There is something off-putting about the lead picture on this post, isn’t there? Matt Harvey, the Dark Knight, formerly a cornerstone of the Best Rotation In Our Lifetime, trading in his blue and orange for Cincinnati Red. Of course we all know Harvey was dealt from the Mets to the Reds last week, the latest chapter in a sad tale of injury, poor attitude and failed potential.
I say a sad tale because that’s really how the whole story makes me feel. Harvey was as good a pitcher as you could find in baseball, a former first round pick who had a six-win season in what was effectively his first full season in the majors. Tommy John surgery and thoracic outlet surgery showed us a player whose own body was at war with itself, and his controversial nightlife activities and general dismissiveness of his own team’s direction gave hints of a man who didn’t care much for the opinions of those trying to help him. Harvey’s quite possibly on his way out of baseball, and that’s tragic to me - at least as tragic as a game where grown men chase a ball around can be.
It did get me thinking though, about the expectations fans, writers and front offices set; and specifically the expectations around free agency. In a lot of ways, free agency is the time front offices fear most, and fans anticipate the most. GMs and owners know it’s the time players really start to get expensive, where the best players in the game reach nine-figure agreements. Fans yearn to land those stars and augment the rosters of their favorite team.
The 2019 free agent class, for the reasons above, is arguably the most anticipated and discussed class ever. For the better part of this decade, baseball’s stakeholders have looked to the upcoming winter as a harbinger of change, a set of twelve weeks that will change the sport as we know it. It wasn’t that long ago that you could build a World Series contender JUST off the players we figured would be free agents: Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and of course, Matt Harvey.
However, while the 2019 class is still hotly discussed, it’s not really the embarrassment of riches it once was. Kershaw is looking more and more vulnerable than ever before, with his diminished fastball, new vulnerability to home runs, and his third DL stint in three years. McCutchen and Donaldson are showing their age, and of course Jose Fernandez is no longer with us. Machado and Harper are still the crown jewels of the class, but the other tentpoles of the winter have seen their value drop drastically, and in cases like Harvey’s, disappear almost entirely.
The Yankees, of course, have been the center of the rumor mill around this free agent class. There have been countless discussions surrounding the luxury tax implications, positional need and whether or not the player has the right “makeup” for New York, a nonsensical take that I won’t get into here. Bottom line is, the Yankees are expected to be big spenders in the upcoming free agency class, but Brian Cashman’s done a masterful job of making sure they don’t have to be.
It would have been pretty easy for the Yankees to fall into the path a lot of people thought they would: bank on 2019. They’d assembled a couple of interesting prospects, but the bulk of the team for most of their post-2010 existence were old, declining veterans. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that the team would just trade in a few big contracts for new shiny ones, landing a couple of the Big Three starting pitchers and a hitter or two.
Then the franchise doubled down on the young talent, giving the likes of Aaron Judge and Luis Severino the time and opportunity needed to be called up, screw up, and adjust. They’re two of the best players in the game now, and who knows if that would have played out the same way had Cashman set himself firmly on the 2019 free agency class. The recent recall of Clint Frazier smells the same way; a young, high-ceiling player who struggled initially being given the time he needs to develop properly.
The Yankee youth movement, that formula of development and allowing for mistakes, has them among the absolute best teams in baseball, without the free agents that may or may not someday arrive. If Harper elects to leave Washington, the Yankees should move heaven and earth to sign him. But free agency, which fans have learned to expect as a given, never is, and we don’t know what the baseball landscape will look like in November. All we know is, the Yankees don’t have to engage in the market at all, and what a wonderful thought that is when you see how a player like Matt Harvey has fallen.