It wasn’t hard to predict that this year’s major league free-agent market would be off to a less-than-scintillating start this offseason, but that could change now that the Washington Nationals and other teams have passed the deadline for offering contracts to arbitration eligible players.
Teams had until 8:00 PM on Wednesday night, and after taking excessive financial losses in a COVID-shortened 60-game 2020 season, they responded by sending a record 59 eligible players into free agency. Teams also blamed the massive revenue loss for hundreds of layoffs and a consolidation of the minor leagues that eliminated 42 teams, leaving hundreds more players, coaches and other minor league employees out of work.
Even now that COVID vaccines have been submitted for federal approval, teams and players still don’t know if it will be safe for fans to attend games or what other revenue sources will look like heading into 2021, the last year of the current collective bargaining agreement between baseball and its players’ union. Negotiations on a new deal will resume soon, with MLB certain to demand major concessions to make up for its losses last season, and players seeking protections from the already devastating cutbacks.
Adding to all the uncertainty is whether baseball will seek to continue the gimmicks Commissioner Rob Manfred imposed for 2020, like the universal designated hitter, a runner on second to start extra innings, an expanded postseason and neutral-site postseason games. With so many unknowns, the biggest ones are whether the two sides can agree on a new CBA without a work stoppage, and whether the deal that emerges will be friendlier to the players or the teams.
It’s no wonder then, that teams are hedging their bets by signing one-year deals with older veterans and younger players who have spent a lot of time on the bench, while superstars who could command high-dollar, long-term deals sit waiting for the phone to ring.
This is especially attractive to teams like that Nats, who have a history of finding short-term bargains on the free-agent market or waiver wire, players who have experience on their resumés but something to prove before earning long-term contracts.
General Manager Mike Rizzo built a World Series championship team in 2019 that included key one-year-deal contributors like Matt Adams, Asdrubal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, and Gerardo Parra.
Now, with a record number of free agents in this category on the market, a Nats team with a goal of returning to the postseason in 2021 could put together a shopping list, especially if they expect to play 162 games with a designated hitter next season.
With Adam Eaton a free agent, the Nats are looking for a corner outfielder, and there are several on the list who could help the club.
Leading the list of suddenly available players is Kyle Schwarber, a pure power hitter with a .230/.336/.480 career slash line, with 121 homers and a 3.0 fWAR in four full seasons, plus the shortened 2020 season. He helped a Chicago Cubs team that had Davey Martinez as bench coach win the 2016 World Series after missing 160 games of the regular season with torn left knee ligaments. But 2020 was his worst season in the majors, with a .188/.308/.393 line.
His left-handed bat would make him an excellent DH candidate if the Nats can have one in 2021.
Another slugging outfielder is Eddie Rosario, whom the Minnesota Twins non-tendered after a .257/.316/.792 season with 13 homers in 57 games in 2020.
It was a drop, though less steep than Schwarber’s, from Rosario’s career .277/.310/.478 line with 119 homers in five full seasons plus 2020.
Martinez is also familiar with Albert Almora Jr., who broke into the majors on the 2016 Cubs.
He has a reputation as a good defensive center fielder, although his career .271/.309/.707 line is none too inspiring, and he has not hit close to .300 since he posted .296 and .287 averages in 2017 and 2018.
Remember Brian Goodwin? He turned heads in Washington with a .251/.313/.498 mark in 2017, when a rash of injuries to both major and minor league outfielders forced him into action. He had 13 homers and 21 doubles in 74 games and flashed some leather to help the Nats win their most recent NL East title. The team dealt him to Kansas City early in 2018. His career has taken him to Anaheim and Cincinnati since then, but he hasn’t recaptured the magic of his rookie campaign in Washington.
The Nats are also looking for a starting pitcher, and one who could fit the bill is José Ureña. A rising star for the Miami Marlins in 2017, he went 14-7 with a 3.82 and 113 strikeouts in 28 starts. He struck out 130 the next season with a career-low 1.12 WHIP and a 3.98 ERA in 31 starts, but was injured in 2019 and ineffective in five starts last season.
The Marlins designated him for assignment before non-tendering him. But an organization that tried to revive the career of Trevor Rosenthal could find him an interesting project.
Whatever the Nats do in the offseason, look for them to fill short-term needs with short-term deals, especially among position and bench players before they look for any big money free agents who could command long-term deals.