Although fall has officially arrived and football season is in full swing, baseball will find its way into the news this winter. The reason? An extremely talented pool of free agents will hit the market this November, lead by the two men pictured above. Though this free agent group – which once looked like it would be the best ever just seasons ago – has taken a hit in the decline of some players, the sweepstakes for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are enough to make this winter a big one in the MLB. Harper and Machado are undoubtedly the top two players in this free agent class, but there are others who will be signing for big money this offseason.
Free agency in the MLB is always interesting because there is no salary cap. Teams can spend as much as they are willing to spend, some more than others (i.e. Yankees vs Athletics). This offseason, we could see Giancarlo Stanton’s record deal – 13-year, $325 million – be broken by Harper or Machado, or both. We should also expect teams will be willing to spend early and often, as opposed to last offseason, when some of the top free agents didn’t sign until right before spring training. Here’s where I think these six stars will be playing in 2019 and beyond – plus a bonus trade that we may see.
Position: OF – Age: 32
This may be a bit of a stretch, but I think of Michael Brantley as a poor man’s Christian Yelich. Before you tear me apart, hear me out first. From 2011-2015, Brantley slashed an average of .295/.352/.434. Add to that an average of 160 hits, 35 doubles & 72 runs batted in during that stretch, Brantley has stud numbers. His power numbers don’t stand out – he has just 87 home runs in over 4,000 at-bats – but power has never really been Brantley’s game. If all of those numbers don’t jump out to you, here’s probably his most impressive stat. Brantley’s career strikeout rate is 10.7 percent. In this crazy world of analytics, that number alone will net Brantley a big deal.
Injuries limited Brantley to just 377 at-bats between 2016-2017. Despite that, Brantley was named an all-star in 2017, and followed that up with another all-star appearance last season. In a contract year in 2018, Brantley had a .309 batting average, hit 17 home runs and drove in 76. He proved he still had a lot left in the tank, meaning several teams should be calling for his services for 2019 and beyond. A team in need of a left-handed bat like Brantley is the St. Louis Cardinals. Matt Carpenter was the Cards only good lefty last season and they have an opening in the outfield after Dexter Fowler had a sub par 2018.
Prediction: St. Louis Cardinals – 4 years, $52 million
Position: SP – Age: 31
Three years removed from a dominant 2015 season which earned him the AL Cy Young Award, Keuchel hasn’t found that dominance again. Still, he is capable of being a prominent starter in this league. He was downgraded to the Astros fourth starter last season, but not because of his performance. The acquisition of Gerrit Cole, paired with the emergence of fellow free agent Charlie Morton, pushed Keuchel out of the top three. His 2018 numbers don’t jump out at you – 12-11 record, 3.74 ERA, 153 strikeouts – but those aren’t terrible numbers.
Numerous teams will be looking to add a lefty starter this offseason, making Keuchel a hot commodity. Two AL West teams – the LA Angels and Seattle Mariners – are in desperate need for a big name starter like Keuchel. Seattle hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001. Their “King” Felix Hernandez is no longer the ace that he was for more than half a decade. They have a competitive team that needs just a little extra spark to get them over the hump. However, Keuchel will not be wearing a Mariners uniform next season. The Los Angeles Angels have more to lose if they don’t sign a big time starting pitcher this offseason. Mike Trout – ever heard of him? – has two years remaining on his contract. The Angels have made the playoffs just once in Trout’s seven seasons. They plan on, and may very well have already offered Trout a ten-plus year deal worth over half a billion dollars to stay with the Angels. Every baseball fan knows that Trout will not sign that contract unless the Angels improve drastically in the next two seasons. The front office went all in on offense last winter. That hasn’t worked out so far. Keuchel would be a huge upgrade for the Angels rotation, so LA would be silly not to go after him. If they don’t, they can kiss Mike Trout goodbye.
Prediction: Los Angeles Angels – 4 years, $98 million
Position: RP – Age: 31
“Dirty Craig” has been one of the best closers in baseball for nearly a decade. He has been an all-star in all but one of his eight full seasons in the MLB. In May of 2018, Kimbrel became the fastest closer to reach 300 saves. Although he had a shaky postseason in 2018 for the world champion Boston Red Sox, Kimbrel is still a top three closer in the league. He’s never had less than 30 saves in a season, his career ERA is 1.91, and he has struck out more than 80 batters in every season.
Teams are always in need of bullpen help, especially in this new age of analytics, where managers aren’t afraid to pull their starters as early as the 4th inning. Big market clubs like the Cardinals and Cubs should be in the Kimbrel sweepstakes, and the Red Sox will more than likely try to keep their star closer. One team who will be flying under the radar are the young and hungry Atlanta Braves. Kimbrel started his career in Atlanta and made a name for himself with the Tomahawk faithful. The Braves are coming off of an NL East division title and have a young solid core to build around. Bringing back Kimbrel would show the Braves young stars that the front office has faith in them and that they are all-in on 2019 and beyond.
Prediction: Atlanta Braves – 4 years, $70 million
Position: SP – Age: 29
Patrick Corbin pitched himself into a monster contract in 2018. After being an all-star in 2013, Corbin had Tommy John surgery prior to the 2014 season. Since coming back in mid 2015, Corbin finally found his groove in 2018. That’s not to say that his 2016 & 2017 campaigns weren’t good, but in a contract year, Corbin showed out. Corbin had career highs in starts, innings pitched, strikeouts, and had his lowest ERA and WHIP in 2018. That performance should see him finishing in the top 5 of NL Cy Young voting and will see him net the biggest contract of any free agent starting pitcher this offseason.
A lot of teams will be calling for Corbin, but there’s a consensus pick as to who he will be playing for in 2019. Corbin was born and raised in New York and grew up a fan of the New York Yankees. The Yankees were one of the best teams in baseball in 2018, but failed to reach the ALCS because they ran into the wagon that is the Boston Red Sox. Other than Luis Severino, who had an awful second half following a historic first half last season, and Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees don’t have any bona fide starters with major league experience. They are never shy to spend loads of money, and seeing their biggest rivals dominate the 2018 season, the Yankees have all the more reason to splash the cash on the best starter in this free agent pool. I, along with a lot of baseball fans, would be surprised if Patrick Corbin is not wearing a Yankees uniform for the next several years.
Prediction: New York Yankees – 6 years, $138 million
Position: SS/3B – Age: 26
Now we get to the big boys of free agency. Starting with Machado, this guy has gotten himself into the news for more than just his play in recent months. After being criticized for not running out a ground ball in the playoffs, Machado said he isn’t “Charlie Hustle” and will continue to play the way he likes. He also turned a lot of heads after he appeared to purposely step on Jesus Aguilar’s ankle during the NLCS. Despite these antics, there is no doubting Machado’s ability. He enjoyed his finest season in 2018, hitting 37 homers while driving in 107 runs. His contact can be inconsistent at times, but any team would trade his power numbers and fielding for a couple of swing and misses.
In my eyes, this is a three team race for Machado. The New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers will all bid for Machado’s services. We’ve already discussed the Yankees ability to spend big, so it would be no surprise if they give Machado whatever he wants to play in pinstripes for the forseeable future. The Phillies are coming out of a rebuild and should be playoff contenders in 2019. They have plenty of money to spend, and Phillies president Andy MacPhail was the Orioles president when they drafted Machado in 2010. The Dodgers don’t necessarily have a place for Machado in the long run with the imminent return of Corey Seager, but teams can always make room for a player of Machado’s caliber. They, like the Yankees, are not afraid to splash the cash. Teams only have so many opportunities to win a championship, and LA’s may be running out. Machado will definitely test the waters for a bit, so don’t expect him to sign for a few weeks.
Prediction: New York Yankees – 10 years, $320 million
Position: OF – Age: 26
Bryce Harper will be the highest paid player in Major League Baseball following this offseason. Some people will agree he deserves that tag, some will not, but there’s no denying that it will be a fact in a few weeks. Bryce Harper was the number one pick in the 2010 MLB draft. He spent one full season in the minors before being called up to the Nationals at the age of 19 prior to the 2012 season. During his tenure in the nation’s capital, Harper hit 184 home runs, drove in 521 runs, slugged for a .512 average and proved that he was rightfully the best player in that 2010 draft. Critics knock Harper because he doesn’t have the best glove and his average is up and down. Okay, so maybe he makes a few errors from time to time, but his career average – .279 through seven seasons – is just fine for a power hitting outfielder. Don’t believe all the hype about Harper being an inconsistent hitter. The dude rakes and will continue to rake for years to come.
There are legitimately four contenders for Harper this winter. The three teams chasing Machado – Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies – and the Chicago Cubs. In all honesty, I think Harper wants to play for one of two teams; the New York Yankees or the Philadelphia Phillies. Both teams have incredibly hitter friendly ballparks. Both teams play in giant markets. Both teams want to spend money this offseason and spend it big. Here’s what I think goes down. The Phillies want and quite honestly need one of Harper or Machado to compete next season. Harper can definitely see himself playing in a Phillies uniform. He has stated before that he loves playing in Philadelphia, that the fans going against him make him play better. Now imagine those fans cheering for Harper rather than booing him. I’m not saying the Yankees, or Cubs, or Dodgers are out of the race by any means. But Harper knows what he wants, and what he wants is to wear pinstripes…red ones. One last thing to consider. Rhys Hoskins, the Phillies best offensive player last season, recently signed Scott Boras to be his agent. Who is Bryce Harper’s agent? You guessed it, Scott Boras.
Prediction: Philadelphia Phillies – 12 years, $390 million
J.T. Realmuto (Trade)
J.T. Realmuto is not a free agent – in fact he’s not eligible for free agency until 2021 – but he will be wearing a different uniform next season. He was stuck in the dumpster fire that was the Miami Marlins in 2018. After Miami traded away Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna prior to last season, many expected them to trade their star catcher as well. They didn’t, so Realmuto had to tough it out on the worst team in the National League. He still had himself a fine season, being named to the NL all-star team despite missing the first few weeks of the season. It appears, however, that Realmuto has had enough of the Sunshine State.
Realmuto has requested a trade away from the Marlins, and if I’m Derek Jeter, it’d be silly not to trade him. Besides Buster Posey, Realmuto may be the best hitting catcher in baseball. Catcher needy teams will be begging for him, especially since they’d have two years of control over him. There are a number of contenders who need a catcher, most notably the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox. Chances are Realmuto ends up with one of those two teams, and I’d imagine he will be more than happy going to either ball club. A dark horse for his services could be the LA Dodgers if they decide to move on from Yasmani Grandal. Trading Realmuto just makes sense for both him and the Marlins, so it would be very surprising if he is still in Miami come opening day.