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Nightengale: Too Soon? MLB GMs Salivating Over Potential 2018 Free Agents

Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper. Photo: overtime.news

You can’t escape the topic in the halls of the Gaylord National Resort during baseball’s winter meetings.

It’s in the lobby during the daytime.

It’s in the bars at night.

It’s in the general managers’ suites 24/7.

It’s the free-agent class of 2018, the Louis Roederer Cristal Brut of baseball talent, where everyone’s needs can be answered by simply writing checks.

“There are 30 teams in baseball looking ahead to 2018,” Chicago Cubs GM Jed Hoyer told USA TODAY Sports. “When you look at 2018, obviously there are a ton of great names, and it would be irresponsible in our jobs not to look ahead and think about what’s going to be available.

“And that’s what we’ll do.”

The Cubs might be the defending World Series champs and possess the finest array of young position players in baseball, but when you have the chance to pluck a player or two from the greatest free agency class in decades, they might not be able to resist the temptation of dipping into their fat checking account.

The temptations are enormous, led by a duo hitting the market at the tender age of 26. Bryce Harper, 2015 NL MVP, and Manny Machado will test the boundaries of years and dollars when suitors aim to pry them from the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles, respectively.

That’s just the beginning. In fact, you could fill a freight elevator with players who have claimed at least one of baseball’s three major awards.

Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel (60) pitches during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel (60) pitches during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There’s 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson, who will be 32. You want a closer? How about Zach Britton of the Orioles, who was perfect in 47 saves last year? How about starters Matt Harvey of the New York Mets or Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros?

And potentially Cy Young winners Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers and David Price of the Boston Red Sox, who have opt-out clauses? Goodness.

“I think that everybody has long-term projections,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said, “because if you’re not looking forward, you’re not doing it justice. And that class sure looks good now. But you also know those things can always change.

“When you look at the past free agent classes, you say, ‘Oh, this is a pitching one coming up in three years.’ But by the time it gets here, guys are extended and stuff like that.

“It’s hard to plan on, ‘Wow, I’m really going to go free agency wise in 2018,’ because you don’t know who’s going to be available by the time it gets here, and you don’t know if you’re going to get them”

There’s a difference with this group, however: All seem inclined to hit free agency. And now they’re so close there’s little sense in doing anything but bet on themselves.

Particularly in an industry where annual revenues may hit $12 billion or more by then. That’s a big reason why the Nationals are prepared to move on without Harper if he seeks a deal in excess of $400 million.

The Orioles face a similar quandary with Machado, who has finished fourth and fifth in the past two MVP races.

“Timing’s everything,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, whose contract also expires after 2018. “Manny’s not gonna be here? There’s your answer. He goes, I go.”

Others might still be within or near their prime. Harvey would be 30 and Kershaw just a year older. And closers Andrew Miller, Craig Kimbrel and Britton will be 33 or younger.

“As we bring more youthful executives into the game there seems to be a tide to young players,” said agent Scott Boras, who represents Harper, Harvey and Britton.

“I think the information that is going to ownership is that those players who are 26-, 27-, 28-year-old free agents are very, very highly-coveted.

“A lot of clubs have now marshaled their positioning to that age group.”

Sports agent Scott Boras, shown here in a 2009 photo with client Adrian Beltre. Photo: AP File
Sports agent Scott Boras, shown here in a 2009 photo with client Adrian Beltre. Photo: AP File

And with the money pouring into baseball, the way Boras figures it, clubs might have $200 million of revenue rolling in before they even sell a ticket.

“Consequently, clubs who have the ability to attract a major superstar are going to be far more than in prior times because of the success of the game,” Boras said.

The Chicago White Sox, who Wednesday made their second stunning trade in 24 hours, are the latest exhibit. They’ve slashed their payroll after trading Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, and plan to keep on going, hoping to also move veterans Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier and David Robertson.

When the smoke clears, they’ll be prepared to go toe-to-toe with the New York Yankees and anyone else in the spending frenzy. They could have as little as $3.2 million in salary commitments by November 2018.

That’s not a coincidence.

“It’s certainly caught the attention of a number of different clubs that two years from now there could be a lot of high-impact talent potentially available,” White Sox GM Rick Hahn said. “To plan with specific targets in mind right now is probably a little foolhardy, but we’ve all noticed the potential depth of that class.

“And we’re going to be ready.”

Join the club. In a study of future salaries obtained by USA TODAY Sports, the Detroit Tigers ($112.1 million) are the only team in baseball with more than $100 million in commitments in 2019, while the Nationals, Red Sox and San Francisco Giants are the only other teams above $90 million.

The Yankees, who are making no secret of their plans to resurrect their golden days of out-spending the free world, will have just $56.14 million in commitments in 2019.

The Dodgers, who had baseball’s highest payroll at $254 million last season, will have only $44.7 million in commitments for the 2019 season. The Mets are at $53 million. The Toronto Blue Jays are at $54.1 million.

The Philadelphia Phillies don’t have a single penny in commitments past the 2018 season.

Life is going to be awfully good for the free-agent class, and you can be assured that teams will continue to do their financial planning now, getting ready for that lottery ticket.

Besides, it’s only fitting that when the bidding begins in earnest in December 2018, the winter meetings that year will be in the perfect locale: Las Vegas.

And what happens in Vegas certainly won’t stay in Vegas, with actions that will reverberate throughout the game.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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