When it comes to the offseason before their franchise player becomes a free agent, teams face a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Trade a player, and you risk alienating a fan base that has fallen in love with said player and wanted you to give him the $200MM contract he was probably demanding. Keep him, and unless you win a World Series to appease your fans, he will likely be snapped up in free agency and you are left with an emptier stadium and nothing else.
The 2018-2019 free agency windfall is one short year away, but five teams are already starting to sweat. Let’s look at their situations and play the game of “which rabbit hole should you go down?”
Washington Nationals (Bryce Harper): Harper’s WAR over the last five seasons has been a (disappointing) 23.1. STEAMER projects him to post a WAR of 5.8 this upcoming season, bringing his six-year production to 28.9. Granted, if you value a win at $6MM that would mean he will have been worth $28.9MM per year over the last six seasons. There have been talks that Harper will set the record for largest contract in MLB history and that he will get “at least” 10 years and at least $400MM. Some have said he may get over $500MM. Assuming it’s 12/$400MM, Harper will need to produce a 5.6 WAR PER YEAR over the next dozen years. He’s only produced a WAR above that once (in his absurd MVP season). Am I the only one who thinks this is a monster overpay? I don’t put much stock in the managerial switch this offseason, because even if Harper loved Dusty Baker, he won’t be taking a hometown discount.
In any case, this point is moot. The Nats are going for it. They may try to get a contract done this offseason, but that probably will not happen. Verdict: Hold and watch Harper become a Yankee.
Baltimore Orioles (Manny Machado): Dan Duquette and Buck “Smiles” Showalter are entering the final year of their contracts and possess possibly the best all-around player in the game not named Mike Trout. Problem is, the O’s are more than a few pitchers away from having a starting rotation. Even though Machado had the worst season of his career with a 2.8 WAR, that was caused by a poor offensive season, one that looked worse due to a .265 BABIP which will likely not repeat itself. STEAMER thinks Machado will return to being a 6 WAR player next year, which he has done three of his other four years in the majors (the lone exception being his injury-shorted 2014 season). His stock will not be affected by this down year. Considering Machado is worth over $36MM per season right now, and will command that much on the open market, I don’t think Baltimore is going to be able to sign him next season. The O’s are stuck in purgatory right now. If Duquette can’t get something done at the winter meetings to nab some starting pitching and go on one last glory run, I wouldn’t be surprised if Machado gets moved. They won’t get equal value, but they can accelerate the rebuild. The Cardinals are looking for a bat and they have some mighty good pitching prospects, like Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver. Verdict: Sell.
Toronto Blue Jays (Josh Donaldson): Quick. Name the player with the highest WAR from 2013 to 2017. OK fine it’s Mike Trout by a landslide. Name the second-highest WAR. If you guessed Josh Donaldson, you win! He has put together a WAR of 35.6. That’s 7.1 wins per season. Now I’m not saying JD is worth $42MM right now on the open market due to his age, but the guy is definitely looking at a contract next offseason in the $30MM+ range, for 5-7 years. That’s something I think the team will pay, based on the salary that is going to be shed once Jose Bautista and Russell Martin are off the books (Bautista is gone, Martin will be at the end of 2019). The Jays are going younger with guys like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette on their way up and they won’t need to get paid until JD is long gone. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins are going to re-sign Donaldson, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a deal gets done this offseason. Verdict: Re-sign.
Colorado Rockies (Charlie Blackmon): Projection systems don’t seem to like Charlie Blackmon. They say his WAR next year will be 2-3. Here’s probably why:
Home: .391/.466/.773, 24 HR, 60 RBI
Road: .276/.337/.447, 13 HR, 44 RBI
Home: .335/.399/.540, 12 HR, 47 RBI
Road: .313/.363/.563, 17 HR, 35 RBI
Home: .331/.390/.500, 7 HR, 35 RBI
Road: .238/.300/.395, 10 HR, 23 RBI
Based on his age, average defense, and the fact that he has played half his games at Coors Field, Blackmon may not get even $20MM annually because in any other park, he’s a 2-3 WAR player. However, if he has a good 2018 away from Coors and puts up home/road splits similar to what he did in 2016, Charlie Blackmon will get a five-year/$125MM contract easily. Even after his “monster” 2017 season built on a breakout 2016, 2018 is a show-me year for Blackmon. If he struggles away from home again, the Rockies will be able retain him on the cheap. But if he’s a 162-game terror, Blackmon is gone.
Verdict: Hold and see.
Los Angeles Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw): I debated writing this piece, because the thought of Kershaw not being a career Dodger is silly. Whether he gets a new contract now or next year is the only real debate here. But let’s try to guess how much money the greatest pitcher of this era is going to get.
More than the $31MM annually that David Price got. Price signed his seven-year/$217MM contract before the 2016 season when he was in his age-31 season. Kershaw will be going into his age-31 season in 2019. Even though Price did not have the injury concerns Kershaw has now with his back, a dinged-up Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball over the last five seasons and will undoubtedly command more than what Price got.
More than the $34.4MM annually that Zack Greinke got. Greinke was going into his age-33 season when he signed his deal. Even though Greinke was coming off his ridiculous 2015 season with the Dodgers, he had not in his career proven able to replicate seasons like that consistently. Even after his Cy Young 2009 season in KC, Greinke posted an ERA a full two runs higher. Kershaw has not posted an ERA over 2.91 since his rookie season.
So how much will Kershaw get? The Dodgers may understandably try to keep the deal in the 5-7 year range due to his injury history. But Kershaw will want the record for the largest salary given to a pitcher in history. I say seven years/$250MM.
Verdict: Dodgers hand Kershaw a blank cheque.