After MLB’s lukewarm interest in free agency the past few seasons, this winter could bring an even less active marketplace. COVID-19 slashed baseball revenues in 2020, and teams are expected to cut payroll next season, which could hurt the middle class of free agents particularly hard.
But even during this recent trend away from high-dollar deals, the top free agents have remained in demand. When Stephen Strasburg signed the biggest deal ever for a free agent pitcher last December, his record stood for just a few days before Gerrit Cole topped it with his contract with the New York Yankees. Similarly, the top of this class also includes high-quality free agents who can help contenders.
A reigning Cy Young winner might join deGrom
The New York Mets are one of the more intriguing teams this winter under new owner Steve Cohen, who jettisoned many members of the Mets’ front office immediately after taking over. The Mets missed the postseason last year, but they have some strengths they can build on: Over the 60-game season, the Mets tied the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers for the most efficient offense in the majors, according to weighted runs created plus (wRC+), and they ranked fifth in wins above replacement (WAR) for position players, according to FanGraphs’ version of the stat. Since the start of the 2019 season, Mets batters rank fifth in wRC+ and eighth in WAR. The majority of the team’s 2020 position players are likely returning next season, though they will be without Robinson Canó, who is suspended for the whole 2021 season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. And they should have some money to spend on free agents: The Mets rank seventh in 2021 payroll commitments despite playing in the game’s largest market.1
Where the Mets struggled in 2020 — even with ace Jacob deGrom improving in some ways — was on the mound. The Mets ranked 26th in the majors in starting pitcher ERA last season (5.37), and their bullpen ERA was also in the bottom half of the league. While the Mets hope to get a full season from Marcus Stroman — who accepted his qualifying offer after deciding not to pitch last season — and expect Noah Syndergaard to return from Tommy John surgery at some point in 2021, they could use another arm to shore up their once-fearsome rotation. And who might be the perfect arm for a team with money to spend? Trevor Bauer. Perhaps no player could elevate the Mets’ chances like the most recent NL Cy Young award winner. Pairing him with deGrom, who won the previous two awards, would likely give the Mets one of the best rotations in the game and give them a formidable one-two punch for a postseason run.
The Blue Jays want a “super high impact” player
The Toronto Blue Jays broke out in 2020, snapping a string of three straight losing seasons to reach the playoffs for just the third time since 1993. These Blue Jays found success with the youngest position player group in the majors last season (25.9 years old on average), including promising legacy players Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. But they may struggle to repeat that success if they don’t make any upgrades in the offseason. They finished with a below-average Elo rating and were outscored as a team.
Toronto general manager Ross Atkins said the team is open to adding a “super high impact” player, and catcher J.T. Realmuto would address a huge hole for the Jays: Toronto was one of six major league teams to receive below replacement-level production from catcher last year. The team has some promising prospects, and they may not want to give up yet on starter Danny Jansen, but Realmuto is a sure-thing star right now. He tied for the second-best WAR mark last season among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances. Over the past three seasons, Realmuto has delivered more WAR than any other catcher in the majors, slightly ahead of the second-place Yasmani Grandal and more than doubling the output of third-place Christian Vázquez. That kind of production would be an upgrade for just about every contender, but it might be particularly valuable to a club like the Blue Jays, who have promising young players at a number of other positions.
The Phillies can afford to trade a glove for a bat
The Philadelphia Phillies are revamping their front office after missing the postseason yet again. (They haven’t reached the playoffs since 2011.) The team has a number of needs to fill, so to end their playoff drought, they may need to get creative. One factor working in their favor: No pitching staff had a greater ground ball rate last season, and their home field — Citizens Bank Park — has less fair territory to cover than any other ballpark, according to the calculations from Clem’s Baseball Blog’s ballpark database. That means the Phillies might be able to get away with trading outfield defense for offense. They could move a bat-first outfielder like Andrew McCutchen or Bryce Harper to center field full time (the Phillies ranked 24th in center field WAR last season), opening up a corner spot for the biggest bat in free agency: Marcell Ozuna. Last year he finished third in the majors in wRC+ (179), and his underlying metrics — exit velocity, share of hard-hit balls and barrel percentage — rank as elite. Ozuna’s glove is the question mark, but that could matter less in Philly than just about anywhere else.
Can the Nationals keep their window open?
Entering 2020, the Washington Nationals were expected to mount a strong title defense. But though the team boasted stars Juan Soto and Max Scherzer, it failed to reach the postseason. Injuries were a big problem — particularly to starting pitcher Strasburg, first baseman Howie Kendrick and second baseman Starlin Castro. But the Nats also weren’t helped by the play at one crucial position: center field. According to FanGraphs WAR, Washington’s center field production ranked last in the majors. George Springer is regarded as one of the top five free agents available, and he proved last season that his production wasn’t dependent on sign-stealing in Houston. With Scherzer (36), Strasburg (32) and Patrick Corbin (31) all on the wrong side of 30 but still productive when healthy, the Nationals might be motivated to improve their roster and try to maximize their potential to win with this core.
The Reds could make a play for a Korean star
Even if Bauer departs, the Cincinnati Reds could still have an above-average pitching staff, with arms like Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray returning. But they have a big problem to address in the infield: The Reds generated just 0.1 WAR at shortstop last season, fourth-worst in the majors. Several veteran options are available at shortstop, but there’s also another option with higher potential upside: 25-year-old Korean Baseball Organization sensation Ha-Seong Kim. Though scouts are high on Kim’s baseball tools, he has yet to prove himself in the majors, which could offer a mid-to-small-market club like the Reds the chance to sign him at a discount.