10 Degrees: Breaking down MLB's upcoming free-agent class – the greatest, and most expensive, ever
In less than six months, the greatest free-agent class in baseball history will hit the open market and obliterate spending records. More than $2 billion in guaranteed money will be lavished on players, crossing that particular ceiling for the first time because of a group with unprecedented depth and top-heaviness.
There is a chance that the 18 players listed below will crack $2 billion by themselves. It's a safe bet that together they'll exceed $1.5 billion. And considering the record spending for a free-agent class came two years ago around $1.9 billion – and that the names below do not include Wei-Yin Chen, Yovani Gallardo, Hisashi Iwakuma, Austin Jackson, Ian Kennedy, John Lackey, Mat Latos, Tim Lincecum, Justin Morneau, Daniel Murphy, Mike Napoli, or a single relief pitcher in a market where relief pitchers make bank – the amount by which the record is smashed could be substantial.
And that's not even including potential Cuban defectors or Japanese and Korean players who enter the posting system intent on playing in the major leagues. Even if we have to wait on the Gourriel brothers or another half-decade for Shohei Otani to arrive as Darvish 2.0 and Tomoya Mori as a pocket-sized, lefty-swinging, power-hitting catcher, the Class of 2015 will be the best, starting with …
1. David Price and Johnny Cueto making a stronger-by-the-start case that each is worthy of a $200 million-plus deal. Let's go to the numbers
Age next year
Pitcher A is the highest-paid free agent pitcher: Max Scherzer. Washington gave him a significantly backloaded seven-year, $210 million deal worth more like $191 million in present money.
Pitcher B ranks second on the list: CC Sabathia, who signed with the New York Yankees seven years ago for $161 million.
Pitcher C is the third: Jon Lester. The Chicago Cubs signed him last offseason for $155 million over six seasons.
Pitcher D is David Price, and his case for $200 million is exceedingly strong. He will have fewer innings on his odometer than Sabathia and Lester. He has been a bastion of health. He is left-handed. His numbers are the best, too: Best ERA, best FIP, best peripheral mix. If Price ends up under $200 million, it will be because he took a deal for less to go to a preferred destination.
Pitcher E Johnny Cueto, and while $200 million may be a stretch for him, recency bias does work in his favor. Over the past five seasons, the ERA list for top starters looks like this: Clayton Kershaw (2.21), Cueto (2.52), Felix Hernandez (2.87), Cliff Lee (2.89), Chris Sale (2.91). One could make a compelling argument that Cueto is a better pitcher now than Price and would make an even better alternative.
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching, which uses strikeouts, walks and home runs to give a better sense of a pitcher without defense factoring in – doesn't like Cueto, though he consistently has outperformed it because the Reds historically have been rather good at turning balls in play into outs.
In a pitching-rich class, these are the alpha dogs, while …
2. Justin Upton and Jason Heyward carry that mantel for the hitters. The former Braves teammates each were dealt in blockbuster trades this offseason, and their seasons have taken divergent paths.
Upton, who turns 28 in August, is having about as Justin Upton a season as possible. He'll always sit somewhere between .270 and .300, his speed-off-bat numbers keeping it from dipping much lower and his strikeout issues keeping him from a batting title. He'll draw somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 walks and post an on-base percentage of .350 or so. And he'll hit plenty of home runs.
The power will get Upton paid and paid plenty. He doesn't have any great recent comps. He wasn't as good a hitter as Prince Fielder or Matt Holliday. His skillset doesn't match Carl Crawford's. Perhaps closest to Upton is Alfonso Soriano, and even that's a stretch: Soriano came off a 40-40 season when he fetched his $136 million over seven years. Considering that was nine years ago, and MLB revenue has grown by 50 percent since, a $200 million deal certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility – especially because of Upton's age – and league sources see $150 million as the floor.
Heyward is even younger than Upton, just 26 in August, except six years into his career he continues to tantalize with potential and stagnate on the offensive end. The power in Heyward’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound body never has manifested itself, and he sports a sub-.350 slugging percentage with St. Louis this season, a number that grows uglier by the day as the main player the Cardinals gave up, Shelby Miller, has the look of a legitimate No. 1 starter in Atlanta. The glove that had the sabermetric set touting Heyward as an MVP candidate last year has yet to show up in 2015. Someone is going to take a nine-figure gamble on Heyward, because there is a truth about money in baseball that must be understood before proceeding any further.
Every single financial mechanism in baseball today funnels money toward free agency. Teams have finite budgets on domestic and international amateurs, and it will only get worse with the implementation of the international draft in 2017 or so. The only place teams can spend freely without concern of penalty – except the luxury tax, which few teams approach anyway – is in free agency. And however smart management is these days, it takes just one team to like a guy enough to overspend ridiculously – which itself is a dated concept, because when the choices are to spend money on players or allow the owner to pocket it, of course teams should spend on players. Whether it's on their own players or others is a question …
3. Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister will force the Washington Nationals to answer. And right now, the reviews are mixed.
Zimmermann has spent the season looking fine but not necessarily $150 million fine, as his ceiling coming into the season suggested. He's a 200-inning pitcher who walks next to nobody and last year, at least, struck out a lot of bodies. This season, the BABIP and strand gods have dealt him a fairly dirty hand, but Zimmermann also is striking out far fewer hitters, not the sort of sign a team considering spending nine figures on a guy wants to see, particularly when he's undergone Tommy John surgery. Worth following: His velocity is down nearly two ticks from last May, when he regularly sat 95.
Fister's year has gone even worse. His velocity was down as well, and now he's on the disabled list with a strained muscle in his flexor mass, which is better news than ulnar collateral ligament damage but not good for a pending free agent, especially one whose career started later than most and will hit the market going into his age-32 season. The Nationals hope he'll be back by the All-Star break, by which time …
4. Matt Wieters and Chris Davis will be batting in the heart of the Baltimore Orioles' lineup. Wieters underwent Tommy John surgery last June, and the Orioles shut him down when his elbow started to bark during spring training. Wieters is nearing a rehab assignment, and manager Buck Showalter hasn't ruled out his return by the expiration of his 60-day disabled-list stint June 4. He'll have four months to re-establish himself as the franchise-type catcher he resembled before his injury last season. A bright, switch-hitting, elite-defense, 29-year-old, Scott Boras-client catcher has nine figures written all over it in most circumstances.
Boras represents Davis as well, and like Upton, his market will be a referendum on power. While Davis' 53-homer season of two years back feels anomalous, 30 seems like a fait accompli and 40 not out of the question. The issue for the 30-year-old-to-be will be the same as it is with so many today: strikeouts. Davis may personify the issue better than anyone. He is striking out 39.1 percent of the time. That's 54 times in 138 plate appearances. If he keeps up that pace over the same number of plate appearances as he had in 2013, Davis would strike out 260 times. Strikeouts have been rather a bugaboo for …
5. Ian Desmond and Jeff Samardzija this season as well. In addition to sharing that bit of ignominy – Desmond has whiffed in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances while Samardzija's K rate is lower than at any juncture during the successful portion of his major league career – they both happen to be playing themselves out of $100 million deals.
Desmond's struggles are particularly egregious, because they're happening at the plate and in the field. He hasn't gotten on base even 28 percent of the time. His slugging percentage is down nearly 100 points from last year and 175 from three years ago. Three straight seasons with 20-plus homers – a mark shared by only two other NL shortstops this century, Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez – have devolved into a perfect complement for his major league-leading 11 errors lead this season. Desmond turned down a five-year, $89.5 million extension in the 2013 offseason, figuring he would cash in to perhaps twice that with the proper performance.
Same goes for Samardzija: If he pitched like an ace this season – and plenty of time remains to do so – he might elevate himself to a notch below Price and Cueto and with them in the nine-figure club. Instead, everything has gone backward. It’s not just that Samardzija's ERA is 4.58. His strikeouts per nine have dipped to 6.79 and his groundball percentage, which hit a career high 50.2 percent last season, is now at 37.1 percent.
Even more disturbing is his near-dismissal of the split-fingered fastball, once considered Samardzija's finest weapon. He throws it half as much as he used to, only 8.6 percent of the time, while his cutter usage has increased three-fold from his breakout season. With his 1.87 walks per nine, Samardzija the control artist is a nice evolution, particularly from whence he came. And yet the trade for Samardzija has been something of a disaster while the deals for …
6. Dexter Fowler and Yoenis Cespedes are working out nicely for their respective teams. Fowler seems to have settled into his place in baseball. With the Rockies in 2013, the Astros in 2014 and the Cubs in 2015, he sports the exact same weighted On-Base Average: .347. That measures overall offensive value, and having a hitter like Fowler at the top of a lineup is mighty attractive, particularly since he switch hits, can play a competent center field and won't be 30 until the cusp of the 2016 season.
Cespedes, like Fowler, has followed a certain archetype: never walk, hit ball far. He's striking out almost seven times as often as he takes a base on balls. And he is slugging almost .500 at a point in time when only 38 regulars can say the same. Cespedes, also like Fowler, will be a 30-year-old outfielder looking to cash in big. The good news for him: His contract stipulates the Tigers cannot give him a qualifying offer, allowing Cespedes to roam the free-agent landscape without any false mechanisms hindering it. That means more money than anticipated, a feeling …
7. Scott Kazmir and Mike Leake share with him at the moment. And not just because both of them have a chance to benefit from a no-strings-attached free agency should Oakland and Cincinnati, respectively, trade them at the trade deadline. Neither, at the moment, is in sell mode. The A's, despite their unsightly record, have been miserable in one-run games, leading to the worst record in the AL despite a near-even run differential. And Cincinnati has hovered around .500, though competing in a division with the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates seems unlikely.
Kazmir, still just 31 despite spending a decade in the big leagues and essentially missing all of 2011 and 2012 because of ineffectiveness, is one of baseball's great comeback stories. Like Samardzija, he has turned cutter-happy this season, and it has complemented his fastball and changeup well. And now, after only a partial cash-in with his last free agency – Kazmir gave the A's a target to hit, and they did, even though Houston was ready to beat their offer – Kazmir is primed for a three- or four-year deal.
Leake's luck – around 20 percent of balls in play falling for hits – led to the sort of start every free-agent-to-be wants: near the top of the league leaderboard in ERA and with fewer than a batter per inning reaching base. The luck ran dry over the weekend, and Leake's ERA spiked a run and reminded everyone that getting by in the big leagues as a right-hander with a 90-mph fastball is not easy. And yet much is working in his favor: He gets lots of groundballs, doesn't walk hitters and, at 28 in November, is the youngest potential impact free agent in the class. And as…
8. Ben Zobrist
and Howie Kendrick may learn, it pays to be young. This doesn't apply quite as much to Kendrick, who at 32 will be no spring chicken, as it does the wizened-at-34 Zobrist. Because he didn't arrive in the major leagues until he was 25, Zobrist's prospects at reaping a big-money contract depended on his patience. He chose to sign a Tampa Bay special – $18 million guaranteed with two club options – and in his prime earning years made $32.5 million.
Because of his versatility, Zobrist should have no problem landing a three-year deal, and if a team wants a separator, he could get four. If Chase Headley, Omar Infante, Chone Figgins, Luis Castillo and Julio Lugo each got four, Zobrist – a superior player to all, with the sort of versatility so many smart teams today covet – should be able to do the same.
Kendrick will ask for five years and should get it. Second base has turned into something of a glory position, with Jose Altuve and Jason Kipnis and Kolten Wong mashing, and Kendrick is right there as a peer. He's crushing line drives this season at a 30 percent rate and sending three-quarters of his batted balls to center and right fields. This isn't the sign of a late bat; it's one in complete control of what he's doing. It's a liberating feeling, something to which…
9. Alex Gordon and Zack Greinke can attest. Gordon holds a player option on his contract for the 2016 season. Greinke can opt out of the remaining three years and $71 million on his contract after this year. Both are in commanding positions to leverage exactly what they want or protect themselves in case of injury.
Casey Close represents both, and one of his hallmarks is giving a player flexibility. Gordon, 32 at the beginning of next season, represents a quandary for Kansas City. The Royals cannot afford to pay players on the downside of their careers, which Gordon surely will be as he looks to get six years and more than $100 million, a rightful sort of payment with his free agent pedigree. To wit:
Player A is Jayson Werth. Player B is Gordon. And whatever gap there is in the offensive numbers, Gordon's transcendent glove more than makes up for it. Werth will have gotten seven years and $126 million at the same age half a decade ago. Gordon is easily a $100 million player, and with inflation what it is, the argument can be made that $150 million wouldn't be out of the question, even though paying $25 million a year for anyone about to hit his mid-30s is the mitochondria of a disastrous team.
Greinke is picking an awfully nice time to do a good imitation of his Cy Young self. He's 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA, the third-best mark in MLB. The peripherals aren't quite as kind – the same BABIP and strand gods smiting Jordan Zimmermann are extolling Greinke – but the fact remains: Turning 32 in October, Greinke is in line for at least a five-year deal worth $25 million a year, and if Hyun-Jin Ryu's shoulder continues to act the fool, the Dodgers will be in a position where they'll value not just Greinke's arm but the amusing, quirky, familiar presence they've come to admire in the clubhouse.
The power of the Dodgers underscores what's going to make this offseason so bananas. Already they are blowing past their international signing bonus pool, with an all-but-done deal for Cuban flamethrower Yadier Alvarez in the $15 million-plus range – double that with the tax on international dollars – and other big-money prospects to fortify a system about to graduate Joc Pederson, Corey Seager and Julio Urias to regular duties within a 13-month period. Now they get to spend their TV money in free agency, and…
10. David Price and Johnny Cueto are the likeliest bogeys on their radar. The Dodgers already have baseball's richest pitcher in Clayton Kershaw. A co-ace to replace Greinke – or to complement him and give the Dodgers a starting-pitching Cerberus – is precisely what they need, particularly with upward of $75 million to spend.
Of course, this isn't a one-team league. The Cubs will be in play on the big names. The Red Sox desperately need starting pitching. Ditto the Angels. The Yankees always thrust themselves into that market. The Giants will dabble as they did with Lester. The Tigers have room to play. The Nationals could replace Zimmermann or Fister.
That's more than a quarter of the teams in baseball, all in on the big names, which will translate to bigger dollars. The most irrational place in an irrational market is at the top, and this offseason will provide a perfect storm of great supply and great demand. Hopefully, great fear does not accompany it, because seemingly every time salaries jump to another level, ownership does its typical two-step of concern and says salaries are rocketing out of control.
Collective bargaining will kick into high gear around the start of free agency, which should provide an interesting dynamic. Baseball is approaching $10 billion a year in revenue, an obscene number that calls for a commensurate kickback to the players. Winter is coming. And unlike in Westeros, it's going to bring plenty of happiness for the players in this game.
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