MLB's Hyped $1 Billion Free-Agent Class Actually Isn't That Good

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterNovember 7, 2018

BALTIMORE, MD - JULY 10:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals and Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles talk during their game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 10, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The free-agent market this winter includes the National League's Most Valuable Player—from 2015.

And the American League's MVP—also from 2015.

And the AL Cy Young winner. And two others who finished in the top five in MVP voting in their respective leagues.

In 2015.

Great news if you're looking to build a team to compete in the 2016 World Series. I hear the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians may be the teams to beat, so if you can just get past them...

Obviously, it's not 2015. Barack Obama isn't president, and Josh Donaldson isn't an MVP. And the free-agent class that was worth saving up all your money and credits to shop for isn't anything close to what it was projected to be.

It's not terrible by any means. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have tons of talent and birthdays in the 1990s. Harper just turned 26 last month; Machado won't turn 27 until July. Top-level talents rarely become free agents that young.

And yet...do you really want to spend huge money on a guy who announced to the world during the playoffs that he will never be "Johnny Hustle"? That would be Machado, who has also told the world he much prefers to play shortstop, even though most of that world believes he's better suited to third base.

Do you want to spend it instead on Harper, who plays hard but somehow seems to turn plenty of people off? Batting average doesn't carry the weight it once did, but it still feels funny to get overly excited about a guy who was hitting .214 at the All-Star break and was the symbol of a Washington Nationals team that topped its own lofty standards for underachievement.

At least you can make the case that Machado and Harper are still stars, no matter how flawed. You can make the case that 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel is still a front-line starting pitcher, if not the ace he could have sold himself as three years ago.

The case you can't make anymore is that the 2018-19 free-agent class is the one that will dictate the course of baseball over the next decade. It's not bad, as free-agent classes go.

It's just not game-changing, as it once seemed it would be.

Think about the awards that will be handed out later this month. The finalists for American League MVP are Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez and Mike Trout. Betts and Trout could both be free agents in two more years, while Ramirez won't hit the market for at least three years.

Same goes for the National League, where Christian Yelich (not free until 2022, at the earliest) is the likely MVP and Nolan Arenado (next year) and Javier Baez (2022) are the other two finalists.

Is there anyone from this year's free agent class who even makes the 10-deep ballot in either league? Perhaps not, but two guys from last year's underrated class (J.D. Martinez in the AL, Lorenzo Cain in the NL) certainly will get lower-ballot votes.

No free agent is winning the Cy Young Award, either. Does Patrick Corbin make it onto a five-man ballot in the National League? Maybe, maybe not, but he didn't break into the top three of Jacob deGrom (could be free in two more years), Max Scherzer (not until 2022) and Aaron Nola (also 2022).

Hmm, so you're saying Betts, Trout and deGrom could all be free agents in two more years? What a free-agent class that would be!

Stop it. That's the kind of thinking that messed up our thinking about this winter. We looked at all the big names that had the 2018-19 winter as the time they could hit the market, and we started dreaming of what it might look like when all of them did.

It wasn't just us. Teams did it, too. It wasn't entirely coincidental that the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers both chose 2018 as the year they wanted to get their payrolls under the luxury-tax threshold. By doing so, they would reset the tax back to the lowest level if they went over the threshold in 2019.

They could sign Harper. They could sign Machado. They could even sign both. Except now that the market is open, there's a better chance the Dodgers and Yankees sign neither one.

They still figure to spend, and there still figures to be big money spent on free agents this winter. There should be, because there are teams that could become championship contenders if they shop wisely. The Philadelphia Phillies, everybody's pick to spend big, are one of those teams, but not the only one.

There are infielders and outfielders who can help you win. There are fine relievers. There are even some starters who have emerged, although you have to wonder how much teams will commit to Corbin (29 years old; just pitched 200 innings for the first time since 2013) or Nathan Eovaldi (great postseason but has never pitched 200 innings and has had two Tommy John surgeries).

What won't happen is the predicted bonanza, the free-for-all in which one huge signing leads to another and to another and to another. It isn't that kind of market.

It might have been, if Harper and Machado were coming off their best years, and if Donaldson hadn't been slowed by injuries. Or if Clayton Kershaw and/or David Price had been good enough in 2018 to justify opting out of their contracts. Or if Andrew McCutchen and/or Adam Jones hadn't seen their careers go downhill. Or if Zach Britton and/or Andrew Miller hadn't gotten hurt. Or if Matt Harvey was still the Dark Knight and not just another guy with a 4.94 ERA.

But things happen over three years.

Adam Wainwright and Adrian Gonzalez started looking old. Kimbrel went through a postseason in which he had eight walks and two hit batters in 10.2 innings, which can't totally be blamed on pitch tipping.

Harper was a 22-year-old MVP in 2015. He was going to cost $400 million minimum when he became a free agent; maybe even $500 million. No one is predicting that now.

Donaldson was the AL MVP in 2015. He was 29, not 22. He wasn't going to get $400 million, but he was still going to be a star when he hit free agency at 32. Then he started getting hurt.

A healthy Josh Donaldson would have been one of the stars of this year's class. But injuries limited him to just 52 games in 2018.
A healthy Josh Donaldson would have been one of the stars of this year's class. But injuries limited him to just 52 games in 2018.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Britton was very good in 2015 and unbelievably good a year later. He had 47 saves and a 0.54 ERA, and the only question was why Buck Showalter didn't use him in the Wild Card Game as the Baltimore Orioles lost to Donaldson's Toronto Blue Jays.

Britton was going to be another star on this winter's market. Then he ruptured his Achilles tendon. He was back pitching in 2018, but not at the level of 2015 to 2016.

Both of those years, Britton made the American League All-Star team. There were 18 players in that 2015 All-Star Game who are free agents this winter, plus Kershaw and Price, who could have opted out. There were 20 players in the 2016 All-Star Game who could have been free agents this winter.

They played the 2018 All-Star Game on July 17 in Washington. The night before, Harper won the Home Run Derby, on probably his best night of the season. He and Machado were All-Star starters, as was Nick Markakis, a first-time All-Star at age 34 and also a free agent this winter.

In all, though, there were just 11 players on those rosters who would go on to be free agents this winter.

It's not a bad number. It's not a bad class.

It's just nothing like the all-time class we were waiting for.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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