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Michael Wyke/Associated Press
The MLB hot stove is slowly heating up.
The Atlanta Braves grabbed two pitchers off the free-agent market in recent weeks, signing Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly to one-year deals. Right-hander Mike Minor rejoined the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday, and the Royals also filled a spot in the outfield Monday with Michael A. Taylor.
However, baseball’s biggest free agents still remain unsigned.
With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on MLB’s revenue streams, this year’s free-agent market may be tepid. Some teams won’t be able to spend, which could make it difficult to keep up with teams like the New York Mets, whose new owner Steve Cohen is flush with cash and eager to build a contender.
Teams may opt not to go to arbitration with some high-level players, flooding the market with more free agents. MLB and the MLBPA still have not agreed on a formula for how arbitrators should view statistics from the 2020 season.
While we’re waiting for the action to get fully underway, let’s look at some of the best fits for the top free agents in the 2020 class.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Elite, two-way catchers like J.T. Realmuto don’t come along often. The 29-year-old two-time All-Star is arguably the best catcher in the game, and the New York Mets’ biggest need is arguably a catcher.
The Mets have never been the model of consistency, but with a strong pitching staff in place, it’s time for them to bolster their talent behind the plate.
They released Travis d’Arnaud in May 2019 after injuries derailed his tenure in New York. Wilson Ramos was great at the plate in his two seasons with the Mets, but he was problematic behind it. They’re now left with Tomas Nido and Ali Sanchez, neither of whom inspire much confidence.
The Mets could choose to pursue James McCann, who hit his offensive stride in two seasons with the Chicago White Sox (.276/.334/.474 with a .808 OPS). McCann should be a cheaper option, but if new team owner Steve Cohen is willing to spend, Realmuto is worth the money.
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Adrian Kraus/Associated Press
Even the New York Yankees weren’t immune to the economic hardships of 2020.
The Yankees lost more money than any other team last season, per Dan Martin of the New York Post. They had the highest payroll in the game at $109 million, and owner Hal Steinbrenner has expressed a desire to stay under the luxury-tax threshold in 2021.
LeMahieu, who already rejected a qualifying offer, will not come cheap. However, the Yankees have money coming off the books with pitchers Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton likely moving on in free agency.
LeMahieu blossomed into one of MLB’s best position players during his time in New York, playing second and third base. In 2020, he won the American League batting title, had the fifth-most hits in MLB, and his 2.8 WAR was tied for the fourth-best. He can also field three positions well.
Both sides seem to want to reach a deal, so don’t be surprised if LeMahieu stays with the Yankees.
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Aaron Doster/Associated Press
Trevor Bauer could be a fit for nearly every team.
The NL Cy Young Award winner could form a super rotation with the Mets, and his bold personality would be welcomed in Queens, where the Mets have never quite been able to get out of the shadow of their counterparts in the Bronx. The outspoken Bauer has never held back when it comes to his pitching or his thoughts on pitching, even if it angers baseball’s old guard.
The Padres are also reportedly pursuing starting pitching, according to MLB Network’s Mark Feinsand. Imagine Bauer on the same team as Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.
Bauer spoke up in favor of San Diego’s electric shortstop when he broke one of baseball’s unwritten rules in August, swinging at a 3-0 pitch and hitting a grand slam with the Padres already up by seven runs in the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers. San Diego is not a big market, but Bauer could fix the spotlight on America’s Finest City.
The Southern California native would undoubtedly find success in Petco Park, a beautiful pitcher’s park. He’d form a dominant rotation with Dinelson Lamet, Zach Davies, Chris Paddack and eventually Mike Clevinger, who will miss the 2021 season to rehab from Tommy John surgery.
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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
George Springer wants to play closer to his home in Connecticut, and he wants to win. The Mets could use an upgrade in center field, and his desire to win lines up with Cohen’s.
Brandon Nimmo knows how to get on base, but he isn’t a great defensively. In fact, he and Aaron Hicks of the New York Yankees were the two worst center fielders in terms of OAA last season, per Statcast.
Nimmo could shift to left field, where he is better suited defensively, while Jeff McNeil could return to his natural position at second base in place of the suspended Robinson Cano.
If a universal DH is adopted next season, the Mets should have no problems finding roles for Nimmo and Dominic Smith. The impact Springer would have in center field and in the lineup could help the Mets reach the playoffs for the first time in five years.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
The Houston Astros don’t have the biggest budget, but they will have some money to spend if outfielders George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick all depart in free agency.
It’s tough to know what to make of the Astros’ bullpen in the wake of Roberto Osuna’s injuries, so signing a middle reliever like Liam Hendriks would be a smart play.
Hendricks went from being designated for assignment in 2018 to an All-Star in 2019. He stayed hot last season, posting a 1.78 ERA en route to earning the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year award.
Hendriks’ transformation started with a conditioning program, but he credited a long-toss program for the increase in velocity. He now locates his hard fastball up in the zone and his two breaking pitches down, creating a difficult adjustment for hitters.
The Australian’s gregarious personality would also be perfect for an easy-going, Dusty Baker-led clubhouse.
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Louis DeLuca/Associated Press
New Los Angeles Angels general manager Perry Minasian has been tasked with getting Mike Trout into the playoffs, which is no small task considering the state of the starting rotation.
Andrew Heaney was good but not great in 2020, while Dylan Bundy and Griffin Canning pitched well enough to lock up rotation spots behind him. But it’s unclear if Shohei Ohtani will be able to continue pitching long-term, and the drop-off is steep after Bundy and Canning.
The Angels could go the trade route and try to get Blake Snell from the Tampa Bay Rays, or they could make a play for any of the available free agents on the market. Corey Kluber and Masahiro Tanaka are great places to start.
Kluber won the 2014 and 2017 AL Cy Young Award under the direction of current Halos pitching coach Mickey Callaway. A fractured forearm and shoulder injury limited Kluber over the past two seasons, but according to MLB Network’s Jon Paul Morosi, he’s nearly ready to start throwing bullpen sessions again.
Tanaka would bring significant playoff experience to an Angeles that has not been to the postseason since 2014. The former Yankees right-hander has been a part of a winning culture in New York, and he’s known Ohtani dating back to when they both played in Japan in the early 2010s.
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Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said he intends to be aggressive this winter, which could be advantageous if the market ends up as cold as predicted.
Rumors have already linked the Blue Jays to nearly every marquee free agent, including LeMahieu and Bauer, but it’s just chatter and conjecture for now. They do need upgrades at several positions to better complement their burgeoning young core of stars, though.
James Paxton, a power lefty from British Columbia, would be smart to take a short-term deal to reset his market after a forearm flexor strain limited him to only five starts in 2020. That injury came on the heels of February back surgery, and he does have a reputation as an oft-injured player.
When healthy, though, Paxton has proven to be an effective frontline starter. The Blue Jays already have a handful of arms on the back end, so they need to target someone of Paxton’s caliber.
If the Blue Jays can’t get LeMahieu, Kolten Wong would be a strong option. He isn’t the run producer that LaMahieu is, but he can save them some runs up the middle. His six defensive runs saved were tied for third among all second basemen in 2020, according to FanGraphs.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Back in 2014, the Giants were coming off their third World Series title in six years and were aiming to extend the dynasty. But their core didn’t age well, and Lester signed with the Cubs and won a World Series in Chicago two years later.
This time around, the Giants could finally get their man.
The Giants nearly snuck into the extended playoffs this past season, and they’ll need to add to their rotation to get past the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres in the NL West. Lester might be coming off a down season, but he would still bring championship pedigree to a young club and some swagger.
He seems to fit the profile of what Giants president Farhan Zaidi recently told reporters he’s looking for:
“There’s a number of guys with significant pedigree who are coming off injuries or down seasons for whatever reason. It’s going to be a market where a lot of people will look to do short-term, make-good deals. The cases of the guys we signed last year and the pitching infrastructure we built up will be a strong selling point for those kinds of targets.“
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
The fates of Marcell Ozuna, Nelson Cruz and Yoenis Cespedes could come down to MLB’s designated hitter decision.
Ozuna could land somewhere as an everyday outfielder, but his value is tied to his bat. At this point in his career, the 40-year-old Cruz is essentially a full-time DH.
They will find work, but Cespedes remains a wild card.
In his prime, he was a dominant hitter with a cannon of an arm worth $110 million. He was also the catalyst behind the Mets’ 2015 World Series run.
But once Cespedes got his money, things turned ugly between him and the Mets.
His intense offseason lifting plan led to myriad lower-body muscle injuries. Then he sparred with the Mets about surgeries on both heels. While he was recovering from those surgeries, he suffered ankle fractures during a freak accident on his Florida ranch and missed the entire 2019 season. The bad blood spilled over in 2020 when he opted out of the season after the Mets briefly lost track of his whereabouts.
Cespedes has always been an enigma, but a 35-year-old with a penchant for chasing wild boars instead of fly balls isn’t likely to be a coveted free agent. However, he has made it clear that he wants to win a World Series.
If a team on the verge of contention needs another big bat, Cespedes will likely come out swinging.