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We’re always hearing rumors about which teams might be favorites to land a star free agent, and that’s great. But what about teams that could swoop in, seemingly out of nowhere, to shock us with a big signing? The “out of the box” free-agent deal, if you will?
We’ve certainly had plenty of examples in recent years — last spring, the Rockies stunned the baseball world by inking Kris Bryant to a seven-year, $182 million pact, and the Twins did the same when they struck a deal for three years and $105 million with superstar shortstop Carlos Correa (who is back on the market after opting out of the remaining two years of the contract).
We asked some of our writers to propose some free-agent signings that are perhaps unlikely, but certainly plausible. After all, there’s always “that one team,” right? Here’s a look at their ideas:
P Carlos Rodón to the Padres
Why they’re not a favorite: Because they already have quality starting pitching and need to figure out if and how they’re going to pay Juan Soto long-term.
Why they make sense: Because no one likes anything more than AJ Preller likes acquiring starting pitchers, though usually he does that via trade. The point is, he should never be counted out of any interesting move, and despite all the starting talent San Diego has, there are questions to be addressed, because Yu Darvish and Blake Snell are each signed only through 2023. Joe Musgrove is around through 2027, of course, so Preller could simply add Rodón, kick back, and watch his 2023 rotation excel.
But there’s a second-level possibility here, which is that signing Rodón allows Preller to trade Snell to a team that desperately needs above-average starting pitching, perhaps one that doesn’t usually go so big in free agency or is staring at the limited number of top-end free agents available. If you’re thinking that Snell is pitching in Minnesota or Texas next year, so are we.
P Jacob deGrom to the Angels
Why they’re not a favorite: The Angels haven’t signed a marquee free-agent starter since adding Shohei Ohtani, instead taking flyers in recent offseasons on struggling veterans like Noah Syndergaard, Julio Teheran, Matt Harvey and José Quintana. As for deGrom, the Halos aren’t even the favorite within their own division, as the Rangers have been tied to the two-time Cy Young Award winner — and not much has surfaced about any potential interest from the Angels.
Why they make sense: With Ohtani set to hit free agency following next season, this may be the Angels’ final chance to make a postseason run with two of the best players in the world on their roster. Mike Trout has just one postseason appearance — and zero postseason wins — in his remarkable 12-year career. Ohtani has never played on the MLB postseason stage. Now, after missing repeatedly on potential reclamation projects in previous offseasons, the Angels need to add a bona fide ace to pair with Ohtani.
Of course, deGrom carries some risk of his own, having pitched only 156 1/3 innings over the past two seasons, but Los Angeles has shown it’s willing to roll the dice on injury-plagued pitchers in the past, so it may as well be for a potential season-altering arm. Plus, the Halos could deploy a six-man rotation as they’ve done at times in recent seasons to limit the workloads for both deGrom and Ohtani, especially after already adding All-Star left-hander Tyler Anderson.
C Willson Contreras to the Guardians
Why they’re not a favorite: Bo Naylor, the Guardians’ No. 5 prospect, is the catcher of the future and could be ready to take over as soon as 2023. Plus, Contreras may command upwards of $20 million per season and Cleveland does not have an extensive track record of making splashy, long-term signings on the free-agent market.
Why they make sense: The Guardians could just re-sign Austin Hedges — and maybe they should. Compared to the 30-year-old Contreras, the 30-year-old Hedges is the superior defensive player. However, it’s no secret that Cleveland needs to bolster its run production, especially behind the plate. Guardians backstops ranked last during the 2022 regular season in batting average (.180), slugging percentage (.267) and were 29th in wRC+ (56). Hedges paced that group, posting a .163/.241/.248 slash line with a 42 wRC+. No catcher did less with the bat over at least 300 plate appearances.
Conversely, Contreras is coming off of a banner year in the batter’s box. His 132 wRC+ was a personal best and he smacked at least 20 homers for the third consecutive full season. Since the start of 2019, he has the fourth-most homers (74) and the third-best OPS (.816) among all qualified catchers. He is the kind of presence the Guardians needed as they were struggling to scratch out runs in the postseason, scoring only 17 across seven games.
If Cleveland doesn’t feel comfortable with Contreras handling its pitching staff, it could try him out at first base; he played there sparingly during his early years with the Cubs. The Guardians would probably like a defensive upgrade from Josh Naylor there anyway. Contreras may not be that guy, but Cleveland’s defense is good enough to withstand a dip in overall value and still be well above average. What’s most important is Contreras possesses the plate pop that the Guardians’ lineup sorely lacks.
INF Xander Bogaerts to the White Sox
Why they’re not a favorite: They already have a starting shortstop in Tim Anderson, who is controllable through 2024 via a $14 million club option, and haven’t been linked to the free-agent shortstop market yet.
Why they make sense: After a disappointing 81-81 finish in 2022, the White Sox might convince themselves that they already have what they need to get back into contention in 2023, as they count on bounceback seasons from Lucas Giolito and Yoán Moncada, as well as better health from Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez and Lance Lynn and a breakout from Andrew Vaughn. In a weak AL Central, they may well be right. But to be a true title contender, it’s going to take more. Even if some of the aforementioned factors go in Chicago’s favor, the team still has glaring holes in its lineup, especially with José Abreu hitting free agency.
Vaughn could slot in as Abreu’s defensive replacement, but the White Sox need someone to replace the 2020 AL MVP’s bat. Bogaerts seems like a great option considering they were nearly identical hitters last season — Abreu hit .304 with 15 homers, 40 doubles and a 133 OPS+ over 157 games for the White Sox, while Bogaerts put up a .307 average with 15 homers, 38 doubles and a 131 OPS+ in 150 games for the Red Sox. The difference between them is that Bogaerts is almost six years younger and provides much greater defensive value.
The White Sox may decide to pursue lower-profile options at second base and hope for the best when it comes to their holdovers, but this is the type of move they should be thinking about if they’re serious about a deep October run (assuming they can convince Bogaerts or Anderson to move to second base).
P Justin Verlander to the Orioles
Why they’re not a favorite: The Orioles’ emergence in 2022 was exciting, and, to many, unexpected. A team that is likely perceived as still a few years away from a World Series title — even if a postseason berth seems realistic for ‘23 — probably wouldn’t be in the market for a starter who will be 40 years old on Opening Day.
Why they make sense: But this isn’t any soon-to-be-40 starter … it’s Justin Verlander, who just became the fourth-oldest Cy Young Award winner and the first to win at any age after not throwing a single MLB inning the year prior. He hasn’t shown signs of slowing down, so why not add him and his leadership?
The Orioles will be in the starting pitching market after ranking 21st in rotation ERA in ‘22, and it’s fascinating to think of the effect Verlander could have on the likes of John Means and others already on the big league roster, plus Grayson Rodriguez (MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 prospect) and DL Hall (No. 87). Not to mention the production Verlander would provide on the mound himself.
SS Trea Turner to the Yankees
Why they’re not a favorite: If you’re going to believe the early offseason buzz, the Yankees have been indicating they won’t target the big free-agent shortstops this offseason. Aaron Judge is priority No. 1, the Yankees already passed on an equally star-studded shortstop class last offseason, and now top prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza are theoretically ready to take over the middle infield.
Why they make sense: Who cares what the rumors say? The Yankees need a star shortstop. They just saw the cost of settling for less, as Isiah Kiner-Falefa created a huge hole at the position in the postseason. They could have had Corey Seager. Now they could have Turner. Who knows how their prospects pan out? Maybe Volpe and Peraza are great; maybe they’re not.
If they’re not, you have Turner as the answer at short. If they are, put Volpe at second base for now. Heck, put Turner at second base, or in center field, where he’s played capably before. Having that star up the middle was the biggest missing piece for a World Series contender in 2022. Landing Turner as that star would have ripple effects across a World Series-contending roster in 2023.
RF Aaron Judge to the Braves
Why they’re not a favorite: With the Braves commiting more than half a billion dollars in contract extensions last season – locking up Matt Olson, NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II, runner-up Spencer Strider and Austin Riley for years to come – Atlanta now turns its attention to trying to do the same with star shortstop Dansby Swanson. With all of these financial commitments on the books and another potentially coming soon with Swanson, the Braves would very likely have to cross over into luxury tax territory to sign Judge. While ownership has declared its intention to become a top-five payroll in baseball, increasing it to more than $230 million might be pushing it.
Why they make sense: Imagine a super outfield of Judge, Harris II, and Ronald Acuña Jr. Would it be expensive? Yes. But would it be the best outfield in the Majors? Yes. And it could very well give the Braves the extra power they need to return to the World Series after being bounced by the Phillies in last month’s NL Division Series.
The signing of Judge would make Marcell Ozuna tradeable, and Atlanta could utilize that to address an area of need such as the bullpen. Shore up the relief corps and couple that with the expected return of Mike Soroka to a starting rotation that already features Strider, NL Cy Young Award finalist Max Fried and Kyle Wright, and you’ve got the makings of a team that could be considered the best in the NL.