The Toughest MLB Free-Agent Decisions After the Lockout

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 28, 2021

The Toughest MLB Free-Agent Decisions After the Lockout

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    Yankees GM Brian Cashman hasn't done much...yet.
    Yankees GM Brian Cashman hasn't done much...yet.Associated Press

    Major League Baseball's lockout is already four weeks old, yet the signs still point to it not ending any time soon. Among other things, that means the free-agent market will remain closed for a while.

    Even still, it's not hard to hard to spot significant matters that must be resolved when the market reopens.

    We've rounded up eight team-specific decisions that we think will determine the general shape of free agency whenever baseball operations resume. These involve calls that must be made on specific free agents, as well as more general choices teams will have to make about the directions they're going in.

    Since ranking these didn't seem particularly necessary, we'll proceed in alphabetical order.

Atlanta: Where to Draw the Line on Freddie Freeman

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Even before he and Atlanta wrapped up its World Series win over the Houston Astros in October, Freddie Freeman was reiterating how badly he wanted to stay.

    "I haven't envisioned playing anywhere else because I haven't gotten to that point yet," he told reporters. "I've put on this uniform since 2007. I got to put on a Braves uniform with the Gulf Coast League team. It's all I've ever known."

    Months later, however, the 2020 National League MVP surprisingly remains unsigned. That's seemingly related to the length of his next deal, as Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported in November that Atlanta doesn't want to do a six-year term with the 32-year-old first baseman.

    Though Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos did promise that payroll would go up in 2022, he only has $5 million more to spend before next year's payroll eclipses what the team spent in 2021. Freeman is potentially worth six times that much annually, and he'd be 37 by the end of a six-year contract.

    This is to say that Atlanta's reluctance has some validity. But if ever there was an excuse to throw caution to the wind, it's a chance to re-sign a franchise icon after he helped said franchise win a championship.

Chicago Cubs: To Go All-In or Only Kinda-In

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    Marcus Stroman
    Marcus StromanCharles Krupa/Associated Press

    In the wake of a 91-loss season that also marked the end of an era, the Cubs have positioned themselves for a rebound by adding hurlers Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley and catcher Yan Gomes.

    They may not be done yet. The organization still has a lot of payroll flexibility, after all, and Bruce Levine of 670 The Score reported that it has serious interest in Carlos Correa.

    The catch, though, is that the Cubs would "rather not" do a 10-year deal with the 27-year-old shortstop. That would preclude them from matching Corey Seager's 10-year, $325 million pact with the Texas Rangers, in which case they'll likely need to offer a much higher average annual value to secure Correa.

    Either way, signing him will require the Cubs to go beyond their comfort zone. If they do, it'll be the ultimate tell that they're serious about immediately returning to contention even though it's only been months since they broke up their previous core.

    If not, the Cubs will look more like a vaguely interesting pretender than an actual contender. Even now, it's hard not to wonder if that's the team they want to be while they quietly rebuild in the background.

Houston Astros: To Re-Sign or Replace Carlos Correa

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Speaking of Correa, it's still possible the Astros will re-sign him. They'll just need to do a lot better than the last offer they made him.

    According to Mark Berman of Fox26, that was for $160 million over five years. That seemed like a lowball proposal at the time, and even more so once Seager set the market with his megadeal with the Rangers. 

    Could the Astros respond accordingly and try to entice Correa to return with an offer molded after Seager's contract? In theory, sure. But team owner Jim Crane's heels may be dug in, as ESPN's Buster Olney reported that he still doesn't want to go beyond six years for Correa.

    Since that puts Houston's chances of re-signing him between slim and none, the real question may be who else might fill his vacated shoes. It could be another shortstop, such as Trevor Story. Or, maybe the Astros will move Alex Bregman to short and find somebody to spell him at third base.

    In any case, it's hard to imagine the Astros actually handing Correa's spot to top prospect Jeremy Pena. For a team that's fresh off its third World Series in five years, that would be more reckless than bold.

Los Angeles Dodgers: How to Account for Their Missing Stars

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    Clayton Kershaw
    Clayton KershawAaron Doster/Associated Press

    Good on the Dodgers for retaining utility man Chris Taylor on a four-year, $60 million deal, but they still look like one of the winter's biggest losers.

    They began the winter with a list of free agents headlined by Seager and Max Scherzer. Both are gone now, and still unsigned are ace Clayton Kershaw and closer Kenley Jansen.

    To be clear, the Dodgers still have an ultra-talented roster. But you also don't have to squint to see the shortage of depth in their starting rotation, as well as the hole at the back end of their bullpen and the left-handed slugger they lack in their lineup.

    Meanwhile, things are iffy on the payroll front. The team paid $32.7 million in luxury-tax penalties this year, which is theoretically an excuse to lower payroll. Because it's already looking at a $227 million luxury-tax payroll in 2022, much could hinge on where the next threshold is set.

    Then again, these are the Dodgers. Between their wide-open contention window and deep pockets, they have every reason to spare no expense. Even if it means diving headlong into further luxury-tax fees through new deals with Kershaw and Jansen and perhaps also adding, say, Freeman.

New York Yankees: How Big to Go at Shortstop

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    Gleyber Torres
    Gleyber TorresIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    One thing that's for sure is that Gleyber Torres won't be playing shortstop for the Yankees in 2022. That experiment was declared a failure in September.

    As for who will be manning short for the Yankees next season, it really depends on how they want to play the free-agent market. Per Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the organization is comfortable shopping in the bargain bin. More recently, reporting from Olney raised the possibility of a run at Correa or Story.

    If there's a case for the Yankees to settle for, say, Andrelton Simmons, that type of move would free up more money to be spent on other needs, such as a left-handed bat or starting pitcher.

    Those needs might have to be left unfilled if the Yankees went for Correa or Story, but either would be a massive upgrade at a position that frankly needs one. Indeed, either player would be worth the inevitable luxury-tax hit.

    Or so it's easy for us to say, anyway. Because even after avoiding penalties in 2021, the early buzz about the Yankees being willing to go back over the luxury-tax threshold in 2022 has thus far clashed with reality. The team has signed all of one free agent for just $2 million.

Philadelphia Phillies: How to Make a Splash

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    Bryce Harper
    Bryce HarperEric Espada/Getty Images

    Between MVP Bryce Harper and Cy Young runner-up Zack Wheeler, the Phillies' core is built upon two of the best players in the National League.

    And yet, how the team itself can escape mediocrity remains a challenging puzzle. It just has so many needs to fill. Center field is an especially noteworthy weakness, though the Phillies also have an opening in left field. Plus, the left side of the team's infield was an offensive black hole in 2021.

    Free agency doesn't have much to offer in terms of center fielders, but it's no surprise that the Phillies have checked in on Nick Castellanos (Jon Morosi of and Kyle Schwarber (Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia). Either could be the big bopper they need in left.

    However, arguably neither of them represents the best signing the Phillies can make. They could theoretically push for Correa, Story or Kris Bryant, even if signing one of them would mean a lesser role for shortstop Didi Gregorius or third baseman Alec Bohm.

    In any case, the Phillies will have to be comfortable with pushing their payroll to still newer heights. It's already projected at $181 million for 2022, so any big signing would likely result in the franchise's first $200 million payroll.

San Francisco Giants: Whether to Break the Bank on Anyone

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    Kris Bryant
    Kris BryantRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    What a strange couple of months it's been for the Giants.

    At the end of the regular season, they were a 107-win juggernaut with World Series aspirations. But then they got bounced out of the National League Division Series, and their winter has primarily been marked by catcher Buster Posey's retirement and ace Kevin Gausman's departure via free agency. 

    There are at least two bright sides. One is that the Giants have at least retained first baseman Brandon Belt and hurlers Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood, and also added a new pitcher in Alex Cobb. Another is that the club still has a ton of payroll flexibility.

    Yet from Kiley McDaniel of ESPN came a report that the Giants aren't looking to do nine-figure deals with any free agents. If they stick to that, they're almost certainly not re-signing Bryant or making splashes on Correa, Story or Castellanos, each of whom fits the team well on paper.

    At least from our perspective, it's hard to escape the sense that the Giants are bluffing. But if they're not, they'll have the unenviable task of selling the club's reinvigorated fanbase on why it was necessary to pinch pennies after such an exciting season.

Texas Rangers: Do They Keep Adding?

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    Corey Seager
    Corey SeagerRichard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

    After they lost 102 games in 2021, maybe nobody expected the Rangers to be the most active team on the free-agent market. Yet $560 million in signings later, that's reality.

    The catch is that even with Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray, the Rangers still look like just another team in the American League West. They're definitely going to be more competitive in 2022, but likely not enough to challenge the Astros or the ascendant Seattle Mariners.

    It could be that the Rangers merely want to play for respect as they wait for their best prospects to arrive in 2023, at which time they'll truly be ready to contend. If so, well, it's nothing if not admirable.

    Alternatively, the Rangers could look to properly open their contention window in 2022 with additional signings. A deal with Kershaw, a Dallas native, is the one that everyone wants. But don't count out Japanese slugger Seiya Suzuki, who Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports is on the Rangers' radar.

    Because the club's projected 2022 payroll of $127 million is well short of its peak payroll of $165 million from 2017, these signings and others are doable. The Rangers would just have to make peace with fielding the ultimate high-risk, high-reward team.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.


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