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How Does the Shortened MLB Season Affect Free Agency in 2021?

The pressure is always on a player in their contract year, and 2020 is no different. There is no time for a pending free agent to get off to a slow start and lose out on millions of dollars on a new contract. Likewise, the stats of a player who goes on a tear for the majority of a 60-game season may not truly reflect his abilities over the regular 162-game season. Having a successful 60-game stretch will bode well for players set to hit the market after this season.

There are two different types of free agents in baseball: unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents. Unrestricted free agents are free to sign with any team at the end of the season and cannot be retained by their teams. Restricted free agents can either be kept by their team at the end of the season through a club option or let go by their club if they do not meet expectations. Restricted free agents can also stay with their team through a player option or test the open market if they are not happy in their current situation.

Here are some of the most intriguing names in the loaded 2021 free agent class.

Mookie Betts – Outfielder – Betts was traded from Boston to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the offseason in his contract year. Betts is arguably a top three player in MLB and is set to make $27 million this season. After Mike Trout’s record $430 million extension in 2019, Betts will be looking for a big payday himself going into 2021.

Betts is a career .301 hitter, four-time all-star, and plus defender. Some possible landing spots for Betts next season could be Atlanta, Texas, Toronto, and of course he could stay in LA wearing the Dodger blue.

Masahiro Tanaka – Starting Pitcher – Tanaka will be entering his age 33 season in 2021, but that should not affect the money he would receive on a three-to-five-year deal. Tanaka’s worth would be helped by a year where he could keep his ERA under 3.50 (which he has only done once in his career) and one where he could stay healthy throughout the regular season and playoffs.

Tanaka would slide in perfectly as a number two starter on a contending team but can also fill an ace role on a middle of the road squad. Possible landing spots for Tanaka could be the LA Angels and Padres, but I do not see him leaving the Yankees.

J.T. Realmuto – Catcher – Realmuto is the consensus best catcher in baseball and is an unrestricted free agent this winter. He is set to have a hefty pay raise from the $10 million he will make in 2020.

Realmuto is coming off his best statistical season in 2019 where he hit .275, homered 25 times, drove in 83 runs, and has won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards for National League catchers in the past. A few possible landing spots for Realmuto in 2021 include the Angles and Rays, but I see him staying in Philadelphia on a monster contract.

Trevor Bauer – Starting Pitcher – Bauer joined an up-and-coming Cincinnati ballclub last July and will be a vital piece in a solid 2020 rotation. The 2018 All-Star had a rough start to the 2019 season but found his footing with a change of scenery in Cincinnati. Bauer needs to prove he can still perform at a sub-3.50 ERA level if he wants to secure a deal with a good team this winter.

In an odd turn of events, Bauer has publicly said he only wants to sign one-year deals moving forward. This makes him a good candidate to sign with teams looking for a good veteran starter to secure a young or low-depth rotation. Possible landing spots in 2021 include the Angels, Dodgers, or Twins. 

DJ LeMahieu – Infielder – LeMahieu had a monster year for the Yankees in 2019 where he hit .327, homered 26 times, drove in 102 runs, was named an All-star, won the Silver Slugger Award, and finished 4th in American League MVP voting. A big year in 2020 would give LeMahieu the leverage to demand a contract worth over $100 million.

If LeMahieu follows through and asks for nine figures, the Yankees may be hesitant to sign him since Judge, Torres, and Sanchez will need to be extended sooner than later.

If the Yankees do not re-sign him, LeMahieu could fit well in a place like Oakland or with the Chicago Cubs. Although, if he is just looking for the money, he may go to a rebuilding team like Detroit or Miami and become a cornerstone in the infield for the next four-to-seven-years.

Marcus Semien – Infielder – Semien is arguably the most underrated player in all of baseball. The A’s shortstop finished 3rd in MVP voting last season, and in addition to playing in all 162 games, Semien hit .285, homered 33 times, and drove in 92 runs.

Semien’s situation is similar to LeMahieu’s in terms of where he could land. If he is not back in Oakland next season, he could end up in St. Louis, with the Cubs in Chicago, or on a rebuilding team who is looking for a piece to build around. It is also possible we see a free agent swap with LeMahieu heading to Oakland and Semien to New York.

These six free agents are just the headliners of a loaded 2021 class. Other names include: George Springer, Andrelton Simmons, Marcell Ozuna, Jake Ordorizzi, Justin Turner, Michael Brantley, Didi Gregorius, James Paxton, Marcus Stroman, Yoenis Cespedes, Robbie Ray, Mike Minor, and many more. The upcoming offseason should be an exciting one full of surprises and could see teams set themselves up for success for the next five years.

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