Baseball, like life, sometimes seems constructed to confound all of our hopes and predictions. Just as the average American from a few years ago might do a triple-take upon encountering today’s headlines, an Obama-era baseball fan would have a hard time recognizing some of the sport’s top stories today. The Royals and Tigers are terrible? Max Muncy is doing what? Hitters set record-high home run rates soon after suffering the lowest-scoring full season (2014) in roughly 40 years? Mike Trout is—well, no, Mike Trout remains amazing. At least we can count on Trout.
But we can’t count on most players to repeat their performances from one year to the next, let alone one year to the next two or three. And nowhere in baseball are the limits to consistency and human predictive powers more apparent than in the gradual undoing of the vaunted 2018 free-agent class, which once appeared to have the power to reshape the sport. Following several subtractions, collapses, and intensifying physical concerns, that class—which is now months away from graduating its team-control years—looks like a fraction of its former self: still intriguing, but not transformative. And that could be bad news for baseball, which has watched its financial structure and labor relations grow increasingly precarious and can no longer look to a massive free-agent windfall for salvation.
The sport’s attention started turning to the 2018 confluence of free agents before the calendar turned to 2016. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan got the hype train rolling in a December 2015 article entitled, “Why the incredible Class of 2018 will change MLB as we know it.” Here’s how Passan teased the talent:
The free agent Class of 2018, as it stands, is a collection of players so good it seems impossible one market could absorb them all at once. Both MVPs from this season, Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson, will hit free agency after the 2018 season. So can the greatest pitcher of this generation, Clayton Kershaw, along with the current American League Cy Young winner (Dallas Keuchel), two of the finest arms in the big leagues (José Fernández and Matt Harvey) and the pitcher who just signed the biggest-money contract ever for a pitcher (David Price).
Not one of those seven names still produces the same impression it made in 2015. Fernández, who died a little more than nine months after that paragraph appeared, is the saddest to see; his loss, along with the loss of his boat-crash companions, extends beyond baseball, and his absence from this free-agent class reminds us that life itself can be more fleeting than a player’s peak.
Donaldson continued to be one of baseball’s best players in 2016 and 2017, but he’s having by far his worst season since his 2013 breakout, at the worst possible time for his prospects of cashing in. First he experienced shoulder problems that hampered his throwing, forced him to spend time at DH, and finally sent him to the disabled list; he’s since missed a month with a calf strain, and a recent setback postponed his return for at least a few more weeks. When he has been in the lineup, he’s managed only a league-average-ish .234/.333/.423 slash line. Donaldson’s defense at third no longer stands out statistically, and he’ll turn 33 in December.
Harper, approaching his 26th birthday, has sandwiched two useful but far-from-spectacular seasons (2016 and 2018) around a productive but injury-curtailed 2017, and 2015 remains the sole season in which he reached five FanGraphs WAR. Subsequent analysis attached a caveat to that campaign too, revealing that Harper’s results had far exceeded the stats that his batted balls seemed to dictate. For years, fans and media members speculated that Harper would be bound for the Bronx, but midway through his walk year, the Yankees have four outfielders with higher WAR than his.
Keuchel, who threw 232 innings with a sub-three FIP in 2015, has posted high-threes FIPs in each season since and missed time with a shoulder injury in 2016 and a neck problem last season.
Injuries have hit Harvey much harder than that. Thoracic outlet syndrome severely sapped both his stuff and his stats: Baseball-Reference appraises him as a sub-replacement pitcher since the start of 2016, and that sustained stretch of alternating unavailability and ineffectiveness, coupled with concerns about his reportedly hard-partying off-the-field life, made the Mets designate him for assignment in May after Harvey refused a minor league assignment. Although his fastball and his fortunes have improved somewhat with Cincinnati, he still seems closer to settling for an invite to 2019 spring training than commanding a multiyear contract.
Then there’s the opt-out trio: Price, Jason Heyward, and Kershaw. The first two are enjoying slight bouncebacks from down years, but neither is nearly as attractive to teams as he was when he signed his current contract. Price, who’ll turn 33 in August and has elbow scares and clubhouse blowups in his recent past, seems unlikely to land a bigger deal than the $127 million he has coming to him over the next four years; ditto for the light-hitting Heyward at five years and $106 million. Kershaw, of course, offers the most fascinating case: His résumé is unrivaled, but his recent history is festooned with red flags, including diminished stuff and stats and repeated back injuries. In the unlikely event that he does hit the open market, rather than sticking with the $65 million he’s due over 2019 and 2020 or leveraging the opt-out for an extension from L.A., he won’t inspire the same exuberant bidding that he would have had he reached free agency coming off a healthy year.
Some other potential 2018 free agents, such as Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, and Charlie Blackmon, played hooky from the class by signing early extensions. A glance at the long list of players who didn’t sign extensions makes it easy to understand why certainty is sometimes tough to turn down. This year’s free-agent crop includes dozens of 2015 standouts whose careers have trended downward of late as age or injuries have conspired against them, including (but not limited to) Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Pollock, Adam Jones, Daniel Murphy, Andrew Miller, Brian Dozier, Ian Kinsler, Garrett Richards, Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Drew Smyly, Drew Pomeranz, Zach Britton, Carter Capps, Trevor Rosenthal, Adeiny Hechavarria, Derek Norris, Hunter Pence, and Adrián González. In Passan’s 2015 piece, he wrote that “Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez have the sort of swings that looks like they’ll never falter,” but they’re faltering today. Time and infirmity always win in the end.
Naturally, not every impending free agent comes with such significant or deal-breaking downsides. The valedictorian of the 2018 class may be the about-to-be-26-year-old Manny Machado, who, despite slumping in June, is having his best offensive season. The soon-to-be ex-Oriole hasn’t quite blossomed the way it looked like he might when he was worth seven wins at age 22, and he now seems stretched at shortstop, but players with his combination of age and excellence aren’t available often. Beyond that, Craig Kimbrel remains an effective closer, although a sub-.200 BABIP has helped mask his highest FIP ever. Patrick Corbin’s embrace of his breaking ball has raised his stock, despite a scary post-April velocity loss, and Nelson Cruz still hasn’t slipped at almost-38. Charlie Morton gets better by the start, Nick Markakis is about to take his name off the top of the list of the best players never to have made an All-Star Game nor earned an MVP vote, the good Michael Brantley is back, and Kelvin Herrera and Adam Ottavino are appealing late-inning arms. Add up all of those options, and it’s clear that there’s more total talent to go around than there was last winter. But there’s not enough there to salivate over the way we once did, or to justify teams going to great lengths to prepare for by practicing austerity and clearing payroll room in preceding offseasons.
The point of this exercise is not to pick on Passan, who acknowledged at the time that “a lot can happen in three years” and that the class would “winnow naturally.” Many writers, me among them, rosterbated about the possible perfect-storm scenario. But that scenario’s dissolution is a glaring reminder that players’ past performances don’t guarantee future results. The graph below, based on FanGraphs data from 1901 to 2017, shows the percentage of players with at least four WAR—approximately All-Star-caliber for non-relievers—in any given year that went on to produce four or more WAR in each subsequent season. The line descends steadily: Only a little more than one-third of the four-or-more-WAR players in a typical year will be worth that much again four years later. From one point of view, many of today’s most valuable players are tomorrow’s leading candidates for regression and decline.
Teams have learned that lesson well, which is one reason why we’ve wound up with a player-compensation system that’s recently looked broken. MLB’s best players have skewed younger since the era of unpoliced PED use came to a close, but the tyranny of service time still ensures that many young stars make the minimum even though they’re worth much more. Ever-more-precise projections—and the organizational buy-in to obey what they say—have mostly stopped teams from paying for peak production from past-their-prime players. A growing capacity for clubs to develop players (and for players to develop themselves) using data and technology—as evidenced by the tweaks that Corbin, Ottavino, and Morton have made—has also discouraged teams from bidding on name-brand players when lower-profile alternatives might mimic or improve upon their output. Even last winter, the prospect of big payouts to come inspired some hopes that this offseason might restore spending to a more palatable level. But considering the struggles of several of the players whom those hopes were pinned on, that’s looking less likely.
A lot can happen in three months, too, and if Harper, Donaldson, and Kershaw have hot and healthy second halves, this discussion could be different by the time bidding is about to begin. If not, though, this much-discussed class won’t assuage swelling fears that free agency is cooked as currently constructed. “Once 2018 comes and the reckoning is upon baseball,” Passan wrote in 2015, “teams really will have one good choice: pay the players the billions upon billions they deserve and keep the booming business of baseball rolling into a new era.” If the decline of the class convinces teams not to spend big for a second straight winter, the players who once were forecasted to be counting their spoils will instead start spoiling for a fight.