Free agents primed to return to early homes

November 30th, 2020

The goal of this game is to get home. Sometimes that ambition applies not only on the basepaths, but on the business side as well. Free agency is an opportunity for players and clubs to find a fit, and sometimes the best fit is one that’s been previously broken-in.

Here are a bunch of examples of reunions that would make sense from both a financial and baseball angle in this Hot Stove market.

1. Jon Lester and the Red Sox
Boston regrettably low-balled Lester when trying to negotiate an extension and wound up dealing him to the A’s in mid-2014. Lester went on to build a new legacy with the Cubs, with whom he won his third World Series ring. But on the heels of a declined option year, he stands as a potential short-term patch piece for a Boston rotation that posted a ghastly 5.34 ERA in '20 and -- with Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez questionable for the start of '21 -- has little certainty beyond Nathan Eovaldi.

Lester might be more likely to work out a new deal with the Cubs, but he has expressed openness to the idea of returning to (and possibly finishing his career with) the Red Sox.

2. Didi Gregorius and the Reds
We pitched this a year ago in this space. It made sense then, and it still makes sense now, as the Reds’ bid to upgrade their offense fell flat with a .212 team batting average in 2020.

Gregorius was originally signed by the Reds as an international free agent for $50,000 in 2007. He was blocked by Zack Cozart and played just eight games for Cincinnati in '12 before getting dealt to the D-backs, who later moved him to the Yankees, where he was an effective replacement for Derek Jeter. Gregorius took a one-year deal with the Phillies last winter and raked (.284/.339/.488 slash). The Reds do have young Jose Garcia as a shortstop option, but he jumped two levels to debut in '20 and was overmatched offensively.

3. Jake Odorizzi and the Rays
The defending American League champs had hoped to bring back Charlie Morton after declining his $15 million option, but he opted for a reunion of his own with the Braves, the team that drafted him all the way back in 2002. So Odorizzi would be a suitable replacement. Originally acquired by the Rays in the 2012 blockbuster that sent James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals, Odorizzi spent five seasons with Tampa Bay before getting traded to the Twins, with whom he went on to have an All-Star season in '19.

Odorizzi took Minnesota’s qualifying offer for 2020 and had a miserable year, limited to four starts by non-arm injuries. He’s a solid bounceback bet this winter.

4. Nelson Cruz and the Mariners
This one’s likely a reach, because, while the Mariners are beginning to assemble the building blocks of a contender and are approaching the offseason with apparent financial flexibility, they’re probably not ready to splurge on a 40-year-old designated hitter. The safest bet is Cruz returning to the Twins and the Mariners giving most of their DH at-bats to infielder Ty France.

But it is fun to think about Cruz returning to Seattle, where he thrived from 2015-18 (averaging 41 homers and 104 RBIs), with a chance to point the M’s to the playoffs for the first time in a generation.

5. Brad Hand and the Marlins
It’s fun to think about J.T. Realmuto coming back to the Marlins to fill a need behind the dish, but the thought of him catching Sixto Sánchez might send Phillies fans into hysterics. As new general manager Kim Ng takes over a Marlins team looking to take the next step, the bullpen figures to be the priority. And it just so happens this former Fish is available to assume Brandon Kintzler’s departed closer duties.

Hand, a second-round Draft pick in 2008, broke into the big leagues with the Marlins in 2011 and fizzled out by '16, when the Padres plucked him off waivers and watched him morph into one of the game’s elite closers. So yes, the Marlins once waived Hand, but perhaps they could wave hello to him again.

6. Corey Kluber and the Padres
Kluber was an unheralded Double-A arm when the Padres dealt him to Cleveland in a three-team trade for Ryan Ludwick back in 2010. The Ludwick move didn’t pan out for a San Diego club that didn’t reach the postseason, and Kluber went on to win two AL Cy Young Awards.

Now, with Kluber’s former Cleveland rotation mate Mike Clevinger on the shelf following Tommy John surgery, the Padres could use some rotation help. After missing most of 2019 with a fractured forearm and all but one inning of '20 with a shoulder injury, Kluber was cleared for a normal offseason routine and could be a worthwhile pickup for the Padres. Or maybe San Diego native Cole Hamels, whose mother once worked in the team ticket office, could return to his roots.

7. José Quintana and the White Sox
In terms of digging into the archives, this move would not quite be on the same level of the Tony La Russa hiring in Chicago. But Quintana was a valued and durable member of the Sox rotation from 2012-17, posting a 3.51 ERA in 172 outings.

When Quintana went north in a mid-2017 swap that brought Eloy Jiménez to the Sox, his ERA went north as well (4.24 in 82 outings for the Cubs). But after being unable to pitch a full season for the first time in his career (thumb surgery and left lat inflammation), Quintana is an intriguing arm in this market and would bring needed depth to this contender’s rotation.

8. Garrett Richards and the Angels
Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the Angels need pitching, pitching and more pitching. Not long ago, Richards was their ace, but he had trouble staying healthy and ultimately wound up elsewhere in Southern California with the Padres. After recovering from Tommy John surgery, he made 14 encouraging outings in 2020, averaging 95.2 mph with his fastball.

The Halos already have some big contracts on the books, so the club might not be able to swing an all-in move for Trevor Bauer. And given their need for multiple arms, a short-term, cost-effective return for Richards would be a solid play.

9. Cole Hamels and the Phillies
Speaking of Hamels, he reportedly had interest in a Broad Street homecoming a year ago before ultimately signing an ill-fated one-year deal with the Braves. Left shoulder fatigue led to a forgettable stay in Atlanta, but Hamels could conceivably still bring value to a Philadelphia rotation that thins out after Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin. Maybe the mojo of their 2008 World Series MVP Award winner is what the Phillies need to finally get over that October hump.

Of course, where the Phils need help most is in their beleaguered bullpen, and Trevor May -- a former Phillies Draft pick (fourth round, 2008) who was dealt to Minnesota in the '12 trade for Ben Revere -- is one of this market’s more intriguing options.

10. Jake Arrieta and the Cubs
The Cubs’ July 2013 swap for Arrieta and Pedro Strop will go down as one of the signature moves of the Theo Epstein era. And though Epstein has shown himself out on the North Side, perhaps there’s room and reason to bring Arrieta back into the fold after a mostly disappointing three seasons with Philadelphia (4.36 ERA in 64 starts, with right elbow and right hamstring issues prematurely ending his '19 and '20 seasons, respectively). With Lester, Quintana and Tyler Chatwood all testing free agency, the Cubs have room in their rotation, but not a lot of room in their budget. A low-risk investment in Arrieta, who won’t summon his second-half magic of '15 but could still potentially delivery quality innings, might work.

Another low-cost reunion option for the North Siders? Bring back Chris Archer, who they dealt in a 2011 swap for Matt Garza prior to him reaching the bigs.

11. James McCann and 12. Rick Porcello and the Tigers
The Tigers will be an interesting team to monitor as they try to turn a corner this winter. But in trying to build a brighter future, it might make sense for them to dip into their past. They non-tendered McCann after 2018, and he went on to have two productive years with the White Sox, albeit as Yasmani Grandal’s backup in '20. During that time, the Tigers have struggled to get production from behind the plate, and top catching prospect Jake Rogers has not yet blossomed. Bringing back the veteran McCann could help the Tigers get the most out of their young pitching prospects who have reached the bigs.

And while the Tigers do have enough young pitchers to fill a rotation, there is something to be said for an affordable veteran presence, which is what old pal Porcello, who won 76 games for Detroit from 2009-14, would bring. And hey, if the Tigers really want to get wild with blasts from the past, how about giving a corner-outfield spot to Yoenis Céspedes?