This year's free agent class is one of the deepest in recent memory. This is especially true for starting pitchers and outfielders, as big names like David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes are all likely to score contracts exceeding $100 million dollars. First baseman Chris Davis will also be in the $100 million dollar club as the only non starting pitcher or outfielder in the group. (Sorry Scott Boras, but I do not consider Davis to be an outfielder.)
Next year's free agent class will be nowhere near as strong as this year's, and there is a strong possibility that teams will act differently this offseason as a result. On Sunday, Spencer wrote about how next year's free agent class may have affected the qualifying offer decisions of Colby Rasmus, Brett Anderson, and Matt Wieters. Simply put, these players have a better chance of receiving big contracts next offseason when they have less high-quality free agents to compete against. However, it is also possible that teams will adjust for the lack of impact free agents next offseason by paying even more for high-end players this offseason.
Teams are awash with money, especially with enormous TV contracts being signed throughout the industry. Many teams have yet to begin spending at the level they are capable of, but that figures to change this offseason. Teams with money to spend may go all out for a David Price or a Jason Heyward this offseason since this may be their only opportunity to acquire an elite player for each of the next two seasons. Sure, teams can spread their money around sign multiple quality players instead of one or two elite players, but this may not be the most efficient strategy for a team that only has one or two major holes on their roster.
To show the differences between the 2016 and 2017 free agent classes, I thought I would break each class down position by position, analyzing both the high-end and depth players available.
There are currently nine free agent starting pitchers who are projected by Steamer to produce 2.5 WAR or better in 2016, and this group is not lacking in high-end talent. Next offseason, though, the only high-end starter available will be Stephen Strasburg, who has managed to pitch more than 200 innings and produce more than 4 fWAR just once in his career (2014). Beyond Strasburg, only Andrew Cashner, Clay Buchholz, and Jorge de la Rosa are projected for more than 2.5 fWAR in 2016, and it is likely that their projections going into next offseason will be lower due to age-based decline. There may be a few more names added to this list, as some quality starters may have to settle for one-year deals this offseason and re-enter free agency a year from now.
This is one of the few areas where next year's free agent class is clearly better than this year's, as Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, Drew Storen, and Jonathan Papelbon are expected to be available a year from now. This offseason, the best relievers are Darren O'Day, Joakim Soria, and Tyler Clippard, and the latter two pitchers posted less than stellar peripherals this past season. While pitchers like Chapman and Jansen could receive record contracts for relievers next offseason, the fact remains that teams do not pay exorbitant amounts of money to relief pitchers, at least relative to other positions.
This year's free agent class features four outfielders who project for 3 fWAR or higher in 2016: Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, and Alex Gordon. (Ben Zobrist would make it five if you call him an outfielder.) The next tier of outfielders includes starting-caliber players like Denard Span and Dexter Fowler. Next year's outfield class is not all that weak, with names like Jose Bautista, Carlos Gomez, and Josh Reddick all potentially available, but Bautista will be 36, and Gomez has been a question mark recently due to nagging injuries. In addition, the other outfield options beyond those three players are rather underwhelming. Jay Bruce and Matt Holliday could join the group if their options are declined, but that is unlikely to happen unless they struggle, and in that case, they would not end up being desirable free agents anyway.
This year, Chris Davis represents perhaps the only viable starting option at first base. There were even reports that the Rockies were considering signing Daniel Murphy to play the position. There will be more options next offseason, including Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and Mark Teixeira, but each of these players will be in their mid 30s, and none of them offer the upside of Davis.
In the middle infield, Howie Kendrick and Ian Desmond are available this offseason, with Asdrubal Cabrera and Ben Zobrist as lower tier starter/super utility options. Kendrick, Desmond, and Zobrist were each worth four wins or higher in 2014 and each player is likely good enough to start for another couple of years. Next year's free agent class has even fewer viable options, with Neil Walker and Erick Aybar expected to be the only starting options available.
The third base market, which effectively consists of David Freese this offseason, will be better next year, with Adrian Beltre, Justin Turner, and Martin Prado expected to be available. However, each of these players would only represent a short-term fix at the position, given their age.
Matt Wieters and Francisco Cervelli will be available at the catcher position next offseason, and each of them could score a nice contract with a good year in 2016. Even with a good year though, it is hard to imagine either player doing much better than Russell Martin's 5-year, $82 million dollar deal last offseason.
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As you can see, next offseason's free agent class is clearly lacking in high-end talent. Besides Stephen Strasburg, there are not any players on this list who are locks to receive $100 million dollar contracts. If Carlos Gomez can stay healthy and perform closer to the way he did in 2013-2014, he would have a good chance of scoring a big contract as well. After that, we are looking at short-term veterans (Bautista, Encarnacion, Beltre) and top-flight closers (Chapman, Jansen).
Needless to say, this offseason will be fun to watch, given the high number of elite free agents available. We will likely see intense bidding for the top free agents on the market this winter, as teams may not have another opportunity to acquire this level of talent for another few years.