Forecasting How Aggressive Your MLB Team Will Be in Free Agency, Trade Market
At this rate, it might not be until next year that Major League Baseball teams really start getting busy on the 2020-21 offseason's free-agent and trade markets.
Luckily, next year is just days from now.
Perhaps in an effort to will some life into what has thus far been a lifeless offseason, we've forecast how aggressively teams might add talent in free agency and trades once those markets finally heat up. For this, we weighed teams' apparent budgets, farm system depth, needs and contention timelines.
Let's count 'em down, starting with the team that's least likely to shop for big-ticket targets and ending with the one most likely to do so.
30. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are a traditionally low-budget team that's in the early stages of a rebuild, so they're the last team that anyone should expect to go big this winter. Even after moving Josh Bell, they'll still likely subtract players such as Joe Musgrove and Adam Frazier in an effort to add much-needed young talent.
29. Texas Rangers
The Rangers are currently projected to spend about half as much on payroll in 2021 as they did in 2020. But that's by design. Following an ugly 22-38 season, the club has already entered a rebuild through trades of hurlers Lance Lynn and Rafael Montero. Joey Gallo may well be next.
28. Colorado Rockies
With back-to-back fourth-place finishes in their past, a lousy farm system in their present and a bloated payroll presently in their future, the name of the Rockies' game for this winter is cutting payroll and adding future assets—even if it means trading Nolan Arenado or Trevor Story.
27. Baltimore Orioles
Following several years of rebuilding, the Orioles aren't far off from being ready to invest in veteran talent again. But that point will probably come after 2021, when there will be talent aplenty on the open market and the O's will have only Chris Davis on a guaranteed contract.
26. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers' rebuild predates the Orioles', and they may return to being one of baseball's biggest spenders when it's finally over. But until they know what they have in Casey Mize and other top prospects, they're likely to remain patient and hold off on cutting big checks until the 2021-22 offseason.
25. Kansas City Royals
In doing deals with Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, Greg Holland and Michael A. Taylor, the Royals checked off quite a few of their needs for the winter. And also spent $40 million. Though the organization still wants a left-handed hitter, the Royals' typically shallow pockets could turn that into a bargain-bin quest.
24. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners pulled off a respectable 27-33 season in 2020 even though they've barely begun harvesting talent from their elite farm system. But while this might make them a dark horse for an explosive offseason, they've thus far seemed content to add low-risk arms to their shallow bullpen.
23. Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks are projected to spend $93 million in 2021, or about $40 million less than their peak payroll. But after a last-place finish in 2020, general manager Mike Hazen came out and said not to expect the team to make a "splash." If so, the club's prospect riches may also be under lock and key.
Cleveland is rarely a big player in free agency in the best of times, so don't expect the organization to change gears following this year's pandemic-shortened season. It's much more likely to add talent via the trade market, though most (if not all) of it could come via a deal that sends Francisco Lindor out of town.
21. Tampa Bay Rays
Despite being fresh off a World Series run, the Rays might pursue trades in which they subtract star players, up to and including Blake Snell or Kevin Kiermaier. Even if they don't, they have very little payroll flexibility to work with. It also wouldn't be like them to cash in their prospect depth in trades.
20. Oakland Athletics
To the extent that they're on a run of three straight postseasons and that they have needs to fill at shortstop, second base, closer and elsewhere, the A's are an obvious buyer. But even if they have more payroll flexibility than the Rays, the two clubs remain in the same boat as low-budget contenders.
19. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are projected to spend significantly less in 2021 than they did in 2020, which would seem to amount to a large budget for their winter. Yet all signs point toward the team being in dire financial straits, so it could be reluctant to do anything above bargain-bin shopping.
18. Milwaukee Brewers
Though they earned a third straight playoff berth, the Brewers nonetheless finished under .500 in 2020. General manager David Stearns sees upgrading at the corners of the infield as a way forward, but the club's shallow farm system and limited payroll space will likely bar him from big-name solutions.
17. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are projected more than $50 million south of the luxury tax for 2021, yet their non-tender of Kyle Schwarber was an early sign that this will be a lean winter. If they do add, it might be after they first subtract Kris Bryant, Javier Baez or even Yu Darvish in a trade.
16. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds reportedly want to make a major upgrade at shortstop. But they also stand to lose NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, and whatever additions they make might be paired with trades of Sonny Gray (here), Luis Castillo (here) or Eugenio Suarez (here). If so, they're not so much a buyer as an exchanger.
15. Miami Marlins
Perhaps it's telling that the Marlins haven't been rumored as a player for any major targets. But with a playoff season in their wake and both prospect depth and payroll space at their disposal, we can't help but wonder if they could be a mystery team on both the free-agent and trade markets.
14. San Francisco Giants
After back-to-back surprisingly competitive seasons, the Giants could potentially seek an end to their rebuild through deals with Trevor Bauer (here) or Marcell Ozuna (here). Yet we're skeptical. The Giants' payroll space will open up significantly next winter, so spending now would be jumping the gun.
Sans Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta has a need for a middle-of-the-order hitter. To this end, the club has a rich farm system and seemingly lots of payroll space to work with. But because of Atlanta's protectiveness of its young talent and recent history of frugality in free agency, expectations should be accordingly modest.
12. Minnesota Twins
The Twins are currently without slugging DH Nelson Cruz and also have needs in their rotation and bullpen that need addressing. Yet their non-tender of Eddie Rosario doesn't bode well for their financial situation, and they may be reluctant to subtract from their top-heavy farm system in trades.
11. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies just hired Dave Dombrowski, which is historically something a team only does if it's ready to go for it. But he took the job to help "retool" the team, which doesn't hint toward a massive payroll spike for 2020. They might, however, do what it takes to re-sign star catcher J.T. Realmuto.
10. Chicago White Sox
Everyone, let's take a moment to thank the Chicago White Sox for actually making moves this winter.
In early December, the White Sox made a major splash when they nabbed ace Lance Lynn off the trade market and a lesser splash when they signed right fielder Adam Eaton off the free-agent market. And they may not be done yet.
The White Sox have reportedly set their sights on Liam Hendriks—who boasts a 1.79 ERA and 6.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2019—for their need at closer. Even after adding Eaton, they might also see an opening in their everyday lineup for Michael Brantley.
With $118 million on its projected 2021 payroll, the White Sox are already spending beyond their normal comfort level. Yet this is indeed a time for them to keep pushing the envelope, as they have a real chance to cement themselves as the dominant power in the AL Central after going 35-25 in 2020.
9. Boston Red Sox
To be perfectly candid, we're only begrudgingly highlighting the Boston Red Sox as a candidate to make some noise on the offseason market.
The club began something resembling a rebuild with its trade of Mookie Betts in February, so it almost certainly won't be subtracting any prospects in any deals this winter. It could also be reluctant to spend big bucks in free agency until it sees improvement on this year's 24-36 record.
And yet, the Red Sox also have many needs to fill and are more than $30 million in average annual value away from triggering the $210 million luxury-tax threshold for 2021.
After shoring up its outfield depth with Hunter Renfroe, the Red Sox could still use a center fielder, second baseman and both starting and relief pitchers. Even if they don't pursue any megadeals, they could rack up a sizable free-agent bill just by targeting cheaper, short-term solutions.
8. Houston Astros
How much longer the Astros will continue to rank among the league's top spenders is a good question. This coming year is potentially the end of the line, as the club could be forced into a retool or even a rebuild once 2021 ends and only Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman are still under contract.
In the meantime, though, the Astros will surely at least try to make it five straight years with a trip to at least the American League Championship Series.
That will require re-signing or replacing outfielders George Springer and Michael Brantley—who are still "engaged" with the Astros, according to GM James Click—and closer Roberto Osuna. This is a tall order, so it's a good thing the team has nearly $40 million in luxury-tax breathing room to work with.
7. Washington Nationals
After winning the World Series in 2019, the Washington Nationals struggled to overcome the loss of Anthony Rendon via free agency and finished 2020 with a 26-34 record.
Given its shortage of offensive threats around Juan Soto and Trea Turner and the ages of aces Max Scherzer (36), Stephen Strasburg (32) and Patrick Corbin (31), the Nats are in a precarious position in the NL East. If anything, they should arguably be thinking about rebuilding.
But they're clearly not. They've already added a middle-of-the-order slugger through their trade for Josh Bell. And while GM Mike Rizzo shot down talk of a Kris Bryant trade, he reportedly has been in on Eugenio Suarez (here) on the trade market and Kyle Schwarber (here) and J.T. Realmuto (here) on the free-agent market.
6. San Diego Padres
Granted, it might be hard to believe that the San Diego Padres are poised to make noise in free agency.
They're presently projected to spend $131 million in 2021, which would blow away the organization's previous high of $108.4 million from 2015. Moreover, the club would be wise to set some money aside for looming extension candidates like Trent Grisham and especially wunderkind shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.
However, the Padres left little doubt amid their 37-23 season that they're a rising superpower in the National League. So it makes some sense that they want to be kept in the loop on Trevor Bauer.
Or, the Padres could always dip into their considerable prospect riches to find solutions for their problems—i.e., rotation and bullpen depth—on the trade market. Sonny Gray (here) and even Blake Snell (here) or Yu Darvish (here) could be within their grasp on that front.
5. Los Angeles Angels
The Los Angeles Angels have endured five straight losing seasons, and right now they're projected to spend only $13 million less on their 2021 payroll than they would have in 2020.
From one perspective, they look like a team that should be on the precipice of a rebuild. But from another perspective that's certainly more in tune with real life, there's simply no way they're going to do that while Mike Trout is still in his prime.
The Angels have already found a much-needed closer, adding Raisel Iglesias in a trade with the Reds in early December. A massive upgrade for a rotation that ranked 29th with a 5.52 ERA in 2020 is now in order, and that could be why they're a perceived favorite for Southern California native Trevor Bauer.
Because they were in on James McCann before he signed with the New York Mets, the Angels could also make a play for a catcher before the winter is over.
4. New York Yankees
The New York Yankees have not only yet to make any consequential moves but are also kinda-sorta acting like they don't need to.
Longtime GM Brian Cashman said publicly that the team "might have enough" in-house options to replace free-agent hurlers Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton. And while the team clearly wants to re-sign second baseman DJ LeMahieu, a "significant gap" reportedly remains between the two sides.
All this could indicate the Yankees are truly comfortable with having a quiet winter. But for our money, it reeks of a smokescreen.
The Yankees are out to a snap an 11-year World Series drought, after all, and they have nearly $30 million in luxury-tax wiggle room for 2021. That gives them both the excuse and the means to go big in free agency, and trade chips like Miguel Andujar and Gary Sanchez could allow for some action on that market as well.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
After the Los Angeles Dodgers finally snapped a 32-year World Series championship drought in 2020, there's perhaps only one question worth asking: Now what?
Maybe not much. Beyond being very good, the Dodgers are also very well set up for the long haul. Even their apparent needs—say, third base and relief pitching—have potential solutions already in-house.
But if the Dodgers really want to dig in their heels in an attempt to become the first back-to-back champions since the 1998-1999-2000 New York Yankees, they have the means to do so. As in, a payroll with about $15 million in luxury-tax space and a roster that's loaded with young trade chips.
In other words, any and all players are available to the Dodgers. To harp on just a few, they could re-sign Justin Turner or angle for Trevor Bauer (here) or Liam Hendriks (here), or push for trades for Francisco Lindor (here) or Nolan Arenado (here).
2. New York Mets
Ownership of the New York Mets only just passed from the penny-pinching Wilpons to billionaire hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen in November, yet the effects are already being felt.
The Mets set the early bar for the free-agent market when they inked catcher James McCann to a four-year, $40.6 million deal. It also cost them $15.5 million over two years to add Trevor May to their bullpen.
Every indication is that the Mets aren't done yet, as they've been linked to both Trevor Bauer and George Springer (here) and "lesser" free agents like DJ LeMahieu (here) and Liam Hendriks (here). Cohen's billions could also be useful on the trade market, particularly if they hear out the Colorado Rockies on Nolan Arenado.
Basically, it'll be an upset if Cohen doesn't spare no expense in his effort to get the Mets back atop the NL East and into the World Series.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
Following a brief yet fruitful run of contention in the mid-2010s, the Toronto Blue Jays quickly rebuilt and returned to the playoffs on the wave of young talent in 2020.
Now, they're in a position to keep the wave going by making it rain.
The Jays have been connected to just about every major player on the free-agent market, from George Springer (here) to DJ LeMahieu (here) to Marcell Ozuna (here) and to Liam Hendriks (here). They've also been mentioned as a destination for top-tier trade targets, including Francisco Lindor (here).
Too good to be true? Not actually. The Jays' trade prospects are buoyed by the reality that they have more young talent than they really need. And with only $84 million on their projected 2021 payroll, they're only about halfway to their peak payrolls of 2016 and 2017.