There are plenty of questions about the free-agent class that will follow the 2018 season, but it could be the greatest free agency period in MLB history.
USA TODAY Sports
Make no mistake: The free agent class of 2018 should be the greatest in baseball history.
From MVP winners to future Hall of Famers to multiple franchise players, this star-studded cast will likely produce the first $400 million player, generate more than $2 billion in future salaries and stoke perhaps the wildest winter of fiscal insanity the sport has seen.
Yet, while anticipation for this group is appropriate, and fan giddiness grounded in actual reality, the 2017 season has proven that ballplayers are, indeed assets.
Some gain value. Many others decline. And predicting future performance – particularly for pro athletes fighting an unsympathetic aging curve – is always problematic.
Now, don’t get us wrong: The Class of ‘18 is far from devolving into Bryce Harper and Everyone Else.
But the penultimate year before five former MVP and Cy Young Award winners hit the market has cast some shadows on the group.
Of the consensus top dozen players in the Class of ’18, five – four of them pitchers – have landed on the disabled list. Two of those – left-handers Clayton Kershaw and David Price – will hit the market only if they opt out of current contracts valued at $215 million and $217 million, respectively.
While Kershaw’s latest back injury and Price’s ongoing elbow woes won’t necessarily extend into 2018, it’s worth noting that both are less likely to opt out if they finish next season with significant medical red flags.
And at a time when office-bound actuaries are as valuable to an organization as a sunburned scout, teams will be far more conscious of age than they were even six years ago, when Albert Pujols received a $240 million contract that will extend into his 40s.
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Oh, teams will pay top dollar for a star in his prime like Harper. But recent off-seasons indicate that players on the wrong side of 30 will find it challenging to prod teams into paying for past performance.
The list that follows – and the market it produces – will be fluid over the next 15 months. Individual player values will be rebuilt and torn down; a pitcher such as New York Mets starter Matt Harvey can go from limited appeal to free agent jackpot with a healthy, dominant 2018 season.
With that in mind, here’s a peek at how baseball’s 2018-2019 feeding frenzy is rounding into form, with ages as of Opening Day 2019. An asterisk denotes player with opt-out clause:
1. Bryce Harper (26)
Resume: 2015 NL MVP, career .905 OPS, 150 homers by age 24.
Trending: Up. Never mind the bone bruise in his knee that will cost him most of the remaining regular season. His 29 homers and 034 OPS this season more easily frame his 2016 struggles as an injury-addled aberration.
Outlook: Adios, A-Rod. Harper’s age, upside, track record and marketability will make him the biggest free agent get ever.
2. Manny Machado (26)
Resume: Three All-Star appearances and top 10 MVP finishes, career .811 OPS and 28 WAR
Trending: Even. Machado’s bad/good 2017 (.741 OPS before the break, .967 after) won’t threaten his status as 1A, behind Harper.
Outlook: Machado may not get Harper money, but his market may be wider, as upper-middle class clubs like the Angels, Giants, Cardinals, Phillies and Rangers figure to join the big-market behemoths for his services.
3. Clayton Kershaw (31)*
Resume: Three-time Cy Young winner, MVP, 141-62 record, 2.34 ERA, 0.99 WHIP.
Trending: Down. Make no mistake: Any team would find room for the greatest left-hander of his generation. But with back woes interrupting his past two seasons, it will give some pause to give a 31-year-old Kershaw a fresh deal north of $200 million.
Outlook: Perhaps the most intriguing figure in this class. Does Kershaw want to be a Dodger for life, or start anew? Will another DL trip in 2017 make him re-think forfeiting $65 million to hit the market?
4. Josh Donaldson (33)
Resume: 2015 AL MVP, four top-10 MVP finishes, .873 career OPS
Trending: Even. The skills are clearly there –- a .393 OBP, and 20 homers in 283 at-bats – but Donaldson succumbed to significant injury for the first time, as a calf injury has limited him to 80 games.
Outlook: Donaldson will be the flag bearer for the 30-something crowd: Will suitors bid on his track record, or guard against his advancing age? An athletic freak, Donaldson looks to be a good bet for the long term, but players approaching their mid-30s aren’t valued as they were even a few years ago.
5. David Price* (33)
Resume: Cy Young Award, two runner-up finishes, five 200-strikeout seasons, career 126-68 record.
Trending: Down. Like Kershaw, Price is a 2018 opt-out candidate who’s on the DL – and Price is dealing with a vexing elbow issue that’s limited him to 66 innings this year.
Outlook: Price would be walking away from a lot more money – four years and $127 million – than Kershaw. But Price’s clashes with Boston media and his injuries have made for a miserable season. Perhaps no player in this class has more riding on 2018 performance.
6. Craig Kimbrel (30)
Resume: 285 career saves, five-time All-Star, averaging 15 strikeouts per nine innings for career
Trending: Up. Kimbrel has 29 saves, is striking out 17 batters per nine and boasts a 0.64 WHIP.
Outlook: Kimbrel’s age, dominance and the market’s thirst for relievers will bode very well; Aroldis Chapman’s record $86 million deal will be within reach.
7. Charlie Blackmon (32)
Resume: Two-time All-Star, NL-leading 168 hits, 115 runs and 310 total bases this season
Trending: Up. Blackmon’s next home run will be his career-high 30th, and he’ll likely finish with an OPS north of 1.000 for the first time.
Outlook: Blackmon will face the same age concerns as many in this class. Another hurdle: The Coors Field factor. His career OPS is .966 at home, .738 on the road.
8. Daniel Murphy (34)
Resume: Three-time All-Star, batting champ runner-up, launch angle revolutionary
Trending: Up. Is it possible for a player to get a bigger free agent deal at 33 than 30? The Washington Nationals snagged Murphy for three years and $35 million. That may represent the floor after next year.
Outlook: Murphy’s much-chronicled swing changes produced an MVP runner-up finish his first year in Washington, and a .967 OPS over two seasons. It also represents the line of demarcation, where he went from a useful player to a dominant – and very well-compensated – one.
9. Elvis Andrus* (29)
Resume: Two-time All-Star, 1,410 hits, 264 steals
Trending: Up. Andrus’ .813 OPS this season is well above the .679 mark he produced from 2009-2015.
Outlook: Andrus will have four years and $58 million remaining on his current deal when he reaches the first of two opt-out years. If the past two seasons are his new normal, he’ll opt out and cash in as the best shortstop option in this class.
10. Andrew Miller (33)
Resume: Two-time All-Star, 2016 ALCS MVP, 14 strikeouts per nine innings since 2014
Trending: Even. Miller’s ERA (1.65) and WHIP (0.77) are both slightly up from last season, and he spent much of August on the DL with right knee tendinitis.
Outlook: How long can a dominant reliever maintain that level? Miller will be an interesting case study, as he’s four years into a run of high-leverage excellence, with another punishing October run on the horizon. Here’s guessing he’s still mowing down hitters from both sides of the plate through next season, and likely doubling the $33 million he received after 2014.
11. Brian Dozier (31)
Resume: AL record for home runs by a second baseman (42), 141 career home runs.
Trending: Even. Dozier might not match his career best HR mark from 2016, but his on-base skills have solidified (a .340 OBP each of the past two seasons). Could benefit from a move to a more hitter-friendly climate.
12. Andrew McCutchen (32)
Resume: Five-time All-Star, MVP, 137 career OPS+
Trending: Up. After setting career lows almost across the board in 2016, McCutchen made good on his bounce-back promise, producing an .889 OPS and 23 homers, one shy of his 2016 total.
Outlook: Call us sentimental for granting the last spot in this dandy dozen to Cutch, but perhaps he’s going to age far more gracefully than we imagined.
The best of the rest
Starting pitchers: Matt Harvey, Gio Gonzalez, Patrick Corbin, Drew Pomeranz, Garrett Richards, Drew Smyly, Brandon McCarthy
Relievers: Zach Britton, Cody Allen, Kelvin Herrera, Justin Wilson, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, A.J. Ramos, Brad Brach, Jeurys Familia
Catchers: Joe Mauer, Wilson Ramos
First basemen: Justin Smoak, Adrian Gonzalez, Marwin Gonzalez, Luis Valbuena
Second basemen: D.J. LeMahieu
Shortstops: Adeiny Hechavarria, Jose Iglesias, Freddy Galvis
Third basemen: Adrian Beltre, Chase Headley
Outfielders: A.J. Pollock, Adam Jones, Jason Heyward*, Michael Brantley, Brett Gardner, Jose Bautista, Nick Markakis, Lonnie Chisenhall
DHs: Nelson Cruz, Victor Martinez
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