Already, you hear the chirping. Already, more to the point, teams are planning.
The free-agent class of 2018-19 is going to be one for the ages.
Bryce Harper. Manny Machado. Clayton Kershaw. Matt Harvey. Josh Donaldson. Adam Jones. Zach Britton. Andrew Miller. Daniel Murphy. Brian Dozier. The list goes on.
The Yankees, their offseason shopping done for now, are headed on a path that takes them below the luxury-tax threshold for 2018, which would reset their tax rate and allow them to go hog wild following the ’18 season while facing a far lesser penalty.
The Dodgers probably can’t get under the threshold any time soon thanks to their shopping spree this month, during which they re-signed Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner. Yet they have many significant salaries coming off the books over the next two seasons — eight-figure (before the decimal point) earners Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonazlez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy — that will give them some breathing and spending room when they will want that. Furthermore, their ace Kershaw, who right now looks like the best pitcher of the bunch, has an opt-out that he seems quite likely to utilize.
Let’s pounce on that “quite likely,” though. A lot can happen in two years, right? After all, we’ve been discussing this ’18-’19 class for a while already, and at one juncture, the top pitching earners figured to be Jose Fernandez, Harvey and Kershaw. But Fernandez died in a horrible boating accident in September, and Harvey has much to prove after undergoing surgery last summer for thoracic outlet syndrome.
What’s the value of talking about a free-agent class two years away? To try to answer that, I looked back at the industry’s prior elite free-agent group: Last year’s.
Last offseason, a total of 13 players earned contracts worth over $50 million; this offseason, as a point of reference, we’ve seen nine, including Thursday’s agreement between the Indians and Edwin Encarnacion. If we climb higher, we see six of last year’s group passed the $100 million mark; it sure looks like only Yoenis Cespedes will get to nine figures this time.
How precisely could we have forecast the 2015-16 crop following the 2013 season, just as we’re looking ahead to 2018-19 upon the conclusion of 2016?
The answer is: Somewhat precisely. It’s not a complete waste of our time. Yet we must appreciate how much can change in a two-year span.
With the help of Baseball Reference, I looked at the 2013 leaders in WAR and ranked all the players on target to become free agents after 2015. (I did not include those who were free agents after 2013 unless they signed a two-year deal that winter, nor did I include those set to enter the market after 2014.)
To match up with the 13 guys in who raked financially last year, here are the top 13 players in this category:
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (7.3)
2. Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners (7.0)
3. Chris Davis, Orioles (6.5)
4. Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks (6.1)
5. Shane Victorino, Red Sox (6.1)
6. Jhoulys Chacin, Rockies (5.8)
7. (tie) Marlon Byrd, Pirates; Bartolo Colon, A’s ; and Ben Zobrist, Rays (5.0)
10. Alex Gordon, Royals (4.2)
11. Juan Uribe, Dodgers (4.1)
12. Mike Napoli, Red Sox (4.0)
13. Zack Greinke, Dodgers (3.9)
Of those 13, only Greinke (Diamondbacks, six years, $206.5 million), Davis (Orioles, seven years, $161 million), Zobrist (Cubs, four years, $56 million) and Gordon (Royals, four years, $72 million) wound up among the top earners. Of the rest:
— Cabrera re-upped with the Tigers in spring training of 2014, on a monster deal.
— Iwakuma’s age (34 last winter) and durability decreased his earning power, and then he failed a physical with the Dodgers after agreeing on terms with them. He wound up going back to Seattle for a bargain deal.
— Parra’s strong defense in 2013 proved to be a fluke. He reverted to his previous levels in 2014 and 2015, and he signed a three-year deal with Colorado.
— Victorino faded fast after helping the Sawx win it all in ’13 and he didn’t even play in the major leagues in 2016.
— Arm injuries destroyed Chacin.
— The ages of Byrd (38), Colon (42) and Uribe (36) at the end of ’15 meant none could climb into baseball’s one percent. Only Colon made it active through 2016, and he got himself $12.5 million in November to pitch for the Braves next year.
— Napoli slowed down enough that he had to sign a one-year deal with the Indians, for whom he recorded a great 2016, and now he’s out there again.
What about the nine other 2015-16 free agents who passed $50 million? We can put these guys in a few different baskets:
Injuries that didn’t last: David Price got off to a rough start in 2013, went on the disabled list with a left arm ailment and rallied for a near-typical season; the Red Sox proceeded to reward him handsomely. Johnny Cueto made just 11 starts due to back problems that went away, and the Giants signed him for nine figures. Wei-Yin Chen’s right oblique sidelined him, and then very good 2014 and 2015 seasons made him a rich Marlin.
Poor performance: Cespedes tallied a .294 on-base percentage in his sophomore season, and folks wondered whether he had peaked as a rookie. He hadn’t. With a career high in innings pitched came a worse ERA for Jeff Samardzija, yet he showed enough in 2014 that the Giants overlooked his shaky 2015 and gave him big bucks. Ian Kennedy stunk for the Diamondbacks and got traded to the Padres, where he established his market value.
Youth and consistency: Jason Heyward, 26 after last year, and Mike Leake, 27 after last year, did perfectly well in 2013, just not quite well enough to make our list. They kept going and wound up with the Cubs and Cardinals, respectively. Justin Upton’s defense slipped in ’13, then recovered enough the next two years that, at age 28, he got a handsome deal from the Tigers.
OK, now that we’ve gotten a feel for the two-year look-ahead from 2013 to 2015, let’s try to do the same for two years from now. Which free-agent stocks should you buy and which should you sell?
Most likely to make the most: Machado. He’ll be just 26 by the time he gets out there, and three of his first four years have been elite. What a talent.
Most likely to be a Yankee: Harper. He sure seems to want it, and the Yankees still love guys with auras. You could argue Harper’s playing in the National League actually increases his appeal to the Yankees and their fans because they see him so infrequently — as opposed to, say, Machado, who comes to The Bronx three times a year.
Most likely to make the most for a pitcher: Kershaw. Remember Joe DiMaggio’s line about getting an ownership stake in a hypothetical negotiation with George Steinbrenner, had he put up his numbers in the free-agent climate of the 1980s? It feels like that will apply to Kershaw, who is on track to become one of the game’s all-time great pitchers, and the Dodgers.
Most likely to make nine figures in the fewest number of seasons: Donaldson. He’ll be 33, yet he probably can keep raking for two more years.
Most likely to break Aroldis Chapman’s record for a closer: Britton. Sinkers can make you rich.
Most likely to blossom into nine figures between now and then: Drew Pomeranz. He’ll be only 30, and he’s a left-hander. If he can hold his own in the American League East? He’ll be quite popular.
Most likely to make up for what should have already occurred: Wilson Ramos. A poorly timed major knee injury limited him to two years with the Rays. Look for the catcher to get his five-year deal when he comes out again at age 31.
Most likely to fall short of his dreams: Harvey. He now is working with Tommy John surgery and TOS on his record.
Most likely to fall by the time he gets out there: Murphy. He’ll be 34, and how will his defense look at that juncture? Too bad for both his sake and the Mets’ that he didn’t accept the Mets’ qualifying offer last year, put up his monster 2016 with the Mets and then become available again this winter.
Most likely to fade under $100 million: Center fielders Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen. They’ll be 33 and 32, respectively. It’s hard to keep playing this demanding position and put up good offensive numbers at that age. Just ask Jacoby Ellsbury.
Most likely to pass on joining this group: David Price. He has an opt-out from his Red Sox deal, and he might be trending the wrong way too much to give up the four years and $127 million he’ll have left.
Most likely to sign an extension and stay off the market: Brian Dozier. Just a guess that he’ll re-up ahead of time with whatever team (the Dodgers?) acquires him from the Twins.