MLB Free Agency Preview: 10 Intriguing Names, Upside Signings & More In 2020-21
Free agency begins Sunday, Nov. 1, and the class of 2020-21 faces the most uncertainty of any class before it.
Major League Baseball claims teams lost 40% of their revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and fans not being allowed to attend games during the regular season. Teams across the game have already slashed staff—including scouts and player development personnel—and are turning down player options that otherwise might have been picked up, most notably Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong and Rays righthander Charlie Morton.
As players and agents prepare for a winter of belt-tightening, the expectation is the top players in the class will still command considerable contracts, but the vast majority of players will have to accept lesser deals than they would otherwise expect.
Here is a quick primer on the 2020-21 free agent class and where the strengths and weaknesses of the class lie. The complete list of free agents can be found here.
The Top 10 Notable Free Agents
1. J.T. Realmuto, C, Phillies
The Phillies’ decision to expend significant trade capital (including RHP Sixto Sanchez) to acquire Realmuto didn’t pay off in any playoff appearances, but that’s not Realmuto’s fault. He has been the best catcher in baseball in 2019-2020, hitting .273/.333/.492 over the past two seasons while also providing excellent defense. Realmuto stands out because the gap between him and the next-best catcher on the free agent market is far larger than the separation between the best pitcher, outfielder, slugger or shortstop available and the next best.
2. George Springer, OF, Astros
While most of the Astros stars’ suffered down years following revelations of the team’s sign-stealing scandal, Springer remained a force by batting .265/.359/.540 with 14 home runs in 51 games. He turned 31 in September, so his age will be a factor, but he remains a rare talent who provides standout offensive production and above-average speed and defense in center field. Among center fielders, only Mike Trout has a higher WAR over the last four seasons.
3. Trevor Bauer, RHP, Reds
Bauer is the presumptive favorite to win the National League Cy Young Award and the unquestioned top available pitcher on the market. However, teams are going to have to balance Bauer’s performance in an abbreviated 2020 season with the rest of his career. Since the first time he pitched 150 innings in a season in 2014, Bauer’s season ERAs have been 4.18, 4.55, 4.19, 2.21, 4.48 and 1.73—essentially, four seasons of No. 4 starter-level production and two seasons of top-of-the-rotation production. Teams will have to decide whether they believe Bauer is the ace he was in 2020, or the solid pitcher with peaks of excellence he has been over the course of his career. His desire for short contracts may play well in an offseason where many teams have indicated a hesitancy to sign large long-term deals.
4. Marcell Ozuna, OF, Braves
Always a bat-first player, Ozuna flourished with the introduction of the designated hitter in the National League in 2020. He led the NL in home runs (18), RBIs (56) and total bases (145) while spending 39 of 60 games as the Braves’ DH. Ozuna’s defense is well below average in left field and his offense improved significantly when he was able to just focus on hitting, so the lack of clarity about whether the DH will continue in the NL affects his market. Still, his 2020 performance should secure him a multi-year deal after he signed a one-year contract last offseason. He turns 30 in November.
5. Marcus Semien, SS, Athletics
Semien will be the test case for how clubs view a player’s decline in performance in the context of a shortened, chaotic 2020 season. A year after finishing third in American League MVP voting, Semien hit .223/.305/.374 and ranked 123rd out of 142 eligible players with a .680 OPS. Both his exit velocity and barrel percentage fell, his whiff rate increased by 5% and his fielding percentage was his worst since 2015—back when he was considered a well below-average defender before improving as his career progressed. A lot of standout players struggled in 2020, so Semien isn’t alone, but it will be instructive to see how teams react to such performance declines given the circumstances of the season.
6. D.J. LeMahieu, 2B, Yankees
LeMahieu dispensed with the notion his previous success was solely a product of Coors Field during his two years with the Yankees. His .336 batting average over the last two seasons is highest in MLB and his 268 hits are second-most. While Yankee Stadium also inflates offensive numbers, LeMahieu’s contact rate (89.9%, third in MLB in 2020) and average exit velocity (91.3 mph, 37th in MLB in 2020) bode well in any park as a player who hits the ball hard and hits the ball often. Add in Gold Glove defense at second base, and he’s a fit for any team looking to upgrade its infield. He will turn 33 next season.
7. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees
Tanaka lived up to his part of the seven-year, $155 million deal he signed with the Yankees in 2014 after coming over from Japan. He went 78-46, 3.74 and averaged 168 innings per season despite pitching with a partial UCL tear in his elbow and was particularly effective in the postseason up until this year. Tanaka has alternated good years and middling years recently and his fastball has become less effective over time (opponents hit .351 and .320 against it the last two years, respectively), but on the whole he’s been a durable, above-average starter over the course of his career. He is arguably the most consistent, reliable starting pitcher at the top of this year’s class.
8. Marcus Stroman, RHP, Mets
Like Bauer, teams are going to have to figure out which version of Stroman they are getting, but without a 2020 to go off of. Stroman’s yearly ERA’s went 4.37, 3.09, 5.54, 3.22 in the four seasons from 2016-19 before he suffered a torn calf muscle and opted out of the 2020 season. At his best, Stroman has looked like a front-of-the-rotation starter who keeps the ball on the ground with his sinker/slider combination and has shown the ability to be durable with at least 180 innings in three of his last four seasons. That said, he’s a bit of a wild card after a year away and coming off of a lower-body injury.
9. Ha-Seong Kim, SS, Korea
Kim entered the 2020 season already considered the KBO’s No. 1 prospect, then hit .308 with a career-high 30 home runs and 23 stolen bases for Kiwoom to raise his stock even more. He’s already been posted and is expected to receive a sizable contract. Kim is a highly athletic shortstop scouts in the Pacific Rim have coveted for years. He’s a twitchy, instinctual defender with a strong enough arm to stick at shortstop and has experience at third base, as well. Kim may face an adjustment period and struggle against higher velocity initially when he arrives in the U.S., but he has the athleticism, twitch and overall feel for hitting to adjust and eventually settle in as an above-average hitter with double-digit home run power. He adds value as a plus runner and efficient basestealer, making him a dynamic player who can impact the game at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths. Maybe most importantly, he’s 25, meaning he’s years younger than almost everyone else available in free agency.
10. Didi Gregorius, SS, Phillies
Gregorius rebounded from an injury-shortened 2019 to hit .284/.339/488 with 10 home runs in 60 games for the Phillies this season. The performance was much more in line with his 2016-18 output with the Yankees, when he was one of MLB’s top shortstops. Gregorius doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard (83.8 mph average exit velocity in 2020), but he rarely strikes out, makes a lot of contact and handles all types of pitches. He’s still a solid defender and is one of the few shortstops in this year’s class coming off a strong year. He’ll be 31 in February.
National League Teams Have Success Without Filling For DH Spot
It appears that planning to fill the DH spot was less productive than simply making due with players already in your organization.
1. Relief Pitcher—Any team that had bullpen problems should have no problem finding solutions in this year’s free agent class. Liam Hendriks, Brad Hand, Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, Jeremy Jeffress, Alex Colome, Kirby Yates, Trevor Rosenthal, Blake Treinen, Trevor May, Joakim Soria and Justin Wilson headline a deep group of relievers with a track record of high-leverage success. Of course, relievers tend to be the riskiest group to give big contracts to in free agency.
2. Shortstop—This is not the 2021 free agent shortstop class which could include Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager and Carlos Correa, but it is still a remarkably deep class of potential starters. Marcus Semien, Ha-Seong Kim, Didi Gregorius and Andrelton Simmons being included mean there are more potential starters looking for spots than there may be teams looking for everyday shortstops.
3. Corner outfield—Ozuna is one of the best hitters available and Springer, while primarily a center fielder, has plenty of experience in a corner, too. Add in Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson, Robbie Grossman, Brett Gardner and a resurgent Jurickson Profar, and there are plenty of impact bats to be had among potential corner outfielders this year.
4. Starting Pitcher - There is no Gerrit Cole in this year’s class, but there is a deep group of accomplished pitchers who have been above-average or better starters within the last two years. Bauer, Tanaka, Stroman, Morton, Jose Quintana, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, Mike Minor, Adam Wainwright, Taijuan Walker and Kevin Gausman make for a solid group at the top of the class, with Chris Archer, Cole Hamels, Corey Kluber and Jake Odorizzi headlining a group of interesting bounceback candidates who missed most or all of the 2020 season.
5. Second base—The presence of LeMahieu and the Cardinals’ decision to decline Wong’s option provides two premium defenders with a track record of hitting available at the keystone. Productive veterans Tommy La Stella, Jonathan Schoop, Jonathan Villar and Cesar Hernandez add depth to the group, while Jurickson Profar, Enrique Hernandez and Brad Miller are all productive hitters who have seen time at the keystone, too.
First base—What the 2020 free agent class lacks in star power, it makes up for in depth. There are a number of starting candidates at pretty much every position around the diamond other than first base. Carlos Santana is the class of the field at first, but he’s coming off of a .199/.349/.350 season as a 34-year-old. Santana was much better in 2019 (.281/.397/.515) and his batted ball profile, while not great, was not as bad as his slash line, so a team seeing a shortened 2020 as a blip and not a sign of permanent decline could take a chance on him.
Top Five Upside Signings
1. Chris Archer, RHP, Pirates
Archer is coming off of thoracic outlet surgery, which is often a career-altering injury. Even before his surgery, Archer’s 2019 season is best forgotten. His walk rate (4.1 BB/9) and home run rate (1.88 HR/9) skyrocketed to career highs. The trend lines seem to all be heading in the wrong direction, but it wasn’t that long ago that Archer was a rotation stalwart for the Rays. If Archer can show he’s healthy, he’s an interesting addition for someone.
2. Cole Hamels, LHP, Braves
Hamels received $18 million to throw 3.1 innings for Atlanta in 2020. A triceps injury and then shoulder weakness torpedoed his season. He is unlikely to receive an offer anywhere close to that this offseason, but if he is healthy, he’s not that far removed from being an above-average starting pitcher in his year and a half with the Cubs.
3. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Angels
Simmons remains baseball’s best defensive shortstop, but his offense cratered the last two seasons as he dealt with a recurring ankle injury. He hit .292 with 11 home runs, 75 RBIs and 10 stolen bases the last season he was fully healthy in 2018, an offensive output that made him one of baseball’s best players combined with his defense. If he’s past his ankle woes and can stay healthy, a return to that level of offensive production is possible and would make Simmons once again one of baseball’s premier talents.
4. James Paxton, LHP, Yankees
Paxton’s 2020 season was undeniably miserable. He had back surgery just before spring training, posted a 6.64 ERA in five starts after he returned and then suffered a season-ending flexor strain. But it was only a year ago he went 15-6, 3.82 and pitched 150 innings for the Yankees, and he still has some of the best pure stuff from the left side in MLB. He went 38-17, 3.54 in 81 starts from 2017-19, and a return to health makes him a candidate to reach that level or performance once again.
5. Kirby Yates, RHP, Padres
It was only a year ago that Yates posted a 1.19 ERA and led MLB with 41 saves. He struggled in six outings this year before having season-ending elbow surgery, but like Blake Treinen—who was MLB’s best reliever in 2018, struggled in 2019 and became a valuable addition on a one-year deal in 2020—he could end up the next formerly elite reliever to have a bounceback season.
1. Nelson Cruz, DH, Twins
Cruz turned 40 in July and still hit .303/.397/.595 with 16 home runs in 53 games. He finished tied for seventh in MLB in home runs and eighth with a .992 OPS. Cruz is strictly a DH only and he figures to drop off at some point, but he hasn’t yet and remains one of MLB’s top sluggers.
2. Charlie Morton, RHP, Rays
The Rays declined Morton’s $15 million option for 2020, which isn’t a huge surprise given their annual payroll crunch and the fact Morton logged an underwhelming 4.74 ERA in nine starts. But Morton, who turns 37 in November, remains one of baseball’s best big-game pitchers and showed he was still capable of dominating in the postseason. He’s one year removed from finishing third in AL Cy Young Award voting and is a candidate for a bounceback season, even at his age.
3. Justin Turner, 3B, Dodgers
Turner hit .307 with a .400 on-base percentage last year, and even with a power decline still slugged .460. He’ll be 36 in November and his status is clouded by potential discipline for returning to the field to celebrate winning the World Series after he tested positive for COVID-19, but he remains one of the best and most accomplished hitters available.
4. Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals
Molina turns 39 next season and has seen his OPS decline in four consecutive years, but he’s still an excellent defender who hits for average and brings premium leadership intangibles. After 17 seasons in St. Louis, it’s hard to imagine him in another uniform.
5. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals
Wainwright went 5-3, 3.10 while averaging more than six innings per start in his age-38 season. His curveball remains an out-pitch and he keeps the ball on the ground, helping him survive even as his average fastball velocity has dropped into the 80s.
Teams That Have The Most To Lose In Free Agency
1. Houston Astros
The Astros don’t have many free agents, but they have significant free agents. OF George Springer has been a cornerstone of the Astros’ run as one of the best teams in the American League. OF Michael Brantley proved to be a very astute signing in 2019 and has been one of the team’s more productive hitters in his two years with Houston.
2 Atlanta Braves
Under GM Alex Anthopoulos the Braves have become masters of signing free agents to one-year deals. 3B Josh Donaldson was very productive in 2019 and Ozuna was just as good in 2020. With Ozuna hitting free agency as well as C Tyler Flowers and RHPs Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, Darren O’Day and Josh Tomlin, the Braves are looking to replace a big bat as well as a significant part of their much-improved bullpen.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
The World Series champions bring back the core of the best team in baseball, but they do have several key pieces headed to free agency. Most importantly, 3B Justin Turner has been one of the Dodgers’ stars of the past half decade. Utilityman/2B Enrique Hernandez plays a little of everywhere for the Dodgers (he started at five different positions in 2020). He has been productive enough to get regular at-bats in a loaded Dodgers’ lineup and is one of the younger players on the free agent market. RHP Blake Treinen was a key member of the bullpen.
Free At Last
Rusney Castillo, OF, Red Sox
Castillo signed a seven-year, $72.5 million contract with the Red Sox in 2014. Two years later the Red Sox outrighted him off of the 40-man roster. Castillo’s contract wasn’t altered by the outright assignment, but it did mean that the contract no longer was part of luxury tax calculations. That meant that Castillo was stuck in a Pawtucket purgatory for 2017-2019. Castillo performed reasonably well after his outright assignment, but he was never going to be promoted back to Boston because of the luxury tax. He’s now 33, so his window to be a productive major leaguer may have closed, but he is no longer the best-paid minor leaguer in baseball.