The World Series has officially wrapped, but MLB free agency doesn’t officially begin until Monday, Nov. 6. In the intervening days, players and teams across the league will be making decisions on contract options for 2024 and beyond – whether to pick them up or decline them and roll the dice on the open market.
This year’s crop features some very notable names, so let’s run down the five biggest and try to make some predictions about whether they’ll stay put or hit free agency.
MLB’s biggest option decisions before free agency
Marcus Stroman, SP, Chicago Cubs
At the All-Star break, Stroman looked like a legit Cy Young candidate, with a 2.88 ERA through his first 20 starts. And then the wheels fell off: The righty got hammered for 18 runs over his next 10 innings, then landed on the IL with a hip injury that proved surprisingly hard to kick. He didn’t return until September, and even then it was as a reliever, allowing eight runs over eight innings of work.
Now he has a big decision to make. His contract still has one year remaining at $21 million, but he can also opt out now and become a free agent. A few months ago, this was a no-brainer; given all that’s happened since, though, it might make since for Stroman to come back to the Cubs, pitch one more year for an ostensible contender and rebuild his value ahead of next winter. That said, he’ll be 33 next May, and there’s no guarantee he’ll avoid more health setbacks in 2024.
Prediction: I think he opts out. Waiting another year to cash in just carries a ton of risk, considering his injury history and the fact that he’ll be entering his age-34 season — risk that I’m not sure is worth the upside. This is a mixed free-agent class for starting pitchers, with far greater demand than supply, and Stroman can sell teams on the fact that it was his hip injury rather than a decline in performance that derailed his excellent first half.
Tim Anderson, 2B/SS, Chicago White Sox
Anderson was among the very worst regulars in the game this past season; his power evaporated, his uber-aggressive plate approach led to a ton of weak ground balls and he posted the worst offensive season of his career. All that said, he slashed .318/.347/.474 from 2019-22, he’s still just 30 years old, and guys with that sort of production on their resume — especially at a middle-infield spot — are hard to come by. The White Sox are at the start of what figures to be a long and painful rebuild, so is it worth it to pick up their long-time shortstop’s $14 million option for 2024?
Ordinarily the answer would be an obvious no, but it’s not quite that simple. The only real middle infielders of note in this free-agent class are Elvis Andrus and Amed Rosario; it’s rough out there for any team looking to upgrade at second or short, and it’s not hard to imagine Chicago being able to sell someone on coughing up a prospect for Anderson even given how bad he was in 2023.
Prediction: It’s hard to envision Jerry Reinsdorf coughing up that kind of money for a player coming off a dreadful season, even a popular one like Anderson. I think it would behoove Chicago to try and flip him for something of value, but that hasn’t been this organization’s M.O. for years.
Liam Hendriks, RP, Chicago White Sox
Baseball can be a very cruel game sometimes. Hendriks made his triumphant return from stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma back in late May, picking up a win on National Cancer Survivors Day and serving as an inspiration to fans everywhere. And then he blew out his elbow a few weeks later, eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery that will keep him out for most, if not all, of 2024.
Obviously, everyone just hopes that Hendriks can find his way back to a Major League mound as soon as possible. But baseball is also a business, and the White Sox have a decision to make regarding his contract. Hendriks has a $15 million club option for 2024 with a $15 million buyout, to be paid out in 10 annual installments of $1.5 million from 2024-33. Either way, Hendriks will be getting $15 million — the question is whether Chicago pays it up front of defers it for the next decade.
Prediction: Given Hendriks’ rehab, Chicago will almost certainly choose the buyout option, with the ability to then tack an extra year onto his deal that allows him to rehab in 2024 and pitch for the team in 2025.
Josh Bell, 1B, Miami Marlins
Bell is one of the most difficult players to pin down in all of baseball, alternating between All-Star and awful with seemingly little rhyme or reason. He was the former for the Marlins down the stretch, one of the biggest reasons why Miami was able to sneak its way into a Wild Card spot. The Fish would almost certainly like him back at first base in 2024, but he can opt out of the one year and $16.5 million remaining on his deal should he so choose.
Prediction: This is tough. The market is not kind to bat-only first basemen on the wrong side of 30 (Bell turned 31 in August), especially those with such spotty track records, and $16.5 million ain’t nothing. I do think, though, that Bell could earn a multi-year deal by opting out, and he’d be wise to try and cash in while his stock is at its highest.
Michael Wacha, SP, San Diego Padres
Not much went right for San Diego this year, but Wacha was a bright spot in the Padres rotation, signing early in spring training and then delivering 134.1 innings with a 3.22 ERA. Now both he and the team have a decision to make, as the righty has a rare double option in his contract. The Padres have a two-year, $32 million club option they can exercise or decline; if they choose the latter, Wacha then has a three-year, $18.5 million player option that he can exercise or decline.
The 32-year-old could very much help San Diego next year, but with the Padres looking to shed payroll ahead of 2024 — and being so cash-strapped they reportedly took out a $50 million loan to cover short-term expenses in September — letting Wacha might be on the table.
Prediction: Just pick up the club option, guys. $16 million is No. 3-4 starter money in free agency at this point, and Wacha out-pitched that in 2023. Plus, if they decide they don’t want to keep him for whatever reason, that’s a very tradable contract at his salary in a market thin on starting pitching.