Predicting where top free agents will sign

November 25th, 2019

It's the question on every baseball fan's mind during Hot Stove season -- Where will ____ sign? Free-agent signings can be the difference between a club making or missing the postseason, or even perhaps winning the World Series or settling for a pennant. So it's always fun to try and predict where each major player on the open market will end up before Opening Day.

MLB Trade Rumors recently conducted a poll for where the top 10 free agents would sign, and here are the results (for eight of them, as Yasmani Grandal signed with the White Sox on Thursday and Jake Odorizzi accepted the Twins' qualifying offer), as well as analysis on what such a match would mean for the team and the player.

Gerrit Cole, RHP

MLBTR reader prediction: Angels (66.7%)

Other teams receiving votes: Yankees (15.6%), Dodgers (4.8%), Phillies (3.1%), Astros (3.0%), Padres (2.5%), Giants (1.0%)

With Cole rumored to prefer playing on the West Coast, having been born in Southern California and drafted out of UCLA, the vast majority voted Angels here. That club desperately needs pitching, there's a new manager at the helm in Joe Maddon, and the best player in the world is trying to get back to the postseason. With a starting rotation that has been plagued season after season by injury, an acquisition of Cole would insert a proven, durable ace at the top.

For Cole, the allure of playing in SoCal would only be part of the equation -- he'd be joining a club with every reason to produce a winner, and do it soon. Bringing in Maddon was certainly a signal of that direction, and Mike Trout is a once-in-a-generation talent. Not a bad setup for the runner-up in the American League Cy Young Award race.

Anthony Rendon, 3B

MLBTR reader prediction: Nationals (60.1%)

Other teams receiving votes: Rangers (16.4%), Dodgers (8.2%), Phillies (3.9%), Braves (2.3%), White Sox (1.8%), Angels (1.4%), Mets (1.1%), Cardinals (1.1%)

Nothing makes an incumbent a favorite in the race to land a free agent more than just having won it all. So after the Nationals won the first World Series championship in franchise history in October, you can bet they remain a player in the Rendon Sweepstakes. There are many attractive facets for Rendon in Washington, including a comfort level with the only Major League club he's ever known, as well as a chance to defend a title.

The Nationals, of course, have their work cut out for themselves, with Rendon and also World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg on the open market.

The Rangers finished second, which makes sense given that Rendon is from Texas, and a homecoming certainly isn't out of the question. The Dodgers have been rumored to be interested in Rendon, with Justin Turner reportedly willing to move off third base to accommodate him should he sign with Los Angeles after it was bounced from the postseason in a stunning National League Division Series defeat at the hands of Rendon and the Nationals.

Stephen Strasburg, RHP

MLBTR reader prediction: Nationals (52.3%)

Other teams receiving votes: Padres (28.4%), Yankees (5.6%), Angels (3.8%), Phillies (2.5%), Dodgers (2.1%)

Speaking of Strasburg, the majority here picked the Nationals to re-sign the star right-hander. The Padres got a good chunk of the vote, too, with San Diego seemingly toying with the idea of accelerating its rebuild by landing a frontline starter.

Going into the 2019 season, it didn't look as though Strasburg would be in a position to opt out of the remainder of his contract with Washington to test the waters of free agency -- he was coming off an injury-shortened campaign that was mediocre by his standards. But he had a great bounce-back season and then took home World Series MVP honors in October, raising his stock quite a bit heading into the offseason.

Zack Wheeler, RHP

MLBTR reader prediction: Phillies (19.1%)

Other teams receiving votes: Yankees (15.4%), Astros (10.4%), Angels (7.2%), Twins (6.8%), Padres (5.6%), Braves (5.3%), Mets (5.0%), Brewers (3.8%), White Sox (3.4%), Dodgers (2.8%), Cubs (2.4%), Rangers (2.4%), Giants (2.0%), Cardinals (1.9%), Nationals (1.7%), Red Sox (1.2%), Blue Jays (1.0%)

Talk about uncertainty -- over half of MLB is represented in the group of teams receiving votes for where Wheeler will end up. The Phillies, Yankees and Astros are the three clubs reaching double figures, however.

Despite turnover in managers after a season in which Philadelphia fell short of expectations on the heels of signing Bryce Harper, the franchise appears to remain in go-for-it mode, ready to do what it takes to make the climb toward a championship in the short term. The Yankees can't ever be counted out, and they're also in New York, where Wheeler has been for his entire Major League career with the Mets. The Astros are looking at losing Cole, which opens up a big hole in the starting rotation.

One club that ranked relatively low in the results, but may very well make another big splash in what has already been an active offseason, is the White Sox, who are reportedly in the hunt for Wheeler after inking Yasmani Grandal to the largest contract Chicago has ever handed out, as well as extending first baseman Jose Abreu.

Josh Donaldson, 3B

MLBTR reader prediction: Braves (40.7%)

Other teams receiving votes: Rangers (24.1%), Phillies (9.6%), Nationals (5.4%), Cardinals (4.9%), Brewers (3.5%), Angels (2.3%), Mets (1.8%), White Sox (1.3%)

It was a big season for Donaldson in 2019, for both his career and for the club he performed for, which is the MLBTR readers' choice. The Braves have good reason to bring the veteran third baseman back after he posted a .900 OPS with 37 homers while playing strong defense at the hot corner. Yes, he's entering his age-34 season, but he hasn't shown any signs of significant decline after bouncing back from an injury-shortened 2018 campaign.

The Rangers finished second in the Donaldson poll, speaking to Texas' need to solidify third base as it enters its second season without Adrian Beltre.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP

MLBTR reader prediction: Braves (40.7%)

Other teams receiving votes: Giants (11.4%), Twins (10.2%), Yankees (7.1%), Phillies (5.6%), Brewers (3.6%), Padres (3.5%), Angels (3.2%), Cardinals (2.8%), Rangers (2.5%), Astros (2.4%), Cubs (1.5%), Nationals (1.3%), White Sox (1.1%), Dodgers (1.1%)

The big left-hander is from Hickory, N.C., which is a four-hour drive from SunTrust Park, where the Braves are looking to fill a void in their starting rotation left by Dallas Keuchel returning to free agency. Atlanta has won back-to-back NL East titles, which is surely an attractive feature for Bumgarner, who has modeled himself as the ultimate big-game pitcher, particularly after his heroics during the 2014 postseason for the Giants.

A return to San Francisco polled second among MLBTR readers, as the Giants move forward trying to straddle the fine line between competing and rebuilding.

Nicholas Castellanos, RF

MLBTR reader prediction: White Sox (30.7%)

Other teams receiving votes: Cubs (23.8%), Indians (6.6%), Giants (4.4%), Rangers (4.3%), Marlins (3.3%), Angels (2.8%), Cardinals (2.7%), Reds (2.2%), Rays (2.1%), D-backs (1.9%), Blue Jays (1.7%), Brewers (1.4%), Twins (1.3%), Phillies (1.2%), Braves (1.2%), Padres (1.1%)

One thing's for sure, MLBTR readers see Castellanos staying in Chicago after his big performance for the Cubs down the stretch last season. But the South Side won this poll, and that's not surprising considering Castellanos' outfield defense is a liability, and he could provide more value with an American League club, though he hasn't been a full-time designated hitter before.

There's no denying the bat, however. Castellanos is only 27 and coming off a season in which he led the Majors with 58 doubles and, following a trade to the Cubs, slashed .321/.356/.646 with 21 of those doubles and 16 homers in 51 games.

Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP

MLBTR reader prediction: Dodgers (46.5%)

Other teams receiving votes: Rangers (8.7%), Angels (6.2%), Yankees (5.8%), Twins (4.5%), Padres (3.9%), Phillies (3.7%), Mariners (2.8%), Brewers (2.6%), Giants (2.5%), Astros (1.8%), Cubs (1.6%), Braves (1.4%), Cardinals (1.1%)

Coming off a career season in which he was finally able to stay healthy and put it all together, Ryu returning to the Dodgers is certainly a good possibility. But the second-place team in this poll presents an intriguing possibility in itself -- Ryu's countryman Shin-Soo Choo said earlier this month he encouraged the Rangers' front office to look into inking Ryu, who is reportedly looking for a three- or four-year deal. Indeed, MLBTR, in its own predictions for where its top 50 free agents would end up, have Ryu going to Texas on a three-year, $54 million pact.