Bauer, J.T. next? Hot Stove is now simmering

January 21st, 2021

For more than two months, we’ve been waiting for the first major free-agent domino to fall. This week, we had two of them.

Will these two moves (neither of which has been officially announced by the respective clubs) be the spark the free-agent market has been waiting for? Here are three takeaways from those deals and the current state of the market:

Assessing the Bauer market

While we await Trevor Bauer’s next vlog for his latest thoughts on his free agency, it’s fair to wonder where he fits into this big offseason jigsaw puzzle.

The Blue Jays remain in the mix despite their agreement with Springer, a source said, though the dollars might not be flowing quite as freely now that Toronto has committed $150 million to Springer in the biggest contract in club history.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported this week that the Dodgers are monitoring Bauer’s market, potentially thrusting the defending World Series champs into the picture. Los Angeles has the money to sign anybody it wants, but Andrew Friedman’s history doesn’t suggest that he would dole out a huge, nine-figure contract.

Despite spending $365 million to lock up Mookie Betts, the Dodgers don’t have a ton of guaranteed money committed beyond 2022. Still, they’ll have to address shortstop by either re-signing Corey Seager next year or finding a replacement, while Cody Bellinger will be earning arbitration raises in 2022 and ’23 before becoming a free agent himself. Walker Buehler’s salary will grow as he gets deeper into arbitration, too. 

Should Bauer truly be willing to take a one- or two-year deal, perhaps the Dodgers would be willing to blow past the competitive balance tax threshold for the short-term future in an attempt to go back-to-back before Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Seager and Chris Taylor all become free agents next offseason. 

A Bauer-Dodgers union still feels like a long shot to most industry sources, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be pitching in the Los Angeles area. More on that in a minute.

Based on conversations with sources, the two teams believed to have the best shot at Bauer are the Mets and the Angels. 

Mets team president Sandy Alderson made it clear early in the winter that he likes Bauer, and even after signing Marcus Stroman, James McCann and Trevor May for a combined $75 million -- then trading for Francisco Lindor, who will earn $22.3 million in 2021 and command a huge extension likely exceeding $300 million -- new owner Steve Cohen has the financial wherewithal to sign Bauer (or anybody else, for that matter). 

Pairing Bauer with Jacob deGrom atop the rotation would give the Mets a rock-solid 1-2 punch, with Stroman and eventually Noah Syndergaard forming a stellar group. Having missed out on Springer, will the Mets now turn their attention to Bauer?

As for the Angels, they have been the most logical landing spot for Bauer all along, and nothing that has happened this offseason has changed that. They have been in search of a No. 1 starter for years, trying to build a championship-level rotation to help Mike Trout get back to the postseason.

Bauer, who just turned 30 this week, fits the bill. The Southern California native is precisely the type of pitcher the Angels need: Someone who would embrace the challenge of getting the team back to October.

Perry Minasian, the new Angels GM, watched Bauer dominate his Braves last postseason, racking up 12 strikeouts over 7 2/3 scoreless innings in the opening game of the NL Wild Card Series. You would think that performance had to leave an impression on Minasian, who inherited the club’s eternal search for pitching from predecessor Billy Eppler.

According to Spotrac, the Angels have a little more than $25 million to spend before they hit the $210 million CBT threshold. Signing Bauer -- who is believed to be seeking an average annual value (AAV) of at least $35 million -- would push the Angels past the threshold, though that would only become a short-term issue.

With the contracts of Albert Pujols, Raisel Iglesias, Dylan Bundy, José Quintana, Andrew Heaney and José Iglesias all set to expire after 2021, the Angels will have more than $65 million coming off the books next offseason. Justin Upton’s deal expires after 2022, which will knock another $28 million off the payroll.

The wild card in Bauer’s situation? Nobody knows whether he’ll really consider a short-term deal. Should he be willing to sign a one- or two-year deal, his market could open up to other teams. Most free agents coming off a Cy Young Award season would be looking to score a deal that provides long-term security and allows them to settle in one place for the next five or six years. As we have come to learn over the years, Bauer isn’t most free agents. 

Inevitable conclusion?

When J.T. Realmuto hit the free-agent market, the Mets seemed like the most likely landing spot for the All-Star catcher. The Phillies had plenty of chances to sign him to an extension, so what was going to change once he hit the open market? 

Only the Mets zigged when everyone expected them to zag, signing McCann to a four-year, $40.6 million deal to fill their catching need. Realmuto still had multiple landing spots to consider, most notably the Blue Jays, Angels and Phillies.

Well, Toronto prioritized Springer over Realmuto. Minasian, who is said to be a huge fan of Realmuto from his days watching him in the NL East as a Braves executive, signed Kurt Suzuki to pair with Max Stassi behind the plate. 

Which brings us back to the Phillies. The hiring of Dave Dombrowski reignited the perception that Philadelphia would find a way to bring Realmuto back. Multiple reports this week suggest that the Phillies have extended five-year offers in the $100-110 million range. Realmuto is said to be seeking a deal that would set a new standard for average annual value at his position, a mark currently held by Joe Mauer ($23 million). For a five-year deal, that means something just north of $115 million. 

The Phillies appear close enough that a final push will get the job done. Given the improvements throughout the rest of the NL East this offseason, retaining Realmuto would be a big step for the Phillies in terms of staying competitive. This feels like a deal that should -- and ultimately will -- get completed. 

Is 37 the new 42?

Springer’s deal takes him through his age-36 season, while LeMahieu’s six-year, $90 million contract runs through his age-37 campaign. Charlie Morton signed a $15 million deal for his age-37 season. Justin Turner is generating plenty of interest as he enters his age-36 season.

We are unlikely to see long-term deals that take players into their early 40s, such as those signed by Albert Pujols and Robinson Canó last decade, but teams seem more willing to roll the dice on players in their mid-to-late 30s than they have been in recent years. 

“Watching guys like Zack Greinke and Nelson Cruz thrive at their age has made it easier for teams to have faith in players performing in their late-30s,” an industry source said. “The rumors of the demise of all older players has been greatly exaggerated.”