Way-Too-Early Predictions for the 2021-22 MLB Offseason
For 26 teams, the MLB offseason is already underway, so it's never too early to start diving into some predictions for how the winter months will play out once the postseason wraps up.
Rather than taking the usual approach of simply projecting where each of the market's top free agents will sign, the following is a more general overview of what the offseason might have in store.
From the latest Japanese League standout potentially making his way stateside to qualifying-offer candidates to expected paydays to what some of the league's marquee teams will or won't do, these predictions cover anything and everything offseason related.
Multiple Players Accept Their Qualifying Offers
Earlier this week, Buster Olney of ESPN reported that the qualifying-offer figure for the upcoming offseason would be $18.4 million, down slightly from $18.9 million last winter. Players will have until Dec. 1 to accept or reject the one-year deal. If they reject, their team receives draft-pick compensation, and they will officially become a free agent.
Players cannot receive a qualifying offer more than once in their career, and players who were traded in-season are not eligible to be extended a qualifying offer. Despite those restrictions, there is no shortage of candidates for QOs this winter. We've grouped them into three categories based on their likelihood of receiving one:
- Locks: Michael Conforto, Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Clayton Kershaw, Robbie Ray, Carlos Rodon, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story
- 50-50: Anthony DeSclafani, Jon Gray, Yusei Kikuchi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Noah Syndergaard, Chris Taylor, Justin Verlander
- Long shots: Brandon Belt, Mark Canha, Raisel Iglesias, Steven Matz, Alex Wood
No one from the "locks" group will accept their QO, as all nine stand to cash in with multi-year deals in free agency.
The most likely candidate to accept is Jon Gray. The Rockies held him at the trade deadline in hopes of retaining him going forward. Justin Verlander and Noah Syndergaard could both opt for pillow contracts in their return from injury, while everyone in the "long shots" group would likely jump at the opportunity to accept.
The most compelling case might be Yusei Kikuchi. The Mariners have an option in his contract this offseason that would trigger a four-year, $66 million extension. If they decline it, it becomes a $13 million player option for 2022. If that is declined, he would then become a candidate for a qualifying offer.
One way or another, expect multiple players to accept that $18.4 million salary figure in 2022.
Kendall Graveman Receives the Largest Contract of Any FA Reliever
Kendall Graveman has been a revelation this season in his first year as a full-time reliever.
The 30-year-old split the year between Seattle and Houston, posting a 1.77 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 with 10 saves and 11 holds in 53 appearances.
There are several high-profile closers set to reach free agency, including Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, Alex Colome (mutual option), Kirby Yates, Trevor Rosenthal and Ian Kennedy, along with proven setup relievers Corey Knebel, Jeurys Familia, Andrew Chafin (mutual option), Brad Boxberger and several others.
When the dust settles, expect Graveman to walk away with the biggest contract of anyone from this year's reliever market, both in terms of years and overall money.
It's not out of the question to think Jansen or Melancon could receive a higher annual salary over fewer years, but given his age, career workload and 2021 success, Graveman looks like a strong candidate for something in the neighborhood of the four-year, $34 million deal that Drew Pomeranz signed with the San Diego Padres.
There is always risk when it comes to relievers and long-term deals, but the emergence of his slider as a putaway pitch alongside his mid-90s sinker has made Graveman a lethal bullpen arm and one who could conceivably get even better in the years to come as he continues to settle into his new role.
Seiya Suzuki Will Be One of the Most Talked-About Players of the Winter
If you've never heard of Seiya Suzuki, that will change soon enough.
Since his first season as an everyday player for the Hiroshima Carp back in 2016, he has been one of the most consistent and productive hitters in the Japanese League.
- 2016: 543 PA, .329/.398/.598, 63 XBH (29 HR), 95 RBI
- 2017: 512 PA, .300/.389/.547, 55 XBH (26 HR), 90 RBI
- 2018: 522 PA, .321/.439/.625, 65 XBH (31 HR), 96 RBI
- 2019: 612 PA, .335/.453/.565, 59 XBH (28 HR), 87 RBI
- 2020: 514 PA, .300/.409/.544, 53 XBH (25 HR), 75 RBI
- 2021: 509 PA, .320/.436/.636, 61 XBH (35 HR), 84 RBI
The 27-year-old has more walks (259) than strikeouts (237) over the past three seasons, and he could be the most impactful outfielder to make the jump from Japan since Hideki Matsui if he is indeed posted this winter.
Ha-Seong Kim signed a four-year, $28 million deal with the San Diego Padres last offseason, and Korean Baseball Organization hitters have generally commanded less of a premium than Japanese League standouts. So it's reasonable to expect Suzuki to exceed that mark.
It seems every offseason now there is one international player who steals his fair share of headlines. Suzuki will be that guy this winter.
Sean Manaea Is Traded to the Highest Bidder
It's not earth-shattering to say the Oakland Athletics will be dealing with payroll constraints this offseason.
The club has 10 notable players eligible for arbitration—Matt Olson, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Matt Chapman, Ramon Laureano, Tony Kemp, Lou Trivino, Chad Pinder and Deolis Guerra—and they are projected for a combined $27.8 million in raises.
That group's collective salary figure is a projected $57.3 million. When you add to that Elvis Andrus ($14 million) and Stephen Piscotty ($7.6 million)—who both also under contract—and Jake Diekman ($4 million)—who is likely to have his club option exercised—Oakland has a projected $82.9 million already on the books for next year, and that's before pre-arbitration salaries are taken into account.
With a team payroll of just $89.7 million in 2021, that leaves barely any wiggle room to address needs, and with Starling Marte, Mark Canha, Josh Harrison, Yan Gomes, Yusmeiro Petit and Sergio Romo among 11 free agents, there are more than a few holes to fill.
Manaea, 29, is projected to earn $10.2 million in his final year of arbitration, a figure that would make him the third-highest paid player on the team.
With Montas and Bassitt both pitching at a top-of-the-rotation level and Cole Irvin and James Kaprielian emerging as legitimate rotation options, flipping Manaea for prospects this winter is an easier pill to swallow than it would have been a year ago.
Look for the big left-hander to be pitching elsewhere in 2022.
Rafael Devers Signs a Long-Term Extension with Boston
Rafael Devers cemented his status as a superstar in 2021.
The 24-year-old posted a 132 OPS+ to match his stellar 2019 output while tallying 37 doubles, 38 home runs and 113 RBI in 156 games.
He is already entering his second year of arbitration since he debuted at the age of 20, and he is projected for a substantial raise from $4.6 million this year to $11.1 million.
The Red Sox waited until he was entering his final year of arbitration to sign shortstop Xander Bogaerts to a six-year, $120 million extension, but with little money on the books right now, the time is right for them to hammer out a long-term deal for Devers.
The $32 million per year that Manny Machado is earning will no doubt be a target for his post-arbitration years, and perhaps something in the neighborhood of a five-year, $130 million deal would make sense.
That buys out three of his free-agency years while still allowing him to potentially hit the open market before his 30th birthday.
Kevin Gausman Will Be the 1st Domino to Fall on the SP Market
The market for top-tier starting pitching is generally slow to develop each offseason as everyone waits for someone else to be the one to set the new market value.
Kevin Gausman will be that guy.
After accepting a one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer last winter, Gausman turned in the best season of his career, going 14-6 with a 2.81 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 227 strikeouts in 192 innings.
With a more consistent track record than Robbie Ray, a cleaner bill of health than Marcus Stroman and being roughly six years younger than Max Scherzer, Gausman looks like the safest bet for a long-term contract among this year's top arms.
The San Francisco Giants have every reason to keep him around, as their window of contention is just opening and the long-term rotation is very much up in the air behind emerging ace Logan Webb.
Whether it's the Giants coming to terms on a new deal or another team swooping in with an offer he can't refuse, expect Gausman to be the first top-tier, free-agent pitcher to sign.
B/R's Zachary Rymer predicted a four-year, $100 million contract for him in late September.
Kyle Hendricks, Willson Contreras Both Stay Put
The Chicago Cubs are done selling for now.
Catcher Willson Contreras and right-hander Kyle Hendricks figure to be popular hypothetical names on the offseason trade market following the team's summer fire sale, and I actually proposed a Contreras-to-Miami trade myself in a recent article.
However, with new general manager Carter Hawkins in place before the start of the offseason and team president Jed Hoyer already talking about how active the team is going to be this winter, it now looks like the North Siders might be eyeing a quick turnaround rather than a long rebuild.
Pitching sits atop the offseason wish list.
"There's no question that we have to acquire more pitching, better pitching this winter," Hoyer told reporters. "I think that'll be the No. 1 priority because that, said simply, was the downfall of this season."
If the focus is on improving the pitching staff, trading Hendricks would be a head-scratcher.
There's also a case to be made that an established signal caller like Contreras is integral in building a successful staff. Unless the club is excited about the prospect of veteran Yan Gomes as the everyday backstop, the cupboard is bare at the catcher position in free agency, making him an almost impossible player to replace in the short-term.
The Cubs will be busy, but don't expect it to be as sellers.
Cody Bellinger Signs a 2-Year, $20 Million Extension
Yes, he was the NL MVP in 2019.
And yes, he just had a huge hit in Game 5 of the NLDS.
Still, it's hard to justify a projected $16.1 million salary for Cody Bellinger in 2022 after the way he struggled throughout the 2021 season. The 26-year-old hit .165/.240/.302 with 10 home runs in 350 plate appearances.
To better contextualize just how bad those numbers are, his 45 OPS+ ranked 260th out of 262 players with at least 300 plate appearances, ahead of only Jackie Bradley Jr. (34) and Austin Hedges (43).
All told, he was a minus-1.5 WAR player.
Only Jake Arrieta (-2.7), Hunter Dozier (-2.6), Pat Valaika (-1.9), Justus Sheffield (-1.9), Matt Shoemaker (-1.8), Jarred Kelenic (-1.7) and Brett de Geus (-1.7) provided worse value among all players who stepped foot onto an MLB field in 2021.
Despite all of that, it's hard to envision a straight non-tender this offseason given how good Bellinger was just a few years ago and how much upside he still brings to the table.
Instead, the Dodgers could look to buy out his final two years of arbitration with a two-year, $20 million extension. That would guarantee him more total money than his projected 2022 salary but be a lower average annual value than his current arbitration trajectory.
If the alternative is a non-tender, it might be an appealing compromise for both sides.
Yankees Pass on Top-Tier Shortstops, Settle for a Stopgap
Bold prediction: The New York Yankees are going to sit out the long-awaited offseason shortstop derby that could see Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Javier Baez all walk away with shiny new nine-figure contracts.
The emergence of Anthony Volpe as an elite-level prospect has changed things.
The 20-year-old hit .294/.423/.604 with 35 doubles, six triples, 27 home runs and 33 stolen bases in 109 games between Single-A and High-A, vaulting him to the No. 15 spot on our final Top 100 prospect list of the year.
Oswald Peraza—the No. 60 overall prospect on our Top 100 list—also looks like an impact player up the middle, and he's even closer to the big leagues after closing out the 2021 season at Triple-A.
So rather than breaking the bank on one of those top-tier shortstops, look for the Yankees to target a veteran stopgap who can start the season as the everyday guy while those prospects continue to develop.
Slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons and contact machine Jose Iglesias top the list of potential one-year deal targets.
It might not be the sexy move fans are hoping for, but it's the logical move.
Carlos Correa Joins the $300 Million Club
Baseball's $300 million club is an exclusive one, and it's a figure that was not reached for the first time until 2014, when Giancarlo Stanton signed an extension with the Miami Marlins.
Here's everyone in MLB history who has signed a $300 million contract:
- Mookie Betts: 12 years, $365 million
- Mike Trout: 10 years, $360 million
- Francisco Lindor: 10 years, $341 million
- Fernando Tatis Jr.: 14 years, $340 million
- Bryce Harper: 13 years, $330 million
- Giancarlo Stanton: 13 years, $325 million
- Gerrit Cole: nine years, $324 million
- Manny Machado: 10 years, $300 million
Will Carlos Correa become the ninth member this offseason?
There's a good chance he will, due in large part to the fact that he just turned 27 years old last month. Most players don't hit the open market until after their 30th birthdays, meaning a long-term deal with Correa comes with three more prime seasons than the average free agent.
He has also managed to shake the injury bug that plagued him earlier in his career, playing in 206 of 222 games for the Houston Astros the last two seasons.
After logging a career-high 7.2 WAR in 2021, he is hitting the open market at the perfect time, and that 10-year, $341 million extension that Francisco Lindor signed with the New York Mets might be the starting point in negotiations.