By Felipe Zwanzger
With the World Series about to begin and the offseason looming, it’s time to start thinking about where the players in the stacked upcoming free agent class will be headed. This free agent class, in particular, has been touted for years, so let’s take a look at where the stars of this year’s offseason will end up.
1. Bryce Harper. It’s hard to ignore his “down” year, which for most major leaguers would represent a career year. Harper is a lock to secure a $300 million dollar contract but I have a hard time seeing teams dish out $400 million to a player who’s dealt with numerous injuries and inconsistency throughout his young career. It’s easy to forget he’s just 26 years old, so unlike most long-term contracts in which a player’s production gradually declines, one would expect for Harper to continue to grow and improve throughout at least the beginning of this contract. Harper’s contract should surpass that of Giancarlo Stanton in terms of dollars but not years. The Philadelphia Phillies seem like the most logical landing spot for Harper, but a reunion with the Nationals cannot be ruled out (although they have no immediate need for him and re-signing him would seriously constrain the team’s finances going forward).
Contract: 12 years, $384 million dollars ($32 million AAV)
Destination: Philadelphia Phillies; In the Mix: Washington Nationals, New York Yankees.
2. Manny Machado. After a challenging 2017 season in which he managed just a 108 OPS+, he came back to post a career-high 146 OPS+ in 2018 as a member of both the Orioles and Dodgers. He transitioned well into the Los Angeles market, which is an important factor to take into account with a young player who had only known one organization up this season (Orioles). While he’s hell-bent on playing shortstop, he’s a much more valuable overall asset at third base, and his willingness to move back to the hot corner will determine his earning potential this offseason. The Phillies will also be in play for Machado’s services, although Maikel Franco’s improved play in the second half of 2018 has quieted down rumors of Machado heading to the City of Brotherly Love. A reunion with the Dodgers seems unlikely, and an unexpected team such as the Angels or Braves could make a run for Machado.
Contract: 10 years, $340 million dollars ($34 million AAV)
Destination: Atlanta Braves; In the Mix: Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Angels, St. Louis Cardinals.
3. Clayton Kershaw. He may opt-in and remain a Dodger. He may sign an extension and remain a Dodger. Neither of these options is a foregone conclusion, so we’ll assume that Kershaw will test the free agent market. Kershaw is still among the most elite pitchers in the game, but three straight years of back injuries at the age of 30 is a red flag that can’t be ignored. He’s also posted a FIP of over 3.00 over the past two years, which, while still quite good, isn’t the elite level of production we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Kershaw. If Kershaw opts out, he’ll be seeking a long-term contract rather a short-term “proving himself” deal. Both Texas teams will be in play for the native Texan’s services, but it’s tough to envision the Dodgers letting him go.
Contract: 8 years, $240 million ($30 million AAV)
Destination: Los Angeles Dodgers. In the Mix: Houston Astros, Texas Rangers.
4. Patrick Corbin. Boy, did Corbin pick the right year to have a career-best season. His slider is among the best in the game and plays well with his mid-90’s fastball. After missing the 2014 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, he has remained healthy, even managing to eclipse the 200-inning mark in 2018. A strikeout rate of over 11 batters per 9 innings will most certainly play in the free agent market, and he should have no trouble securing the largest free agent contract for a starting pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw this offseason. The Cincinnati Reds believe that a frontline pitcher is all they’re missing to return to relevance and the Yankees will have to fill the void left by the departures of J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia. Still 28 years old, Corbin could quite possibly surpass the six-year $155 million dollar deal the Cubs gave Jon Lester at the age of 31.
Contract: 7 years, $161 million ($23 million AAV)
Destination: New York Yankees. In the Mix: Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros.
5. A.J. Pollock. After his 2015 breakout season, significant injuries have kept him off the field. His time on the field has not been incredibly productive either, highlighted by his 101 OPS+ during since the start of 2016. His defense plays at center field, but relying on his speed to stay constant as he heads into his thirties may not be the wisest idea for a team. Pollock would greatly benefit from a short-term deal to prove his health and value to interested teams, but a long-term offer from a team such as the San Francisco Giants may be too significant to pass up. The Indians and Rockies could fill their needs in the outfield with a short-term deal as each team’s window of contention begins to close. Rebuilding teams such as the Padres and Twins could also look to sign him and flip him for prospects with a big first half in 2019.
Contract: 1 year, $18 million with a player option for 2020
Destination: Colorado Rockies. In the Mix: San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres, Minnesota Twins.
6. Craig Kimbrel. He’s been shaky at times this postseason, but we’re talking about the best reliever of this generation and quite possibly one of the best relievers of all time. The seven-time all-star will surely become the first reliever to ever receive a $100 million dollar contract. While he may not have the versatility of multi-inning relievers such as Josh Hader or Andrew Miller, Kimbrel’s career ERA+ of 211 (meaning he’s been more than twice as good as a league average pitcher) and career FIP of 1.96 cement his status as baseball’s most dominant reliever. Boston’s proximity to the luxury tax threshold may keep them off the Kimbrel market, even more so if David Price opts into his contract. A reunion with the Braves makes a ton of sense for both sides, especially with GM Alex Anthopolous stating that the Braves have increased financial flexibility this offseason.
Contract: 6 years, $108 million ($18 million AAV)
Destination: Atlanta Braves. In the Mix: Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers.
7. Dallas Keuchel. After winning the CY Young award in 2015, Keuchel has continued to pitch well to the tune of a 3.70 FIP over the past three years. He dealt with injuries in ’16 and ’17, but pitching 200 innings is enough to prove to teams that he is well and healthy heading into 2019. He’s a ground ball pitcher with an excellent, repeatable delivery, which will help him age well as he heads into his thirties. The Cincinnati Reds make tremendous sense for Keuchel, whose pitching style fits exceptionally well into that ballpark. The Yankees and Brewers also seem like logical fits for Keuchel given his elite ability to keep the ball in the ballpark. A $150 million dollar contract may still be in play, but even if he does not secure that, he will easily surpass the $100 million dollar mark.
Contract: 6 years, $132 million ($23 million AAV).
Destination: Cincinnati Reds. In the mix: New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros.
8. Josh Donaldson. Injuries have seriously affected Donaldson’s ability to stay on the field over the past two seasons, but his 129 OPS+ over that time frame show that he still has plenty left in the tank in terms of production. He would largely benefit from playing in the AL where he would have the opportunity to DH. Donaldson seems like a lock for a one-year deal, and as such, makes sense for teams such as the Angels and Indians who both view themselves as postseason contenders heading into the 2019 season. The Milwaukee Brewers may also make sense as a one-year option with the imminent departure of Mike Moustakas from the infield.
Contract: 1 year, $19 million with two player options for 2020 and 2021
Destination: Cleveland Indians. In the Mix: Los Angeles Angels, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals.
9. Yasmani Grandal. His consistency and durability behind the plate are commendable, and his ability to play first base is also important, as it is for any catcher heading into their thirties. In his favor as well is a wide open market for catchers, with multiple postseason contenders seeking help behind the dish, such as the Astros, Dodgers, and Braves. He’s an elite pitch framer and receiver behind the plate who has the ability to bring out the best in his pitchers. His market and destination will largely depend on how the trade market for J.T. Realmuto progresses, but Grandal should have no trouble signing a long-term deal with the opportunity to win now.
Contract: 6 years, $102 million dollars ($17 million AAV)
Destination: Atlanta Braves. In the Mix: Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies, Washington Nationals.
10. Gio Gonzalez. This spot is contested between Gonzalez and Charlie Morton, but with the latter mulling retirement, we’ll give it to Gonzalez. After a mediocre beginning to his season with the Nationals, he increased his free agent stock by going 3-0 with a 194 ERA+ and 3.63 FIP with the Milwaukee Brewers in the thick of a pennant race. Entering his age 33 season, Gonzalez makes sense for a team with a deep bullpen given his inability to pitch more than six innings. This is not necessarily a detriment to his value, as the five-to-six innings he can give every start are generally quality innings. Re-signing with the Brewers or heading to the Angels seem like a serious possibilities given each team’s need for starting pitching. Gonzalez’s hometown Marlins may also pursue Gonzalez to help strengthen their young rotation.
Contract: 3 years, $45 million dollars ($15 million AAV)
Destination: Los Angeles Angels. In the Mix: Milwaukee Brewers, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres.