The calendar has flipped to February, and that means real live baseball will be played this month... probably. Pitchers and catchers are due to report to spring training camps in Arizona and Florida in two weeks, and the Cactus League and Grapefruit League seasons are scheduled to begin Feb. 27. This is all tentative because of the pandemic, of course, but baseball is coming.
Even with spring training on the horizon, there are still several dozen players sitting in free agency. Good players too., including three of the top seven. Not all 27 of those players will have jobs when camp opens too. Some will be stuck looking for work in March, and possibly even into the regular season.
With all that in mind, here are five hot stove predictions for the month of February. Come with me, won't you?
1. Mets extend Lindor
February and March are extension season and there is no more obvious extension candidate in baseball than new Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor. There is no chance -- literally zero chance -- the Mets made the trade without planning to aggressively pursue a long-term deal with Lindor. They're going to put a very big number in front of him at some point.
"I have never been against an extension," Lindor said recently. "I have never been against signing long-term."
Lindor is scheduled to become a free agent after this coming season and, historically, players who sign long-term one year prior to free agency get free-agent dollars. There's no discount. Lindor is a special player and special players get special contracts. Case in point: Mookie Betts. He signed long-term last year, one year prior to free agency.
Here are Lindor's last four seasons compared to Mookie's four years leading into his extension:
* The gap in plate appearances can be blamed on the shortened 2020 season. Like Betts, Lindor has been very durable throughout his career.
Betts was the more productive player but Lindor was excellent as well. Only seven players accrued more WAR the last four years than Lindor, and he's essentially a rounding error away from being fourth on the 2017-20 WAR leaderboard. Lindor may not be Betts, but few players are Lindor. He's an in-his-prime superstar shortstop and he will be paid accordingly.
Mookie signed a 12-year deal worth $365 million, though the massive deferrals ($115 million!) pushed the present day value down to $306.7 million according to the MLBPA's calculations (per The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal). I think Lindor is getting a similar deal. For this prediction, I'll say the Mets sign Lindor to a 12-year extension worth $360 million later this month.
The 12-year contract would take Lindor through his age-38 season and I predict it will not have any opt outs or anything like that. It'll be a "Met for life" contract. I do, however, think it will essentially be a 10-year deal worth $360 million, with two extra years tacked on for luxury-tax purposes. Adding two years to lower the luxury-tax number is a fairly new trend (Betts, DJ LeMahieu, etc.).
This would be the largest infielder contract in history, beating Manny Machado's deal with the Padres (10 years and $300 million), and it would set the market for next offseason's shortstop free agent class. Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story are all scheduled to hit the market next winter, and they'll be delighted when Lindor signs this deal.
2. Bauer signs with the Angels
Every year around this time -- okay, maybe not this late in the offseason, but mid-to-late January usually -- there is a top free agent still unsigned, and everyone says he overplayed his hand. Scott Boras clients are good targets for such commentary. And then the player signs a massive contract, and that's that. Machado and Bryce Harper went through this two years ago.
Trevor Bauer is the best available free agent and yeah, it seems like he might've overplayed his hand. Very few teams have been willing to spend significant money this offseason (Blue Jays, Mets, Padres) and they've spent it elsewhere, so it appears Bauer is running out landing spots. Don't believe it. Good players always get paid. Sometimes it just takes longer than expected.
Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times recently reported the Angels are not expected to pursue Bauer and not only because of money. Because he and pitching coach Mickey Callaway don't get along. From Torres:and I'm predicting it'll happen this month. Sooner rather than later too. Before spring training.
Bauer previously worked with current Angels pitching coach Mickey Callaway while in Cleveland from 2013 to 2017. They did not get along. Bauer has long taken a progressive approach to pitching; he was an early adopter of such techniques as throwing weighted balls, long-tossing and utilizing cameras to improve pitches. Callaway's style is different. He uses analytics in game planning and instruction but doesn't overemphasize them. Last year, he said he prefers to use them "to make a little nudge."
Bauer publicly alluded to tension between them in a Sports Illustrated cover story that ran in 2019.
"I'm going to try to find every single way to do better and I've probably researched it more than you have," Bauer said in reference to a disagreement over pitch usage he had with Callaway. "Don't tell me what I do and don't know without some good f—ing data behind it."
The relationship between Bauer and Callaway is believed to be eroded beyond repair, according to a person with knowledge of Bauer's current negotiations.
I get it and it makes sense. The thing is, I don't think owner Arte Moreno cares about Bauer's and Callaway's relationship. I'm not saying Torres' report is wrong! I'm sure more than a few folks in the front office are wary of the Bauer-Callaway dynamic. But again, I don't think Moreno cares, and he owns the team, so he's free to do whatever he wants. He answers to no one.
Moreno has a history of going over his front office's head to broker big free agent signings (Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, etc.) and I can see it happening again with Bauer. In fact, I'm predicting it. The Angels need pitching, specifically a No. 1 type starter, and they desperately want to get back to the postseason. Moreno's heart is in the right place. He wants to win.
I'll go with five years and $175 million for Bauer's contract, with an opt out after 2021. Essentially a one-year deal with a four-year insurance policy. That bumps Dylan Bundy and Andrew Heaney down a peg on the depth chart and gives the Halos their first bona fide ace since Jered Weaver was in his prime. The Halos need pitching and they're Bauer's best hope to cash in huge. It fits.
David Samson broke down the latest MLB/MLBPA negotiations on the latest episode of Nothing Personal with David Samson. Listen below:
3. Dodgers make a surprise trade
Last year the Dodgers landed Betts in the days leading up to spring training, and while the trade wasn't a total surprise, it was a shocking move. Los Angeles has been weirdly quiet this offseason outside a few bullpen pickups and I don't think it has a Betts-caliber blockbuster coming, but I do think it's going to make a move no one sees coming, and soon.
What qualifies as a surprise move? Well, that's up to me as the prediction maker. I'll say the Dodgers swing a trade for Rays shortstop Willy Adames before spring training begins. How's that for surprising? Adames is developing into an all-around force, but he's also a year away from arbitration (i.e. making real money), the Tampa has top shortstop prospect Wander Franco waiting.
The Rays are willing to trade anyone at any time, so in that sense, an Adames trade would not be a surprise. Trading him to the Dodgers though? And right now? I think that would catch more than few folks off guard. Los Angeles could slot Adames in at second base in 2021, then slide him over to shortstop in 2022, after Seager becomes a free agent.
The Dodgers could build a trade package around catcher prospect Keibert Ruiz -- Will Smith has made Ruiz expendable and the Rays badly need a long-term catcher -- as well as some pitching. Tampa's not going to get Tony Gonsolin or Dustin May, but what about top prospect Josiah Gray? Gray and Ruiz for four years of Adames seems like reasonable framework to me.
So that's the bold prediction. The Dodgers swing another big trade with an AL East team in the days leading up to camp, this time with the Rays for Adames. It gives them a long-term shortstop to replace Seager -- Los Angeles could even re-sign Seager and move him to third base -- and the Rays would continue loading up on young players while clearing a path for Franco*.
* To be clear, the Rays would 100 percent play Joey Wendle or whomever at shortstop early in the season so they could manipulate Franco's service time and push his free agency back. No doubt about it in my mind.
4. Cubs reunite with Arrieta
At some point recently Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts gave president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer the go-ahead to spend some money, reports David Kaplan of NBC Sports Chicago. . I love that signing. Certainly more than I love the Nationals giving Kyle Schwarber one year and $10 million.
Anyway, the smart money is on Hoyer's next move involving pitching. FanGraphs projections have the Cubs with the third-worst rotation in the big leagues right now, and the fourth-worst bullpen. Here is the bottom of the 2021 pitching WAR projection leaderboard:
Clearly though, the Cubs need pitching behind Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies (and Alec Mills). Adbert Alzolay is a good prospect and guys like Shelby Miller and Trevor Williams are interesting enough, but bumping them down a peg on the depth chart would be a smart idea. Enter Jake Arrieta. The former Cubs ace threw for teams last week and Chicago is said to be interested in a reunion.
Arrieta, 35 in March, is no longer the Terminator version of Arrieta who won the 2015 NL Cy Young award. He does still get plenty of ground balls though, and the Chicago's infield defense will help him quite a bit more than Philadelphia's infield defense did the last few years. A one-year deal worth $3 million with a few incentives makes sense for both sides, and I'm predicting it happens.
5. MLB approves the universal DH
Here's the thing about the universal DH: MLB wants it, the MLBPA wants it, front offices want it, managers want it, and the majority of fans want it. Everything has to be a fight with commissioner Rob Manfred though, so his official position this offseason is "I'm going to take away the one rule change everyone liked last year." It's dumb. Reader, it's dumb.
(there was some other stuff in the proposal too), and that trade would've made Pedro Martinez for Delino DeShields look fair. An expanded postseason field equals a massive windfall for MLB and the owners. It is worth hundreds of millions in additional revenue moving forward.
The fact of the matter is the universal DH just isn't much of a bargaining chip. We're talking about 15 low-value jobs -- how many teams spend big on a DH? -- and it's not an additional roster spot. MLB, meanwhile, has already sold the broadcast rights to the Wild Card Series. They sold the broadcast rights to a postseason round that doesn't officially exist!
For my final prediction, I will predict Manfred comes to his senses and relents on the universal DH, possibly because he gets something low value in return (a limit on the number of pitchers teams can have on their active roster?). Once the universal DH is approved, the Nelson Cruz and Marcell Ozuna markets should heat up, and National League teams can finalize their rosters.
Expanding the postseason permanently would change the sport's competitive landscape significantly and not necessarily for the better. Why spend more on your roster when 88 wins is as likely to get you to the postseason as 94 wins? MLB badly wants an expanded postseason because of the money. The league must be careful though. Unintended consequences and all that.
The universal DH though? That's not changing a whole lot, competitively. MLB would be converting 15 bench jobs into starting jobs and that's about it. More offense equals more excitement and more excitement equals more fan interest. Eventually Manfred and MLB will relent and agreed to the universal DH. I'm predicting it happens this month, which is better late than never.