Timing is everything in free agency.
Last year, Gerrit Cole hit the market at the same moment the Yankees’ top offseason priority was a No. 1 starting pitcher. Six weeks later, Cole had himself a record nine-year, $324 million contract done before Christmas.
This winter, however, is not the ideal time to be a free agent. Not after a 60-game regular season without any gate-related revenue, translating to historic financial losses across the board for MLB clubs. Many teams either had layoffs, furloughs or both, giving the impression that money — even for a $10 billion industry — figures to be scarce this offseason.
Which clubs are hurting the most, and how badly, is difficult to determine. The Dodgers changed the whole free-agent market before we even got there by signing Mookie Betts to a 12-year, $365 million extension in July, so it would be hard to characterize them as broke.
As for other typically big spenders, hard to say. The Yankees are expected to lose more than $400 million this season, and after Cole’s deal, the trade route certainly looks preferable after trying to first retain DJ LeMahieu.
"Obviously, I think this global pandemic has affected everybody in a horrific way in a business setting," general manager Brian Cashman said this week. "These are real constraints that exist throughout all industries and households, so it will be something that clearly will factor into how we approach the future."
That future, from a free-agent perspective, begins five days after the final out of the World Series. With that in mind, here’s an early peek at some of the top names available (players with pending contract options are not included).
1. J.T. Realmuto, Phillies, C: The Phillies had initial conversations with Realmuto about sticking around beyond this season, but around the time mega-billionaire Steve Cohen’s name resurfaced with the Mets, those talks soon evaporated. Coincidence? Realmuto, who turns 30 in March, is one season removed from his Gold Glove, Silver Slugger season in Philly, and would be the perfect opening splash for Cohen’s arrival in Flushing.
2. Trevor Bauer, Reds, RHP: Bauer took to Twitter recently to drop a few hints about his pending free agency, subtly poking the Padres and Yankees about their need for rotation help after both teams were eliminated. Bauer’s late surge for the NL Cy Young likely earned him the trophy, as well as a few extra bucks as the top starter available in a very thin group.
3. George Springer, Astros, CF: The UConn product could have a chance to return east if the Cohen-owned Mets dig even deeper into their pockets for a true everyday centerfielder, despite an offensive dip from his Silver Slugger season (39 HRs, .974 OPS) in 2019. As a bonus, he gets to escape universally hated Houston.
4. DJ LeMahieu, Yankees, INF: Right off the top, this almost feels wrong to list LeMahieu as a pending free agent, only because it’s unimaginable that the Yankees would let him out of the Bronx. Playing Gold Glove-caliber defense, at three positions, LeMahieu posted a slash line of .336/.386/.536 for the past two seasons while basically being the Yankees’ MVP.
5. Marcus Semien, A’s, SS: Semien finished third in the MVP voting a year ago, when he hit 33 homers with an .892 OPS and played in all 162 games, staggering numbers for a quality defensive shortstop. With the qualifying offer set at $18.9 million, Semien could bite on that after his subpar year if the A’s are willing to pony up for the short term.
6. Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta, OF: After signing a one-year, $18 million contract last offseason, Ozuna turned out to be a bargain for Atlanta, leading the NL with 18 homers and 56 RBIs and playing in all 60 games with a 1.067 OPS, far above his .801 career mark. Ozuna stayed hot during the playoffs and will be an interesting case for pandemic-influenced pricing.
7. Marcus Stroman, Mets, RHP: The former Patchogue-Medford star didn’t leave much of a legacy with the Mets, opting out this season with COVID-related concerns shortly after reaching his service-time requirements, and without throwing a pitch. He’s helped by a weak starter market. We’ll see how much.
8. Didi Gregorius, Phillies, SS: Gregorius was one of the few bright spots during another underachieving year in Philly, hitting .284 with 10 homers and 40 RBIs in 60 games. Gregorius had to settle for a one-year, $14 million deal after his 2019 return from Tommy John surgery, but he’s fully recovered now. Could the Yankees consider a return after watching Gleyber Torres struggle at short this season?
9. Andrelton Simmons, Angels, SS: Simmons made the surprising move of opting out in the season’s final week, after hitting .297 in 30 games, as his seven-year, $58 million deal (originally signed with Atlanta) finished up with the Angels. An elite defender, Simmons has been slowed some over the past two years by leg injuries, but won the Gold Glove and finished in the top 20 in MVP votes from 2017-18.
10. James Paxton, Yankees, LHP: The enigmatic Paxton should have been heading to a huge payday this winter. Instead, he’s more a mystery than ever, going from one of the sport’s top lefthanders to a frequently sidelined question mark who made only five starts (6.64 ERA) between injuries this year.
11. Liam Hendriks, A’s, RHP: Everybody is trying to assemble a dominant bullpen these days and relief weapons don’t get much better than the coveted Hendriks, who went 14-for-15 in save chances with a 0.671 WHIP, 13.1 K/9 ratio and 1.78 ERA in 24 appearances.
12. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees, RHP: Like LeMahieu, Tanaka could soon return to the Bronx, but would probably need to do so on a team-friendly deal now that his $155 million contract is up. Is the relationship with the Yankees worth concessions on his part? Tanaka uncharacteristically stumbled in his final two playoff starts, but he’s only turning 32 next month, so there should be more good years ahead.
13. Alex Colome, White Sox, RHP: Colome didn’t have the eye-popping strikeout numbers (6.4 K/9) that usually come with a shutdown closer, but his 0.81 ERA and 0.940 WHIP this season got the job done (12-for-13 in save chances).
14. Taijuan Walker, Blue Jays, RHP: Walker took advantage of being traded into a playoff race by finishing with a 1.37 ERA in his six starts with the Jays, cutting his Seattle ERA this season by more than half. A small sample size, but in time to polish his value, and Walker just turned 28 in August.
15. Michael Brantley, Astros, LF/DH: After rebounding from a pair of injury-plagued seasons in Cleveland, Brantley flourished in Houston, where over the past two years he’s put up a slash line of .309/.370/.497 with 27 homers and 112 RBIs over the combined 194 games. Still just 33, Brantley definitely re-established his value on this expiring two-year, $32 million deal with the Astros.
16. Nelson Cruz, Twins, DH: The ageless Cruz — he’ll turn 41 next July — is the very definition of a designated hitter, an offensive force who continues to do that one thing extremely well. Cruz finished ninth in MVP voting in 2019 (41 HRs, 108 RBIs, 1.031 OPS), then drilled 16 homers this season with a .992 OPS in 53 games.