There isn’t really such thing as a perfect offseason. A front office can dream of all the right moves to fill holes with the players at the top of its most wanted list. You might even have an owner with an open checkbook. But things rarely line up in exactly the right way. Maybe the prized free agent simply wants to play somewhere else. Maybe you wait for Plan A, and in the meantime Plans B and C sign elsewhere, so you go to Plan D, and then the fans wonder why you didn’t sign B or C. It’s a game of musical chairs.
Here are five of the most interesting teams to watch as this offseason finally kicks into high gear, those that will help drive much of the action. We didn’t include the New York Yankees, although if Aaron Judge leaves, they could have the most frantic offseason of all. For each team we offer our view of a perfect offseason (within reason, of course).
All free agent contract estimates are courtesy of Kiley McDaniel’s free agency rankings and projections, while payroll information is from FanGraphs’ Roster Resource and Cot’s Contracts.
Current estimated payroll: $246.5 million
Highest payroll: $288 million (2022)
Biggest needs: Starting pitching, relief pitching, center field
We start with the Mets, because the Mets have a lot of work to do to replace or re-sign all those free agents — and that’s after they managed to re-sign closer Edwin Diaz before he hit free agency. The question here is simple: How high is owner Steve Cohen willing to run the payroll? The Mets are already over the luxury tax threshold, so to go toe-to-toe again with the Atlanta Braves, the Mets are likely going to need to blow past $300 million and set a new payroll record (the Los Angeles Dodgers would have been just over $300 million last season if not for the Trevor Bauer suspension).
Those six free agents listed above were worth a combined 15.3 WAR in 2022, so the Mets do need to replace a significant amount of that value to remain a 100-win team. They might get a little help from the farm system in catcher Francisco Alvarez and third baseman Brett Baty, but the Mets’ system doesn’t appear to have much at the upper levels to help fill the pitching holes.
New York probably doesn’t want to trade any of those young guys either, because it needs some players on inexpensive contracts moving forward — and Alvarez obviously has star potential, although it’s not clear just yet if he’s ready to handle the defensive chores of the starting catcher for a team aiming for the World Series. He could spend a lot of time at DH in 2023.
The biggest upcoming salary relief is Robinson Cano finally coming off the payroll after 2023. The Mets will be paying him $20.25 million one last time this coming season. Carlos Carrasco, Mark Canha and Eduardo Escobar could all be free agents after 2023 and will make a combined $35 million this season. Max Scherzer is making $43.3 million each of the next two seasons and James McCann $12.15 million. Still, with a weak farm system, it’s clear the Mets are going to have to run huge payrolls in the short term. That’s fine; they can afford it.
Perfect offseason: Sign OF Aaron Judge ($36 million annual average value), sign LHP Carlos Rodon ($26 million AAV), re-sign Bassitt ($18 million AAV), re-sign Ottavino ($7.5 million AAV), sign LHP Andrew Chafin ($7.5 million AAV)
Buster Olney outlined all the reasons for the Mets to sign Judge, and the No. 1 reason is perhaps the key: The Mets need more power in the lineup. Even with Pete Alonso cracking 40 home runs, the Mets ranked just eighth in the National League in home runs. That wasn’t just a Citi Field effect, either, as the Mets homered every 32.5 at-bats at home and every 31.7 at-bats on the road. And, hey, it wouldn’t hurt to steal Judge away from the Yankees. The only uncertain part is whether the Mets would want to play him in center field on a full-time basis, although he proved last season that he can handle the position. Starling Marte and Canha have also played there in the past, but Judge would be the best option.
The Mets will be in on many of the free agent pitchers and could go back to deGrom, but even after making just 26 starts the past two seasons, he might receive the same $43 million per year that Scherzer is making — and that feels like a gigantic risk. Justin Verlander might also get to $40 million on a two-year deal even though he turns 40 in February. Given that Scherzer turns 39 in July, it just feels safer to spread the money around to two starters rather than going big on deGrom or Verlander.
Chafin is the top free agent lefty reliever, a weakness last season for the bullpen, and Ottavino is worth bringing back after posting a 2.06 ERA. So, let’s see … with those signings, the Mets’ payroll checks in at … gulp … $341.5 million. Maybe that’s unrealistic; maybe Mets fans better start preparing for an imperfect offseason. The lineup looks like this:
Current estimated payroll: $142.7 million
Highest payroll: $203 million (2017)
Biggest needs: Star hitter, starting pitching, youth
When Farhan Zaidi took over as president of baseball operations before the 2019 season, the Giants were old, expensive and mediocre. The average age of the 2018 lineup, adjusted for playing time, was 29.8 years — tied for the oldest in the majors that year. The average age of the 2022 lineup was 30.0 years — the second oldest in the majors. The 2021 miracle season notwithstanding, the Giants remain mediocre, finishing 81-81 last season.
The good news is Zaidi has been patiently waiting for this offseason, when the Giants have the financial flexibility to go all-in like they haven’t since before the 2016 season. That offseason they signed Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span for a combined $251 million. Look for the Giants to spend significantly more than that this offseason, as the only guaranteed money on the books beyond 2023 is $12 million for Anthony DeSclafani and $6.5 million for Wilmer Flores in 2024.
“I expect us to be really active this offseason,” Zaidi said at the GM meetings in early November. “We do have the flexibility to be involved in every possible option on the table, but our goal is when we get to spring training and Opening Day hits in 2023, we feel like we’ve got a playoff-caliber team out on the field.”
That financial flexibility is the reason the Giants can afford to sign both Judge and Correa. Adding those two and two quality second-tier starters in Walker and Stripling would put the Giants over the 2023 tax threshold ($233 million) at a projected $239 million. The Giants might be willing to go over the tax threshold in 2023 — something they did in 2015, ’16 and ’17 (although just slightly each season) — with the knowledge that nearly $70 million comes off the payroll after 2023, when Joc Pederson, Brandon Crawford, Alex Wood, Tommy La Stella and Alex Cobb all hit free agency.
Signing Correa would push longtime shortstop Crawford, who struggled at the plate in 2022, into a utility role. Top prospect Marco Luciano is also a shortstop, but his bat has yet to really take off in the minors — and even if it does, many scouts project him as a third baseman anyway. Signing Correa eases all uncertainty about the immediate and long-term future at shortstop for the Giants. As for Judge, no, Oracle Park doesn’t appear to be the best fit for him at first glance, but Statcast estimates how many home runs a player would hit in each park (based on location and distance of each fly ball) and still arrives at 61 for Oracle Park if Judge had played all his games there in 2022. The Giants have failed to land a big-name free agent in recent years. It’s time they land two of them.
No manager mixes and matches as much as Gabe Kapler, but here’s a possible lineup:
Current estimated payroll: $176.8 million
Highest payroll: $175 million (2017)
Biggest needs: Second base, corner outfield/DH, pitching depth
The Mariners already made one significant addition in acquiring outfielder Teoscar Hernandez from the Toronto Blue Jays, but all indications are that president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto isn’t about to stop there — not when the Mariners, despite finally ending the majors’ longest playoff drought, still finished 16 games behind the Houston Astros. And certainly not given Dipoto’s reputation as “Trader Jerry.”
The Mariners have been in talks with Haniger’s agent on bringing him back. He has been a fan favorite and a clubhouse leader known for his work ethic, but after mashing 39 home runs in 2021, Haniger had an injury-plagued 2022 and played just 57 games. He’s also entering his age-32 season, so he’s a risky signing.
It’s clear the Mariners are willing to increase their payroll, even though it is already at a franchise high. This isn’t a small-market franchise, however, and after ranking 23rd, 24th and 22nd in payroll the past three seasons, there’s no reason the Mariners shouldn’t jump into the top 10 in 2023 (they ranked 10th in 2016 and 2018).
Perfect offseason: Acquire OF Teoscar Hernandez (already accomplished), sign OF Brandon Nimmo ($23.5 million AAV), sign P Kodai Senga ($14.4 million AAV), trade for 2B Gleyber Torres, trade away P Chris Flexen
I have a lot of moving parts here, but that’s how Dipoto operates — there are always a lot of moving parts. While Dipoto in the past has described the Mariners as a “draft, develop and trade” organization, don’t forget they signed Robbie Ray as a free agent last season. While an easy solution for second base would be to sign one of the free-agent shortstops and move J.P. Crawford to second base (his defensive metrics declined significantly last season), the Mariners have been insistent that Crawford is their shortstop — plus, I don’t see them outbidding other teams for the likes of any of those four.
So here’s the perfect offseason plan:
Sign Nimmo. Granted, Nimmo is a good fit for a lot of teams — and he’s not going to play center field for the Mariners with Julio Rodriguez around — but he gives the Mariners a leadoff hitter so that they can move Rodriguez down into an RBI slot in the lineup. Plus, Hernandez is likely just a one-year rental, so Nimmo would be a long-term fix for an outfield position.
The Mariners don’t necessarily need a starting pitcher, but Dipoto loves Senga, who had a 1.89 ERA in Japan last season. He’s an unrestricted free agent, so he isn’t subject to any posting fee. He throws in the upper 90s with a split-fingered fastball and would give the Mariners another power pitcher — and allow them to trade Flexen, Marco Gonzales or even prospect Emerson Hancock. As we saw with the Astros, you can’t have too many power pitchers in the rotation, and Flexen and Gonzales are both finesse pitchers with low strikeout rates.
Trade for Torres, who it seems the Yankees are willing to part with as they look to find room for their young middle infielders. Torres will make an estimated $9.8 million in arbitration (and is under team control through 2024). Flexen makes $8 million, so that comes out close to a wash in payroll (Flexen wouldn’t necessarily be traded FOR Torres).
These moves push the Mariners’ payroll up to $216.5 million — well below the tax threshold, but also in an area they’ve never approached before. Seattle is in absolute win-now mode. It’s time to spend like the big boys. And this lineup and rotation looks like a championship-level team:
Los Angeles Dodgers
Current estimated payroll: $168 million
Highest payroll: $302 million (2022)
Biggest needs: Shortstop, center field, rotation depth, closer
In many ways, the Dodgers are the biggest wild card of this entire offseason. Will they sign one of the shortstops? Will they sign deGrom or Verlander? Will they move Gavin Lux to shortstop, Mookie Betts to second base and sign Judge? Do they believe in Trayce Thompson as an everyday center fielder after letting Bellinger go? Will they trade for Willy Adames? Are they ready to trust young players like third baseman Miguel Vargas or pitchers Ryan Pepiot and Bobby Miller with key roles? For the love of manager Dave Roberts, will they just pick a reliever and make him the closer?
Here are a few things we know:
Indications are the Dodgers want to stay below the luxury tax threshold in 2023 after paying a $32.6 million tax in 2021 and perhaps another $30 million in 2022. If they went over in 2023, as a third-time offender the tax rate would climb to 50% (plus a surcharge if they go at least $20 million over). If they go under for a season, the tax rate is reset to 20% for the following season.
The Dodgers haven’t signed a starting pitcher to a contract longer than three years since 2015. If they keep that approach, that could keep Verlander and perhaps deGrom in the Dodgers’ plans, but not the pitchers likely to get longer deals.
They could still re-sign Bellinger. Executive Andrew Friedman didn’t rule out that possibility — and the Dodgers do like his defense in center field. “We feel like with our staff and resources that, getting him to work this offseason, we have a real chance of working with him to help get him back on track,” Friedman recently told the Los Angeles Times.
That $168 million figure for current payroll does not include Clayton Kershaw’s reported deal, which hasn’t been officially announced. If we put that at $18 million, the Dodgers’ current payroll now starts at $186 million.
My perfect offseason for the Dodgers does not include Bellinger — but we will keep that payroll under $233 million.
Perfect offseason: Sign CF Brandon Nimmo ($23.5 million AAV), trade for SS Willy Adames ($9.2 million projected salary) and RHP Corbin Burnes ($11.4 million projected salary) from the Milwaukee Brewers
We could arrange the deck chairs in a million different ways, and it would still be easy to envision Verlander in Dodger Blue on a two-year contract. The Dodgers have also shown they will go big for a franchise hitter like Betts or Freddie Freeman. They could now do that again with Judge — but I have trouble keeping the Dodgers under the luxury tax with Judge in the lineup, and I don’t want to move Betts to second base. Let’s go with Nimmo to replace Bellinger as the center fielder.
Then, a blockbuster deal with the Brewers. Both Adames and Burnes have two years remaining of team control, and while it would require a ton of prospect capital to swing such a trade, the Dodgers have the young talent to do it — players like catcher Diego Cartaya, pitcher Dustin May, one of Miller or Pepiot, third baseman Vargas or infielder Michael Busch. Overwhelm the Brewers. Make it happen. Then make Evan Phillips the closer.
The payroll is up to $228.7 million (subtracting May’s estimated $1.4 million). Not much room to play with to stay under the luxury tax, so that means letting the much-loved Justin Turner leave as a free agent and using some of the starting pitching prospects in the bullpen. The lineup:
On the other hand … maybe the Dodgers just sign Judge, Verlander and Correa.
Current estimated payroll: $60.7 million
Highest payroll: $180 million (2017)
Biggest needs: Starting pitching, infield, offensive firepower
The Orioles are this offseason’s sleeper/surprise/wild-card team to watch in free agency. Coming off 2022’s out-of-nowhere 83 wins, the O’s are in position to be major players. After several years of rebuilding under general manager Mike Elias, the Orioles have pared the payroll almost to the bones. Their highest-paid players for 2023 right now are outfielders Anthony Santander at $7.5 million and Cedric Mullins at $4.4 million. Their actual payroll is only about $41 million in salaries (most of the remaining $20 million is the estimated player benefits that every team is responsible for that are part of the luxury tax payroll). They have plenty of room to spend if chairman John Angelos gives the OK.
Pitching will be the top priority. The Orioles were middle of the pack in runs allowed — ninth in the American League — but relied heavily on the bullpen to get there. The only starter to throw more than 125 innings was Jordan Lyles, and he’s a free agent. The offense was essentially about average overall with a 99 wRC+ and could use some improvement as well.
At the GM meetings, Elias indicated the team was willing to start spending — at least to a certain limit. “We’re not going to go from zero miles an hour to 60 miles an hour in one offseason,” he said, words that weren’t exactly music to Orioles fans. “Our objective this winter is to add to the major league roster for the purpose of getting into the playoffs. We think that this team is ready to, hopefully, incrementally take steps forward. We’re in win-now mode.”
Hmm. We’ll see how serious the Orioles are about winning now.
Perfect offseason: Sign SS Trea Turner ($34 million AAV), sign RHP Justin Verlander ($36 million AAV), sign RHP Chris Bassitt ($18 million AAV), sign RHP Chris Martin ($7.5 million AAV), sign DH Justin Turner ($11 million AAV)
This is probably a more ambitious plan than the Orioles appear willing to undertake, but it absolutely could work. Spending money is the easiest thing to do. We’re not trading any prized prospects. Long-term payroll flexibility remains intact. And holes are filled! Here are the projected contracts for this group:
Trea Turner: 8 years, $272 million
Verlander: 2 years, $72 million
Bassitt: 3 years, $54 million
Martin: 2 years, $15 million
Justin Turner: 1 year, $11 million
I could see Bassitt getting four years, but he also has been one of baseball’s most consistent starters the past three seasons with a 3.13 ERA. Jorge Mateo played a fine shortstop in 2022, but he’s a weak spot in the lineup with a .221/.267/.379 line. Trea Turner is a star player with a well-rounded game that should age well — even at $34 million per season. Rookie Gunnar Henderson then moves over to third base, reminiscent of the move the Orioles made with a young Manny Machado, while Ramon Urias moves over to second and Mateo becomes a useful utility player. Yes, the Orioles have shortstop Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 overall pick in 2022. He’s years away. If he develops, it’s a good problem to have. Martin was great with the Dodgers and is insurance against any regression from closer Felix Bautista. And since we just had the Dodgers rejecting Justin Turner, let’s bring him back to Baltimore to DH.
The payroll? Still a reasonable $167.2 million — less than the Orioles ran in 2016 and 2017. The lineup?
Verlander and Bassitt headline the rotation along with prospect Grayson Rodriguez, who had a 2.20 ERA with 97 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings in Triple-A. He missed three months with a lat strain, but he’s ready. Last year’s group — Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer, Spenser Watkins, Tyler Wells, Austin Voth — can battle it out for the final two spots, and John Means could return at midseason from Tommy John surgery. Now the Orioles look like a win-now team.