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An extremely early look at the 2018-2019 free agent market

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It’s never to early to start planning.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

With the Hot Stove cooling down, on Monday we decided to take a very early look at next year’s free agent market. That’s probably too far into the future for some to care about. But hey, it’s the off-season, which means no actual baseball, and some of us are into that kind of roster analysis. That was probably as far into the future as I was willing to go, but here’s the thing: two years from now, the free agent class is loaded. While it’s far off, the Cardinals seem to be one of the best teams at taking the long-term view. It’s never to early to start planning, so let’s take a brief look at what the Cardinals could be shopping for two years from now.

For a full list of potential free agents, check here. We won’t go over the entire market, but rather some of the best options as we currently stand. Of course, a lot of these players will see their stock rise or fall significantly between now and then. Some of them will be extended by their current team, taking them off the table. We’ll start out with position players that are currently set to be free agents following the 2018 season:

*= Will be a free agent in 2018-2019 assuming their team option for 2018 will be picked up

** = player can opt out of their current contract following the 2018 season

Those are some big names at the top. Two MVP’s, and one that is a favorite to win one in the future. Machado and Harper receive extra credit for being so young. In previous articles here, I used an average aging curve which I calculated using historical data since 2006 (when drug testing began) and some programming code I wrote to tie it all together. Using that, we can get an idea of, on average, how well these players will age between now and then. These are not written in stone; think of them more as fair over/unders. Some will age terribly and others could be more valuable than they are now.

It’s hard not to salivate over Manny Machado and Bryce Harper’s projected worth now or in the future. As they currently stand, they look likely to top the biggest contract in the game: Giancarlo Stanton’s $325M deal over 13 years. In fact, it may not even take as long of a deal as Stanton’s to do it. Using an average aging curve, the generally accepted price of $8.5M per win of this off-season, plus 5% inflation per year, here’s Machado’s projected worth from 2019 to 2028:

If Machado isn’t interested in an opt-out, you can make the case for him to receive a $400M+ deal in a couple of years. Even with an opt-out or two (or three!) he seems likely to beat Stanton’s deal, which also includes an opt-out. However, the raw numbers presented here don’t take into account that teams may be wary of investing so much in a single player, particularly someone like Machado, who has already has knee problems. Still, a superstar is a superstar, and those are rarely available.

Harper hits free agency at the same age, with a slightly lower projection. Over the same years, his value comes out at $416M. A lot of the same things above apply to Harper. He’s an incredible talent, a level of star that rarely reaches free agency. Ten year contracts rarely end well, but both are so young and so good that on average they’ll still be roughly average players by the end of it. That’s just incredible.

As I mentioned last week, my preference is for Machado, mostly because it’s fun to dream on him and Delvin Perez locking down the left side of the infield for several years. Third base could also be somewhat of a concern for the Cards between now and then. Of course, Harper would have the chance to be the Cardinals’ best hitter since Albert Pujols wore the Birds on the Bat. If the Cardinals miss out on both though, Josh Donaldson could also take over the hot corner. Since he’s significantly older than Harper and Machado, he’s projected to lose more value in the next two years. That same age difference will also mean he’ll decline harder than those two over the course of their future hypothetical free agent deals. Here’s a look at Donaldson’s value:

This is a little more the type of contract we’re used to seeing in the MLB, in that it’s for a guy in his 30’s, and the deal projects to end badly. Donaldson isn’t quite as elite as Machado and Harper, nor does he have their exceptional youth, but he still projects to be worth quite a bit. The Cards could do a lot worse at third than signing Donaldson.

We’ll move on to the starting pitching market:

Today’s best pitcher on the planet can be a free agent following the 2018 season, as long as he and his agent are confident they can beat the $65M over two years he’ll have remaining on the deal at that point. Here’s a look at the crazy amount of value Kershaw could offer a team going into 2019:

A saying I particularly like is “Hitters age, pitchers break”. You can see that in action here, as even though he’ll be in his 30’s, he looks to age slower than Donaldson. Of course, it also takes a long time to fall from such an elite level. This calculation gives him a value in excess of $400M, though the risk of him breaking at some point probably doesn’t allow him to get that high. Still though, it’ll only mean so much if his stock is anywhere near where it is right now. The Cards are full of pitching prospects at the moment, and his current team is anything but shy about spending large sums of money, so it’s a bit of a long shot. It’s a fun long shot to dream on though.

David Price is an interesting case, as the team was clearly strongly interested in him last winter when they offered him what would have been the largest contract in Cardinals history. It’ll be three years from then by the time they get another chance, so a lot could change.

To finish things off, we’ll look at relievers. I actually haven’t made an average aging curve for relievers yet, so we’ll just make do with their projections for 2017:

There are quite a few capable options to choose from. While this year’s market offered two of the very best relievers in the game, two winters from now could feature incredible depth, depending on how the above arms handle the next two years.

Whatever happens between now and then, the Cardinals have the flexibility and financial muscle to be a big player in the 2018-2019 market. I know, they didn’t make the big moves many wanted this year, but it would have took tons of big moves to get the Cardinals on the Cubs’ level in 2017. Maybe the gap is smaller two years from now, and some big signings in this loaded market is what puts them over the top. A guy can dream, can’t he? For me, that’s exactly what the off-season is for.