As baseball fans, seeing the final out of the World Series is usually a bittersweet experience. On one hand, we get to culminate a long season and crown a champion, only to start the seemingly endless waiting period until the next season. As a wise man once said, the waiting is the hardest part, but even if all we want is for pitchers and catchers to report, there are always a few items that provide baseball-like substance during the fall and winter.
In this regard, the MLB news cycle has become a force on its own, giving us countless hours to sit, wait, and wish for the upcoming season, especially when it comes to free agents, potential trades, rule changes, or at least basking on the schadenfreude of your biggest rival not having such a rosy outlook. With this in mind, today we present the 10 biggest storylines to follow in this offseason. Some of them may be resolved quickly, while others may be subject to speculation all the way through Spring Training. Either way, the intrigue and hope of these items should be enough to keep us busy until there are actual games on the diamond.
10 – Veterans that might retire
The free agent class of each offseason merits a deep dive when it comes to finding the best landing spot for each player, with a whole industry trying to figure out how many years and dollars will be committed to these players. However, there is always a nostalgic feel for those veteran free agents who may not field an attractive offer and instead choose to retire.
This year’s veteran population includes potential Hall of Famers in Joey Votto and Zack Greinke, multiple champions in Brandon Crawford and Madison Bumgarner, and a beloved former MVP in Andrew McCutchen. While most of them have not been very open about retirement or giving it another shot, it is likely that at least a couple of them will not be part of MLB rosters in 2024. If that is the case, we can always resort to the good old days.
9 – Contenders who fell apart in 2023
In the always fun zero-sum game of Major League Baseball, the many surprising teams of 2023 were equaled by the number of high-profile disappointments. While most of the headlines centered around the lack of success for top-spending teams, there were other squads that fell short of their historical standards and took a major step back.
The Mets have to figure out how to translate their mega millions into wins on the field. The Yankees have entered a bizarre zone in which even their GM’s interviews are becoming a mess. The Cardinals need to field almost a whole rotation following their worst season this century. The Dodgers again had a nice season but fell unceremoniously in the NLDS. The Padres deserve their own section (which we’ll get to later). These teams have the resources and willpower to improve quickly, so they will likely be included in most free-agent rumors and potential trade scenarios, much to the chagrin of fans of small-market franchises.
8 – Josh Hader’s free agency
While many teams have embraced the closer-by-committee playbook, there is no denying that there is still value in having a true shutdown presence in the ninth inning. In terms of intimidating speed, an imposing look, and an iconic walk-up song, this offseason has the whole package in Josh Hader. The lefty had a nice bounce-back season in 2023, with a sparkling 1.28 ERA and 33 saves, serving as a bright spot for the underachieving Padres.
Most people in baseball expect Hader to become the second reliever to land a $100 million deal, following last year’s Edwin Diaz’s contract. The team that is willing to take that risk is bound to get the full Hader experience: one-inning saves only, usage restrictions, but also plenty of power pitching and securing wins.
7 – Who can be the next Rangers?
Whenever a team finds success, especially in the form of a title, other franchises will try to emulate it. It has happened with the extreme tanking of the Astros and Cubs, the small-market efficiency tactics of the Rays, and the sign-your-prospects tactics of Atlanta. In the case of the defending champs, there is a lot that can be learned from the Rangers and teams will certainly try to follow that script during the offseason.
The Rangers famously splurged for big free agents like Corey Seager and Marcus Semien even when they were not projected to be good, only to double down the following offseason with the likes of Jacob deGrom and Nathan Eovaldi. They also went against the grain and hired a true veteran manager in Bruce Bochy, and all of these moves pushed them over the top. It will be interesting to see if teams with a young core will be aggressive and follow this strategy, such as the Orioles, Reds, and even the Giants. Money needs to be spent somewhere, and free agency may be the best bet for several teams.
6 – The A’s move to Las Vegas
The whole saga of Oakland’s seemingly inevitable move to Las Vegas was a large story during the season, and it is bound to generate headlines in the upcoming months. With the owners’ meetings about to take place before Thanksgiving, it is expected that an official vote will take place, as two-thirds of the owners are required to approve the relocation.
Despite the public uproar and indignation over this story, many pundits have seen the A’s-to-Vegas as a foregone conclusion for months. However, the lack of official stadium renderings, questions around financing, and the lack of a clear plan for where the Athletics would play from 2025 to 2027 have provided a glimmer of hope for Oakland, as mayor Sheng Thao has even gone public in requesting support from MLB owners to turn down the relocation request. This will certainly be a huge storyline, as Oakland fans continue to make their case for keeping their beloved franchise.
5 – Starting pitcher free agent depth
Outside of Cody Bellinger, there may not be a true impact bat in this free agent class, as it is mostly full of mid-tier hitters and solid but unspectacular options. On the other hand, the starting pitchers are ready to dominate the discourse all winter long. Blake Snell will probably win his second Cy Young before securing a 9-figure deal, Aaron Nola may not be far behind, Jordan Montgomery emerged as a playoff force in Texas and should also garner a multi-year contract, while Sonny Gray’s age may stop him from that, but he should still earn his bag.
Teams seeking to build a rotation could get one or two building blocks from these and other free agents, suddenly turning into contenders simply by spending. Even as relievers threw more innings than ever before in 2023, the playoffs again showed the value of stud starting pitchers, which should present nice paydays for this class of hurlers.
4 – A potential Brewers sell-off
If your team fails to sign a top free agent, don’t despair…they could still give a call to the Brewers. Following the shocking exit of manager Craig Counsell, and with several prominent players in their final year before free agency, the team has indicated that they are open for business and will field offers for nearly all of their veterans.
While it is unlikely that former MVP Christian Yelich will be in high demand, there could be blockbuster potential for the likes of Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Willy Adames. While a sell-off may be a sad step for a Milwaukee franchise that has been a steady contender in the past half-decade, it may only mean a soft rebuild, as they are in the middle of a generational turnaround, which will also include a new manager. If they are really willing to move anyone, the Burnes sweepstakes may become the biggest trade of 2023-24.
3 – The push for Yoshinobu Yamamoto
Even with all the known quantities of stateside free agents, the potential biggest deal for a pitcher may come in the form of Japanese star Yamamoto, who will be posted by the Orix Buffaloes. Many outlets are projecting a $200-million deal, which would be unprecedented for a player coming over from the NPB. However, there are several factors in Yamamoto’s favor that could make such a signing reasonable and worthwhile.
For starters, he has just turned 25, which provides a lot of upside in terms of a free-agent contract. His career numbers in Japan (70-29, 1.82 ERA) are downright ridiculous, as he is a two-time MVP and three-time Sawamura award winner, and most scouts agree that his stuff will play in MLB. As soon as he is posted, a bidding war should ensue for his services, as Yamamoto becomes the most exciting Japanese import since Shohei Ohtani.
2 – Will the Padres blow it all up?
The Padres crashing and burning was a major plot point of the 2023 season, as their star-studded roster failed time and again to win close games. While several underlying stats suggested that the Friars were in fact a great but unlucky team, there is no denying that they were a major disappointment. Entering this offseason, they have already lost manager Bob Melvin to the Giants, amid reports that implied internal turmoil between upper management and some of his staff.
With Hader and Snell all but certain to leave as free agents, and several massive contracts already on the books, San Diego could take a hard look at its roster and decide that they need to start becoming more efficient with their resources. While there has not been an official announcement, many people around MLB are expecting the Padres to at least consider trading Juan Soto, one year before becoming a free agent. If they do, they would certainly receive a massive haul to patch the roster, as they try to get close to the Dodgers in the NL West.
1 – Shohei
The other 9 combined storylines on this list may still pale in comparison to #1, as the free agency of Shohei Ohtani will become the defining story. Even for casual fans, figuring out Ohtani’s next destination is already becoming a captivating issue. At the beginning, it appeared that he prioritized playing on the West Coast, avoiding major media markets. However, he has lately been linked to the Cubs and even to Atlanta, which would certainly seem unfair from a competitive standpoint.
As Ohtani awaits his second MVP award, he is bound to be courted by at least half the league, with a deal that could hover around half a billion dollars despite not being able to pitch in 2024. Shohei’s exploits on the field reached historic proportions in the past three years, and his free-agent deal is certain to reflect that.