Two of the four great free agents of baseball are off the board. Two are left. With the old World Series history and first place in the 2021 MLB season months away, we’ve hit the unofficial middle of this off-season.
While we wait for the rest of the hot oven to unfold, we’ve asked ESPN’s Bradfords Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers, and David Schoenfield to weigh the biggest winners, losers, and surprises to date and the moves they’d like to see the spring training arrives.
Has anyone done enough to catch the Dodgers, or is it still LA and then everyone else at the top of the MLB?
Doolittle: The Dodgers remain the team to beat, but teams like the Mets and Padres have filled the void. L.A. has yet to re-sign or replace key freelance agents like Justin Turner and Enrique Hernandez while the Mets and Padres have had comparatively aggressive offseasons. Even so, the Dodgers still have plenty of off-season time to re-establish a more comfortable buffer between them and everyone else.
Gonzalez: I still think the Dodgers are the best team in baseball, but I would bet the field in large part because a somewhat inferior team can no doubt beat them in a short streak (the Braves, you will remember should got last year).
At this point, the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Braves, White Sox, and Yankees are one step ahead of everyone else. Each of these teams can realistically win anything in 2021.
What sets the Dodgers apart is their ability to constantly bring elite talent out of their farm system. It prevents them from having to be overly aggressive in the off-season to add to their roster and also gives them the flexibility to do so. Right now they’re looking for a right-handed bat – a quest that could inevitably lead them straight back to Justin Turner. Currently, however, only Mookie Betts is under contract beyond the 2022 season (although Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler will be costly through arbitration by then). If they’re ready to break the luxury tax threshold this year, they could add someone like Trevor Bauer or any other star via the trade and go under soon enough. Like Betts last year, they can take a team that may already be the best in baseball and make it a lot better.
Rogers: The Dodgers after eight years of searching for a championship? Someone could absolutely dethrone her. Did you notice the team right down the street? The padres can do it. The Braves took LA to an NLCS game 7 in October, and the AL has several contenders including the Yankees and White Sox. The hangover the youngest champions suffered trying to repeat themselves opens the door. On the other hand, someone will repeat themselves as a World Series winner at some point. So don’t bet too much against them.
Schönfield: Yeah, it’s hard to believe we haven’t had a repeat World Series winner since the Yankees won three times in a row from 1998-2000. By comparison, the NBA has had five repeat champions since then, the NFL and the NHL one each. So repeating is difficult regardless of the sport.
Even so, the Dodgers are the team to beat and I think it will be an incentive to prove their dominance over 162 games. However, given the Padres’ movements, even a ninth title in a row in NL West is not a lock as I clearly see these two teams in MLB 2-1 with the Braves, White Sox, Rays and Yankees one step below.
Which team is the biggest off-season winner to date, just looking at their movements on the field?
Rogers: The padres. Starting pitching is still the name of the game. Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove add Yu Darvish and set it up not just for 2021 but for several years beyond. The team has to yell with some new faces, but Jayce Tingler has proven he knows what he’s doing in the shortened 2020 season. Don’t think twice, the Padres have won the winter so far.
Schönfield: While the team that “wins” the off-season doesn’t always win the off-season – see AJ Preller’s disastrous first season as Padres’ GM when he acquired Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, James Shields and Craig Kimbrel – and won the Padres three games less.
I go with the Mets though, especially if they can sign Francisco Lindor on a long-term contract. As much as I like what the Padres did, the Mets added Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, James McCann, Joey Lucchesi and Trevor May, and Marcus Stroman (who accepted the team’s offer of qualification) counts too. Plus, losing Robinson Cano’s $ 21 million salary to a PED suspension is arguably a good thing too.
Doolittle: For me it’s the mets. The club acquired a young superstar in Lindor and transformed a cynical fan base into one that is initially full of hope.
Gonzalez: I’m going with the White Sox. While their other AL Central competitors basically cut costs, the White Sox took the opportunity to add to an exciting mix of young players by adding the best reliever available (Liam Hendriks) and one of the most reliable starting mugs in the game (Lance Lynn ) added. Now they have a deep, talented pitching team that complements a dangerous cast of Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal, Jose Abreu, and others. And look around the department. The Indians have lost Lindor and Carrasco, the Tigers remain in the middle of rebuilding, the Royals – surprisingly aggressive with the new additions of Carlos Santana, Michael Taylor, Mike Minor and Greg Holland – are not talented enough yet and the twins I haven’t done much to add to a roster that was just one game better than the White Sox in the cut season.
Which team is the biggest loser of the off-season so far?
Doolittle: The Cubs off-season has been pathetic and it’s hard to see it get much better. It’s not that there didn’t have to be some kind of shake, but for Chicago, suddenly acting like a small market team is terrible. So much goodwill has been wasted. It’s not that the Cubs can’t get through this for a couple of years before getting back on the payroll, because they can and that’s probably the form all of this will take. But the core of this championship team was popular on the north side and now it will forever look like a lack of aggression will close that competitive window sooner than it needed to be. This also applies if boredom from top to bottom in NL Central keeps the Cubs in the Division 2021 race.
Rogers: Loser is a strong word, but the Cubs have to be at the top of the list. Dumping Darvish just as they unlocked his greatness is a great loss. It won’t take much to win the NL Central, but the Cubs have secured themselves on the pack. And the dissolving isn’t over yet.
Gonzalez: The Rays won two-thirds of their games, won a championship within two wins, and then traded Blake Snell, lost Charlie Morton, and added Michael Wacha, who is half a dozen years away from the legitimate differentiator. The rays will still find a way to be good either now or soon after, for that is exactly what the rays do. But they were clearly in a window to win everything, and now that is undoubtedly gone. This was an off-season when they should have added to this roster, not subtracted from it. And while trading star level players before they get too expensive is nothing new to the Rays, it doesn’t make them any less sad when they do. It is, of course, an issue beyond this franchise.
Schönfield: I understand Cleveland had to get something for Lindor before he went to the free agency, but while Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario are both major league players, I don’t see much of an advantage in either – and they had to throw Carrasco as good. Those are two big losses from a good team as the White Sox keep adding in (the twins haven’t done much either, making Chicago look like the clear favorite in the division).
What’s one under the radar movement that could pay off this winter?
Doolittle: Jhoulys Chacin has fallen off the table in recent years, but if you look at his statcast numbers, there’s no obvious reason he couldn’t get back to his 2018 form when he was an average workhouse for Milwaukee. In a Yankees rotation where someone could use stable innings he could be really valuable to this club. Or maybe it will be cut in spring training. Anyway, signing Chacin could be great for the Yankees because he can do as much for the rest of the roster as he can for what he produces himself. And he’ll be another point of contact at the clubhouse, helping to take the limelight from his better-known teammates.
Gonzalez: The Nationals get two inexpensive seasons of Josh Bell without giving up much. There’s a lot of value to underperforming players in such an unconventional season, and Bell could be someone who just goes back to who he was before. The last time a full season was played, Bell faced .277 / .367 / .569 in 2019 with 37 homers and 116 RBIs, finishing in the top 5 percent of the sport for average exit speed. Then came the 2020 season. His adjusted OPS fell 59 points, his starting angle was cut in half, his strikes shot up – basically Bell was bad in a way he had never been. If he finds his way back, the Nationals – desperately looking for a first baseman and a bat in the middle of the okay at the start of the off-season – could pick up one of the off-season’s best bargains.
Rogers: Archie Bradley joins the Phillies. A lot has to be right for Philadelphia to make it through the postseason in a laden NL East, but none of this is going to happen without a better bullpen. Bradley gives them that. Blowing lead is such a downer. Just ask the Phillies of the past few years. Bradley is the key to her success.
Schönfield: The Padres’ signing of Korean infielder Ha-seong Kim was a bit lost amid the trades of Darvish and Snell, but he has a chance to become a batsman, likely as the first second baseman (he played shortstop in Korea but me think he might be stuck in that position. The $ 28 million four-year deal (plus a booking fee of $ 5.25 million) could be a bargain.
What has surprised you the most so far?
Doolittle: The Braves are so close to taking on the Dodgers that they weren’t more aggressive about landing a powerhitter in the middle of the line-up to replace (or re-sign Ozuna) is unsettling. If this hole were not filled, not only would the Braves leave the Dodgers behind, but they would stay roughly on par with the Mets and Nationals in their own division.
Gonzalez: Despite the frustratingly slow pace at hand, top-of-the-market players have actually done as well or in many cases better than planned. George Springer received $ 150 million; D.J. LeMahieu got the $ 90 million contract he was looking for (even though it was spread over six years); Liam Hendriks achieved an average annual value of 18 million US dollars; and James McCann secured a four-year contract valued at more than $ 40 million. It’s almost February and less than half of the top 20 free agents – as ranked by Kiley McDaniel – have signed up. However, that’s not as surprising as when players actually score a decent value this off-season, which is … indicative.
Rogers: The giants don’t do any more. They had a sneaky year in 2020 and have some rising stars, but they’re destined for third place at best with no improvements. And that’s likely to be the case for the next few seasons. Your retooling could be ahead of schedule, but it will stall with the Padres and Dodgers so loaded unless they take bigger strides.
Schönfield: The Yankees eventually signed DJ LeMahieu but didn’t contribute to the rotation, didn’t add a reliever, and apparently still plan on Gary Sanchez as a starter. I understand LeMahieu was a top priority and maybe the dominoes are starting to fall, but in some kind of soft AL compared to the top of the NL, I’m surprised the Yankees weren’t more aggressive in a slow market.
After DJ LeMahieu and George Springer signed, when will Trevor Bauer and J.T. Realmuto come off the board?
Doolittle: Bauer is a big question mark to me, which makes him a pretty big stranger when it comes to figuring out the current pecking order among the majors. I have no idea when he’ll sign. As for Realmuto, I’d guess he’d sign before Bauer, if only because the Phillies really have to bring him back to his knees to know what they’re trying to do this season. And I still think he’ll end up in Philly again.
Gonzalez: Whenever they get the kind of business they want. It’s that simple. Maybe it will be in the next week or so, now that most of the arbitrations have been settled and the teams have a clearer view of what their payroll commitments are. Or maybe it will have to wait for the owners to know better when the season starts and when the fans are in the stands so that revenue streams can be more accurately projected. Bauer and Realmuto have this luxury because two players are significantly better than their colleagues in two of the most valuable positions in the industry. Your talent goes beyond needs.
Rogers: Bauer is a wild card, but he’s not the type to sign up on the eve of spring training. He will step in with his new team and want to acclimate beforehand. He will register on or before February 1st. Expect Realmuto to do the same unless he returns to the Phillies. Then it could be about a week into February.
Schönfield: We’ve seen several great freelance agents over the past few years who didn’t sign until spring training started – Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, J.D. Martinez – so it could be late February before we see them sign.
Which team most urgently needs a big step up to spring training?
Doolittle: There’s no clear reason the Red Sox should take such a passive approach to their off-season. They were horrible last season but the squad projections put them so much on the verge of playoff competition. And the rotation is a mess, especially given the uncertainty about how many innings to expect from Chris Sale. For me, luxury tax issues are not a good reason for this team not to bother with Bauer.
Gonzalez: The angel. So far, they have a closer (Raisel Iglesias), a shortstop (Jose Iglesias), a catcher (Kurt Suzuki), a left-handed (Alex Claudio) and a starting pitcher (Jose Quintana) for one year commitments totaling $ 23.25 million added. It’s good that they basically met all of their needs without tying up their payroll or extracting it from their farm system. But her startup rotation still has many questions and her pen isn’t deep enough. If they are serious about having a legitimate competitor for Mike Trout – who, by the way, turns 30 this year – they need to use this flexibility to attract greater differentiators to their pitching staff.
Rogers: I mentioned the Giants’ problems – and I would have picked the Blue Jays if I hadn’t seen the past few activity – so let’s go with the Phillies. They are just not good enough. A return from Realmuto would help, but so would another starter mug. Maybe they can get into the peasant derby late. That would put them in the Braves / Mets / Nats category.
Schönfield: I do not count J.A. Happened to be a big step, so I’m still waiting for the twins to do something interesting to keep up with the White Sox – especially re-signing Nelson Cruz. No, he won’t mash forever, but he was the only batsman on the line-up who didn’t fall off this record-breaking 2019 team in 2020. You need Cruz or someone like that (Marcell Ozuna?). You’d think a team that lost 18 playoff games in a row would want to go all-in, but the Twins seem to have settled for roughly 88% over the past few years.
What is a step you would take now if you were a GM?
Doolittle: Sign Trevor Bauer and have him open it every fourth day. But I would try to get creative with the contract structure to protect myself. Something like a year, $ 40 million in 2021 with a couple of mutual options after that. Or just a year. Or a clause in which if he makes it to 40, for example, two more guaranteed years are triggered. Whatever. I just want Bauer to start 40 or more times. I don’t care who it is for, but the angels or giants make the most sense to me. Maybe that would cost me my GM job, but that’s fine. I’m a writer anyway.
Gonzalez: Put Bauer in Toronto, put him in a talented but spotty rotation and make him one of the key building blocks for a young roster full of talent. A rotation with Bauer, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Nate Pearson to cast Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, and newly signed George Springer might just be good enough to get the Yankees head-to-toe the AL East.
Rogers: Go all-in on another remodel on the north side of Chicago. As it is, the Cubs won’t win anything anytime soon. That could mean acting Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo or Kyle Hendricks with Kris Bryant. Hard to see them thread the needle of both the competition and their roster retooling, which they have publicly stated that they would like to try. After a new CBA is in place, it may make the most sense to get things straight for another run.
Schönfield: Spend the money, Brian Cashman. You are the New York Yankees! Sign Realmuto and trade with Sanchez. And if Realmuto wants to play somewhere else, sign Bauer. Just make sure his locker isn’t next to Gerrit Cole’s.