Just three years ago, the 2018-19 free-agent class looked as if it could be one of the best ever. Clayton Kershaw was unquestionably the best pitcher in baseball and looked as if he would be in position to opt out of his seven-year contract and earn an even more lucrative deal. Dallas Keuchel was a Cy Young winner who looked like he would make a killing going into his age-31 season, and Matt Harvey was an ace who was pitching in the World Series and was in position to earn a huge contract entering his age-30 campaign. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Zach Britton were three of the most dominant relievers in baseball. Josh Donaldson was the reigning AL MVP, and Andrew McCutchen was coming off a fifth straight All-Star appearance. Charlie Blackmon was turning into a late-blooming rising star. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were so utterly dominant that they looked like they’d be able to earn the biggest contracts in MLB free-agent history.
Fast forward to September 2018, and things are very different. Almost all of those players have many more question marks surrounding them than they did three years ago. The process has been drastically affected by the growing skepticism among front offices toward free agents — particularly those over 30 years old — which noticeably escalated during the 2016-17 offseason and then got out of control last offseason. Seemingly because of that change, Blackmon signed a long-term, possibly below-market-value extension with the Rockies instead of choosing to hit the free-agent market after this season.
Just 15 contracts with a term of three years or longer were handed out last winter, with only five being for four or more years. Only 16 contracts with an average annual value of $10 million or more were awarded, and four of those were one-year deals. Though there theoretically should be fewer big-market teams trying to stay under the luxury-tax threshold this winter — the Giants, Dodgers, Nationals, and Yankees appear on track to stay under the limit and reset their penalties this year — front offices drew a fairly clear line in the sand last year, and it would be surprising if things were dramatically different during the 2018-19 offseason. With the starting pitcher continuing to be devalued as rotation innings decrease (and some teams utilize the “opener” strategy), it’s arguable that it’ll be even harder for veterans to get paid this offseason, even as the quality of the free-agent class increases a bit.
Below, I separated this winter’s notable free agents into three categories based on the contracts I expect them to receive: Big money (one or two years with an eight-figure AAV or three or more years with an AAV of $8 million or above), affordable contributors (players who can be had on deals with an AAV as affordable as $2.5 million, all the way up to the conditions listed above), and rehabilitation projects/minor-league depth (players who will have to sign one-year deals, perhaps of the non-guaranteed or minor-league variety, for less than $2.5 million). I didn’t include players who are likely headed for retirement and probably won’t even end up with a minor-league deal next spring (i.e. Victor Martinez, Hunter Pence, Jose Reyes, etc.) nor players who are virtually guaranteed to have their options picked up or opt into their deals (Madison Bumgarner, Carlos Carrasco, Sean Doolittle, Jason Heyward, etc.). Players with options or opt-outs are denoted with an asterisk (*).
Here’s a look at how this winter’s free-agent class shapes up:
Big money: Patrick Corbin, Cole Hamels*, Clayton Kershaw*, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, David Price*
This will be a fascinating group to monitor. Kershaw seems very unlikely to opt out after his third straight injury-riddled season, but stranger things have happened. ... With his resurgent 2018 campaign, Price seems to have put himself in a position where he can opt out of the remaining four years and $127 million and not take that huge of a loss. With as much as his contentious relationship with the Boston media seems to have soured Price, who was previously one of the most marketable players in the game, perhaps that’d be the best course of action. ... Hamels seems to have battled his way back into the “big money” group since being traded to Chicago, and Morton also seems to be in line for a big payday as long as his recent bout with shoulder soreness doesn’t become a serious issue.
Affordable contributors: Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Nathan Eovaldi, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Harvey, J.A. Happ, Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, Edwin Jackson, Lance Lynn, Hyun-jin Ryu, C.C. Sabathia, Anibal Sanchez, Ervin Santana*
While Harvey’s career was at a crossroads earlier this year, he’s recovered nicely and has probably earned himself a decent deal this offseason. After struggling to various degrees in recent seasons, guys like Cahill, Hellickson, Holland, Jackson, and Sanchez have also pitched themselves back to respectability this season. ... Gonzalez has hurt himself quite a bit with a bad walk year. It’ll be interesting to see how much teams are willing to factor in the 32-year-old’s prior production.
Rehabilitation projects/minor-league depth: Bartolo Colon, Marco Estrada, Jaime Garcia, Jason Hammel*, Francisco Liriano, Jordan Lyles*, Matt Moore*, Martin Perez*, Drew Pomeranz, James Shields*, Josh Tomlin, Adam Wainwright
Not much going on with this group — just a bunch of guys who have struggled this year and are looking to become the Hellicksons, Hollands, and Sanchezes of 2019. ... If the trend continues and he doesn’t retire, Colon will probably end up in the back end of a team’s rotation as a 46-year-old. ... If he’s willing to play for a second major-league team after 14 years in St. Louis, Wainwright — who was unscored upon in six recent minor-league rehab appearances — could be an interesting gamble.
Big money: Zach Britton, Jake Diekman, Jeurys Familia, Joe Kelly, Craig Kimbrel, Adam Ottavino, David Robertson, Justin Wilson
Kimbrel is primed for a big payday, and though the struggles of Mark Melancon and diminishing results from Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen may make teams think twice before giving huge deals to closers, Kimbrel seems likely to get a contract that at least approaches the ones those relievers received prior to the 2017 season. ... Familia and Robertson have both been great in setup roles this year and appear likely to get closer money this winter. ... Thanks to Andrew Miller’s troubling 2018 season, Britton and Wilson will probably enter the offseason as the top lefties on the market. While the 30-year-old Britton endured some serious struggles after joining the Yankees, he’s been better lately — and after all, he was coming off an injury, but not one that appears likely to affect his pitching ability long-term. Purely based on this season’s results, though, Wilson has been the best of the pending free-agent lefties. ... As he enters his age-31 season, Kelly — who averages 98 MPH on his four-seamer and has returned to dominance after a midseason slump — could be an under-the-radar candidate for a handsome multi-year deal.
Affordable contributors: Cody Allen, Jerry Blevins, Brad Brach, Jesse Chavez, Tyler Clippard, Zach Duke, Kelvin Herrera, Shawn Kelley, Ryan Madson, Andrew Miller, Bud Norris, Wily Peralta*, David Phelps, Fernando Rodney*, Sergio Romo, Tyson Ross, Tony Sipp, Joakim Soria*, Adam Warren
It’s possible that teams will look past Allen and Miller’s troubling results this season and trust that they can return to their pre-2018 levels of production, but recent trends indicate that teams almost always prefer to dole out money to relievers who have achieved dominance during the most recent season. Regardless, both could provide major value if they’re able to bounce back. Herrera is another guy that seemed primed to earn a big deal after starting the year by posting a 1.05 ERA and 0.82 WHIP over 27 appearances for the Royals, but after posting a 4.34 ERA and 1.71 WHIP following his trade to Washington and suffering a season-ending rotator cuff impingement, his value has seemingly dropped off, particularly since he struggled so much in 2017.
Rehabilitation projects/minor-league depth: John Axford, Matt Belisle, Santiago Casilla, Jorge de la Rosa, Greg Holland, Daniel Hudson, Jim Johnson, Brandon Kintzler, Boone Logan, Zach McAllister, Peter Moylan, AJ Ramos, Hector Santiago, Brad Ziegler
Lots of big names on this list — five former All-Stars, plus 2017 NL saves leader Holland. With that said, if Holland continues to achieve great results with the Nationals through the end of the season, perhaps he’ll be able to push himself back to respectability and earn himself a solid one or two-year deal.
Big money: Yasmani Grandal, Wilson Ramos
After seeing his plate discipline drop off quite a bit last year, Grandal has recovered some of that patience this year, and he’s already hit more than 20 homers for the third straight season while also being one of the majors’ best defensive backstops. He’ll only be 30 next year, and he’s in line for a major payday, especially with teams like the Red Sox, Mets, Nationals, and potentially the Braves in need of catching help. Ramos, who has arguably been the best offensive catcher in baseball this year, could be an interesting fit for any of those teams too and will provide a major boost to whatever lineup he joins, just like he has since being acquired by the Phillies.
Affordable contributors: Robinson Chirinos*, A.J. Ellis, Evan Gattis, Nick Hundley, Martin Maldonado, Rene Rivera, Kurt Suzuki
None of these guys are going to be everyday starters on a good team at this stage, but they’re all good role players who have achieved solid results this season. With teams like the Astros, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, and Braves finding success with catching platoons in recent years, it’s possible that a few of these guys could find themselves in timeshares and get more playing time than your typical backup catcher.
Rehabilitation projects/minor-league depth: Drew Butera, Jonathan Lucroy, Jeff Mathis, Devin Mesoraco, Matt Wieters
Lucroy is in the midst of his second straight terrible season, though it’ll be interesting to see if he gets a boost for guiding a starting rotation of supposed has-beens to an AL Wild Card spot. ... Wieters, who has been in free fall since moving to the National League prior to last season, will almost certainly have to settle for a backup job and may even have to take a minor-league deal heading into next spring.
Big money: Elvis Andrus*, Josh Donaldson, Brian Dozier, Eduardo Escobar, D.J. LeMahieu, Manny Machado
Obviously, Machado is the prize of this group. At midseason, it looked like he might be in position to surpass Bryce Harper as the top-earning free agent in this class, though a superb second half from Harper and Machado’s return to earth offenisvely after the All-Star break have substantially reduced the chances of that happening. Make no mistake, though, Machado will get a massive deal that very well could be in excess of seven years if he so desires. ... After a mediocre 2018 season, Andrus probably won’t opt out of the four years and $59 million remaining on his contract, but if by some chance he does it’ll be a really interesting test of just how highly teams still value the shortstop position in the era of the shift. ... Donaldson and Dozier have both hurt themselves with lackluster walk seasons, but considering the previous production of both, it’d be surprising if each didn’t at least get the type of contract (three years, $39 million) that Jay Bruce got from the Mets last winter. ... Thanks to a career-best season during his age-29 campaign, Escobar has probably earned himself that type of deal too, and while LeMahieu may be discriminated against since he’s played almost all of his career home games at Coors Field and still doesn’t hit for a ton of power, the fact that he’s consistently been one of the game’s most solid second basemen both offensively and defensively means that he should at least be in line for a two or three-year deal with an eight-figure annual salary.
Affordable contributors: Matt Adams, Adrian Beltre, Asdrubal Cabrera, Daniel Descalso, David Freese*, Freddy Galvis, Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Harrison*, Jose Iglesias, Ian Kinsler, Jed Lowrie, Joe Mauer, Jordy Mercer, Mike Moustakas*, Daniel Murphy, Eduardo Nuñez, Steve Pearce, Mark Reynolds, Jutin Smoak*
There could be some really good value players in this category. Gonzalez has probably ruined any chance he had of getting a huge long-term deal by failing to replicate his 147 OPS+ 2017 season, but he’s still an above-average hitter who plays good defense at multiple positions. ... Murphy probably deserves to make more than he’ll get on the market, but concerns about his age (he’ll be 34 next year), his surgically-repaired knee, his defense, the lingering effects of his homophobic comments from 2015, and his relatively quiet walk year will probably drive his value down. ... If he decides to play next year, Beltre won’t have a lot of negotiating leverage since it’s already been put out there that the Rangers are his team of choice, but he obviously remains a very good player heading into his age-40 season. ... If his $6 million club option is declined by the Dodgers, Freese — who has posted a 117 OPS+ as a 35-year-old — will be one of the best bench bats available on the market. ... After posting his best OPS+ since 2009, it would be a sad reflection on the state of free agency if Reynolds had to take a minor-league deal for a third straight season.
Rehabilitation projects/minor-league depth: Lucas Duda, Alcides Escobar, Logan Forsythe, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jung-ho Kang*, Logan Morrison*, Hanley Ramirez, Sean Rodriguez, Andrew Romine, Luis Valbuena, Danny Valencia, Neil Walker
There are a couple glove-first shortstops here, Escobar and Hechavarria, who have been put in the unfortunate position of their defensive skills dropping off a bit at the same time as shortstop defense has become less important with teams shifting more than ever. Both will likely have to battle their way onto rosters as utility players next season. ... Duda and Morrison (if his option is declined) will have to battle their way back to relevance after disappointing 2018 campaigns, as will former Forsythe and Walker, though the second basemen at least have chances to recover some value as they receive frequent playing time down the stretch, as opposed to Duda (restricted to a backup/pinch-hitter role for the Braves) and Morrison (out for the season with a hip impingement). ... It’ll be interesting to see if guys like Ramirez, Valbuena, and Valencia can (or even want to) make the always-tough recovery from being released at midseason.
Big money: Michael Brantley, Nelson Cruz, Bryce Harper, A.J. Pollock
Harper still looms as the prize of this free-agent class, and the only questions are how much money and how many years he’ll get. Will he become baseball’s first $400 million player, as so many have predicted for years? It seems less likely than ever considering his horrid first-half slump and defensive regression, but it’s still within the realm of possibilities, especially if a team like the Phillies or Giants is really desperate to vault itself back into World Series contention next season. ... Brantley is one of the worst defensive outfielders in the majors and will be labeled as injury-prone for the rest of his career, but he’s been good enough offensively this year that he deserves at least a two or three-year deal with an eight-figure AAV. ... Cruz is 38 years old and essentially unplayable in the outfield, but it’s hard to understand how he wouldn’t get earn an eight-figure salary for next season since he has a chance to end the year with 40-plus homers and has posted a 146 OPS+. ... Pollock’s value isn’t nearly as high as it was three years ago, and injuries have held him back in recent seasons. But he’s still a guy who is going to hit double-digit homers, steal double-digit bases, and play competent defense in center field for a little while longer, so he should at least get the type of deal (three years, $31 million) that Denard Span got from the Giants several years ago.
Affordable contributors: Melky Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall, Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner*, Carlos Gonzalez, Jon Jay, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Andrew McCutchen, Denard Span
Markakis very well could end up in the “big money” category after his stellar 2018 campaign, but his fall back to earth during the second half, his age (going to be 35), his relative lack of power, and his spotty track record over the past half-decade may be enough to drop him down to a high seven-figure AAV and a short-term deal for 2019 and beyond. ... McCutchen is going to end up getting a far more modest deal than most people probably would have predicted a few years ago, but he’s still got a good-enough mix of power, speed, and on-base skills to really help a team as an everyday starter. ... After joining the Indians on a minor-league deal earlier this year and getting DFA’d in June, Cabrera has been great since returning to the majors in July and has probably earned himself a major-league deal and at least a part-time role going into next season. ... It’ll be interesting to see if Jones and Gardner join new teams after playing for their respective AL East clubs since 2008. Both have taken a step back but are still good enough to at least fill part-time starting roles. The same goes for Gonzalez, a Rockie since 2009, who has bounced back with an .822 OPS this year but may not be in Colorado’s future plans as young guys like David Dahl, Raimel Tapia, and Ryan McMahon claim bigger roles.
Rehabilitation projects/minor-league depth: Rajai Davis, Carlos Gomez, Brandon Guyer, Matt Joyce, Cameron Maybin, Gerardo Parra*
Davis (minor-league deal) and Gomez and Maybin (low-seven-figure, one-year deals) were all in this boat last offseason and have been unspectacular this year, so they’ll be in the same situation heading into next year. ... Joyce isn’t that far-removed from being really good, having posted a 132 OPS+ in 2016 and a 119 OPS+ last year, but he plays a position where there’s a lot of talent around the league and doesn’t have time on his side at age 34, so he’ll likely have to rebuild his value with a cheap prove-it deal. The same goes for Guyer, who mashed against lefties in 2015-16 and has gone back to doing so this year, but has posted a terrible .448 OPS against righties. ... The 31-year-old Parra is just a year removed from hitting for a .309 average and 10 homers for the Rockies, but concerns about his plate discipline and declining defense could force him to settle for a non-roster deal next spring.