The 2020-21 offseason is still young. So young that there have hardly been any meaningful trade or free-agent rumors. Nothing more than cursory chatter at the moment, which isn't too surprising given the extensive pandemic-related cost-cutting. Things will pick up eventually. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
The current free-agent class is good but not great.. This class could've been much, much better had several players not opted for long-term security earlier in their careers, however.
These days many players sign long-term contract extensions early in their careers, pushing back their free agency. They trade their maximum earning potential (through arbitration and free agency) for financial security early in their careers. I don't blame them one bit. I'd do the same thing. It does mean these players aren't hitting free agency when expected though.
It takes six full years of service time to quality for free agency, but, given the way teams manipulate service time these days, it often takes closer to seven years. Springer, for example, would have been a free agent last offseason had the Astros carried him on their Opening Day roster in 2014. Instead, they kept him down until mid-April, and that was enough to push his free agency back.
There are 17 players in MLB who reached six years of service time in 2020, but did not become free agents this offseason because they signed early career extensions. Because we like ranking things, here is a wholly subjective ranking of those 17 players, who would have undoubtedly spiced up the offseason had they not signed their extensions.
Mookie Betts Los Angeles Dodgers RF
Contract: 12 years, $365 million (signed July 2020)
It's not often a star player takes himself off the market so close to free agency, but Mookie Betts is not most star players. He inked his massive 12-year extension with the Dodgers in July, right before Opening Day for the abbreviated season. The contract includes heavy deferrals, so much so that the MLBPA calculates the present day value at $306.7 million rather than $365 million, but it's still one of the largest contracts ever. And it's already paying off too. Betts and the Dodgers are 2020 World Series champs.
Had he not signed the extension, Mookie would've been the best player to become a free agent since Alex Rodriguez way back during the 2000-01 offseason. I know we said that about Bryce Harper and Manny Machado two years ago, but it was true then and it's true again now. Betts is no worse than the second-best player in baseball and he turned only 28 in October. He's a superstar in his prime. Players like that basically never hit free agency, yet Betts passed on the opportunity to sign his extension.
What would he get this offseason? What the Dodgers gave him. Historically, there is no discount when a player signs an extension one year prior to free agency, and the shutdown had already taken place when Betts signed his deal, so the financial uncertainty created by the pandemic was already baked into the cake. Mookie's floor would have been the Machado deal (10 years and $300 million).
Jose Ramirez Cleveland Indians 3B
Contract: 5 years, $26 million plus two club options (signed March 2017)
That Aug. 2018 to June 2019 slump sure was weird, huh? Jose Ramirez hit .186/.299/.291 in 458 plate appearances from Aug. 15, 2018 through June 12, 2019, which is impossible to believe. Among the 178 players with at least 300 plate appearances between those two dates, Ramirez had the lowest batting average and the lowest slugging percentage, and a bottom 30 on-base percentage. He was legitimately one of the worst hitters in baseball. Wild.
Since June 12, 2019, however, the just turned 28-year-old Ramirez has authored a .303/.373/.640 batting line in 517 plate appearances that ranks him among the best hitters in baseball. The slump was just a blip on the radar. Ramirez is back to putting up MVP caliber numbers, which he's done for a much longer period of time than he's slumped. A prime-age switch-hitting infielder with good defensive chops would've been in high-demand this winter. Ramirez is one of the best bargains in the sport.
What would he get this offseason? The Anthony Rendon (seven years, $245 million) and Nolan Arenado (eight years, $268 million) contracts would've been in play. Ramirez is currently the same age Arenado was when he signed his deal, and he's a year younger than Rendon when he was a free agent. It's hard to gauge the market following the shutdown, but elite players are still going to get paid, and Ramirez would've been looking at 7-8 years at $30-plus million annually as a free agent.
Jacob deGrom New York Mets SP
Contract: 5 years, $137.5 million plus one opt-out and one club option (signed March 2019)
The Mets signed Jacob deGrom at exactly the right time. He was two years away from free agency and, had they waited another few months, the Stephen Strasburg (seven years, $245 million) and Gerrit Cole (nine years, $324 million) contracts would've raised the salary bar significantly. Also, deGrom would've been that much closer to free agency, and he would've had another Cy Young award under his belt. For my money, he is the best pitcher in the sport, though he falls behind Betts and Ramirez in these rankings because he is several years older than those two, and because pitchers carry much more inherent injury risk.
What would he get this offseason? The Strasburg deal is more appropriate than the Cole deal. Cole hit free agency at age 29 and Strasburg at age 31. DeGrom is 32 right now. Also, deGrom has Tommy John surgery in his history like Strasburg whereas Cole had a clean bill of health. Six years and at least $30 million a year would've been deGrom's contract outlook.
Kyle Hendricks Chicago Cubs SP
Contract: 4 years, $55.5 million plus one club option (signed March 2019)
Kyle Hendricks zags while everyone else zigs. In a league that emphasizes big velocity, Hendricks is one of the softest tossers in the sport, yet his elite command and dynamite changeup have allowed him to be one of the most effective starters in the game the last five years. He turns only 31 in December, and while his profile is unusual, it obviously works. Hendricks would've been among the most sought after free agents this winter thanks to his command, his durability, and his low maintenance personality. The Cubs locked him up not a moment too soon.
What would he get this offseason? I think the Zack Wheeler contract (five years, $118 million) would have worked here, moreso than the Hyun-Jin Ryu contract (four years, $80 million). Hendricks now is two years younger now than Ryu was when he hit free agency, and he doesn't have the same injury concerns. Wheeler was a year younger than Hendricks last offseason, but he came with a long injury history. Five years, maybe even six, at $23 million a year or so sounds good to me.
Eugenio Suarez Cincinnati Reds 3B
Contract: 7 years, $66 million plus one club option (signed March 2018)
The short 60-game season makes evaluating players awfully tough. Is Eugenio Suarez really a true talent .202/.312/.470 hitter now? An all-or-nothing power guy? Or will he go back to the .277/.362/.500 guy he was from 2018-19 next year? I'd bet on 2018-19 Suarez showing up in 2021 seeing how he's still only 29 and his underlying stats (exit velocity, hard-hit rate, etc.) were all in their normal range in 2020. Sometimes weird things happens in 60-game samples, that's all. The Reds have themselves a great player at third base on a dandy of a contract.
What would he get this offseason? More than you might think. Not Rendon or Arenado money, but certainly better than Mike Moustakas (four years, $64 million) money. The Twins gave Josh Donaldson four years and $92 million last offseason despite his age and injury history. In pre-pandemic times, I would've expected Suarez to receive a similar average salary across an extra year or two because he's still on the right side of 30.
Christian Vazquez Boston Red Sox C
Contract: 3 years, $13.5 million plus one club option (signed March 2018)
Tommy John surgery kept Christian Vazquez on the sidelines the entire 2015 season and the Red Sox saw enough in 2016 and 2017 (.268/.312/.371 in 156 games) to sign him to a little three-year contract in spring training 2018 (the deal took effect in 2019). Since then, Vazquez was behind the plate for a World Series championship and has shed the all-glove/no-hit label that was slapped on him early in his career. The 30-year-old has hit .278/.327/.472 with 30 homers and his typically excellent glovework the last two seasons. An extension that looked questionable at the time (but is so cheap the risk was minimal) looks marvelous now.
What would he get this offseason? Vazquez would have been the second-best free agent catcher on the market this offseason behind J.T. Realmuto. He would not have gotten Realmuto money, whatever that ends up being, and I don't think he would've gotten Yasmani Grandal money (four years, $73 million) either given the short track record on offense and injury history. Quality catchers rarely become free agents so there are few benchmarks for a potential Vazquez contract. I'll spitball four years and $14 million to $15 million a year.
Kevin Kiermaier Tampa Bay Rays CF
Contract: 6 years, $53.5 million plus one club option (signed March 2017)
The Rays aren't as aggressive with long-term contract extensions as you may think -- they typically only lock up the best of the best -- and the fact they signed Kevin Kiermaier to that contract when he was still four years away from free agency tells you how much they like him. Since signing the contract, Kiermaier has posted just one league average offensive season and injuries have limited to 364 of 546 possible games, so the case can be made the deal hasn't worked out as well as Tampa hoped. That said, he remains an outstanding defensive center fielder and is popular in the clubhouse.
What would he get this offseason? Tough question! Defense-first players usually don't cash in as much as players with above-average offensive track records. Kiermaier is owed $26 million the next two years including the buyout of his 2023 option. Would he get that as a free agent? Avisail Garcia received two years and $20 million last winter. Kole Calhoun, another defense-first outfielder, received two years and $16 million. I'm going to put Kiermaier down as the first player on our list who is better off financially with his current contract than he would've been as a free agent.
Randal Grichuk Toronto Blue Jays CF
Contract: 5 years, $52 million (signed March 2019)
In all likelihood Randal Grichuk's claim to fame will forever be "the player drafted one pick before Mike Trout," though there's no shame in hitting over 100 MLB home runs and signing a $52 million contract. The extension seemed like an overpay the day it was signed because Grichuk doesn't do much offensively other than hit for power (career .297 on-base percentage) and he's stretched defensively in center, though it's hardly an albatross. Good player. Also the kind of player who might've been stuck waiting until February waiting for a contract this winter.
What would he get this offseason? There are three years and $28 million remaining on Grichuk's contract -- escalators based on plate appearances could push it to $30 million -- and I don't think he'd match that in free agency. Last offseason's Avisail Garcia (two years, $20 million) and Corey Dickerson (two years, $17.5 million) contracts are the benchmarks for this type of player.
Nick Ahmed Arizona Diamondbacks SS
Contract: 4 years, $32.5 million (signed Feb. 2020)
The Diamondbacks locked up Nick Ahmed following back-to-back Gold Gloves and back-to-back 16-plus home run seasons. The soon-to-be 31-year-old is never going to be a significant offensive contributor but he had finally become more than a pushover, and Arizona made sure to keep him around. Ahmed produced at a similar pace during the abbreviated 2020 season, so this looks like money well spent. Great defenders at premium positions who will chip in offensively are worth keeping around.
What would he get this offseason? Two years ago a small army of veteran infielders (Marwin Gonzalez, DJ LeMahieu, Jed Lowrie, Daniel Murphy) all signed two-year contracts in the $20 million to $24 million range. Those guys had better offensive track records than Ahmed but I think he would've been in that neighborhood. He currently has three years and $25 million remaining on his extension.
Tucker Barnhart Cincinnati Reds C
Contract: 4 years, $16 million plus one club option (signed March 2017)
A case can be made Tucker Barnhart is the best defensive catcher in baseball. He's a two-time Gold Glove winner, including taking home the 2020 award, and he consistently rates very well in the advanced stats. Barnhart doesn't provide much offense -- he's had one season better than an 88 OPS+ in his career -- but he is a lefty hitter who doesn't strike out excessively, which is not nothing. He's not a total zero at the plate, you know? The Reds would've been in trouble had Suarez and Barnhart joined Trevor Bauer on the free-agent market this offseason.
What would he get this offseason? Barnhart will turn only 30 in January, so he's not yet at the age where you'd expect a catcher to turn into a pumpkin. I think his free-agent contract would have been closer to Travis d'Arnaud (two years, $16 million) than more veteran backstops like Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki (two years, $10 million each).
Roberto Perez Cleveland Indians C
Contract: 4 years, $9 million plus two club options (signed April 2017)
The 24-homer outburst in 2019 looks like a juiced ball outlier, but Roberto Perez is on the short list of the best defensive catchers in baseball. His pitchers love him and he's one of those rare players who provides big value even while hitting .200. Or, in the case of 2020, hitting .165/.264/.216. Ouch. Perez turns 32 next month and he makes his money behind the plate. I'm not sure I'd want him as my No. 1 catcher, but you could do a heck of a lot worse at backup.
What would he get this offseason? The fact Cleveland exercised its $5.5 million club option for Perez a few weeks ago tells us he probably would have received more than the $6.25 million Jeff Mathis, a similar all-glove catcher beloved by his pitching staff, received on a two-year contract two years ago. Across multiple years, perhaps Perez gets closer to $5 million annually.
Miguel Rojas Miami Marlins SS
Contract: 2 years, $10.5 million plus one club option (signed Sept. 2019)
There is basically zero chance Miguel Rojas ever hits like he did in 2020 (.304/.392/.496) again in the future, but he doesn't need to hit like that to have value. Rojas, 31, is a good defender who will take walks and rarely strikes out, and he is beloved by his teammates. Being OK at everything on the field and likeable off it will keep you in this game a long time.
What would he get this offseason? With his 32nd birthday coming up in February, Rojas is probably in one-year contract territory. Cesar Hernandez, Howie Kendrick, and Jonathan Schoop all received one-year contracts in the $6.1 million to $6.25 million range last winter. Eric Sogard was a bit south of them at one year and $4.5 million. I think Rojas would have ended up closer to Sogard.
David Peralta Arizona Diamondbacks LF
Contract: 3 years, $22 million (signed Jan. 2020)
David Peralta is a tremendous story -- before hooking on with the D-Backs, Peralta was a pitcher who converted to the outfield in independent ball because of numerous arm injuries -- and by all accounts a well-respected player. He's also a 33-year-old corner outfielder who is just OK defensively and has been close to league average offensively three times in the last four years, including 2019-20. The market has not been kind to those types of players, historically. That doesn't mean the extension is bad by any means. It just means Peralta may not have been in position to really cash in this winter.
What would he get this offseason? The Avisail Garcia (two years, $20 million) and Corey Dickerson (two years, $17.5 million) contracts fit here again. Peralta is owed $15 million the next two years, so he didn't sell himself short nor did the D-Backs overpay greatly.
Leury Garcia Chicago White Sox 2B
Contract: 1 year, $3.5 million plus one club option (signed Feb. 2020)
This barely counts as an extension -- the White Sox and Leury Garcia essentially agreed to tack a $3.5 million club option onto the one-year deal worth $3.5 million he signed a few weeks earlier -- but the club option was exercised earlier this month, and it prevented Garcia from hitting the market. He is a perfectly cromulent super utility man who can play just about anywhere and had a career year offensively in 2020. There are worse ways to spend $3.5 million.
What would he get this offseason? Jose Peraza and Jose Iglesias each received a one-year deal worth $3 million last winter. Brock Holt came in just above them at $3.25 million. That's about where Garcia would've fit into this free-agent market. Maybe he would have landed Eric Sogard money ($4.5 million). Maybe.
Gregory Polanco Pittsburgh Pirates RF
Contract: 5 years, $35 million plus two club options (signed April 2016)
Remember the outrage when the Pirates wouldn't call up Gregory Polanco because they didn't want to start his service time clock? Not every prospect is worth manipulating service time. Polanco signed his extension in his third MLB season, when he appeared poised to break out as an All-Star, though he's since stalled out. Injuries have certainly played a role in that. Polanco is still only 29 and he's shown flashes of greatness -- his exit velocity numbers are off the charts -- but the fact of the matter is he is nowhere close to the player Pittsburgh hoped he'd become when they signed him to that extension.
What would he get this offseason? Polanco is owed $11 million next season with a $3 million buyout of his 2022 club option and there's just no chance he'd get $14 million guaranteed this offseason, even across multiple years. He's still young enough and talented enough that some team would take a chance on him. The Royals gave the similarly talented-yet-frustrating Maikel Franco a one-year deal worth $2.95 million last offseason. That seems like a reasonable benchmark for Polanco.
Ender Inciarte Atlanta Braves CF
Contract: 5 years, $30.525 million plus one club option (signed Dec. 2016)
The Braves got two very good years out of this contract before Ender Inciarte's game started to go south. He won three straight Gold Gloves from 2016-18 and was a league average-ish hitter, but injuries have limited him to 111 games the last two seasons, and his offensive production has nosedived. Inciarte turned only 30 in October and his defense is still good, plus he's a lefty hitter who rarely strikes out, so he'd still have value as a fourth outfielder this offseason.
What would he get this offseason? Jarrod Dyson signed a one-year deal worth $2 million last winter but I think Inciarte could have done better than that. More likely, he would've been in the Alex Gordon ($4 million), Nick Markakis ($4 million), and Kevin Pillar ($4.25 million) range. Inciarte is owed $8 million in 2021 with a $1.025 million buyout of his 2022 option.
Rougned Odor Texas Rangers 2B
Contract: 6 years, $49.5 million plus one club option (signed March 2017)
Rougned Odor hit 33 home runs as a 22-year-old in 2016, so the Rangers locked him up to a seemingly wise long-term extension. He then immediately became one of the worst players in baseball. Odor has hit .215/.279/.418 in the four seasons since signing his contract and his 1.8 WAR ranks 134th among the 141 position players with at least 400 games played from 2017-20. If not for the contract, it's likely Texas would have non-tendered Odor a year or two ago.
What would he get this offseason? Here's the thing: Odor turns only 27 in January. He still has power (88 home runs since 2017) and is a competent defender at second base. Multiple teams absolutely would have viewed him as a bounce-back candidate/upside play this offseason. The Maikel Franco contract (one year, $2.95 million) would have probably been Odor's best-case scenario as a free agent. I think it's more likely he would've had to settle for a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.