The Major League Baseball (MLB) hot stove season, which starts after the last out of the World Series, begins with rumors. So let’s deal with them directly, as these are the narratives the movers & shakers will be pushing this winter.
Cleveland Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti has been shopping star SS Francisco Lindor, who has two years left until free agency. Lindor is age 26, and in 5 MLB seasons has hit .288/.347/.493. He earned $10.85M in 2019, as will get another nice raise this winter in his final year of arbitration. That’s considered a bargain in MLB for that level of production.
Cleveland won 93 games in 2019, but missed the post-season finishing 8 games behind the Minnesota Twins. Antonetti already dumped RHP Trevor Bauer at the trade deadline for what he could get. More on that below, but of greater relevance here is the Yankees letting SS Didi Gregorious (2019: 82 games, .238/.276/.441) become a free agent, so look for GM Brian Cashman to make a deal. He’s interested for sure. The Yankees won 103 games, but lost in six games to the Houston Astros in the ALCS. With a Lindor type of upgrade at SS, the Yankees are better, especially with the Astros losing ace RHP Gerrit Cole to free agency.
San Francisco Giants LHP Madison Bumgarner rejected his $17.8M qualifying offer (QO), and is now a restricted free agent. He will likely become this year’s Dallas Keuchel, as both are pitchers with excellent pasts, but diminishing futures. No GM pays for past performance anymore. I speculated months ago that Bumgarner was one of these players who would do better to take his QO at season’s end.
That mid-season prediction appears to be vindicated already, as the market for him is lukewarm (at best), with draft pick compensation tied to his signing. Too many mediocre teams would rather have the draft pick, and the really good teams don’t even want him. That’s how an old, but good, player gets “middled” in free agency with a QO.
Madison Bumgarner in 2019: 9-9, 207.2 IP, 3.90 ERA. He’s age 30, with a lot of mileage, and the injuries are starting to accrue. You can’t go long-term on that. Hypothetically: what’s he worth in a 3-year deal? In this market: around 3/$45M if he was unrestricted. But with draft pick compensation tied to him, only a few teams will be interested, and at lower numbers. One year $10M. Two $18M.
Madison Bumgarner believes he’s worth more, and he’s correct; except it’s the owners & GM’s who set the market. Players have to start looking at their contracts (and CBA) in the framework of management interests vs. player interests as a united whole, instead of individually. The MLBPA (players’ union) sold them out with another bad deal that still underpays players in their primes (young stars), then only pays super-elite players in free agency, while short-changing all the rest.
That’s what the qualifying offer has done to MLB free agency, maintaining an illusion of fairness, while serving the interests of ownership & management. The MLBPA agreed to this, and sold it to the players as a good deal. They should have to answer to all the players, but instead they make excuses and deflect.
RHP Zach Wheeler will be age 30 next season, and is another interesting case. For the New York Mets he pitched 195.1 innings, went 11-8 with a 3.95 ERA. His WHIP was 1.259. It was a career year for Wheeler, and the Mets QO’ed him, but he refused it. So now what is Zack Wheeler worth? He is speculation in potential, for sure, and if some silly team (Angels) loves him with their scouting & analytics, they may make a crazy bid.
Everyone needs pitching, but once again it’s the draft pick compensation that bites. Teams like the Phillies have already publicly declared they value their draft picks. Philadelphia has been a huge buyer the last few winters. They won 81 games last year, and 80 in 2018. The Phillies need young talent to give them a shot in the arm, not more expensive veterans that cost them draft picks & young talent. That’s one less team for Wheeler & Bumgarner to go to, so I question the advice these players are getting from their agents.
Twins RHP Jake Odorizzi did the smart thing, and accepted his QO. He’ll be paid $17.8M in 2020 as a reward for his season in 2019 where he went 15-7, in 159 IP, with a 3.59 ERA for a team that won 101 games & their division. He’ll be age 30 next year, and an unrestricted free agent afterwards, which means he’ll be able to get a decent deal at age 31 because he’ll have no draft pick compensation. That’s how to beat the system, and maximize career earnings. You have to set aside your ego, and be patient.
Longtime LA Dodgers RHP Hyun-Jin Ryu accepted his $17.9M QO last November, and had a great 2019 as he went 14-5, with a 2.32 ERA, in 182.2 IP which led the staff. He’ll turn age 33 next March, but he has no restrictions, so anyone can make him an offer and all it costs is money. Any team that is spending in free agency this winter will be interested in signing him. Ryu was (and is) the test case that proves this QO market effect theory, because starting pitching is what has the most value to GM’s.
Of course I must discuss the San Diego Padres. Besides being a fan, why do I discuss them so much? 1) Because there is so much east coast bias, Padres reporting becomes necessary, as a part of comprehensive MLB coverage & fair balance. 2) They have a most-interesting front office; a GM with ambition & brains, along with ownership that is willing to spend, while being relatively “hands off.” I’ve written this since 2016, the San Diego Padres represent the newest Moneyball darling. They are a lot closer to competing for a World Series title than most people think.
Padres GM AJ Preller has declared that RHP Chris Paddack, and top prospect LHP MacKenzie Gore are ‘virtually untouchable’ in trade talks. Last winter it was the same deal with SS Fernando Tatis, Jr., whom everyone “checked in” on. I’ve pointed out repeatedly that AJ Preller controls much of the MLB trade market through his holding tight to his top-ranked farm system.
The Padres won 70 games in 2019, finished last in the NL West again, and fired their dugout manager Andy Green with less than ten games to go. Ownership wants to win & is willing to spend, and AJ Preller is not happy with his 40-man roster. His entire staff had a long season to look at their young players at all levels, as the Padres were aggressive about pushing players forward. It paid off with Tatis & Paddack, who are studs. It also gave management and scouting a chance to get a large sample size for the rest, to decide who is a keeper, and who can be traded. So look for the Padres to be MAJOR players this winter, especially in the trade market.
Preller & Antonetti have made two major deals in the past two years, the most recent a three-way deal that sent Bauer to the Reds. The Padres got a top CF prospect, and the Indians acquired LF/DH Franmil Reyes. Since the Indians are now shopping Lindor, Preller may get involved in another 3-way deal, since he has the prospects.
The Padres are also shopping OF/1B Wil Myers, who is still owed $68.5M over the next 3 seasons. The Padres will eat most of that to move him, as he’s become a liability on their roster. Wil Myers has already been involved in two of the most analyzed trades in the Moneyball era. We’ll see what his third trade brings this winter.The biggest mistake Preller made here was giving Wil Myers the big contract he hadn’t earned yet. That compounded the original error of trading SS Trea Turner.
Catcher Yasmani Grandal was another QO saga last winter. He eventually signed a $1/18M deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. After being eliminated by the Washington Nationals in the Wild Card play-in game, Grandal finally became an unrestricted free agent. A player can only be offered a QO once in his career.
Yasmani Grandal is now age 31, he hit .246/.380/.468 in 2019 which is outstanding for his demanding position. But teams look at his age, and will probably say he’s too old for an expensive long-term deal. Grandal reportedly reject a 4/$60M offer from the Mets last winter, before scrambling to get his deal with the Brewers, and the wisdom & implications of that have already been discussed. Making a mistake in the QO free agent process can set a player back by tens of millions of dollars in career earnings. 3B Mike Moustakis is another example of this.
The Boston Red Sox are shopping star RF Mookie Betts, who made $20M in 2019, and is due a raise in arbitration. Betts is age 27, and has two seasons left until free agency. The Red Sox won 84 games in 2019, after winning it all in 2018. Flags fly forever, but GM Dave Dombrowski was canned by mid-season, and it looks like a re-build may be coming– sooner rather than later– in Beantown. The Red Sox are maxed out on payroll, so signing free agents isn’t a reality. This is an old pitching staff with serious payroll commitments. Good thing they just won it, because it looks like their championship window has closed. The Yankees are younger, better, and more flexible with their payroll– plus they have a much better farm system.
RHP’s Gerrit Cole & Stephen Strasburg are the top free agent prizes available this winter. 3B Anthony Rendon is great, but it’s ace starting pitching that wins a World Series. Both rejected their QO’s, but their greatness makes draft pick compensation an afterthought for teams bidding for their services. You’re either too good for the QO, or the QO is too good for you, in which case that player should accept it. There is virtually no middle ground on this anymore. That’s the QO conundrum summarized.