MLB superpowers at a crossroads: Dodgers, Astros, Yankees, Red Sox will shape free agency

Gabe Lacques

For the past seven seasons, they have defined success in Major League Baseball, hogged a majority of pennants and World Series championships and deployed their financial might in unpredictable ways.

Now, a quartet of superpowers face the loss of All-Star, MVP or even executive talent as baseball’s winter maneuverings heat up. And nothing can truly be done until the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros answer, with money and action, a very simple question:

What now?

Since 2016, that foursome has consumed 57% of all league championship series spots, World Series berths and championships, with the Astros reaching six consecutive American League Championship Series and claiming bookend World Series titles. Yet the player whose acquisition completed the Astros’ journey from come-up to champion – reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander – is a free agent.

MLB FREE AGENCY:Top 87 players available this winter

The Yankees face the loss of 2022 AL MVP Aaron Judge. The Red Sox must grapple with retaining Xander Bogaerts, a World Series-winning shortstop at 20 and now a two-time champ and four-time All-Star at 30. The Dodgers no longer employ Trea Turner, a franchise shortstop whose acquisition kick-started a pivot from big-bucks sustainability to star-fueled superteam.

To retain or set free these stars is a decision that will involve hundreds of millions of dollars, innumerable contingencies and ponderous self-examination. A bloodthirsty market, with recently penurious franchises emboldened by the expanded-playoff success of clubs like the Philadelphia Phillies, is ready to pounce.

As this market begins to smolder, USA TODAY Sports examines the four incumbents whose decisions will shape so much of a wild winter:

Money matters

The New York Mets might have spent more in 2022, with a luxury tax payroll exceeding $300 million. The Atlanta Braves’ five-year streak of division titles stretches longer than all but one of these clubs. But the Mets lack the sustained success of these four – and they don’t need a shortstop. And the Braves, who have eight core players signed long term, are owned by Liberty Media, a publicly traded company that actually sets an offseason budget with some laxity.

Apologies to both, but the biggest tremors this winter will start with our core four. And all have plenty in the war chest.

2022 MLB revenue rank, per Forbes:

1. Dodgers ($565 million)

2. Yankees ($482 million)

3. Red Sox ($479 million)

6. Astros ($388 million)

While Forbes’ estimates remain the publicly available industry standard, their Yankee and Red Sox revenue estimates admittedly err on the conservative side, thanks to both clubs’ respective ownership stakes in the YES and NESN networks. The Astros, meanwhile, should see a bump from winning another World Series championship.

2022 salaries coming off the payroll:

1. Dodgers, $119.4 million

2. Red Sox, $95.85 million

3. Astros, $67.93 million

4. Yankees, $65.22 million

A massive chunk - $91 million – off the Dodgers’ books comes from six players: Turner, non-tendered former MVP Cody Bellinger, infielder Justin Turner and pitchers Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney. Thus, the chance at a payroll reset of sorts. For the Yankees and Red Sox, re-upping franchise cornerstones Judge ($19 million) and Bogaerts ($20 million) would mean huge bumps in salary, but Judge’s average annual value would merely approach the $37 million the club expended on he and former reliever Aroldis Chapman ($18 million) in 2022.

Payroll commitments beyond 2023

1. Dodgers $435.3 million

2. Yankees $374.6 million

3. Astros $298.8 million

4. Red Sox $147.3 million

The Dodgers’ hit isn’t as bad as it looks: 92% of that number is spread over 12 contract years for Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts, who along with Trea Turner comprised a power trio that fueled a 111-win season. Even with the Marlins kicking in $30 million, the Yankees still owe Giancarlo Stanton $98 million from 2024-27. The Astros, meanwhile, have a clear two-year window carved out: All-Star infielders Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are signed through 2024; only slugger Yordan Alvarez and pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. are signed beyond 2025, on team-friendly extensions.

Trea Turner joined the Dodgers in a 2021 trade with the Nationals.

Dodgers: Behemoths for life?

Beyond pondering yet another playoff failure in which they didn’t allow any starting pitcher to throw more than five innings, the Dodgers face a series of franchise-defining decisions. While the untold “parallel tracks” they will surely pursue don’t merit a simple up-and-down decision on him, Trea Turner, conceptually, is a good place to start.

Let him walk – and Turner should bust the $300 million mark on the market – and fail to replace him with another star shortstop, and the Dodgers will again commit to collective solutions at key positions. Perhaps Gavin Lux is ready for stardom, and will hold down shortstop admirably, and second and third base and at least one outfield spot can be manned by a Max Muncy-Chris Taylor-Miguel Vargas-maybe Justin Turner mélange.

Re-sign him, and the Dodgers are committed to star-driven greatness.

That would also practically ensure they’d never duck under the luxury tax thresholds, not with three players accounting for nearly $100 million in payroll. But that troika: Each racked up at least 6 fWAR and an .809 OPS in 2022, a 1-2-3 lineup punch that boosted the Dodgers to majors-best marks in runs, OBP and OPS.

The move: Justin Verlander’s meeting with Dodger brass on Monday aligns neatly with past franchise desires: Veteran pitcher on shorter-term, larger-value contract, leaving the door open for flexibility down the road. Landing Verlander or Jacob deGrom on a two- or three-year deal would create potentially dominant rotations in 2023 (with Julio Urias and Clayton Kershaw) and 2024 (provided Walker Buehler’s smooth recovery from Tommy John surgery) while buying time to sort out the viability of veteran and emerging arms like Dustin May and Bobby Miller. An ace, a run at Brandon Nimmo to replace Bellinger, a re-fortified bullpen? All are possible in a non-Trea future.

Aaron Judge set the AL record with 62 home runs in 2022.

Yankees: Return of the Empire?

Thanks to a series of moves that felt middling at the time and were widely panned as a 99-win club faded down the stretch, it’s easy to forget the Yankees’ estimated $277 million luxury tax payroll fell just a few million shy of the big-spending Dodgers. But that felt like empty money as the Yankees got swept out of the ALCS, as their starting pitchers underwhelmed and they fiddled with the shortstop position.

Now comes a winter with equally urgent goals: Retain Judge and shore up a roster badly exposed by the Astros.

The former will be complicated by external factors – notably, clubs like the San Francisco Giants and any number of suitors hungry for Judge’s production, veteran presence and star power. But let’s say the Yankees go along for the ride, match or exceed any offer and keep their superstar. As noted above, the 2023 cost won’t exceed what they laid out for Judge and a bad year from Chapman in 2022.

After that? Well, how big do you want to go?

In their “Evil Empire” days, after such a playoff failing, there’d be little doubt the Bombers would be in the middle of a star-studded free agent class, especially with glaring weaknesses. That mentality runs headfirst into owner Hal Steinbrenner’s desire to develop at least partially from within, even if a superstar shortstop like Carlos Correa buys them insurance against the struggles of top prospects like Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe.

But adding elite talent will give the Yankees significant – and here’s that word everyone loves – optionality in coming years.

Struggling third baseman Josh Donaldson will be a free agent in one year, Gleyber Torres in two. Adding an elite player on both sides of the ball like Correa – or, gasp, stealing Bogaerts from Boston – means the Yankees would no longer be beholden to inconsistent performers. A newcomer like Peraza can be eased into the mix, not force-fed. Players like Oswaldo Cabrera would be lovely depth options, as intended, and not pivotal performers.

The move: So, just where will Hal draw the line? Retaining Judge, adding a frontline pitcher and a transformative infielder would likely shove the Yankees past a $300 million luxury tax payroll for the foreseeable future. Hey, let’s not get crazy, here! The franchise cannot lose Judge, nor can it stomach another middling playoff outing on the mound. A bi-coastal bidding war with the Dodgers (for Verlander) and Mets (for deGrom) would make for a very hot stove, indeed.

Xander Bogaerts has hit .301 with an .880 OPS since 2018.

Red Sox: Walk the walk?

The Red Sox would love to stabilize a boom-bust pattern since 2018 that’s gone: World Series win, miss playoffs, finish last, reach ALCS, finish last. Yet that desire for sustainability – ostensibly threatened by former GM Dave Dombrowski’s win-now mandate that hatched the 2018 title – runs headlong into massive-market expectations.

Already, GM Chaim Bloom – with a nudge from ownership – is known as the Guy Who Traded Mookie Betts. In consecutive winters, he can add Guy Who Let Bogaerts Walk and Guy Who Let Rafael Devers Get Away to that list.

Can’t happen, right?

Perhaps not, but the Red Sox do need to ponder a few questions.

Does Trevor Story’s so-so and injury-marred 2022 lessen the chance he opts out of his $140 million deal after 2025?

Can the Red Sox flourish without Bogaerts as their catalyst, and can they afford what he and agent Scott Boras may command after opting out of their team-friendly extension signed under Dombrowski?

Can the club stomach paying all of Bogaerts, Story and Devers – who will hit the market a year from now, at 27 – close to $30 million annually, or do they have to choose?

Will the club ponder an outside option if an opportunity presents itself – such as if Correa, exactly two years younger than Bogaerts, remains available on a high-salary, shorter-term deal, as he did last winter?

The move: The Red Sox have money to spend, a desire to contend, and a PR nightmare on their hands if they show up to Fort Myers with no Bogaerts and the specter of Devers’ long goodbye lurking. While Devers has expressed confidence going year-to-year, moving aggressively to lock him up may make more sense than seeing Bogaerts’ ask keep rising on the market. They can always circle back to Bogaerts - or someone else – and look to mid-range options or a Nathan Eovaldi reunion to shore up the rotation.

Justin Verlander helped the Astros win their second title in six years in 2022.

Astros: Get in, losers – we’re going shopping

In his decade owning the Houston Astros, Jim Crane has set much of the baseball world on its ear, most notably by constructing a front office that hatched a talent monstrosity, a pipeline still yielding results three years after the firing of its architect.

But forget about carrying on without Jeff Luhnow, dismissed after the 2019 revelation of a sign-stealing scandal. Crane parting ways with GM James Click just days after winning the 2022 World Series and assuming GM duties himself is an entirely different level.

So far, no team has been more active: Crane, with Astros legend Jeff Bagwell stepping into a surprise role as consigliere, retained reliever Rafael Montero and signed first baseman Jose Abreu to three-year deals totaling $93 million. Crane told reporters at a Tuesday news conference introducing Abreu that he doesn’t anticipate hiring a new GM until January.

It’s probably just as well, since one of the most important decisions – whether to retain Verlander – is a call largely made at the ownership level, anyway. And right now it looks like Verlander’s moving on.

It’s not just the massive-market sharks in the water, though Verlander’s appeal as a mercenary on a short-term deal can’t be underestimated. It’s also that Crane has never guaranteed more than the $163.5 million granted Jose Altuve for the life of a contract, nor the $33 million annually that Verlander received for a two-year extension.

A Max Scherzer-like deal for Verlander – and $40 million over three or so years certainly seems like the floor – would be a significant departure. Starting pitching – a rotation fronted by Framber Valdez, with young studs like Hunter Brown in reserve – is hardly a pressing need in Houston.

The move: You heard the man: He’s driving this bus into the new year and beyond. And this joyride doesn’t need much more beyond a lefty-swinging outfielder, whether that’s reuniting with a healthy Michael Brantley, Andrew Benintendi or someone else.

It’s good to be the Astros: They can confidently tell rivals, come and get us. And if recent history is any indication, it will be challenging for 26 teams to match the maneuvering of these four.