I’m writing this article not because of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado — we’ve already covered them at BCB here and here — but because of a comment a friend of mine who was at NLCS Game 5 made on Facebook. He posted a photo of Clayton Kershaw warming up and wrote, “Kershaw’s last start as a Dodger.”
Notwithstanding the fact that the Dodgers could very well get to the World Series and give Kershaw more starts there, I thought, “Wait, what?” In my view, Kershaw would be crazy to take the opt-out on his contract.
Kershaw, who will turn 31 next March, is scheduled to make $34,571,429 in 2019 and $35,571,429 in 2020.
Given last year’s very slow free-agent market and the likelihood that things will be very much the same this winter, can you name any team that’s likely to pay Kershaw more over the next two years? Another friend, in response to my comment that Kershaw wouldn’t opt out, said that he might take a lower AAV to get more total money.
Maybe, but how much lower, and how much more total money? Remember that Kershaw, while still a very good pitcher, isn’t quite at the level of dominance where he was when he signed his current contract extension in January 2014. Back and other injuries have caused him to miss starts — Kershaw has failed to get to 30 starts in four of the last five seasons. His bWAR figures over his last six years: 8.0, 7.7, 7.5, 5.8, 4.9, 3.3. There’s a pattern there, I’d say. fWAR shows a similar decline over the last four seasons: 8.5, 6.5, 4.6, 3.5.
Kershaw and any other free agent with an opt-out clause would be taking a huge risk in the current market climate by opting out, in my view.
Here’s a full list of all the 2018-19 free agents. That list includes players with team or player options or opt outs, not all of which will be exercised. I counted 228 players on the list. Know how many will be under 30 next year? 20, including Harper and Machado.
Teams seem to be shying away from the big-name free agent over 30, not wanting to pay for past performance. We saw a lot of this last winter; here are 30 players who went unsigned last offseason (from that list, only Matt Holliday eventually signed, and that took until the end of July. Granted that some of those players had announced their retirement and weren’t looking for a contract, and some of the players on the 2018-19 list will likely do the same.
Still, baseball seems to be heading in the direction of trying to find younger, less-expensive talent and I don’t see that changing this offseason. Further, for guys like Kershaw, Machado and Harper, the open marketplace is pretty small, with only a handful of teams actually willing and able to afford them.
What does all this have to do with the Cubs? Apart from Harper and Machado, neither of whom is going to be a Cub in 2019 (in my view), the fact is that the Cubs already have a full roster’s worth of players under contract for next year, as shown in the payroll analysis I did here last week. That analysis does assume that the Cubs would pick up Cole Hamels’ option, but it does not otherwise include anyone who wasn’t under contract to the Cubs in 2018. Is there financial room for free agents? Sure, but there might not be roster room.
We have seen in the current postseason how relievers who throw 95-plus on a consistent basis have been important to their teams’ success. Corbin Burnes, Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, Josh James, Ryan Pressly, Ryan Brasier, Joe Kelly, Brandon Workman, Caleb Ferguson — all pitchers from teams in the NLCS who can throw 95-plus, and almost all of them are under 30, and prior to a year ago you probably hadn’t heard of any of them. Teams are finding these guys, and the Cubs need to find some, because they really don’t have anyone like this. Brandon Morrow can throw with that velocity, but his health is still uncertain. Pedro Strop can, but not consistently. James Norwood and Dillon Maples can, but have control and command issues.
So what I think is that the Cubs are going to make their biggest offseason moves by trade, and when they trade they will be looking for controllable young arms like this. Though the Cubs have enough relievers currently under contract or team control to fill a bullpen in 2019, the bullpen that the Cubs take to Arlington, Texas next March could look quite different.
Theo & Co. have generally traded well. I think they’ll be able to do that again. Prepare to say goodbye to World Series heroes and past favorites in an effort to keep up with modern baseball’s most important need — the relief pitcher.