Yesterday, the Astros and first base Jose Abreu agreed to a three-year, $58.5 million contract, but it looks like 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 $60 million range was “beyond their reach.”
The Guardians are generally one of the lowest-spending clubs in the league, so the fact that they haven’t signed an expensive free agent isn’t exactly shocking. However, perhaps it could be an indication that they have a greater willingness to get through this offseason than usual. The biggest free agent contract in franchise history is a three-year $60 million awarded to Edwin Encarnacion ahead of the 2017 season, coincidentally very similar to the deal Abreu just signed. The Guardians gave Jose Ramirez $129MM over seven years even though it was an extension and not a free agent contract.
While many fans remain skeptical of “at least we tried” reports from teams losing free agents, there’s reason to think the Guards might actually have some money to work with this winter. The club had 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 estimates his 2023 spend at around $72 million, with no individual player set to earn more than the $14 million Ramírez will receive. $9MM of that number is the shortstop’s projected arbitrage salary Amed Rosario, a name often mentioned in trade rumours. That $72 million figure is already a slight upgrade from last year’s opening day figure of $68 million, according to Cot’s baseball contracts, but they peaked at $135 million in 2018.
Now that the club are a few years out of lost pandemic income and just got a boost from a surprising post-season, it’s possible they’ll be willing to increase spending to close to their pre-pandemic levels. It would also make sense, from a field standpoint, to build around your bevy of young, talented players while they’re still paid at arbitration or pre-arb levels.
If there is any 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 tagged as their first baseman, but Franmil Reyes excelled as the designated hitter in 2022 and was eventually released to the Cubs. There would be an opening for Abreu to step in and share first base and designated hitter duties with Naylor. It would also make sense to add an extra hit to a lineup that was successful in 2022 primarily making contact and avoiding eliminations. The club hit 127 home runs this year, 29th in the majors, ahead of only Tigres. Abreu’s power has really taken a step back in 2022, but he’s still hit 15 home runs and has frequently hit 30 home runs in the past.
If 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 Gurrielbut the first option is Josh Bell🇧🇷 In the MLBTR Top 50, he was projected for a four-year, $64 million contract. This guarantee is beyond what Abreu has managed, but with an average annual value of less than US$ 16 million. Since Bell is only 30 compared to Abreu’s 36, he will likely require a longer commitment, but that lower salary may better suit Cleveland’s checkbook. Like Abreu, he would add some pizzazz to the lineup, having hit 17 home runs last year and rising to 37 in previous seasons. He also shouldn’t throw away the club’s low-hitting style, as he never posted a rate above 19.2% outside of the 2020 season. For context, this year’s league average rate was 22.4% and the Guardians eliminated with a collective 18.2% clip.
The Guardians will certainly have competition looking for Bell or any other first baseman they decide to pursue. It was reported that the Padres, Cubs and Marlins were all interested in Abreu and will likely start thinking about the next options on their rosters. Another team on this list is the Red Sox, as Jon Heyman of The New York Post reports that Abreu was the main target of the free agent and they met with him once the free agent started.
The Red Sox already have a confusing mix of first basemen and designated hitters. young people Triston Casas and Bobby Dalbec are on the list of 40 men along with the veteran Eric Hosmer, signed on a term contract 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 all but the league minimum of his remaining contract. Since joining the Padres before 2018, he has essentially been a substitute player, producing a wRC+ of 100 and 0.3 fWAR. As for Dalbec, he has shown some potential in 2020 and 2021, but struggled mightily 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 had they signed Abreu, but it seems possible they could have sought to trade Hosmer or simply release him if he used his no-trade clause to block a deal. Dalbec could have found himself in the trade block as well, but he too has options and could have been kept at minor league depth had Casas, who has just 27 MLB games under his belt, struggled in 2023. He hit five home runs in that short sample and walked a lot, but didn’t hit much average, leading to an unbalanced batting lineup of .197/.358/.408.
The first-base market has been quite robust in the first days of the off-season, as Antonio Rizzo already resumed with the Yankees, the Pirates switched to Ji-Man Choi and Carlos Santana, followed by Abreu signing with the Astros. With several teams apparently still interested in updating their rosters early on, the remaining free agents could see their phones light up very soon.