Teams have been planning for this offseason for years, and it promises to be among the most fascinating in Major League Baseball history. Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and Clayton Kershaw (if he opts out of his current deal) will be free agents -- the entire landscape of the sport will be altered. But we tend to think of every player's individual decision individually: They are solo actors, independent of every other free agent, going to take their own deal for their own reasons.
This is different than, say, the NBA. When the NBA offseason comes upon us, we immediately look for cliques. We look for the two or three players who bond together, who decide they are the superheroes who want to combine to make the Avengers, the pieces who combine together to create Voltron. LeBron James and Chris Bosh became free agents at the same time and decided to join Dwyane Wade and win multiple championships. Kevin Durant chose to play with the amazing Warriors, who already had a title under their belt. Carmelo Anthony is gathering with the gang in Houston to see if he can be a part of their fun.
This doesn't happen in baseball, and it's kind of a shame. We love the idea of superheroes joining forces, whether it's to win a title, to return to their hometown, just to chill out with some old friends. Thus, we look at this year's impending free-agent class and whimsically speculate on pairings and groupings, NBA-style. These might not be super teams. But it'd be super fun to watch them all travel together.
• Players set to be free agents in 2018-19
Some of these combinations could really happen, while others get a little zany, so we'll order them from most to least plausible.
Harper joins Kristopher Bryant in Chicago
We begin with the most straightforward, even most likely scenario -- the oft-discussed notion that the two Las Vegas natives, who played together on a travel ball team when Bryant was 14 and Harper was 13, would reunite at Wrigley. (That's right: Always remember that Bryant, who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award three years after Harper did, is 10 months older than Harper.) This is the closest we have to a "Durant to the Warriors" parallel, with one of the best players in the sport -- though not this year -- joining a powerhouse that has already won a championship without him. It's still tough to find an outfield spot for Harper, but if he really wants to come to Chicago to be with his old pal, one suspects the Cubs will figure out a way.
Machado to the Indians
This is the closest amalgam to the Durant move. You take a team that's a perpetual postseason contender -- one that might end up winning a championship this year -- and you add one of the biggest stars in the game, making the rich get richer. Sure, the Indians' infield is crowded, but the Warriors weren't exactly light on talent when Durant got there, either. Put Machado at third, move Jose Ramirez to second and there's your Death Lineup: Machado, Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, right to each other for the next half-decade (at least).
Harper to the Yankees
This is the easiest, and simplest one. This is less "Durant to the Warriors" than "Dominique Wilkins randomly joins the Bulls in the pre-Rodman era" -- a fantastic player who is more electric than he is efficient, a traveling road show that would be unrivaled in professional sports.
Remember how they used to show Mark McGwire's batting practice on closed-circuit TV? MLB Network might have 15 minutes dedicated every day solely to Stanton, Judge and Harper launching baseballs off luxury boxes all across America. The defense would be a problem. Would Harper play center? What would the Yankees do with Aaron Hicks? They probably would just have to cut Jacoby Ellsbury, yes? But with all those homers, who cares?
Back when he was featured in Sports Illustrated as a teenager, Harper said his dream was to play for the Yanks, so this one is definitely on the table.
Andrew Miller, Craig Kimbrel, Jeurys Familia, Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino and Kelvin Herrera to the Rays
The Rays, other than Blake Snell, have mostly deserted the idea of a starting rotation, anyway. So why not go all the way with it? The six best relievers on the market go to a place where they are truly appreciated, a Lord of the Flies-esque island that has done away with those grownups and starting pitchers all together. If Tampa Bay wants to go Full Bullpen, this is the way to do it. All these guys combined will still probably cost less than, say, one Kershaw. (Fun fact: Miller, who is from Gainesville, Fla., was originally drafted by the Rays).
Imagine having to deal with these guys, and only these guys, every day. The Rays only have one long-term salary commitment (Kevin Kiermaier's contract); they could make this happen.
James Shields, Patrick Corbin, Lance Lynn and Dallas Keuchel to the Orioles
A healthy contrast to the Rays, here is your old-school Innings Gobblers rotation. The Orioles have struggled to get any sort of innings out of their rotation for a decade now, so you go out and get guys who will reclaim the power of the starting pitcher. Shields, Corbin and Keuchel are all among the 11 starters with the most innings pitched this season, and Lynn is a notorious innings-eater. If the O's don't want to spend for Corbin and Keuchel -- probably a good idea, considering how that team is going to look next year -- Shields and Lynn could both be reasonably inexpensive rotation stabilizers while they figure out the rest of the roster, and then they could easily be flipped at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Freddy Galvis, Ian Kinsler and Brett Gardner to the Padres
Got a young pitching staff in a big ballpark that you're trying to usher into the Major Leagues? Go out and get the best defensive players on the market: Galvis (who is of course already a Padre), Kinsler and Gardner are all among the 25 top defensive players according to Baseball Reference's version of WAR. The Padres are trying all sorts of different ways to climb back to relevance: Focusing on defense -- and defense that shouldn't be all that expensive, all told -- doesn't seem like the worst idea.
Harper, Machado and Matt Harvey all sign with the Phillies
This is almost a direct parallel to what actually happened with James and Bosh joining Wade. Three top 10 picks from the same Draft -- the 2003 NBA version; the '10 MLB version -- all becoming free agents at the same time and deciding to continue their career track together. Harper, Machado and Harvey were picked first, third and seventh, respectively, in their Draft. We went with the Phillies, because they clearly have long-term payroll flexibility, and bringing in Harvey would have the added bonus of further torturing the Mets. For fun, fellow top 10 pick Thomas Pomeranz -- No. 5 to Cleveland back then -- could join the party as well. Anybody checked on Barret Loux and Karsten Whitson lately?
Kershaw, Keuchel and Corbin to the Red Sox
The all-time record for starts made by left-handers in one rotation is 127, by the 1983 Yankees. If the Red Sox wanted to put together an all-lefty rotation to go with their devastating offense (and likely exceed the luxury tax, if we're being honest), they would surely obliterate that record.
The Sox could theoretically only get two of these guys and still have an all-lefty rotation, considering they already have Chris Sale and David Price, if they could get Eduardo Rodriguez healthy for a full season. Pity any left-handed hitter in the American League East for the next five years.
Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen, Daniel Murphy, Miller, Jonathan Lucroy, Kinsler and J.A. Happ to the Padres
This one is pure 2017 World Baseball Classic nostalgia. Let's get the championship band back together!
You get the Captain Americas of that team back to San Diego, the place of their greatest triumph, and with a team that should have some money to spend and that could use some veteran moxie. Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich and Stanton will look among their old Classic mates with envy.
Bartolo Colon, Adrian Beltre, Brad Ziegler and -- heck, why not -- Ichiro Suzuki sign with the Marlins or the Rays
Assuming all four of these players come back -- and Ichiro looks like the only unlikely one -- then we have our Old Dogs scenario: The four available free agents in their 40s, the oldest players in the Majors, all retiring to Florida together. Imagine the fun of Colon, Beltre and Ichiro on the same team. (And Ziegler can be goofy, too! Maybe he can tell stories about how movies used to cost a nickel.) The Marlins might the most fun fit, with the four Old Dogs surrounded by a gaggle of twentysomething whippersnappers. Plus, Derek Jeter will have someone to go to dinner with after games.
Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Kinsler, Mike Napoli, Derek Holland, Craig Gentry, Leonys Martin, Pedro Strop and Neftali Feliz all sign with an NL Central team
The reason here is obvious: They can get revenge, in any way they can figure out, on the St. Louis Cardinals for depriving them of the 2011 World Series championship they so obviously deserved and were so tragically deprived of. None of these men, all late in their careers, won that World Series ring with the Rangers, but they all should have. Which team do they want to choose? Is it better off for them to all pick a different NL Central team so that they may deploy their revenge in specific, targeted strikes? We leave the planning up to them. But that's a lot of 2011 Rangers hitting the market at once. For what it's worth, Josh Hamilton is available, too … and he's two years younger than Beltre, now that you mention it.
Harper, Machado, Kershaw, Joe Mauer, Beltre and Ichiro sign with … the Angels?
Which team currently has the most future Hall of Famers on its roster? There are a few options, but the one you can pretty much guarantee is the Angels. They have two sure-fire ones: Jose Pujols and Michael Trout. So why not be truly historic and get as many future Hall of Famers as you can. The most Hall of Famers that have played on one team in MLB history: Nine. (The 1930-33 Yankees.) Is there any way to reach that this year? Adding these six -- the best Hall of Fame candidates in free agency -- gets you to eight. You could also bet on history and have all these players go to the Astros, who have potential Hall of Famers Justin Verlander and Jose Altuve and maybe Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa someday. It would be insanely expensive to get this all these guys together, but hey, that's the price of history.