The 2018-19 off-season is one of the most anticipated in baseball history with major names like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson all set to flood onto the free agent market.
Baseball fans and journalists have breathlessly predicted that Harper and Machado, both very young for unrestricted free agents, could threaten the half-a-billion dollar mark in a pact that of 12 seasons. But that was before the great free agency freeze-out of on the winter of 2017-18.
During the recently-concluded offseason, Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas had a career year and cracked 38 home runs. Experts speculated that he'd get an $85 million contract from a team like the St. Louis Cardinals or New York Yankees. Instead, after turning down a qualifying offer of nearly three times as much, he was forced to accept a one-year deal from KC for "just" $6.5 million. (I know, it's a fortune for you and me. But it's less than a tenth of what Moustakas could expect a year ago.
While the prices were depressed this year, it's difficult to say if that will apply next offseason. Why? Because, 38 homers or not, Moustakas is no Machado or Harper. The latter are superstars who can transform a franchise while Moustakas is a pretty good player who isn't without his flaws. Even if owners are colluding to hold down prices, it only takes one of them to see an opportunity to exploit the circumstances and pounce on a franchise changer.
The speculation is that the changing climate of free agency will inspire more players to seek the relative security of a contract extension with their original team as opposed to waiting for a potential major payday that might never materialize. But Harper and Machado both say that they plan to test the market and that they've had no talks about a contract with their present clubs.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they don't have any young superstar players who are on the verge of free agency to allow them to benefit from market conditions, so they can't lock in guys who they would've otherwise been unable to retain in a bidding war because of circumstances. On paper, the Birds seem like they might be in a better position to bid on Machado, a player who interested them in the past. But I don't believe St. Louis will win a bidding war for a player like that even if the market is depressed by a third. I can't imagine the New York Yankees wouldn't swoop in at some point or, failing that eventuality, that the Chicago Cubs wouldn't buck up — moving Kris Bryant to left field — to keep one of the best players in baseball from going to their division rivals for a song. Especially if the Washington Nationals are able to convince Harper to stay in D.C.
Baseball's offseason had been pretty predictable for the past two decades with the big spenders bullying the small and medium market teams for the best free agent talent. But the 2017-28 Hot Stove League was the coldest I have ever seen. It's impossible to say right now how it's going to pan out next November and December. But, if I was a major league GM, I sure wouldn't count on getting the best players in the game for a steal.