In today’s video, Jeff Todd explores the MLB free agent deals that have absolutely floored the MLBTR writing staff. Stick around until the end to see which one stunned us the most!
Mike Moustakas came off the market when he signed a surprisingly large contract (four years, $64MM) with the Reds in December. It turns out that the Blue Jays were among the runners-up for Moustakas, per MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, who tweets that they made him a three-year, $30MM offer. The Reds obviously blew that proposal out of the water, however, and the Jays pivoted to a much cheaper corner infielder Travis Shaw (one year, $4MM). A third baseman for most of his career, Moustakas is set to handle second in Cincinnati. That position is spoken for in Toronto (Cavan Biggio), as is third (Vladimir Guerrero Jr.), so it seems likely Moustakas would have worked at 1B extensively for the first time in his career had the club won the bidding for him. Instead, the Blue Jays will hope for a bounce-back season from Shaw, who was teammates with Moustakas in Milwaukee last year.
Let’s move over to the NL East…
- The Braves lost their top free agent, Josh Donaldson, to the Twins’ four-year, $92MM offer over the winter. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos acknowledged afterward that the team put forth an offer that came up short. Heyman has some details on it, reporting that the Braves were willing to go to four years in the range of $75MM to $90MM to retain Donaldson. That’s a wide gap, so it’s unknown just how much money Donaldson would have left on the table to re-sign with Atlanta. Regardless, the club now looks to be in much less impressive shape at third, where Austin Riley and Johan Camargo are competing for the starting role.
- Infielder Neil Walker signed a minor league contract with the Phillies over the winter, but he has no plans to play below the MLB level. “I’m not going to concede to the notion of retiring as a 34-year-old who is in good shape,” Walker told Matt Gelb of The Athletic (subscription link). “But I’m not going to play in Triple A.” For now, Walker’s continuing to compete for a reserve role in Philadelphia, but if he’s unable to find a big league job with the Phillies or another team this season, it’s possible it’ll be the end of the line for the longtime second baseman. The switch-hitting Walker did still have something to offer at the plate last season, though, as he batted .261/.344/.395 (99 wRC+) in 381 trips.
- As a back-to-back Cy Young winner, it doesn’t seem that Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom has to change anything. But the ace is now working on adding more curveballs into his repertoire, Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News writes. According to FanGraphs, deGrom’s usage of the pitch ranged from 7.9 percent to 10.8 percent from 2014-18. The number dropped to 3 percent in 2019, when opposing hitters had their way with it to the tune of a .364 weighted on-base average. That was the only pitch deGrom threw last year that hitters could even muster a .300 mark against. He was dominant overall, notching a 2.43 ERA/2.67 FIP with 11.25 K/9 and 1.94 BB/9 over 204 innings.
Those following the Brewers at a distance may not have paid much attention to their tempered approach to the offseason. It’s easy to look at their winter and see a modest collection of stopgaps to stanch the roster bleed of departing vets like Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas. Look a littler closer, however, and you’ll find President of Baseball Ops and GM David Stearns created a two-year window of flexible and affordable contracts to keep Craig Counsell’s squad in contention, writes Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
With Christian Yelich and Josh Hader, the Brew Crew have some of the best high-end talent in the game, but they’ve done a nice job filling out the infield with one-and-one contracts for Brock Holt, Eric Sogard, Justin Smoak, and Jedd Gyorko. Along with trade acquisition Luis Urias, the Brewers found a grab bag of roster pieces to power their infield engine in a wide-open NL Central. Holdovers Keston Hiura and Orlando Arcia join the extensive group of infielders vying for playing time.
Though Arcia is still just 25-years-old and has notched some big performances for the Brewers in recent seasons, his grip on everyday at-bats is loosening. Urias’ injury has provided Arcia with a last-ditch opportunity to prove his mettle. He certainly brings attitude and flair to the diamond, but two seasons of a .228/.277/.333 line dims the outlook on Arcia’s offensive potential for sure. Still, of the newcomers in the clubhouse, only Urias really threatens Arcia’s everyday status at short.
Of all rostered Brewers not named Yelich, Hiura has the highest ceiling. Thus, the onus lies largely (if unfairly) on his shoulders to make up the offensive production left behind by Grandal and Moustakas (who put up a combined 7 oWAR last season per baseball-reference). He put up a robust .303/.368/.570 line in just 84 games as a 22-year-old after being called up last season (139 wRC+). His power numbers have fluctuated throughout his professional career, but the hit tool has consistently played, and the Brewers are counting on Hiura to do some damage from the middle of their order.
The final piece of the infield puzzle for Counsell is long-time face-of-the-franchise Ryan Braun. Braun could see a majority of his time at first base with Avisail Garcia and Ben Gamel lining up with Yelich and Lorenzo Cain in the outfield. The exact formula for the rest of the lineup has no shortage of variables, but Counsell has proven himself an adept engineer. Importantly for Milwaukee, if any of the newly-acquired pieces fail to meld, they’ve maintained the flexibility, financially and structurally, to pivot.
The Cardinals haven’t checked in on Dallas Keuchel since initially showing interest in the veteran lefty near the start of the offseason, The Athletic’s Mark Saxon reports (subscription required). While president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said told Saxon and other reporters that his team has been focused mostly on pitching during the Winter Meetings, “the Cardinals have chosen instead to slow-play their hand,” Saxon writes, perhaps to the chagrin of agents trying to get St. Louis involved in the fast-moving pitching market. “For us, we’re OK being patient,” Mozeliak said of a rotation that currently consists of Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, and the club’s biggest winter addition to date, the re-signed Adam Wainwright. This decent group and multiple fifth-starter candidates on hand give the Cardinals the comfort in waiting until later in the offseason to add pitchers once asking prices from both free agents and trade partners could begin to drop.
More from the free agent market….
- Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told reporters (including MASNsports.com’s Mark Zuckerman) that he had begun talks with Daniel Hudson’s agent about a possible return to the World Series champs. After being acquired in a trade deadline deal from the Blue Jays, Hudson had a huge role in stabilizing Washington’s season-long bullpen problems, posting a 1.44 ERA over 25 regular season innings and then a 3.72 ERA over 9 2/3 frames in the playoffs as the Nats’ closer. This great showing down the stretch has Hudson asking for a multi-year deal in free agency, Zuckerman hears from a source, though Zuckerman isn’t sure the Nationals will make such a commitment to a pitcher whose overall performance over the last few years is far more inconsistent. MLBTR did predict a multi-year contract for Hudson (two years, $12MM) while ranking him 28th on our list of the winter’s 50 best free agents.
- In terms of other pitching needs, Rizzo expressed confidence in internal arms. The general manager feels relievers Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland will be better than 2020 due to improved health, and Joe Ross, Austin Voth, Erick Fedde will seemingly provide all the competition necessary for the fifth starter’s job. “I think we’re more than satisfied with our rotation,” Rizzo said, and with good cause, considering the Nationals’ starting four of Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, and the re-signed Stephen Strasburg.
- With multiple pitchers flying off the board, the rotation-needy Blue Jays “began to engage more aggressively with” Tanner Roark, Josh Lindblom, and Rick Porcello over the last two days, Sportsnet.ca’s Shi Davidi writes. The result was one miss as Lindblom signed with the Brewers, one success in the form of a two-year, $24MM deal with Roark, and one result to be determined as Porcello continues to weigh his options. Toronto is also looking towards relief pitchers, as Davidi reports that Hector Rondon has received some interest.
- Davidi’s piece also contains some interesting details on two other Blue Jays targets who signed elsewhere. The Jays met with Blake Treinen’s agent prior to Treinen’s one-year, $10MM pact with the Dodgers. Perhaps more surprisingly, it seems the Blue Jays put significant effort into a pursuit of Mike Moustakas, as GM Ross Atkins and manager Charlie Montoyo both visited Moustakas at his home. Toronto wasn’t known to be an ardent suitor for Moustakas, though his left-handed power bat and multi-positional infield ability would have made him a quality upgrade for the Jays’ lineup. Moustakas wound up surpassing all expectations by landing four years and $64MM in a deal with the Reds.
With the Winter Meetings upon us, let’s round up the latest chatter on the market to start the morning …
- The Dodgers could play a fascinating role in the proceedings. As the L.A. front office works on major potential free agent moves, it’s also dabbling in the trade market involving some existing pieces. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports on Twitter that the club is open to discussing trade scenarios involving A.J. Pollock and Enrique Hernandez, along with the previously rumored Joc Pederson. Pollock just finished the first season of a complicated free agent contract, while Hernandez and Pederson each project to earn significant arbitration salaries in their final seasons of eligibility. MLBTR’s Connor Byrne recently broke down a potentially complicated offseason for the seven-time defending NL West champs.
- Outfielder Nicholas Castellanos may be down a suitor, but the news seems to be good. The Marlins are “out of the bidding,” according to Jim Bowden of The Athletic (via Twitter), owing to the fact that the auction ask has “sky rocketed” in the wake of the surprisingly lofty Mike Moustakas deal. Castellanos has always seemed a tricky player to predict. The youthful, bat-first performer might in past years have been a candidate for a top-of-the-market contract. But recent trends have not favored defensively marginal sluggers. We guessed he’d get four years and $58MM; now that Moustakas has topped that guarantee, perhaps Castellanos can be expected to go higher. His market still appears to be taking shape but could conceivably come together quickly over the next few days.
- Free agent shortstop Didi Gregorius appears “likely” to secure a significant, multi-year deal, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network (via Twitter). Heyman hears that Gregorius could land an average annual value of $14MM to $15MM — which is just what we predicted he’d get (over three years) in our top-50 free agent ranking. It’s still unclear where Gregorius will land. Heyman suggests that the bidding may go too high for the Reds, possibly leaving the Phillies and unknown others to pursue the veteran infielder.
Dec. 5: The Reds have formally announced the agreement and confirmed the reported contractual terms. Moustakas has agreed to a four-year, $64MM deal — the largest free-agent signing in Reds franchise history.
Bobby Nightengale Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer breaks down the yearly details: Moustakas will earn $12MM in 2020, $14MM in 2021, $16MM in 2022 and $18MM in 2023. There’s also an unannounced club option for the 2024 season that is valued at $20MM and comes with a $4MM buyout.
Dec. 2: The Reds have agreed to a deal with free agent infielder Mike Moustakas, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network (Twitter links). It’s a four-year, $64MM pact for the Scott Boras client, according to reports from Heyman and Jeff Passan of ESPN.com (via Twitter).
After two disappointing trips through the free agent process, it seems Moose has finally secured a long-awaited long-term agreement. His recently demonstrated ability to line up at second base was a game changer for the long-time third baseman. Moustakas now appears likely to pair up with Freddy Galvis to form a bit of an unlikely double-play combo in Cincinnati.
We predicted a five-year pact for Moustakas after the 2017 season, when he was a high-quality and still youthful third baseman. After he was forced into a pillow deal, we downgraded expectations to a two-year deal entering the 2018-19 winter. Moustakas again settled for a single-season guarantee from the Brewers. On the heels of another solid, but hardly otherworldly season, we doubled down on that two-year guess … only to see Moustakas absolutely smash expectations.
Having seen him up close over the past two seasons, the Reds clearly believe that Moustakas is not only capable of holding down the fort at second base, but doing so well and for some years to come. The corners are already locked up for the foreseeable future with Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez.
And the Cincinnati front office is also going all-in on the bat of Moustakas. He has now twice exceeded thirty home runs and has topped the .200 mark in isolated power in each of the past four campaigns. The power is real, but so are the on-base struggles. Moustakas’s .329 OBP from 2019 was a career high-water mark but barely topped the league average.
Over the course of his career, Moustakas has reached base at a marginal .310 clip. Can he sustain and even extend his relatively productive 2019 in the OBP arena? Moustakas did carry a personal-best 9.1% walk rate in 2019, though his swinging-strike rate also crept up to a new high-water mark (11.0%). He has never hit much for average, so continued commitment to drawing free passes may be the ticket.
Even at his best, Moustakas has never rated as a true star. He has topped 2.0 fWAR in each of the past three campaigns but hasn’t gone past 3.0 since 2015. While bWAR put him at 3.2 wins above replacement in 2019, it took a dimmer view of his prior three seasons. And at this point, youth isn’t really on Moose’s side. But the Reds obviously feel that Moustakas will continue to be a steady producer and were willing to pay for his consistency. It stands to reason that other teams did as well, since the bidding pushed so far north.
The latest on the Brew Crew….
- Yasmani Grandal is now a member of the White Sox, though the Brewers made “multiple offers” to the free agent catcher, as per reporter Robert Murray (via Twitter). Milwaukee had natural interest in a reunion given how well Grandal played in 2019, though Chicago’s four-year, $73MM contract was enough to outbid the Brewers. With Grandal officially no longer an option, catcher becomes perhaps the Brewers’ biggest area of need this winter, as the club will be looking for a solid regular to join in-house options Manny Pina, David Freitas, and Jacob Nottingham. Grandal, by the way, issued a thank-you to both the Brewers and their fans on his Instagram account today.
- With Grandal gone, Mike Moustakas is the biggest remaining Brewers free agent. While Milwaukee would also like to retain Moustakas, Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tweets that the infielder “has considerable interest” from other teams. The Phillies, Braves, and Rangers are three of the clubs who have been linked to Moustakas in past reports, and it’s fair to imagine that lots of other teams would see a fit for a power hitter who can play second or third base.
- The Brewers added three players to their 40-man roster yesterday in advance of the deadline for teams to set their rosters in advance of the Rule 5 Draft. As you might expect, “these are not 100 percent easy, clear decisions to make on some players,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns told MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy and other reporters. While Milwaukee has only 36 players on its 40-man, teams often leave spaces open for future additions or other roster maneuvering prior to December 12, when the Rule 5 Draft takes place. This means that other teams could select some notable Brewers youngsters who weren’t protected, such as right-hander Zack Brown, currently ranked by MLB.com as the third-best prospect in Milwaukee’s farm system. Brown was quickly ascending up the minor league ladder and was the Brewers’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2018, though his 2019 numbers (5.79 ERA over his first 116 2/3 innings at the Triple-A level) were a step backwards. Stearns admitted that these struggles “certainly influenced our decision,” though “we still have high hopes for Zack Brown.” If Brown is chosen, his new team would have to keep him on its Major League roster for the entire 2020 season to gain his permanent rights, or else the team would have to offer Brown back to Milwaukee.
- Former Marlins infielder Ed Lucas has been hired as the Brewers’ new minor league hitting coordinator, as per Robert Murray (Twitter link). Lucas’ post-playing career has thus far included three seasons in administrative and development roles with the Phillies and Marlins. Lucas played for seven different organizations from 2004-16, a career that includes 163 MLB games with Miami in 2013-14.
The Rangers enter the winter attempting to load up on starting pitching, Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram writes. It’s possible the club will seek to acquire three starters in some form or fashion, though GM Jon Daniels says “the number is yet to be determined.”
Just how that need will be met is awfully tough to guess at this point. We covered the club’s obvious need for multiple arms in previewing the team’s offseason situation. But as we said there, there’s such a bounty of possibility that it’s nearly impossible to pick favorites.
Daniels said as much when he chatted with the press from the GM Meetings. Beyond the “couple guys that stand out at the top” of the market, he said of this year’s free agent starters, “you can probably rank them a bunch of different ways.” The Rangers, he says, are “open to a lot of different things.”
While we don’t know whether the Rangers will gun for the elite arms, and can’t be sure who they most fancy further down the board, Wilson says the organization is aiming to land at least one “proven arm” to pair with top starters Mike Minor and Lance Lynn. In MLBTR’s top fifty free agent list, we guessed the club would come away with Hyun-jin Ryu, but we also considered the organization a plausible fit for a dozen other starters.
So, does all this talk of starting pitching mean the Rangers aren’t quite as engaged in the third base market as we predicted in the above-linked analyses? Not so much. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News explains that the club is pursuing a multi-track strategy to install a star at the hot corner.
We heard recently that the Texas organization is making a concerted push for Josh Donaldson, an older but still-excellent firebrand. But Grant says the club prefers the more youthful Texas native Anthony Rendon, who is Donaldson’s polar opposite in temperament and superior in present ability. Mike Moustakas, it seems, features as a possible backup plan.
It seems the Rangers intend to push hard on both of those premium third baggers, bidding at least until the auction price gets too steep. Presumably, this situation will tie into the pitching side, to some extent. Should the Rangers land a star, they’ll have greater cause to ensure their rotation is up to snuff. On the other hand, missing on Rendon and Donaldson would seem to leave more dry powder to work with.
Grant drops one other nugget that’s worth highlighting with regard to Donaldson. We predicted the veteran would secure a three-year guarantee at $25MM annually (and that he’d ink that deal with the Rangers). But there’s now enough market pressure, per Grant, that “there is a growing thought that to get something done quickly with him would require a fourth year or an option with a significant buyout tacked on to third year.” That’s a big ask for someone on the cusp of his 34th birthday, though Donaldson is an elite performer and we have seen four-year pacts for even older players (e.g., Ben Zobrist).
The latest on Philadelphia…
- Free-agent third baseman Mike Moustakas “is very much on the Phillies’ radar,” Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia writes. The 31-year-old Moustakas would provide an affordable, short-term Band-Aid at third for the Phillies as they continue to wait for prospect Alec Bohm to take the reins at the position. And Moustakas would be a major upgrade over Maikel Franco, who, after disappointing yet again in 2019, now looks like a surefire non-tender or trade candidate.
- Signing Moustakas to handle third for what would presumably be a reasonable sum would make it easier for the Phillies to dedicate a significant amount of cash to their uninspiring starting staff. Indeed, the likelihood is that the Phillies will use most of their spending room on pitching, according to Salisbury, who adds that the club will at least participate in the sweepstakes for the No. 1 starter available, Gerrit Cole. Signing Cole, a qualifying offer recipient, would cost the Phillies their second-highest draft pick and $500K in international bonus pool space (but more importantly an enormous sum of money). While general manager Matt Klentak seems averse to surrendering draft capital for a free agent, Salisbury contends he’d be willing to do it for the right player. That could prove to be Cole, who – like now-Phillie Bryce Harper a year ago – may be in position to sign the richest contract of anyone on the open market. While the Phillies gave Harper a 13-year contract last offseason, there’s at least some hesitance on their part to make an overly long commitment to a pitcher. “Pitching is fragile and if you’re relying on free-agent starting pitching to build your organization, you go into that knowing you may be left disappointed at some point in that contract,” Klentak said. “Even the Phillies during their great run from ’07 to ‘11, some of the more notable pitchers (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) that they brought in were really good at the front end of those contracts and not healthy at the back end of those contracts.”
- The Phillies’ roster remains a work in progress, but they already have their manager in place for 2020. The club hired former Marlins/Yankees skipper Joe Girardi a couple weeks ago, and doing so unsurprisingly cost Philly a decent chunk of money. The Phillies awarded the onetime World Series-winning skipper a three-year deal worth roughly $11MM in guaranteed money, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network. That total falls just shy of the $12MM the Angels handed new manager Joe Maddon, Heyman notes.
The Braves are in danger of losing one of baseball’s premier third basemen, free agent Josh Donaldson. With no obvious replacement on hand (general manager Alex Anthopoulos seems reluctant to hand the job to Austin Riley), the club figures to explore the free-agent and trade markets for hot corner help if it does see Donaldson depart. Mike Moustakas is the third-best free-agent 3B on the market, trailing Anthony Rendon and Donaldson, Atlanta is “looking at” him, Jon Heyman of MLB Network tweets.
Unlike Rendon and Donaldson, Moustakas isn’t going to cost a bank-breaking amount to sign. That alone makes him a decent fit for the Braves, who are more a mid-tier spender than a high-payroll club. The 31-year-old Moustakas is a free agent for the third straight offseason, and though he garnered fairly modest guarantees over the previous two winters, the former Royal and Brewer has nonetheless been quite valuable.
This past season, Moustakas slashed .254/.329/.516 with 35 home runs and 2.8 fWAR across 584 plate appearances. For the most part, those aren’t Rendon- or Donaldson-caliber numbers, but they’re plenty respectable relative to the amount Moustakas could receive this offseason. MLBTR projects Moustakas will sign for a reasonable $20MM over two years (with the Braves, in fact) – a far cry from what Rendon and Donaldson are likely to receive. And Moustakas doesn’t come with a qualifying offer attached, so signing him would not cost draft compensation.
While Moustakas does hold appeal, it seems the Braves’ goal is to re-sign Donaldson for what’s likely to be a far higher amount. According to Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Anthopoulos & Co. would “undoubtedly” like to bring back Donaldson, who was brilliant in 2019 after signing a one-year, $23MM pact with the club last winter. Anthopoulos wasn’t willing to discuss Donaldson on Tuesday, saying, “Normally I would speak on it, but I’m not going to get into free agents,” but he has made it known in recent weeks that he wants the soon-to-be 34-year-old back.
Aside from third, what other areas are the Braves aiming to bolster? Anthopoulos’ thoughts: “We have rotation needs, we can get better in the bullpen. Offensively, we’re always looking to get better. We need someone to pair with (catcher Tyler) Flowers, with Brian McCann retired. We don’t have an order, but we have so many areas that if we think there are good deals there, we’ll try to get them done.”
The rotation may well be the primary focus for Atlanta, which is lacking immediate answers besides Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz. Dallas Keuchel gave the club 112 2/3 effective innings in 2019, but it’s “unlikely” Atlanta will re-sign the now-free agent, according to Burns. So, it seems probable the Braves will add at least one proven starter, whether it’s Madison Bumgarner (whom they’ve been connected to) or another name. Regardless, the Braves are planning to give left-hander Sean Newcomb another chance to emerge as a viable starter, per Anthopoulos (via David O’Brien of The Athletic).
In Anthopoulos’ estimation, “it makes sense for us to at least have him stretched out in spring and then go from there.” Newcomb was a highly touted starter prospect a couple years back, and he showed plenty of promise in the Braves’ rotation from 2017-18. However, the 26-year-old spent almost all of 2019 as a reliever after his control failed him over four starts.
As Anthopoulos noted, the Braves still have to figure out whom their pitchers will throw to in 2020. Flowers is coming back on a restructured deal, but McCann’s gone and Francisco Cervelli is a free agent. There are a few starting-caliber backstops in free agency in Yasmani Grandal, Jason Castro, Travis d’Arnaud and Robinson Chirinos, while there has been trade speculation centering on the Cubs’ Willson Contreras. But it remains to be seen whether the Braves would aim that high (Grandal could cost $60MM-plus) or settle for a backup type to pair with Flowers.
Just a few weeks removed from their second straight NL East-winning season, the Braves are clearly a team with enviable talent. But their holes are obvious at the same time, and it’ll be interesting to see how Anthopoulos addresses them this winter in an effort to get the team closer to its first World Series title since 1995.