Last offseason was a stark wake-up call for free agents in Major League baseball. Players entered with grand dreams of having cash cascade over them like a waterfall, only to leave the free agency period still thirsty for a glass of water.
It’s caused some fans and media to speculate that last year is the ‘new normal’ for free agency. While it can be said that the analytical revolution in front offices has nigh-uniformly caused a re-evaluation on the merits of spending vast sums of cash over long time periods for players in their 30’s, what hasn’t been addressed is that maybe last year’s free agents just weren’t that good.
The best free agent was Shohei Otani and he wasn’t truly a free agent. As an international player still subject to the international pool, his posting fee ($20M to Nippon Ham Fighters) and signing bonus ($2.3M) belie the fact that he made the minimum salary this year of $555,000. Even if he misses some time in 2019 for his TJ surgery and is ‘only’ a hitter, he’s still a steal at the minimum salary.
Here’s the list of MLB Trade Rumors’ Top 10 Free Agents from last year. I’ve included what MLBTR estimated they would get, what they actually got, and who signed them:
|Player||Est. Contract||Actual Contract||Signed By|
|Yu Darvish||6 yr/$160M||6 yr/$126M||Cubs|
|J.D. Martinez||6 yr/$150M||5 yr/$110M||Red Sox|
|Eric Hosmer||6 yr/$132M||8 yr/$144M||Padres|
|Jake Arrieta||4 yr/$100M||3 yr/$75M||Phillies|
|Masahiro Tanaka||5 yr/$100M||Did not opt out||Yankees|
|Mike Moustakas||5 yr/$85M||1 yr/$6.5M||Royals|
|Lorenzo Cain||4 yr/$70M||5 yr/$80M||Brewers|
|Wade Davis||4 yr/$60M||3 yr/$51M||Rockies|
|Lance Lynn||4 yr/$56M||1 yr/$12M||Twins|
|Greg Holland||4 yr/$50M||1 yr/$14M||Cardinals|
Take a look at these names. Aside from J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain, I would guess that all of the other teams on the list have some buyer’s remorse. Maybe not the Royals or Twins, because the Moustakas and Lynn deals were just for 1 year and they received some assets back in mid-year trades. But I bet the Cardinals regretted that 1 year deal to Holland. One could make the argument that he may have cost them a wild card spot. Shout out to the Padres for the present and future albatross that is Eric Hosmer.
I know the Yankees are technically on the list above, but Tanaka just didn’t opt out. So actually the Yankees really didn’t make a splash last year. No team signed more than one of the supposed top 10 free agents. Here’s why — they were saving their money for this offseason instead.
By not going over the Competitive Balance Threshold of $197M, the Yankees got their tax payor clock reset to zero. In other words, if they were to exceed the now $206M CBT, they would only pay 20% in tax overages and not upwards of 30%, 50% with loss of draft picks.
This year’s class of free agents is not the sun-engulfing class that was anticipated two years ago, but it is still potentially spectacular. This is one man’s estimation on this year’s Top 10, in no particular order. Also, I’ve included the player’s age in parentheses.
- SS/3B Manny Machado (26)
- OF Bryce Harper (26)
- LHP Clayton Kershaw (31) *
- LHP Patrick Corbin (29)
- LHP David Price (33) *
- C Yasmani Grandal (30)
- LHP Dallas Keuchel (31)
- OF A.J. Pollock (31)
- 2B D.J. LeMahieu (30)
- 2B Brian Dozier (32)
- RHP Craig Kimbrel (31)
- OF Michael Brantley (32)
The asterisks next to Kershaw and Price imply that they have opt-outs this year in their deals. Kershaw can forgo 2 yr/$65M and Price 4 yr/$127M. I can’t see Kershaw hitting the market after a year when he finally started to look truly mortal. He loves L.A., he’s a legend there. Maybe they do an informal extension of some sort. David Price, however, wouldn’t surprise me if he opted out. I don’t think he and the city of Boston have the best relationship. I could very easily see him on the market. So that’s why I gave you 12 guys on a top 10.
That list leaves off lots of other interesting names, of course, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
The Yankees have scads of payroll space this year. With just $103M on the books towards the CBT, per Cot’s Contracts, the Yankees have a full $103M to spend potentially before even crossing the line. They could get both Machado and Harper, if they so chose to do. However, as strange as it sounds, they don’t need them. With Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, the Yankees have the left side of the infield covered. Machado would upgrade Andujar, but it’s almost unnecessary. Where would Harper play in the outfield of Judge, Stanton, and Hicks (with the spectre of Jacoby Ellsbury still looming) ? Rather, they should get Corbin and Grandal. Corbin replaces Sabathia in the rotation. Grandal can take over at catcher and the Yanks could shunt Gary Sanchez and his poor defense to 1B or DH.
Likewise, I can’t see Boston in on Harper, as their outfield of Benintendi, Bradley, and Betts is pretty much perfect right now. An Outfield of Dreams, if you will. Sure, they may make a run at Machado in free agency, but he’d have to be willing to play 3B, as I can’t see them moving Xander Bogaerts off SS. If Price opts out, maybe they go for Corbin. Grandal, like he would for virtually every team, would be a good fit here, too.
But rather, I think the Phillies are going to go nuts in free agency. They should go nuts in free agency. After their abysmal end to the season, they need to course correct. They clearly have the payroll space and the present positional need to get both Machado and Harper. With just $89M towards the CBT, they have $117M in potential space. This is a franchise that was routinely around $150M in payroll just a few years ago. Machado could play SS if he demanded and J.P. Crawford gets moved to either 3B or out in a trade. Harper slides right into RF.
Like the Yankees, the Dodgers stayed under the $197M CBT this year, so their tax rate gets reset to zero, as well. With $83M in space under the $206M CBT, the Dodgers could also retain their current player in Grandal. It’s hard to see them retaining Machado, as Corey Seager will be back next year at SS and Justin Turner is under contract at 3B for two more years. Corbin would make a nice addition to their staff, of course. Could they make a play for Harper and then move one of Pederson, Kemp, or Puig ? Sure, I guess.
The Cubs are already pressing up against the CBT with $162M committed in 2019. Once you factor in arbitration to guys like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Kyle Hendricks, there won’t be much space to add a major name. Sort of the same for the Cardinals, too. The past three years, their 25-man payroll has been around $145-160M. Next year, counting arb and min-scale salaries, they’re already at $136M. Maybe they could back load a deal for a Harper or Machado-type, but it’s hard to see them in the mix for one of those guys.
The Giants are a big money team historically, but they’re in dire need to shed salary and start a rebuild.
Both the Astros and Mariners are going to wade into free agency, I’d presume, in the battle for an interesting AL West race in 2019.
I think the top guys are going to get their cheddar, but it may not necessarily be from who everyone is expecting. I can see bidding wars more for players like Corbin, Grandal, and David Price if he opts out.
There should still be bargain deals for the 2nd and 3rd tier guys, if teams are willing to wait until January and February again like last year, but that would require some more unofficial-don’t-call-it-collusion among the owners and front offices. As Alex has pointed out, there’s a glut of good 2B on the market.
After this year’s free agency period, last year’s will look like an abnormal blip, not the start of a trendline.