Two of baseball’s big four free agents are off the board. Two remain. With the World Series ancient history and the first pitch of the 2021 MLB season still months away, we’ve reached this offseason’s unofficial midway point.
While we wait for the rest of the hot stove action to unfold, we asked ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to weigh in on the biggest winners, losers and surprises so far, along with the moves they want to see before spring training arrives.
Has anyone done enough to catch the Dodgers, or is it still L.A. and then everyone else at the top of MLB right now?
Doolittle: The Dodgers remain the team to beat but teams like the Mets and Padres have closed the gap. L.A. has yet to re-sign or replace key free agents such as Justin Turner and Enrique Hernandez, while the Mets and Padres have had comparatively aggressive offseasons. That said, there is plenty of offseason left for the Dodgers to reestablish 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 slightly inferior team can undoubtedly beat them in a short series (the Braves, you’ll remember, should have last year).
At this point, the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Braves, White Sox and Yankees are a notch ahead of everybody else; any one of those teams can realistically win it all in 2021.
What separates the Dodgers is their ability to continually churn out elite talent from their farm system. It prevents them from having to be uber-aggressive in supplementing their roster during the offseason and also grants them the flexibility to do so. At the moment, they seek a right-handed bat — a search that could inevitably lead them right back to Justin Turner. But only Mookie Betts is currently under contract beyond the 2022 season (though Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler will be expensive through arbitration by then). If they’re willing to blow past the luxury-tax threshold this year, they could add someone like Trevor Bauer or another star via trade and get under soon enough. As with Betts last year, they can take a team that might already be the best in baseball and make it significantly better.
Rogers: The Dodgers, after an eight-year quest to win a championship? Someone absolutely could dethrone them. Have you noticed the team just down the road? The Padres can do it. The Braves took L.A. to an NLCS Game 7 in October. And in the AL, there are several contenders, including the Yankees and White Sox. The hangover that recent champions have suffered in attempting to repeat opens the door. Then again, someone is going to repeat as World Series winners at some point. So don’t bet too much against them.
Schoenfield: Yeah, hard to believe we haven’t had a repeat World Series winner since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 through 2000. As a comparison, the NBA has had five repeat champions since then, the NFL and NHL one apiece. So repeating is difficult no matter the sport.
Still, the Dodgers are the team to beat and I think will be incentivized to prove their dominance over 162 games. Given the Padres’ moves, however, even a ninth straight NL West title is no lock as I see those two teams clearly 1-2 across MLB, with the Braves, White Sox, Rays and Yankees a step below.
Looking at on-the-field moves only, which team is the biggest winner of the offseason so far?
Rogers: The Padres. Starting pitching is still the name of the game. Adding Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove sets them up not just for 2021, but for several years beyond. The team will need to jell with some new faces but Jayce Tingler proved he knows what he’s doing in the shortened 2020 season. Don’t overthink it, the Padres have won the winter so far.
Schoenfield: The team that “wins” the offseason doesn’t always actually win the offseason — 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 the Padres won three fewer games.
I’m going with the Mets though, especially if they can sign Francisco Lindor to a long-term contract. As much as I like what the Padres have done, the Mets have added Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, James McCann, Joey Lucchesi and Trevor May, and Marcus Stroman (who accepted the team’s qualifying offer) counts as well. Plus, losing Robinson Cano’s $21 million salary due to a PED suspension is arguably a good thing as well.
Doolittle: To me, it’s the Mets. The club acquired a young superstar in Lindor, turning a fan base rife with cynicism into one that, for the time being, is brimming with hope.
Gonzalez: I’m going with the White Sox. While their other AL Central competitors basically cut costs, the White Sox capitalized on an opportunity to add to a thrilling mix of young players by adding the best reliever available (Liam Hendriks) and one of the game’s most reliable starting pitchers (Lance Lynn). Now they have a deep, talented pitching staff to complement a dangerous lineup featuring Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal, Jose Abreu and others. And look around the division. The Indians lost Lindor and Carrasco, the Tigers remain in the thick of their rebuild, the Royals — surprisingly aggressive with the additions of Carlos Santana, Michael Taylor, Mike Minor and Greg Holland — aren’t yet talented enough, and the Twins haven’t done much of anything to augment a roster that was only one game better than the White Sox during the shortened season.
Which team is the biggest loser of the offseason so far?
Doolittle: The Cubs’ offseason has been pathetic and it’s hard to see it getting much better. It’s not that there didn’t need to be some form of a shake-up, but for Chicago to suddenly start operating like a small-market team, it’s terrible. So much goodwill has been squandered. It’s not that the Cubs can’t weather this for a couple of years before ramping back up the payroll, because they can and that’s probably the shape all of this will take. But the core of that championship team was beloved on the North Side and now it’s forever going to feel like a lack of aggression closed that contention window sooner than it needed to happen. That’s true even if the top-to-bottom ennui in the NL Central keeps the Cubs in the 2021 division race.
Rogers: Loser is a strong word, but the Cubs have to be near the top of the list. Dumping Darvish just as they unlocked his greatness is a huge loss. It won’t take much to win the NL Central, but the Cubs have backed up to the pack. And the unraveling isn’t over.
Gonzalez: The Rays won two-thirds of their games, got within two victories of a championship, and followed that up by … trading Blake Snell, losing Charlie Morton and adding Michael Wacha, who is a half-dozen years removed from consideration as a legitimate difference-maker. The Rays will still find a way to be good, either now or soon after, because that’s what the Rays do. But they were very clearly in a window to win it all and now that’s undoubtedly gone. This was an offseason when they should have been adding to this roster, not subtracting 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 so. It’s a problem that goes beyond just this franchise, of course.
Schoenfield: I get that Cleveland had to get something for Lindor before he left for free agency, but while Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario are both major league players, I don’t see much upside in either one — and they had to throw in Carrasco as well. That is two huge losses from a good team, while the White Sox continue to make additions (the Twins haven’t done much either, so Chicago is looking like the clear favorite in the division).
What is one under-the-radar move that could pay off big this winter?
Doolittle: Jhoulys Chacin has kind of tumbled off the table the past couple of years, but when you look at his Statcast numbers, there’s no obvious reason he couldn’t revert to his 2018 form, when he was a league-average workhouse for Milwaukee. In a Yankees rotation that could use someone to provide some stable, bulk innings, he could be really valuable for that club. Or maybe he gets cut in spring training. Anyway, signing Chacin could be big for the Yankees because of what he could do for the rest of the roster as much as what he produces himself. And he’ll be another go-to guy in the clubhouse who helps defray some of the spotlight from his more famous teammates.
Gonzalez: The Nationals getting two cost-friendly seasons of Josh Bell without giving up much in return. There’s a lot of value to be had in players who underperformed through such an unconventional season, and Bell might be one who simply reverts to what he was before then. The last time a full season was played, in 2019, Bell batted .277/.367/.569 with 37 homers and 116 RBIs, finishing within the top 5% of the sport in average exit velocity. Then came the 2020 season. His adjusted OPS fell by 59 points, his launch angle was cut in half, his strikeouts shot up — basically, Bell was bad in a way he never had been. If he finds his way again, the Nationals — desperate for both a first baseman and a middle-of-the-order bat when the offseason began — could end up with one of the offseason’s best bargains.
Rogers: Archie Bradley joining the Phillies. A lot has to go right for Philadelphia to make the postseason in a loaded NL East, but none of it will happen without a better bullpen. Bradley gives them that. Blowing leads is such a downer. Just ask the Phillies of recent years. Bradley is key to their success.
Schoenfield: The Padres’ signing of Korean infielder Ha-seong Kim got a little lost in the midst of the Darvish and Snell trades, but he has a chance to be an impact bat, probably as the starting second baseman (he played shortstop in Korea, but I think he may be blocked at that position). The four-year, $28 million contract (plus a $5.25 million posting fee) could end up being a bargain.
What has surprised you most so far?
Doolittle: The Braves are just so close to being able to go toe-to-toe with the Dodgers, the fact that they haven’t been more aggressive at landing a middle-of-the-lineup power hitter to replace Marcell Ozuna (or re-signing Ozuna) is troubling. Failing to fill that hole would not just leave the Braves behind the Dodgers, it would leave them roughly on the same level with the Mets and Nationals in their own division.
Gonzalez: That despite the frustratingly slow pace to free agency, top-of-the-market players have actually done as well or, in many cases, better than projected. George Springer got $150 million; DJ LeMahieu got the $90 million contract he was looking for (though it was spread out over six years); Liam Hendriks attained an $18 million average annual value; and James McCann secured a four-year contract worth 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. That, however, is not as surprising as players actually attaining commensurate value this offseason, which is … telling.
Rogers: The Giants not doing more. They had a sneaky-good year in 2020 and have some emerging stars but they are destined for third place, at best, without some upgrades. And that’s probably the case for the next few seasons. Their retool might be ahead of schedule but it’ll be at a standstill with the Padres and Dodgers so loaded unless they make some bigger moves.
Schoenfield: The Yankees finally signed DJ LeMahieu, but haven’t added to the rotation, haven’t added a reliever and are still apparently planning on Gary Sanchez as the starting catcher. I get that LeMahieu was the top priority and maybe the dominoes start falling, but in what looks like a soft AL compared to the top of the NL, I’m surprised the Yankees haven’t been more aggressive in a slow market.
Now that DJ LeMahieu and George Springer have 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 unknown when it comes to figuring out the current pecking order across 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 need to get him back in the fold in order to know what they’re trying to be this season. And I still think he’ll end up back in Philly.
Gonzalez: Whenever they get the type of deal they want. It’s that simple. Maybe it’s in the next week or so, now that most arbitration cases are settled and teams have a firmer grasp on what their payroll commitments look like. Or maybe it’ll have to wait until owners have a better handle on when the season will begin and when fans will be in the stands so that revenue streams can be projected more accurately. Bauer and Realmuto have that luxury, as two players significantly better than their peers at two of the most valuable positions in the industry. Their talent transcends need.
Rogers: Bauer is a wild card, but he’s not the type to sign on the eve of spring training. He’ll want to jump in with his new team and get acclimated before that. He’ll sign on or before Feb.1. Expect Realmuto to do the same, unless he goes back to the Phillies. Then it might take a week or so into February.
Schoenfield: We’ve seen several big free agents in recent years not sign until spring training has already started — Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, J.D. Martinez — so it could be late February before we see them sign.
Which team is most in need of a big move between now and spring training?
Doolittle: There is no clear reason why the Red Sox should be taking such a passive approach to their offseason. They were terrible last season but the projections for the roster as-is put them very much on the perimeter of playoff contention. And the rotation is a shambles, especially given the uncertainty of how many innings they can expect from Chris Sale. To me, luxury tax concerns are not a good reason for this team to not be in heavily on Bauer.
Gonzalez: The Angels. So far they’ve added a closer (Raisel Iglesias), a shortstop (Jose Iglesias), a catcher (Kurt Suzuki), a lefty reliever (Alex Claudio) and a starting pitcher (Jose Quintana) on one-year commitments totaling $23.25 million. It’s good in that they’ve addressed basically all of their needs without tying up their payroll or extracting from their farm system. But their starting rotation still has a lot of questions and their bullpen isn’t deep enough. If they’re serious about putting a legitimate contender around Mike Trout — who, by the way, will turn 30 this year — then they need to use that flexibility to get bigger difference-makers for their pitching staff.
Rogers: I mentioned the Giants’ issues earlier — and I would have picked the Blue Jays if not for a flurry of recent activity — so let’s go with the Phillies. They’re just not good enough. A return of Realmuto would help, but so would another starting pitcher. Maybe they can get in on the Bauer derby late. That would elevate them to the Braves/Mets/Nats category.
Schoenfield: I’m not counting J.A. Happ as a big move, so I’m still waiting for the Twins do something interesting to keep up with the White Sox — re-signing Nelson Cruz, in particular. No, he won’t continue mashing forever, but he was the only hitter in the lineup who didn’t fall off in 2020 from that record-setting team of 2019. They need Cruz or somebody similar (Marcell Ozuna?). You would think a team that has lost 18 playoff games in a row would want to go all-in, but the Twins seemingly have been content to go about 88% in the past couple of years.
What is one move you would make now if you were a GM?
Doolittle: Sign Trevor Bauer and let him pitch every fourth day. But I’d try to get creative with the contract structure to protect myself. Something like one-year, $40 million for 2021 with a couple of mutual options after that. Or just a straight one-year deal. Or a clause where if he makes it to, say, 40 starts, it triggers two more guaranteed years. Whatever. I just want Bauer to start 40 or more times. I don’t care who it’s for, but the Angels or Giants make the most sense to me. Maybe doing this would cost me my GM job, but that’s fine. I’m a writer anyway.
Gonzalez: Put Bauer in Toronto, have him front a talented-yet-spotty rotation and make him one of the key building blocks for a young roster that is brimming with talent. A rotation with Bauer, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Nate Pearson to go with a lineup featuring Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and the newly signed George Springer might just be good enough to go toe-to-toe with the Yankees in the AL East.
Rogers: Go all-in on another rebuild on the North Side of Chicago. As is, the Cubs aren’t winning anything, anytime soon. That could mean trading Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo or Kyle Hendricks along with Kris Bryant. It’s hard to see them threading the needle of both competing and retooling their roster, something they’ve stated publicly they’d like to attempt. Getting things in order for another run after the introduction of a new CBA might make the most sense.
Schoenfield: Spend the money, Brian Cashman. You’re the New York Yankees! Sign Realmuto and trade Sanchez. And if Realmuto wants to play somewhere else, sign Bauer. Just make sure his locker is not next to Gerrit Cole’s.