2017-18 MLB Free Agents: An Early Look at Next Winter's Best Available Players

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2017

2017-18 MLB Free Agents: An Early Look at Next Winter's Best Available Players

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    The 2016-17 MLB free-agent class was projected to be a dud, and it hasn't disappointed.

    Or, rather, it has.

    A couple of significant sluggers—Yoenis Cespedes and Edwin Encarnacion—have inked major deals, but far more power hitters remain unsigned as the calendar churns toward mid-January. 

    What about free-agent pitchers? Fuhgeddaboudit. 

    As we warm our hands by the waning coals of this tepid hot stove and eagerly await actual baseball action, why not gaze ahead to the 2017-18 offseason?

    It's not as loaded as the mythical 2018-19 class, but it's a more star-studded group than this year's, featuring ace-level arms and All-Star-caliber players at premium positions.

    We're going to focus on players who are guaranteed to hit the market unless they sign an extension, so guys with opt-out clauses or team options aren't being counted (if they were, Johnny Cueto and Andrew McCutchen would be among the possible additions).

    Tap the mud off your spikes and proceed when ready.

Jake Arrieta, RHP

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    It's possible Jake Arrieta could sign an extension with the Chicago Cubs before he tastes free agency. His agent, Scott Boras, indicated as much in December, per ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers.

    Before you scoff, remember that Stephen Strasburg, another Boras client, inked a seven-year, $175 million extension with the Washington Nationals in May before he could dip his toe in the free-agent waters.

    With a 2015 National League Cy Young Award in his trophy case, Arrieta would likely command even more.

    Granted, Arrieta returned to Earth last season. His ERA rose from 1.77 in 2015 to 3.10, his innings dropped from 229 to 197.1 and his strikeouts fell from 236 to 190.

    He'll be entering his age-31 season and has the 2017 campaign to re-establish himself as one of the game's top arms.

    Even if he repeats his uneven but solid 2016 output, he'd be in line for a massive deal in this era of gaudy pitcher contracts.

Lorenzo Cain, CF

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    After posting the 10th-best WAR in baseball in 2015 (6.4) by FanGraphs' measure and finishing third in American League MVP voting, the Kansas City Royals' Lorenzo Cain took a dive in 2016.

    Cain played in just 103 games while battling wrist and hamstring injuries and saw his numbers slide across the board. Still, he hit .287 with 14 stolen bases and grades as an above-average center fielder. 

    If he can return to his 2015 production, Cain could land a massive payday. A healthy, productive showing will be enough for him to cash in as he enters his age-32 season, however.

    The Royals will face tough decisions on an array of free agents, including Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer, shortstop Alcides Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas and left-handed starter Danny Duffy. 

    If Cain plays up to his capabilities, K.C. will have ample competition for his services. 

Yu Darvish, RHP

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    After making three All-Star teams in his first three MLB seasons, Japanese import Yu Darvish worked his way back from Tommy John surgery in 2016, posting a 3.41 ERA with 132 strikeouts in 100.1 innings.

    It was a promising output from a pitcher who paced MLB with 277 strikeouts in 2013. Darvish will be entering his age-31 season next winter and should command top dollar if he proves healthy and effective for the Texas Rangers in 2017.

    "I'm not sure if Darvish will be the game's best pitcher for the duration of his next contract, but I'm pretty sure he will be for at least part of it and that includes this year," opined SportsDay's Evan Grant. "His time is now. He is healthy and not concerned about his arm."

    If he turns in an injury-free 2017, he'll be primarily concerned with where to stash all his money.

Wade Davis, RHP

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    Arguably the top closer on the trade market, Wade Davis went from the Royals to the Cubs in December for outfielder Jorge Soler.

    Unless the Cubs lock him up long term, he'll be a free agent next winter and likely the best available free-agent reliever.

    Davis has posted ERAs of 1.00, 0.94 and 1.87 over the past three seasons and saved a career-high 27 games in 2016. His 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 2016 were a significant dip from his 13.6 high-water mark in 2014. 

    Still, with few other marquee closers available, Davis can set himself up for a hefty payday, particularly after Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman signed record-shattering reliever contracts this offseason.

Carlos Gonzalez, RF

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    The Colorado Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez has been the subject of trade speculation for at least the last two seasons. Assuming he isn't dealt at the 2017 non-waiver deadline, CarGo could finally change uniforms next winter.

    Gonzalez will turn 32 in October and is coming off a season in which he hit .298 with 25 homers and 100 RBI while posting four defensive runs saved in right field.

    Suitors will account for the Coors Field bump, meaning Gonzalez may settle for less money than he would have received if he'd put up his stats in a different ballpark.

    Assuming he remains healthy and productive in 2017, however, he's going to land a lucrative, multiyear contract from someone.

Eric Hosmer, 1B

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    Unlike Cain, Hosmer boosted his stock in 2016, setting career highs in home runs (25) and RBI (104) and making his first All-Star team.

    A two-time Gold Glove winner at first base, Hosmer will turn 28 in October, meaning he could be primed for a huge contract if he produces up to par in 2017.

    Hosmer was the third overall pick by the Royals in 2008, but Kansas City could find itself priced out by bidders with deeper pockets.

    Leaving a smaller market for one of the high-profile coastal franchises can be a savvy switch from a visibility and endorsement standpoint, but Hosmer dismissed that notion.

    "That's just outside perspective," he said in February, per MLB.com's Jeffrey Flanagan. "I don't play this game to be in commercials for hair products. I'm playing to try to win championships. Sure you want to give yourself the best opportunity in terms of financially, but at the same time, you want to give yourself the best chance to get to the playoffs."

Jonathan Lucroy, C

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    A two-time All-Star, Jonathan Lucroy posted a .292/.355/.500 slash line last season between the Milwaukee Brewers and Rangers while playing solid defense behind the dish and throwing out an impressive 39 percent of would-be base stealers. 

    Lucroy turns 31 in June, which is neither green nor ancient by catching standards. Given that quality backstops are a rarity and Lucroy ranks among the best at his position, he should command a significant long-term contract.

    His experience at first base and designated hitter, meanwhile, could extend the life of any potential deal even further.

J.D. Martinez, RF

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    J.D. Martinez seemed like an obvious trade candidate for the Detroit Tigers. The 29-year-old hit .307 with 22 homers last season, setting himself up as an enticing chip this winter.

    Instead, Detroit has held onto Martinez and appears to be eschewing a rebuild in favor of another run.

    Whether or not it works, Martinez could set himself up for a big contract with another superlative season, especially if he approaches the 38 homers and 102 RBI he notched in 2015.

    Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press says Martinez profiles as the Tigers' "second-best hitter," high praise on a club that includes Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera.

       

    All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.