The Jaw-Dropping 2016-17 MLB Free-Agent Class That Might've Been

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 29, 2016

Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey could have been available this winter. So could have many other stars.
Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey could have been available this winter. So could have many other stars.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

So, here it is. We've come to it at last. The point in the MLB offseason where the baseball news cycle is emptier than our holiday cookie jars.

This winter more than most, it was bound to come sooner rather than later. Trades are all well and good, but they're the side dishes of the hot-stove season. The main course is free agency, and it was never a secret that it wouldn't have much to offer this winter.

To wit, the best pitcher was a 36-year-old who was recently seen pitching in independent ball. Arguably the best position player was a 31-year-old outfielder who's had only two great seasons. "This year's free-agent class might be the worst I've ever seen," wrote ESPN.com's Keith Law. I can't refute that.

I will say this, though: In the parlance of our times, the 2016-17 free-agent class could have been yuuuuuuuuuuuuge.

Officially, it takes six major league seasons to qualify for free agency. Realistically, it's more like six and change. Subtract six and change from 2016, and you're looking at players who broke into the majors in 2010.

As Matt Eddy wrote in introducing Baseball America's all-rookie team, 2010 was "a banner class" for rookies. Among those who made the team were San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner, as well as Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. 

Already a pretty good list! And it's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Giancarlo Stanton (then known as Mike Stanton) debuted with 22 homers in 100 games.
Giancarlo Stanton (then known as Mike Stanton) debuted with 22 homers in 100 games.Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Bumgarner wasn't the only future ace who first broke through in 2010. That was also the year Chris Sale debuted with the Chicago White Sox, and when Stephen Strasburg made his (quite memorable) debut with the Washington Nationals.

Those are three legit No. 1s who would have been ticketed for free agency this winter. That beats the number actually available, which was zero. 

Carlos Santana debuted with an .868 OPS in 46 games.
Carlos Santana debuted with an .868 OPS in 46 games.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Meanwhile, Posey and Stanton weren't the only star hitters to establish themselves in 2010. Freddie Freeman joined the Atlanta Braves late in the year. Jonathan Lucroy joined the Milwaukee Brewers. Carlos Santana joined the Cleveland Indians. Although he wouldn't find his footing until 2012, 2010 was also the year the Indians gave Michael Brantley his first big taste of the majors.

Santana would have been yet another slugger for a free-agent pile that also included Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo. Lucroy would have been a better catching option than Wilson Ramos or Matt Wieters. Even after his injury-shortened 2016, Brantley would have been the kind of consistent and athletic hitter this winter's market sorely lacked. 

As for Posey, Stanton and Freeman, they're true superstars when healthy. That's debatable with Yoenis Cespedes and a discussion that can't really be had about Justin Turner, Encarnacion and others.

And while nobody began the winter lamenting the lack of free-agent closers—Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon had that market covered—there could have been yet another elite relief ace for the taking. Craig Kimbrel made his Braves debut even before Freeman did.

This isn't even counting the more established veterans who were ticketed to become free agents after 2016 until, all of a sudden, they weren't. That list is headlined by three third basemen: Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria and Martin Prado.

Add it all up, and this winter could have had enough free-agent talent to match even last winter's class. That's saying something, as David Price, Zack Greinke, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Chris Davis, Johnny Cueto and others made that arguably the best free-agent class in history.

The historic quality of this winter's free-agent class is a discussion we're not having, of course, because of extensions.

The $175 million extension Stephen Strasburg signed in May was the death blow for a once-mighty free-agent class.
The $175 million extension Stephen Strasburg signed in May was the death blow for a once-mighty free-agent class.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

It's easiest to remember Strasburg's contract extension. Not just because it's a seven-year, $175 million whopper that he signed in May with free agency mere months away, but also because of the reaction to it. Everyone saw it as a killing blow for an already thin free-agent class.

But that's not what killed it. This was a case of death by a thousand extensions, a result of MLB's rapidly changing landscape.

According to Maury Brown of Forbes, the nearly $10 billion MLB pulled in this year is just the latest stop in a trend that's been going sharply upward since the early 2000s. Much of the new money is coming from new national television deals that were signed in 2012 and from local TV deals that, as FanGraphs' Craig Edwards highlighted, have become en vogue in the 2010s.

In the meantime, there's been a change in which players deserve this money. Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight wrote in 2014 about how MLB's star power has shifted sharply toward younger players. Also in 2014, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs noted that teams have responded by allocating less payroll space to players in their 30s and more to players in their 20s.

It was between 2010 and 2014 that the status quo really took hold. Per MLB Trade Rumors, between 1996 and 2009, teams handed out a total of 124 contract extensions of at least four guaranteed years. Between 2010 and 2014, they doled out 100 such extensions.

The great players who arrived in and around 2010 got caught up in that. And while Stanton's record 13-year, $325 million contract stands out, others fell prey to the essential reality of why teams became willing to hand out long-term extensions: They're good investments that are also relatively cheap.

Recent Long-Term Contract Extensions
PlayerTeamSignedYearsDollarsOptions
Jonathan LucroyMIL3/20125$11M2017
Carlos SantanaCLE4/20125$21.002M2017
Madison BumgarnerSFG4/20125$35M2018-2019
Buster PoseySFG3/20139$167M2022
Chris SaleCHW3/20135$32.5M2018-2019
Craig KimbrelATL2/20144$42M2018
Freddie FreemanATL2/20148$135M-
Michael BrantleyCLE2/20144$25M2018
Giancarlo StantonMIA11/201413$325M2028
Stephen StrasburgWAS5/20167$175M-
MLB Trade Rumors

Nowadays, the jig may be up.

Young stars have continued to stream into the majors, but only 18 extensions of four or more years have been signed since 2015. The young stars may be getting the sense that trading free-agent years for early financial security isn't necessarily a fair trade.

If such a feeling is indeed out there, you can't help but wonder how much more pronounced it would be if many (or all) of the players named above had reached free agency this winter. 

While the contracts they signed established a trend of teams locking up their own talent, they weren't needed to set the going rate for superstar talents. The max was set at roughly $25 million per year for a while, and nobody made it across the $200 million plateau without at least a nine-year contract.

Clayton Kershaw's seven-year, $215 million extension was a game-changer.
Clayton Kershaw's seven-year, $215 million extension was a game-changer.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

But then, in 2014, Clayton Kershaw and Miguel Cabrera bumped the bar up to $30 million per year with extensions. They also needed just seven and eight years, respectively, to clear space in their bank accounts for over $200 million. 

That paved the way for Max Scherzer to follow suit in free agency after 2014 and for Price and Greinke to do the same last winter. Thus, the way was paved for even more lavish spending this winter.

Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors wrote in July that "there isn't any question whatsoever" Bumgarner would have found over $200 million in free agency. The same likely would have been true for Sale, and possibly Strasburg as well. Of the position players, Posey and Freeman would also have been in line to pull in over $200 million. Despite his recent injury woes, Stanton might also have had a shot.

Elsewhere, Kimbrel might have made like Chapman and Jansen and landed a contract worth north of $80 million. Brantley, Santana and Lucroy would have been in for nice paydays as well. And of the veterans who could have hit the market, Longoria might have had a chance at earning over $100 million.

This offseason thus could have been a continuation of last offseason, which shattered previous records with nearly $2.5 billion spent on free agents (h/t Todd), and perhaps a necessary stepping stone to even more earth-shattering contracts in the insanely loaded free-agent class of 2018-19.

Of course, we'll never know. But in lieu of real things to think about, thinking about what might have been will have to do.

    

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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