How the top 10 MLB free agent signings project to perform during the 2020 season

Know what we should do right the heck now? We should start thinking and talking about the 2020 season. Hear this: We’re clear of the Hall of Fame announcement, almost every impact free agent is off the board, and pitchers and catchers begin wandering the byways of Arizona and Florida in less than a month. That means it’s time to begin pondering actual, real life, for keeps baseball. 

To that noble end, let’s discuss how the most coveted free agents of the 2019-20 class figure to fare in the season to come. Now that Josh Donaldson has landed with the Twins on a $92 million pact, that means the top 10 of our top 50 free agents are all spoken for. So let’s now dig into our SportsLine Projection Model and see what kinds of numbers the top free agents can be expected to churn out starting in late March. 

Speaking of the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter), here’s how its creator Stephen Oh describes it: 

“The model takes each player’s stats, determines the probability of every outcome per plate appearance (given the pitcher, batter, situation, etc.) and simulates a single game. We repeat the simulation thousands of times to calculate each team’s chances of winning. We use each game’s simulated win percentages to do our playoff forecasts and bets against the odds. In addition to tracking team wins/losses, we track the stats that the players’ generate in the simulations (both individual game and the sum of the entire season).”

Got it? Got it. Now let’s see what SportsLine sees in the offing for those top 10 free agents, in order of their ranking: 

Needless to say, this is a promising forecast for Rendon in the first year of a seven-year, $245 million pact with the Angels. While it’s a very slight step back from the numbers he put up in his final season with the Nationals, it’s in truth a superficial step back once you consider that Angel Stadium is a much more pitcher-friendly environment than Nationals Park is. (Yep, SportsLine takes into account home ballparks in its player projections.) This is exactly the kind of production the Angels are hoping for at the front end of Rendon’s contract, and it’s in keeping with his recent history.

Will the Yankees be disappointed if this is Cole’s debut season in pinstripes? Not particularly. Fans might expect more from their $324 million man, but that’s a strong season. Overall, though, this is a fairly bearish projection given Cole’s dominance over the last two seasons. He’s expected to top 200 innings for the fifth time in the last six seasons, but he’s also expected to post his highest ERA and lowest strikeout total since 2017. Given that Cole made huge strides after increasing his spin rate on Houston’s watch and given that he should be able to take those gains with him to the Bronx, this scribe will take the over on those numbers. 

Strasburg is back with the champion Nats on a seven-year, $245 million contract, and they’ll no doubt be pleased if he hits these numbers. He’s expected to come down a bit from his NL-leading 209 innings a season ago, but that’s a thoroughly reasonable expectation given his past health and durability issues. That 3.09 ERA would be the third-best qualifying mark of his career and a bit better than his current career mark of 3.17. In other words, SportsLine expects something close to peak Strasburg in his age-30 campaign.

Delight in this projection, Twins partisans. Donaldson is coming off a strong 2019 with the Braves, but going into his age-34 season decline is a distinct possibility. SportsLine, though, expects nothing of the sort. Donaldson is again expected to be durable and productive, and those 39 forecasted homers would be his highest tally since his MVP season of 2015. What you see above is close to an ideal scenario for Donaldson and Minnesota. 

Grandal is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, and he’s also one of the top producers at the position. That explains why the White Sox were willing to commit four years and $73 million to him going into his age-31 season. SportsLine expects Grandal to continue being a “take and rake” threat the plate. That .508 SLG would be a career-best, and in terms of OPS, he’s projected to finish second only to Mitch Garver among catchers. SportsLine does expect some decline in durability, as those 122 games played would be Grandal’s fewest since 2015. Even if that’s the case, the Sox will more than get their money’s worth. 

MadBum’s first season in the desert on a five-year, $85 million deal is expected to go reasonably well. Age 30 and heavily used early in his career, Bumgarner is projected to make 30 starts but average less than six innings per. The 3.76 ERA, although it would be the second-highest figure of his career, would be an improvement over last year’s 3.90. Those 165 strikeouts would be the lowest full-season total of his career. Given the mileage on Bumgarner and the velocity loss, this isn’t a bad projection for 2020. It does, however, raise some concerns about how the back end of this deal will go for the D-Backs. 

The Phillies paid nine figures for Wheeler despite a spotty health history and a general lack of ace-ish results. They’re betting that Wheeler has leveled up on a fundamental basis, and that’s a defensible position when you look at things like spin rate and his command-and-control indicators. SportsLine, though, doesn’t see much of a leap forward in year one. The numbers you see above are very close to what Wheeler authored in 2019. If he repeats that performance, then he’ll be worth the money and improve the Phillies’ rotation. The next step toward ace status, however, would elude Wheeler. 

Don’t forget that at one point fairly deep into the 2019 season, Ryu was both the runaway NL Cy Young favorite and on pace to set the single-season record for K/BB ratio. Stretch drive struggles, however, knocked him down to second in the balloting and took a bite out of his numbers. While SportsLine doesn’t expect him to repeat last season’s workload, it does see Ryu as notching a qualifying number of innings for just the third time in his career. Ryu’s a low-velocity, deep-repertoire hurler who sometimes struggles with changeup command. Maybe that’s why the system expects him to put up a 3.72 ERA after running an ERA of 2.21 ERA since the start of the 2018 season (a span of 44 starts). On a rate basis, he’s expected to revert to his 2017 form, basically. The Jays inked him for $80 million over four years, so even with that level of regression Ryu would be of great benefit to Toronto. 

At age 36, Hamels is the oldest of our top 10, but what matters is skill retention. On that front, SportsLine expects modest improvement on the ERA front in Hamels’ first season with the Braves. He used to be a regular acquaintance with 200 inning seasons, but semi-serious oblique injuries have troubled him in two of the last three seasons. The system is picking up on that loss of durability when it tabs Hamels to barely top qualifier status. Given his age and recent history, that passes the smell test. He’s on a one-year deal with Atlanta, and all parties should be pleased with these kinds of numbers. 

Keuchel signed late with the Braves last season and had strong results despite not making his first start until late June (a normal spring ramp-up is pretty important for moundsmen). He pitched well enough to earn himself a three-year guarantee with the White Sox. He’s expected to make 31 starts (and 21 quality starts), and while the ERA is in the 4.00’s, he’ll still be quite useful to a Sox rotation that badly needs innings and stability. 

So there they are, etched in digital stone. If you’d like to check more of these projections for 2020, whether for fantasy purposes or in the service of emotional uplift, you can go here and frolic



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