Behind the velvet rope
This free agent class is headlined by three elite players we just saw in the World Series.
If you like those holiday commercials in which people buy cars for their spouse and put the world’s largest bow around the vehicle, then Gerrit Cole is the gift for your team. Cole had a Cy Young Award-worthy season for the Astros, and counting the playoffs struck out a sublime 373 batters, the fifth-most ever. He pitched more innings than anybody else in the postseason (36⅔) and posted a 1.72 ERA in October. At 29, Cole is younger than every other free agent pitcher who ever signed for $30 million a year, and will probably set records with whatever contract he signs this winter.
7 years, $245 million
UPDATE: Cole signed a record deal with the Yankees for nine years, $324 million
If you’re not able to have the luxury of adding Gerrit Cole to your rotation, a solid backup plan would be the other former No. 1 overall pick who dominated this postseason. Stephen Strasburg opted out of the four years and $100 million remaining on his contract with the Nationals, and will surely blow past that in free agency. Strasburg is 31, so he probably won’t get as long a contract as Cole, but aces are hard to come by. He led the National League in innings pitched, set a career high with 251 strikeouts, and was undefeated with a 1.98 ERA in the postseason while winning World Series MVP. Strasburg picked a perfect time to fully realize his promise, and now it’s time for him to cash in.
6 years, $186 million
UPDATE: Strasburg re-upped with the Nats for a whopping 7 years, $245 million
Nolan Arenado has been the gold (glove) standard at third base, but Anthony Rendon has been right there with him the last three years, leading Arenado (19.9 to 17.4) in fWAR, with Rendon ranking fourth in the majors during that span. Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million contract with Colorado last year before even hitting free agency, so get this relatively clearance price on Rendon while you still can.
Asked during the postseason what he would be doing at age 36, Rendon laughed and said, “Hopefully not playing baseball. Probably sitting on the couch hanging out with my kids.” So be sure to cram the hundreds of millions of dollars in his contract offer to just six years.
6 years, $204 million
UPDATE: The Angels swooped in with a good 7-year, $245 million contract
If you miss out on Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, there are several starting pitchers out there for the taking. A team like the Angels, which needs roughly an entire staff, could upgrade by buying in bulk here.
With Cole and Strasburg about to cash in on their postseason (and regular-season) excellence, now’s the time for Madison Bumgarner to cash in on his October magic, just five years later. This year’s playoff darlings brought into focus how ridiculous Bumgarner’s 1.03 ERA in a postseason-record 52⅔ innings in 2014, leading the Giants to their third championship in five years.
After two injury-plagued seasons, Bumgarner was back to being a horse atop San Francisco’s rotation, topping 200 innings and 200 strikeouts. Bumgarner played a key role in all three Giants titles, and while that seems so long ago he’s only 30 years old. There’s plenty left in the tank for a team that needs to stabilize its rotation.
4 years, $76 million
The right-hander was traded by the Giants to the Mets at the trade deadline in 2011 for Carlos Beltran, so it’s only fitting that Zack Wheeler is now leaving New York as a free agent just as Beltran is back to manage in Queens. Wheeler doesn’t turn 30 until May, and with 60 starts and an above-average 3.65 ERA the last two seasons, he qualifies as an innings eater. Nathan Eovaldi got $68 million over four years last offseason with nowhere near the durability of Wheeler, who has only one Tommy John surgery in his history compared to two for Eovaldi. Look for Wheeler to beat the Eovaldi contract.
4 years, $74 million
UPDATE: signed a 5-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies
After missing nearly two entire seasons with shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, Hyun-jin Ryu’s rebound (Ryubound?) has been nothing short of remarkable. His 2.21 ERA since the start of 2018 is the second-best in baseball among pitchers with at least 250 innings, and there’s the rub.
Ryu missed three months in 2018 with a torn groin, and spent time on the injured list again in 2019 with a groin strain. He was still durable enough to lead the majors in ERA (2.32) and led the NL in walk rate (3.3 percent), and was a Cy Young Award finalist. Ryu has no qualifying offer attached so his market should be robust, though turning 33 the day before opening day might limit him to shorter deals.
3 years, $57 million
Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel were the poster boys for the withered free agency last year, when their attached qualifying offers killed their markets. Both waited to sign until after the draft so their signing teams didn’t have to give up a draft pick. Keuchel helped stabilize the Braves rotation with a 121 ERA+ in 19 starts, and without draft pick compensation should be able to find a contract before spring training. What a novel concept.
3 years, $46 million
Jake Odorizzi picked a great time to have his best season, setting career bests in FIP (3.36), ERA+ (131), strikeout rate (27.1 percent) and wins (15). But though he’s one of just 21 pitchers to make 90 starts over the last three seasons, he’s averaged barely over five innings per outing during that time.
He should consider accepting the $17.8 million qualifying offer from the Twins.
2 years, $30 million
UPDATE: Odorizzi did accept the qualifying offer, so he’s back for one more year in Minnesota.
After averaging 208 innings and 4.3 fWAR for a decade, Cole Hamels has settled into “only” solidly above average for the last three years, averaging 160 innings and 2.1 fWAR with a 117 ERA+ from 2017-19. Hamels turns 36 in December so long-term contracts are a thing of the past. But Hamels could still give a team 25 competitive starts.
2 years, $26 million
UPDATE: Hamels signed with the Braves for 1 year, $18 million
Sure, Rick Porcello had a 5.65 ERA in 2019 and has a 4.79 ERA from 2017-19. But he also has a Cy Young Award, which has to be worth something, right? Porcello, while he was getting his head handed to him on the mound last year, still managed to answer the bell. He’s one of only two pitchers to make at least 32 starts in each of the last four years, along with Justin Verlander. So you’re basically getting another Verlander by signing Porcello. It’s science.
2 years, $23 million
Around the end of August, Wade Miley sure looked like he was going to cash in this winter. He was third in the American League with a 3.06 ERA — behind only his Astros teammates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole — and showed postseason success the year before allowing just two runs in 14 innings for Milwaukee. But then the wheels fell off, with a 16.68 ERA in five September starts knocking Miley out of Houston’s playoff rotation. A single, ineffective relief appearance in the ALDS was followed by Miley getting left off the Astros’ roster for both the ALCS and World Series. Miley is a value play only, probably only getting a small, two-year deal or a one-year contract with an option.
1 year, $11 million
After Anthony Rendon, there are still a few impact players on offense just waiting to be signed.
After two injury-marred years in Toronto and Cleveland, Josh Donaldson bet on himself last winter with a one-year deal, and gave the Braves everything they needed and then some. The third baseman showed shades of his former-MVP self, hitting .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs and 100 walks. Donaldson turns 34 in December so he might need to settle for a relatively shorter contract, but he’s still a good-enough hitter to make it a worthy risk for some team.
3 years, $69 million
Yasmani Grandal settled for a one-year deal with the Brewers last offseason, and delivered a typical Grandal season with power (28 home runs), patience (109 walks), and excellent at stealing strikes behind the plate (second in MLB in runs saved by framing).
Over the last five years, He leads major league catchers in home runs (117), walks (350), and is second in wRC+ (117). If Grandal can’t get a multi-year contract this winter, the system is broken.
4 years, $62 million
UPDATE: Grandal signed a 4-year, $73 million contract on November 21, 2019.
No trade deadline acquisition helped themselves financially more than Nicholas Castellanos, who escaped the spacious Comerica Park in Detroit and excelled in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. He hit .289/.337/.525, a 121 OPS+, including a whopping .321/.356/.646 with the Cubs. Castellanos hit 27 home runs on the season, including 16 with Chicago despite playing half the games he did with Detroit.
A groin injury in the season’s final week robbed Castellanos of a shot at the first 60-double season since 1936. He settled for 58 doubles and 88 extra-base hits, and doesn’t turn 28 until March so he should be able to cash in.
4 years, $60 million
Two years ago, Marcell Ozuna looked more promising than his Marlins teammate Christian Yelich — remember when Miami had the best outfield in baseball, then new ownership traded those two plus Giancarlo Stanton in one offseason? Fun times — but their paths have diverged since.
Yelich won NL MVP in 2018 and delivered another MVP-worthy campaign in 2019 for the Brewers, while Ozuna has settled for being a solid regular for the Cardinals. Ozuna’s two seasons in St. Louis produced 52 home runs and a 107 OPS+. He just turned 29 so he’s one of the younger free agent hitters, and could be a value play for some team in need of offensive competency.
3 years, $49 million
The initial six-year contract that Cuban free agent Jose Abreu signed with the White Sox proved to be a smashing success. For $72 million over those six years, Abreu averaged 150 games, 36 doubles, 30 home runs, and 102 RBI per season while posting a 137 OPS+. The production has slowed a bit the last two years, with a 119 OPS+, but for a team looking to plug in an above-average hitter into its lineup Abreu would be a nice fit.
Turning 33 in January and being limited defensively to first base or designated hitter will greatly suppress his market, but Abreu should still be able to get a multi-year deal out of some team.
2 years, $32 million
UPDATE: Abreu accepted the $17.8 million qualifying offer from the White Sox, but then a week later re-upped with a new 3-year, $50 million contract through 2022.
As someone who covered the first six years of Yasiel Puig’s career, I have absolutely no idea what to predict here. But that’s who Puig is. He will wow you with prodigious power and a howitzer for an arm, not to mention his linebacker physique, and the #PuigYourFriend hashtag will be trending at times. But Puig will also infuriate you with inconsistent play and inexplicable mistakes. The one constant with Puig is that you can’t take your eyes off of him, and whatever team signs him buys a ticket for a very wild ride.
2 years, $28 million
The good news: Didi Gregorius hit 16 home runs in half a season for the Yankees, after he was another in a growing trend of position players to have Tommy John surgery. But Gregorius hit just .238 with a .276 on-base percentage, the latter ranking 266th among the 276 batters with at least 300 plate appearances in 2019.
Gregorius turns 30 in February and still provides above-average defense at shortstop even if his offense is suffering. Still, some team will probably try to reclaim the magic of his 2018 campaign, which should mean a multi-year deal for Didi.
2 years, $25 million
UPDATE: Gregorius signed a 1-year, $14 million deal with the Phillies
No player epitomizes the disappearing free agent market more than third baseman Mike Moustakas, who went through the process in each of the last two cold winters. He turned down a one-year qualifying offer of $17.4 million from the Royals after 2017, and hasn’t made that much in his two subsequent contracts, earning $16.5 million from the Royals and Brewers in 2018-19 combined. Moustakas hit a career-high 38 homers for Milwaukee in 2019, and showed his versatility with 40 starts at second base. He didn’t sign until spring training in each of the last two years, so perhaps Moustakas would jump if any sort of substantial offer comes his way.
2 years, $22 million
UPDATE: Moustakas cashed in, getting a 4-year, $64 million deal from the Reds
Death, taxes, and Edwin Encarnacion hitting 30 home runs — these are absolutes. Encarnacion hit 34 home runs in 2019 for the Mariners and Yankees, his eighth straight year with at least 30 bombs, the longest active streak in MLB. His 297 home runs since the start of 2012 are the most in baseball. Yes, he’ll be 37 in 2020 and is basically a designated hitter now, though he could play first base in a pinch. He’ll latch on somewhere on a one-year deal, and the fans of said team will be bringing stuffed parrots to games to emulate their new power hitter.
1 year, $13 million
Howie Kendrick was living his best life during the Nationals’ incredible run to a championship, settling in as the club’s third-best hitter in October behind Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. Kendrick hit .286/.328/.444 in October with 12 RBI in 17 games. He hit the NLDS-winning grand slam, won NLCS MVP, and hit the go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the World Series.
Kendrick’s regular season was a smash, too, having his best year offensively, hitting .344/.395/.572 while starting games at first, second, and third base for the Nationals. It was an amazing rebound after missing over four months in 2018 with a torn Archilles. The 36-year-old would be a fine addition for a team with postseason aspirations, and don’t rule out a return to Washington, where he’s spent the last 2½ years.
1 year, $9 million
UPDATE: Kendrick returns to the Nationals with a 1-year, $6.25 million deal that includes an option for 2021
What a relief
The market for relief pitching is quite thin, especially since closer Aroldis Chapman didn’t opt out of his deal and rather leveraged himself into one more year added to the end of his existing contract.
Former Giants closer Will Smith has been excellent since missing all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery, posting a 2.66 ERA and 2.71 FIP in 118 innings. The left-hander saved 34 games in 2019 and posted a career-best 37.4-percent strikeout rate. He’s the premier reliever on the market this winter, even with draft pick compensation attached because of the qualifying offer.
Should Will Smith sign with the Dodgers, who employ Will Smith at catcher, the world would be a better place, in my opinion.
3 years, $42 million
UPDATE: Smith signed with the Braves for 3 years, $40 million plus a club option for 2023.
Don’t let the go-ahead home run allowed to Howie Kendrick in Game 7 of the World Series mar the season of Will Harris, who has been one of the most consistent relievers in baseball. He posted a 1.50 ERA in 60 innings during the regular season, and despite allowing a run in Games 6 and 7 of the Fall Classic still posted a 1.86 ERA this postseason. Harris over the last five seasons has a 2.36 ERA and 2.99 FIP, the former ranking third among major league relievers during that span. Even at 35, Harris should be able to secure a two-year deal.
2 years, $15 million
A midseason role change was just what Drew Pomeranz needed in 2019. After a putrid 6.10 ERA in 17 starts with the Giants, he moved to the bullpen. Within two weeks Pomeranz was traded to the Brewers, and his total relief numbers were eye-popping: a 1.99 ERA with a dominant 45.7-percent strikeout rate, and opposing hitters limited to just .160/.224/.292. That should get the lefty Pomeranz a second year from somebody.
2 years, $13 million
UPDATE: Pomeranz signed a 4-year, $34 million deal with the Padres on Nov. 27.