12 pending MLB free agents who could be most affected by shortened, canceled season

Jason Mastrodonato
Boston Herald

This week is important for Major League Baseball.

The latest reports indicate owners will formalize a plan on Monday to return to play and present it to players on Tuesday. Whether there’s any baseball in 2020 may depend on how well these conversations go.

Mookie Betts will be playing his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But one thing already has been agreed upon: service time in 2020 still counts, no matter what happens.

Players like Mookie Betts and George Springer will be hitting the free-agent market this winter whether they play 80 games or none by then.

If there is a season, which players have the most to gain and the most to lose?

It’s going to be really difficult to judge players in a new, shortened format. If there’s a change in divisional play, which it looks like there could be, or if there’s a universal designated hitter that only lasts one season, or if some players are more or less fazed by the uncomfortable circumstances, that all has to be taken into account during offseason evaluations.

If regular-season games are played deep into the October cold, stats will be affected.

If position players get an unusual number of plate appearances in parks where they otherwise wouldn’t, or if a pitcher gets a few extra starts in Coors Field, all of these factors will be in play.

All players entering free agency could lose big time if owners are more hesitant to hand out contracts without knowing what kind of income they can count on in 2021.

Could some top-tier players take one-year contracts in 2021 and hope the economy rebounds ahead of 2022? Perhaps. There’s a lot of uncertainty.

But we can surmise, economy pending, that some free agents stand to benefit and others stand to lose from having no season or a shortened season in 2020.

► Six players who could benefit from a canceled or shortened season:

1. Mookie Betts, RF, 28, Dodgers

If there’s no season at all, the last we’ll have seen from Betts was his fourth straight Gold Glove season while playing the tricky confines of right field at Fenway Park and posting a .915 OPS with 40 doubles and 29 homers.

The pressure on Betts entering a free agent year with one of baseball’s most storied franchises was immense. He could avoid all that and miss out on the challenge of producing in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. There may not be a chance for Betts to disappoint before he hits free agency.

2. D.J. LeMahieu, IF, 32, Yankees

The former Birmingham Brother Rice star single-handedly changed baseball in 2019 showing that a high-contact hitter who prioritizes average over power can be the most important player in a lineup.

He was worth much more than his $12 million annual salary in 2019, when he hit .327 with a .375 on-base percentage and scored 109 runs atop the Yankees’ lineup. Was it a fluke year for the third-time All-Star? Owners could have to pay up to find out.

3. Marcus Semien, SS, 30, A’s

With one of the highest jumps in OPS by any player last year, Semien must’ve thought his 33-homer breakout season as Oakland’s shortstop came one year early with free agency pending in 2021. He finished 2019 with a .285 average and .892 OPS, toppling his previous career-high marks of .255 and .735.

4. Joc Pederson, 29, OF, Dodgers

The former No. 11 overall pick finally put it all together in 2019, hitting 36 homers with a .920 OPS in just 464 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers. He’s still a platoon-only player in the outfield because of his struggles against lefties, but his all-or-nothing swing is valued in the modern game and Pederson remains young enough for teams to bet on a productive future.

5. George Springer, 31, OF, Astros

One of the most productive players in baseball since 2014, the Connecticut native was named to his third All-Star team while hitting .292 with a .974 OPS and 39 homers in 2019.

6. Brandon Workman, 32, RP, Red Sox

Where did that come from? Workman’s out-of-nowhere season in 2019 included a 10-1 record, 16 saves and 104 strikeouts with a 1.88 ERA in 71⅔ innings. He allowed just 29 hits, including one home run all season. He had a career 4.38 ERA in four seasons before 2019 and should be highly sought-after in free agency next winter.

Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Mike Fiers went 15-4 with a 3.90 ERA last season.

► Six players who could be hurt by a canceled or shortened season:

1. Edwin Encarnacion, 38, DH, White Sox

Finally ready to compete, the White Sox paid $12 million to make Encarnacion, who has averaged 37 homers the last eight seasons, their designated hitter in 2020. They hold a $12 million team option for 2021, but it seems like a lot of money to risk on a 38-year-old DH after a year off.

2. Howie Kendrick, 38, IF, Nationals

What a season it was for Kendrick in 2019. He was one homer shy of a career-high with 17 on the year while hitting a remarkable .344 with a .966 OPS in 370 plate appearances. He also played a key role in the World Series run. But at 38, how many teams will want to pay to see if he can stay productive in 2021?

3. Marcell Ozuna, 30, OF, Braves

Ozuna was an MVP candidate with the 2016 Marlins, but largely disappointed in two years with the Cardinals, hitting .262 with a .777 OPS and 52 homers. He signed a one-year deal with the Braves and was betting on himself to perform better in 2020.

4. Jake Arrieta, 35, SP, Phillies

The former Cy Young winner had bad timing in 2019, posting his worst season since his rookie year. Arrieta dealt with a bone spur in his elbow all year and decided on season-ending surgery last August. The Phillies hold $20 million options in 2021 and 2022, but could be motivated to decline them without getting much of a chance to see him pitch in 2020.

5. Mike Fiers, 35, SP, A’s

Fiers had a real nice year in Oakland, going 15-4 with a 3.90 ERA, but was on the receiving end of a lot of ridicule after on-the-record comments detailing the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal of 2017. While some players publicly defended Fiers, several were critical of his decision and it remains to be seen how that would affect the former Tiger's attractiveness in free agency at age 35.

6. Jon Lester, 37, SP, Cubs

Lester admitted to WEEI.com last week that losing a chance to play this season “hurts me.” He’s coming off a down year in which he went 13-10 with a 4.46 ERA and led the league with 206 hits allowed. The Cubs have a $25 million option with a $10 million buyout for 2021. If they let him walk, a reunion with the Red Sox could be possible. “I’m open-minded to anything,” he said. “Absolutely it would be cool to go back and finish my career where it all started.”