- We're still a few months from free agency, but let's take a look at the players who have helped themselves earn a significant payday at the end of this contract year.
The winter’s free-agency freeze induced a wave of anxiety around baseball, leading to a slew of extensions signed early in the season. Brandon Lowe agreed to a six-year deal in Tampa Bay after just 129 MLB at-bats. Eloy Jimenez signed long-term with the White Sox before he ever set foot in an MLB batter’s box. Many players seem either desperate to shed their rookie deals or terrified of entering free agency. The market’s paralysis can deter even the top talents from leaving their current teams. (See Arenado, Nolan and Trout, Michael.)
There remains a sample of quality free agents in the 2019-20 class, however, even if J.D. Martinez and Stephen Strasburg choose not to opt out of their current deals. Expect multiple nine-figure contracts, and one pitcher who could become the league’s most expensive arm. So which upcoming free agents have helped their cause as we begin to consider the next class?
Josh Donaldson, 3B, Braves
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos signed Donaldson to a one-year, prove-it deal last November, shelling out $23 million for the former Blue Jays star. The 2015 MVP has lived up to his high price tag thus far. Donaldson’s .885 OPS is third on the Braves and his 26 homers ranks seventh among third baseman. The Auburn product has returned near his 2017 production with Toronto, ensuring his earning potential remains steady into the offseason. Anthopoulos’s deal now appears to be a relative bargain.
Donaldson may bolt from Atlanta after 2019. Austin Riley is likely the third baseman of the future, and highly-touted prospect Cristian Pache could join Atlanta’s outfield in 2020. Even without the Braves among the bidders, Donaldson is likely to find a multi-year deal, even at 33. A two-year contract with a solid average annual value should emerge, particularly from an American League club. Donaldson will never be the MVP he once was, but he remains a valuable bat entering the market.
Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals
Rendon is playing like Donaldson did in 2015 and 2016 as he approaches free agency. The Nationals’ third baseman is having a career year in 2019, slashing .317/.400/.601 with 25 homers in 455 plate appearances. Rendon is one of five players with an OPS over 1.000. Just four players have more RBI. He’s well in line for a third top-ten finish in the National League MVP voting in his age-29 season.
Rendon’s market will fall a marked step below the Machado and Harper deals, yet he’ll easily clear nine figures, and he should surpass $150 million. The Nationals would be smart to make the financial commitment on a deal far more manageable than Harper’s. The Yankees continue to loom as a suitor for every marquee free agent, and trading Miguel Andujar could pave the way to splurging on Rendon. The divisional rival Mets would make perfect sense with Rendon as Todd Frazier’s replacement, if only they open their wallets. The market may restrict a deal reaching $200 million, but Rendon is turning in another impressive season regardless. He’s earned a major payday after three quietly excellent seasons.
Gerrit Cole, SP, Astros
The days of mega contracts appear to be all but over for starting pitchers, especially considering the shaky start to Chris Sale’s extension in Boston. Blowing a big contract on a starter can hamstring a franchise for a half decade. No GM wants to make the big mistake.
Yet if any pitcher can break the tight grip on owners’ wallets, it will be Gerrit Cole. The Astros’ fireballer has been downright dominant for two straight seasons, entering free agency as the clear ace of his class. Cole led the American League with 12.4 K/9 in 2018. He’s posted a 13 K/9 in 2019. Cole is on pace for another 250-strikeout season along with a 200-inning year, and his 2.87 ERA trails only teammate Justin Verlander among AL pitchers. Houston’s championship core will get expensive in the next decade, and Cole is a likely casualty in the offseason. Expect him to cash out in his next deal and exceed Sale’s $145 million extension with Boston.
Will Smith, RP, Giants
Smith is on a lower plane than the trio noted above, but he’s still likely to land a solid contract thanks to a weak reliever market. Contenders around the league remain starved for quality relief as October approaches. Atlanta’s acquisition of Shane Greene has been a disaster, and the Cubs’ bullpen remains shaky even with Craig Kimbrel. Smith could have been a valuable commodity if the Giants became sellers at the deadline.
The 30-year-old reliever is the best closer option available in free agency. Sergio Romo isn’t a suitable option for a quality team, and neither Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek or Anthony Swarzak offer much appeal. Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman could shake up the market, but both would be foolish to even consider opting out. Smith has been quietly reliable since 2015. He posted a 2.72 ERA across 208 2/3 innings, logging 283 strikeouts. Smith is a quality option in the ninth, and worthy of multi-year deal.