Not long ago, the Internet realized that a lot of really good baseball players are scheduled to reach free agency following the 2018 season. Yankee fans have been counting down the days for Bryce Harper since the day the Nationals drafted him, but it's not only him that could be up for grabs. The list also includes a couple more MVPs - Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen - another young star who'll be just 26 in Manny Machado, and several aces like Jose Fernandez, Dallas Keuchel and Matt Harvey. Clayton Kershaw and David Price can both opt out of their current contracts post-2018, and so can Jason Heyward who'll still be under 30.
The Yankees have around $67 million in guaranteed contracts for 2019 committed to four players in Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann and Starlin Castro. If Tanaka uses his 2017 opt-out and McCann's sixth-year option doesn't vest, that number could be as low as $30 million. Controllable players like Didi Gregorius and Dellin Betances will cost a lot more by then in arbitration, but if they don't sign anyone past 2018 and keep their payroll near its current level, the Yankees would have well over $100 million per year to dole out. Imagine Harper and Keuchel or Machado and Fernandez along with a few role players to boot. That's the kind of light at the end of the tunnel that has a lot of fans willing to have the team sit on its hands financially for another three years.
Three years is a long time in life and in baseball. In November 2018, we'll be almost halfway through the first term of the next president. Mariano Rivera will be writing his Hall of Fame speech. Current-day dreams of '18 are based on several assumptions, the grandest of which is that most of these guys will actually reach free agency. A good portion of 2018-19 class members play for teams who can afford to keep them. The Astros and Blue Jays are up-and-comers and don't have huge contracts on their books so they could possibly meet the outlandish extension prices that Keuchel and Donaldson will command. McCutchen's a franchise icon in Pittsburgh, and he's already taken one team-friendly deal to stay. The Orioles aren't huge spenders, but they reportedly offered $150 million to Chris Davis - that, and more could go to Machado if Davis walks.
Harvey and Fernandez may not get what they want from their present clubs, but they're both good bets to be traded at some point and the acquiring teams might be more willing to pay. Harper won't take a cent less than his current free agent value, but if Washington offers $400 mil plus with multiple opt-outs would he really say no? Scott Boras clients do tend to test free agency, but there's a point where doing so doesn't really make sense.
It's also tough to gauge their values three years in advance. Players get hurt and decline. Kershaw will be 31 in 2019, with over 2,300 innings on his ledger if he keeps up his current pace. Price will be 33 and McCutchen 32. Harvey and Fernandez are both Tommy John survivors who have yet to toss 200 innings in a season. Examples? Mat Latos is a free agent right now. After his 4.8 fWAR, 3.10 FIP 2013 season, his free agency seemed like it would be an exciting prospect. Two years and just 37 mediocre starts later, not so much. Ditto Ian Desmond, an elite all around shortstop in 2012 and 2013 with nine figures seemingly in his future. As a 2015 free agent, he's struggling to drum up interest.
Even with a requisite number of re-signings, injuries and drop-offs, 2018 still figures to feature some excellent free agents. This isn't the early 2000's, though, when the Yankees could pretty much sign whoever they wanted. Yes, money still talks, but lots of teams have lots of it now thanks to revenue sharing and new TV deals. The idea that Harper will don the pinstripes simply because he grew up a front-running Yankee fan 2,500 miles away in Las Vegas is silly. In the Internet age, athletes don't need the nation's biggest market as a selling ground, so New York doesn't carry the cache it once did. How attractive a destination will the Yankees be if they let their roster erode to the point it would need to in order to avoid signing players beyond 2018?
If the Yankees don't reinvest the money that comes off the books next winter when Mark Teixeira's and Carlos Beltran's contracts end, they may be alright with Greg Bird and Aaron Judge, but what about a year later when not only Sabathia and A-Rod, but also Tanaka, Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi are free to go? That 2018 squad would be alarmingly barren, especially in the pitching department, where the Yankees would need to rely on Luis Severino and several prospects who are either low ceiling or a long way from the majors.
The good news is the Yankees can still be players in '18 without being idle for the next three years. It's looking less and less likely that Hal Steinbrenner will change his mind and raise payroll to add major pieces for 2016, but he'll have more than $40 million in AAV off his books next winter and another $50 million plus free after 2017. The Yankees can re-invest all that coin on the next two markets and still shed another huge chunk, between $35 and $52 million, when Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, Andrew Miller and possibly Brian McCann's guarantees end. Along with the relief that an upped luxury tax threshold in the next collective bargaining agreement should provide, that means they can stick with their recent strategy of spending what's ending - perhaps on Pineda and Eovaldi extensions or Stephen Strasburg or Jake Arrieta - while also having a shot at Harper and the 2018 big boys.
The promise of 2018, mouth-watering as it may be, isn't just cause to do nothing for the next three years. Punting seasons shouldn't be in the Yankee playbook, and if things don't go exactly as planned, it could be a long road to recovery.