Projecting Contracts for Top 2020 MLB Free Agents Based on Recent Comparisons

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2020

Projecting Contracts for Top 2020 MLB Free Agents Based on Recent Comparisons

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Predicting where free agents will sign and how much they will be paid is an annual tradition for MLB fans and analysts alike, and this year is no exception.

    However, the basis for those contract predictions is not always clear.

    Are they based on recent market trends? A specific past signing? Simply pulled out of a hat?

    In the spirit of contextualizing things, we used recent contracts awarded to comparable players while factoring age, performance and position to forecast the following contracts for nine of the market's top free agents.

    Not all of the comparisons were perfect, and that was addressed before making a final determination on what each player's contract will look like this offseason.

SS Marcus Semien

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Player Comparison: Josh Donaldson

    Contract: One-year, $23 million deal from Atlanta Braves on Nov. 26, 2018

    After a five-year run in which he averaged 6.6 WAR, won an MVP award and established himself as one of the best players in baseball, Josh Donaldson had a disastrous contract year in 2018.

    He played in just 52 games while nursing a nagging calf injury and hit .246 with a 119 OPS+ and 0.7 WAR.

    He ended up settling for a one-year deal from the Atlanta Braves in free agency that paid him $23 million, an identical figure to what he earned in 2018 during his final year of arbitration.

    That's how we'll use that contract as a projection for Marcus Semien.

    The 30-year-old finished third in AL MVP voting during a breakout 2019 season in which he tallied 8.9 WAR while posting a 139 OPS+ with 43 doubles, 33 home runs, 92 RBI and 123 runs scored.

    However, those numbers plummeted to a .223/.305/.374 line and 0.3 WAR during the shortened 2020 season, leaving him as one of the biggest wild cards on the free-agent market.

    He earned $13 million in 2020 in his final year of arbitration, and a one-year deal at that same salary will give him an opportunity to rebuild his stock without taking a pay cut.

    Contract Prediction: One year, $13 million

SP Masahiro Tanaka

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    Player Comparison: J.A. Happ

    Contract: Two-year, $34 million deal from New York Yankees on Dec. 14, 2018

    Masahiro Tanaka will play the entire 2021 season at the age of 32, so he is by no means a past-his-prime starter. That said, he has more mileage on his arm than most pitchers his age.

    Along with the 1,054.1 innings he pitched over the life of a seven-year contract with the New York Yankees, he also threw another 1,319 innings in a Japanese League career that began at the age of 18 and spanned another seven seasons.

    If those 2,373.1 total innings had all come stateside, he would rank seventh among active pitchers, just ahead of 35-year-old Max Scherzer and just behind 36-year-old Jon Lester.

    In other words, he may not be an over-the-hill veteran in terms of age, but he'll likely be treated like one in free agency.

    The Yankees have a history of re-upping with their own veteran starters on one- and two-year deals, dating back to guys like Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and more recently CC Sabathia.

    However, the best comparison here is J.A. Happ, who inked a two-year, $34 million contract after a solid, if inconsistent, three-year run with the Toronto Blue Jays and a strong two-month stint in the Bronx.

    Like Tanaka this year, Happ was a second-tier option during his most recent foray into free agency, and he signed his two-year deal ahead of his age-36 season, which is how Tanaka could be viewed based on his career workload.

    Contract Prediction: Two years, $36 million

LF Michael Brantley

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Player Comparison: Andrew McCutchen

    Contract: Three-year, $50 million deal from Philadelphia Phillies on Dec. 11, 2018

    Michael Brantley just wrapped up a highly productive two-year, $32 million contract with the Houston Astros.

    The 33-year-old hit .309/.370/.497 for a 126 OPS+ over the life of that deal, and for good measure he batted .346/.424/.558 with three home runs and 11 RBI in 13 games during the 2020 postseason.

    His age will no doubt limit him to two- or three-year offers this offseason, but he is one of the best pure hitters in the sport, and his offensive game will likely age better than more power-centric sluggers.

    Andrew McCutchen was two years younger when he joined the Philadelphia Phillies on a three-year, $50 million contract prior to 2019.

    He had a less productive contract year split between the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees, hitting .255 with 20 home runs in a 2.8-WAR season, but his elite on-base ability (.368 OBP) and MVP track record helped drive his market.

    It's not a perfect comparison, but McCutchen is the most recent example of a star-caliber outfielder signing a multiyear deal that didn't go beyond three years and didn't break the bank.

    Contract Prediction: Two years, $34 million

RP Liam Hendriks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Player Comparison: Wade Davis

    Contract: Three-year, $52 million deal from Colorado Rockies on Dec. 29, 2017

    Liam Hendriks and Wade Davis took similar paths to bullpen stardom.

    Both flamed out as starting pitchers before starring in multi-inning relief roles and eventually moving into the ninth inning, where they emerged as All-Star stoppers.

    Here's a side-by-side look at how both pitchers fared in the two years leading up to their free agency:

    • Davis: 104 G, 59/63 SV (93.7 SV%), 2.12 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 11.1 K/9
    • Hendriks: 99 G, 39/47 SV (83.0 SV%), 1.79 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 13.1 K/9

    Several of the blown saves that Hendriks suffered during that time came in 2019 before he moved into the closer's role, and he was 14-of-15 this past season, so that's a bit misleading.

    The biggest issue here is that Davis stands as more of a cautionary tale than a welcome comparison.

    Over the life of that three-year contract he signed with the Rockies, he posted an ugly 6.49 ERA in 124 appearances, losing the closer job on multiple occasions.

    That could give teams reason for pause and will likely bring the ceiling down a bit on Hendriks' earning power, but he's still headed for a lucrative multiyear deal.

    Contract Prediction: Three years, $36 million

LF/DH Marcell Ozuna

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Player Comparison: Nelson Cruz

    Contract: Four-year, $57 million deal from Seattle Mariners on Dec. 1, 2014

    Nelson Cruz signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles prior to the 2014 season in an effort to rebuild his value following a PED suspension stemming from the Biogenesis scandal.

    He ended up leading the AL in home runs (40) while posting a 137 OPS+ with 108 RBI for an Orioles team that reached the ALCS.

    At a time when he was still playing a decent amount in the outfield, but fit best as a designated hitter, he turned that performance into a four-year, $57 million contract with the Seattle Mariners.

    Any of that sound familiar?

    Marcell Ozuna settled for a one-year, $18 million contract last offseason after his market failed to develop in part because of the qualifying offer process, and he went on to lead the NL in home runs (18) and RBI (56), playing for an Atlanta Braves team that reached the NLCS.

    A matching four-year deal appears to be a reasonable expectation for the length Ozuna will receive this winter, and the fact that he is four years younger than Cruz was when he joined the Mariners should help drive his annual salary higher.

    Contract Prediction: Four years, $64 million

IF DJ LeMahieu

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Comparison: Josh Donaldson

    Contract: Four-year, $92 million deal from Minnesota Twins on Jan. 14, 2020

    We already touched on the one-year deal Josh Donaldson signed with the Atlanta Braves as a model for how teams might approach Marcus Semien this winter.

    Now, we move on to the four-year, $92 million deal that Donaldson received during the subsequent offseason after making good on that one-year pact.

    That's superstar-level money paid to a player teams were a bit wary about going beyond four years given his age and injury history.

    Those same injury concerns do not exist with DJ LeMahieu, who averaged 146 games per season during the six years prior to the shortened 2020 campaign and played in 50 of the 60 games this past year.

    However, this is his second go-around in free agency and he will turn 33 years old in July, so there's a good chance teams will be similarly unwilling to venture beyond a four-year deal this offseason.

    The Donaldson deal also came with a $16 million club option for a fifth year that carries an $8 million buyout, bringing the overall value to at least $100 million.

    It's unclear whether LeMahieu's price will climb that high in a market watered down by 2020 financial losses, but he'll have no problem blowing past the two-year, $24 million contract he signed last time he was a free agent.

    Contract Prediction: Four years, $72 million

CF George Springer

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Player Comparison: Lorenzo Cain

    Contract: Five-year, $80 million deal from Milwaukee Brewers on Jan. 25, 2018

    The last time a star-level center fielder reached free agency, the Milwaukee Brewers swooped in and signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract that most viewed as a bargain at the time.

    Cain's value was rooted in his defense and speed, making him a very different player than George Springer, an elite power hitter and dynamic table-setter who also plays an above-average center field.

    That should allow him to exceed the $16 million annual salary that Cain received, and his elite offensive production will help offset any concerns about potentially sliding down the defensive spectrum and moving to a corner outfield spot at some point during a long-term deal.

    After posting a 150 OPS+ with a career-high 39 home runs in 2019, Springer was one of the few Houston Astros hitters who didn't see a sharp decline in his offensive production this past season.

    He hit .265/.359/.540 with 14 home runs and 32 RBI in 51 games to finish 13th in AL MVP voting and then slugged another four home runs in 13 games during the postseason.

    The Cain deal can be used as a foundation, with the salary figure extrapolated to account for Springer's more impactful offensive game and the fact that he is a year younger than Cain was when he signed his deal.

    Contract Prediction: Five years, $110 million

C J.T. Realmuto

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Player Comparison: Joe Mauer

    Contract: Eight-year, $184 million extension from Minnesota Twins on March 22, 2010

    In February, Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported that J.T. Realmuto was expected to seek a contract that would make him the highest-paid catcher in MLB history based on annual value.

    That honor currently belongs to Joe Mauer, who pulled in $23 million annually after signing an eight-year, $184 million extension with the Minnesota Twins in 2010.

    Mauer was entering his age-27 season when he signed that contract and coming off AL MVP honors and his third batting title in four years.

    Realmuto is entering his age-30 season and has noticeably fewer MVP awards and batting titles on his mantle, but he is the consensus best all-around catcher in baseball and one of the marquee names on this year's free-agent market.

    The easiest comparison to make is to simply trim three years off the Mauer contract to account for the age difference, which brings us to a five-year, $115 million figure.

    Bump that up to $24 million annually to honor Realmuto's wishes to surpass the annual value, and we're left with a five-year, $120 million deal. Risky? Sure. Worth it for a team that's trying to win now with a hole at the catcher position? Absolutely.

    Contract Prediction: Five years, $120 million

SP Trevor Bauer (One-Year Contract)

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Player Comparison: Roger Clemens

    Contract: One-year, $28 million deal from New York Yankees on May 6, 2007

    It's been quite some time since an elite-level starting pitcher signed a one-year contract in free agency.

    The most recent example is far from a perfect fit since Roger Clemens was 44 years old when he signed a prorated one-year, $28 million contract to rejoin the New York Yankees for what was the final season of his career in 2007.

    However, age doesn't matter much when we're talking about one-year contracts.

    Clemens had posted a 2.30 ERA and 1.04 WHIP with 102 strikeouts in 113.1 innings the previous season, and he was two years removed from winning the NL ERA title (1.87) while finishing third in NL Cy Young voting.

    In other words, despite his advanced age, he was clearly still one of the best in the business when he signed that $28 million contract.

    So what is a reasonable expectation for what a team would be willing to pay Trevor Bauer on a low-risk, one-year deal if it views him as the missing piece?

    The reigning NL Cy Young winner led the NL in ERA (1.73) and WHIP (0.80) while racking up 100 strikeouts in 73 innings, vaulting to the top of the 2020-21 free-agent class in the process.

    For a team like the Los Angeles Angels or Chicago White Sox that might be one elite pitcher away from a serious push, it could be worth making Bauer the highest-paid player in baseball in 2021.

    Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole will earn $36 million each as the highest-paid pitchers in the sport, while Mike Trout leads the way among all players with a $37.1 million salary, according to Spotrac.

    Contract Prediction: One year, $37.5 million

SP Trevor Bauer (Multiyear Contract)

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Player Comparison: Gerrit Cole

    Contract: Nine-year, $324 million deal from New York Yankees on Dec. 11, 2019

    Since Trevor Bauer is undoubtedly the best pitcher on the free-agent market and arguably the most compelling free-agency case to come along in years, we're looking at his market from multiple angles.

    After indicating multiple times in the past that he intended to sign one-year contracts for the remainder of his career, Bauer walked that back a bit in September during an MLB Network appearance on Sirius XM:

    "I want to be in a situation where I feel valued and I have the chance to conduct my career the way I want to conduct it. So, pitch every fourth day, and stuff like that. I want to challenge myself and have a chance to do those things. So if there's a situation that it presents itself where it is a four-year or five-year deal, and I feel confident that's going to be a situation that's good for me, I would consider it, for sure. I do think that in order to do the things that I want to do, I think I'm going to have to take on a little more risk than normal in those long-term contracts. … I'm not afraid of the one-year deals. I'm not afraid of a longer deal. It's just going to be a case-by-case basis, and we'll see what the situations look like."

    There's no chance Bauer is going to sign a nine-year contract, so why the comparison to Gerrit Cole?

    While the $324 million figure won't be in play, Bauer will undoubtedly have an eye on eclipsing that $36 million annual salary in any multiyear contract he signs.

    Contract Prediction: Three years, $110 million


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.