Storylines we're watching for the rest of the MLB offseason

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Carlos Correa saga that loomed over baseball's offseason finally came to an end this week, meaning the top 25 players in this year's free agent class have all found homes.

That doesn't mean the hot stove is done cooking this winter. With moves still left to be made before spring training begins, we asked ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Buster Olney, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to weigh in on the storylines that will dominate the final month of the offseason.

Which players are most likely to be traded? Which under-the-radar free agents could still make a big impact? And which teams need to do something before it is too late? Here is what they predict.

Who is the biggest name who will be traded the rest of this offseason?

Olney: Pablo Lopez of the Miami Marlins. The signing of Johnny Cueto adds even more depth to a team that is already stacked in starting pitching, and now Miami GM Kim Ng can start to use some of her rotation surplus to augment the starting lineup. A rival evaluator sees a potential match with the San Diego Padres -- Lopez, a good starter who is two seasons away from free agency, in return for steady shortstop Ha-Seong Kim, who is under contract for the next couple of seasons with an option for 2025.

Rogers: All signs point to Lopez. The addition of Cueto and the positive return to the mound of Edward Cabrera in the second half last season give the Marlins depth where most teams don't have it. If Miami had a contending lineup, then trading from that depth wouldn't make sense, but the Marlins' offense needs a boost and Lopez can bring them back a hitter. With a couple more years under team control, Lopez has good value right now.

Doolittle: The Marlins signed Jean Segura and then Cueto, so we can no longer describe their offseason as "diddly-squat," but they haven't made their most likely play yet, which is to deal from their surfeit of starting pitchers. As Buster and Jesse suggest, the recent signing of Cueto was likely made to bolster the veteran depth in the rotation, making a trade that much more likely. The name I keep coming back to is Lopez, an excellent pitcher who would fit seamlessly in any clubhouse and on any depth chart. Miami badly needs to balance its roster between pitching and position players, and I'd be shocked if some kind of move like that is not forthcoming. Which team is at the other end of this presumed swap for, I presume, a starting-caliber position player is at present a mystery.

Gonzalez: Gleyber Torres, who was offered to the Marlins for Lopez ahead of last year's trade deadline. DJ LeMahieu can easily replace Torres at second base, and the New York Yankees have a glut of other middle infielders in incumbent shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa and three talented young players -- Oswald Peraza, Anthony Volpe and Oswaldo Cabrera. Torres, who has two years of control remaining, has tailed off offensively in recent years and might benefit from a change of scenery. Trading him, meanwhile, could allow the Yankees to plug remaining holes in left field and the back end of their bullpen.

Schoenfield: Hey, how about the Boston Red Sox and Yankees making a trade for Kiner-Falefa? With Trevor Story sidelined for most of the coming season, the Red Sox need a shortstop. Trades between the two teams are rare, but the Yankees did trade Adam Ottavino to the Red Sox in 2021. However, Kiner-Falefa wouldn't be the best player traded if Lopez or Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds goes. And since nobody has mentioned Reynolds, I'll mention him. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Yankees, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners are among the teams that could use an outfielder, so with so many potential trade partners, I think the Pirates make a deal they like.

Which one under-the-radar free agent are you most interested in seeing where he signs?

Doolittle: I've decided to make all of my answers somehow related to the Marlins. I'm surprised someone hasn't snatched up Brian Anderson, whom Miami set adrift, as a potential high-use utility player who can help at all four corner positions. He's not a perfect roster fit because you'd at least like him to have some use as a lefty masher and he has never hit southpaws all that well. But that's the kind of thing with him ... that weakness doesn't make any particular sense for a right-handed hitter. I feel like he's the kind of veteran hitter who with some fresh voices in his head might have some unfilled potential that can yet be tapped into.

Gonzalez: Jurickson Profar, a soon-to-be 30-year-old switch-hitter who has the versatility to play every position except catcher. Profar settled into the leadoff spot with the Padres last season and put together a solid offensive showing, batting .243/.331/.391 with 53 extra-base hits. He was worth 2.5 FanGraphs wins above replacement, fourth most among Padres position players. And he can help virtually anyone.

Olney: Zach Britton, who has demonstrated that he has an extremely high ceiling, with his hard-veering sinker, when healthy. One possible landing spot -- the New York Mets. That team has some concerns about carrying too many relievers without options, but Britton would give Buck Showalter another experienced lefty and more balance. If agent Scott Boras works out a deal for Britton in New York, that might be a step toward restoring his working relationship with owner Steve Cohen. Plus, Britton has already pitched in New York with the Yankees.

Rogers: Elvis Andrus was such a boost to the Chicago White Sox late in the second half of last season, it'll be interesting to see who brings him in -- as much from a clubhouse perspective as anything else. The Red Sox are an easy choice considering the injury to Story. Andrus is a leader and a veteran who can handle the big-market pressure. As for his production on the field, he tailed off some in late September, but over the course of a month with Chicago -- after being picked up due to an injury to Tim Anderson -- he compiled an .840 OPS and played smart, heads-up baseball.

Schoenfield: Andrew Chafin has been one of the best lefty relievers the past two seasons -- a 2.29 ERA over 135 appearances and 126 innings -- and would make an excellent addition to any contender's bullpen. He has been solid against both sides and actually was more effective against right-handers for the Detroit Tigers in 2022, so you can use him in big moments. The Houston Astros made it through the postseason last year without a lefty (Will Smith was on the World Series roster but didn't pitch), but Chafin feels like a good fit for Houston.

Which contender most needs to make another move between now and the start of spring training?

Doolittle: Sorry, Marlins fans, I can't use you on this question. The Dodgers have some work to do. No, they aren't in danger of slipping into obsolescence, but whereas they invariably project as one of the top couple of teams in the majors, I feel like they've been passed up in the forecast game by a handful of clubs that have been a lot more aggressive this winter. In particular, L.A.'s team defense was looking like a concern and still does, though the trade for Miguel Rojas (Marlins!) helps on that front.

Gonzalez: The Marlins stick out to me. Yes, the Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves reside on a different platform in the National League East, but this is nonetheless the Marlins' window. They possess what the industry desires most -- a plethora of proven-yet-controllable starting pitchers. But they have yet to utilize it in order to access the offense they so desperately need. There's still time, of course, but with so many teams filling so many needs through free agency, one has to wonder if the best opportunities have already passed the Marlins by.

Olney: Soon enough we'll see if the Baltimore Orioles and Red Sox consider themselves contenders. If Boston is going to have any shot at making the playoffs, the Red Sox need at least a one-year fix at shortstop now that Story is out indefinitely. And after winning 83 games last season and stoking the hope of the fan base, Baltimore's leadership has spent relatively little; the four free agents signed by the Orioles this winter will make less money combined in 2023 than what Justin Verlander will get with the Mets.

Rogers: Quick, who's the St. Louis Cardinals' ace? If you said Jack Flaherty, then you've gone back in time. Perhaps he returns to form, but right now, St. Louis has the same problem it did to end last season: It doesn't have a true No. 1 pitcher. It's hard to navigate three or four rounds of the postseason without that guy. And how long can Adam Wainwright be asked to lead the group? At the very least, the Cardinals need more depth there -- that is, if they can't swing a deal for a No. 1.

Schoenfield: The Dodgers don't NEED to make a move -- but I think they will, now that Trevor Bauer has been released and the Dodgers know that they're on the hook for his $22.5 million salary. The Dodgers would love to keep their payroll below the $233 million tax threshold in order to reset their tax rate, but it's already at an estimated $237 million according to FanGraphs, so maybe that's an impossible order. Why not spend a little more?

They just added Miguel Rojas for shortstop insurance (or to keep Gavin Lux at second base). I could see them being in play for Lopez or Reynolds as they still have 40-man and prospect depth to deal from. Certainly, adding another starter to a fragile rotation that includes Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, Noah Syndergaard and Dustin May makes sense, and Reynolds would provide a second reliable outfield bat next to Mookie Betts.

What is the one storyline you're watching most closely between now and the start of spring training?

Gonzalez: I'll be interested to see if anybody signs Bauer, who was officially released by the Dodgers on Friday and is now a free agent. It's widely considered unlikely, at least initially, given that he just finished serving the longest suspension in the history of the sport's domestic violence policy and hasn't publicly expressed even a modicum of contrition. But Bauer is in his early 30s, was considered one of the sport's best pitchers before assault allegations surrounded him in the summer of 2021 and can be acquired for the major league minimum -- at a time when free agent contracts have skyrocketed.

Doolittle: Bauer. He is, without a doubt, an impact starting pitcher. The free agent market is now down to a nice list of possibly useful veterans, at least a couple of whom will end up making a meaningful difference next season, but there are no more star-level impact performers out there. Except Bauer. But that's just the baseball aspect, and there is much more to consider here.

Rogers: The one story that could produce the most hot take opinions is the extra-inning rule. Expect baseball to announce that it's keeping a runner on second to start the 10th inning and this time there's no legitimate reason behind it -- except that teams and the league like the rule. In the past, it was about pitcher safety, considering shortened spring training due to the COVID-19 pandemic and last year's lockout. But GMs simply don't want to deal with the fallout from 18-inning games and the league likes shorter games anyway ... So, it's staying. Cue the heated debate.

Olney: I'll be watching to see whether or not Shohei Ohtani declares his intention to go to free agency, which is what the baseball world expects -- and if the Los Angeles Angels try to sway him with a record-setting offer that will presumably utilize the number "5" in two historic ways: $50 million-plus in annual salary and $500 million-plus in total contract value. Once Ohtani's status is clarified, we'll have the first concrete indication of whether he might be traded in July and whether he'll dominate baseball's next offseason.

Schoenfield: Ohtani certainly has a chance to become one of the greatest free agents ever -- with the title of "greatest" going to Alex Rodriguez, who hit free agency entering his age-25 season after hitting .316/.420/.606 with 41 home runs (10.4 WAR) at 24 years old. So, yes, any declaration from Ohtani would set up a never-ending buzz of rumors and speculation. Something tells me Steve Cohen has already set aside $500 million.

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