Upcoming MLB Free Agents Poised to Earn Big Bucks After 2016
Had Stephen Strasburg waited another day, he would have topped the list of MLB's best players entering free agency this offseason.
The Washington Nationals ace had all the ingredients necessary to secure a massive payday. Since last year's All-Star break, the former No. 1 overall pick boasts a 2.26 ERA and 150 strikeouts over 115.1 innings. This is the guy whose MLB arrival was more hyped than any baseball player in recent memory until Bryce Harper joined him in D.C.
Sweetening the pot, a bidding war would have spawned over the 27-year-old's peak years in a free-agent class without any solid alternatives. Knowing agent Scott Boras' ruthless reputation, he would have scratched and clawed for every dollar.
All these factors considered, it came as a surprise when CBS Sports' Jon Heyman broke the news on Monday night: Strasburg and the Nationals agreed to a seven-year, $175 million extension. The premature signing made more sense when Heyman disclosed an opt-out clause after the third and fourth years, giving the righty long-term stability and the opportunity to earn another monster deal.
If that seems like a lot for someone who once underwent Tommy John surgery, this article was set to project seven years for $225 million. Even that felt like selling his potential earnings short.
Any team needing a rotation boost must test the trading market or wait until 2017-18's monster free-agent class. As for this winter, a shallow crop led by power sluggers and relief pitchers stand to benefit from the downgraded competition.
Here are the biggest remaining upcoming free agents in line for big paydays.
Mark Trumbo, 1B/OF, Baltimore Orioles
The Baltimore Orioles will get mentioned later for a free-agent miscalculation last winter, but they hit a home run by landing Mark Trumbo on a one-year, $9.15 million "show-me" deal. The 30-year-old slugger is giving them more than they could have ever reasonably expected, batting .325/.378/.598 with nine homers over 30 games.
Now the trick is sustaining this torrid start for roughly five more months. The career .253 hitter has never boasted a batting average over .268, and a .392 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has fueled his early success despite a 26.8 strikeout percentage.
His numbers will regress, and most teams are now far too smart anyway to fall for an outlier. Trumbo's free-agent stock will make an interesting watch, as his .304 career on-base percentage and defense better suited for designated hitting won't thrill many organizations.
For all of his weaknesses, he is reminding everyone of his legit power. From 2011 to 2013, Trumbo tallied 95 home runs for the Los Angeles Angels. His pop waned enough to accentuate his flaws, but another 30-homer campaign will compel someone to bite well above one year and $9.15 million.
Baltimore has placed a premium on power before, so it could award Trumbo a sizable raise if nobody else poaches him.
Projected Contract: 4 Years, $55 Million
Aroldis Chapman, RP, New York Yankees
Anyone searching for a starting pitcher is out of luck, but a historically good batch of relievers will instead become available. Case in point: The guy who regularly throws triple digits isn't the top-ranked closer.
There's no doubting Aroldis Chapman's ability on the mound. The Cuban flamethrower owns a 2.19 career ERA with a ridiculous 549 strikeouts procured over 320 innings. His 15.44 strikeouts-per-nine (K/9) ratio is the highest rate in the history of baseball.
He has also issued 4.36 walks per nine innings, but it doesn't matter when opponents are hitting .155 against him. Per MLB.com, he accounted for all 50 of 2015's fastest pitches, all clocked between 102.5 and 104.0 mph.
Yet last year's incident could hinder his future earnings. Per Yahoo Sports' Tim Brown and Jeff Passan, Chapman "allegedly fired eight gunshots in the garage of his Miami-area home following an October argument with his girlfriend in which she told police he 'choked' her and pushed her against a wall." Although no arrest was made, MLB issued a 30-game suspension from which he returned on Monday night.
Before the incident, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a trade lined up with the Cincinnati Reds. The home disturbance caused them to back out, and the New York Yankees swooped in to land him at a discount. Some teams won't touch him, but others may see a business opportunity like the Yankees did.
Don't expect the dominant closer to sign for a bargain. As long as he returns strong from the suspension, he'll become of the game's highest-paid relievers. Just not the most compensated one from this class.
Projected Contract: 4 Years, $62 Million
Kenley Jansen, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers
How high will the market soar for a relief pitcher? Kenley Jansen will test the limits this winter.
If any bullpen piece is worth breaking the bank for, it's the Los Angeles Dodgers closer. Since joining the majors in 2010 as a raw, converted catcher, he has registered a 2.22 ERA and 1.99 fielding independent pitching (FIP). His career 31.2 strikeouts-minus-walks (K-BB) percentage ranks second all time among all relievers behind Craig Kimbrel's 31.7.
In 13.1 innings this season, Jansen has allowed one run while notching 14 strikeouts to a lone walk. There's a strong case to make for him standing tall as baseball's top relief pitcher. On a per-inning basis, he's more explosive than legend Mariano Rivera.
Per the Los Angeles Daily News' Bill Plunkett, Jansen isn't fretting over his expiring contract.
“This game is never going to run out of money,” Jansen said.“I work for a multibillion-dollar corporation, which is the Dodgers. There are 29 other teams that are part of a multibillion-dollar corporation that is Major League Baseball. It will take care of itself. I’m just going to do what I do.”
Meanwhile, the rest of Los Angeles' bullpen—which faltered last postseason—has surrendered a 4.62 ERA this season. Even among a deep crop of available relievers, all the pressure is on the deep-pocketed Dodgers to retain their star. Look for him to exceed Rivera's $15 million annual value from 2008-10 and earn the highest yearly salary ever for a reliever.
Projected Contract: 5 Years, $80 Million
Dexter Fowler, OF, Chicago Cubs
Dexter Fowler could sit out the remainder of the 2016 season and the Chicago Cubs would still have gotten their money's worth on their $8 million investment.
Even at the time, it seemed like the 30-year-old outfielder took a tremendous team-friendly discount to remain in the Windy City. With the Cubs spending big on Jason Heyward as an apparent replacement, Fowler had reportedly struck a three-year, $35 million deal with the Orioles. He later pulled a stunning about-face, going back to the Cubs for less than the $15.8 million qualifying offer he previously rejected.
One of the offseason's top signings has turned into baseball's biggest bargain. Batting atop MLB's team leader in on-base percentage and runs scored, Fowler is setting the table with a sizzling .340/.462/.575 slash line. He currently ties Nolan Arenado for an NL-best 2.2 WAR, a mark that would earn a free agent over $10 million if accrued over a full season.
Fowler's contract includes a $9 million mutual option, which means both sides must agree to enact it. He turned down a lot of money last year, but he'd be crazy not to opt out.
Last year, some skeptics probably wondered if he could replicate 2015's career-high 3.2 WAR, but Fowler is getting better. His 15.9 walk and 19.7 strikeout percentages are both career bests, and he has collected 17 extra-base hits on the strength of a dozen doubles.
The Cubs wouldn't be a world-beating juggernaut without Fowler's MVP production in the leadoff role. They're going to have to shell out a lot more moola to keep him around beyond 2016.
Projected Contract: 5 Years, $85 Million
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/DH, Toronto Blue Jays
Not every pending free agent must make their sales pitch right before the deadline. Poor start to 2016 aside, there's little doubt that Edwin Encarnacion will soon receive a huge raise.
The Toronto Blue Jays executed a major heist by extending the slugger during 2012's All-Star break. Toronto decided to buy into his first-half breakout, locking him up for three years worth $29 million, with a $10 million club option for 2016.
During that contract, only Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz have amassed more homers than Encarnacion's 115. Cruz—a late bloomer coming off a career-high 40 homers but relegated to DH duties—cashed in with a four-year, $57 million deal with the Seattle Mariners. Davis' behemoth $161 million agreement offers hope for teams still desiring power.
Encarnacion has a steadier track record than Cruz, procuring between 34-42 long balls over the past four seasons. He's also a rare slugger who pairs pop and patience with a reasonable strikeout percentage (15.8).
He'll also, however, enter next season as a 34-year-old. He's currently hitting a robust .254/.315/.454 with an elevated 21.0 strikeout percentage. Meanwhile, Davis' long-term contract was not well received, and he's 30.
According to Heyman, Encarnacion is seeking four or five years. Trusting him to repair a sluggish start, he should at least corral a four-year deal like Ben Zobrist last winter. Even as a first baseman at best, he'll boost his bank account handsomely.
Projected Contract: 4 Years, $92 Million
Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto Blue Jays
Remember when the Blue Jays pillaged their farm system for Troy Tulowitzki and David Price last summer to ignite their playoff push? With Encarnacion and Jose Bautista both entering free agency this winter, they knew their championship window can close in a hurry.
That's the case even if they retain both star hitters, which doesn't seem likely. Bautista, turning 36 in October, has two years on his partner in crime. He is also closing out a team-friendly extension with a $14 million club option, so retaining one will potentially cost more than they're currently paying for both.
Although his defensive merits are eroding, Bautista wields a cannon for an arm in right field. He's still best off staying in the American League so he can eventually shift into a full-time designated hitter role.
His current .214 batting average shouldn't cause any concern, as he still sports an .809 OPS and 42.0 hard-hit percentage. Dating back to 2010's breakout, he's hitting .266/.388/.551 with an MLB-high 233 homers and only four more strikeouts (605) than walks.
Someone desperate for an immediate boost may sacrifice its long-term outlook by paying Joey Bats dangerously close to his 40th birthday. For now, maximizing his annual salary with a three-year deal seems like a sensible compromise.
Projected Contract: 3 Years, $81 Million
Yoenis Cespedes, OF, New York Mets
Some folks, especially New York Mets fans, will protest Yoenis Cespedes' inclusion on this list. After all, the outfielder signed a three-year deal late in January to remain with the Mets instead of joining the rival Nationals.
The deal also included an opt-out clause after 2016, alleviating any risk from New York's end while giving Cespedes leverage. Should he struggle to retain last year's late power surge, he can stay on the books for two more years worth $47.5 million. If he keeps raking, he'll help the Mets take another swing at a title before parlaying his success into a long-term agreement.
It's safe to say the latter scenario will come to fruition. Cespedes has already crushed 11 homers, giving him 28 dingers in 84 regular-season games with the Mets. His .690 slugging percentage ranks second among all qualified hitters behind Manny Machado's .691, and he's brandishing a more selective batting eye with a 10.6 walk percentage.
He's holding his own in center field, but another team could expunge more value from his as a superior left fielder. That team is not the Mets, who have Michael Conforto locked into the position as a future mainstay. Given their reluctance to extend a long-term offer Cespedes' way last winter, it's tough to imagine them shelling out a competitive offer to retain him.
A player can only extend so much loyalty. At this rate, the Cuban slugger will have no trouble securing a six-figure offer that eluded him last offseason. His market value now hovers closer to the six-year, $132.75 million pact Justin Upton netted from the Detroit Tigers. At this rate, that may devolve into a tame estimate.
Projected Contract: 6 Years, $145 million