- Before this offseason started, several stars were due to hit free agency after the 2019 season. Now that most of them signed contract extensions, who is even left?
If a baseball season’s text is its games, MLB’s last two years have had no stronger subtext than the countdown for free agency for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. When they were signed, it seemed, the clock would reset—counting down to Chris Sale, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Justin Verlander for 2020 and Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, and Mookie Betts for 2021.
The clock looks very different now. As the market has shifted, top players have realized that they might be counting down not to a guaranteed payday but instead to a risky waiting game, and they’ve increasingly decided to opt out of free agency by signing contract extensions. Meanwhile, teams are typically eager to start this conversation: There’s risk on their side, too, of course, but if a player continues to produce as he has previously, it’s far cheaper to extend him than it would be to compete against other teams to re-sign him in free agency. With deGrom’s extension, announced on Tuesday, the only one of the seven aforementioned players who hasn’t been extended yet is Betts, who doesn’t seem particularly interested.
So, at this point, what does baseball have to count down to? (Other than a potentially dramatic showdown when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021, that is.) It’s trickier than ever to map out future winters, with radical changes to free agency happening alongside the typical movement of players breaking out and breaking down. But we can always try. Here’s a look at five names of note from each of the next few classes:
Chicago White Sox 1B Jose Abreu: Abreu has never quite lived up to the splendor of his rookie season in 2013, but he’s still built a record over the last few years as one of the most consistent first basemen in baseball. Until 2018, he’d never made a trip to the DL, and he’d never posted an OPS+ below 124. On one hand, if he rebounds nicely from last year’s dip, he’ll offer a solid record of stable power; on the other, he’s exactly the sort of player who’s suffered most from free agency’s recent changes, as a slugging first baseman who’ll hit the market at age 33.
Washington Nationals 3B Anthony Rendon: Rendon has been clear that he’d be open to an extension, but so far, the discussions reportedly haven’t been productive. If he does make it to free agency, he’ll have plenty in his favor—his last two seasons have been his best yet, and when he hits the market, he’ll still be under 30, if only by a little.
Detroit Tigers OF Nicholas Castellanos: Castellanos seems destined to be traded this year, one of only a few valuable players for a dreadful club in Detroit. He also seems destined to end up as a DH, as his outfield defense is… well, it’s an attempt at defense that takes place in the outfield. Still, he’s made some promising adjustments at the plate over the last three seasons that have given him baseball’s 31st highest OPS+ since 2016.
Oakland A’s OF/DH Khris Davis: The 31-year-old has been a model of consistency not only with his famously stable batting average (.247, four years running) but with his overall game. Since 2016, his OPS has hovered only between .831 and .874; his home run total has stayed between 42 and 48.
Houston Astros SP Gerrit Cole: In 2018, his first season in Houston, Cole met with great success by sidelining his sinker and revamping his four-seam fastball: 2.88 ERA, 12.4 K/9. If he sustains those results in 2019, he’ll easily be the best starting pitcher on the market in a year otherwise headlined by… Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi.
Philadelphia Phillies C J.T. Realmuto: After years of drama about where he’d be traded, Realmuto will be available once again in two more seasons. If he continues as he has been, he’ll still be in the center of the conversation for the best catcher in baseball.
Los Angeles Angels SS Andrelton Simmons: Long known as a Gold Glove with an, uh, not-so-golden bat, Simmons has restyled himself over the last two seasons. Now that he’s slightly above average at the plate, Simmons has more to offer—so much so that Baseball-Reference ranks him among baseball’s seven best position players for the last two years by WAR.
Boston Red Sox OF Mookie Betts: That brings us to baseball’s best position player for the last two years by Baseball-Reference WAR, Mookie Betts. (Just by a hair; Mike Trout is 0.5 behind.) The 2018 AL MVP is coming off the best season of the 21st century by a man with a name other than Barry Bonds, and he’s the headliner not just of this class, but of any class before the expiration of the CBA.
Houston Astros OF George Springer: The 29-year-old is coming off a down year, the worst performance of his career so far. Still—it says something that Springer’s “worst” involved a 116 OPS+ and 2.7 Baseball-Reference WAR.
Cleveland Indians SP Trevor Bauer: Bauer has said before that he’d like to take an unorthodox approach for free agency, aiming to sign a series of deals for one year apiece, rather than anything long-term. Regardless of what he’s after, Bauer’s record of improvement, currently capped off with last year’s breakout season, should put him in a good position to get it.
Atlanta Braves 1B Freddie Freeman: There are seven players with a 145 OPS+ or higher since 2013. Freeman is one of them. And while it might feel like he’s already been around forever—this tends to happen when you debut at age 20—when he hits free agency, he’ll have just turned 31.
Chicago Cubs IF Javier Baez: With positional versatility, outstanding defense, and a newly refined approach at the plate, Baez perhaps can’t do everything, but he’s pretty dang close.
Cleveland Indians SS Francisco Lindor, Houston Astros SS Carlos Correa, Los Angeles Dodgers SS Corey Seager, Colorado Rockies SS Trevor Story: Any one of these names could represent a franchise player. For all of them to hit free agency at the same position in the same year? It could make for baseball’s most fun offseason feature in years, or, uh, half of them could be extended beforehand and a few others could suffer performance setbacks and all could be overshadowed by the likely negotiating struggle set to happen in the winter of 2021. Still, it’s fun to dream!
Chicago Cubs 3B Kris Bryant: Former Rookie of the Year and MVP Bryant has a strong track record and some serious star power. With any luck, by the time he hits free agency, his injury-hampered 2018 will be just a distant memory sticking out as an anomaly in an otherwise stellar career.
New York Mets SP Noah Syndergaard: Thor spoke out about an extension for deGrom just before the deal was announced. If he doesn’t direct that magic back toward himself for an extension of his own—and if he can stay healthy—Syndergaard should represent one of the best pitchers available in 2021.