All eyes are still focused on the pennant races and postseason in Major League Baseball, but all 30 clubs are already making plans for the offseason involving free agents and whom they can afford to sign.
This year's market looks to be heavy on pitching and light on bats, giving the hitters even more leverage in negotiations to make a huge splash. Baseball is thriving financially with massive television deals leading to an explosive market, so there will be plenty of dollars to go around.
Looking ahead to free agency and predictions, there is one caveat to mention. Players who have options—most notably Zack Greinke, who can opt out of his deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers—are not considered for these predictions because they aren't officially free agents when the season ends.
Now, as far as the top stars who will hit the market this winter, here are predictions for where they will end up and how much they can expect to get.
Note: Ages listed are for start of 2016 season.
Yoenis Cespedes, OF (Age: 30)
In a market without hitting depth, Yoenis Cespedes is a clear standout. The former All-Star and Home Run Derby champion ranks ninth in MLB with a .550 slugging percentage and is tied for 11th with 35 home runs this season.
It's an opportune time for Cespedes, who has said he wants a deal of at least six years, to be hitting the market. However, for teams looking at Cespedes, there's the inherent danger of paying a player for a career year that he's unlikely to duplicate.
Cespedes is posting his lowest walk rate and second-highest strikeout rate, yet he is obliterating all of his previous offensive numbers thanks to a .322 batting average on balls in play, 18 points above his career mark.
That's a good indicator that Cespedes will never be this player again, especially as he hits the age of 30. But teams have shown a willingness to pay for career years in the past.
ESPN.com's Buster Olney reported there's a belief among teams that the San Francisco Giants will pursue Cespedes, though he did acknowledge the Mets star's second-half surge may have put him out of their price range.
That's bad news for Cespedes, because the Giants aren't shy about throwing money around. They once gave Barry Zito $126 million over seven years and now pay Hunter Pence $18 million per season, for instance.
The Mets would be an obvious choice because of Cespedes' built-in relationship with the franchise over the last two months, though it's always a mystery exactly how much payroll ownership can add because of the Wilpon family's financial problems.
A team like Washington could use Cespedes' power and elite defense in left field, but Jayson Werth's albatross deal leaves the Nationals no place to put him and with seemingly limited financial resources.
The two teams to watch are in the American League West: Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers. The latter has been a surprise playoff contender this season despite getting a .683 OPS from left fielders, so imagine the lineup with Cespedes in the middle of it and a healthy Yu Darvish back atop the rotation.
Bad long-term deals have burned the Angels—Albert Pujols hits a lot of home runs but adds little value in any other category at this point—but owner Arte Moreno has never been shy about spending money if he believes it will help the team win now.
Investing in pitching feels like a higher priority for the Angels, but they need more hitters beyond Mike Trout in the lineup.
Prediction: Cespedes signs six-year, $130 million deal with Angels.
David Price, LHP (Age: 30)
Like Cespedes, David Price is heading into free agency following the best season of his career. The difference is the left-hander has a long track record of elite performance to support him continuing it for at least three or four more seasons after turning 30.
There's also something to be said for the way Price has taken his game to another level after being inserted in a playoff race with Toronto, though he was still among the AL's best starters with Detroit earlier this season.
Greinke will certainly be an attractive commodity if he opts out, but Price should have no problems securing a bigger deal because of his brilliance on the mound and being two years younger.
So where does the line start for Price?
Clayton Kershaw's contract is the gold standard for pitchers. He signed a seven-year, $215 million extension with the Dodgers in 2014.
Price can certainly ask for a deal like that, though he's at a disadvantage because Kershaw was 25 years old when he signed that deal and had been established as the best pitcher in baseball the previous season.
Instead, Price just has to look at Max Scherzer's seven-year, $210 million deal with Washington last year. That was a unique deal because the Nationals are deferring half of that money for 14 years, meaning Scherzer will be collecting paychecks until 2028.
If Price is willing to do a deal like that, he could easily crack the $30 million average annual salary barrier. If he wants a traditional deal, his market would seem to be even more limited than it will be.
Given the success they have had this year, the New York Yankees seem like a team that would make a push for Price. Their starting pitching woes have been well-documented, to say nothing of Masahiro Tanaka's inability to make 30 starts in either of his first two seasons.
Taking a long-term look at things, the Yankees will have CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran coming off the books after 2016. That's $63 million in payroll opening up, not including Sabathia's $5 million buyout for 2017.
Plus, Alex Rodriguez will finally come off the books after the 2017 season.
Starting pitching isn't one of New York's strengths in the minors right now. There's young position player talent coming, like the already-arrived Greg Bird and soon-to-follow Aaron Judge, so being able to add a legitimate ace who can stay healthy will bring the franchise from solid playoff contender to World Series threat.
Prediction: Price signs seven-year, $205 million deal with Yankees.
Jason Heyward, OF (Age: 26)
Even though Cespedes is generating all the headlines late in the season, Jason Heyward is the position player who should end up getting the biggest deal. He's four years younger, has a strong track record of getting on base at a high clip and is an elite defensive right fielder.
More importantly for Heyward and his future team, the 26-year-old has been healthy for each of the last two years after missing at least 34 games in two of the previous three seasons.
The only negative facing Heyward is his power has never developed as expected. Kevin Goldstein of BaseballProspectus.com wrote in 2010 that Heyward owned plus raw power, but he hasn't hit more than 14 homers in a season since 2010.
Yet even with the modest power output, Heyward has increased his on-base percentage each of the last four years from .319 in 2011 to .352 this season. A team can plug him into the leadoff spot, and he can get on base and provide Gold Glove defense in a corner outfield position.
Considering Heyward's youth, he could realistically flirt with a deal in the $25 million per-season range. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com got multiple executives to offer a comparison point for Heyward this offseason back in March:
One GM went so far as to call it "crazy" to suggest Heyward could get $200 million, and some others were fairly skeptical, as well. The executives in that camp suggested he hasn't shown enough power or hit enough, especially against left-handers, to warrant that type of contract. Several pointed to the Choo deal as fair, though even those execs acknowledged he'd shoot much higher than that. One said he could see $20 million a year (though not for 10 years), and one thought only $15 million to $17 million.
After another strong season by Heyward in 2015, it seems likely that he will breeze by those conservative $15-17 million per-year estimates.
Heyward does have a wide platoon split, boasting a .655 career OPS against lefties, but he's at least gotten on base at a .341 clip against southpaws in 2015 to alleviate some concerns.
The Cardinals are the obvious candidate for Heyward given their built-in relationship, though Heyman did point out that Matt Holliday's $120 million deal has so far seemed to be around their maximum comfort level on a long-term extension.
That could easily change this winter, especially since Heyward has more years left in his prime than a typical free agent.
Outside of St. Louis, there's no obvious landing spot because a lot of the big-spending teams are set in right field.
Boston seems to be lurking in the shadows to make a big move, especially with Dave Dombrowski running the show, but many long-term free-agent deals have burned ownership recently that it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Red Sox go all-in with the youth movement and add a few average pieces when necessary.
Seattle could once again try to make a big free-agent splash, allowing Nelson Cruz to DH full time. The Angels could emerge if they decide to upgrade over Kole Calhoun in right field and, assuming they make a play for him, miss out on Cespedes.
Just based on fit and potentially available money, Heyward remaining in St. Louis seems like the best option at this point.
Prediction: Heyward signs seven-year, $150 million deal with Cardinals.
Stats via Baseball-Reference.com; contract info via Cot's Baseball Contracts.
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