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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|Age||2015 WAR||2016 Steamer||2016 ZiPS||Proj Avg.|
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.
|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|
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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