The Ultimate 2018-19 MLB Free-Agent Primer

The free-agent class of 2018-19 will not, contrary to what one smug pundit prognosticated, “change MLB as we know it.” The last three years have chipped away at its magnitude through a combination of aging, injuries and, in the case of Jose Fernandez, tragedy.

With the 2018 regular season winding down this week, free agency is a month from being the biggest story in baseball. Here is a comprehensive primer on what this offseason holds.

Even if it’s not going to change baseball as we know it, how good is this class?

Pretty good. It’s an unquestionably deep group of players, in part because of how the long-term deals and service time of younger players aligned, in part due to the surfeit of one-year contracts from last winter. That said, a number of skill positions don’t have a clear standout, and the starting-pitching crop is rather uninspiring. In truth, the financial bonanza of this class will rest on two unicorn free agents, who are so special on account of their talent (star-level), marketability (strong) and age (26 years old): Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

Bryce Harper has a claim as the best player on the upcoming free-agent market. (AP)
Bryce Harper has a claim as the best player on the upcoming free-agent market. (AP)

Who are the five best players available?

Machado and Harper are clearly Nos. 1 and 2 – and because Machado plays shortstop and third base, most evaluators have him ahead of Harper, even though Harper’s peak has been higher and he is more attractive to teams because of his marketing bona fides. Arizona starter Patrick Corbin is probably third, with teammate A.J. Pollock fourth, due as much to his position (center field) as his excellence, which too often has been interrupted by injury. As for fifth … there are cases to be made for Josh Donaldson and Craig Kimbrel. Plus teammates in Houston (Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton) and Cleveland (Michael Brantley and Andrew Miller). Not to mention the rash of choices at second base (D.J. LeMahieu, Daniel Murphy, Brian Dozier).

Wait. Weren’t Clayton Kershaw and David Price supposed to be in this class, too?

Glad you asked. They may still be. Both can opt out of their current contracts. In fact, there are about 40 options – club, player, mutual, vesting – on the table now. Here’s a handy breakdown of the likely decisions – and the too-tough-to-call ones.

Club options that should be picked up and keep players from hitting free agency: Madison Bumgarner, Carlos Carrasco, Robinson Chirinos, Sean Doolittle, Paul Goldschmidt, Nate Jones, Jose Quintana, Chris Sale, Pablo Sandoval, Justin Smoak, Pedro Strop.

Club or mutual options that should be declined and allow players to hit free agency: Doug Fister, David Freese, Jaime Garcia, Brandon Guyer, Jason Hammel, Brandon Kintzler, Jordan Lyles, Brian McCann, Matt Moore, Logan Morrison, Mike Moustakas, Gerardo Parra, Martin Perez, Ervin Santana, James Shields, Joakim Soria.

Up-in-the-air club options
• Brett Gardner, $12.5 million with a $2 million buyout: It’s unlikely New York exercises the option on the longest-tenured Yankee. The 35-year-old isn’t even OPSing .700, and the Yankees’ outfield depth – Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier – plus the $47.3 million still owed Jacoby Ellsbury would make this an excessive expenditure.
• Cole Hamels, $20 million: Not an easy choice for the Cubs. If they decline the option, Texas pays his full $6 million buyout. If they trigger it, the Cubs would pay the whole salary. Hamels turns 35 in December and has been excellent for Chicago since a July trade.
• Josh Harrison, $10.5 million with a $1 million buyout: Based on this year alone, the answer is no. But the Pirates could see value in another option, at $11 million, after next season. With Kevin Kramer and Kevin Newman waiting in the wings on middle-infield spots, Pittsburgh may not be willing to take the risk.
• Fernando Rodney, $4.25 million with a $250,000 buyout: Oakland won with its bullpen this season. A $4 million net price tag is not terribly hefty, but with the number of relievers – more on that later – the A’s may see better places to spend it.
• Denard Span, $12 million with a $4 million buyout: Span is not a $12 million player. But that’s not the calculus here. The $4 million buyout is already sunk cost, so the Mariners need to ask themselves whether Span is worth $8 million for next season. For a two-win player, the answer should be yes.

Player options that should be picked up and keep players from hitting free agency: Rusney Castillo, Jason Heyward, Mark Melancon, Yasmany Tomas.

Up-in-the-air player options

• Elvis Andrus, four years, $59 million: Could the 30-year-old Andrus beat that in free agency? Maybe. But in the midst of a 77 OPS+ season, it’s probably not time to opt out – especially when he’s got another after next season.
• Clayton Kershaw, two years, $70 million: Kershaw’s case is fascinating. He’d be the best pitcher in the class if he did opt out. Even with injuries limiting him to 175 or fewer innings for the third consecutive season, he would find suitors across the game. He also knows the chances of getting a deal from the Dodgers that carries him into his late 30s is unlikely. So, what’s his priority? We’re about to find out.
• Eduardo Nunez, one year, $4 million: As a versatile utilityman, Nunez theoretically will get a deal that exceeds the $4 million. At the same time, his 801 OPS+ and often-cringeworthy glove have not made a particularly strong impression.
• David Price, four years, $127 million: He has indicated he will not opt out. The chances of him getting a deal like what he is owed – especially at 33 years old and in the midst of his third consecutive season with an ERA in the threes – is minuscule. Price has plenty of money, though. The only question is whether he likes Boston well enough to stay for four more years.

Manny Machado is in line to make more than $300 million. (AP)
Manny Machado is in line to make more than $300 million. (AP)

OK, so this is the question everyone really wants answered: How much are Harper and Machado going to get?

Tough to say. Most executives believe they’ll both receive more than $300 million but less than $400 million. The goal, certainly, is to top Giancarlo Stanton’s record $325 million. Both deals likely will contain opt-out clauses and go at least eight years, probably 10 and perhaps even 12. Harper’s agent is Scott Boras, whose mega-deals include Alex Rodriguez’s and Max Scherzer’s, while Machado’s is Dan Lozano, who did Albert Pujols’ and Joey Votto’s $200 million-plus contracts.

What is up with Josh Donaldson?

He wasn’t exactly the third amigo with Harper and Machado; at 34 the day before the Winter Meetings start, his age was always going to be an impediment. Spending most of the year on the disabled list after three consecutive MVP-caliber seasons played into teams’ worst fears: that they’d sign Donaldson to a long-term deal only to see him go south quickly. He has a chance to rescue some of that value with a strong postseason in Cleveland, and that lack of the qualifying offer – which can’t be proffered because he was traded – only helps. Still, Donaldson’s case may be even more fascinating than Harper or Machado’s, because it will test the question of just how willing a team is anymore to guarantee money to a player – even a great one – into his late 30s.

Just how many relievers are going to be available?

Answer: A lot. The better question is: How many employable relievers are going to be available?

There are about 50 relievers alone hitting free agency, but only half of them are near-sure things to get major league jobs: right-handers Cody Allen, Brad Brach, Santiago Casilla, Jesse Chavez, Tyler Clippard, Jeurys Familia, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Sean Kelley, Joe Kelly, Craig Kimbrel, Bud Norris, Adam Ottavino, Daniel Robertson, Sergio Romo, Adam Warren and Brad Ziegler, and left-handers Jerry Blevins, Zach Britton, Jake Diekman, Andrew Miller, Oliver Perez, Tony Sipp and Justin Wilson. Others who may get major league deals: righties Tony Barnette, Daniel Hudson, Jim Johnson, Brandon Kintzler, Jordan Lyles, Ryan Madson, David Phelps, A.J. Ramos and Joakim Soria, and lefties Zach Duke, Aaron Loup and Jonny Venters.

What’s the weakest position?

First base is a bit of a dumpster fire, with a bunch of retreads from last winter. Beyond Pollock, the only center fielder is Jon Jay, who most don’t see as an everyday guy. The real answer may be shortstop. While there are plenty of solid utilitymen available, the only everyday shortstop is Jose Iglesias, whose glove always has been far ahead of his bat. The good news for Iglesias: He’s one of the few players in the class still in his 20s.

Who made himself the most money this year?

Corbin is the easy answer. Tommy John surgery kept him out in 2014. He was decent when he returned, awful the next season, solid last year and dynamic this year, with 242 strikeouts in 195 innings. Like Iglesias, age is on his side, too: He turned 29 in July.

Others: Starter Nathan Eovaldi (at 28, the youngest pitcher in the class), utilityman Eduardo Escobar (versatility, power, doesn’t turn 30 until January), reliever Adam Ottavino (dominant bullpen arm, in Colorado no less) and catcher Wilson Ramos (unlike his last foray into free agency, he hits this one coming off a monster year and healthy).

Who hurt himself the most?

Donaldson, obviously. Marwin Gonzalez followed up his breakout year with one that fell in line with his past performance (though he is still just 29, which will help). Dallas Keuchel was solid but not dominant, and it’s tough to see a team giving him nine figures. Zach Britton, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller all weren’t close to themselves. After OPS’ing .871 the last two years, Brian Dozier picked a bad one to go .690. Garrett Richards’ arm betrayed him again. And in more of a who-hurt-himself-the-most-in-the-last-few-years answer: Matt Harvey, who once looked like a $200 million pitcher and now will be lucky to get 5 percent of that guaranteed.

Josh Donaldson will be perhaps the most curious case this offseason. (AP)
Josh Donaldson will be perhaps the most curious case this offseason. (AP)

Is this winter going to be as brutal for players as last offseason?

Probably not. The Yankees and Dodgers won’t be trying to dip under the luxury-tax threshold. Lower-spending teams are feeling pressure from MLB to bump their payrolls. Nobody really wants a labor war, even if the relations between the league and union are pointing in that direction.

The supply issue is a problem. There are going to be a significant number of players without jobs once spring training begins – players who will say the union is not doing its job. Part of it is a shift toward younger (and cheaper) players. Keeping a major league job isn’t as easy as it used to be. Which is why executives and agents will be looking at three groups of players to gauge what this offseason looks like.

Group 1: The achievers. Will teams reward the out-of-nowhere veteran successes based on their most recent seasons? This means Brett Anderson, Clay Buchholz, Trevor Cahill, Jesse Chavez, Edwin Jackson, Wade Miley and Derek Holland.

Group 2: The wizened. How will players well into their 30s be treated? This includes Asdrubal Cabrera, Gio Gonzalez, Adam Jones, Ian Kinsler, Joe Mauer and Andrew McCutchen.

Group 3: The bellwethers. Five names consistently came up when asked who would indicate the health of the market this winter. They know Harper and Machado are getting paid. They know older players are going to be squeezed. Here’s what they don’t know:

• A.J. Pollock: Does he get a Lorenzo Cain-type deal, or do the injuries scare teams away?
• Yasmani Grandal: He’s been arguably the second-best catcher in baseball this season, and he’ll be just 30 next season. That should make for a big payday.
• Mike Moustakas: He got crushed last winter. After an awfully similar season, does Moustakas – without a qualifying offer saddling him – get paid?
• Nathan Eovaldi: His age plays in his favor. Two Tommy John surgeries do not. Just how willing is a team to go long-term with a pitcher whose elbow features an extra-long scar?
• Andrew Miller: He has been practically unhittable for four years. Between injuries, lessened effectiveness and age, he is more hobbling into free agency than running full speed.

Who don’t I know about?

Yusei Kikuchi. The 27-year-old left-hander is likely to join the major leagues from the Seibu Lions, where last season he was the runner-up for the Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young. Kikuchi wasn’t quite as good this year, and one scout who saw him said his slider-heavy repertoire took a slight step backward. He’ll still be in high demand if Seibu posts him, as 27-year-old pitchers hitting the open market are few and far between. Once Kikuchi is posted anytime between Nov. 1 and Dec. 5, he has a 30-day window to negotiate a deal, which will not be subject to international restrictions like Shohei Ohtani’s.

So when does it all start?

Free agency begins the day after the World Series. The GM meetings are Nov. 6-8 in Carlsbad, California. And the Winter Meetings are Dec. 9-13 in … Las Vegas, of course, the perfect place for big dollars to be thrown about.

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