I ended up writing a much longer introduction than Carson Cistulli would permit for the free-agent post made available earlier today. Instead of abandoning all that content, however, I’ve badgered him — against his better judgment — into letting me publish all the ideas too hot to be included in the most read article on the site for months. Do not operate heavy machinery while reading these takes.
First, some bullet-point thoughts on various player markets:
- This class was projected years ago to be a bonanza, yet only four players (Patrick Corbin, Bryce Harper, Dallas Keuchel, and Manny Machado) are locks to clear $50 million guaranteed.
- Former Dodgers Yasmani Grandal and Hyun-Jin Ryu are both threats to accept the qualifying offer (one year, $17.9 million), as they both have a market for multi-year deals but at a lower AAV and likely well under $50 million guaranteed.
- The changing face of pitching could be most evident in the markets of Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Richards. Both have high-octane stuff, relative youth, Tommy John surgery in the past, and flexibility to fit in relief or starting roles. Both may end up getting more than you’d expect, as over half the league is aggressively looking for this type of pitcher.
- There’s a number of infielders on the market — and specifically second basemen. Jed Lowrie is 35 but turned into a new player two years ago, a near clone of Ben Zobrist. Marwin Gonzalez is the multi-positional fit for which nearly every contending team is looking. Mike Moustakas is looking for the payday he thought he would get last winter, and a collection of others are either getting long in the tooth (Adrian Beltre, Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Kinsler) or coming off down seasons (Brian Dozier, Josh Harrison, DJ LeMahieu, Daniel Murphy, Neil Walker). At least one of those players will get way less than we’re expecting, and I think it’ll be more a matter of timing the market poorly than being the clear worst bet of this group.
- The durable, young-ish, high-end pitching may be the first big-dollar players off the board first, with Corbin, Eovaldi and Keuchel representing the top of that group. The 29-year-old Eovaldi specifically should have wide appeal. He shined in both starting and relief roles this fall, fits where league trends in pitching are going, and his lack of track record and recent Tommy John surgery will keep his price down to about half that of Corbin or Keuchel.
- I found it interesting that Machado and Harper have played 926 and 927 games in their careers, respectively, and both have a career WAR of 30. I have them essentially tied atop the rankings but lean Machado due to the positional advantage that will be relevant in the eight- to 12-year horizon into which these free-agent deals are likely to run. It also sounds like he’ll be a bit cheaper and sign a bit earlier.
- On Harper, specifically, I think he’ll sign after Machado, as Harper’s agent Scott Boras is always (even in the draft) focused on setting precedents and getting the highest top-line dollar amounts. He’ll need to know Machado’s price to ensure he’s done that, and sources indicate the Nationals will act as a backstop if the irrational/retail bidders don’t materialize and Harper needs a soft place to land in February. I would expect Machado’s market to heat up post-Thanksgiving and for him hammer out a deal in December, with Harper going in the second half of December or January.
- One last point on the contract estimates for Harper and Machado: we don’t know exactly what they want. There will be lots of interest and relatively similar options on which they’ll be deciding, along with all kinds of benefits/value that won’t be in the top-line year/salary figures that we’re guessing. If there’s five comparable offers for both players and each has a different selling point (guaranteed money, years, city/team, opt-outs/flexibility, no state income tax), we don’t know where either will lean or how they’ll value these factors.
Now some chatter, buzz, and innuendo from around the game regarding teams that may be more aggressive than you’re expecting…
We aren’t projecting teams for these players since it’s hard enough to project the contracts themselves, but there are some notable clubs to monitor. The Phillies have been rumored for what seems like years to be poised to spend big this offseason, with an executive group that was in charge of the Orioles when Machado was drafted. The club has indicated they won’t go nuts, but they’d say that no matter the situation. Rival clubs and agents think they’re poised to make a splash due to ownership that’s become impatient.
A little further beneath the radar, the Padres, Reds, White Sox, Twins and Braves are all expected to be aggressive, in order from most to least. The Padres are expected to kick the tires on every top player and the Ron Fowler/A.J. Preller combination is still one of the most aggressive in the league. San Diego arguably acted prematurely with the addition of Eric Hosmer last offseason, and with Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard apparently off the table, that makes Corbin, Eovaldi, and Keuchel possible targets.
Industry chatter has the Reds ready to participate in the $50-plus million guaranteed market in which they spent little time recently, with informed speculation suggesting that they’re focused on pitching. Matt Harvey is mentioned as a cheaper option of which Cincinnati seems to be fond. The Twins and White Sox haven’t landed a big fish in the trade or free-agent markets recently, but both have been close in some major transaction over the last year and may be swimming in deeper waters than some expect. Lastly, Atlanta is in a position to really push their chips to the middle this winter, but the perception is they’ll pursue more of a moderate strategy, filling holes to supplement the core for vets on shorter deals rather than shooting for the stars.
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.