How baseball's best free-agent class ever is preparing for the ultimate walk year

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Editor's note: This story originally ran on the morning of April 4, 2018, before Charlie Blackmon agreed to a long-term extension to stay with the Colorado Rockies.

If Bryce Harper seems intimidating in the batter's box, it's nothing compared to his presence in front of a microphone with talk of a gargantuan financial windfall in the air. As recent events show, he can get downright obstructionist on the topic.

Harper arrived at the Washington Nationals' camp in February amid a slew of questions about his future. He immediately put the clamps on public discourse, warning reporters that he would be "walking right out the door'' if anyone broached the subject of his upcoming free agency. He told reporters to call his agent, Scott Boras, if they had any questions.

Harper understands the hazards of thinking too far beyond today. He was at the heart of the National League MVP debate in August when he slipped on a wet bag while trying to beat a ground ball and suffered a deep bone bruise that forced him to miss six weeks and hindered him in the postseason. So if you ask about nine-figure contracts or the business of free agency, expect a cold stare and an awkward silence.

"Bryce was having a remarkable season last year, and it was taken away,'' Boras said. "His focus is, 'I want to get up every day and play baseball and focus on baseball.' And what goes on after the season is just not something he wants to entertain while he prepares for the game that day.

"Players need to take a course that's most comfortable to them. Certainly, you understand the interest. There's nothing wrong with asking. But for a player, that's a thought process beyond what he's here to do -- to play and win and do all the things that are necessary and most important to him that day.''

Harper's approach is instructive against the backdrop of the 2018 season, a prelude to the most illustrious free-agent class in history. Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Adam Jones, Zach Britton, Andrew McCutchen and Marwin Gonzalez are some of the big names who will be available as part of an all-you-can-spend buffet. Starters Clayton Kershaw and David Price can join if they exercise opt-out clauses in their contracts.

Money will ultimately talk in assessing where the 2018-2019 class stands in the historical annals of free agency.

The most lucrative free-agent winter to this point came after the 2015 season, when the 30 MLB clubs combined to spend a record $2.5 billion. An all-time high of seven players -- Price, Zack Greinke, Jason Heyward, Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann -- signed contracts of $100 million or more.

ESPN researcher Sarah Langs found that the 322 players who signed free-agent contracts that offseason had amassed an aggregate career wins above replacement of 1,383.1. By contrast, next winter's top 40 free agents alone (including Kershaw, Price and others with opt-out clauses) have accounted for 878.7 WAR.

Many agents and players see the class as a litmus test for where the game is headed financially -- at least for the All-Stars and marquee players who drive the market.

"As far as major, established superstars hitting the market at the same time, I can't come up with anything that compares,'' the representative for one prominent free agent said. "If this class doesn't bring out historically high spending, nothing will. If teams don't spend next winter, there will have to be some serious discussions about the health and viability of the current system. It will go a long way toward alleviating players' fears -- or exacerbating them.''

Players have cause to be wary in the aftermath of a contentious and slow-moving offseason. Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez, the only players to sign nine-figure deals, reached agreements in February. While agents hinted at collusion and the players' association lamented the rising number of teams in noncompetitive mode, dozens of established veterans settled for one-year contracts or minor league deals -- or remain unemployed.

Blackmon, 31, has raised his stock considerably with breakout performances the past two seasons, but events in his own clubhouse left him wondering where his future will lead. The Rockies spent $106 million on relievers Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee during the offseason. Meanwhile, Carlos Gonzalez lingered on the market until March before returning to Colorado on a one-year deal for a guaranteed $5 million with an additional $3 million based on roster time. First baseman Mark Reynolds, who hit 30 homers and logged an .839 OPS last season, is still out of work.

"It was crazy,'' Blackmon said. "I'm a little upset with how things went. I'm a little let down by the outcome, and I'm still concerned about a lot of players who I feel are good players. And I think there's a disconnect in the market. I'm not sure why. I have my reasons and theories. I'm not going to tell you what they are.''

Blackmon's cryptic response and Harper's media stiff-arm exemplify the balance players try to strike between maintaining a high level of performance and acknowledging reality. Boras once referred to the specter of free agency as "the elephant in the ballpark,'' and players know they're going to be asked about it by teammates, friends on competing teams and loved ones at home, as well as media members.

A casual spring training chat in Sarasota, Florida, took an unexpected turn recently when Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge told Machado that he would look good in pinstripes. Judge shared the interaction with reporters, and it became a mini-controversy until both players defused it. Amid talk of tampering, Judge said he learned his lesson, and Machado observed that the incident was "blown out of proportion.''

"We play baseball, and you guys write. I just concentrate on this year, and right now my focus is to put an MVP season up there. I'm going to try to win the MVP and take my club to the playoffs. That's the biggest goal here."
Manny Machado on his mindset for the 2018 season

At the intersection of performance and financial security, many players find comfort in personal boundaries. Some dispense with the intrigue in one sitting upon arriving at spring training. Donaldson and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright were among those who took the "I'm only going to talk about this once'' approach on opposite Florida coasts.

Machado hasn't issued a blanket edict against free-agent talk, but he has picked his spots, and the Orioles' media relations department did its best to run interference for him when national media passed through Baltimore's spring training camp and requested interviews.

"Writers write up stories, and they predict this and that,'' Machado said. "It's all normal. We play baseball, and you guys write. I just concentrate on this year, and right now my focus is to put an MVP season up there. I'm going to try to win the MVP and take my club to the playoffs. That's the biggest goal here.''

Recent history provides only so many clues as to the importance of a strong platform year in setting the stage for a player's payday. Logan Morrison, for example, hit 38 home runs in 2017 and still had to wait until late February to sign a guaranteed, one-year, $6.5 million deal with the Minnesota Twins. He was hurt by the glut of power-hitting corner men on the market and a newfound reluctance by teams to spend big on power alone.

Timing can play a significant role in a player's payday. Blackmon, who turns 32 in July, made his second All-Star team in 2017 and has gotten better every year. But it's a stacked free-agent class, and he suspects that teams will be willing to spring for only so many mega-deals.

"If there's more supply than there is demand, someone is not going to get paid,'' Blackmon said. "Someone is not going to have a good experience. Someone is going to remain unsigned into spring training. I don't want that for me or for any of the guys. I still will respect that situation and that possibility and know that the grass isn't always greener and that free agency doesn't mean that everybody is going to get a million gazillion dollars.''

Blackmon told his agents, Seth and Sam Levinson of the ACES group, that he would be interested in signing an extension only before or after the season before the outfielder ultimately agreed to an extension days into the campaign. Dozier, similarly, was ready to entertain contract offers from the Twins over the winter. Nothing happened, and now he is focused on playing out the season and testing the market.

As players strive to find the approach that's best for them, management has to navigate a patchwork quilt of finances, putting the best product on the field, selling tickets and trying to treat players in a way that maintains optimal harmony in the clubhouse. The Blue Jays dealt with the intrigue two winters ago, when Edwin Encarnacion left for the Cleveland Indians through free agency and Jose Bautista generated a lot of early buzz but ultimately little actual interest before agreeing to a one-year, $18 million deal with Toronto in January 2017.

Now the Blue Jays are engaged in a similar dance with Donaldson, who has made two All-Star teams and won a Most Valuable Player award since his arrival in Toronto by trade from Oakland in November 2014.

"We have to do everything in our power to minimize the distractions,'' Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said. "The only thing I can say we view as absolute is making sure we're walking the walk when it comes to the lines of communication. It's not just about having that interaction but being thoughtful about it. To me it always comes back to empathy. If you are actually making sure you're thinking about being in the player's shoes, you have a chance to at least mitigate those distractions. But we're certainly not going to be able to eliminate them.''

For players who typically spent several years in the minors and six more years in the majors in advance of free agency, the months and weeks preceding the official declaration can be a heady time.

"I think I will handle the situation well,'' Blackmon said. "I look forward to it, and I hope to learn something from it. I think it'll be exciting and new and fresh, but at the same time, I would really like to have an opportunity to stay. I feel like I try and keep things in perspective. While baseball is the No. 1 thing I've got going on, I'm going to be OK no matter what happens.''

That's Blackmon's mindset and approach, and he's sticking to it. If you want Bryce Harper's take on the subject, feel free to call his agent.