Fresh Analysis and Predictions on Latest MLB Free-Agency and Trade Rumors

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IJanuary 13, 2021

Fresh Analysis and Predictions on Latest MLB Free-Agency and Trade Rumors

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The 2020-21 MLB offseason has been confounding.

    Free agency has mostly crawled along slower than film credits as teams show hesitation to spend big money while star players are content to wait for the market to play out. The trade market, though, has been different.

    The San Diego Padres staked their claim as National League West challengers by acquiring Blake Snell and Yu Darvish in consecutive days. Just weeks later, the New York Mets made a blockbuster of their own, trading for both Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco in one sweeping play. We could look back at these moves as transactions that established these up-and-coming franchises as legitimate contenders.

    There has been no real rhyme or reason to the proceedings. However, just over a month remains before pitchers and catchers would normally report for spring training, and there could be a flurry of activity in the coming weeks as the timeline for the 2021 season crystallizes. Indeed, the Chicago White Sox's signing of top reliever Liam Hendriks might set the reliever market and spur teams to action.

    With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the latest rumors to come out of the hot stove.

DJ LeMahieu 'Dismayed' with Yankees

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees and general manager Brian Cashman have suggested re-signing DJ LeMahieu is imperative to the team's goals this offseason. Manager Aaron Boone called it New York's "No. 1 priority."

    But it appears the organization has done a poor job of relaying that notion to LeMahieu.

    Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports reported the 32-year-old has "become dismayed by the slow-play tactics of the Yankees," despite his preference to return to the Big Apple. According to Brown, LeMahieu has instructed his representatives to reengage all teams that have shown interest in him throughout the offseason.

    LeMahieu is said to be asking for more than the four years and $92 million Josh Donaldson received from the Minnesota Twins last offseason, per Brown, and closer to $110 million over five years. Will the Yankees cave?

    It is hard to envision the Bronx Bombers allow LeMahieu to walk. He had a 145 OPS+ in two years with the Yankees, slashing .336/.386/.536 and winning his second batting title in 2020. LeMahieu's ability to hit to all fields with decent power has also helped him make the best of Yankee Stadium's friendly corner dimensions. The three-time All-Star had a whopping 27 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio last year.

    Nothing about New York's current makeup suggests that lineup can afford to lose LeMahieu. Both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are prodigious sluggers when healthy, but health has been a serious issue. There are questions about Gary Sanchez's abilities after he hit .147 with a 36 percent strikeout rate, and the Yankees have been depleted of some veteran leadership with Brett Gardner now a free agent.

    LeMahieu's hitting prowess and positional versatility make him a crucial figure in New York's lineup. The Toronto Blue Jays—who Brown reported remain involved—could push the envelope for LeMahieu after the Mets acquired Francisco Lindor, but they are also engaged with a number of other top names.

    LeMahieu is really the focus for the Yankees. Considering his preference is to return to New York, he figures to at least give the Bronx Bombers the chance to match offers. Expect the Yankees to do just that.

    Prediction: LeMahieu re-signs with the Yankees

Kris Bryant's Trade Prospects

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    The Chicago Cubs might not be done trading star players as they look to slash payroll and build for the long term. But they could have a hard time moving third baseman Kris Bryant.

    Andy Martino of SNY.tv reported there was "increasing industry chatter" the Cubs could trade Bryant this past weekend. Martino also reported the Cubs and New York Mets have had discussions regarding Bryant, though talks had not occurred in "several weeks." That latter part is significant and indicative of Bryant's wilted trade value.

    Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported the Blue Jays checked in on Bryant but have not had talks with the Cubs in recent weeks.

    Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times reported the Los Angeles Dodgers could pursue Bryant, though it remains to be seen whether L.A. would take on an expensive rental while also giving up assets. Bryant is projected to make $18.6 million in his final year of arbitration, per Spotrac. Perhaps Chicago would pay down some of Bryant's contract, but it still seems like a stretch.

    Meanwhile, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said the team had not discussed Bryant in "probably two years" after Morosi previously reported the 2019 champions were considering a trade for the 2016 NL MVP.

    In short, Bryant's value appears pretty low, which is hardly a surprise considering his salary paired with a career-worst .644 OPS in 2020.

    The 29-year-old was not the only star to struggle last year, but the trends are more concerning. Bryant's average exit velocities have dropped since his rookie season, and he ranked in just the 32nd percentile in whiff rate in 2020. Injuries have also been an issue in recent years.

    Realistically, it might make more sense for Chicago to deal Bryant at the deadline once he has had the chance to rebuild his value. He could be a valuable bat for a contender in a playoff race, and teams could be hungrier to add his bat knowing they would only have to pay less than half his salary.

    Alternatively, if Bryant is thriving and the Cubs find themselves in contention, they can either look to extend him or nab a compensatory draft pick by extending him the qualifying offer in the offseason.

    Regardless, there is a good chance Bryant's value—both internally and externally—is higher at the deadline than it is now.

    Prediction: Cubs keep Bryant…at least until the deadline

Angels, Marlins Interested in Willson Contreras

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Whereas Kris Bryant's trade value appears to be lacking, Willson Contreras' is unlikely to get any higher.

    A number of teams appear have a hole to fill at the catcher position, including contenders like the Houston Astros and possibly the Blue Jays. The Los Angeles Angels are also in the market for a backstop, and they have their eyes on Contreras.

    Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported the Halos have interest in trading for the two-time All-Star, citing Contreras' past relationship with Angels manager Joe Maddon as a potential driver for a deal.

    The deal would make sense for Los Angeles. Rosenthal noted Max Stassi is still recovering from hip surgery and has limited big league experience as a starter. Contreras, on the other hand, has an .814 career OPS and is under club control through 2022. He has also significantly improved as a pitch framer, ranking 11th in that category in 2020.

    Whether the Angels have what the Cubs desire is another question. Los Angeles is unlikely to part with top prospect Brandon Marsh, given some of the prospect-hugging going on this offseason. Perhaps someone like Jordyn Adams or Jeremiah Jackson could be had, but Chicago wouldn't be filling its biggest need.

    The Cubs have a shortage of impact pitching prospects. Rather than prying a top arm from the San Diego Padres in exchange for Yu Darvish, Chicago settled for four high-risk, high-reward position prospects. The Cubs cannot afford to plot the same course if they deal Contreras.

    Chicago's rotation is already a big question mark. Kyle Hendricks replaces Darvish as the ace, but after him? Zach Davies will be a free agent in 2022. Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay are in the mix, but both are mostly unproven, and Mills has the look of a journeyman soft-tosser. There is little depth outside of those guys.

    Meanwhile, prospects like Kohl Franklin and Ryan Jensen are years away from the bigs. Left-hander Brailyn Marquez could be up sooner but should also see more time in the minors. The Cubs need arm talent to add depth and stabilize the future of their rotation.

    The Miami Marlins, on the other hand, do have young pitching assets who could entice Chicago. Miami is interested in Contreras, but as Jon Heyman reported, money could be an issue.

    The other element to all this is that trading Contreras would make the Cubs far less competitive in 2021, especially considering they also traded away catcher Victor Caratini in the Darvish deal.

    Chicago should not settle when it comes to Contreras' value. While there might be more of an onus to move Kris Bryant because of his projected salary, that does not apply to Contreras. The Cubs can always try to move him at the deadline if they are struggling to contend.

    Prediction: Cubs retain Contreras

Red Sox Shopping Andrew Benintendi

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Boston Red Sox are shopping one of their homegrown outfielders for a second consecutive offseason.

    Jim Bowden of CBS Sports and The Athletic reported Boston has been in "serious trade talks" regarding left fielder Andrew Benintendi. 

    Sean McAdam of the Boston Sports Journal added a deal could happen "soon," noting the Texas Rangers, Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics as possible suitors.

    Benintendi looked like Boston's next breakout star after finishing second in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2017. He hit 20 homers and stole 20 bases, giving Boston some speed and left-handed pop at the top of the lineup.

    Things only looked rosier after Benintendi improved upon his rookie campaign the following season. The Cincinnati native had an .830 OPS, hitting 41 doubles and stealing 21 bases in a season worth 4.4 fWAR. But the regression monster has come for him.

    The 26-year-old still had a respectable .774 OPS in 2019, but he saw a decline in walk rate and marked uptick in strikeout rate. He also stole fewer bases.

    Still, that would not have suggested the precipitous drop-off Benintendi experienced in 2020. He struck out 17 times and had just one extra-base hit in 52 plate appearances before being shut down with a rib injury, finishing the year with a .103 average and .442 OPS in 14 games.

    The Red Sox could be hoping to gauge what kind of value Benintendi has considering he is under club control for the next two seasons. A deal would seem unlikely, on the surface.

    The Rangers would not seem to have the kind of expendable pitching assets the Red Sox would likely desire. Nor would the Astros. Oakland could fit the billing in that regard, but the A's do not seem like a candidate to give up assets for a guy who will be a free agent in 2023. 

    However, ESPN's Buster Olney reported the Red Sox are expected to make a "series of moves," and MLB.com's Mark Feinsand reported a rival executive said he would be "shocked" if Benintendi were still with Boston by the end of the weekend.

    Perhaps president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom is hoping to shake things up. The A's or Astros seem like the two teams who would press the hardest for a deal, and both clubs have outfield needs. But also keep an eye on the Philadelphia Phillies. 

    Prediction: Athletics acquire Benintendi from the Red Sox

Not Much Dialogue Between Twins, Nelson Cruz

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Some stars are content waiting it out in an effort to reach their desired target number. Others hope their market expands with just one league mandate.

    Nelson Cruz and a host of other players await a resolution to the question of the universal designated hitter, which was implemented in 2020. Whether the universal DH is adopted could set the market for players like Cruz, who has had limited contact with his former employer.

    La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune reported the Minnesota Twins made a one-year deal early in free agency, which was subsequently rescinded in favor of another offer. Neal said the second offer went "nowhere" as Cruz waits for the universal DH decision and stated there has not been much "back-and-forth negotiating" between Cruz and the Twins.

    This probably means Cruz is hoping to drive his price up. Neal reported the veteran slugger is looking for a two-year deal, and perhaps he feels an increase in interested teams will lead to a higher annual average value

    It might not be long before the universal DH issue is resolved. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported commissioner Rob Manfred told teams to prepare for the 2021 season to be played in full (162 games) and start on time. The decision on the DH could be the next item on the list.

    Either way, there is no reason for the Twins to let Cruz out of Minnesota. The 40-year-old has a .308/.394/.626 slash in two years with the team. His 169 OPS+ in 2020 tied his personal best.

    Cruz also ranked in the 93rd percentile in barrel percentage this past year and has consistently been at or near the top of the league in average exit velocity and expected slugging. Needless to say, he is not slowing down with age.

    He is also a tremendous character guy who won the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award in 2020.

    Cruz is of vital importance in the middle of the Twins lineup. Minnesota would also be wise to get aggressive in trying to maintain its AL Central crown given the moves made by the Chicago White Sox.

    Prediction: Twins re-sign "Nelly"

Marcell Ozuna's Market Moving Slowly

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Marcell Ozuna is cut from the same cloth as Cruz as a guy who could be far more desirable if the universal DH is approved in 2021.

    Ozuna slashed .338/.431/.636 with the Atlanta Braves in 2020, pacing the NL in homers (18), RBI (56) and total bases (145). He ranked in the 94th percentile or higher in barrel rate, average exit velocity and hard-hit rate while also ranking in the 88th percentile in walk rate.

    Considering Ozuna is 10 years Cruz's junior, it would seem teams would jump at the chance to add him to their lineup. He also has recent experience in the outfield, though league personnel may be wary of his ability after he underwent shoulder surgery in October 2018.

    However, Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe reported "there is little buzz around" Ozuna as of late, suggesting potentially interested clubs are equally intent on waiting for an answer to the universal DH question.

    Indeed, Ozuna thrived mostly as Atlanta's DH last year. He only played 21 games in the outfield, posting an unsavory -16.1 UZR/150.

    There is also the notion that Ozuna's market could be even more depleted than Cruz's. The Nationals solved their corner outfielder puzzle by signing Kyle Schwarber. While the Blue Jays could be involved, they seem intent on landing someone of George Springer or DJ LeMahieu's caliber. The White Sox's lucrative pact with Liam Hendriks would appear to take them out of the market for another big-name free agent.

    A reunion with the Braves is still the best bet, regardless of whether the universal DH is in play. Ozuna provided terrific protection for Freddie Freeman, who had an MVP season hitting in front of the Dominican slugger.

    Jon Morosi reported the Braves are more intent on adding a left fielder than a third baseman. This could suggest they intend to spend on Ozuna and bullpen upgrades, rather than trade for a big-money star at the hot corner.

    Prediction: Braves re-sign Ozuna

Justin Turner Wants a 4-Year Deal

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    For seven seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers and third baseman Justin Turner have been a match made in heaven.

    The Long Beach, California, native has a .302/.382/.503 slash line with the Dodgers. He has an .899 career OPS in the playoffs, including a 2020 World Series during which he hit a pair of homers and four doubles. But there is no guarantee L.A. will re-sign Turner this offseason.

    Jorge Castillo reported Turner is seeking a four-year deal, while the Dodgers are currently unwilling to go past two years. Ken Rosenthal reported Turner's rationale has to do with the idea the universal DH will be in place for "at least" the final three years of a hypothetical four-year contract.

    The Dodgers are unlikely to be pressed into signing a 36-year-old to a four-year deal, especially given their wealth of internal infield options and the facilities to make a trade, if necessary. So what are Turner's other options?

    As previously stated, Atlanta is content with Austin Riley at third base. The Nationals could be seeking stability over Carter Kieboom, as Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported they've inquired about Cincinnati Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez. But Washington could also be pressing close to the luxury tax if it signs Turner.

    One team with concerted interest in adding an infielder and having funds to spend is the Blue Jays.

    Although they are engaged with LeMahieu, someone like Turner would provide a similar hit tool while likely coming at a steeply discounted price. This would allow Toronto to more vigorously pursue George Springer and upgrades in the starting rotation.

    Rosenthal reported Turner is open to joining an organization that is establishing itself as a budding contender. The Blue Jays fit that mold with a young and improving core of talented position players and the hunger to add pieces.

    Prediction: Turner signs three-year deal with Blue Jays

Reds Still Shopping Eugenio Suarez

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Jorge Castillo reported Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez is a potential target for L.A., and the Venezuelan slugger probably makes the most sense for the Dodgers going forward.

    Say the Dodgers and Turner are indeed in a standoff, and neither blinks. The Dodgers will need to find a new third baseman.

    Well, L.A. technically would not need a new third baseman. Gavin Lux could slot in at the hot corner, or the Dodgers could give Edwin Rios (.972 OPS in 60 MLB games) a more extended run. But both guys hit left-handed, and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told Alanna Rizzo of Spectrum SportsNet last month the team needed a right-handed hitter.

    DJ LeMahieu would fit that mold, and Jon Morosi reported L.A. still has interest in the batting champion. But signing LeMahieu would likely push the Dodgers well over the luxury tax. The same can be said for a trade target such as Kris Bryant, who is also a free agent in 2022.

    However, the Dodgers could take advantage of another big seller by acquiring Suarez from the Reds.

    For starters, the 29-year-old can mash. He hit just .202 in 2020 but is a career .261 hitter who draws walks and hits the ball out of the yard. He mashed 49 homers in 2019, one year after clubbing 34 round-trippers. He ranked 91st in barrel percentage and was in the top 10 percent in xwOBAcon in both 2018 and 2019.

    FanGraphs suggests Suarez has less friendly defensive metrics in the last two seasons, but he ranked in the 69th percentile in outs above average (OAA) in 2020.

    But Suarez's contract is what really makes him an attractive asset. He is owed just $43.5 million through 2024, per Spotrac, with a $15 million club option in 2025.

    Los Angeles can likely save money by opting for Suarez over LeMahieu or Turner while still getting an impact bat in the lineup. The Dodgers have any number of prospects the Reds could desire and might sweeten the offer substantially if, say, Luis Castillo is included in the deal.

    Prediction: Dodgers acquire Suarez from the Reds

Brad Hand's Market

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    Phil Long/Associated Press

    Liam Hendriks' deal with the Chicago White Sox is a massive plus for Brad Hand on multiple levels.

    For starters, with Hendriks off the market, Hand is arguably the best reliever available. His 5.5 fWAR since 2017 ranks seventh among relievers. He is also coming off a year in which he was a perfect 16-of-16 in save opportunities, posting a 2.05 ERA and 1.37 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark.

    Hand was garnering plenty of interest before Hendriks was snatched up Monday night, with the Dodgers and Mets among the teams to explore his market. He should attract that much more attention now that Hendriks has been signed.

    Secondly, the terms of Hendriks' deal—first three years at $39 million, with a fourth-year option/buyout at $15 million—bode well for Hand. He is coming off the best season of his career (albeit with a smaller sample size), and left-handed relievers are commodities.

    The Dodgers and Mets both figure to ramp up their efforts to sign Hand. But between L.A.'s pursuit of a right-handed bat and New York's possible need to add a center fielder, other teams could get in the mix.

    The Houston Astros should be a team to watch. Mark Berman of Fox 26 reported Houston is hoping to sign "multiple" relievers, and the team has shown interest in Hand.

    It makes plenty of sense for Houston to go hard after Hand considering its bullpen ranked 16th in fWAR and 15th in ERA in 2020. Signing Hand would also allow Ryan Pressly to settle back into a setup role.

    The Astros will hope to take advantage of their competitive window in the next few years. Assembling a strong bullpen would advance that goal.

    Prediction: Hand signs with Astros

Just How Much Will George Springer Make?

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Let's wrap things up with George Springer. The 31-year-old is one of the most fascinating free agents available.

    Springer is arguably the best position player on the market as a center fielder who can play plus defense and provide tremendous slugging and on-base abilities from the leadoff spot. He hit .265 with 14 homers and an .899 OPS in 2020, just one season after setting career highs in homers (39), RBI (96), OPS (.974) and OPS+ (150).

    Yet there is a lack of clarity with respect to Springer's market. Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News reported the Blue Jays and Mets were the finalists for Springer, but the number of finalists might have essentially been whittled to one.

    Andy Martino of SNY.tv reported Springer is hoping for $175 million. Martino reported the Mets offered the three-time All-Star five years and nearly $150 million, but that was before they acquired Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, offered Springer something close to $115 million, according to Martino.

    The acquisition of Lindor and Carrasco could take the Mets out of the picture unless they shed payroll in other areas, per Martino. So are the Blue Jays the only team left?

    Springer-to-Toronto makes plenty of sense. Although Randal Grichuk is under contract for multiple seasons, he pales in comparison to Springer in center field and at the dish. If the Mets are scrambling amid payroll factors, it is possible the Blue Jays jump at the opportunity to corner Springer's market. But they will still need to pay him a hefty sum.

    Ken Rosenthal reported insiders are split with respect to Springer's value. One executive told Rosenthal the Connecticut native would not get more than $150 million guaranteed, while another said Springer could earn between $170 million and $190 million on a five- or six-year deal.

    It should be fascinating to see how Springer's free agency develops and whether another team tries to jump in. But the Blue Jays appear to have a distinct advantage.

    Prediction: Springer signs with Blue Jays for five years, $165 million

              

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