MLB Free Agency: Predicting the Landing Spots for the Top 20 FAs

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Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws to the Chicago White Sox in the first inning of an interleague baseball game, Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

With the MLB offseason just underway, teams will soon be looking to add to their rosters via free agency. This year’s crop of talent is solid, featuring top-of-the-line starting pitching, quality relievers, and elite position players. At this point, all we can do is speculate as to who lands where. 

  1. Anthony Rendon

Prediction: Texas Rangers, eight years, $275 million.

Rendon is coming off an excellent World Series against Houston, in which he helped lead Washington to its first title in franchise history with his 1.010 OPS. The Fall Classic was a coming out party of sorts for Rendon, as he has long been viewed as one of the more underrated players in baseball. He has recorded an OPS of at least .909 in each of the last three seasons, and 3.9 WAR or better in each of the last four campaigns. He also chipped in a massive 6.6 WAR season in his first full year in the league in 2014. Rendon has hit at least 20 homers and driven in 80 or more runs in all five of his full major league seasons. He may still be underappreciated by the common baseball fan, but the reality is that he will be paid like the consistent superstar that he unquestionably is. The Nationals would obviously love to keep him, but they simply cannot afford to keep both Rendon and Stephen Strasburg, who recently opted out of his deal and became a free agent. Rendon will return to the state of Texas, where he grew up, to join a Rangers team that is looking to make a splash in their brand new ballpark after falling out of contention in recent years.

2. Gerrit Cole

Prediction: New York Yankees, eight years, $280 million.

After the Astros acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates, he established himself as one of the top starting pitchers in all of baseball. Under the guidance from Houston’s wizard of a pitching coach Brent Strom, Cole shifted away from his two-seamer and leaned on his electric four-seam fastball more often. This led him to post career-best strikeout per nine innings rates of 12.4 and 13.8 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. He also recorded the top two WAR seasons of his career, at 5.2 and 6.9 in ‘18 and ‘19. Cole reached at least 200.0 innings in both of his seasons in Houston, while keeping his ERA under 2.90 in each campaign. His massive strikeout rate and high innings count led him to astronomical strikeout totals of 276 in 2018 and 326 in 2019. An impressive postseason further bolsters his case. It has been widely speculated that Cole will end up with the Angels, as there is certainly a logical fit there. Cole is from Southern California, and the Angels are looking for starting pitching to help build around Mike Trout. However, Cole is unlikely to take a hometown discount. The truth of the matter is that Cole will land with the highest bidder, as he made clear after the Astros lost game seven of the World Series. The highest bidder will be the New York Yankees, who are also in need of starting pitching, and have been criticized in recent years for lowballing top free agents such as Patrick Corbin and letting them sign elsewhere. For what it’s worth, Cole was actually an avid Yankees fan growing up, but that will not be the reason he lands in the Bronx.

3. Stephen Strasburg

Prediction: Washington Nationals, seven years, $200 million.

The Nationals will not be able to afford to retain both Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, but they also cannot allow themselves to lose them both. Strasburg has made it clear that he would love to remain in Washington, but he is also seeking a larger payday, which he deserves. He signed a seven-year $175 million extension in 2016 with an option to opt out after 2019. After a lackluster 2018 season, it was widely assumed that Strasburg was highly unlikely to do so. However, after a spectacular 2019 in which he reached an NL-best 209.0 innings pitched, accumulated 251 strikeouts, and recorded a 3.32 ERA with a 3.25 FIP to back it up, he elected to opt out and reach free agency. Many once questioned Strasburg’s durability, but he shut down his critics by performing like a true ace throughout both the regular season and playoffs. Winning MVP of the World Series didn’t hurt, either.

4. Zack Wheeler

Prediction: Red Sox, five years, $90 million.

Zack Wheeler has flown under the radar as a pitcher who boasts some of the best pure stuff in all of baseball. With an average fastball velocity of 97 MPH, and a plus splitter, curveball, slider, and changeup, Wheeler has an impressive arsenal. There are some durability questions because of a noted injury history, but Wheeler has proved himself with more than 180.0 innings pitched in each of the last two seasons. He also recorded an ERA below four in each of the last two years, but his FIP (lower than 3.50 for both seasons) hints that he may be even better than it seems on the surface. The Red Sox will look to Wheeler to improve their starting rotation, which struggled at times in 2019.

5. Yasmani Grandal

Prediction: Reds, five years, $75 million.

Grandal is yet another extremely underrated player. He was also a free agent last offseason, and was rumored to have received a multi-year offer from the New York Mets, only to turn it down. He eventually had to settle for what was effectively a one year, $16 million deal with Milwaukee, which proved to be a steal for the Brewers. Grandal is an excellent hitter with premium on base skills, with a career on-base percentage of .348. He has also hit at least 15 homers in each of the last six seasons, which puts him in elite company among catchers. However, the underlying reason that Grandal will be so widely coveted is his pitch framing, and ability to steal strikes for his pitchers. He will sign with the Reds, who are looking to compete in a tough National League Central by paring Grandal with their top-of-the-line starting rotation.

6. Madison Bumgarner

Prediction: Braves, five years, $80 million.

The former World Series hero from the Giants rebounded from two disappointing seasons with a solid 2019. He started 34 games and pitched 207.2 innings for San Francisco, striking out 203 batters, with a respectable 3.90 ERA and 3.90 FIP to match. He is probably not the ace he once was, but he is certainly a fantastic middle-of-the-rotation option. He will land with a Braves team that needs rotation depth to support their young core.

7. Josh Donaldson

Prediction: Braves, four years, $85 million.

After Donaldon won the American League MVP award in 2015 with the Toronto Blue Jays, many assumed that when he eventually reached free agency, he would receive a massive long-term contract. That was not the case, as the years that followed his MVP season were injury-plagued and somewhat underwhelming. He signed a one year, $23 million “prove it” deal with the Braves last offseason, and it certainly paid off. Donaldson was critical to the Braves’ 2019 NL East title, contributing 37 homers and 94 RBI, along with a .900 OPS and 6.1 WAR. He will return to the middle of the Braves lineup next season.

8. Jake Odorrizi

Prediction: Twins, four years, $65 million.

Odorizzi is an interesting free agent case in a class with many middle-of-the-rotation options. There were dominant stretches of 2019 for the right-hander; Odorizzi had a 0.94 ERA in five May starts. For the season overall, he had a solid 3.51 ERA with a FIP of 3.36, while striking out 178 batters in 159.0 innings. He will return to Minnesota, where he will once again be a reliable piece of the Twins rotation.

9. Hyun-Jin Ryu

Prediction: Angels, two years, $38 million.

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For much of 2019, it looked as if Ryu was a lock to win his first career Cy Young Award. The Dodgers’ lefty had a sub-0.60 ERA over the course of two separate full months. However, it all fell apart for Ryu in August, when he struggled with a 7.48 ERA in four starts. While one month cannot define a player, it can definitely be a major red flag. Ryu’s late-season struggles, combined with his age and extensive injury history, will limit his market. Regardless, he should be considered a viable starting pitching option, as he ended up compiling 182.2 innings, 163 strikeouts, and a major-league-leading 2.32 ERA. The crosstown Angels seem like a likely destination on a shorter-term, high-AAV deal.

10. Dallas Keuchel

Prediction: Twins, three years, $36 million.

The former American League Cy Young Award winner will enter the free agent market for the second consecutive offseason. Keuchel hopes to find a home much earlier than last year, when it took all the way until nearly midseason in 2019 for the Atlanta Braves to reach a deal with the southpaw. While his numbers with the Braves look decent on the surface, his peripherals are a bit concerning. His ERA in 2019 was a serviceable 3.75, but his FIP was nearly a full run higher, at 4.72. That should be a real concern for any team that is looking to add Keuchel, as it seems he was very fortunate to not have an earned run average close to five. He is still at least a decent option, and the Twins will benefit from his experience and postseason pedigree.

11. Nicholas Castellanos

Prediction: Angels, five years, $65 million.

Castellanos emerged as a solid gap-to-gap hitter last season for the Detroit Tigers, hitting 23 homers, with 89 RBI and an .854 OPS. He was decent for the first half of the season for the rebuilding Tigers, but he truly blossomed after a trade to the Chicago Cubs on deadline day. Across 51 games for the North Siders, he hit 16 homers, adding 36 RBI and a ridiculous 1.002 OPS. He was clearly energized by being inserted directly into a pennant race, and he helped prove himself as a pure hitter during his brief stay in Chicago. It’s possible that the Cubs would look to retain him for his bat, but his questionable defense will likely prevent the Cubs from pursuing him. He is simply a better fit on an American League roster where he can DH, and Anaheim would be a logical destination. With Shohei Ohtani rejoining the rotation, Castellanos will be able to DH whenever the two-way star is not in the lineup. 

12. Will Smith

Prediction: Red Sox, four years, $45 million.

The talented lefty emerged as a lockdown closer for the Giants in 2019, featuring a wipeout slider and deceptive fastball. The Red Sox were rumored to have been interested in Smith at the trade deadline this past season, and they still desperately need an elite arm in their bullpen. They will find just that in Smith, who saved 34 games for San Francisco in 2019. He recorded an ERA of 2.76, along with a whopping 96 strikeouts in 65.1 innings pitched.

13. Marcell Ozuna

Prediction: White Sox, four years, $48 million.

Ozuna has fallen off a bit after his monster 6.1 WAR season in 2017 for the Miami Marlins. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals the following offseason, where he spent the last two years. He was decent with St. Louis, hitting at least 23 homers and driving in at least 88 runs both seasons. He averaged a good-but-not-great OPS of .779 for the Cardinals. His defense and outfield arm are not what they once were, so he seems more likely to land with an American League club. The White Sox make sense, as they look for a DH to insert into their lineup full of promising young talent.

14. Didi Gregorious

Prediction: New York Yankees, one year, $8 million.

Gregorious has been a core part of the Yankees’ success throughout the last several seasons, but injuries derailed his 2019, and damaged his value in the free agent market. He reached 20 or more homers and at least 70 RBI every year from 2016-18, averaging nearly 3.4 WAR per season during that period. His 2019 season was likely an aberration, as he was hampered by injuries and only logged a 0.6 WAR in 82 games. He will return to the Yankees on a one-year deal in an attempt to rebound and reestablish his value.

15. Will Harris

Prediction: Cubs, two years, $20 million.

Harris has proven to be a durable curveball/cutter specialist out of the bullpen during his time in Houston. He never once had an ERA higher than 3.49 as an Astro, and posted a career-best 1.50 mark in 2019, despite a 3.15 FIP. He also appeared in at least 60 games four times in five years with Houston, proving his reliability. The Cubs have a clear need in the bullpen, and the crafty Harris would be a perfect fit.

16. Jose Abreu

Prediction: White Sox, two years, $25 million.

It’s difficult to see Abreu in another uniform, as he has spent his entire six-year career to this point with the White Sox. He has been excellent in that time, never recording an OPS below .798. He has also hit at least 22 homers and driven in 78 or more in every season for the South Siders. They will bring him back, hoping he is a key part of their bright future. 

17. Mike Moustakas

Prediction: Angels, three years, $33 million.

Moustakas has been an odd case for each of the last two offseasons. Despite solid seasons in 2017 and 2018, his free agent market was limited, and he had to settle for a one-year deals on both occasions. After a career-best .845 OPS in 2019, he should finally receive the multi-year deal he has coveted. The Angels are looking to build around Mike Trout, and Moustakas is the perfect veteran for a team that is in desperate need of a playoff berth.

18. Cole Hamels

Prediction: Phillies, two years, $20 million.

This would be a nostalgic reunion for the fans in Philadelphia, as Hamels was beloved during his nine-plus year tenure as a Phillie. He’s no longer the ace he was in the past, but he experienced a resurgence after he was traded to the Cubs during the 2018 season. He started 12 games for Chicago in ‘18 with an excellent 2.36 ERA, and 74 strikeouts in 76.1 innings. He started off 2019 in similar fashion, but was slowed by injuries late in the year. Hamels would be a good fit in Philadelphia’s rotation, where the fans are growing irritable following eight consecutive seasons of missing the postseason.

19. Tanner Roark

Prediction: Cubs, three years, $28 million.

Roark has been a good – and at times great – pitcher throughout his career with Washington, Cincinnati, and Oakland. His best seasons came in 2014 and 2016, with ERAs of 2.85 and 2.83, respectively. He boasts four 180.0 plus inning seasons in his career, which should be attractive for a team like the Cubs, who need more innings out of their starting staff. Roark would be a decent add for a Chicago team that lacks ample rotation options.

20. Kyle Gibson

Prediction: Astros, two years, $15 million.

Gibson is another solid starting pitcher that will be available this winter. In 2018, Gibson logged 196.2 innings for the Twins, with a respectable 3.62 ERA. 2019 wasn’t as kind to the right-hander, as his ERA jumped to 4.84. However, his FIP in ‘18 (4.13) actually wasn’t much different than in ‘19 (4.26). The Astros are likely to lose Gerrit Cole, and will be looking at alternative options in the starting pitching market. It would be fascinating to see if they could transform Gibson into a more effective pitcher, as this regime has done with quite a few arms.

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