Home Featured MLB Hot Stove Observations: Five takeaways as the free agent market finally gets moving

MLB Hot Stove Observations: Five takeaways as the free agent market finally gets moving

by Chris Brown

With MLB spring training set to begin in roughly one month, the free agent market has finally begun to pick up steam, with some of the bigger names starting to find new homes for 2021. Here are five observations from recent Hot Stove signings and reports:

DJ LeMahieu, Yankees find common ground.

A return to the Bronx on a long-term deal always seemed like the most likely scenario for the two-time batting champion, who was the Yankees’ best player in 2019 and 2020. But talks between the two sides dragged on for months, and LeMahieu’s agent was reportedly looking for a four or five year deal for roughly $90-$100 million for the 32-year-old, with that average annual value higher than the Yankees were comfortable with. 

So the two sides found a compromise in a six-year, $90 million contract. This is almost certain to be LeMahieu’s last big contract, so he prioritized stability and total dollars over higher average annual value on a shorter deal. The Yankees meanwhile, are committed to paying LeMahieu into his late thirties but maintain financial flexibility with regard to the luxury-tax threshold. One simple way to look at it is that this is essentially a four-year, $90 million deal with two years tacked on to the end of it for financial reasons. If LeMahieu remains a highly productive player for the first 3-4 seasons, it will be worth it for the Yankees regardless of what years five and six look like.

One question this does raise for the Yankees is what the future holds for Gleyber Torres. With LeMahieu presumably manning the keystone for years to come, is the club comfortable with Torres’ less than great glove at short? Could he end up dealt, or another piece moved for him to shift positions? Only time will tell on that.

The Yankees also made another splash on the same day they came to terms with LeMahieu, Jan. 15, agreeing to a one-year deal with two-time AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. The 34-year-old could prove to be a much-needed big game starter in the club’s rotation behind Gerrit Cole, but also carries with him plenty of risk, as Kluber has thrown under 40 innings across the last two seasons combined due to injury. The potential reward is high if Kluber is able to regain anything partially resembling his previous form, but the Yankees rotation remains very unsteady beyond its ace, something to keep an eye on as the season approaches.

J.T. Realmuto’s market appears to be shrinking.

On Jan. 15, The Athletic’s Jayson Stark reported that the Phillies have made a five-year contract offer worth just over $100 million to Realmuto, the top catcher in baseball and one of the top free agents on the market this winter. Clearly Realmuto’s camp remains hopeful a better offer is yet to come from the Phillies or elsewhere, but it’s unclear what serious competition Philadelphia may be facing at this point for the star backstop’s services. 

The Mets, viewed as an early favorite to sign Realmuto, instead inked James McCann to a four-year deal. The Angels had been connected to Realmuto, among other catching options, but recently agreed to terms with veteran Kurt Suzuki on a one-year contract. Several other logical destinations come with questions: The Astros are reportedly an unlikely landing spot due to draft-pick compensation. The Rangers seem highly unlikely to hand out a nine figure contract. The same may be the case for the Nationals.  

As the weeks go by, it’s seeming more and more likely that Bryce Harper will get his wish for the Phillies to bring back Realmuto. It’s obviously not simply a one-team race for his services, but at some point it may become clear to those involved in negotiations that there’s a finite number of clubs — perhaps only one or two — willing to shell out over 100 grand for a nearly 30-year-old catcher in the current market. 

The White Sox are clear AL Central favorites following their historic closer signing.

They traded for a third big-game starter (Lance Lynn). They upgraded in right field (Adam Eaton). Now the South Siders have signed the best reliever on the free-agent market, veteran closer Liam Hendriks, to a record-breaking deal. Hendriks, who was designated for assignment by four different teams in his major league career before emerging as a shutdown closer over the last two seasons, signed a four-year, $54 million contract with the White Sox which at $18 million annually breaks the record average annual value for a reliever set by Wade Davis in 2018.

No AL contender has been as aggressive at addressing its areas of need this winter as the White Sox, who’ve added proven veteran pieces to a young and exciting core to build one of the most complete rosters in the game. With questions for the Twins regarding a potential Nelson Cruz return and a bit of rotation help wanted and the Indians’ Lindor/Carrasco trade, the White Sox are right now the team to beat in the AL Central for the first time in quite a while. With continued questions regarding the Yankees’ rotation, I dare say the White Sox are the best team in the junior circuit at this point in time.

The reliever market has finally gotten moving.

The market for every position of players had been moving slowly, but perhaps none more so than relievers, as teams were seemingly waiting to see which proven arms would fall to them at a discounted rate. But action on that front has picked up in recent days. Hendriks signed with the White Sox. Archie Bradley agreed to a one-year deal with a Phillies club desperately in need of bullpen help. And the Astros signed longtime Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez to a two-deal contract. 

Plenty of late-inning arms remain available, from Brad Hand and Alex Colomé to Trevor Rosenthal and Mark Melancon. But the fact that the market for relievers has finally picked up steam should mean that teams feel a new sense of urgency to solidify their bullpen plans sooner rather than later. Expect more key signings over the next week or so.

The Blue Jays are interested in star additions, but keep coming up short.

Toronto, which made the playoffs in 2020 for the first time in nearly half a decade thanks to an emerging young core, is clearly in need of some high-level veteran reinforcements. The team has been tied to nearly every big name free agent, but thus far their biggest moves have been one-year contracts with starters Robbie Ray and Tyler Chatwood. 

MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that the Blue Jays were pursuing LeMahieu, offering him a four-year, $78 million contract, but that effort ultimately fell short. It’s more recently been reported that George Springer is now the club’s top focus, but we’ve clearly reached “I’ll believe it when I see it” territory. From Springer to Trevor Bauer, Michael Brantley to Justin Turner, there are still a number of big names out there for the Blue Jays to potentially add. Toronto looks like an above .500 team on paper, but they’ll likely need to finish first in the bidding for a star or two be considered amongst the real World Series contenders in 2021.

Photo by Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons

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