Each team's perfect free agent to sign
With the 2020 season behind us, it’s time for the Hot Stove to simmer. Front offices are searching for the ideal tonic for whatever ails their club, while agents look for the best landing spots for their clients.
We know that most teams will look to fill a number of holes on the roster, but each has one spot that might stand out above the rest. This list isn’t meant to serve as a prediction of what’s to come this winter, but rather a chance to play free-agent matchmaker.
We had only two rules:
- Every player had to be from another team (no incumbents).
- Each player could only be on the list once. Otherwise Trevor Bauer and J.T. Realmuto might have been attached to at least half of the 30 teams.
American League East
Blue Jays: Justin Turner
A return to the Dodgers seems like the most likely scenario for the soon-to-be 36-year-old Turner, but if Los Angeles decides to turn elsewhere (perhaps a trade for Francisco Lindor, shifting Corey Seager to third base?), the Blue Jays should pounce on the veteran. Toronto’s young core took another step forward this season, but adding an experienced player with postseason history would help that group continue to build off of its 2020 playoff berth.
Orioles: Gio González
Baltimore’s rebuilding plan took a step forward in 2020 as the Orioles went 25-35, snapping a three-year streak of last-place finishes. General manager Mike Elias filled two rotation spots last winter with one-year deals for Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone, then dealt Milone to the Braves at the Trade Deadline. González was a swing man for the White Sox in 2020, making four starts and eight relief appearances. A one-year deal with the Orioles could help the veteran lefty build up some value, which would allow Baltimore to trade him to a contender prior to the Deadline.
Rays: James McCann
Mike Zunino had some big moments during the postseason, but the Rays declined his $4.5 million option. Tampa Bay had a collective .594 OPS from the catcher’s spot in 2020, more than 100 points below the AL average and ranking 25th in MLB. McCann boasted an .896 OPS this season and received rave reviews for his work behind the plate. For a team that relies heavily on young pitching, having an experienced backstop is crucial.
Red Sox: Jake Odorizzi
The starting rotation is in shambles as Boston enters the offseason; Chris Sale is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and Eduardo Rodriguez’s post-COVID health status is uncertain. Odorizzi -- an All-Star in 2019 -- battled multiple injuries in '20, but Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom is quite familiar with the right-hander, having been part of the Rays front office that traded for him in '12.
Yankees: Charlie Morton
All indications are that the Yankees plan to cut payroll for 2021 after taking some big financial hits during the pandemic. That would seemingly take them out of the Bauer sweepstakes, especially if New York hopes to bring back DJ LeMahieu on a new deal. Still, general manager Brian Cashman needs to add at least one starter, if not two, so he’ll likely be looking for to the free-agent market to fill the void. Morton turns 37 this offseason, so he’ll likely be looking for a one- or two-year deal. A veteran with vast postseason experience, Morton would be an ideal fit for the Yankees.
Indians: Joc Pederson
Cleveland’s outfield was anemic in 2020, ranking last in the AL in home runs (11), extra-base hits (39), runs scored (59) and OPS (.575). Pederson had an off year, which should bring his price tag down to a level the Indians can afford, but the 28-year-old averaged 24 home runs and an .835 OPS between 2016-19.
Royals: Robbie Grossman
Getting on base was an issue for the Royals, whose .309 on-base percentage ranked 12th in the AL. Only two everyday players (Salvador Perez and Hunter Dozier) topped the .330 OBP mark, while four were below .300. Grossman posted a .344 OBP last season, just shy of his .350 career mark. Alex Gordon’s retirement opens a spot in left field, creating a perfect fit for a player like Grossman.
Tigers: Jay Bruce
Last offseason, the Tigers signed C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop to one-year, $6.1 million deals on the same day. They also signed Austin Romine and Cameron Maybin to short-term deals, adding four veterans to their lineup for the 2020 season. Detroit finished last in the AL Central with a 23-35 record, ranking 12th in the AL in runs, home runs and OPS. The outfield was particularly problematic; the Tigers ranked 14th with a .654 outfield OPS and 15 home runs. Bruce made just 103 plate appearances for the Phillies in 2020, but at 33, he can still hit the ball out of the park. He could be in the market for a one-year deal, making him a prime candidate for Detroit to bolster the lineup with a low-risk move.
Twins: Marcus Stroman
Minnesota boasted the second-best rotation ERA (3.54) in the AL in 2020, but Jake Odorizzi, Rich Hill and Homer Bailey are all free agents. The Twins have shown a willingness to spend money as they try to contend during their current window, and while they aren’t likely to land Bauer based on his expected price tag, the Twins have $32 million in expiring contracts coming off the books from Odorizzi, Marwin Gonzalez and Alex Avila. Stroman sat out the 2020 season, but he’s been a solid No. 2-3 starter for most of his career, making him a good fit behind Kenta Maeda and José Berríos in the rotation. (Stroman could still accept an $18.9 million qualifying offer from the Mets.)
White Sox: Marcell Ozuna
Only the Rangers had a lower OPS from the designated hitter spot than the White Sox, whose .588 was 131 points below the AL average. Edwin Encarnación was a disappointment in 2020, and with James McCann likely departing via free agency, Yasmani Grandal will see most of his time behind the plate. Ozuna led the NL in home runs and RBIs, and while he is certainly capable of playing the outfield, teams will pursue him for his big bat. Adding Ozuna to the White Sox lineup would likely make Chicago the AL Central favorite heading into 2021.
Angels: Trevor Bauer
No matter which way you look at it, Bauer and the Angels appear to be a perfect match. The right-hander is from Southern California and attended UCLA, so a move to Anaheim would be a homecoming of sorts for Bauer. The Angels have been in search of a No. 1 starter for years, trying to build a rotation to help Mike Trout & Co. get back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. They missed out on Gerrit Cole last offseason, but the Angels get a second chance at signing an ace with Bauer.
Astros: Jackie Bradley Jr.
Houston could spend money to upgrade the bullpen this offseason, but if George Springer, Michael Brantley and/or Josh Reddick depart as free agents, general manager James Click will have to address a spot or two in the Astros’ outfield. Bradley was one of the few bright spots for the Red Sox in 2020, slashing .283/.364/.450 in 55 games while playing his usual strong center field.
Athletics: Kirby Yates
Liam Hendriks has been the best reliever in baseball the past two seasons, which likely makes him expensive for the Athletics to retain with a new contract. That means Oakland will be in search of a new closer, and the 33-year-old Yates -- coming off an injury-shortened 2020 that limited him to just 4 1/3 innings -- could be the answer after posting an All-Star season in '19.
Mariners: Taijuan Walker
Walker spent the first four seasons of his career with the Mariners, who dealt him to the D-backs after the 2016 season. He re-signed with Seattle last winter, and although he was dealt to Toronto before the Trade Deadline, Walker’s impact on the young Mariners club -- on and off the field -- was evident inside the organization. General manager Jerry Dipoto could try to bring him back for a third stint with the club.
Rangers: Ryan Braun
Like several of the aforementioned teams, the Rangers struggled to get consistent production from their outfield, posting a .594 OPS from the left-field spot and a .659 OPS from the outfield as a whole. Braun’s time in Milwaukee appears to be over after the club declined its half of his mutual option for 2021, and given the Rangers’ need in left field, he could be a good fit in Texas. Braun averaged 23 homers and an .846 OPS from 2015-19, then hit eight home runs with a .769 OPS in 39 games this year.
National League East
Braves: Brett Anderson
The Braves have more than $56 million coming off the books this offseason, so while they could make a play for a top starter such as Bauer, it seems more likely that Atlanta will try to bolster its rotation with a mid-level starter and spend elsewhere to fill in holes. Anderson had a solid season in 2019 (3.89 ERA over 176 innings) with Oakland, and although this year with Milwaukee was a bit more mediocre (4.21 ERA in 47 innings), he allowed two or fewer earned runs in eight of his 10 starts.
Marlins: Cesar Hernandez
Jon Berti led the Marlins with 17 starts at second base in 2020, as Jazz Chisholm and Jonathan Villar started 11 games apiece. Berti is best-served as a super-utility player, evidenced by starts at five positions last season. Hernandez led the AL with 20 doubles and posted a strong .355 on-base percentage in 58 games, making the 30-year-old a sensible option for a young team on the rise.
Mets: J.T. Realmuto
The perception around the game is that the Mets will be involved in nearly every prominent free-agent sweepstakes now that Steve Cohen is the club’s new owner. Realmuto has been a thorn in the Mets’ side throughout his seven-year career, and given the team’s need behind the plate, adding the best catcher in the game would be a good way for the new owner to make a statement to his fan base -- and the rest of baseball.
Nationals: James Paxton
The trio of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin is the strength of the club, but Strasburg’s timetable for the start of the season is unclear, and the back of the rotation is in flux. Paxton had never posted an ERA above 4.00 during the first six-plus years of his career, but an injury-plagued 2020 saw him put up a 6.64 ERA in just 20 1/3 innings. If he’s willing to sign a short-term deal to rebuild his value, he could be a great addition to Washington’s rotation.
Phillies: Brad Hand
The Philadelphia bullpen was a disaster in 2020, posting a league-worst 7.06 ERA. Although the Phillies will likely do whatever they can to re-sign Realmuto, that remains a 50-50 proposition at best. Addressing the bullpen will be just as important, so why not go after one of the most consistent relievers in the league? Hand -- who became a free agent when his $10 million option was declined by the Indians last week -- led the AL with 16 saves in 2020, and he’s posted a 2.70 ERA in 306 appearances since '16.
Brewers: Asdrúbal Cabrera
The Brewers had the worst production at third base of any NL team. Having declined Jedd Gyorko’s $4.5 million option, Milwaukee will be searching for a pair of corner infielders. Cabrera’s versatility makes him a natural fit, while his postseason experience would be another plus for a team looking to take that next step in October.
Cardinals: George Springer
St. Louis has been to the postseason in back-to-back years, but 2021 marks a decade since the club’s last World Series championship. The outfield was a weak point for the Cardinals, who ranked 14th in the NL in runs scored. As the best all-around outfielder available on the free-agent market, Springer should have several suitors, but no contender could use him more than St. Louis.
Cubs: Kevin Gausman
The Cubs could lose 60 percent of their starting rotation with Jon Lester, José Quintana and Tyler Chatwood having entered free agency. It seems unlikely that Chicago will spend enough to be involved in the Bauer sweepstakes, but Gausman is part of that next tier of starting pitchers, coming off a very good year with the Giants that saw him post a 3.62 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 59 2/3 innings. (Gausman could still accept the qualifying offer from the Giants.)
Pirates: Kevin Pillar
Nobody expects the Pirates to be big players in free agency, but if there’s one spot general manager Ben Cherington should address, it’s center field. Pittsburgh’s center fielders had a .180/.239/.257 slash line, while Pillar played well with both the Red Sox and Rockies in 2020. The 31-year-old would also provide a strong veteran presence in a young clubhouse.
Reds: Michael Brantley
Despite the addition of Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos last offseason, the Reds ranked 13th in the NL in runs scored in 2020. The outfield’s .675 OPS also ranked 13th as every outfielder not named Castellanos struggled at the plate. Brantley has posted an OPS above .800 in each of the past four seasons and seven of the past eight, so even at 33 years old, he could be the steady presence Cincinnati needs.
D-backs: Blake Treinen
Having traded both Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin last season, the D-backs will be looking for a bullpen reset of sorts in 2021. Treinen hasn’t come close to his 2018 All-Star form, but he pitched well for the Dodgers this year and has late-inning experience. He also won’t cost as much as Liam Hendriks, Alex Colomé or even Trevor Rosenthal.
Dodgers: Marwin Gonzalez
The Dodgers could be in the market for a third baseman if Justin Turner doesn’t return, and although the crop of free-agent third basemen is underwhelming, Gonzalez has the type of versatility Los Angeles loves so much. He played first, second and third base (as well as right field) in 2020, and he has played every position other than pitcher and catcher during his nine-year career.
Giants: Mike Minor
San Francisco is likely a year away from becoming a big player in free agency, as Buster Posey, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford could all hit the market after the 2021 season. The Giants need to add a starter or two, and while Minor struggled through his 2020 season, the veteran could be a prime bounce-back candidate.
Padres: Liam Hendriks
San Diego’s bullpen was largely effective in 2020, but with Trevor Rosenthal and Kirby Yates on the free-agent market, general manager A.J. Preller could be on the hunt for a new closer. Preller has shown a willingness to swim in the deep end of the pool when it comes to free agency (Eric Hosmer, Manny Machado), so why not bring in the best reliever in the game? Yes, you read that right: With a 1.79 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 110 1/3 innings, Hendriks has been the cream of the crop when it comes to late-inning hurlers.
Rockies: DJ LeMahieu
Most industry insiders expect LeMahieu to return to the Yankees on a new deal, but what if New York is serious about slashing payroll after significant financial losses in 2020? LeMahieu made his name in Colorado during seven years with the Rockies, so why not go back for a second run? The Rockies could certainly use a bat of his caliber.