The Missing Free-Agent Class of 2017

Featuring Chris Davis, Zack Greinke, Jason Heyward, David Price, and Justin Upton, this offseason’s free-agent class was one of the best in recent history. Of that group, Davis, Heyward, and Price entered free agency with the minimum six years of service time, while Greinke was taking his second bite at the free agency apple and Upton had his slightly delayed by a contract extension signed with Arizona before the 2010 season. Of this year’s class, Mike Leake, Jeff Samardzija, and Jordan Zimmermann also went without contract extensions before hitting free agency, creating one fantastic class. Next year’s class is much weaker — not because there are fewer valuable players who’ve recorded similar service time, but rather because so many great players entered contract extensions delaying free agency.

Yoenis Cespedes has a one-year opt-out in his new contract with the Mets that will enable him to enter a poor free-agent class with aging hitters like Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre, and Edwin Encarnacion; mid-level outfielders like Carlos Gomez and Josh Reddick; just one elite pitcher in Stephen Strasburg; and a few elite closers in Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. Next year’s class was not always like this. A slow erosion of free-agent eligible players occurred over the last several years, robbing the market of what could have been one of the greatest free-agent classes of all time.

Consider the following timeline:

  • March 26, 2012 — Milwaukee Brewers sign catcher Jonathan Lucroy to five-year deal worth $11 million with an option to take the deal through the 2017 season.

Jonathan Lucroy
At the time of the deal 765 16 84 2.2
Since the extension 1996 50 120 14.0
  • April 16, 2012 — San Francisco Giants sign Madison Bumgarner to five-year deal beginning in 2013 worth $35 million with two options that could take the deal through the 2019 season.

Madison Bumgarner
At the time of the deal 335.2 3.10 3.06 6.6
Since the extension 845.1 3.01 3.12 15.6
  • March 7, 2013 — Chicago White Sox sign Chris Sale to five-year deal worth $32.5 million with two options that could take the deal through the 2019 season.

Chris Sale
At the time of the deal 286.1 2.89 3.19 6.5
Since the extension 597.0 2.82 2.94 16.3
  • March 29, 2013 — San Francisco Giants sign Buster Posey to nine-year contract worth $167 million with an option that could take the deal through the 2022 season.

Buster Posey
At the time of the deal 1255 46 143 13.1
Since the extension 1823 56 139 16.2
  • February 5, 2014 — Atlanta Braves sign Freddie Freeman to eight-year contract worth $135 million, taking the deal through the 2021 season.

Freddie Freeman
At the time of the deal 1912 68 127 7.1
Since the extension 1185 36 138 7.7
  • February 10, 2014 — Cleveland Indians sign Michael Brantley to four-year deal worth $25 million with an option that could take the deal through the 2018 season.

Michael Brantley
At the time of the deal 2166 26 97 4.4
Since the extension 1268 35 144 10.0
  • February 16, 2014 — Atlanta Braves sign Craig Kimbrel to four-year deal worth $42 million with an option that could take the deal through the 2018 season.

Craig Kimbrel
At the time of the deal 230.1 1.37 1.41 9.2
Since the extension 118.0 2.14 2.33 3.7
  • November 17, 2014 — Miami Marlins sign Giancarlo Stanton to a 13-year deal worth $325 million with an option that could take the deal through 2028, with Stanton possessing an opt-out after the 2020 season.

Giancarlo Stanton
At the time of the deal 2644 154 144 21.1
Since the extension 318 27 152 3.8

In addition to the players above, Starlin Castro and Carlos Santana also have extensions that will prevent them from becoming free agents after this season. Of the eight players above, the only players who were not already some approximation of the player we see today were Michael Brantley and Jonathan Lucroy. In Lucroy’s case, he took the guaranteed money very early on in his career, with both the Brewers and Lucroy taking something of a risk. That risk has paid off handily for the Brewers, who have gotten great production and potentially a great trade chip. Michael Brantley, who had yet to break out, was an exception to the forward progress of the timeline that saw generally more money handed out the later the date.

Every free-agent class loses players to extensions. Earlier this winter, Neil Weinberg examined players who missed out in the current free-agent class. For the most part, it was a group that would have had only a modest impact. Certainly Alcides Escobar might have capitalized on his first crack at free agency like he did on first pitches in the playoffs, and Gio Gonzalez would have found himself in the mix with second tier of pitchers, but only Andrew McCutchen would have made a major difference in this market, likely setting it at well above $200 million and possibly $300 million. Next year’s class is losing a whole handful of McCutchen-caliber players.

The Missing 2017 Free-Agent Class
Age 2015 WAR 2016 Steamer 2016 ZiPS Proj Avg.
Chris Sale 27 6.2 5.9 5.9
Buster Posey 29 5.7 5.4 6.3 5.9
Giancarlo Stanton 26 3.8 5.1 5.1
Madison Bumgarner 26 5.1 4.3 4.8 4.6
Freddie Freeman 26 3.4 3.9 3.5 3.7
Jonathan Lucroy 30 1.1 2.7 2.7
Michael Brantley 29 3.8 1.7 3.1 2.4
Carlos Santana 30 2.4 1.6 1.9 1.8
Starlin Castro 26 0.8 1.4 2.2 1.8
Craig Kimbrel 28 1.5 1.2 1.1 1.2
ZiPS for all teams have yet to be released

These ten players alone are not enough to match this year’s class in terms of depth, but the strength at the top is ridiculous. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect for these players is their collective youth. Jason Heyward hit free agency this year after his age-25 season. Justin Upton was not too far behind him, at 27, but the rest of the free agents this season, and most seasons, were heading into their 30s or already there. Comparing the top-five players from this year and next year shows a true advantage to the would-be class of next offseason.

The Missing 2017 and Actual 2016 Free-Agent Classes
Age in 2016 2016 Proj WAR DIfference 2016 Proj WAR Age in 2015
Chris Sale 27 5.9 1 4.9 29 David Price
Buster Posey 29 5.9 2.3 3.6 27 Justin Upton
Giancarlo Stanton 26 5.1 0.3 4.8 25 Jason Heyward
Madison Bumgarner 26 4.6 0 4.6 31 Zack Greinke
Freddie Freeman 26 3.7 0.2 3.5 29 Chris Davis
Total 26.8 5 0.8 4.3 28.2 Total

Comparing the two head to head, one finds that Heyward is a year younger than Stanton and Upton is younger than Posey, and Greinke is projected for the same WAR as Bumgarner. Other than that, the Missing Class of 2017 is much younger and better right now. The players in the left-hand column would still need to make it through another year successfully before hitting free agency, but it is possible we could have seen multiple $300 million contract next offseason, with four $200 million contracts a pretty safe bet. Ultimately, the players were presented offers at times in their careers when the guaranteed money was more important than a speculative payday, and the current MLB financial system very much encourages players to take advantage of those opportunities. Not all extensions work out, but for the teams that have signed some of the players who would be eligible next season — especially the Giants and the White Sox — they have to be especially happy that the next year’s free-agent class is not quite as strong as it could have been.

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards. His writing also appears regularly at where he is an Editor.

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4 months 3 days ago

That is an absolutely terrific bottom graphic. Great work

4 months 3 days ago

Saying that extensions prevented what “could” have been one of the best free agent classes is a bit like saying that if not for Justin Verlander, I “could” be dating Kate Upton. Okay, that is a terrible analogy but the point is that it was never going to happen. Extensions that eat into free agent years have been a part of the game for a long time. Strasburg is the only actual elite free agent next year that has not delayed his first foray into free agency.

As an aside, simply ascribing Gomez with “mid-level outfielder” while defensible and obviously in furtherance of the point you are trying to make, is a bit harsh. Even in his injury-shortened 2015, he was an above average player, and he was a superstar 2013-14.

4 months 3 days ago

For that extension class, they pretty much worked out for the team. except Castro and Santana who don’t fit the narrative .

However, just off the top of my head I am reminded of Vernon Wells, Clay Buchholz, Alexei Ramirez, Joe Mauer, Ethier, Kemp, Ryan Zimmerman, Homer bailey, Michael Young which makes me wonder how much extensions have increased over time and their success rate. You would think there would be a data base or list somewhere for extensions (maybe there is I just cant find one, if not the internet failed)

4 months 3 days ago

Bob Gibson had 180 PA in his minor league career which was only 4 seasons (2 full and 2 partial)

4 months 3 days ago

Shouldn’t you have also compared would-be 2016 Free Agents?
4 months 3 days ago

Fun article, Craig! Stuff like this is why I read fangraphs. Wondering what effect McCutchen would have on Heyward’s price, and vice versa, and who’d have ended up in Chicago . . .