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MLB offseason preview: Key questions, top free agents, important dates, what's ahead

Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire

With the unique 2020 MLB season behind us, the hot stove season is set to begin. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this offseason, with the reduced revenues and looming labor issues making it unclear how willing teams will be to spend on acquiring players.

We have information about how the offseason will work, as well as key dates and a look at the key issues teams will need to address.

Related links: Way-too-early Power Rankings | 2021 MLB draft order


Key questions

When does free agency start?

Players become free agents the day after the World Series ends, but cannot sign with a new team for five days, giving their 2020 team a brief window of exclusivity to negotiate a deal. Also during this five-day period, decisions on contract options -- club, player and mutual options -- must be made, and players with opt-out clauses as part of their existing contracts must decide if they will forego the remainder of their deal and become a free agent. Notable players with opt-out clauses this offseason include Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos, although it seems likely all three will play out the terms of their deals.

Who are the biggest names who will be on the market?

Overall, this is a relatively thin market lacking the superstar power of the last couple of offseasons. Still, there are some valuable options. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, Astros outfielder George Springer, Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu and Braves outfielder Marcell Ozuna are the top position players, with the Reds' Trevor Bauer the top pitching option, followed by the Mets' Marcus Stroman and the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka. Liam Hendriks of the A's, who was one of baseball's best closers the past two years, is another intriguing name. Other position players include Justin Turner of the Dodgers, Oakland's Marcus Semien, the Twins' Nelson Cruz, Michael Brantley of the Astros, Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Red Sox and the Phillies' Didi Gregorius. Other pitchers on the market include Taijuan Walker, Kevin Gausman and Trevor May.

What are qualifying offers and how do they work?

Teams can offer their pending free agents a qualifying offer, which is a one-year contract worth the mean salary of MLB's 125 highest-paid players. This year that is $18.9 million. Qualifying offers are made in that same five-day post-World Series window, and players receiving an offer have 10 days to accept it. If a player rejects the qualifying offer, he becomes a free agent and his former team is eligible for draft pick compensation and any team that signs the player prior to the 2021 draft is subject to losing a draft pick. So there's an extra cost to signing anyone who has been given a qualifying offer from his former team.

Only players who were with the same organization for the entire season can receive a qualifying offer and a player is subject to a qualifying offer only once in his career. Players in this year's free-agent class who fall in this category include Nelson Cruz, Marcell Ozuna and Justin Turner.

The most obvious candidates to receive a qualifying offer are J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, DJ LeMahieu and Trevor Bauer. Beyond that, it's hard to say, particularly with the depressed revenue from the 2020 season and the uncertainty for 2021.

What can we expect to see this offseason?

For players, this could be a "Game of Thrones" offseason: Winter is coming. Cold, harsh and agents fighting to get what few monetary scraps owners will be willing to shell out to free agents. A few players will get paid: Trevor Bauer, George Springer J.T. Realmuto, DJ LeMahieu, maybe Marcell Ozuna. But second-tier and third-tier players might be scrambling for jobs right up to the start of spring training, just like what happened a couple of years ago in the offseason.

That's why some of the most interesting action could occur on the trade market. Will the Indians deal Francisco Lindor? Will the Rockies trade Nolan Arenado, who is coming off a bad 48 games (84 OPS+) and missed the end of the season with a shoulder injury? What do the Cubs do with Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, all free agents after 2021? Then we have the Yankees, coming off another non-World Series season and in need of ... well, they'll do something.


Key dates

Nov. 2: Free agency begins

Nov. 9-12: BBWAA awards announced (Rookies of Year, Nov. 9; Managers of Year, Nov. 10; Cy Young, Nov. 11; MVP, Nov. 12)

Dec. 2: Non-tender deadline (Teams must decide whether to tender contracts to players on their rookie deals)

Dec. 6-10: Winter meetings scheduled for Dallas (subject to change given coronavirus pandemic)

Feb. 27: First date of spring training games (Official spring training reporting dates TBD)

April 1: Opening day of 2021 season


What's next for NL playoff teams

Atlanta Braves

The Braves were so close they could taste it, but after holding a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series, Atlanta lost three straight to the Dodgers and will have to watch the World Series from home. What's next for Braves

Chicago Cubs

It's hard to know how 2020 will affect the numbers, but Javier Baez wasn't far from signing a deal before baseball shut down in March. That wasn't long after Christian Yelich signed for nine years and $215 million with the Brewers. Baez won't get that much, though the Cubs might like a lengthy deal to spread out the annual hit. Where Cubs go next

Cincinnati Reds

The rotation carried the team in 2020, but there is no way the Reds will be able to afford to keep Trevor Bauer, who played for $17 million and could command $30 million on a one-year contract in free agency. He has said he plans to sign only one-year deals to maximize his annual salaries. Reds face big questions

Miami Marlins

Reaching the playoffs wasn't the only surprise the Fish had in store for 2020 -- they eliminated the Cubs before getting taken down by the Braves. But are they ready to afford a lasting move into the ranks of the contenders? Building on a surprise

Milwaukee Brewers

Will they trade closer Josh Hader? The Brewers gauged interest in him before this season's trade deadline as his production is quietly -- and sometimes not so quietly -- falling. His strikeout-to-walk ratio dropped from 6.9 in 2019 to 3.1 in 2020. Can Brewers keep contending?

St. Louis Cardinals

Veteran starter Adam Wainwright will be a free agent, as will catcher Yadier Molina, who told ESPN in April he'll play in 2021 after scrapping his plans to retire. This puts pressure on the team to re-sign them, as both are fan favorites. What's next for the Birds

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San Diego Padres

A breakthrough season for the Pads' enviable collection of talent might have come a year early, but that makes questions about their rotation and the future of Fernando Tatis Jr. that much more urgent to answer this winter. Padres' to-do list as contenders


What's next for AL playoff teams

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox probably were a year ahead of schedule in making the postseason in 2020, but it still stings to get knocked out after three games, much less losing the first winner-take-all game in franchise history. Where do they go from here? Sox winter agenda

Sox aim for franchise first: Making playoffs in consecutive years

Cleveland Indians

Will they trade Francisco Lindor? This isn't just Cleveland's biggest question but one of the biggest questions of the entire offseason. Given the recent trades of Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger, we know Cleveland will deal star players before they hit free agency -- no matter the potential competitiveness of the team. With Lindor entering his final season before free agency, the rumors will be hot and hotter all offseason. Cleveland's priorities

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Houston Astros

After witnessing their attempt to come back from down 3-0 in the ALCS fall short in Game 7, the Astros finished their season in the wake of their sign-stealing scandal facing questions about who will be back in 2021. How many Astros All-Stars could leave?

Minnesota Twins

The four-year, $92 million contract the Twins gave to Josh Donaldson last winter is a huge investment for the team. The deal was a gamble that the Donaldson who annually played in 150-plus games for most of his career was not the player who couldn't stay on the field in 2017 and 2018. Do they need a contingency plan for 2021? Upgrading a contender

Twins torture: Breaking down Twins' record MLB playoffs losing streak

New York Yankees

After losing to the Rays to extend their title drought to 11 years, the Yankees face tough questions about what they have to do just to get back on top of their own division. Can they add pitching depth? And can they figure what to do with Gary Sanchez? Yanks can't let it ride

Why Sanchez isn't catching Gerrit Cole in the playoffs

Oakland A's

Before losing in the ALDS, the A's won their first postseason series since 2006. But can they build on that this winter considering how many free agents they stand to lose? And what happens if they can't convince Marcus Semien to stick around to man shortstop? A's face high turnover

Tampa Bay Rays

Would you have pulled Blake Snell in Game 6? The Rays did. Although they won the American League East for the first time since 2010 and made it to the World Series for the first time since 2008, they came up short of the franchise's first title. How Rays can come back stronger

Toronto Blue Jays

While they certainly benefited from the expanded playoff field, the Blue Jays were a pleasant surprise in making it to the postseason for the first time since 2016 behind an exciting young core of position players. Their stay didn't last long. What's next? How Jays build from this


Clubs who didn't make the postseason

What's next for 14 teams that didn't reach the playoffs