbacks 

    Diamondbacks fans are probably wary of lavishing money on free agents after Madison Bumgarner had a woeful first season in the desert following the signing of his five-year, $85 million pact. 

    Arizona might be just as likely to trade an asset like veteran outfielder Kole Calhoun. Both Eduardo Escobar and David Peralta are also trade candidates given they and will both be free agents in the near future (Escobar after 2021, Peralta after 2022).

    But the D-backs should have payroll space. They sit at an estimated $84 million for 2021, down from $112 million last season, giving them the cash flow.

    Although the 2020 season was a big disappointment, the Diamondbacks have young talent in ace Zac Gallen, 25, and infielder Ketel Marte, 27, along with a dynamite farm system. They could be just a few signings and a couple of bounce back-years away from competing for a playoff spot. 

    However, general manager Mike Hazen likely realizes the Dodgers and Padres figure to have dominion over the NL West, which could lead to a more measured offseason approach.

Contenders More Likely to Trade Stars Than Upgrade Through FA

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    Cleveland Indians

    This one is rather obvious.

    Although Morosi reported earlier this month a deal could take time, Cleveland will likely trade Lindor before Opening Day.

    A rival executive even told Rosenthal the fact that Lindor is in a walk year might not be a deterrent, as gaining the edge on signing him long term could be worth it in this "uncertain economic climate." Granted, Lindor might still hope for Mookie Betts-type money (12 years, $365 million), but there are no guarantees. 

    Cleveland still has the talent to be competitive. The Indians pitching staff is one of the best in baseball, and signing a lower-cost outfielder like Brantley (relative to Springer and Ozuna) to a short-term deal could be a game-changer for the lineup.

    But there has been little to no noise to suggest the Indians are looking to upgrade an outfield that ranked 28th in WAR last year, per FanGraphs.

    All this is to say the Indians figure to explore the trade market and appear more likely to move Lindor than make another run at a World Series.


    Chicago Cubs 

    The Cubs could still compete with added rotation depth and possibly an impact bat. Morton and Brantley would be ideal fits. 

    However, Chicago is all but certain to make drastic roster changes, especially after Epstein stepped down this week. 

    Olney reported the Cubs were essentially open to trading anyone. Epstein, in his statement, alluded to looming winter decisions that have "long-term" consequences as Jed Hoyer prepares to lead the front office.

    Thus, Chicago is likely to gauge value on guys like Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras and even Javier Baez as the North Siders prepare for a tough offseason.


    Milwaukee Brewers

    Sure, the Brewers lost in the wild-card round in 2020. They have a shortage of arms in the rotation and lack run-producers in the lineup.

    But, much as is the case with the Cardinals, Milwaukee could still contend in the NL Central, especially if the Cubs retool or blow things up and Christian Yelich bounces back.

    That said, the Brewers are a traditionally low-payroll team and have the 26th-ranked farm system in baseball, per Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter.

    Robert Murray of FanSided reported Milwaukee will once again listen to offers for closer Josh Hader, and the Brewers could have less flexibility once Yelich's extension kicks in next year. 

    If anything, Milwaukee will employ a similar strategy to its approach last offseason, when it handed out a number of deals that carried club options for a second year.

The Annual Small-Market Players

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Tampa Bay Rays

    The Rays are one of the best in baseball in terms of operating on a low payroll, and that figures to continue in 2021.

    Tampa Bay already declined its club option on Morton, and—while it hopes to re-sign him—Mark Feinsand of MLB.com reported it might not be willing to pay him more than $10 million.

    Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times even noted the Rays could explore dealing Blake Snell, two seasons after the left-hander inked a five-year extension.

    If anything, the Rays will likely remain crafty and rely on their strong farm system.


    Oakland Athletics

    The A's also do whatever they can to keep costs down, so it's not surprising they did not extend qualifying offers to Hendriks and shortstop Marcus Semien.

    Semien's agent, Joel Wolfe, told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle he views his client as a "$100 million-plus player."

    He will not make close to that much. He might even have to settle for a short-term offer. But Semien is likely out of Oakland's price range with comments like that. It is even more unlikely the A's sign Hendriks, considering he will be the top reliever on the market. 

    Oakland could re-sign veteran arms like Joakim Soria and Yusmeiro Petit while looking for veterans to fill out the rotation. But the A's will really just hope A.J. Puk is healthy and Jesus Luzardo evolves. Perhaps they'll also look to re-sign Tommy La Stella up the middle, but that is hardly a splashy move.

In a State of Limbo

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    Cincinnati Reds

    The Reds would like to re-sign Bauer, per John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Doing so would prove costly, though, considering Cincy's payroll sits at $137 million, just $12 million below last year's figure, and Bauer likely wants a raise over his $17.5 million 2020 salary.

    However, new head of baseball operations Nick Krall could follow in Dick Williams' footsteps after the latter was especially aggressive in free agency last year.

    Cincinnati will once again have a hole at shortstop and might hope to sign Semien, Didi Gregorius or Ha-seong Kim. But the bullpen is the biggest area of need, and the Reds could explore signing Hendriks, Brad Hand or Rosenthal.

    The team likely wants to remain competitive after reaching the playoffs this past year. Despite that, it figures to have a lot of competition for its top targets from clubs that could have more muscle both in terms of money and attractiveness.

    Plus, the Reds do not have the strongest positional group. The outfield is deep but full of holes. Joey Votto, 37, bounced back with an .800 OPS, but he is only getting older and not anywhere near the caliber of player he used to be.

    This could make for a confusing offseason in Cincinnati. 


    Colorado Rockies

    Colorado has two of the most talented infielders in baseball in Arenado and shortstop Trevor Story. But the Rockies have not been competitive the past couple of years and might be sellers this offseason.

    Colorado's 2021 payroll is at $145 million, which is only $1 million below its final payroll for 2020. Nick Groke of The Athletic reported owner Dick Monfort has also hinted at slashing payroll.

    Trading Arenado or Story would be a commitment to a rebuild. Alternatively, staying active in free agency would demand an even higher payroll, which is not the best direction for a team that does not have a playoff makeup.


    Texas Rangers

    The Rangers failed to land a top free agent last year and are stuck. 

    Texas needs to do something to galvanize the fanbase after building Globe Life Field, which did not have any attendees last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    Like the Rockies, however, the Rangers do not figure into the competitive picture. They also have a mostly lackluster farm system, though Josh Jung and Sam Huff are top names. 

    Team president Jon Daniels might be tempted to throw some big contracts out there. But the Rangers could do just as well to explore trades for Lance Lynn and perhaps even Joey Gallo amid a retool.

Rebuilding Clubs That Could Sign Vets

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    Miami Marlins

    Even though the Marlins were a playoff team last year, they are still rebuilding. 

    Miami's Pythagorean (expected) win-loss was 26-34, per Baseball Reference. That equates to just over 70 wins when stretched to 162 games, which would obviously leave the Marlins out of the playoff picture. 

    Still, it would not be a surprise for general manager Kim Ng to stay busy in her first year at the helm. The Marlins offered a number of veterans one-year contracts last year, and a similar strategy could be in order.

    Miami picked up Starling Marte's option, so CEO Derek Jeter is trying to move the needle. That means the Marlins could try to spend a bit more this offseason.


    Seattle Mariners

    While the Marlins were one of 2020's most surprising teams, the Mariners quietly finished just two games back of the Astros for a playoff spot.

    Seattle has reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis and intriguing utility guys like Dylan Moore and Ty France. Although Evan White struggled at the plate, he won a Gold Glove at first base. Then there are the arms. 

    Justus Sheffield was terrific after a brief big-league showing in 2019, and Yusei Kikuchi had strong peripherals despite a 5.17 ERA. Justin Dunn is still developing, but Marco Gonzales had a sub-1.00 WHIP and a 3.10 ERA, and he could be an ace.

    Although Seattle is years from contention, it has foundational pieces and fast risers like Jarred Kelenic. The Mariners could explore trading Gonzales and Kyle Seager, but they could also look to sign steady vets to supplement growth and establish a sense of competitiveness.

The Bottom-Dwellers

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    Four clubs are clearly rebuilding: the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates.

    It's possible the Tigers could also be in the "one-year veteran deal" camp, but they will let some of the young arms in the rotation work it out and wait for 2020 No. 1 pick Spencer Torkelson to move through the system. 

    Baltimore's top pieces are position players, with Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander among the most productive guys, and Adley Rutschman and Yusniel Diaz coming to the majors soon.

    The Royals have some decent young starters in Brady Singer and Brad Keller, not to mention right-handed flamethrowing reliever Josh Staumont. Kansas City could eventually explore trades of veterans Salvador Perez, Whit Merrifield and possibly Jorge Soler.

    Pittsburgh has little hope for 2021. Guys like Steven Brault and Joe Musgrove will probably be on the trade block, and a Josh Bell trade could be explored. GM Ben Cherington will tear it all down before this team commits to spending again. But hey, Pirates fans, at least you have Ke'Bryan Hayes!

    All of these fanbases have at least one reason for optimism. None, however, should expect their teams to spend much this winter.


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, unless otherwise noted. Payroll estimates via FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.