MLB teams have only played around 9% of their regular season games, but we’ve got our eye on the next free agent class. The players referenced in this post are scheduled (or can elect) to become free agents after the 2017 season. These rankings are subject to change each month, as players drop off due to extensions, injuries, or poor performance, while others see their stock rise.
The first entry in this year’s Free Agent Power Rankings was published on March 14th. The pitchers have only made three or four starts, and the hitters have around 50 plate appearances. Naturally, there hasn’t been a lot of movement at the top of the rankings. We did see one player drop out of the running, as the Cardinals signed catcher Yadier Molina to a three-year, $60MM extension earlier this month. In hindsight, Molina should have snagged an honorable mention last time, but I underestimated his earning power.
That’s the goal here: to rank the upcoming free agents based on earning power. These rankings represent expected contract size, assuming each player reaches the open market and goes to the highest bidder. For the full list of 2017-18 MLB free agents, click here.
1. Jake Arrieta. Arrieta’s first three starts have gone well, as strikeouts are up and walks are down after 18 2/3 frames. There is a potential red flag, however, which was explained by Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs. Arrieta’s velocity appears to be down a few miles per hour in the early going, despite velocity tracking adjustments that have generally boosted readings across the game. After his second start, Arrieta told reporters, “There’s FanGraph articles. I don’t care about that.” As the pitcher put it, “When the 95-to-97 comes back, it’s going to be tough for teams. And it still is.” Arrieta is right in that it’s only April. But if he somehow stays at 91-92 miles per hour all year, his earning power will likely be lower. Back in Spring Training, Arrieta told Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, “I don’t think a six- or seven-year deal is out of the question.” We’ll stick with a five-year prediction for now.
2. Yu Darvish. Four starts in, Darvish has succeeded on the back of an unsustainable .230 batting average on balls in play. Strikeouts are down and walks are up in Darvish’s 24 2/3 innings, but it would be unwise to read into it at this point. If Darvish is able to make 30+ starts for the second time in his MLB career, he’ll be paid handsomely. That contract could still come from the Rangers, as GM Jon Daniels told Norm Hitzges on 1310 The Ticket back in March that both sides are open to midseason negotiations.
3. Johnny Cueto. Cueto scuffled in his first start at Arizona, but has gone seven innings in each of his last two outings. He remains on track to opt out of his remaining four years and $84MM after the season, or at least negotiate some kind of extension with the Giants.
4. Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka has gotten progressively better in each of his four starts this year, culminating in a fine seven-inning start against the White Sox last night. The Yankees’ ace must decide after the season whether to opt out of the remaining three years and $67MM left on his contract. With a healthy year, opting out would seem to be a no-brainer. A few weeks ago, Mike Mazzeo and Bill Madden of the New York Daily News wrote, “Sources tell the Daily News that if the Japanese ace opts out of his $155 million contract, the Yankees would have no interest in pursuing a costly, long-term extension with the 28-year-old righty.” They went on to report that the Yankees “are annoyed at Tanaka’s agent, Casey Close, for holding the threat of a potential opt-out over their heads.” Yankees top brass rejected this report out of hand, as detailed by George A. King III of the New York Post. President Randy Levine commented to King, “I never heard any of this. We normally don’t move until the event.” Recent history backs this up, with the Yankees allowing Alex Rodriguez to opt out before doing a new deal, and waiting until C.C. Sabathia was on the brink of doing so.
5. Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy, 31 in June, remains the best position player of the 2017-18 free agent class despite a quiet start. After playing in 11 of the Rangers’ 15 games, Lucroy has just one extra-base hit in 44 plate appearances. One new development: on March 27th, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported that Lucroy and the Rangers tabled extension talks. Shortly after that point, Molina signed his new extension with the Cardinals. With a strong season, Lucroy would be justified in seeking Molina’s $20MM average annual value, over a five-year period.
6. J.D. Martinez. Martinez sprained the Lisfranc ligament in his right foot on March 18th and opened the season on the disabled list. On Tuesday, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said his right fielder is “pretty close” to a minor league rehab assignment, according to Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. At this point, there is no reason to expect the injury to affect Martinez’s earning power in free agency.
7. Justin Upton. The big question is whether Upton will opt out of the remaining four years and $88MM on his contract with the Tigers. We should have a better idea by the time he turns 30 this August. But if he hits 30 home runs and draws 70 walks, he’ll have to at least consider seeking a new five-year deal. Thus far, he’s hitting .250/.372/.472 with a pair of homers over 43 trips to the plate.
8. Eric Hosmer. There is probably confirmation bias in me dropping Hosmer a spot after just 58 plate appearances this year. But Hosmer’s $100MM projection was always on shaky ground, as he’s hitting just .232/.301/.364 in 512 plate appearances since June of last year. As far as extension talks, there was a development in mid-March. Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star talked to Royals owner David Glass, who said, “I think it will be difficult. I think Hoz wants to stay here, and I think he’s very loyal to our organization. But at the same time, these guys have agents that want to get the best deal for them. Hoz has (Scott) Boras, and if Boras doesn’t get a really good deal for Hoz, then it affects his relationship with his other clients. They sort of set a standard with each one of their clients. So I think we’ll have a difficult time with Hosmer.” As you might imagine, Boras rejected the notion that he is driving the bus rather than his client. In the shorter term, the Royals might have to consider trading Hosmer three months from now if they fall out of contention in the AL Central. That scenario could work to Hosmer’s benefit, as he’d be ineligible for a qualifying offer after the year if dealt.
9. Mike Moustakas. Hosmer’s teammate across the diamond has received less contract-related fanfare, but could soon pass him in earning power. Moustakas, 28, was profiled by Jeff Todd in our Make Or Break Year series in March. So far, the 28-year-old seems to be making it. He’s hitting .300/.352/.620 with five home runs in 54 plate appearances. Moustakas had a hot start last April as well, hitting seven home runs in a 71 plate appearance span before suffering a season-ending ACL tear. So far Moose seems no worse for the wear, starting 12 of the Royals’ 14 games and making appearances in the other two. Moustakas, also a Boras client, could end up hitting 30 home runs this year with solid defense at the hot corner.
10. Michael Pineda. Yes, it’s been only three starts for Pineda, and his first one was a dud in Tampa Bay. But his second effort, also against the Rays, was a masterpiece ranking among the best of his 103 career starts. Pineda can be maddening, with brilliant strikeout to walk ratios but abnormally high home run per flyball rates and BABIPs. For his Yankees career, the result has continually been an ERA much higher than what a metric like xFIP or SIERA might suggest. Pineda’s final stat line could be more of the same, but with a few corrections he could receive Cy Young votes this year. (He was also profiled here as a “make or break” player.)
Dropping out: Carlos Gonzalez. CarGo could return to the top ten if he can right the ship, but he’s off to a miserable start. Over sixty trips to the plate, he’s hitting just .175/.200/.298 with a single home run and 13 strikeouts to go with a pair of walks. That’s not enough of a sample to panic, but it’s enough for a few younger players to edge ahead of him at the moment.