This is not the offseason to make predictions. As Buster Olney and Jeff Passan have already outlined, due to the financial conditions in the sport due to the shortened season with no fans in the stands -- and the uncertainty of what will happen in 2021 -- there will be big rollbacks in payrolls. Former Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said on MLB Network that he expects two-thirds of teams not to be spending in free agency.
We've already seen the cutbacks begin, with quality players like Charlie Morton, Brad Hand and Kolten Wong (among others) not getting reasonable team options exercised for 2021, instead becoming free agents. The deadline for offering 2021 contracts is Dec. 2, and the expectation is that some interesting names will be non-tendered, sending those players into free agency as well. It means a free-agent market that will be flooded with players, with teams not wanting to spend, and thus signings and movement will happen very slowly -- with player salaries ultimately taking a nosedive. All this will also affect the trade market.
It also means that teams can find potential bargains out there if they want to, if they're willing to spend just a little to fill out their rosters and plug some holes. What will happen? Here's where we get bold and have some fun speculating on what might happen. We'll make predictions for all 30 teams, find a home for most of Kiley McDaniel's top 50 or so free agents and even take a run at a few trades. Then check back in late March.
The teams are listed by division, in order of their 2020 finish, starting with the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
Jump to a team:
The Dodgers have several worthy free agents to consider bringing back, and while I think they'll ultimately let Blake Treinen and Kiké Hernandez walk, the depressed free-agent market should allow them to re-sign Turner and Pederson. In Hernandez's case, the Dodgers have to open second base for Gavin Lux, and Chris Taylor can fill the utility role. Pederson is one season removed from hitting 36 home runs, and his big postseason is a reminder that having a power left-handed platoon bat around is valuable for depth and in-game maneuvering.
What they could do: The lineup is set, so add some pitching depth.
What we predict they will do: Sign Trevor Bauer and Kiké Hernandez.
If the postseason taught the Padres anything, it taught them this: The Dodgers are still better -- and you can never have too much starting pitching. So we turn to Bauer, the most sought-after free agent on the market. While Bauer has said in the past he would sign only one-year deals, it may be difficult to turn down a three- or four-year deal at $30 million per year -- especially if it's coming from a team that should be in contention for a long time and in a city he wants to play in. That kind of deal should put the Padres in play, especially knowing Bauer is the kind of player they will need in October to topple the Dodgers.
What they could do: Roll the dice on some second-tier starting pitchers.
The Giants finished 21st in the majors with a 4.99 rotation ERA, which, given their pitcher-friendly home park, means the rotation was worse than 21st. They somewhat surprisingly gave Kevin Gausman a qualifying offer, but he was the team's best starter in 2020, fanning 79 in 59⅔ innings. (Look for Gausman to accept the offer.) Baseball ops president Farhan Zaidi is familiar with Hill from their days with the Dodgers, and while Quintana suffered a lat injury in 2020, he's otherwise been extremely durable.
What they could do: Sign J.T. Realmuto and a couple of relievers and try to win baseball games.
What we predict they will do: Trade David Dahl and make a moderate free-agent signing or two.
Look, the Rockies could trade Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, punt on 2021 and start a rebuilding process, but the trade market for Arenado is going to be limited and the historically play-it-safe front office might be afraid to trade either of those guys and risk killing their fan support. So it will probably be an offseason of tinkering around the edges, living with Tony Wolters' bat and perhaps going after a closer like Kirby Yates or Blake Treinen and maybe a back-end starter like J.A. Happ or Chris Archer.
What they could do: Find a center fielder, a starting pitcher and bullpen depth.
What we predict they will do: Sign Jackie Bradley Jr. and Blake Treinen. The Diamondbacks are in a tough position, staring up at the Dodgers and Padres and coming off a terrible season. But they were over .500 the previous three seasons and there are reasons to buy into 2020 just being a lost year, especially considering Madison Bumgarner, Luke Weaver and the now-departed Robbie Ray went a combined 3-17 with a 6.86 ERA -- well below replacement level. Bradley fits the team's emphasis on defense and Treinen can replace the traded Archie Bradley as closer.
What they could do: Keep the core five (Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras) and make one final push with this group before Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber and Baez reach free agency after the 2021 season.
What we predict they will do: Trade two of the core five.
It's easy to forget the Cubs actually won the division in 2020 and had the fourth-best run differential in the National League. It's also easy to forget that they did that more on the strength of their pitching staff (third-fewest runs allowed in the NL) than on the strength of their lineup (10th in runs scored). Bryant and Baez in particular were bad at the plate. The most likely to get traded: Bryant and Contreras, with the Cubs searching for young pitching in return to replace free agents Jon Lester, Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana.
Yeah, sorry about the tease there, Cardinals fans, that's not going to happen. After finishing last in the majors in home runs (and also last in home run rate, so it wasn't just all the seven-inning doubleheaders), the Cardinals do need power. I wonder if this will be a bit of a reset season, however, as Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Andrew Miller and Carlos Martinez can all come off the books after 2021 (those four will make a combined $58.7 million in 2021). Not picking up Kolten Wong's option is probably a sign of a penny-pinching offseason, with the two franchise icons brought back on one-year deals and Schoop signed to replace Wong at second base.
What they could do: Find some hitters who do something besides hit home runs, walk or strike out. (Oh, bringing back Trevor Bauer would be nice as well.)
The Reds made a rare dip into free agency last winter -- spending more than they had over the entire previous decade -- and it didn't really pay off, with Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama decidedly "meh" and Wade Miley pitching just 14 innings. The team hit just .212 and its cozy home park helped inflate Cincinnati's home run total. Anyway, Bauer will move on to greener pastures, and high-contact hitters like Michael Brantley and Tommy La Stella would be nice fits with the Reds but will sign elsewhere. The only clear move is finding a shortstop to replace Freddy Galvis, with Chatwood filling Bauer's rotation slot (although not his value).
What they could do: Bring in a couple of big bats to an offense that ranked 27th in the majors in runs.
The Brewers have pushed their payroll to its highest levels ever the past couple of seasons, and there is the possibility (likelihood?) that the team will take a step back in 2021 ... which might mean trading Josh Hader. Still, the NL Central is wide open, and getting Lorenzo Cain back and having Christian Yelich return to his expected level will help. Let's add a couple of hitters who won't break the bank. Bell is coming off a bad season with Pittsburgh and will make about $6 million; he fills a hole at first base. La Stella may be steep for the Brewers, but he's a perfect fit as somebody who can DH and fill in at first, second or third. After turning down Braun's option, the Brewers will bring him back on an inexpensive one-year deal.
What they could do: Well, I mean .... oh, let's not even go there.
What we predict they will do: Shed sad tears.
The easiest call on the board is that the Pirates won't be spending any money this offseason, coming off a 19-41 campaign. Josh Bell has two years left of team control and the Pirates aren't winning in 2021 or 2022, so why not trade him? (Obviously, it also makes sense to see if he can find his first-half stroke of 2019 and increase his trade value.) Joe Musgrove and Adam Frazier are two others who could be dealt away.
What they could do: Re-sign Marcell Ozuna, sign or trade for a starting pitcher.
What we predict they will do: Trade for Kris Bryant, sign Mike Minor.
The Braves have done well the past two seasons bringing in veteran players on one-year deals: Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel in 2019 and Ozuna in 2020 (although Cole Hamels didn't work out as he made just one appearance). Look for a similar road map for 2021, meaning Ozuna is likely to move on, as important as he was to the lineup. Bryant would be a similar gamble as Donaldson, a former MVP coming off an injury-riddled season. The Braves have the young pitching the Cubs would seek in a trade. Minor had his first success with the Braves and while his ERA regressed in 2020 from an outstanding 2019, he had similar peripheral numbers.
What they could do: Sign George Springer and DJ LeMahieu.
The Marlins rode some young starting pitching, including potential breakout star Sixto Sanchez, and a veteran bullpen to a surprise playoff appearance and upset of the Cubs in the wild-card round. The offense lacks any impact bats, but let's be realistic: They're not in the Springer or LeMahieu game. They should look to reinforce a bullpen that is ripe for regression, maybe add a starting pitcher, and bring on Zunino to provide a challenge to the always frustrating Jorge Alfaro behing the plate.
What they could do: Besides bringing in a new bullpen? Re-signing J.T. Realmuto is a must.
I'd put the odds of Realmuto returning to Philadelphia at 50-50. While he likes playing there, when a premium talent like Realmuto reaches free agency, the player almost always signs with a new team. Factor in that both the Mets and Yankees may pursue him and he's one player who may still get a pre-COVID type of contract. On the other hand, the Phillies are likely to remain all-in with this Bryce Harper/Aaron Nola/Zack Wheeler group, so I have them bringing back Realmuto, fortifying the bullpen with the top closer available and improving the defense with Simmons (while letting Didi Gregorius walk).
What they could do: Sign J.T. Realmuto, George Springer and Trevor Bauer.
Mets fans are dreaming of new owner Steve Cohen emptying his checkbook and that very well may happen -- just don't expect the Mets to sign more than one of those top three big free agents. So let's spread the money out. Look, the offense doesn't really need much help, but the Mets have been messing around in center field for like five years now. Springer solidifies that position and brings a big bat to the lineup (and could allow them to shop Brandon Nimmo or Dom Smith for pitching help). McCann replaces Wilson Ramos as a nice upgrade on defense, Lester would be a back-end starter and Stroman could end up accepting the Mets' qualifying offer. And Nimmo or Smith? One of them goes to Cleveland in a Lindor trade, along with Amed Rosario or Andres Gimenez.
What they could do: Write off 2020 and reload.
The tight free-agent market should play to the Nationals' advantage as they have holes to fill at first base (Eric Thames), right field (Adam Eaton), starting pitcher (Anibal Sanchez) and the bullpen (Sean Doolittle), and a history of spending in free agency to fill out the roster. So let's give them four veterans to fill those positions. Of course, the biggest thing they need is for Stephen Strasburg to get healthy again and for Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom to create some offense.
What we predict they will do: Sign Ha-Seong Kim and Kolten Wong (and probably a couple of relievers).
The A's will likely lose two key players in their shortstop and closer (plus Joakim Soria and Yusmeiro Petit are also free agents, so that's three key relievers from the best regular-season bullpen to replace). They have no internal replacement for Semien, so maybe Billy Beane will get creative and sign Kim, who hit .308 with 30 home runs and 23 steals in the KBO. Some aren't sure he can stick at shortstop, but maybe that will keep him in Oakland's price range. Wong, who had a team option declined by the Cardinals, is the perfect one-year rent-a-player for the A's and fills a hole at second base with his plus defense and solid OBP.
What they could do: Figure out a way to go for it, without Justin Verlander, George Springer and Michael Brantley.
The Astros came within one game of reaching the World Series, after scuffling through a 29-31 regular season, primarily because the offense collapsed -- and now they will likely lose Springer and Brantley, their two best hitters in 2020. They could look to trade Carlos Correa, a free agent after 2021, but in a weak division they should be going for it. So how about Ozuna to help replace Springer/Brantley (and don't forget they'll get Yordan Alvarez back). Yates is coming off an injury, but was arguably the best closer in the majors in 2018-19.
What they could do: Add a couple of bullpen arms.
What we predict they will do: Add a couple of bullpen arms.
The Mariners are in a ... I don't think "interesting" is quite the right word here ... curious position. They are further along the rebuilding cycle than, say, the Tigers or Orioles, but they're still not very good. They finished 23rd in the majors in runs, 28th in wOBA and the bullpen ERA was 5.92. They started eight different players in left field and eight in right field, so top prospect Jarred Kelenic will help and Mitch Haniger is expected to be ready for spring training after missing all of 2020 recovering from a herniated disc. General manager Jerry Dipoto has said the club will look to sign three or four veteran relievers, although it's not clear if that means high-end veteran reliever or low-cost veteran reliever. Probably the latter, from the Sergio Romo/Brandon Workman/Jeremy Jeffress group. Adding another outfielder, such as Adam Eaton, makes some sense as well.
What they could do: Find some better friends for Mike Trout.
The Angels haven't hired a general manager yet, but whoever gets the job will have the tough task of turning around a franchise that has had five straight losing seasons -- and went 26-34 in 2020 despite having two of the top 10 position players in the game on its roster. While the payroll is already high, the Angels do get to clear Albert Pujols ($30 million) off the books after 2021 and Justin Upton ($51M over the next two seasons) after 2022. Still, with two major-ticket items in Trout and Rendon, I don't expect the Angels to be playing in the Bauer or Realmuto markets. Semien would replace the departed Andrelton Simmons (David Fletcher could play there, but he fits best at second base), Hand would fill a need at closer, Porcello provides durability and Paxton provides upside.
What they could do: Spend money like an 1850s California gold miner would on whiskey, women and cards.
What we predict they will do: Trade Lance Lynn.
The Rangers tried to win in 2020 and boy did they fail, some kind of awful combination of New Coke and Crystal Pepsi. They were bad at pitching and bad at hitting (Joey Gallo and Isiah Kiner-Falefa did win Gold Gloves though). Four of their five highest-paid players for 2021 will be Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor, Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles, all of whom produced negative WAR in 2020. The fifth is Lynn, who is very good but has just one year left on his deal. With a bad free-agent market for starting pitchers, Lynn could be trade bait (even if the Rangers did decline to deal him at the trade deadline).
What they could do: You mean besides winning a playoff game?
The offense sort of fell apart after that record-setting home run barrage in 2021, so bringing back Cruz -- even at 40 years old -- feels like a priority. Otherwise, the Twins probably just make minor moves around the edges, and Kluber fits their recent agenda of taking risks on some injury-prone veteran starters (Rich Hill, Homer Bailey) that may or may not work. Jake Arrieta fits that description as well, while Jake Odorizzi could return to Minnesota. They will have Michael Pineda for the full season following his PED suspension.
What they could do: Add a starting pitcher or DH, replace free-agent closer Alex Colome.
What we predict they will do: Hire A.J. Hinch, err ... how about sign Michael Brantley, re-sign Colome.
The White Sox are pretty set, potentially even in the rotation if they think Michael Kopech finally will return and they believe in Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning to line up behind Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. Brantley is the perfect fit to replace Edwin Encarnacion at DH. First, he's a left-handed hitter, which the Sox need (they have switch-hitters Yasmani Grandal and Yoan Moncada, but Nomar Mazara was their only regular lefty and he was awful). Second, he's a contact hitter, giving the White Sox a much-needed different look for a lineup that ranked near the bottom of the majors in K's. Colome isn't sexy, throwing 91 mph cutters, but it generally works.
What they could do: Find some outfielders who can hit.
What we predict they will do: Waive Brad Hand, decline the options on Carlos Santana and Domingo Santana ... and trade Francisco Lindor.
Nailed it! At least that first part. Of course, the big question is whether they will trade Lindor. He will make an estimated $22 million in 2021, which projects to more than a quarter of the team's current payroll. They've trimmed the roster to almost all pre-arb players, but need to improve an outfield that hit a collective .196/.270/.304 in 2020. Sadly, a Lindor trade seems inevitable at this point, but it's actually difficult to find a reasonable trade partner as most of the top teams already have a quality shortstop. As mentioned earlier, the Mets could be a match and Dom Smith's breakout 2020 (.316/.377/.616) means he could be a fit at either left field or first base to replace Santana.
What they could do: Add a couple of big sticks.
If you squint, you can see a long-shot playoff contender in Kansas City, especially if young starting pitchers Brady Singer and Kris Bubic make a big leap forward in 2021. The Royals have struggled to fill first base since Eric Hosmer departed, although it looks like Hunter Dozier will move there now. Profar fits in at left field or even second base if they tire of Nicky Lopez's anemic bat. Grossman would provide further outfield depth, allowing Whit Merrifield to play center field if necessary, or DH if Jorge Soler is traded.
What they could do: Hire a new manager.
What we predict they will do: Done!
With little activity expected this offseason, the biggest move will be the hiring of A.J. Hinch, back from his season-long suspension. The Tigers should be ecstatic that Hinch fell into their laps after the White Sox instead hired Tony La Russa. Hinch helped mold a young Houston team into a powerhouse, although he inherited a roster that already included Jose Altuve, George Springer and Dallas Keuchel and had Carlos Correa in the minors. The Tigers don't have that level of talent, especially on the offensive side of things, so they have to hope prospects like 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson and outfielder Riley Greene develop and eventually become the Detroit version of Altuve and Springer.
What they could do: Nothing ... but the Rays never do nothing.
The Rays turned down Morton's $15 million option, but the apparent hope is to bring him back at a lower salary. (Morton lives in the Tampa area.) The Rays declined Mike Zunino's $4.5 million option and waived Michael Perez, so they currently do not have a catcher on their 40-man roster. Contreras' projected salary is $5.5 million, not much more than Zunino's, but Contreras can actually hit and the World Series showed us the Rays really are a bat or two short. (Top prospect Wander Franco could be one of those.) They have the young pitching the Cubs covet, with guys like Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz and Joe Ryan.
What they could do: Trade for Francisco Lindor, sign Trevor Bauer and J.T. Realmuto.
All the talk is about Bauer, but keep this in mind: When the Yankees lost the American League Championship Series to the Astros in 2017, they hit .205 and averaged 3.1 runs per game. When they lost the division series to the Red Sox in 2018, they hit .214 and scored 3.5 runs per game. In the 2019 ALCS, they hit .214 and scored 21 runs in six games. Against the Rays in the division series in 2020, they hit .243 and scored 4.8 runs per game (but lost 2-1 in the decisive Game 5). The offense has hurt the Yankees in those postseason defeats as much or more than the pitching. If they bring back Tanaka, they would have a rotation with him, Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino (hopefully returning from Tommy John surgery) and Domingo German (back from his domestic violence suspension), plus Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt and Michael King as depth. Sure, Bauer would be nice, but I think it's more likely they bring LeMahieu and Tanaka back and Gardner continues to age well. May would provide a right-handed power arm in the bullpen to go alongside lefties Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton.
What they could do: Spend big and go big ... but will they?
The Jays have a lot of room on their payroll -- their current projected luxury tax payroll is about $42 million below their 2020 figure -- with only three players (Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark and Randal Grichuk) on the hook for more $5 million. So they have flexibility and have holes to fix in the rotation and bullpen, but before the Ryu signing last offseason they hadn't spent more than $10 million on one player in free agency since Kendrys Morales in the 2016-17 offseason. Go back over the entire decade and their two biggest contracts were $36 million for J.A. Happ and $82 million for Russell Martin. It's not a franchise that historically spends in free agency. I do wonder if they will overrate an offense that hit really well in Buffalo and not so well on the road. Anyway, Lynn is better than any free-agent starter other than Trevor Bauer, and would be part of a nice one-two punch alongside Ryu (and maybe a 1-2-3 with Nate Pearson as well). Melancon isn't overpowering, but gets ground balls and limits the long ball.
What they could do: Continue rebuilding. What, you wanted something more exciting?
The Orioles were much improved in 2020, jumping from 11th in runs in the AL to eighth and from 15th (last) in runs allowed to ninth. They will likely give the young hitters more opportunities to prove themselves, but they could use some help on the pitching side. Walker returned from Tommy John surgery and looked like a decent back-end starter, while Smyly fanned 42 with just nine walks in 26⅓ innings for the Giants. Both are health risks, but worth a gamble. Rosenthal could fill the closer role with an eye on Baltimore flipping him at the trade deadline.
What they could do: Anything? Something? Nothing?
I have no idea what the Red Sox will do. They don't want to be as bad as they were last year, but the payroll is already high (about $35 million left before hitting the luxury tax) and they have a lot to do to make the pitching respectable again. Given the market, look for them to land some high-upside guys on one-year deals. If they hit on this group and the Red Sox are competitive, all good. If they hit on them and the team is still not competitive, they can look to deal them for some much-needed prospect depth at the deadline.