The slow burn of free agency in recent years has become the norm, with players and clubs dancing with each other throughout the offseason before ultimately matching up.
But once in a while, a team and a player match up so easily, the signing gets done before the calendar turns to December. Last year, CC Sabathia, Steve Pearce, Kurt Suzuki, Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann all signed free-agent deals by Nov. 26.
Who might be this year’s early signees? Here’s a look at seven candidates (listed alphabetically, with ages as of Opening Day 2020):
José Abreu, 1B, age 33
Abreu received a $17.8 million qualifying offer from the White Sox, though whether he accepts it or not, it appears the first baseman is destined to return to the South Side. Earlier this season, GM Rick Hahn said it’s “certainly very likely” that Abreu would be back with the White Sox in 2020 and beyond, while the soon-to-be 33-year-old has expressed his desire to continue playing in Chicago.
Abreu could accept the qualifying offer before next week’s deadline, though the more likely scenario is that he and the White Sox will work out a two- or three-year deal.
Brett Gardner, OF, age 36
Gardner just completed a one-year, $7.5 million deal with the Yankees, the 12th year in the Bronx for the longest-tenured member of the club. There were major questions about whether the Yankees would want to bring him back in 2020, but Aaron Hicks’ Tommy John surgery opened the door for Gardner to return. According to a source, the team and Gardner have started negotiations on a new contract.
Gardner is 36, but he just finished arguably the most productive season of his career, reaching career highs in home runs (28), RBIs (74), slugging percentage (.503) and OPS (.829), while his 117 OPS+ is his best in a full season. Gardner seems to want to continue playing, and he’s shown no indication that he wants to play anywhere else. Expect another one-year deal to be worked out to keep him in pinstripes.
Cole Hamels, LHP, age 36
Hamels did not receive a qualifying offer from the Cubs, opening the door for the southpaw to sign sooner than he might have otherwise. Hamels might have accepted a qualifying offer, knowing that teams are hesitant to surrender Draft picks for players on short-term deals.
Hamels excelled during the first half of 2019, going 6-3 with a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts before an oblique injury sent him to the injured list for five weeks. Hamels struggled during the final two months, going 1-4 with a 5.79 ERA in 10 starts, though it’s unclear whether the injury was a factor in his performance. A return to the Cubs is possible, though the Phillies (for whom he pitched from 2006-15), Padres (he’s from San Diego) and Braves are all believed to be interested.
Daniel Hudson, RHP, age 33
Hudson was a key Trade Deadline acquisition for the Nationals, who were in desperate need of bullpen help as they worked to chase down a postseason berth. The right-hander proved to be crucial to Washington’s Wild Card hopes, pitching to a 1.44 ERA with six saves in 24 games. The 32-year-old closed out the Wild Card Game win over the Brewers, kicking off a postseason that saw him go 4-for-4 in save opportunities before throwing the final pitch of the Nationals’ Game 7 World Series victory in Houston.
Washington could certainly use his services going forward, though his big postseason should make Hudson -- who was cut by the Angels last March and caught on with the Blue Jays a few days before Opening Day – a popular target for teams in need of bullpen help. The relief market moved faster than all others last winter; if that holds true this offseason, Hudson could be snatched up rather quickly.
Drew Pomeranz, LHP, age 31
Following a subpar 2018 with the Red Sox, Pomeranz struggled through the first four months of 2019 with the Giants, going 2-9 with a 6.10 ERA in 17 starts before being removed from the rotation in mid-July. The left-hander was traded to the Brewers at the Trade Deadline, which proved to be a pivotal point in his season.
Pomeranz became a weapon for Milwaukee out of the bullpen, posting a 2.39 ERA in 25 appearances while striking out 45 percent of batters he faced as a reliever. With only a handful of proven relievers on the free-agent market, Pomeranz might be able to capitalize on his strong stint with the Brewers and land a contract in the coming weeks.
Stephen Strasburg, RHP, age 31
Strasburg opted out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract with the Nationals, giving him an opportunity to capitalize on his excellent regular season and stellar postseason run. He’s widely viewed as the No. 2 pitcher on the market behind Gerrit Cole, and one of the top three free agents overall along with Cole and Anthony Rendon.
Unlike Cole and Rendon, there is a belief that Strasburg would like to return to his former team, and the two sides have reportedly started negotiating a new deal. Agent Scott Boras does not have a reputation for getting his star players signed quickly, but his clients also don’t typically sign massive extensions prior to free agency, which Strasburg did three years ago when he inked his initial seven-year, $175 million extension. A quick deal between Strasburg and the Nationals would not be a surprise to anybody.
Adam Wainwright, RHP, age 38
The crafty right-hander hasn’t been a true No. 1 starter since 2014, but he’s remained the heart and soul of the Cardinals pitching staff. John Mozeliak, St. Louis’ president of baseball operations, recently said that Wainwright wants to return to the Cardinals, so there’s no reason to think a deal won’t be struck relatively quickly.
Wainwright just completed a one-year, $2 million deal that was loaded with $8 million in incentives, all of which he reached after going 14-10 with a 4.19 ERA in 31 starts (171 2/3 innings). Expect another one-year, incentive-laden deal with a low base salary for the Cardinals lifer.