Based on how the last two winters have gone, the MLB Hot Stove we’ve always known and loved has fundamentally changed.
It’s the only reason why we can explain this year’s top free agents — Manny Machado and Bryce Harper — didn’t sign new deals until spring training was already underway. And let’s not forget about the growing number of veterans either still out of work or accepting non-guaranteed deals. What’s transpired has also urged some of today’s top talent, like Luis Severino and Aaron Nola, to agree to extensions that appear as though they’ll end up being quite team-friendly.
Major League Baseball is a results-based business, so every year is important for those taking the field on a daily basis. Given the current labor climate, that level of importance increases even more for those on the brink of free agency. The following 10 ballplayers are currently set to hit the open market at the conclusion of the 2019 campaign. When it comes to their ultimate earning power and the kind of contract they’ll have a chance to receive, their performance over the next six or seven months will be crucial. If you are looking to bet on baseball, then these players are the ones to watch since they will be very motivated to perform in 2019. You can now participate in NJ Sports Betting since gambling on sports is now legal in the state.
Yasmani Grandal, Milwaukee Brewers
Although Yasmani Grandal’s current contract includes a mutual option for 2020, there’s a good chance he’ll be a free agent for the second consecutive offseason. He joins a handful of players on this list in that same situation, but it was by choice for the veteran catcher.
The former Los Angeles Dodger drew interest from at least the Minnesota Twins and New York Mets on a multi-year basis. He ultimately opted for Milwaukee’s one-year offer because he wanted to continue setting the standard for the top players at his position with regard to average annual value. He accomplished that by signing with the Brewers — his $16 million salary is fourth-highest in baseball among catchers despite the obvious gamble on himself.
The 30-year-old is looking for 2019 to be his fourth consecutive season of 20-plus homers, and being in Milwaukee for home games should help make that happen. Of his 24 homers from last year, 20 came as a left-handed batter, accompanied by a .240 ISO. According to Baseball Prospectus’ park factors by handedness, Miller Park was one of the best places to hit homers for left-handed sluggers in 2018.
Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros
Following a 5.5-fWAR performance with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, Gerrit Cole failed to approach those numbers in the two years that followed. He did that and then some in 2018 for the Astros, posting a 2.88 ERA and 1.03 WHIP with a 34.5% strikeout rate and 8.0% walk rate. This production led to a 6.3 fWAR and a top-five finish in AL Cy Young voting.
Probably one of the most drastic changes in this career year was a drop in ground-ball rate. Cole had never seen that number dip below 45.6% in a single season before 2018, when it settled in at 36.0%.
Instead of accepting what the Astros wanted to pay him this year, Cole went to arbitration and beat Houston, winning the right to earn $13.5 million in 2019 (he earned $6.75 million last year). The right-hander has a mostly solid track record and pedigree since debuting in 2013. His recent uptick in production likely would’ve played well if he was a free agent this past winter (look at how that worked out for Patrick Corbin).
Cole doesn’t necessarily need to repeat what he just did, but he needs to show it’s somewhat sustainable to get close to the payday agent Scott Boras will likely be searching for.
Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
When strictly looking at counting stats, Jose Abreu has been very consistent. He’s notched at least 20 homers each season since debuting in 2014 and has also added 100-plus RBI to that on four different occasions. His 22 dingers and 68 RBI were both single-season career lows in 2018, but those weren’t the only things that took a dip.
Abreu watched his wRC+ (114), OPS (.798), and fWAR (1.2) drop to career-low marks, too. His batted-ball profile didn’t show much change outside of a .294 BABIP, which was also a career low (it had never been below .327 in a single season prior to ’18). So it seems as if tough luck played a part in some of Abreu’s decreased production.
He at least had himself a strong second half after struggling before the All-Star break. Having a typical year at the plate will be even more important this year because of both his looming free agency and role on the White Sox. Abreu has never been a stellar defender, but Chicago’s acquisition of Yonder Alonso will push him to designated hitter much more often than before.
Sure, a universal designated hitter may be on the horizon. However, the 32-year-old’s earning power could take even more of a hit if his time on the field gets significantly decreased and his offense doesn’t bounce back.
Matt Harvey, Los Angeles Angels
Toward the end of 2015, most would’ve laughed at starting pitcher Matt Harvey settling for a one-year, $11 million contract in his first trip through free agency. Unfortunately, injuries combined with some poor off-field choices in New York have completely changed the trajectory of his career.
After getting traded early in 2018 to the Cincinnati Reds, Harvey mostly looked like a serviceable MLB starter again. Over 128 innings, he hurled a 4.50 ERA with a 1.25 WHIP, 20.6% strikeout rate, 5.2% walk rate, and 1.5 fWAR. Those were (mostly) all vast improvements compared to what he did with the Mets in injury-shortened seasons of 2016 and 2017.
The upcoming campaign is crucial for all the obvious reasons — he gets another fresh start in a new city (and league), will be starting every fifth day, and has another chance to recoup some value before re-entering the market. Two things he’ll need to get under control to have a successful year include his hard-hit rate (38.9% in ’18, increased each year since ’13) and his homers allowed per nine innings (1.57 in ’18 and 2.04 in ’17).