Earlier this week, we posted a roundup of the top 50 free agents on the market this winter. We’ve already seen a couple of the guys near the top of that list either rework their contract or choose not to opt out, but the rest of the list remains unsigned.
Today we’re taking a look at the plausible landing spots for the top free agents left. A top-six list is a little awkward and perhaps less SEO friendly than a top five, but our fifth- and sixth-place players were projected for the same salary, so we’ve included both here. This post isn’t necessarily a prediction of where certain guys will sign, but rather, it’s a look at which teams should be in the market for these top talents given what we know about their ambitions and financial priorities. Spoiler: You won’t see the Red Sox listed below.
1. Gerrit Cole
Kiley’s estimate: 7 Years, $242 million
Should be interested: Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, St. Louis Cardinals, honestly the whole league
Perfect fit: Los Angeles Angels
Cole may not capture the Cy Young this year, but after a dominating October in which his very presence loomed as the most significant storyline in each series Houston played, the consensus is that he’s the best pitcher in baseball. We haven’t seen that kind of arm hit the free agent market since CC Sabathia after the 2008 season. There isn’t a club in baseball that wouldn’t benefit from Cole’s services, even at the imposing price he’ll command. At the very least, every nominal contender in baseball should be evaluating what they can do to bring the big right-hander to their city.
His list of serious suitors figures to be quite smaller than that, and most of them are out west. The Dodgers make plenty of sense. Despite seven straight NL West titles, the club hasn’t won a championship with this core, and subpar starting pitching in the playoffs has been a big reason why they’ve fallen short. Is there a player better positioned to fill that gap than Cole?
The Dodgers reportedly love Cole, so a deal there would be no huge surprise. But while LA may really want him, the team up in Anaheim may need his services. There is some concern about payroll here: Cole won’t be cheap, the Angels had baseball’s sixth-largest payroll last season, Albert Pujols is still on the books for two more years, Shohei Ohtani will start getting more expensive soon, Mike Trout will be very well paid throughout the next decade, and nobody wants to land on the wrong side of the luxury tax. But the Angels only have $60 million committed for 2021 at this point, which gives them enough flexibility to add a player of Cole’s caliber while remaining under the
salary cap tax threshold. Doing so should be a priority for Los Angeles, which has formidable competition within the division and has already spent an uncomfortably large share of Trout’s prime languishing in irrelevancy.
2. Anthony Rendon
Kiley’s Estimate: 7 years, $211 million
Should be interested: Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers
Perfect fit: Texas Rangers
While Cole would fit well on any team in baseball, finding a home for Rendon is a bit trickier. The league is unusually flush in good third basemen these days, and there’s a bit of a surplus available on the market already, as three of our top 15 free agents man the hot corner. Rendon may find that potential suitors would rather pay a premium for a short-term deal (for Josh Donaldson), buy name-brand (Mike Moustakas), or shop clearance (Todd Frazier) than fork over $200 million.
As with Cole, someone will eventually pay up. Atlanta and Washington need to replace stars at the position, and Rendon would suit each team. The Mets, Phillies, and Brewers all need help at third as well, though for their own reasons, each seems unlikely to hit Rendon’s asking number.
The Rangers are an intriguing wild card here. They aren’t contenders per se: They went 78-84 last season, and assuming that the Angels spend this winter, Texas may enter 2020 as the AL West’s fourth-best team. But the Rangers
just fleeced their city for are opening a new stadium and have hinted that they’d like to make a splash as they enter their new digs. Behind Cole, Rendon is the player best able to help them do so. And while third base isn’t entirely vacant — Nick Solak and Danny Santana both made a handful of starts there — the Rangers can shuffle their deck pretty easily to accommodate one of the best players in baseball.
3. Stephen Strasburg
Kiley’s estimate: 5 years, $150 million
Should be interested: Outside of perhaps Cleveland, which contender shouldn’t want the less expensive ace on the market?
Perfect fit: Washington Nationals
There’s nothing like a little home cooking. The relationship between Strasburg and the Nationals is long and well-documented. Fresh off a championship, Washington would love to keep a guy who has meant so much to the franchise in town. But even without that legacy, the Nats would be an excellent fit anyway. This is one of the few clubs that has shown a willingness to spend big in recent years, particularly on pitching, and they’ll need to keep at least one of their free agent stars if they expect to stay competitive in the NL East. There’s every reason to think Strasburg’s opt-out will simply lead to a raise for a franchise icon rather than a melancholy departure after reaching the summit last October.
4. Josh Donaldson
Kiley’s estimate: 3 years, $71 million
Should be interested: Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, Texas Rangers
Perfect fit: Atlanta Braves
Donaldson is a bit of a weird case. At 34, he’d older than most premium players on the market, and the injuries that derailed his 2018 season all but ensure he won’t get nine figures. But after posting a 5-WAR season for the Braves, he’s pretty clearly still one of the best third basemen in the game, and he’s the perfect player to help a team seeking to contend in 2020 without committing many dollars deep into the future. For teams prioritizing financial flexibility — prepare to hear that term ad nauseum this winter — here is your guy.
Atlanta is generally not particularly ambitious on the market, usually preferring short-term deals in lieu of long-term investments. Donaldson, however, may be able to provide enough value over a short-enough window to justify a larger expenditure than normal. For all the pitching they need to replace, the Braves offense has a stars-and-scrubs flavor to it, and Atlanta would sorely miss Donaldson’s production. The guess here is that Donaldson returns and the Braves address their pitching needs through less expensive channels.
5. Yasmani Grandal
Kiley’s estimate: 4 years, $70 million
Should be interested: Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds
Perfect fit: Colorado Rockies
Grandal signed with the Brewers at the last minute, and what a crucial acquisition he proved to be, as the veteran backstop posted a five-win campaign while playing in 153 games. For a team that just crawled over the line for the last playoff slot, it’s safe to say they couldn’t have done so without Grandal.
Unlike the previous position players on this list, Grandal should have no shortage of suitors. The Brewers, Astros, and Braves need to replace their incumbent. The Angels and Rangers both need a quality catcher if they’re to have any shot at competing for a playoff spot. You can even imagine a fringy contender like Cincinnati kicking the tires here.
But let’s go off script and talk about the Rockies. What is the point of inking guys like Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon to nine-figure extensions if you’re not going to try to win while they’re still good players? Doubly so considering they only have Trevor Story for two more years and Jon Gray and German Márquez for three. The Rockies haven’t gotten any real production from their catchers in years, and Grandal would make them significantly better on both sides of the ball. He’d be a great match for Colorado’s young-but-hard-throwing staff, and his bat would be a huge improvement over Tony Wolters, who somehow managed to hit only one homer in 400-plus plate appearances while playing at Coors Field in 2019. If Colorado intends to win with their current core, they need to get better right now, and Grandal offers tremendous bang for the buck.
6. Marcell Ozuna
Kiley’s estimate: 4 years, $70 million
Should be interested: Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs
Perfect fit: St. Louis Cardinals
Ozuna’s recruitment will be one of the more interesting to watch this winter, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder here. In Ozuna, you can see a late-20s corner outfielder who has posted a wRC+ over 110 just once in the last five years while playing mediocre defense. A decent player, yes — he’s averaged more than 2.5 WAR over that span — but nobody to get too excited about.
You can also dream on more, and not just because of the 143 wRC+ he notched in a five-win campaign back in 2017. Ozuna hits the ball very hard: his exit velocity is near the top of the scale, but his average launch angle is a little bit off from what we see with elite power hitters. While there’s no guarantee that Ozuna can find the optimal balance, plenty of teams will justifiably think they can unlock some latent offensive potential. Teams looking for impact but hoping to avoid shelling out a $100 million commitment can probably talk themselves into thinking they’ll get the higher end of Ozuna’s production range.
Ultimately though, a return to St. Louis works for both parties. The Cardinals had a below-average offense last year, and after big steps back from Harrison Bader and Matt Carpenter, their lineup would look very weak without Ozuna. For Ozuna’s part, the qualifying offer stands to do real damage to his value in free agency. An agreement between team and player, one in which he gets a slightly lower AAV than the QO but over three or four years, makes sense.