Never before has baseball seen a free-agent class this stacked: a pair of generational talents, multiple former MVPs, a recent Cy Young award winner, and one of the greatest closers of the modern era will all find new homes this offseason, as will a boatload of less-decorated difference-makers.
Indeed, if any collection of players could prove last winter’s freeze was an aberration, and not something more nefarious, it’s this one.
So, with free agency slated to open Friday, let’s take a (somewhat educated) guess as to where the 10 most highly coveted players will end up.
Bryce Harper, OF – New York Yankees
Born: Oct. 16, 1992 (26 years old)
Projected contract: 10 years, $330M
2018 salary: $21.63M
Last winter, the Yankees set out to reduce payroll and reset their luxury-tax penalties in presumed anticipation of this year’s free-agent class, and they still ended up acquiring Giancarlo Stanton and the $295 million left on his contract. That was them exercising fiscal restraint. You can imagine what happens, then, when they enter spend mode: they’ll sign Harper, the best player available – and perhaps the greatest free agent ever, given his age and pedigree – to a gargantuan contract.
Do the Yankees need Harper – who finished tied for 15th in the majors with a 135 wRC+ last season in what was, by his standard, a down year – to end Boston’s hegemony over the American League East? Probably not. They won 100 games in 2018, after all, thanks to their ridiculously deep stable of young stars, and they’re only losing complimentary pieces to free agency this offseason in J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia, David Robertson, and Neil Walker. And, moreover, they still have three incredibly talented outfielders in Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Aaron Hicks – all of whom accrued more WAR than Harper last year. But, again, he’s the best player available and they’re the Yankees. It’s going to happen.
Manny Machado, SS/3B – Philadelphia Phillies
Born: July 6, 1992 (26 years old)
Projected contract: 10 years, $300M
2018 salary: $16M
Not eligible to receive a qualifying offer
Teetering on the precipice of a new era, the long-rebuilding Phillies are coming off their finest season since 2012, mostly thanks to continued improvements from their young arms, along with the addition of Jake Arrieta. But they’ll need a boost from outside the organization to get from the periphery of the wild-card chase to legitimately contending. With the exception of possibly Harper, no free agent can provide a bigger boost than Machado, who just authored the finest offensive season of his career and ranks sixth in the majors in WAR – behind only Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Paul Goldschmidt, Mookie Betts, and Jose Altuve – over the last half-decade.
Yes, J.P. Crawford has long been touted as the shortstop of the future, but the future is now in Philadelphia, and the Phillies must no longer prioritize his development over maximizing wins. Rarely do players of Machado’s ability and age hit free agency, so when the opportunity to add that kind of talent arises – and you’re close to being a contender – you have to pounce.
Competition for Machado’s services will be stiff, his postseason antics and admitted distaste for hustle notwithstanding, but the Phillies should be able to at least match any offer he receives. Few teams, after all, have the kind of cash Philadelphia has at its disposal – it fielded the game’s third-highest payroll as recently at 2014 – and its financial commitments for 2019 are decidedly modest at the moment. And Machado, for what it’s worth, spoke highly of the Phillies when he visited Citizens Bank Park as a member of the Baltimore Orioles last year, calling them “impressive” and applauding the front office for successfully “turn(ing) the organization around.”
Patrick Corbin, LHP – New York Yankees
Born: July 19, 1989 (29 years old)
Projected contract: 6 years, $132M
2018 salary: $7.5M
Signing Harper would constitute a fine offseason, in and of itself, but when the Yankees decide to loosen the purse strings, they spend, baby, so don’t be surprised when they lock up the best starter available, as well. They actually need rotation help, too, with Happ and Sabathia likely on their way out and Sonny Gray all but guaranteed to be traded this winter. (“I think that we’ll enter the winter, unfortunately, open-minded to a relocation,” general manager Brian Cashman said last month.)
Corbin, who spent much of his career prior to 2018 hinting at ace potential, broke out this past season, overhauling his approach en route to new personal bests in virtually every category, including WAR, ERA, FIP, WHIP, and expected weighted on-base average. Given his age, he’d be a sound investment even if he regresses to his 2017 performance level, when he managed a 116 ERA+ over 189 2/3 innings. He’d also offer the Yankees a durable left-hander to sandwich between holdovers Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka atop the rotation.
Dallas Keuchel, LHP – Seattle Mariners
Born: Jan. 1, 1988 (30 years old)
Projected contract: 4 years, $100M (plus a $20M club option for 2023)
2018 salary: $13.2M
For the umpteenth year in a row, the Mariners flirted with a wild-card berth but ultimately failed to play into October, extending their league-worst postseason drought to 17 seasons. No single facet of their roster was especially awful – they still won 89 games – but their starting pitcher depth was lacking; Felix Hernandez made 28 starts (pitching to a 5.64 ERA) while Erasmo Ramirez made another 10 (with a 6.50 ERA). That can’t happen in 2019 if the Mariners are serious about making it to October with this current core of players.
Realistically, though, the Mariners won’t displace their venerated ace for some schlub. They need a legitimate upgrade to justify bouncing Hernandez to the bullpen in the final year of his contract. Keuchel, who earned the AL Cy Young back in 2015, is that dude. He’s not as dominant as he was three years ago, but the veteran left-hander is still a ground-ball machine – he led all qualified starters in that department this year – and managed to stay healthy in 2018, eclipsing the 200-inning plateau after missing time with injury in each of the previous two seasons. At worst, he’s a middle-of-the-rotation arm, which is still a significant upgrade over Hernandez.
Nathan Eovaldi, RHP – Los Angeles Angels
Born: Feb. 13, 1990 (28 years old)
Projected contract: 5 years, $85M
2018 salary: $2M
Not eligible to receive a qualifying offer
No impending free agent did more to inflate his value in 2018 than Eovaldi. The hard-throwing right-hander returned in May from his second Tommy John surgery and – thanks, in part, to the addition of a cut fastball – looked born anew, setting career highs in strikeout rate (22.2 percent) and walk rate (4.4 percent), while markedly improving against left-handed hitters. He then took his game up to 11 in October, crafting a 1.61 ERA while allowing just one home run over 22 1/3 postseason innings, including a lights-out, six-inning performance out of the bullpen in Game 3 of the World Series.
Additionally, Eovaldi is young for a free agent, making him a particularly attractive target to teams trying to win now but are also well-positioned for the future. With Garrett Richards out the door and Shohei Ohtani not pitching in 2019, the Angels need to beef up their rotation this winter if they’re to contend for a playoff spot next year. Eovaldi is one of the few starters available this offseason with top-of-the-rotation upside who won’t quite fetch top-of-the-rotation dollars, owing to his own injury history and the broader, perhaps more-dubious history of multiple Tommy John recipients.
Yasmani Grandal, C – Boston Red Sox
Born: Nov. 8, 1988 (29 years old)
Projected contract: 5 years, $83M
2018 salary: $7.9M
The Red Sox just wrapped up one of the most dominant seasons in baseball history, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement in 2019. They could use some help behind the plate, in particular. After all, Christian Vazquez, Sandy Leon, and Blake Swihart actually cost the Red Sox two marginal wins this past season, and while this uninspired timeshare has worked for Boston for a few years now, it’d really behoove the club to find a legitimate everyday catcher. None of those guys can hit – Leon and Vazquez finished last and second last, respectively, in wRC+ in 2018 (min. 250 plate appearances), and it’s not even clear if Swihart is a catcher anymore.
Grandal, conversely, is very much a catcher and very much can hit. Don’t let his shaky postseason performance behind the plate fool you: Grandal is an elite catcher with a well-above-average bat (career 117 wRC+), unparalleled pitch-framing skills, and a perfectly fine throwing arm. As evidenced by his work in the NLCS, passed balls can be an issue for Grandal – he’s led his league in this category three times in the last five years – but he’s still the most well-rounded catcher in the game after J.T. Realmuto, Buster Posey, Willson Contreras, and Yadier Molina. He’d be a great addition for a team that’ll once again have to fend off a terrific Yankees team in 2019.
Craig Kimbrel, RP – St. Louis Cardinals
Born: May 28, 1988 (30 years old)
Projected contract: 4 years, $69M
2018 salary: $13M
Desperately needing to upgrade their bullpen following the departures of Seunghwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal, the Cardinals made several notable acquisitions last offseason, signing Luke Gregerson to a two-year deal and trading for Dominic Leone before picking up Greg Holland on a one-year contract shortly after Opening Day. None of them panned out.
The Cardinals’ bullpen was among the worst in baseball in 2018, finishing in the bottom five in the majors in park-adjusted ERA, park-adjusted FIP, and meltdowns. They still need help, in other words, especially with Bud Norris liable to sign elsewhere this winter, and particularly because they reside on that part of the win curve where the marginal wins offered by an elite reliever really matter.
Kimbrel, for his part, is still very much an elite reliever, despite the drop-off in strikeout rate last season (and the control issues that plagued him for much of the postseason). His velocity has declined a bit, as you might expect for a 30-year-old reliever who has averaged 65 appearances per season since 2011, but Kimbrel still finished tied for fifth among qualified relievers in swinging-strike rate (17.2 percent) in 2018, and 25th among all pitchers (min. 1,000 pitches) in expected weighted on-base average (.265). And while he may be heading into the back nine of his career, Kimbrel remains one of the game’s most trustworthy late-inning relievers and is still capable of anchoring a bullpen for the foreseeable future.
Michael Brantley, OF – Colorado Rockies
Born: May 15, 1987 (31 years old)
Projected contract: 4 years, $56M
2018 salary: $11.5M
When Brantley is healthy, he hits. Since his breakout 2014 campaign, the longtime Cleveland Indians outfielder has managed a robust .311/.371/.475 slash line, giving him a higher wRC+ (130) over that span than George Springer, Robinson Cano, Machado, and Nolan Arenado. He’s missed a lot of time over the past five seasons, however, averaging just 107 games per campaign thanks to a pair of serious injuries – shoulder and ankle, respectively – that limited him to 11 contests in 2016 and 90 the following year.
That said, Brantley appeared in 143 games in 2018 – his most in four years – and the Rockies need hitters. Badly. Yes, they managed to sneak into the wild-card game in spite of their offense, but luck was very much on their side last year: they outperformed their expected (Pythag) record by six wins. If they’re to return to the postseason next year, they’ll need to score more runs, and an outfield comprised of Brantley, Charlie Blackmon, and David Dahl, left to right – with Raimel Tapia waiting in the wings in the event of injury – would be exponentially better than the unholy Blackmon-Carlos Gonzalez-Gerardo Parra trinity the Rockies utilized for much of 2018.
Josh Donaldson, 3B – Milwaukee Brewers
Born: Dec. 8, 1985 (32 years old)
Projected contract: 3 years, $45M
2018 salary: $23M
Not eligible to receive a qualifying offer
Limited to 52 games due to a shoulder injury and a ruptured calf muscle, Donaldson’s value collapsed so significantly in 2018 that the Toronto Blue Jays were content to ship the former AL MVP to Cleveland for a player to be named later ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline, preferring an unheralded 27-year-old right-hander – currently recovering from Tommy John surgery – to the possibility of Donaldson accepting a qualifying offer. To his credit, Donaldson looked much more like himself down the stretch, managing a .920 OPS in 16 games with Cleveland following the trade, but his disappointing year torpedoed his chances of landing the mammoth contract he seemed destined for after accruing 27.1 WAR over the previous four seasons.
Still, even though he’s spent a discomforting amount of time on the disabled list over the past two years, Donaldson was an elite player as recently as 2017, when he hit .270/.385/.559 (148 OPS+) with 33 homers in 113 games. All that talent didn’t just disappear in 2018 – he was demonstrably not healthy when he took the field on Opening Day. And while he’s no longer the player he once was, the three-time All-Star offers too much upside not to command a multi-year deal. Fresh off their first NLCS berth since 2011, watch the Brewers – who were comfortable carrying an excess of infielders down the stretch last year – pounce, adding a potential impact bat to a lineup that was decidedly average in 2018.
Charlie Morton, RHP – Houston Astros
Born: Nov. 12, 1983 (34 years old)
Projected contract: 2 years, $40M
2018 salary: $7M
After signing a modest two-year deal with the Astros ahead of the 2017 campaign, Morton transformed into a completely new pitcher, throwing harder at age 33 than he ever had. Armed with unprecedented velocity, the veteran right-hander has quietly been one of the game’s most dominant starters over the last two years, ranking top 20 in the majors in park-adjusted ERA, park-adjusted FIP, and opponents’ batting average (min. 300 IP). Were Morton closer to Eovaldi’s age, he’d be in line for a nine-figure deal this winter.
In truth, Morton could probably command a long(ish)-term contract this offseason, but it doesn’t seem he’s keen to play deep into his 30s. Earlier this year, Morton suggested he might retire following the 2018 or 2019 campaign, and said unambiguously that he’s “not going to keep playing four, five, six, seven more years.” Expect him to spend the remainder of his career, however long that may be, with the Astros. He loves it in Houston: “When you think about a team that you want to play for, a team like this is it,” Morton said earlier this summer. And they could stand to retain him, too, given that they’re also set to lose Keuchel to free agency. It makes a lot of sense for both sides.
Notable omissions (prediction in parentheses): Jed Lowrie, 2B (Dodgers); J.A. Happ, LHP (Nationals); Andrew McCutchen, OF (Indians); Nelson Cruz, DH (Mariners); Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP (Athletics); A.J. Pollock, OF (Diamondbacks); Adam Ottavino, RHP (Braves); Daniel Murphy, 2B (Angels); Andrew Miller, LHP (Diamondbacks); David Robertson, RHP (Mariners); Adam Jones (Padres)
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.