The free agent class of winter 2020/2021 was one of the more talent-rich in recent memory. Franchise players in the prime of their respective careers were all looking for deals to secure their future (and their payday). Most of them got exactly that.
Teams like the Mets and the Twins were active early and often, signing a high volume of players they hope will make the difference down the stretch and for depth. Meanwhile, other teams targeted one or two names to round out their rosters. The White Sox, for example, brought in Liam Hendriks to shore up their pitching staff. Both strategies have their merits, though there appear to be a small contingent of teams with a higher ceiling than others following their offseason activities.
Let’s take a look at who’s coming out of the 2021 free agent sweepstakes with the biggest upgrades.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays doled out the year’s largest free agent contract to CF George Springer valued at 6 years/$150 million. He’ll slide into the leadoff spot and play centre field where he’s a significant upgrade to Randal Grichuk on all sides of the ball. This will give the batting order the density it needs to chip away at the team’s paltry RISP history. The pursuit of standout infielder Marcus Semien puts a pretty serious stamp on the club’s push for a breakout season with their young core. Semien is a big clubhouse guy and as smooth as they come defensively. He also broke out offensively in 2019 with Oakland, notching 33 home runs along with a .285/.369/.522 batting line. An infield stacked with names like Biggio, Bichette, Semien, and Guerrero Jr. is tough to argue with.
The potential is there for the Jays, and so are the offensive fireworks. They haven’t struggled to hit the ball this spring, so increased run support might be all they need to compete with the Yankees in the AL East. Run support is a key to success because the biggest question mark is their pitching staff. Toronto’s front office tried to patch up bullpen gaps in the offseason, but there still isn’t a clear number two behind ace Hyun Jin Ryu. If the Jays missed any opportunity in free agency, it was failing to land one of the big-name starters.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Speaking of big-name starters, the Dodgers did what they arguably didn’t need to do after winning the World Series. They went out and signed controversy magnet and 2020 Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer.
Last season’s trade deadline saw the steady Ross Stripling head to Toronto, though the Dodgers got by just fine with Kershaw, Buehler, Dustin May and co. down the stretch. By securing a dominant rotation, it keeps them one step ahead of the surging Padres, who managed to pick up a few elite names for their own rotation via trade this offseason. There are at least three aces in this rotation. Opponents simply won’t find much to hit if they all say healthy.
In the field, the Dodgers made a one more important investment: third baseman Justin Turner re-signed for two more years, keeping the roster almost identical to their championship-winning club. There didn’t appear to be much room for improvement, but LA found it. They are still the best team in baseball.
The best team in the AL Central, the Minnesota Twins, made a splash in free agency with depth in mind. The Twins locked up veteran arms Alex Colomé, J.A. Happ, Hansel Robles, and Matt Shoemaker to round out their pitching staff. Colomé is a dominant late-innings guy coming from the division rival White Sox. He’s notched 42 saves in 46 opportunities between ’19 and ‘20. Happ might be approaching 40 years of age, but he still chews up innings like a guy who’s a decade younger. The Yankees didn’t give him the innings they should have in 2020 and he’ll be looking to show his value. Shoemaker is a high risk/high reward move – more on his potential below. Robles will likely be a lower leverage bullpen arm and build his way back after a shaky 2020. Overall, more options for the Twins means they can be flexible in how they structure their bullpen.
Former Angel and defensive juggernaut Andrelton Simmons is also a Twin now. If his injury issues are behind him this season, the left side of the infield is looking as strong as ever with Simmons and third baseman Josh Donaldson playing together. Minnesota also retained the services of their longtime slugger Nelson Cruz, now entering his age 40 season and still crushing the ball. This is a team who broke the single-season home run record in 2019 (in August!) and who will need the most out of their team to defend their AL Central title against the White Sox.
Chicago White Sox
Free agency brought to town right fielder Adam Eaton, whose hustle and tidy defensive work are great additions to Luis Robert in centre and Eloy Jiménez in left. This is actually Eaton’s second stint with the Chicago. He played for the Sox for three seasons (’14-’16) before landing in Washington for four seasons where he won a World Series in 2019. For a team with a great mix of young talent and veteran leadership, he’ll fit in well.
The biggest move for the White Sox was acquiring closer Liam Hendriks. The hard-throwing Australian is arguably the most elite closer in the game right now. Outgoing closer Alex Colomé was solid and will be a great addition to the Twins, but Hendriks brings something to the Sox bullpen that’s simply not present in other closers. He’s proven to be less injury-prone than most and can absolutely dominate hitters without walking them in high leverage situations. Since Chicago is in a position to compete with just about anybody, Hendriks is the man they’ll need to secure wins late in the game.
The south siders are officially in the hunt for the Twins atop the AL Central. Their exciting group of young starters bring a swagger to the ballpark that’s been building in the White Sox organisation over the last few years. Tim Anderson, José Abreu, and 2020 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Robert are just a few examples of the kind of spark the Sox group can bring to the field every day. Now, they’re in a position to make a legitimate run for the division title.
Briefly, the biggest free agents who are staying put:
- ATL Marcell Ozuna
- HOU Michael Brantley
- LAD Justin Turner
- MIN Nelson Cruz
- NYY D.J. LeMahieu
- PHI J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius
Four under-the-radar signings:
1. 37-year-old Charlie Morton is potentially playing the best baseball of his career. The righty, entering his fourteenth major league season, finished third in Cy Young voting in 2019 and made two consecutive All-Star teams in 2018 and 2019. His dominant 2020 postseason performance with Tampa Bay was more than enough to draw a one-year/$15 million contract from Atlanta. If he continues his late-career surge, he could be a key piece of Atlanta’s highly competitive group over the next few years.
2. Another starter of note is Matt Shoemaker, who signed a one-year deal with the Twins worth $2 million. Shoemaker’s reputation in recent years has had more to do with his propensity for unfortunate injuries, like being struck in the head by a line drive in 2016 or tearing his ACL during a rundown in 2019. Before that knee injury he had posted a 1.57 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP over five starts. Based on what he can do when he’s healthy, Minnesota could have another solid veteran arm in place to complement their powerful lineup. Or they might be down a man when it counts. The risk is definitely present.
3. As a team, the Milwaukee Brewers are somewhat of an understated group. They’re on a quiet upswing having made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons since 2018. This offseason they sought out elite defenders Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Kolten Wong. The Brew Crew now have three Gold Gloves in the outfield with Bradley Jr., Christian Yelich, and Lorenzo Cain. Avisaíl García is no slouch as a fourth option, either. Wong will solidify the middle infield at second alongside the likely shortstop platoon of Luis Urias and Orlando Arcia. This team will be fun to watch as they compete for tops in the NL Central.
4. The Mets went all out in free agency, signing no fewer than six players to major league contracts when all was said and done. At the same time, they lost catcher Wilson Ramos to free agency and were left with no clear replacement in the organisation. One signing that’s flown under the radar a bit is that of James McCann. McCann has always been an excellent defensive catcher, but he has quietly risen to top 10 in the league, in part due to his emerging bat. 2019 and 2020 were his best offensive seasons of his career, where his OPS reached .789 and .896, respectively. The Mets are getting a guy who pitchers like throwing to, who makes hard contact at the plate, and who can both prevent and generate runs. He might not be J.T. Realmuto, who the Mets also courted in the offseason, but he’s someone who can make a difference for the squad over the next four years.
There’s more to the offseason story than just free agents, but the names who came and went have the potential to be difference-makers around the league. And it doesn’t stop now that the season is here. With a cohort of exciting players coming into free agency following the 2021 season, there are also plenty of storylines to look forward to.
The shortstops alone are worth watching. Carlos Correa and Tim Anderson are both approaching their contracts’ end. Francisco Lindor hasn’t yet reached an agreement to extend his stay in New York. Will Javy Baez stay with the Cubs or look for success elsewhere? Are the Rockies going to trade Trevor Story before they lose him to the free agent market? Will Corey Seager join the other long-term Dodgers? There will be lots of opportunity for teams to continue upgrading their lineups, just like many did this offseason.