What we know -- and don't -- about free agency

December 1st, 2019

We’re one month into Hot Stove season and one week away from the Winter Meetings.

With the market moving more briskly than a year ago and some of you catching up on baseball on the heels of the holiday, this is as good a time as any to take stock of what we know -- and what we don’t -- about the offseason activity.

1. The catching market is moving fast.

A year ago, the Nationals prioritized a backstop upgrade by signing and trading for , and their catching WAR went from 25th in baseball in 2018 to a more respectable middle-of-the-pack finish (15th) in '19. Not that what happened in Washington was some eye-opening example to the rest of the industry, because the importance of the position is well known. But it is noteworthy that catchers have flown off the shelves this Hot Stove season, beginning, of course, with the position's clear No. 1 free agent, , going to a White Sox team that smells opportunity in the American League Central.

In the wake of Grandal’s four-year, $73 million pact with Chicago, (Braves), (D-backs), Gomes (reportedly re-signing with the Nats) and (Astros) have all found free-agent fits, with , , , , and the best options available in a market in which multiple contenders could still use an upgrade. Seattle’s has reportedly come up in trade talks. The Cubs could dramatically alter this market if they actually do deal , though that is little more than speculation at this point.

2. But the starting pitching market has barely budged.

Kyle Gibson has a three-year deal with the Rangers, according to sources, Jake Odorizzi accepted the Twins’ qualifying offer and Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals renewed ties for another year. But with Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg -- the top two free-agent starters on the board -- both represented by Scott Boras, there is, unsurprisingly, little traction in this market overall.

Many view Strasburg’s return to the Nats as an almost foregone conclusion. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet invites continued speculation that his hometown Padres or another team could pry him out of his comfort zone. The market for Cole, which is naturally limited to the very select number of squads who could conceivably hand out a record-breaking pitching contract, will take time to develop, but a starting pitcher can’t afford to have this drag into the start of Spring Training like the Bryce Harper saga did a year ago.

Beyond the biggest names, the three-year, $30 million guarantee for Gibson, who has just one above-average ERA+ in the last four seasons, is a stark reminder that upgrades in this area won’t come cheap.

3. Zack Wheeler is kind of a big deal.

Past performance used to drive free agency. No more. Nowadays, it pays (literally) to have future forecasts in your favor. The Rangers clearly believe they’ve identified upside with Gibson, but from listening to the whispers the last few weeks, it’s become abundantly clear that Wheeler is the guy who stands to benefit most from the industry-wide embrace of Statcast stuff like spin rates and expected outcomes.

Wheeler’s iffy injury history and good-not-great track record (his career ERA+ is exactly MLB average, across 749 1/3 innings) have not prevented him from attracting interest from a wide swath of clubs, including the White Sox, Yankees, Twins, Braves, Padres, Reds, Angels and others. While Hyun-Jin Ryu was the Major League ERA leader and Madison Bumgarner is an October legend, it’s quite possible Wheeler commands the pitching market’s third-highest price tag, behind Cole and Strasburg.

4. Teams are still bidding aggressively on relief help.

The renaissance of starting pitching was a major postseason narrative, and the Nats’ advancement to their first World Series title despite a 5.66 regular-season relief ERA wasn’t exactly a glowing advertisement for major relief expenditures. All across the game, bullpens blew up big time in 2019, creating questions about whether clubs had gone too far and asked too much of relievers with lesser repertoires.

So it was fair to wonder if teams would be leery of long-term pacts with relief arms in this particular market. But wonder no more. Drew Pomeranz (four years, $34 million with the Padres), Will Smith (three years, $40 million with Braves) and Chris Martin (two years, $14 million with Braves) all signed multiyear pacts. Pomeranz and Smith got big money to serve in setup, not closing, roles, and Pomeranz had a 5.68 relief ERA as recently as Aug. 1. Though the relief market isn’t especially deep, it will be interesting to see what the big deals for Pomeranz and Smith mean for the likes of Will Harris and Daniel Hudson.

5. The Braves have jumped the market ... again.

Atlanta got the bulk of its offseason shopping completed before the end of November last year, with the signings of Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann. The Braves have been equally aggressive this offseason, adding d’Arnaud and Smith and re-upping with Tyler Flowers, Nick Markakis, Martin and Darren O’Day.

The biggest move (or moves), however, might still be ahead. The Braves need a power hitter and an experienced starter to improve their odds of advancement after two straight National League Division Series defeats. A year ago, they struck early and then essentially took their collective foot off the gas until the midseason signing of Dallas Keuchel. They appear more likely to stay active this time.

6. The most interesting trade might have already happened.

For all the talk of a Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor or Kris Bryant trade by those of us on the outside, there has not been any serious momentum toward a deal. The price tags are, understandably, exorbitant, though perhaps the accelerated communication that comes with the Winter Meetings will create alignment.

For now, the only deal of consequence to go down was the surprising four-player swap sending Luis Urías and Eric Lauer to Milwaukee and Trent Grisham and Zach Davies to San Diego. It’s a fascinating deal because all of the talent involved is big-league-applicable and both teams view themselves as 2020 contenders. With Davies and Lauer both back-end starters, the deal really centers around the upside of Grisham and Urías, both of whom are entering their age-23 season with six years of club control remaining, and how it will apply in new lineups. It’s a “challenge trade” in which two clubs’ player evaluation skill sets are put to the test.

7. The uniform power rankings have become complicated.

Not all upgrades are personnel related. The threads matter, folks. When you look good, you play good. It’s science.

When the Padres and Brewers weren’t having trade talks, they were putting the finishing touches on major outfit overhauls that resuscitated both the Swingin’ Friar and the ball-in-glove logo as everyday players. Toss in the Twins bringing back their powder blue beauties, and we’re going to need some serious analysis from the sartorial-minded to determine which club “won the offseason” from a wardrobe perspective. I vote Brewers, but it's close.