I know, I know. The post-season is still in progress and we don’t even know what teams will be in the World Series yet. It’s not too early to start talking about the 2018 MLB Free Agency, though! All the GMs and front office staff are probably spending their Octobers setting up a game plan on how best to approach the offseason.
Far too often, projections about MLB free agency can turn into a pipe dream. There are 30 teams in the league and each of them have their own needs that they want to address in the offseason. Every team can get better in some way. Just because a certain player matches the needs for a particular organization, it does not mean they will be a good fit. Yu Darvish would make any team’s starting rotation much better, but he would not be a good fit for the Tampa Bay Rays due to their payroll limitations.
Player opt-outs have become increasingly prominent in recent years. A number of prominent players will have opt-outs this year, such as Johnny Cueto (Giants), Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees), and Justin Upton (Angels). For the purpose of this article, we are going to assume that Justin Upton will be the only one of these players to opt-out and test free agency once again. Tanaka and Cueto are probably going to opt-in because of their injury histories, recent performance, and/or the amount left on their remaining contracts.
While trying to be as realistic and practical as possible in these projections, let’s take a look at where the top 15 MLB free agents will sign during the offseason.
17 Yu Darvish: Los Angeles Dodgers
Yu Darvish will be the top pitcher available in free agency this offseason. It is for this reason that he will be likely to receive a very lucrative free agent contract, likely exceeding $150 million by the time all is said and done. He will turn 32 next year, which means team will have to live with the risk of paying him a lot of money for what might be his decline. Contracts signed by elite pitchers in recent years have shown teams are not afraid of shying away from this (David Price, Zack Greinke).
The Los Angeles Dodgers have come out and said they are trying to get rid of some of their heavy debt. One way for this is to slash the payroll, but this isn’t likely to happen. The Dodgers need to find ways to continue to contend and it would not be a surprise at all to see them go out and re-sign Yu Darvish. Pitching behind Kershaw would make them one of the toughest 1-2 punches in MLB. Darvish may actually be more important to the Dodgers if Kershaw decides to opt out of his contract after the 2018 season.
16 Justin Upton: New York Mets
Justin Upton is the only player on this list who has an opt-out clause in his contract. If he chooses to opt out and enter free agency, he will be forfeiting the approximately $88 million left on his contract. Based on the strong year he had, and the lack of quality outfielders in free agency, Upton will most likely opt out, as he can probably make even more on the market.
The one team that seems to make a lot of sense for Upton would be the New York Mets. The Mets seem intent on contending again in 2018 and already have a very solid starting rotation. The Mets know they need a stronger lineup and Upton would certainly add another impact bat to the lineup. The Mets currently lack proven hitters at the major league level apart from Cespedes, and Upton would provide a major boost for the Mets.
15 Carlos Santana: Seattle Mariners
Carlos Santana has long been a staple of the Cleveland Indians lineup. He was a catcher before moving to first base, but has also primarily served as a designated hitter. He will likely see his market restricted to American League teams because of his limited defensive value. Unfortunately for Santana, there aren’t many teams with openings for a player like him. There is little doubt the Indians will be interested in bringing him back, but they will likely head their separate ways due to his contract demands.
Enter the Seattle Mariners. They already have some heavy payroll commitments, but the switch-hitting Santana would be a strong fit for the team. He would help deepen their lineup behind Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, and Kyle Seager. Yonder Alonso will probably depart in free agency, which leaves an opening at both first base and DH. GM Jerry DiPoto is not shy about making roster moves, some more aggressive than others, and Santana could be part of fixing the first base/DH problem. Another free agent this offseason will also be heading to Seattle. Keep reading to find out who that may be!
13 Lorenzo Cain: Toronto Blue Jays
Lorenzo Cain figures to represent an interesting case in free agency. He will turn 32 next year and was a late bloomer, but has hit .300/.352/.437 over the past four years. He has never had a 20-homer or 30-steal season, yet his speed and defense are probably his best assets. That might give him an underwhelming amount of interest in free agency, which might cause his price to drop.
Toronto has increased their payroll over the last few seasons, but will likely not win a bidding war with the top free agents. They will probably be interested in Jay Bruce once again, but Cain will be a better and cheaper fit for the Blue Jays. He would give them a quality leadoff hitter and a strong defender in the outfield. This would help improve and diversify the Blue Jays' offense in 2018.
12 Jake Arrieta: Atlanta Braves
Jake Arrieta had a few really elite years, but seemed to take a step back in 2017. He will turn 32 next year, the same as fellow starting pitcher free agent Yu Darvish. Arrieta seems intent on making the most of what may be his last significant free agent contract, which likely means he will go to the highest bidder. Arrieta is confident in himself and he will certainly not come cheap (Scott Boras is his agent).
A lot of teams need quality starting pitching, but there are fewer who have the financial resources and willingness to give out large contracts to pitchers entering their mid-30s. The Chicago Cubs will probably be aggressive in resigning him, but they already have big money commitments and know his medical situation better than anyone. A bold but also probable option would see Arrieta ultimately sign with the Atlanta Braves. They don’t have much in the way of payroll commitments and enough young talent that they could be on the way to contending soon enough. The Braves might be a few pieces away from winning and Arrieta will go a long way to helping that.
11 Eric Hosmer: Boston Red Sox
While the Kansas City Royals would surely love to re-sign Eric Hosmer and will reportedly make a strong offer for him, he will ultimately cost too much for the Royals. There are some indications that the Royals do not want to increase their payroll too much and Hosmer might prove too expensive given the bidding way for his services.
There will probably a team who overpays for Hosmer and it very well might be the Red Sox. GM Dave Dombrowski has not been shy about making high-impact but costly moves if there is a team need, and Hosmer fits that bill. First base is an area that could use improvement and the addition of Hosmer would allow Hanley Ramirez to move to DH. Hosmer would surely be a welcome addition to the Red Sox lineup in 2018.
10 Wade Davis: Chicago Cubs
Wade Davis is easily the top relief pitcher available on the free agent market. There will be some serious bidding for his services for one of the best closers on the market. He has been simply dominant as the Chicago Cubs closer in 2017, and he has let the numbers speak for themselves. There will be a lot of teams lining up to have him close out games.
There is no reason why the Chicago Cubs wouldn’t want to bring him back to be their closer again. It might mean paying him more than they would normally be comfortable with, but Davis will most likely stay with the Cubs. We already discussed how the Cubs will probably lose Arrieta, which leaves money for the team to spend on a reunion with manager Joe Maddon’s most dependable bullpen arm. Davis will surely be the anchor at the back of the bullpen, closing out games for a team who likely has many more competitive years ahead of them.
9 Jay Bruce: Texas Rangers
Jay Bruce has been somewhat up and down over the past few years. There are times when he is an above-average hitter and then there are times when he seemingly struggles to hit anything. He is a good power hitter who can capably play one of the outfield corners. The tempting choice here is the Blue Jays, as we briefly touched on, due to the prior known interest but they will opt to sign Cain instead.
The Texas Rangers have announced their intention to try to turn things around in 2018 and return to the playoffs. Jay Bruce would be a smart choice for the Rangers this offseason. The Rangers could use Bruce as a designated hitter or in right field, both of which are positions that the Rangers ought to focus on improving over the winter. It also helps that Globe Life Park is a place where Bruce will be able to improve his power numbers.
8 Lance Lynn: Texas Rangers
The Houston Astros have a formidable top of the rotation featuring Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel. Rather than spending aggressively for another top of the rotation starter, the Astros would probably be better off signing Lance Lynn. He would be a quality middle of the rotation starter and would help bolster the rotation, providing depth that would be useful in case of injury.
There would probably be many Astros fans who would prefer a more high-impact arm, such as Arrieta or Darvish, but GM Jeff Luhnow has shown a propensity for making more cost-effective moves. Lynn would prove to be very useful as a mid-rotation arm behind Verlander and Keuchel, and maybe even McCullers. Besides, adding Lynn over Darvish would help them allocate that money elsewhere. Star second baseman Jose Altuve is probably someone the Astros would be wise to try to lock up long-term.
7 Mike Moustakas: Kansas City Royals
The last of three prominent Kansas City Royals on this list is third baseman Mike Moustakas. We already projected his teammates Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer will switch jerseys this offseason, but will Moustakas follow their lead? The Royals are the only team Moustakas has ever known and he has expressed interest in returning (so have the others to be fair). Having missed out on their other two free agents and with a goal to still try to contend, the Royals might have motivation to get a deal done.
The Kansas City Royals will retain one of their free agents and that will be Mike Moustakas. He will bolster third base and provide a stabilizing presence in the lineup for a few more years. He has generally done well hitting in Kauffman Stadium and he should continue to produce well there. He is a fan favourite and a reunion would be good for all involved.
6 Zack Cozart: Cincinnati Reds
One way or another, Zack Cozart will likely be staying with the Cincinnati Reds for 2018 at least. There has been much debate over whether it is worth it for the Reds to extend Cozart a qualifying offer, worth about $18 million. Even though Cozart had a career year, that one-year contract would be tough to pass up. If he does well again, it could position him for a more lucrative contract next offseason.
The Reds do not really have another viable starting shortstop in their system. Even though they are still rebuilding, there is no harm in keeping Cozart around for one year. If he returns on a one-year deal through the QO, he could be traded at the trade deadline for some prospects if he continues to produce. There are also not that many teams out there with a clear need at shortstop for 2018, helping increase the odds he returns to Cincinnati.
5 Alex Cobb: Toronto Blue Jays
At his end of season press conference, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said they will get one impact position player and one impact pitcher. As we already mentioned, the Jays will get their impact bat in Cain. As for that impact pitcher, Alex Cobb would be a very smart pickup for the Blue Jays.
Though there have been some reports suggesting the Jays interest in Cobb, there will obviously be competition for him. Since he is not a top of the rotation starter, he will be much more affordable for a team with some heavy payroll commitments. The Blue Jays should have the financial means to give Cobb a good contract that will entice him to head north for a few years. Though he comes with some injury concerns, Cobb should be a good mid-rotation starter for the Blue Jays. It also helps he has a good track record of success against the AL East teams as a member of the rival Tampa Bay Rays.
4 J.D. Martinez: Arizona Diamondbacks
This will be arguably one of the biggest tests of the new Arizona Diamondbacks front office since they took over from the Dave Stewart regime. A lot of the current team was inherited, but GM Mike Hazen will now have his own opportunity to put his fingerprints on the roster. Doing what is necessary to re-sign J.D. Martinez would go a long way to show the fanbase that they are serious about contending.
Having Martinez in the middle of the Diamondbacks lineup for 2018 (and beyond) would deepen their lineup considerably. They would continue to be a credible playoff contender by having his power bat in the lineup alongside Paul Goldschmidt. It would not be without risk, as it would mean adding much more payroll to a team that already will require big financial commitments to Zack Greinke and Goldschmidt. With that said, it would provide the Diamondbacks with a very solid core along with all the other players currently on the roster.
2 Jonathan Lucroy: Colorado Rockies
Jonathan Lucroy is one player whose poor performance in 2017 really hurt his chances at getting a significant contract in free agency. He will not come close to the $80 million contract he was projected to get at the start of the season, but will still be regarded as one of the better free agent options. Age will also not be on his side, which will help to further drive down his price.
This situation could turn out favourable for teams needing catching help. It might be a cop out to predict this, but he will likely re-sign with the Colorado Rockies. Lucroy has said that he likes the Rockies’ talent in the upper minor leagues and wants to play for a winner – he sees that the Rockies have the talent to contend in the coming seasons. It also helps that the Rockies have been pleased with what they have seen from Lucroy since coming over in a mid-season trade.
1 Shohei Otani: Seattle Mariners
Okay, to be fair, there is no real “favourite” to sign Japanese phenom Shohei Otani at this point. Reports have all indicated that money is not going to be a priority for Otani at this point, as he favours the overall fit of the team and their chances at winning. He insists on being able to both pitch and hit. This seemingly gives American League teams the advantage since they can allow Otani to DH on days he isn’t pitching, allowing him to focus only on hitting those days.
The Seattle Mariners are a team who might be a good fit for Otani. They are a team seemingly on the precipice of making the playoffs. The Mariners could also give Otani their open DH slot and would love to place him at the top of their rotation, especially since King Felix seems to be declining. They already might sign Carlos Santana, but Santana can also play first on days Otani is the DH. Ichiro Suzuki had a great deal of success in Seattle and seemed to love it there, and the Mariners have shown a willingness to spend big money on the right player when it comes time to work out an extension with Otani.
All we need is for MLB to find a way to arrange a home run contest between Otani and Madison Bumgarner!