The Free-Agency Analysis FanGraphs Doesn’t Want You to Read, 2019 Edition

Last year, I wrote a post-length intro for our marathon Top 50 Free Agent list, which Carson Cistulli demanded I spin off into its own piece of scorching hot free agency takes. Like last year, I still have extra buzz that didn’t fit into today’s Top 50 post, and while Meg Rowley is less insistent on brevity than Carson was before her, she made the same request, so here it comes, at the molten lava temperatures that you prefer.

First, some bullet-pointed thoughts on specific teams likely to be active, as well as various player markets:

  • There’s some buzz that the White Sox will be active for veteran help, particularly on short-term deals with lower guarantees. After getting under the luxury tax, the Dodgers seem poised to spend, with multiple sources tying them to Rendon, while the two top pitchers on the market (Cole, Strasburg) are SoCal natives. The Yankees had the third-best record and third-best run differential in baseball, but seem a player or two short and weren’t able to stay under the luxury tax to reset the penalties; they seem likely to spend in this area again. Philadelphia seems primed to spend again this offseason to help get past Washington and Atlanta. Speaking of which, Atlanta has a stable of young players to fill in the back of the roster, but needs a couple frontline types from the top 10 of the list to raise their upside. Cincinnati, San Diego, and the Mets all seem to be focused on a playoff run in 2020, which could result in them making moves more aggressively this winter than other teams with similar talent.
  • Last year, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, and Mike Moustakas were among the free agents most-squeezed in terms of the deal they eventually got vs. the deal they wanted/deserved. Keuchel and Moustakas are back on the market and I rounded down a bit on their projected deals in the Top 50 since they’re still the same players, but a year older, though Keuchel has now rid himself of a qualifying offer and its accompanying draft pick compensation. Players over 30 who seem unlikely to post 3 WAR or more simply aren’t what most clubs are looking for on a multi-year deal, especially when the most successful clubs seem to be finding two-win players between the couch cushions, or in the second and third tier of their prospect lists.
  • Teams want impact, durability, and youth when paying premium prices over a long term, and in this market, only Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon clearly possess all three attributes. The two profiles next-closest to that are guys who ended up moving up the board a bit throughout the process: Yasmani Grandal and Marcell Ozuna. They are entering their age-30 and age-29 seasons, respectively, with Grandal offering outstanding performance at a premium position, while Ozuna has youth, tools, and upside along with a pretty solid track record. I’d expect both to get four-year deals, which are increasingly rare below $100 million.
  • Last year’s class was long thought of as an elite one, but it failed to reach its potential by the time contracts were signed. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper did about what was expected, and Patrick Corbin did very well, but the rest received fairly ordinary contracts. (José Fernández, who tragically passed away in 2016, would have been a member of the 2019 class as well.) This year, there are two big fish in Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon, though neither should get to $300 million. Stephen Strasburg projects to receive another nine figure deal to match Corbin’s in the third slot. After that, it looks like there will be more $50-plus million guaranteed money depth this year than last. This year’s class probably isn’t “better” than 2019’s but it’s darn close, didn’t have near the advance fanfare, and lost some top tier talents to extensions last spring, with Nolan Arenado, Chris Sale, Paul Goldschmidt, Xander Bogaerts, and Justin Verlander, among others, all electing to stay with their current clubs.

And now, some chatter and buzz on the general state of the market…

It’s worth watching how the second- and third-tier types shake out, both in their contract terms and in the timing of their signings. Winning clubs with limited available payroll, as well as teams dipping their toe into contention, may enter the offseason without a clear plan of action other than to wait and see who in the bargain bin is left over at the end of the winter. This has been a proven approach to getting team-friendly deals, but with the looming CBA negotiations and clubs’ competitive drive (or lack thereof) headlining the discourse this offseason, will teams that aren’t going after the market’s marquee names continue to wait until January or February as they have in past winters?

On the player/agent side, will the younger free agents take two to three years at a higher AAV (with a shot for another payday), or will they push for four years to get the maximum guarantee? What will the top and/or Boras-represented free agents prioritize in their deals: years, guarantee, or AAV?

Much of the shape of the market will be determined by which teams figure to be the most active. Will the Dodgers try to get over the hump in 2020 by once again going past the luxury tax threshold, and if so, by how much? Will the Yankees (or any other team) go $40 million over threshold at the cost of their first round pick moving down 10 slots? How will the Cubs’ organizational changes manifest in free agency? How will Chaim Bloom approach the payroll and Mookie Betts conundrums the Red Sox are in?

One key storyline to keep an eye on is the fact that as many as a dozen teams have general managers with some level of heat under their seat, while Boston has new leadership and Pittsburgh is still currently looking for its new head. The malaise that marked recent winters has been due in part to the incentives around tanking, but it has also been the result of top executives having slower-burning processes that hadn’t yet faced ownership’s assessment. Now nearly half the league is having uncomfortable internal conversations, or just finished firing their GM, so there appears to be a greater general sense of urgency across front offices. That should lead to a higher level of activity.

And finally, a note on Scott Boras…

Boras famously advises clients not to sign extensions, especially ones that cover free agent years. This both ensures that players get to free agency to set the market for future players and, for elite players, help set precedents in arbitration for future players to beat. That practice, all while teams have pushed for extensions with almost every good young player of consequence, means Boras will be busy this offseason.

Boras represents for over half of our top 15 free agents, including the top three on our list (Cole, Rendon, Strasburg), as well as Nos. 5 (J.D. Martinez), 11 (Nicholas Castellanos), 12 (Dallas Keuchel), 13 (Hyun-Jin Ryu), and 14 (Mike Moustakas). Some agents and executives (but mostly agents) have wondered whether this might create the potential for conflicts of interest. It’s one thing to represent a lot of top players — you could argue that doing so benefits your clients since you gain a better sense of the whole market — but representing similar types of players in the same market means you may have to favor one over the other. Cole and Strasburg, Martinez and Castellanos, and Keuchel and Ryu could all be considered similar enough to each other to result in their markets overlapping in ways that might make having different representation beneficial.





Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.

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Joemember
2 years ago

When it says that the White Sox will be active on lower term and lower guarantee contracts, are you saying that they’re going to increase the use of incentives in their deals? Similar to what they did with Machado last year?

Rational Fan
2 years ago
Reply to  Joe

White Sox claimed they were going to spend and spend big after they came up short last offseason – “The money will be spent!” They proclaimed.

If they start bringing in over the hill bums on 2 and 3 years 10-12 aav contracts, I’ll continue to be embarrassed and ashamed of a team that rebuilt to sustain success despite never intending to spend at the levels they did before – top 5-10 in baseball. What a joke.

mikejuntmember
2 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

Not entirely in their defense, but it was clear that the White Sox made a non-perfunctory effort to sign Machado. They didn’t succeed, but they were clearly willing to do so and spent most of their offseason on it.