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With stars such as Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel still available on Major League Baseball’s current free-agent market, perhaps it’s a bit soon to look ahead to next winter’s market.
Well, we did it anyway.
Ahead are predictions for where the top 10 free agents—a list that, in case anyone missed it, no longer includes Nolan Arenado—set to hit the market after 2019 will ultimately end up. These are based on where teams will have needs, as well as on the general state of their long-term books.
We’ll count down to the best free agent next winter’s market should have to offer.
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The final spot on this list should arguably be occupied by Khris Davis, Marcell Ozuna, Nicholas Castellanos or Scooter Gennet, but Yasiel Puig’s merits are too strong to ignore.
Though he hit a rough patch in 2015 and 2016, Puig recovered in 2017 and 2018 with an .827 OPS, 51 home runs and 6.4 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Regular action at Great American Ball Park may lead to even better results in 2019. And he’ll only turn 29 on Dec. 7.
Factor in Puig’s inherent marketability, and he should have enough going for him to match or even exceed Dexter Fowler’s five-year, $82.5 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals.
With virtually nothing on their long-term books, the Chicago White Sox could easily handle a deal like that. They also figure to be a natural fit for Puig.
He’d slide into a right-field spot that produced minus-0.2 WAR in 2018, as well as into a grand plan for the future in which he’d be flanked by Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. As a sort of bonus, a trio of Puig, Robert and Yoan Moncada would further the White Sox’s tradition of Cuban stars.
Other Possibilities: Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Angels, Miami Marlins, Cleveland Indians
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In another timeline, Madison Bumgarner is perhaps the best of the ace starting pitchers slated to hit the market after 2019. In this timeline, however, his appeal has been tarnished.
Between 2010 and 2016, the left-hander won three World Series rings and racked up a 3.00 ERA over 1,387.2 innings. But after injuries suffered in a dirt-bike accident and on a line drive, he’s been limited to 240.2 innings since 2017. His declining fastball velocity is yet another concern.
On the plus side, Bumgarner has posted a 3.29 ERA when he’s been available over the last two years. That speaks to pitching ability that should still be worth good money—say, at least a Jeff Samardzija-esque five-year, $90 million deal—even after he turns 30 on Aug. 1.
Few teams may be as interested as the San Diego Padres. Adding Bumgarner would be a fine start to an inevitable renovation of MLB‘s worst starting pitching staff. The Padres could finish it by surrounding him with the best young arms from their No. 1 farm system.
Granted, the Padres’ books are already weighed down by Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers. Bumgarner will nonetheless fit their price range better than the other pitchers on this list.
Other Possibilities: San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers
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In case anyone is looking at this with raised eyebrows, yes, Zack Wheeler could be that big of a deal when he reaches free agency after 2019.
The right-hander’s star faded fast between 2015 and 2017, when a complicated recovery from Tommy John surgery limited him to only 17 starts. But then he pitched to a 3.31 ERA over 182.1 total innings last season, which was highlighted by an unhittable second half.
Wheeler has the electric stuff to keep that up in 2019, in which case he’ll enter the market as a 29-year-old ace. He’d essentially be a slightly older version of Patrick Corbin and therefore in line for a slightly lesser version of the lefty’s six-year, $140 million contract.
There could be any number of teams in on Wheeler but perhaps none more so than the Atlanta Braves if they’re humbled by what should be a brutal race in the National League East this year.
If so, the Braves may get the hint that they should put their long-term financial flexibility to good use. Using it on Wheeler would fill the vacant No. 1 slot in their rotation. For his part, Wheeler may be all too happy to return to his native Georgia.
Other Possibilities: New York Mets, San Diego Padres, New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
J.D. Martinez will only become a free agent after 2019 if he opts out of the three years and $62.5 million remaining on his contract.
Which he will if his 2019 season is anything like his 2017 and 2018 seasons, which produced a 1.046 OPS and 88 home runs. The only qualified hitter with a better adjusted OPS+ in this span is Mike Trout.
Still, Martinez will have things working against him if he opts out. He turns 32 on Aug. 21. And unless the National League gets the designated hitter within the next year, Martinez’s market will be limited to American League clubs.
All the more reason to believe he’ll re-sign with the Boston Red Sox.
In addition to Martinez, Boston also stands to lose Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts and Rick Porcello to free agency next winter. It’s possible that the Red Sox will pay market value to retain all four of them, but that would leave less in their long-term coffers for Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi.
The Red Sox will have to choose what they absolutely can’t live without. Chances are it’ll be Martinez’s bat, which they may deem worth, say, $100 million over four years.
Other Possibilities: New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners
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Even if he’s not the best, Bogaerts is probably the most underrated member of the upcoming free-agent class.
Save for 2017’s injury-marred second half, Bogaerts has been a reliably above-average hitter over the last four seasons. He was at his best in 2018, during which he set new career highs with an .883 OPS and 23 homers. And he’ll only turn 27 on Oct. 1.
The catch is that Bogaerts owns minus-48 career defensive runs saved at shortstop. That provides an excuse for prospective suitors to diminish his value.
The Milwaukee Brewers could be a notable exception.
They may simply want a good bat for a shortstop spot that produced an MLB-worst .610 OPS in 2018. Moreover, they could reason that Bogaerts’ iffy glove is nothing a little positioning can’t fix. No National League club shifts more aggressively.
The Brewers will have a bloated payroll in 2019, but there’s little on the their books after 2020. That could be their cue to sign Bogaerts to what would likely be the franchise’s first $100 million free-agent deal.
Other Possibilities: Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies
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Then again, perhaps Bogaerts isn’t the most underrated of the upcoming winter’s free agents. Maybe it’s Anthony Rendon.
Though he was often lost in Bryce Harper’s shadow, Rendon gave the Washington Nationals nearly twice as much WAR over the last three seasons. He’s been particularly good over the last two, posting a .923 OPS with 49 homers and 10.2 WAR.
If Rendon, who turns 29 on June 6, will have any problem on the open market, it’ll be a shortage of teams in need of a star third baseman. That could whittle down his market value from, say, $200 million to something like $150 or $125 million.
This could work in the Nationals’ favor. Rather than letting their best player go, they would have further incentive to keep him around.
The money part won’t be so easy, as the Nats already have Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg weighing down their long-term books. But said books stand to get pretty clean after 2020, and Scherzer’s $210 million deal will conclude just a year later.
Other Possibilities: Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees
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The St. Louis Cardinals didn’t trade for Paul Goldschmidt just to roster him during his walk year. If they have their druthers, he’ll sign a long-term extension.
Goldschmidt himself, however, may just as soon test the market. He’s mustered a .947 OPS and 30 homers per year since 2013, and he’s also collected three Gold Gloves. These are indeed things worth cashing in on.
But the six-time All-Star will turn 32 on Sept. 10, so he’ll likely have to settle for less than the seven-year, $161 million deal Chris Davis got coming off his age-29 season. To boot, first base isn’t much more lacking in star power than third base.
These factors may steer him back to St. Louis, but perhaps only if the New York Yankees don’t intervene.
The Yankees got a pleasant surprise when Luke Voit came over from the Cardinals and raked for them during the final two months of 2018. But if Voit comes down to earth in 2019, the Yankees will go right back to needing a first baseman.
Goldschmidt would fill the void with reliable power and defense, and he wouldn’t totally demolish the financial flexibility they’re due after 2020.
Other Possibilities: St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers
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Justin Verlander just turned 36 on Feb. 20, which means he’ll be 37 by the time the 2020 season rolls around. Pitchers that old don’t typically pull in big bucks on the open market.
On the other hand, he’s Justin Verlander.
The righty snapped out of a multiyear funk with a Cy Young Award-caliber season for the Detroit Tigers in 2016. He’s only gotten better—see his 2.32 ERA and 333 strikeouts over 248 total innings—since joining the Houston Astros in 2017. His velocity is aging just fine, thank you.
Verlander won’t be able to command a long deal, but he’ll likely want to match Zack Greinke’s record $34.4 million average annual value. It’s a safe assumption that he’ll also limit his scope to World Series contenders.
According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Los Angeles Dodgers were Verlander’s preferred destination back in 2017. If he still likes them after 2019, he may find that the interest is mutual.
After all, the Dodgers stand to lose Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu after this season. Likewise, they only seem to be interested in short deals these days.
Other Possibilities: Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Angels, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals
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This time last year, Gerrit Cole was a talented pitcher in search of better results.
Now he’s a plain ol’ great pitcher. Cole’s first season in Houston ended with a 2.88 ERA and an MLB-best 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 200.1 total frames. Such is life with a 96.6 mph fastball and an array of untouchable secondary pitches.
With any more of that, Cole will put himself in line for a huge payday shortly after turning 29 on Sept. 8. He’ll be looking at least at Corbin money, yet the $200 million threshold will be within his reach.
In any case, the Astros could be first in line.
By ERA, they had the best rotation in MLB last season. But free agency has already taken away Charlie Morton, and Dallas Keuchel is likely next. If Verlander follows them out of town, the pressure on the Astros to at least retain Cole will be that much greater.
Fortunately for them, they have plenty of room in their books for a second big contract alongside Jose Altuve’s. Lance McCullers Jr., Forrest Whitley, Josh James and Corbin Martin can fill out the rest of their rotation relatively cheaply.
Other Possibilities: Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals
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Winslow Townson/Associated Press
All Sale has to do is stay healthy in 2019, and he’ll cash in.
Sale’s 39.6 WAR since 2012 is the best of any American League pitcher, and he’s taken his dominance to dizzying heights during the last two seasons. He struck out an MLB-high 308 batters in 2017 and then 237 in only 158 innings one year later.
Of course, Sale missed much of 2018’s second half because of inflammation in his left shoulder. With his 30th birthday March 30, that may prove a sign of things to come.
But if all goes well, Sale will enter next winter’s market with at least Jon Lester money ($155 million), and possibly even David Price money ($217 million), in his sights. To the highest bidder will go the spoils.
Mark us down for the Philadelphia Phillies. They’re looking good going into 2019, but perhaps not for long if they get tripped up by a rotation that thins out after Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta. A problem like that would be worth spending “stupid” money to fix.
And don’t worry. The Phillies might still have space in their long-term books for Mike Trout after 2020.
Other Possibilities: Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, St. Louis Cardinals