Yesterday, the Astros and first baseman Jose Abreu agreed to a three-year, $58.5MM contract, but it seems a surprising club was close to Houston in the bidding for Abreu’s services. Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that the Guardians made a three-year offer, but that the $60MM range was “beyond their reach.”
The Guardians are usually one of the lowest-spending clubs in the league, so the fact that they didn’t sign a costly free agent isn’t exactly shocking. However, it could perhaps be an indication that they have a greater willingness to spend this offseason than usual. The largest free agent contract in the history of the franchise is the $60MM over three years given to Edwin Encarnacion prior to the 2017 season, coincidentally very similar to the deal Abreu just signed. The Guardians did give José Ramírez $129MM over seven years, though that was an extension and not a free agent deal.
Though many fans will remain skeptical of “at least we tried” reports of teams just missing on free agents, there are reasons to think the Guards might actually have some money to work with this winter. The club ran out a roster full of rookies and other young players in 2022, and it worked tremendously. They went 92-70 and finished atop the American League Central despite a very modest payroll. Roster Resource currently pegs their 2023 spending around $72MM, with no individual player set to earn more than the $14MM Ramírez will get. $9MM of that number is the projected arbitration salary of shortstop Amed Rosario, a name frequently mentioned in trade rumors. That $72MM figure is already a slight upgrade over last year’s Opening Day figure of $68MM, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, but they got as high as $135MM in 2018.
Now that the club is a few years removed from the lost revenues of the pandemic and just got a boost from a surprise postseason run, it’s possible that they are willing to push spending back up near their pre-pandemic levels. It would also make sense from an on-field perspective to build around their bevy of young and talented players while they are still paid at arbitration or pre-arb levels.
If there is some money to be spent, the first base/designated hitter part of the roster is a sensible place to put it. The club has Josh Naylor penciled in as their first baseman but Franmil Reyes flamed out as the designated hitter in 2022 and eventually got put on waivers, going to the Cubs. There would have been an opening for Abreu to step in and split the first base and designated hitter duties with Naylor. It also would make sense to add some extra thump to a lineup that succeeded in 2022 largely by making contact and avoiding strikeouts. The club hit 127 home runs this year, which was 29th in the majors, ahead of only the Tigers. Abreu’s power actually took a step back in 2022, but he still hit 15 home runs and has frequently been a 30-homer bat in the past.
If the Guardians are still willing to pursue this market, there are other options available to them. There are some part-time or role players available such as Trey Mancini or Yuli Gurriel, but the top option is Josh Bell. On MLBTR’s Top 50, he was projected for a $64MM contract over four years. That guarantee is beyond what Abreu got, but at a lower average annual value of $16MM. Since Bell is only 30 years old compared to Abreu’s 36, he will likely require a lengthier commitment, but that lower salary might better suit the Cleveland checkbook. Like Abreu, he would add some thump to the lineup, having hit 17 home runs last year and getting as high as 37 in previous seasons. He also isn’t likely to throw off the club’s low-strikeout style either, as he’s never posted a rate above 19.2% outside of the shortened 2020 season. For context, this year’s league average rate was 22.4% and the Guardians struck out at a collective 18.2% clip.
The Guardians will surely have competition in a pursuit of Bell or any other first basemen they decide to go after. The Padres, Cubs and Marlins were all reported to have been interested in Abreu and they will likely start thinking about the next options on their lists. One other team on that list is the Red Sox, as Jon Heyman of The New York Post reports that Abreu was their top free agent target and they met with him as soon as free agency began.
The Red Sox already have something of a cluttered mix of players for their first base and designated hitter spots. Youngsters Triston Casas and Bobby Dalbec are on the 40-man roster along with veteran Eric Hosmer, picked up in a deadline deal with the Padres last year. However, there’s no real reason for them to be especially committed to Hosmer, as the Padres agreed to pay down all of his remaining contract except for the league minimum. Since joining the Padres prior to 2018, he’s been essentially a replacement level player, producing a wRC+ of 100 and 0.3 fWAR. As for Dalbec, he showed some potential in 2020 and 2021 but struggled greatly in 2022, hitting just .215/.283/.369 for a wRC+ of 80 while striking out in 33.4% of his plate appearances.
We can’t know for sure what subsequent moves the Red Sox would have made if they had signed Abreu, but it seems possible they could have looked to trade Hosmer or simply released him if he used his no-trade clause to block a deal. Dalbec could have also found himself on the trading block but he also has options and could have been retained as minor league depth in case Casas, who has just 27 MLB games under his belt, struggled in 2023. He hit five homers in that short sample and walked a bunch but didn’t hit for much average, leading to a lopsided batting line of .197/.358/.408.
The first base market has been quite robust in the early days of the offseason, as Anthony Rizzo already re-signed with the Yankees, the Pirates traded for Ji-Man Choi and Carlos Santana, followed by Abreu signing with the Astros. With several teams seemingly still interested in upgrading their rosters at first, the remaining free agents might see their phones lighting up very soon.
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