There’s nothing certain about the 2020-21 MLB offseason. There’s no assumption when it comes to hot stove activity that’s safe from the unique forces at work right now.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, league revenues in 2020 were a fraction of the usual $10 billion-plus figure that MLB takes in. What that fraction is is a matter of dispute, and players and owners will likely never agree on what exactly it is (MLB is under no legal obligation to disclose its financials, which is why it’s fair to distrust the figures they trot out for public consumption. The reality, though, is that the losses that stem from having almost no fans buying tickets and parking and concessions in 2020 and the uncertainty that fans will return in something close to standard numbers will inform teams’ financial decisions this winter.
Speaking of which, the current class of free agents is about to see the supply side flooded with a large number of non-tenders — i.e., arbitration-eligible players that teams will decide to cut loose for next season and beyond. Thanks to the current circumstances, we’ll see a high number of very useful players in that group, players that would be obvious keepers in prior offseasons. The same goes for players with significant salary obligations who are or will soon be on the trade block. They’ll also stuff the talent market — timely comparison forthcoming — as though it’s a disemboweled holiday gamefowl.
Then you’ve got the uncertainty on whether the National League will have the DH in 2021 and beyond, what the playoff structure will look like, and — above all — what the pandemic will look as the promise of a vaccine looms. That, folks, is a rather large pile of unknowns that suggest the current offseason will unfold at a trundling pace.
All that said, we can project which teams might actually spend a bit of coin this winter. Said spending will be relative and thus likely modest by the standards of most hot stoves, but the teams to follow should be the most active when it comes to signing free agents and taking on salary via trade. So in honor/dishonor of Black Friday, when Americans devote themselves to wild-eyed communal violence in the retail space, let’s have a look at those teams who figure to be willing to loosen the purse strings just a bit before Opening Day 2021. In general terms, these are teams that have plenty of room under the luxury tax threshold (or have reset their luxury tax penalties) and have legitimate designs on contention. in no particular order, which is the best order of all …
The reigning champs figure to be over the luxury tax line for 2020, but it’s their first year in the danger zone since resetting their penalty schedule. As such, they won’t be dinged all that much. As well, the Dodgers are squarely in «World Series or bust» mode, which means they’ll be looking for upgrades and or replacements across the roster. Granted improving the Dodgers’ roster is a tall order, but they still might be in the market for starting pitching and infield help. Whatever the specifics, expect L.A. to have an active winter by 2020-21 standards.
The Yankees haven’t won the World Series since 2009, which qualifies as a drought by their lofty standards. As well, they’re running out of time to get it done with their current core. On their to-do list is fleshing out the rotation behind Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino and either re-upping with or finding a replacement for DJ LeMahieu. That’ll cost ‘em.
New owner Steve Cohen has flatly stated that under him the Mets will spend at a level befitting a large-market team, which is something they haven’t done for a long time. That starts this winter and what should be an active approach to the free agent and trade markets. Don’t be surprised if one or more of the following names — Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, Francisco Lindor, Marcell Ozuna, and George Springer — winds up in Queens.
The Padres are back thanks to a profoundly impressive young core complemented by free agent additions. The work isn’t done, however, for this franchise that’s never won the belt and the title. This winter, the Padres should be in on Bauer, especially after losing deadline addition Mike Clevinger to Tommy John surgery.
Speaking of profoundly impressive young cores, the White Sox are also resurgent thanks to talents like Luis Robert, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, and Eloy Jimenez. With their sights set on the World Series under Tony La Russa (and with great organizational pressure to make that bizarre La Russa hire look defensible), the Sox should be engaged this winter in trying to fortify the rotation behind Lucas Giolito and improving the right field situation.
Owner Arte Moreno has long been an active spender on the free agent market, and last winter’s big investment, third baseman Anthony Rendon, delivered in a big way in 2020. However, the Angels once again failed to reach the postseason, and in large measure what was because of the pitching staff. Moreno has indicated that the payroll won’t be declining for 2021, which means he may be looking to add arms.
The Phillies will likely have a new head of baseball operations in place soon enough, and whoever that person is will continue trying to build a winner around the core of Bryce Harper and Aaron Nola. As well, the Phillies are about $70 million below their 2020 payroll (non-prorated figure), so there should be room in the budget.
The Sox made a thoroughly self-destructive trade of Mookie Betts in the service of getting under the luxury tax threshold. With that «goal» reached they’re now primed to add pieces around their still impressive core of position players. With Alex Cora back in the dugout, all signs point to making significant roster upgrades this winter.
Fresh off a postseason appearance and with a nice crop of young hitters in the fold, the Blue Jays have already been the subject of a number of free agent and trade rumors this offseason. They’ll do what the Padres and White Sox have done in recent seasons, and that’s to seek targeted upgrades on the market in the service of contention for seasons to come.
GM Mike Rizzo has a long history of going for it, and no doubt he’ll attempt to build a winner around Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, and Stephen Strasburg again this offseason. If the Nats are to have any hope of winning a second championship in the last three years, then they’ll need improvements at the infield corners, one outfield corner, and in the back of the rotation.
Nelson Cruz is a free agent, and Eddie Rosario is a potential non-tender candidate. That means the Twins could have a nice chunk of change to work with in filling those two holes and perhaps addressing the rotation. They’re also squarely in contending mode and desperately seeking an end to their ongoing postseason losing streak.
The Giants are beginning to emerge from what was more of a soft pivot than a deep rebuild, and that means spending to improve a roster that was surprisingly relevant this past season. Rotation and outfield help could be atop the grocery list.