The Free-Agent Frenzy We Didn’t Get This Year

This guy would have been a free agent this offseason had he not signed an extension.
(Photo: Ian D’Andrea)

Everybody knows that next year’s crop of free agents is going to be spectacular. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado headline the class, of course, but Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel, and Andrew McCutchen will all be available, as well. Clayton Kershaw, meanwhile, will have the option of opting out of the final two years of his contract with the Dodgers. The collection of talent is impressive. The contracts they’re all likely to receive are expected to be equally so.

By contrast, the prospect “merely” of Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, and J.D. Martinez — that is, the top names of the 2017-18 offseason — isn’t as striking. Had things unfolded differently, however, this offseason would have facilitated a free-agent bonanza of its own.

The Dodgers and Yankees appear motivated to avoid the competitive-balance tax right now, but would they be doing so if Mike Trout were available? How about Jose Altuve or Paul Goldschmidt? This isn’t some fantasyland where every player is a free agent. If Altuve, Goldschmidt, and Trout hadn’t signed team-friendly contract extensions, all three would be free agents right now. They aren’t the only ones, either.

Here’s a list of some of the position players who signed contract extensions that prevented them from becoming free agents during the 2017-18 offseason.

Free Agents Who Might Have Been
Player Year Contract Signed Contract FA Years bought out
Jose Altuve 2013 4/$12.5 M, 2 options 2
Brandon Belt 2016 5/$72.8 M 4
Matt Carpenter 2014 6/$52.0 M, 1 option 3
Brandon Crawford 2015 6/$75.0 M 4
Tyler Flowers 2016 2/$5.3 M, 1 option 1
Logan Forsythe 2016 2/$10.3 M, 1 option 1
Paul Goldschmidt 2013 5/$32.0 M, 1 option 2
Josh Harrison 2015 4/$27.3 M, 2 options 3
Jason Kipnis 2014 6/$52.5 M, 1 option 3
Devin Mesoraco 2015 4/$28.0 M 1
Salvador Perez 2016 5/$52.5 M 4*, 2
Kyle Seager 2015 7/$100 M, 1 options 5
Mike Trout 2014 6/$144.5 M 3
*Salvador Perez has had two contract extension, his current one having bought out four years of free agency, while his first extension bought out two years.

Not all of these players are equally valuable, of course; nevertheless, there is a considerable amount of talent here. In just this most recent season, for example, three of the eight players listed here finished among the top four in their respective league’s MVP voting.

And beyond those elite names is a collection of others who would all rank among the top players at their respective positions this offseason. Sal Perez, for example, anchored a couple of World Series teams at catcher. Logan Forsythe, Josh Harrison, and Jason Kipnis all represent solid second-base options. Kyle Seager is one of the better third baseman in the league; Brandon Crawford hits well relative to the value he creates on defense; a few of the first basemen considered here (Brandon Belt, Matt Carpenter) have better track records than Eric Hosmer. Oh, and did I mention Jose Altuve, Paul Goldschmidt, and Mike Trout? Good.

Moving on…

It’s clear that these players would have had a considerable effect on the market this offseason. To begin understanding the magnitude of that effect, let’s first consider the best free-agent position players of the winter. I’ve included each players WAR from 2017 as well as their projections for 2018.

Top 2018 Free-Agent Position Players
Name 2018 Age 2017 WAR 2018 WAR FG Rank
Zack Cozart 32 5.0 3.5 9
Lorenzo Cain 31 4.1 3.2 6
Eric Hosmer 28 4.1 2.8 5
J.D. Martinez 30 3.8 2.7 2
Carlos Santana 31 3.0 2.7 4
Mike Moustakas 29 2.2 2.7 8
Neil Walker 32 2.1 2.6 11
Todd Frazier 31 3.0 2.4 13
Jonathan Lucroy 31 1.2 2.3 23
Welington Castillo 30 2.7 2.0 48
Eduardo Nunez 31 2.2 1.8 21
Lucas Duda 31 1.1 1.8 42
Jarrod Dyson 33 2.1 1.7 20
Alex Avila 30 2.5 1.6 43
Yonder Alonso 30 2.4 1.5 29
Logan Morrison 30 3.3 1.3 25
Carlos Gomez 32 2.3 1.2 34
Jay Bruce 30 2.7 1.1 14
Carlos Gonzalez 32 -0.2 1.0 33
Cameron Maybin 31 1.2 0.5 44
Jon Jay 33 1.6 0.5 50
Howie Kendrick 34 1.6 0.2 46

Zack Cozart and Lorenzo Cain have the best projections for 2018 but get dinged a bit in the rankings due to their age and reliance on defense. Those are the only position players projected for more than three wins in 2018. Only seven of the players here hit the three-win mark last season. Only 10 players, meanwhile, project even as average players next season. Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez are intriguing, but they come with big question marks — Hosmer because of his inconsistent production and Martinez due to his health concerns and defensive shortcomings.

Look what happens, though, when we add the players who signed contract extensions prior to this offseason.

What-If 2018 Free-Agent Position Players
Name 2018 Age 2017 WAR Proj 2018 WAR FG Rank
Mike Trout 26 6.9 8.7
Paul Goldschmidt 30 5.3 4.7
Jose Altuve 28 7.5 4.5
Kyle Seager 30 3.5 3.7
Zack Cozart 32 5.0 3.5 9
Lorenzo Cain 31 4.1 3.2 6
Brandon Belt 30 2.3 3.1
Salvador Perez 28 2.1 3.1
Brandon Crawford 31 2.0 2.9
Eric Hosmer 28 4.1 2.8 5
J.D. Martinez 30 3.8 2.7 2
Carlos Santana 31 3.0 2.7 4
Matt Carpenter 32 2.9 2.7
Mike Moustakas 29 2.2 2.7 8
Neil Walker 32 2.1 2.6 11
Todd Frazier 31 3.0 2.4 13
Jonathan Lucroy 31 1.2 2.3 23
Welington Castillo 30 2.7 2.0 48
Eduardo Nunez 31 2.2 1.8 21
Lucas Duda 31 1.1 1.8 42
Jason Kipnis 31 0.7 1.8
Jarrod Dyson 33 2.1 1.7 20
Logan Forsythe 31 1.7 1.7
Alex Avila 30 2.5 1.6 43
Josh Harrison 30 2.6 1.5
Yonder Alonso 30 2.4 1.5 29
Tyler Flowers 32 2.5 1.4
Logan Morrison 30 3.3 1.3 25
Carlos Gomez 32 2.3 1.2 34
Jay Bruce 30 2.7 1.1 14
Devin Mesoraco 30 0.4 1.0
Carlos Gonzalez 32 -0.2 1.0 33
Jon Jay 33 1.6 0.5 50
Cameron Maybin 31 1.2 0.5 44
Howie Kendrick 34 1.6 0.2 46

It seems quite possible that free agency might have begun more swiftly this winter if even a few of the guys listed here had been involved this offseason. The four best players and seven of the top nine on this most recent list missed out on free agency due to contract extensions. For the most part, those players are younger than the better free agents available now — and are very good hitters. Brandons Belt and Crawford were close enough to free agency that they nearly received free-agent prices.┬áDid I mention Jose Altuve, Paul Goldshmidt, and Mike Trout? Good.

This is not meant as an indictment of those players who signed contract extensions. Teams have tremendous leverage when they approach players making the major-league minimum and offer them guaranteed millions. On an individual basis, it is very likely that players are making the right decision given the risks involved. In sum, however, those individual decisions have larger ramifications when considered as a group, as they are here.

Position players are not alone, either. There are a few starters who missed out on free agency this year, as well.

Would Be Free Agent Pitchers
Player Year Contract Signed Contract FA Years bought out
Carlos Carrasco 2015 4/$22, 2 options 3
Danny Duffy 2017 5/$65 M 4
Matt Moore 2012 5/$14 M, 3 options 3

This list is considerably smaller than the position-player side, but it does include considerable quality. Carlos Carrasco would be the best pitcher on the market right now, while while Duffy might be just behind Yu Darvish and ahead of Jake Arrieta. Carrasco had some very good reasons for signing a contract extension, but it is currently a great deal for Cleveland.

Here’s how the current free-agent pitchers stack up against those who removed themselves from the class by signing a new deal.

What-If 2018 Free-Agent Pitchers
Name 2018 Age 2017 WAR 2018 Proj WAR FG Rank
Carlos Carrasco 30 5.5 4.2
Yu Darvish 31 3.5 3.6 1
Jake Arrieta 31 2.4 2.7 3
Jaime Garcia 31 2.1 2.2 28
Danny Duffy 28 3.4 2.1
Tyler Chatwood 28 1.1 1.9 17
Alex Cobb 30 2.4 1.7 10
CC Sabathia 37 1.9 1.5 12
Doug Fister 33 1.4 1.5 49
Jhoulys Chacin 29 2.3 1.4 41
Lance Lynn 30 1.4 1.3 15
Jason Vargas 34 1.6 1.2 30
Andrew Cashner 31 1.9 0.9 35
Matt Moore 28 1.0 0.6

This is now the second year in a row in which we’ve had a bit of a muted free-agent class. Last year, we missed out on Madison Bumgarner, Freddie Freeman, Buster Posey, Chris Sale, and Giancarlo Stanton. This year, the losses are even greater in terms of would-be free-agent signings. When the big-name players are out there, teams spend. When they aren’t, teams spend money on relievers and wait for the asking price on other players to go down. Next year, we will have no such problems.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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phoenix2042
Member
Member
phoenix2042

I wonder if the number of young players agreeing to team friendly extensions would drop if the union were to get higher min salary, arb starting a year earlier, higher draft bonuses, or other measures to increase the early career earnings of young players. It’s almost like when they help young players, they help veterans too… hmmm…

Johnny Dickshot
Member
Johnny Dickshot

Yes, any steps taken that lead to young players making more money earlier in their career will lead to fewer early-career extensions. Likewise, anything that leads to more players entering FA will result in the market price paid for free agent players going down.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

Right. Expanding on Johnny’s point: more aggregate dollars to players in total does not necessarily mean more dollars to each individual free agent, as free agents are already the highest paid players on the basis of dollars per WAR.