Amazed by big paydays? You ain't seen nothing yet
With plethora of stars eligible for free agency in 2018, teams might dole out even more lucrative deals
This free-agent market has already been crazy -- $217 million for David Price here, a $34 million average annual value for Zack Greinke there, and the $184 million for Jason Heyward wasn't even his biggest offer. The continued escalation of baseball salaries can be hard for the common fan to wrap his or her head around, yet because of how rare it is for a premier player to reach the open market in his prime years, it's the cost of doing business.
But here's the deal about these deals: You ain't seen nothing yet.
Just wait until three years from now, when the free-agent pool looks to go from deep to downright historic.
With the obvious caveat that plenty can change between now and then (up to and including the next collective bargaining agreement), this is a list of just some of the guys eligible for free agency after the 2018 season:
Clayton Kershaw *
* Can opt out of current contract after 2018 season
"That's decent talent," one general manager said wryly. "That's a good year."
That's putting it lightly.
Again, things will change. For one, multiple players on the above list will be in their post-prime years. Injuries will occur. Relievers, especially, will regress. Some guys will be locked up by contract extensions with their current clubs.
Still, enough top talent will sneak through that you can't help but wonder -- even if we acknowledge that three years is an eternity in professional sports -- if clubs might already have 2018 in the back of their minds as they consider other long-term entanglements in the present tense.
"You can put together a three-year plan or a five-year plan," an American League executive said. "I'm sure some clubs are looking a little longer-term, as far as how they manage their assets."
The Yankees are possibly the most prominent example in this conversation. Right now, the most resource-rich club in the nation's largest market is doing things like moving Adam Warren to save a few bucks. Right now, the Yanks are totally abstaining from the top of the market. Right now, they are patiently waiting for their contractual albatrosses -- the $30 million still owed to CC Sabathia, the $23 million still owed to Mark Teixeira, the $42 million still owed to Alex Rodriguez, etc. -- to expire.
But three years from now? Look out. Think the Bronx Bombers might have Harper, who grew up a Yankees fan, in their sights?
Harper is 23 and coming off a National League MVP Award-winning season. Three years from now, he'll be 26, in an industry in which Giancarlo Stanton commanded a $325 million contract at the end of 2014. What is the financial ceiling for a player like Harper post-2018? Four hundred million? Half a billion? Hard to say right now, but the Yankees, as things currently stand, appear to be in good position to be the ones to provide the answer.
Machado is also in a great spot. After 2018, he, too, will be just 26. His 2015 season is a signal that his power potential and defensive profile do, indeed, make him one of this sport's most special talents. But of course, Machado will have to stay healthy -- something the two-time knee surgery recipient has struggled with in the recent past.
Then there's Fernandez, who will also be 26. We've already heard the extraordinary level of request the Marlins have made for him in the current trade market, but because he's only made 47 starts in the big leagues, much of the appeal of Fernandez is related to projection at least as much as performance. The next three years are Fernandez's opportunity to establish himself as a reliable workhorse in the wake of Tommy John surgery. Because of his age relative to the Kershaws and Prices of the world, he could be in prime position to capitalize on his prime years.
The increasing propensity of clubs to accelerate the developmental paths of top prospects is reflected in that 2018-19 free-agent class. Everybody this offseason is making a big deal about Heyward hitting the open market at 26. That class could have three such guys.
And Heyward himself could be back, too. The first of two opt-out clauses built into his eight-year deal with the Cubs kicks in after '18.
Anyway, none of us really knows what the pecking order will be at that point. That's part of what makes budget allocation such an immediate matter in most cases.
Maybe the Yankees or the rebuilding Phillies (whose cash flow is augmented considerably by a gargantuan local television rights deal) or Braves (who, as president of baseball operations John Hart put it, are "dangerous" because of their young talent and future ballpark revenue) or clubs with minimal commitments beyond the next few seasons are in good position to think about this free-agent class now. But opportunities to contend and add impact talent beforehand will of course be compelling.
"I think teams will often look one year out on these types of things," an AL GM said. "But several of these guys may get injured or sign extensions and drastically change the dynamic of the class, so it can be very different than what it appears to be now."
Added an NL GM: "The responsible thing to do, is to look at next year's class and think, 'OK, if I don't sign somebody for this position this year, I can go after this guy next year.' But to go three years in the future is kind of hard to do. A lot of guys get signed to contracts during that time or get injured or new guys pop up on the scene."
Indeed, the scene, as it were, is always evolving. But one thing that's clear in today's game is that free agency is generally thinner than it was in years past, and that leads to some eye-catching contracts in which the player's future performance is highly unlikely to match the dollars attached to him.
Maybe the attitude toward in-house extensions will evolve, too.
"It's interesting that some clubs have spent a lot more money by keeping players away from free agency than they would have in letting them go to the market," an AL exec said. "So that might be instructive in some clubs' planning."
This year's free-agent class was a rare one, given its depth in top-end pitching and outfield bats, in particular. The 2018-19 class currently forecasts to be even better.
Things can change. Things will change.
But man, look at that list again.
This might be a good time for teams to put a few bucks in the piggy bank.