Two of baseball’s top four free agents are out of the game. There are two left. Just a few months removed from old World Series history and the first pitch of the 2021 MLB season, we’ve reached the unofficial midseason.
In anticipation of the action on the hot stove, we asked ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to weigh in on the biggest winners, losers and surprises they’ve seen so far, as well as the moves they want to see for spring training.
Has anyone done enough to catch the Dodgers, or is it still LA and then everyone at the top of the MLB right now?
Doolittle: The Dodgers are still the team to beat, but teams like the Mets and Padres have closed the gap. Los Angeles has yet to resign or replace key free agents like Justin Turner and Enrique Hernandez, while the Mets and Padres have had relatively aggressive seasons. Still, the Dodgers have plenty of time in the offseason to build a comfortable buffer between themselves and others.
Gonzalez: I still think the Dodgers are the best baseball team, but I’d put money on the job especially since a slightly inferior team could certainly beat them in a short series (the Braves, remember, should have done it last year).
Right now, the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Braves, White Sox and Yankees are all ahead of the rest; any of these teams could realistically win it all in 2021.
What sets the Dodgers apart is their ability to consistently extract elite talent from their farm system. This allows them to avoid being overly aggressive on their team in the offseason, while giving them the flexibility to do so. Right now, they are looking for a right-handed bat, a search that will inevitably lead them back to Justin Turner. But only Mookie Betts is currently under contract beyond the 2022 season (although Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler will be expensive to arbitrate until then). If they are willing to go over the luxury tax threshold this year, they can add someone like Trevor Bauer or another star with a job and get under it quickly. Like last year with Betts, they can take a team that may already be the best in baseball and make it much better.
Rogers: The Dodgers, after eight years of trying to win a championship? Someone might run them over. Did you see the team on the road? The Padres can do it. In October, the Braves faced Los Angeles for an NLCS 7 game. And there are several contenders for the license, including the Yankees and the White Sox. The hangover of the last champions trying to rehearse opens the door. Again: At some point, someone is going to repeat themselves as a World Series winner. So don’t bet against them too much.
Schoenfield: Yeah, it’s hard to believe we haven’t had a World Series winner since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000. For comparison: Since then, five champions have been crowned in the NBA, one in the NFL and one in the NHL. So it’s hard to repeat, no matter what the sport is.
But the Dodgers are a team to beat, and I think this will give them the incentive to prove their dominance in 162 games. However, given the Padres’ moves, even a ninth consecutive Summit League West title is meaningless, as I see these two teams clearly in first place in the MLB, with the Braves, White Sox, Rays and Yankees a step behind.
Considering only the changes on the field, which team is the biggest winner of the offseason?
Rogers: Padres. Starting to throw is always the name of the game. The additions of Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove not only prepare them for 2021, but for the years to come. The team will have to flirt with new faces, but Jace Tingler has proven he knows what to do in a shortened 2020 season. The Padres were not to be outdone and have won the winter so far.
Schoenfield: The team that wins in the offseason doesn’t always win in the offseason – see AJ Preller’s disastrous first season as GM Padres, when he acquired Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Will Myers, James Shields and Craig Kimbrel – but the Padres won three fewer games.
But I’ll pick the Mets, especially if they can sign a long-term deal with Francisco Lindor. While I don’t like what the Padres did, the Mets signed Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, James McCann, Joey Lucchesi and Trevor May, as well as Marcus Stroman (who accepted the team’s qualifying offer). Moreover, Robinson Cano’s $21 million salary loss due to the DEP lockout is probably a good thing, too.
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Doolittle: For me, it’s the Mets. In Lindor, the club has acquired a young superstar and transformed a cynical fan base into a club that is currently full of hope.
Gonzalez: My money’s on the White Sox. While their other rivals in AL Central were mostly saving money, the White Sox took the opportunity to add young players to an exciting mix by adding better relievers (Liam Hendricks) and one of the game’s most reliable pitchers (Lance Lynn). They now have a talented team of pitchers to complement a dangerous team that includes Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal, Jose Abreu and others. And take a look around the department. The Indians have lost Lindor and Carrasco, the Tigers are still rebuilding, the Royals – surprisingly aggressive with the arrival of Carlos Santana, Michael Taylor, Mike Minor and Greg Holland – are still not talented enough and the Twins have done nothing to bolster a team that has played only one game better than the White Sox in the shortened lockout season.
Which team is the biggest loser of the offseason so far?
Doolittle: It’s been a terrible season for the Cubs, and it’s hard to imagine it getting any better. It’s not that there wasn’t a need for some kind of shock, but for Chicago to suddenly start acting like a small market team is terrible. So much goodwill has been wasted. It’s not like the Cubs can’t survive that for a few years before increasing payroll, because they can, and probably will. But the core of this championship team was a favorite on the north side, and now the feeling will forever remain that a lack of aggression closed this controversial window earlier than it should have. This is true even if top-down convergence in Central keeps the Cubs in the race for the division in 2021.
AP Photo/Gregorian Bull
Rogers: Lose is a strong word, but the Cubs should be at the top of the list. Giving up on Darvish once they discovered his greatness is a huge loss. It won’t be long before Central Los Angeles wins, but the Cubs are already in the running. And the unraveling isn’t done yet.
Gonzalez: The Rays won two-thirds of their games, came within two championship wins, then traded Blake Snell, lost to Charlie Morton and added Michael Wacha, who is a half-dozen years removed from being considered a legitimate differentiator. The Rays will always find a way to be good, now or soon after, because that’s what they do. But they were clearly in the race to win it all, and now it’s definitely over. It was the offseason they should have added to that list and not subtracted from it. And while trading star-level players before they get too expensive is nothing new for the Rays, it doesn’t make it any less sad when they do. It is, of course, a question that transcends this candor.
Schoenfield: I understand that Cleveland had to buy something for Lindor before putting him in agency, but if Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario are both top players, I don’t see much good in either case – and they also had to put Carrasco in the mix. Those are two big losses for a good team, while the White Sox are still making additions (the Twins haven’t done much either, so Chicago seems to be the big favorite in the division).
What’s a sneaky move that could pay big this winter?
Doolittle: The Jhouly Jackin has been a bit off the table in recent years, but if you look at his Statcast numbers, there’s no obvious reason why he couldn’t return to his 2018 form when he was an average worker in Milwaukee. In a Yankee rotation that could use someone who can deliver big sleeves regularly, he could be really valuable to this club. Or maybe he got cut during spring training. Either way, Chacin’s signing could be important for the Yankees, as he could have as much impact on the rest of the team as what he produces himself. And he’ll be another guy at the club, shining the spotlight on some of his most famous teammates.
Gonzalez: The national championships benefit from two seasons of Josh Bell with little in return. There’s a lot of value in players who have failed in such an unconventional season, and Bell could be someone who just goes back to the way he used to be. In his final full season, Bell hit .277/.367/.569 with 37 homers and 116 RBIs in 2019, placing in the sport’s top 5 percent in terms of average exit velocity. Then came the 2020 season. His adjusted OPS dropped 59 points, his launch angle halved, his launch angle increased – fundamentally, Bell was bad in a way it never was. If he finds his way back, the national championship – which is desperate for a first baseman and batting average at the start of the season – could end up with one of the best deals of the offseason.
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David Schoenfield (ESPN+)
Rogers: Archie Bradley joins the Phillies. In the densely populated East Country, Philadelphia should do well to reach the postseason, but without a better location, nothing will happen. Bradley gave them this. Exploding wires are so bad. Just ask the Phillies the past few years. Bradley is the key to their success.
Schoenfield: Padres’ signing of Korean outfielder Ha Sung Kim was slightly down in the trade of Darvish and Snell, but he has a chance to be an impact bat, probably as a second baseman (he played shortstop in Korea, but I think he could be stuck in that position). A four-year, $28 million contract (plus $5.25 million in fees) could prove to be a done deal. (plus $5.25 million in shipping fees) could prove to be a good deal.
What surprised you the most?
Doolittle: The Braves are so close to a tie with the Dodgers that the fact that they haven’t become more aggressive in landing Marcell Ozuna’s replacement (or resigning Ozuna) is troubling. If this gap is not filled, the Braves will not only be behind the Dodgers, but also tied with the Mets and Nationals in their own division.
Gonzalez: That despite the frustrating inertia of the Free Agency, the major market players have done the same, or in many cases better than expected. George Springer received $150 million; D.J. LeMaye got the $90 million contract he was looking for (although it was for six years); Liam Hendricks received an average of $18 million a year; and James McCann got a four-year contract worth more than $40 million. It’s almost February, and less than half of the top 20 free agents – according to Kiley McDaniel’s assessment – have signed on. However, it’s not that surprising that players are getting decent value this season, which … telling to
Rogers: That’s all the giants do. They had a sneaky 2020 year with a few new stars, but without improvement they are destined for third place at best. And this will likely be the case for seasons to come. Their charging may be ahead of schedule, but with the Padres and Dodgers so charged, it will stop unless they make big moves.
Schoenfield: The Yankees eventually signed DJ LeMahieu, but did not fix the rotation and apparently still plan to use Gary Sanchez as their starting receiver. I understand that LeMahieu was a top priority and the dominoes may have started to fall, but in what looks like a soft AL relative to the top of the NL, I’m surprised the Yankees weren’t more aggressive in a slow market.
Now that DJ LeMahieu and George Springer have signed, when Trevor Bauer and J.T. Realmuto goes off the board?
Doolittle: Bauer is a big question mark to me, which makes him a big unknown when it comes to understanding the current hierarchy of the majors. I have no idea when he’s going to sign. As for Realmuto, I assume he’ll sign for Bauer, if only because the Phillies really need him back to know who they want to be this season. And I still think he’s coming back to Philadelphia.
Gonzalez: Every time they get what they want. It’s that simple. This could happen in about a week, now that most arbitration hearings are over and teams have a clearer picture of their payroll obligations. Or maybe we should wait for the owners to determine when the season starts and when the fans are in the stands, so we can project revenue streams more accurately. Bauer and Realmuto have this luxury because they are two much better players than their counterparts in the two most valuable positions in the company. Your talent outweighs your need.
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Rogers: Bauer is a wild card, but he’s not the type to sign on the eve of spring training. He will want to compete with his new team and acclimate beforehand. He will stand before one of them. February. Expect Realmuto to do the same, unless he goes back to the Phillies. Then it can take about a week in February.
Schoenfield: In recent years, we’ve seen some big free agents not sign before spring training – Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, J.D. Martinez – so we may not see them sign until late February.
Which team needs the most exercise between now and spring training?
Doolittle: There’s no obvious reason why the Red Sox would approach their offseason in such a passive manner. They were terrible last season, but the team’s prediction put them on the sidelines in the playoffs. And the rotation is a mess, especially with the uncertainty of how many innings they can expect from Chris Sale. To me, luxury tax issues are not a good reason for this team not to bet much on Bauer.
Gonzalez: Angel. To date, they have signed a tight end (Raisel Iglesias), a shortstop (Jose Iglesias), a receiver (Kurt Suzuki), a lefty (Alex Claudio) and a starting receiver (Jose Quintana) for a total of $23.25 million for one year. The advantage is that they meet almost all their needs without having to fix their wages or advance their farming system. But their starting rotation still has a lot of questions and their paddock is not deep enough. If they are serious about Mike Trout, who by the way turns 30 this year, they should use this flexibility to get more differentiation for their pitchers.
Rogers: I’ve already mentioned the Giants’ concerns – and I would have guessed the Blue Jays if not for their recent activities – so let’s move on to the Phillies. They’re just not good enough. The return of Realmuto would help, but so would another starting pitcher. They may be late for the Bowers Derby. That would put them in the Braves/Mets/Nats category.
Schoenfield: I don’t think J.A. has made a big move, so I’m still waiting for the Twins to do something interesting to follow the White Sox – especially the resignation of Nelson Cruz. No, he won’t be crushed forever, but he was the only hitter on the team who didn’t fall into the record books from 2019 to 2020. They need Cruz or a similar player (Marcell Ozuna?). You would think that a team that has lost 18 straight playoff games would want to reach the finals, but the Twins seem to be satisfied with about 88% in recent years.
What would you be doing right now if you were the GM?
Doolittle: Signor Trevor Bauer and have him wait for you every four days. But I will try to be creative with the contract to protect myself. Something like a year, $40 million for 2021 with some mutual options after that. Or just an immediate one-year deal. Or a clause that, if it turns 40, for example, triggers two more guaranteed years. It doesn’t matter. I just want Bauer to start 40 times or more. I don’t care who it’s for, but angels or giants make the most sense to me. Maybe it would have cost me the GM job, but that’s ok. I’m still a writer.
Gonzalez: Put Bauer in Toronto, let him play for a talented rotation, and make him an important part of a young team full of talent. With Bauer, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Nate Pearson in the rotation, as well as Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and George Springer, who just signed, it could be enough to come face to face with the Yankees in the Eastern Arab League.
Rogers: Check out another redevelopment project on Chicago’s north side. Like the Cubs, they won’t win anything, not anytime soon. It could mean trading Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo or Kyle Hendricks for Kris Bryant. It’s hard to imagine that they’d want to try to move the needle, both on their opponent and on the team renewal they’ve publicly announced. It probably makes more sense to put things in order for the next race after the new cost-benefit analysis.
Schoenfield: Spend the money, Brian Cashman. It’s the New York Yankees! Sign Realmuto and switch Sanchez. And if Realmuto wants to play somewhere else, sign Bauer. Make sure his locker isn’t next to Jerritt Cole’s.
2020 mlb season, mlb return