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Wait til you see next year's free-agent class

January 4, 2019

As we wait for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to decide where they will play in 2019 and beyond, we've found ourselves thinking about a lot of different things.Which movies will earn Oscar nominations for Best Picture? Is Alabama really going to win another national championship? What will next year's

As we wait for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to decide where they will play in 2019 and beyond, we've found ourselves thinking about a lot of different things.
Which movies will earn Oscar nominations for Best Picture? Is Alabama really going to win another national championship? What will next year's big league free-agent class look like?
Wait a second. Next year's free-agent class? Can we get through this one first?
Nope. Baseball fans (and writers, for that matter) love to look ahead. After all, we've been talking about Machado, Harper and this year's class for three years already, so what's the harm in taking a peek at what we'll be talking about this time next year?
A couple of notes before we do that: Players listed below are slated to be unrestricted free agents. Any player with an option or an opt-out clause was not considered, nor were players who were members of this year's free-agent class. Josh Donaldson, for instance, will be a free agent again next year, but we've already talked about him a lot this offseason.
Among the players with options or opt-outs are Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter, J.D. Martinez, Chris Archer, Jacob Arrieta, Corey Kluber, Stephen Strasburg, Elvis Andrus, Starling Marte and Nelson Cruz, so the actual free-agent class could look very different by the time we get to next November. Some of the players listed below could also sign extensions, which would take them off the market.
But none of that has happened yet, so without further ado, here's a very early look at 15 of the biggest names slated to hit the free-agent market next offseason, listed in order who will likely be in the highest demand.
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies
2020 Opening Day age: 28
Arenado is viewed by most as the crown jewel of next offseason's free-agent class, offering elite offensive production with Gold Glove defense (he's won the award in all six of his big league seasons) at third base. Arenado's 25.3 bWAR since the start of 2015 is tops among all National League players, as he's averaged 40 home runs, 126 RBIs and a .931 OPS in those four seasons, leading the league in homers three times while finishing in the top 5 of MVP voting in each of the past three campaigns.

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Cardinals
2020 Opening Day age: 32
Arenado's bWAR over the past four seasons edges Goldschmidt by a hair, as his 24.6 ranks second in the NL during that period. After playing the first eight years of his career in Arizona, Goldschmidt will have one season in St. Louis for the Cardinals to convince him to sign there long-term, but the 31-year-old figures to test the market. He's averaged 30 home runs, 100 RBIs and a .947 OPS while playing 150 games a year since 2013, earning an All-Star selection in all six of those seasons and a top 3 MVP finish in three of them.

Chris Sale, LHP, Red Sox
2020 Opening Day age: 31
There is little question that Sale -- who turns 30 in late March -- is among the top pitchers in the game, if not the best. But his mysterious second-half arm trouble in 2018 -- he pitched just 17 innings during the final two months of the regular season -- makes his performance in 2019 that much more important as he heads toward free agency. When Sale pitched last year, he excelled to the tune of a 2.11 ERA, but he'll need to show teams he can return to his 200-inning self (he averaged 208 per year from 2013-17) if he wants to break the bank.

Gerrit Cole, RHP, Astros
2020 Opening Day age: 29
Cole's ERA had risen from 2.60 to 3.88 to 4.26 from 2015-17, but he reversed that trend last year with a superb debut season in Houston. The 28-year-old had a 2.88 ERA and an MLB-best 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings over 200 1/3 frames for the Astros, reestablishing himself as one of the game's top starters. Another strong season should make Cole one of the most sought-after free agents next offseason.

Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals
2020 Opening Day age: 29
Rendon's long-term future in Washington may depend on Harper's landing spot this winter. If Harper returns to the Nationals, it might be difficult for Washington to hand Rendon the nine-figure contract most expect him to receive. The 28-year-old has emerged as an offensive force during the past two seasons, averaging 24 home runs, 42 doubles, a .305 average and .923 OPS, one of only seven players in the NL to compile a 10-plus WAR during that stretch.

Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox
2020 Opening Day age: 27
The first of Boston's homegrown players to reach free agency, Bogaerts enters his contract year having posted career-best numbers (23 home runs, 103 RBIs, .883 OPS) in 2018. The durable Bogaerts -- he's averaged 148 games played during his five full seasons with the Red Sox -- will be a free agent at the age of 27, only one year older than Machado and Harper are now, so he will surely be in demand.

Justin Verlander, RHP, Astros
2020 Opening Day age: 37
It's unusual to see a pitcher who will be heading for free agency for his age-37 season on a list of the top available players, but Verlander is no ordinary pitcher. The future Hall of Famer looked like his vintage self in 2018, posting a 2.52 ERA while leading the league with 290 strikeouts and a 0.902 WHIP in 34 starts for the Astros, finishing second in AL Cy Young voting. The most interesting aspect of Verlander's free agency might be how much longer he wants to play; he will already have exceeded $200 million in career earnings, so will he take it year-to-year in his late 30s or commit to a multi-year deal? If 2019 looks anything like 2018, we'd guess it's the latter.

Didi Gregorius, SS, Yankees
2020 Opening Day age: 30
Gregorius' situation is a tricky one. He'll head into free agency following an abbreviated season as he makes his way back from Tommy John surgery. All indications are that the Yankees would like to keep him in pinstripes, though how he performs upon his return could go a long way in determining what type of deal he'll command. After a difficult first season in New York in 2015, Gregorius has improved offensively every year, including his 27-homer, 86-RBI, .829-OPS performance in 134 games in 2018.

Dellin Betances, RHP, Yankees
2020 Opening Day age: 32
This year's free-agent relief market offered clubs several high-end options including Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Player Page for David Robertson and Zach Britton, among others. Next year? Not so much. Unless Kenley Jansen and/or Sean Doolittle become free agents (Jansen can opt out of the final two years and $38 million of his deal, while the Nationals hold a $6.5 million option on Doolittle), Betances will clearly be the cream of the crop when it comes to relievers. Since 2014, when Betances played his first full season, he has struck out 607 batters -- no other reliever has even reached 500 -- while his 2.22 ERA ranks second behind only Wade Davis among relievers with at least 300 innings pitched during that five-year stretch.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants
2020 Opening Day age: 30
There was some early-offseason buzz about the Giants' willingness to trade Bumgarner this winter, though it appears the bulldog left-hander will open the 2019 season with San Francisco. Bumgarner is likely to be dealt this summer if the Giants aren't in the playoff race, though that might work to his advantage as he wouldn't be eligible to receive a qualifying offer. To land a huge deal next year, Bumgarner might need to prove that he can stay healthy; after averaging 213 innings per season from 2011-16, the southpaw has thrown 240 2/3 innings combined over the past two years. His ERA also jumped to 3.29 during that stretch, after averaging 2.86 over the previous four seasons.

Khris Davis, DH/LF, Athletics
2020 Opening Day age: 32
Nobody in the Majors has hit more home runs since the beginning of 2016 than the 31-year-old Davis, whose 133 blasts are nine more than Giancarlo Stanton and 14 more than anybody else. He has hit .247 in each of those three seasons -- one of the more bizarre stats in the sport -- but has a .323 on-base percentage and .857 OPS. Davis' DH position (he played only 11 games in left field last season) will likely limit his market, but as Cruz showed us this offseason, there's always going to be a spot for a player who hits 40 homers a year.

Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
2020 Opening Day age: 33
Abreu is coming off the least productive of his five big league campaigns in 2018, his age-31 season. Having averaged 31 homers, 102 RBIs and an .883 OPS while averaging 154 games through his first four seasons, Abreu hit 22 home runs with 78 RBIs and a .798 OPS in 128 games last year. Abreu will be a clear No. 2 at first base behind Goldschmidt, but if he bounces back to his previous form, he should be able to land a good deal to add his power bat to a lineup.

Marcell Ozuna, LF, Cardinals
2020 Opening Day age: 29
Ozuna was unable to follow up his monster 2017 season in his first year with St. Louis, seeing stark declines in nearly every offensive category. After hitting 37 homers with 124 RBIs and a .924 OPS in his final season with the Marlins, the 28-year-old hit 23 homers with 88 RBIs and a .758 OPS in 148 games in 2018. Ozuna has another shot to revert to form with the Cardinals, and adding Goldschmidt to his lineup might very well help him do that.

Nicholas Castellanos, RF, Tigers
2020 Opening Day age: 28
Castellanos' production has jumped during the past two seasons -- his average of 24 home runs and 95 RBIs with an .832 OPS far exceeds the 15-66-.743 average from his first three full seasons in 2014-16. There's a strong likelihood that Castellanos may play his walk year for another club as the Tigers continue to field offers for the soon-to-be 27-year-old, but if Castellanos is in Detroit's Opening Day lineup, he'll become one of the top summer trade candidates almost immediately.

Scooter Gennett, 2B, Reds
2020 Opening Day age: 29
That Gennett is on this list is a sign of how far he's come during the past two seasons, when he's averaged 25 home runs and 94 RBIs with an .859 OPS for Cincinnati. It's possible the Reds will try to lock him up with an extension before he hits free agency, but if he gets there, he will likely be the top option available at his position.

Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined as a reporter in 2001.