The saga of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado’s search for a new home has finally come to an end which means it’s time to start obsessing over the next big free agent contracts.
While we’ll certainly miss the Bryce-Manny Tracker, the wave of superstars following them to pick out their own Brinks truck will provide just as much excitement in their hunt for a new contract.
Among the top five free agents who should cash in are three MVPs, three World Series champions and arguably the greatest player in baseball in generations.
1) Mike Trout, OF
Free Agent: 2021
If you thought the courtship of Bryce and Manny was a circus, just wait until Trout hits the open market in 2021— assuming the Angels don’t lock him up before then. Trout will be coming off his 10th MLB season and just a few months removed from his 28th birthday. Could he become the first North American pro athlete to sign a $400 million deal? Possibly, but a lot needs to go right before then. The current collective bargaining agreement between the MLB and MLBPA expires in 2021 and both sides have already begun digging in for what’s expected to be intense negotiations.
Assuming baseball doesn’t suffer a catastrophic failure and wind up with a strike or lockout, Trout could enter the 2021 season not only as the best player in baseball but the highest-paid one, too.
You’d have a tough time finding anyone who doesn’t think Trout is the most gifted two-way star in the game. Finding out how much teams are willing to pay for that kind of talent will be one of the more fascinating storylines of the next few seasons, especially if he keeps up his average of 9.11 Wins Above Replacement per year since 2012.
2) Mookie Betts, OF
Free Agent: 2021
It was hardly a year ago when comparisons between Betts and Trout seemed farfetched at best. Oh, how quickly the things change. The fully formed version of Mookie Betts dominated the American League in 2018 en route to a World Series title and MVP award. For his contributions in Boston last year, Betts won a 2019 salary of $20 million in arbitration. He has one more year left of arbitration eligibility in 2020 before hitting free agency.
Betts will be just 27 years old then with at least three All-Star appearances, three gold gloves and two silver sluggers. It’s hard to imagine he won’t add to his trophy case between now and then.
He likely won’t get the money Trout is after, but second place in that contest will hardly be viewed as a consolation prize.
Whether or not the Red Sox will fork over that kind of cash is another issue altogether. Despite having MLB’s highest payroll over the last two years, the club has been reluctant to empty out its bank account on big-name free agents in the past few years. That was certainly the case when the Red Sox low-balled Jon Lester in 2015 before losing him to the Cubs for $155 million. Last season, when 29-year-old J.D. Martinez went searching for a top-tier contract, it was Boston that got him at a relative discount of $110 million over five years. That’s to say nothing of the Red Sox walking away from closer Craig Kimbrel this offseason despite a need for a premier closer in their bullpen. It’s also doesn’t take into account the expiring contract of the next person on this list.
3) Chris Sale, SP
Free Agent: 2020
The biggest threat to Betts’ ability to remain in Boston without sacrificing potential earnings is sitting just across the clubhouse from him. Chris Sale’s impending free agency after the 2019 season has been a long time coming. Sale is on a notoriously club-friendly deal — $32.5 million/five years —and while he’s already indicated he’d sign an extension before hitting the open market, the 30-year-old could ask for an extra zero on his check for each batter he strikes out and still be considered undervalued.
Patrick Corbin was the big winner among free agent starting pitchers this offseason after signing a six-year, $140 million deal with the Washington Nationals. Take a look at how both performed in 2018.
Corbin: 200 IP, 3.15 ERA, 1.050 WHIP, 246 K, 4.8 WAR
Sale: 158 IP, 2.11 ERA, 0.861 WHIP, 237 K, 6.9 WAR
The Nationals also handed Max Scherzer a seven-year, $210 million deal after he put up numbers in 2014 similar to what Sale did last season. Now add the extra cost associated with the World Series title on Sale’s resume and the $30 million per year salary that Scherzer is earning feels like a good barometer of what Sale can make.
Baseball teams may not want to sign too many of those types of deals anymore, but there’s no question Sale is worth it.
4) Francisco Lindor, SS
Free Agent: 2022
The Indians don’t seem too keen on extending their three-time All-Star shortstop and by the time Francisco Lindor signs his next contract the price tag is sure to make more than a few general managers blush.
The Rookie of the Year runner-up to Carlos Correa in 2015 broke into the league at 21 years old, meaning he’ll be just 28 and, hopefully, in the midst of his prime when he reaches free agency. Lindor finished among the top five best WAR ratings in baseball (4.9) last season and led the league with 129 hits.
He’s made drastic improvements in both his offense and defense each of his first three years in the league and has playoff experience to boot.
Cleveland may change its mind and decide to lock up Lindor long-term and who could blame them? On the other hand, there’ll be plenty of blame to go around from Indians fans if he indeed gets away.
5) Kris Bryant, 3B
Free Agent: 2022
The Chicago Cubs manipulated their star third baseman’s service time to make sure they had him on their roster in 2021. Could that be his last season on the North Side? The way things are trending, it’s a reality Cubs fans may want to prepare for.
For starters, the dream scenario of Harper sharing a dugout alongside his close friend at Wrigley Field is gone now that the outfielder has settled in Philadelphia for the next 13 years. Chicago didn’t even go after Harper and justified it by saying they simply didn’t have any more money.
In a Thursday interview with the Chicago Tribune, Bryant indirectly refuted that when talking about the state of free agency.
“Everybody has money,” Bryant said. “We’re not stupid. You see the price of tickets, the price of whatever, and the memorabilia. There are TV deals, a lot of money in this game.”
That the comments came shortly after Bryant blasted the act of service time manipulation by front offices is more than enough indication Bryant is thinking about looking for the exits in Chicago.
If that’s the case, the 2016 National League MVP will become a free agent at the end of the 2021 season. He’ll be just 30 years old and could command the type of $30 million salary that Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado negotiated this offseason.
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