Ready, set, go! Who signs 1st in the Big 5?

November 25th, 2020

We’re nearly a month into the Hot Stove season, and while there has been some movement, most free agents have yet to pick their teams. That includes all of the top names, which leads us to the big question: Who will be the first to sign? gathered a roundtable of reporters to discuss.

Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): We began the offseason by identifying the five players we felt were the “biggest” free agents -- , , , and . Given the, ahem, uniqueness of 2020, and the very real possibility this Hot Stove season is going to move slowly, is there any formula that would help us figure out who might come off the board first?

Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand, executive reporter): I would guess Ozuna. He recently changed agents, reportedly because he wasn’t pleased with the speed that things were moving. He was forced to take a one-year deal last year, and now that he’s looking for a multiyear deal coming off a great season, I think he’s going to be the one that wants to get it done soonest.

Jon Paul Morosi (@jonmorosi, reporter, and MLB Network): Of that group, I see Bauer as the most likely to sign first. He's the lone pitcher among the group and clearly the top free agent at his position, so because of those factors, I think his market is more similar to that of recent free agents.

By that, I mean Bauer's circumstances are the most "normal" in an inherently abnormal time. I understand that he's talked in the past about a preference for one-year deals, but he's an ace who will have ace-like options in relatively short order.

Feinsand: Bauer being the only No. 1 starter is a good point, J.P., but with some big arms potentially available on the trade market -- Blake Snell and Sonny Gray -- that could cloud things a little. Plus, Bauer is such a wild card -- will he sign a one-year deal? A big multiyear deal? -- that I could see him signing this week or waiting until January. Nothing would surprise me.

Morosi: Based on what we know of Bauer's personality, he's been thinking about this offseason for a long, long time. He's pitched himself into being considered by a large number of the best franchises. He has a plan, and he's not going to wait around and ask for everyone else's opinion before he signs.

Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo, Mets beat reporter): I think we talk a lot about "setting the market" for various positions, and that generally means lesser free agents waiting for the top dogs to sign. But that can't really be the case at catcher, where there is no comp to Realmuto -- you're either in on him, or you're scrambling to figure out something else. He knows what his value is and what it will take to sign him. If someone offers him close to it early, I could see him taking the plunge.

Feinsand: Tony, you’ve sold me. I change my answer to Realmuto.

DiComo: I wonder, in general, how aggressive teams will be in making big offers early to the guys they've targeted at the top of their boards. If I'm the Mets, for example, and I think Realmuto's my guy, why not shoot him a fair-market offer early in the offseason and see if he bites? Players have a lot to lose by rejecting that sort of offer early in an uncertain winter.

Morosi: The Mets are a massive influence on this group of top five free agents, with the possible exception of Ozuna. Now that we know they aren't going to hire a president of baseball operations in the near term, they'll probably develop a strategy relatively quickly and start to act.

Feinsand: There are other catchers on the market, but none are in the class of Realmuto. After he signs, the teams that missed out on him will turn to the rest of the market as Plan B. And unlike what I mentioned about the top starters who could be available via trade, no such catcher exists on the trade market.

Morosi: We should also remember that Ozuna is the only one of this group not attached to the qualifying offer, which enhances his appeal to many teams.

DiComo: The only thing I wonder on Bauer is if he'll take time weighing different types of offers. Because I bet at least one team will take him at face value and throw a huge one-year offer his way. So he might be comparing apples to oranges with that sort of deal vs. a more traditional long-term contract.

Footer: To expound on that -- how does that alter Bauer's market? He's looking at all types of deals. Could that slow things down? Are we going to see a bunch of lower-tier starting pitchers waiting for him to decide if he wants a one-year deal or a long-term one?

Feinsand: I don’t think Bauer’s market will impact the lower-tier guys too much. Teams aren’t looking at any of them as potential No. 1 starters, so those guys can still get signed. Look at Robbie Ray, Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton already. That’s why I think the trade market, with guys like Snell and Gray, could impact Bauer’s timeline more.

Morosi: I don't think Bauer will slow things down too much, because I expect he'll have offers in each bucket -- maybe one or two huge one-year deals, some more options in the two-to-three-year range and then some more longer-term offers, even though his past comments indicate he's unlikely to sign one of those.

DiComo: I think Bauer is on a bit of an island, because he's so unique in that regard. But starting pitcher is the one position where it maybe matters less for the second- and third-tier guys to wait for the top-tier guys to sign. There are so many comps every year that the market is already effectively "set." As Mark mentioned, some mid-tier starting pitchers have already signed, and we're not even to Thanksgiving.

Morosi: But as for the second part of your question, Alyson, I do think we'll see a number of quality starting pitchers unsigned well into January and February. We've seen that in recent years, to varying degrees, and the general uncertainty of 2021 should cause that trend to intensify.

Footer: I suspect Bauer is not going to be in any hurry to sign. I think he's going to, shall we say, enjoy the attention he's going to get with the speculation about where he'll land.

Feinsand: I don’t necessarily disagree with that. He’s the best starter out there, and he knows it. He’s not worried that teams trying to sign him are going to sign someone else instead. He’s the king of the pitching market, and he knows that.

One other thing about Bauer: Because he has a qualifying offer attached to him, will teams want to give up picks to sign him to a one-year deal? That could be a hitch in his whole plan of “one-year deals for life."

Morosi: For the record, I do not anticipate Bauer will go on a Twitter hiatus after signing.

Footer: I surely hope not, J.P. We need some entertainment this winter.

Feinsand: Especially now that he and Yasiel Puig have become Twitter pals.

Footer: #BauerYourFriend

Morosi: By the way, has there ever been a star player more likely to break the news of his own signing on Twitter than Bauer?

Feinsand: No. I actually expect that to happen.

DiComo: I'm not sure I see another way it will happen.

Footer: Baseball's version of "The Decision."

DiComo: "I'm taking my talents to ... Flushing Bay?"

Feinsand: Something tells me he’s not taking his talents to South Beach.

Footer: Let’s look at some teams that have been aggressive so far. The Braves have been active, though they are only on the hook for one year for each pitcher they signed (Smyly and Morton). Can/should we see this as a signal of what the market might be moving forward? One-year deals for some of the lower-tier players?

Morosi: The old adage applies here: No such thing as a bad one-year deal.

Feinsand: Morton is 37, so I think his one-year deal is a different kind of one-year deal than Smyly’s. But I think for some of the bigger-name starters looking to bounce back -- Jon Lester, Corey Kluber, José Quintana, etc. -- one-year deals could become a trend this winter.

DiComo: For sure, Mark. Look at Marcus Stroman, who surprised some people by accepting the one-year qualifying offer. That's as much an indication of the market as anything.

Morosi: To me, Taijuan Walker is the most fascinating starting pitcher to watch from a market standpoint. I'm not saying Walker is better than Bauer, but his numbers will tell us more about the market overall.

If you look at Walker's numbers, he's a really strong free agent. I know he has an injury history, but he's coming off a very good year.

Footer: We haven’t talked much about Springer and LeMahieu. I’m wondering if Springer will be one of the last to come off the board. And what do we make of the Mets’ interest in LeMahieu, with Robinson Canó suspended for all of next year?

DiComo: I'm skeptical on the Mets pressing hard for LeMahieu. I think they are somewhat giddy over the newfound flexibility they have at second base, with Jeff McNeil and Andrés Giménez both capable of playing there. Why give that away again by signing LeMahieu?

It seems to make more sense from a positional standpoint for them to go after a center fielder like Springer or Jackie Bradley Jr., move Brandon Nimmo to left and McNeil to second, then call it a day. That accomplishes something the Mets have tried and failed to do for years: get a lot better defensively at multiple positions in one fell swoop.

Feinsand: You and your logic, Tony. It’s so much more fun to imagine new Mets owner Steve Cohen signing LeMahieu away from the Yankees to announce his presence in New York. Just think of the back pages!

Morosi: I believe LeMahieu will be a Yankee until someone tells me otherwise.

Feinsand: I think most teams are waiting to see what happens with the non-tender deadline before diving into the position-player market. Once that happens, Springer and LeMahieu should start to see their markets move.

Assuming LeMahieu hasn’t signed back with the Yankees yet, of course.

Footer: If the Mets and Yankees spend the next few years fighting over free agents, that's the definition of Good For Ball.

DiComo: McNeil is a linchpin for everything the Mets do this winter. His ability to play second, third and both corner-outfield positions -- and not just play them, but play them well -- gives them so much flexibility to pursue various paths. They can go the way the market allows them to go, essentially.

Morosi: If I'm the Mets, and I can only sign one of those position players, it would be Realmuto.

Feinsand: No question. And ticking off Phillies fans by signing Realmuto would be the next-best thing for Mets fans, right?

DiComo: But if you're the Mets, you no longer have to think like that! You can sign more than one, and I'm fully expecting them to at least try to do so.

Footer: Time to wrap this up ... this is where I put you on the spot. Give me your order of when these top free agents will sign, first to last. Go!

Feinsand: Ozuna, Realmuto, LeMahieu, Bauer, Springer.

Morosi: Bauer, Ozuna, Realmuto, LeMahieu, Springer.

DiComo: I'm going to stick with my earlier statement and say Realmuto first. So: Realmuto, LeMahieu, Ozuna, Springer and then Bauer, who will announce it himself across all social-media platforms.

Feinsand: I agreed with you earlier, Tony, but I decided to stick with my original Ozuna prediction.