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With eye to future, 5 clubs primed to pounce

Expiring contracts after '18 has these teams in position to make a splash now
February 9, 2018

When teams make decisions about what sort of players they'd like to add to their payrolls, they're not just looking at the upcoming season. They're looking several years down the road, too. That's part of the reason why this winter's free-agent class has been slow to sign: Some of the

When teams make decisions about what sort of players they'd like to add to their payrolls, they're not just looking at the upcoming season. They're looking several years down the road, too. That's part of the reason why this winter's free-agent class has been slow to sign: Some of the traditional big spenders are looking ahead to next year's potentially historic group of available players.
That works both ways, of course. Yes, teams have to factor in money they add this year into future seasons, but they also get to look ahead and realize that expiring contracts will take money off the books, too. If you're the Cardinals, for example, you know that you owe Adam Wainwright $19.5 million this year, and then his five-year deal is over. The Cubs have only Justin Wilson's $4.2 million expiring, and nothing else. The Nationals have six different final-year players at big money. That's some freed-up space for 2019.
Hot Stove Tracker
What that means is that some teams that could stand to improve themselves this winter can look ahead to expiring contracts and make a big-ticket splash right now, knowing that they'll accomplish a few things. They'll have both the returning player and the new one for 2018. They'll potentially have a ready-made replacement for the departing free agent already in-house, and they'll protect themselves against missing out on a desired target in next year's market.
It's true that teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have made it clear they don't want to go over the luxury tax this winter, but it's also true that this is an issue that affects relatively few teams; only about a half-dozen teams actually were over the limit last year. So, here are five teams with lots of upcoming payroll room that could stand to make a move for both now and later:
Expiring deals: $74.7 million (Bryce Harper, Giovany Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, Matt Wieters, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelley)
Suggested move:Jacob Arrieta
This assumes that the Nationals can't actually retain Harper, but it also points to a larger issue: It's not only about Harper. Though stars like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Adam Eaton will remain, 2018 could be the end of the line for several important Nationals, particularly Murphy, who has become one of baseball's most dangerous hitters.
It's true the Nationals paid the luxury tax for the first time last year, and they're already slightly over for 2018. It's also true that the rotation depth is limited, with A.J. Cole and Joe Ross already likely to get considerable time, and that both Strasburg and Scherzer missed time in 2017 with injuries. That means that in 2018 you'd get Arrieta joining a stacked rotation. With this much coming off the books, they could still get below the luxury tax next year.

Expiring deals: $69.9 million (Nick Markakis, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Tyler Flowers, Kurt Suzuki)
Suggested move: Arrieta or Mike Moustakas
Much of this is about the complicated Matt Kemp trade that brought the Braves three expiring veteran contracts. (Though they immediately cut Gonzalez loose, they're still responsible for his remaining contract.) Throw in the end of Markakis' four-year deal, and they have a ton of temporary money, while still being nowhere near the luxury tax. (Only Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte and Julio Teheran have guaranteed money beyond 2018.)
There's a youth movement here, obviously, with 2019 being looked at as a year for Atlanta to go in big. But why wait? The rotation is full of young promise with few actual established pitchers (even Teheran has had only one good year in the last three), and getting ahead of the game with an above-average pitcher like Arrieta would help both right now and when the Braves expect to seriously contend, especially with McCarthy and Kazmir likely being short-timers in Atlanta. Moustakas would fit as well, though they do like prospect Austin Riley.
Expiring deals: $56.8 million (Joe Mauer, James Dozier, Ervin Santana, Zach Duke, Eduardo Escobar, Fernando Rodney)
Suggested move: Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn
The Twins needed a starter even before they found out that Santana would likely be out until May after having finger surgery, and now they really, really need a starter. Now, they're counting on Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia, and that's just not good enough.
They know that, of course, given that they've been interested in Darvish. After 2018, they're finally going to be out from under Mauer's long-term deal, but they may lose Dozier and Escobar, too. As it stands, they have less than $40 million committed to the 2019 roster, with big rotation needs now and for the future. Last season's most surprising playoff team has moves to make, with a starter who can pair with Santana (when he returns) and Jose Berrios now, and front the rotation for years to come.

Blue Jays
Expiring deals: $60.2 million (Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Curtis Granderson, Steve Pearce)
Suggested move: Arrieta, Darvish, Cobb or Lynn
Unlike the rebuilding Braves, the Blue Jays have made it clear they intend to contend in 2018. They've added Granderson and Randal Grichuk, kept Donaldson and have two good starters entering the final years of their deals. They're in a spot where they are both a good team (projected to be 85-77, per FanGraphs) yet also the third-best team in their own division.
With the outfield overstuffed, the rotation is the clear focus. Fourth starter Aaron Sanchez made just eight starts last year, and fifth starter Joe Biagini (5.73 ERA in 18 starts) is more of a swingman. Not only would a new starter add depth in 2018 behind Marcus Stroman, it would help when Happ and Estrada reach free agency following the season.
Expiring deals: $42.1 million (Andrew Miller, Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Cody Allen, Josh Tomlin, Zach McAllister)
Suggested move:J.D. Martinez
You can't really call Cleveland a "win now" team, not with Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco and Jose Ramirez under contract for several years to come. But you could make the point that now is the best chance it'll ever have, with two elite relievers entering their final years, and Kluber, Carrasco and Edwin Encarnacion in their 30s.
Though it did add Yonder Alonso, Cleveland is still short a bat, specifically an outfield one. There's plenty of talent in Brantley, Bradley Zimmer, Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer, but there's also zero players who have had a full, healthy, above-average season in the last two years -- plus, the Indians lost Carlos Santana to Philadelphia, weakening the lineup.
The timing here actually works out perfectly, because for 2018 and '19, you would get the benefit of Martinez and Encarnacion. Then Encarnacion's deal is up, leaving DH free for what would be the remainder of Martinez's contract.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for and the host of the Statcast podcast.