I remember watching the movie Jerry McGuire when it came out and thinking, “So, according to this movie, a pro athlete just needs to make one big play to cash in… Right?”
Spoiler alert… that is essentially what happens in the movie when fictional Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell (played marvelously by Cuba Gooding Jr.) catches a game winning touchdown. He is informed shortly afterwards that he has secured a contract larger than what he has been seeking. His desire for this contract was made clear earlier in the movie in the much quoted scene when Tidwell tells his agent Jerry (Tom Cruise) to “Show me the money!”
While this may exaggerate how important a clutch play can be in a player achieving a contract, I do think there is some merit to the notion that small sample sizes impact contracts. How many players who win World Series MVP for a magical playoff run or guys who get hot and massively outperform their peripherals become the “must have” free agent acquisition due to some recency bias? Sure, some of these guys deserve the big contracts and even prove their worth, but there are also those who never live up to the large payday.
So, just how tricky are contract negotiations going to be for free agents heading into 2021? In just a 60 game season, a player’s hot and cold streaks will seem that much more substantive than in a normal year. There is a lot on the line for anyone seeking that big payday, and less margin for error. Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting free agents in next year’s class while also looking at their best statistical seasons as well as their performance last season. For the sake of clarity, I will only select players with a free agent status that isn’t contingent on a player or club option.
Best Season (2018): 175.1 IP, 12 W, 2.21 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 11.34 K/9
Last Season (2019): 213 IP, 11 W, 4.48 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 10.69 K/9
There are few players in MLB more polarizing than Trevor Bauer. It always feels like when his name comes up in conversation that his personality is either appreciated as honest and candid, or as arrogant and childish. However you view him, there’s no denying that Bauer has been en fuego this year. In just 26.1 IP this year, Bauer has pitched to a 0.68 ERA while getting 41 Ks while only giving up 8 hits. This is an unbelievable start, but we all know the odds of Bauer finishing the year with an ERA under 1.00 is next to nothing. This offseason he bet on himself and signed a one year deal with the Reds for 17.5 million. For anyone following Bauer’s offseason, he has said he intends on only signing one-year deals from here on out too. Whether he does stick to his word and sign a one-year deal, or he goes for a much larger and longer contract, Bauer might be doing his best Rod Tidwell impression this offseason if he continues to dominate.
Best Season (2016): 199.2 IP, 14 W, 3.07 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.44 K/9
Last Season (2019): 182 IP, 11 W, 4.45 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 7.37 K/9
Tanaka was the prize of the 2014 free agent class when the Yankees signed him to a seven year, $155 million contract. Considering some of the injury scares Tanaka has had since then, he’s put up a lot of innings year-in and year-out for the Yankees. He gives up too many homers (which some might attribute to his home park), but Tanaka stands to gain a lot because of what could be a thin pitching market in the offseason. Getting his ERA under four and showing the ability to stay healthy through this shortened season will be key. He has some work to do right now as he hasn’t exactly dazzled to this point in the season, averaging less than four innings per start.
Best Season (2014): 168.2 IP, 14 W, 2.61 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.75 K/9
Last Season (2019): 8.2 IP, 0 W, 8.31 ERA, 1.85 WHIP, 11.42 K/9
In 2014, Richards flashed some serious skill and had many wondering if the Angels had found a new staff ace. He followed up that year with another solid effort in 2015 and even surpassed 200 innings while maintaining a 3.65 ERA. After that year, well, things got a little messy. Richards has had a slew of arm issues which eventually led to Tommy John surgery. He totaled just 145 innings from 2016-2019. The Padres took a chance last year and signed him to a two year deal, which was essentially a bet on him spending 2019 in recovery in order to give valuable innings this year. Due to expected innings limits and his health history, Richards is one of the names on this list who actually may have benefited substantially from a shortened season. So far, his results have been pretty mixed. He hasn’t gotten completely lit up in any of his starts so far, but he also isn’t showing the propensity to strike guys out that he has in the past. Everyone loves a good comeback story, so here’s hoping that Richards stays healthy, and unlocks some more Ks on his way to a nice contract next year.
Best Season (2017): 679 PA, 37 HR, 93 R, 124 RBI, 1 SB, .312/.376/.548
Last Season (2019): 549 PA, 29 HR, 80 R, 89 RBI, 12 SB, .241/.328/.472
Marcell Ozuna was one of this past year’s bigger offseason free agents of interest. He missed a month in 2019 with a hand injury, but still cobbled together a respectable, if underwhelming year with the Cardinals. When the 2020 free agent market didn’t shake out the way he’d hoped, he chose to take a one year deal with the Braves and gamble on himself. To this point, that gamble appears to be paying off as his current triple slash of .261/.371/.489 displays a marked improvement over last year. Ozuna could establish himself as one of the better power options on the market this winter, but I see potential danger in his rising strikeout rate. He is currently sitting at 27.6%, which could lead to some bad stretches.
Best/Last Season (2019): 556 PA, 39 HR, 96 R, 96 RBI, 6 SB, .292/.383/.591
Some might argue that Springer has had other seasons that are better, but I wanted to specifically highlight his 2019 because of the output he had in less than 600 plate appearances. A hamstring injury is what led to less at-bats for Springer in 2019, but it didn’t seem to hinder his production in the slightest when he was on the field. His great year can also be attributed to an improvement in his walk rate, which he pushed up to 12.1%, as well as an 11.6% barrel rate. In other words, Springer showed better plate discipline than ever while mashing the crap out of the ball when he made contact. He stands to gain a lot by showing that his gains last year are the real deal (and not aided by any sort of trash cans). He has not been hitting the ball particularly well this year, but a .212 BABIP points to possible positive regression.
Best/Last Season (2019): 593 PA, 25 HR, 92 R, 83 RBI, 9 SB, .275/.328/.493
If the Phillies have the money to sign Realmuto to an extension this offseason, then they really need to make that their top priority. He has established himself as arguably the best offensive catcher in the league and will be turning just 30 years old heading into next season. Already this season, Realmuto has smacked eight home runs in just 20 games played. His ISO is an insane .356 and his barrel percentage is a staggering 15.7%. This is of course where the small sample size of this season can get blown out of proportion, but Realmuto appears to be making real power gains and some team is going to pay through the nose for him next year.
Other Names of Note: Marcus Semien, Taijuan Walker, Joc Pederson, Robbie Ray, James Paxton, Didi Gregorious, Jay Bruce, Andrelton Simmons, D.J. Lemahieu, Jurickson Profar, Liam Hendricks, Maikel Franco, Jonathan Villar
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire