Quick, off the top of your head, list the 10 players in baseball around whom you would most like to build a baseball franchise. Of the names that sprung to mind, surely some of these were included: Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Andrew McCutchen, David Price, Jose Fernandez, Manny Machado, Jason Heyward, Dallas Keuchel, Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey.
That group includes two reigning Most Valuable Players, one current Cy Young and two multiple-time Cy winners. Only one (Donaldson) has ventured into his 30s. Just one (Heyward) has not finished in the top five of an MVP or Cy Young vote: Heyward just signed a $184 million contract at age 26.
Here is the mind-blowing, sport-shifting denominator they have in common: They could all be free agents following the 2018 season.
If the flurry of dollars dropped on free agents over the past two weeks stunned you, just wait. The free agent class of 2018 is three years away, but it is not too soon to start imagining the effects it will have on the league and the small-nation-GDP money it will unleash.
Three causes created the possible bonanza: a rare confluence of young talent, the new trend of player opt-outs in contracts and a rash of Scott Boras clients timed to hit the market at the same time.
First, it’s just a great time to be a baseball fan. The game possesses an inordinate number of young superstars, and many of them happen to be ticketed for the market in the same season. As the Players Union continues to convince players to be selective in taking team-friendly extensions before reaching free agency, mega-classes of free agents may become more frequent. For now, 2018 seems to be the first, and it happens to include Harper, the most marketable and perhaps most talented player in baseball, at age 26.
Second, the names Heyward and Price may stick out – didn’t they just sign massive deals? Sure did. So Kershaw in January 2014. But opt-out clauses for players at the top of the class have become more norm than exception. Price, Heyward and Kershaw can opt out of their contracts after 2018, which would place them in a separate free agent class than expected, essentially artificially stacking it.
A large number of the players primed for free agency happen to employ Boras as their agent, and Boras hardly ever advises clients to take contract extensions before all 30 teams can bid on their services. It just so happens that 2018 figures to be a good year for Boras – if they healthy, Machado, Harper, Fernandez and Harvey will all command monstrous deals. His friends should expect nicer holiday gifts.
The free agent money dropped in the 2018 offseason promises to be bonkers. The free agents, especially position players, likely will wait for Harper to reset and shatter the market. One high-ranking National League executive said Harper could command a 15-year, $450-million extension from the Nationals right now, without any other teams bidding for him. It sounds obscene, but it is easy to fathom a $500-million contract for Harper.
Whatever the number, it will be the kind of contract that elevates others, a tide that raises all boats. The market will look different than it does now by the start of the 2018 hot stove, and then a couple months later it will look way different. It’s one reason why, one assumes, Heyward wanted the chance to opt out the same year Harper hits free agency.
The fates of franchises cannot be predicted, but by 2018, the sport’s financial titans could have few encumbrances. The Los Angeles Dodgers still figure to splurge this winter, but for now, they will have just $3.1 million in salary committed for 2019 if Kershaw opts out. The Yankees owe $57 million in 2019. The Red Sox, if Price opts out, have $66.5 million committed for 2019. Counting the bargain $12-million team option for Madison Bumgarner, the Giants owe $68.4 million. The Phillies, a forgotten club from a competitive perspective but still a colossus in a major market, currently has precisely zero dollars tied up in 2019 contracts.
The free agent dollars will trickle down past the most significant names. Even aging players such as Adam Jones, Hunter Pence, Adrian Gonzalez, Ian Kinsler and Joe Mauer, just to name five, will be available.
By the time the money stops flowing between 2018 and 2019, a certain player absent from the above list may harbor some regrets. Mike Trout could have been a free agent in 2018, too, but before the 2014 season he chose to sign a six-year, $144.5 million contract that runs through the 2020 season. Now, that deal secured the financial future of generations of future Trouts, and he can still get paid after 2020. But for the 2019 and 2020 seasons, he will make $34.1 million per season at a time when his peers are scoffing at such a number. (If you think that sounds preposterous, again: just wait.)
The 2018 winter meetings will be held in Las Vegas, Harper’s hometown and a place where dreams both animate and die. There will be no more appropriate setting on the planet.
This post has been updated to reflect Clayton Kershaw’s potential opt out and that Nolan Arenado will not be a free agent until after 2019.