Teams have committed about $1.3 billion to free agents this offseason, and that’s before Chris Davis and Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon and Johnny Cueto by themselves push the total to nearly $2 billion. All said, baseball is going to smash its free agent record of around $1.9 billion set in 2013 by many hundreds of millions of dollars.
All of this is merely a placeholder in the record book, because the revolution is coming, and people across front offices are equally excited and horrified by it, even though it’s not for another three years. There is a historic confluence of talent and money coming, and it’s going to influence every single move of consequence made not just today but following the 2016 and ’17 seasons, too.
The free agent Class of 2018, as it stands, is a collection of players so good it seems impossible one market could absorb them all at once. Both MVPs from this season, Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson, will hit free agency after the 2018 season. So can the greatest pitcher of this generation, Clayton Kershaw, along with the current American League Cy Young winner (Dallas Keuchel), two of the finest arms in the big leagues (Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey) and the pitcher who just signed the biggest-money contract ever for a pitcher (David Price).
Like Kershaw and Price, Jason Heyward in 2018 can opt out of the deal he agreed to Friday for $185 million. Don’t like him in the outfield? Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones will be available. Prefer an infielder? Manny Machado will be there and, like Harper and Fernandez, will be just 26 years old. If Heyward gets multiple $200 million offers at 26, three years from now, with revenues growing by nearly $1 billion a year, Harper, Machado and Fernandez may get a billion combined themselves.
And that’s not even including those likely to come off options that offseason. The Indians’ deal with Michael Brantley ends in 2018 at latest, as does the Red Sox’s with Craig Kimbrel. And if you need a closer and don’t like him, there will be Zach Britton, Trevor Rosenthal, Andrew Miller, Jeurys Familia, Glen Perkins, Kelvin Herrera, A.J. Ramos, Carter Capps, David Robertson and plenty more.
Why bother with closers when so many more starters are available? Prefer a veteran? Adam Wainwright can be had. Young power arm? Garrett Richards is a potential ace, Patrick Corbin and Shelby Miller at the core of the Diamondbacks’ attempted resurgence, and Drew Smyly central to the Rays’ plans. If J.A. Happ is worth $12 million a year now, imagine what someone of his ilk – a back-end type – will fetch among the multi-billion-dollar madness of the 2018 offseason.
Need bats? Nelson Cruz, Hunter Pence and Adrian Gonzalez are the sorts of veterans who could cash in once more. A.J. Pollock and Charlie Blackmon could strike gold for the first time. Dee Gordon is the sort of player every team wants. Ditto Brian Dozier. Yasmani Grandal and Derek Norris provide two attractive catching options, Adeiny Hechavarria and Jean Segura the same at shortstop. Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez have the sort of swings that looks like they’ll never falter.
There are more, plenty more, maybe 50 players altogether that could cram into the top 25 this season, and many evaluators consider this year’s the best in at least a decade. And none of this includes the international stars from Japan and Cuba and Korea who happen to choose 2018 to join the major leagues.
Now, of course, comes a point that should’ve been obvious already: A lot can happen in three years. Some of the potential free agents will sign. The idea of Wainwright or catcher Yadier Molina, another Cardinal for life, leaving the organization seems far-fetched. Pollock and Gordon have talked contract extension with the Diamondbacks and Marlins, respectively, and may take themselves off the market.
Other teams could see what’s coming – and understand this: If any of the 30 aren’t preparing for it, they’re well behind the majority of the industry – and attempt to pre-emptively lock up their players to contract extensions above the typical market value of extensions but below the money handed to free agents. At the winter meetings, one official with a keen knowledge of baseball’s financial market suggested that as teams attempt to redistribute their money to younger players, the smartest ones could start offering better than the pittance most do when attempting to buy out arbitration and free agent years.
Teams prey on players’ desire for security, and it’s an acute and intelligent play; some players shrug when asked the difference between $20 million and $30 million. Rich is rich, they say, and that’s well past the threshold of rich. Of course, depending on the contentiousness of collective bargaining that’s about to ramp into high gear, the players’ union could well adopt a more cynical view of the ownership with which it’s about to butt heads and target the 2018 offseason as a bellwether.
Because if players banded together and vowed to hit free agency in one giant attack, the consequences would be fascinating: teams would either reach deep into their coffers to pay the market price for the talent deluge or tighten their purse strings and court all sorts of problems, from ill will to collusion claims. If the players have a trump card, the Class of 2018 may well be it.
A few teams find themselves in the catbird’s seat, too. The Philadelphia Phillies – in recent years among the top 5 spending teams in the game – have not a single penny on the books for the 2019 season, according to Baseball Prospectus. Considering the disastrous contracts they’ve let fall off the books, their rebuilding effort has quietly turned into a tremendous advantage. Even with the Braves and Cubs and Dodgers and Red Sox boasting the farm systems they do, the Phillies’ huge base of talent – and their ability to spend around $200 million a season at that point thanks to their TV contract – make them among the scariest teams in the game.
The Colorado Rockies’ books are also clear that season, though they’ve been hesitant to spend even $100 million on a team. They’re similar to the Oakland A’s, who have $500,000 on the books, the same as the Houston Astros, whose core of talent and room to spend makes them similar to the Phillies in the AL. Others with clear contract ledgers in 2019: Baltimore ($9 million), Kansas City ($10.95 million) and Pittsburgh ($11.58 million).
Even though the New York Yankees find themselves near the top of the list with $57 million on the books, it’s a fraction of what they’ve had in recent seasons, and the prospect of Harper and Harvey ending up in pinstripes is realistic, particularly if New York dips below the new luxury-tax threshold established in the coming collective-bargaining negotiations.
The number will be higher than $189 million, quite a bit higher potentially, because the union sees the 2018 offseason as the time when bigger markets should unleash their spending power. To wit: If Kershaw does opt out, as almost all players with the ability to choose, the Dodgers have only $3.5 million on their books – and that’s the last payment on Matt Kemp’s contract they dealt to San Diego.
So for all of the complaints about the Dodgers, all of the bellyaching that they’re not as focused on today as they should be, there’s a reason. Today isn’t everything, not to the teams that want a sustainable future, the teams that understand the impact 2018 will have on the course of the sport for the rest of the decade and beyond.
Players will fall off the board, agree to extensions, get their payment, and the list will winnow naturally. Some players will try to jump the market and make sure their money isn’t siphoned away by others. The best, however, are likely to hold course as the best often do, and once 2018 comes and the reckoning is upon baseball, teams really will have one good choice: pay the players the billions upon billions they deserve and keep the booming business of baseball rolling into a new era.