"I am dead set against free agency. It can ruin baseball." -- George Steinbrenner
Free agency didn't ruin baseball. Indeed, this offseason celebrates 40 years of players exercising their free will to sign with another team -- assuming somebody wants them, of course. For 40 years, we've also debated the idea of the "contract year," that players perform better in the season before free agency.
Do they? Maybe. Here's one study that concludes for hitters "the adjusted OPS of a free-agent hitter in his contract year is expected to be 6.7 percent higher than in non-contract periods." If you look at what happened last season, you'll buy into the contract-year phenomenon: Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton, David Price, Chris Davis, Alex Gordon, Jason Heyward, Wei-Yin Chen, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija all signed for more than $70 million, and only Cueto and Samardzija had better seasons than the previous year. With the exception of Price, the rest had hugely disappointing seasons.
Whether or not players perform better in contract years, it's helpful to know who is in a contract year -- in part because some of these guys become prime trade bait in July. Here's one contract-year guy for each team:
The Red Sox own a club option on Craig Kimbrel for 2018 at $13 million, a no-brainer to pick up unless he blows out his elbow or something. Moreland is entering the vagabond part of his career where he'll play for seven teams in five years. Assuming David Ortiz remains retired and Hanley Ramirez primarily DHs, the Red Sox could be seeking an upgrade come July.
Tillman turns 29 in April, so he'll hit free agency at a reasonably young age. He missed a couple of weeks late in the season with a sore shoulder.
Who knows how Jose Bautista's mutual option will work, so let's turn to Estrada, who has had two straight excellent years, defying stereotypes with a sub-90 fastball. As an extreme fly baller, he'll give up some hits, but he limits hits (he has allowed the fewest hits per nine innings in the American League each of the past two seasons). He'll turn 34 in 2017 and missed time last year with a back injury, but another solid season will equal a big payday.
He has pitched in only four seasons, but missed two full years with injuries -- time that counted as part of his service time. He's capable of a big season if he can learn not to groove so many fastballs.
He was one of the AL's best starters from 2013 to 2014 before missing most of the past two seasons after Tommy John surgery.
One reason the Indians were able to reach the World Series is they had locked up many of their key players to team-friendly contracts: Santana, Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Carrasco. Santana is the first to become a free agent, and given the lukewarm response to first basemen and DHs in this free-agent market, Santana won't necessarily be priced out of Cleveland next winter.
He's eighth in the majors in slugging percentage the past three seasons, but his defensive metrics were so poor in 2016 that some teams may want him only as a DH (which helps explain why the Tigers had trouble trading him). Victor Martinez is signed through 2018, but Miguel Cabrera probably moves to DH at some point, so odds are J.D is playing elsewhere in 2018.
Kansas City Royals: Eric Hosmer
The Royals have several key free agents in Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar. Hosmer will be a difficult decision for the front office since he's popular and attends Justin Bieber concerts and will hit free agency at 28. But he's not as good as most Royals fans believe. Here's an example: He's 94th in slugging percentage over the past three seasons among players with 1,000 plate appearances.
His annual WAR ranking among first basemen:
At his best, maybe he's a borderline top-10 first baseman. That's not a $100 million player that agent Scott Boras will undoubtedly market him as, and the Royals will have to be careful not to overpay just to keep a popular player.
Frazier has hit 75 home runs the past two seasons, but he has played in two good home run parks and posted a weak .306 OBP. He has been extremely durable (150-plus games four straight years), but a little higher average and OBP, even at the expense of a few home runs, could earn him a bigger contract.
He has a $6.5 million team option for 2018, but must prove he's healthy after shoulder surgery limited him to pitching in just two games in 2016.
They should be two of the most sought-after free agents next offseason, although both will be on the wrong side of 30. Darvish returned from Tommy John surgery and pitched well with a 3.41 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 100.1 innings. The Rangers held him at a strict pitch count (he reached 100 pitches just three times in 17 starts), but he's in line for $150-plus million with a big season.
Iwakuma has a $10 million team option. The Dodgers rejected him last year because of red flags in his medicals, but he made 33 starts.
Also, Carlos Beltran. Look at what could have been, however: Jose Altuve would have been eligible for free agency, but instead, the Astros hold two teams options at $6 million and $6.5 million, making Altuve one of the supreme bargains in the sport.
Nolasco has pitched 11 seasons in the majors and had an adjusted ERA better than league average just twice -- and one of those was a 101 ERA+, barely above league average. He has made $69 million in his career, will make $12 million in 2017 and the Angels own a $13 million team option for 2018 that they'll probably pick up if Nolasco is close to league average. It's good to be mediocre.
The A's are paying these five potential free agents a combined $27.25 million. I predict they'll make less in 2018.
He's straggling to the finish line, but the much-maligned, seven-year, $116 million contract he signed in 2011 hasn't been a complete disaster; he has produced 9.6 WAR and had two superb seasons in 2013 and 2014. I also don't think it has been as good as some statheads have suggested. He has had two partial seasons because of injuries and, at this point, should really just be a platoon bat against left-handers.
The Mets could be looking for a new offense in 2018 as Bruce, Curtis Granderson, Neil Walker, Jose Reyes and Lucas Duda are all free agents (and the Mets have a club option on Asdrubal Cabrera). Bruce probably has the most at stake, as he could hit himself into a nice deal or he could struggle and find himself on the bench with Michael Conforto in right field.
Chen's $80 million contract was interesting; it was backloaded, but with player options for 2018 ($10 million), 2019 ($20 million) and 2020 ($22 million) -- which he gets to exercise all at once, after the 2017 World Series. If he pitches poorly or gets hurt, he'll take the options; if he pitches well, he could possibly test the market again.
The Phillies have brought in a bunch of veterans on one-year deals or in the final year of previous deals, but Hellickson is interesting. He accepted the Phillies' $17.2 million qualifying offer, so he's in the same boat as last year. He's not so good that he'll get a mega-deal from somebody else, so going year to year may prove to be his best financial strategy.
The Braves also signed Bartolo Colon on a one-year deal and R.A. Dickey to a one-year deal with a team option, but Garcia is the younger guy who could pitch himself into a multiyear contract if he can stay healthy -- which he has had trouble doing in his career.
Is he the guy who posted a 1.77 ERA in 2015 and a 1.74 ERA through his first 15 starts of 2016, or the guy who started walking too many batters and had a 4.44 ERA over his final 16 starts? He'll be 32 after hitting free agency but is obviously in great shape and doesn't have a ton of mileage on his arm.
He missed 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery (although he returned late to throw a few innings in the minors), but from 2012 to '15, he averaged 189 innings with a 3.38 ERA.
He'll get a chance to close all season, he's left-handed, and he owns a 2.56 career ERA. If he can earn the Proven Closer ™ designation, he'll get a nice contract for 2018.
Nearly the entire Brewers roster is pre-arb, and the only players signed beyond 2017 are Ryan Braun and Eric Thames. Garza has a $13 million vesting option for 2018 that he's going to meet, so he needs to pitch well -- which he hasn't done the past two seasons -- to drum up any interest.
Phillips has turned down some trades due to his 10-and-5 rights, but he has no value to the rebuilding Reds, who need to play Dilson Herrera to see what they have in him. So here's what they should say to Phillips: "We’ve lined up this trade. You can accept it, but if you don't, we're releasing you. We thank you for your years of service, but we need to play the young guys and you're blocking them right now. It does you no good to rot on the bench, so you can decide to play somewhere else or collect your $14 million and enjoy the summer at the beach." Zack Cozart is in a similar position, as the Reds need to play Jose Peraza, although Cozart does have some trade value.
Finally! The Dodgers are counting down the days to exercise their $2.5 million buyout and to get his $17.5 million salary off the books. Amazingly, he's the only free agent on the roster.
San Francisco Giants: Johnny Cueto
He's signed through at least 2021 but has an opt-out clause -- a clause that made sense at the time for both parties given the potential red flags with Cueto's elbow. He was healthy and great in 2016, and could get an even bigger contract with a similar season.
Reports surfaced earlier this offseason about a possible extension, but nothing has materialized yet.
Have crooked hat, will travel.
San Diego Padres: Umm ...
Let's put it this way: The three highest-paid players by the Padres in 2017 will be Melvin Upton Jr., James Shields and Hector Olivera, none of whom are on the team. Your 2017 San Diego Padres, everyone!