MLB free agency begins: Five bold FA and trade predictions, including Harper and Machado to the same team

As of 12 a.m. ET Saturday morning, free agents are truly free. They can negotiate and sign with any team. MLB free agency tends to be slow moving -- much like the season itself, it's a marathon, not a sprint -- but, after last winter's frigid free agency, don't be surprise is some second- and third-tier free agents jump on contracts early in the offseason to avoid getting left out in the cold.

With the World Series in the rear-view mirror, there is no better time to lay out some bold predictions for the 2018-19 offseason than right now. The free agent class is the best we've seen in years, and I'd say the odds are pretty good we'll see some blockbuster trades. Here, in no particular order, are our five bold predictions for the 2018-19 offseason.

The Phillies make not one, but two huge splashes

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Bryce Harper and Manny Machado to the Phillies? Bold. USATSI

Why decide between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado when you could sign both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado? The Phillies had a disappointing finish to this past season, no doubt, but they have some very good young building block players and gobs of payroll flexibility. Check out their salary commitments the next five years:

  • 2019: $68.9 million
  • 2020: $50.7 million
  • 2021: $15.1 million
  • 2022: $8.75 million
  • 2023: $8.25 million

That's it. Yeah, the Phillies do have to think about long-term extensions for Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins sooner rather than later, but even then they are flush with available payroll space. Philadelphia is one of the largest markets in the sport and the Phillies ran a top-five payroll every year from 2010-14. When time comes to spend, the Phillies can spend huge.

How often does a bona fide superstar become available in his mid-20s for nothing but cash? How often do two players like that become available at the same time? Basically never. The Phillies have money to spend and there is no better way to spend it than on Harper and Machado. I'm thinking matching 12-year, $375 million contracts with multiple opt-out clauses and a dual introductory press conference. Consider the potential lineup:

  1. 2B Cesar Hernandez
  2. 1B Rhys Hoskins
  3. RF Bryce Harper
  4. SS Manny Machado
  5. CF Odubel Herrera
  6. 3B Maikel Franco
  7. LF Nick Williams
  8. C Jorge Alfaro
  9. Pitcher's Spot

Notably absent: Carlos Santana. There are already rumblings the Phillies could trade Santana this offseason and move Hoskins back to his natural first base -- Hoskins finished with minus-3 WAR (!) on defense in left field in 2018 -- and once the Machado and Harper deals go down, shedding Santana and the $35 million remaining on his contract the next two years will become a priority. How about the Rockies as a potential fit? Or the Mariners? Yankees, maybe?

Point is, the Phillies have the financial wherewithal to swing a dual Harper/Machado blockbuster and they are presumably motivated to make significant upgrades this winter. The team stumbled late this year, the Nationals are no lock to contend in 2019 after an 82-80 season in 2018, and the time to take down the Braves is now, before all that young pitching arrives and matures. Harper, Machado, Philly. You have been forewarned.

AL's small markets get together for three-team blockbuster

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Carlos Carrasco for Blake Treinen for Tommy Pham? USATSI

Despite winning three consecutive AL Central titles and the 2016 AL pennant, the Indians will reportedly listen to trade offers for their top veterans this offseason. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez aren't going anywhere. Others like Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Edwin Encarnacion could be moved, however.

On one hand, that's a bummer. The AL Central is extremely winnable and the Indians should be looking to add to what they have in an effort to get by the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees in the postseason. Instead, they're said to be looking to move veterans to reallocate salary and improve in other ways. Lame. On the other hand, wooo hot stove! Wooo trade rumors!

I suspect 29 other teams will call about Kluber and Carrasco, two dominant pitchers signed affordably. Kluber is owed $52.5 million from 2019-21 and Carrasco is owed $19.25 million from 2019-20, assuming their club options are exercised. Those are great value contracts for two excellent pitchers. Cleveland will get mobbed with trade calls.

The bold prediction here is that one of those pitchers will get traded. Specifically, one gets traded in a three-team blockbuster with two other small market teams. The details:

How's that for a fun trade? The A's get the starter they need, the Indians get the outfielder they need, and the Rays get a great closer for the end of their bullpen games and an open outfield spot for top prospect Austin Meadows. Other pieces can be added to balance things out, but that's the framework.

Keep in mind the A's have a history of trading dominant closers before they get expensive, which Treinen is about to do through arbitration. Sean Doolittle, Huston Street, Brad Ziegler ... all cashed in as trade chips before their big paydays arrived. Realistically, Treinen's trade value will never get higher. He just had a marvelous season and he has two years of control remaining.

As for the Indians, they desperately need outfield help since they're likely losing Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Brandon Guyer to free agency this winter. Pham steps right into the outfield and the middle of the lineup, plus Cleveland would save a couple million bucks in the swap, which they could then use to improve their roster in other ways.

Tampa's end of this trade is most confusing, I know. Why would the Rays take on a pricey closer? Well, for starters, Treinen is not that pricey. MLB Trade Rumors projects a $5.8 million salary in 2019. Even the Rays can afford that. And remember, this is a team that once traded for Rafael Soriano and signed Troy Percival and Grant Balfour for good money. They've spent on closers.

The three teams all scratch each other's backs here. The A's are not shy about blockbuster deals (Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester, anyone?) and trading two years of Carrasco for two years of Treinen is worthwhile when you have someone like Lou Trivino to plug into the ninth inning. The Indians get an outfielder and salary relief, and the Rays deal from a position of depth to get maybe the best closer in the league.

The Yankees and Mets make a rare crosstown trade

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A New York lefty for a New York righty. USATSI

It has been a long time since the two New York teams got together for an MLB player for MLB player trade. The last such Yankees-Mets trade was the Mike Stanton for Felix Heredia lefty reliever swap in 2004. Before that it was David Justice-Robin Ventura deal in December 2001. Understandably, the two crosstown rivals do not get together for trades all that often.

The climate is right for a Yankees-Mets trade though. The Mets have a new general manager and the Yankees are presumably miffed their biggest rival just knocked them out of the postseason and won the World Series. They're hungry for upgrades. The Mets have some pitching to spare and a new general manager with a clean slate. Brodie Van Wagenen can start with a bang.

Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard are not happening. I can't see Mets ownership having the stomach for that. A more realistic New York-New York trade candidate: Steven Matz. The Yankees have had interest in him in the past and they always need lefties in Yankee Stadium. The Mets need, well, everything. Everything except corner outfielders.

The proposed trade details: Matz for right-handers Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga. A good starter for a very good reliever and, according to MLB.com, the 66th-best prospect in baseball. Matz steps into the Yankees' rotation, Green steps into the Mets' bullpen, and Loaisiga can either start or relieve, depending how the Mets want to use him. He did both for the Yankees in 2018.

Each team trades from a strength to address a weakness. The Yankees need a starter and have righty relievers to spare. The Mets can move a starter but need to address the back end of their bullpen and add organizational depth. Also, the Mets save some cash, which owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon will appreciate they can use elsewhere on the roster. 

Darvish goes back to Texas

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Cincinnati Reds
How about a return to Texas for Yu Darvish? USATSI

Year 1 of the Yu Darvish era was pretty much a disaster for the Cubs. He threw only 40 innings and was mostly ineffective (4.95 ERA and 87 ERA+) before going down with what proved to be season-ending biceps and elbow trouble. Darvish needed surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow in September and is expected to be ready for spring training.

A healthy Darvish can be good -- very good, in fact -- but, if you gave Theo Epstein & Co. a truth serum, I think they'd say they'd like a do-over on this signing. Darvish is still owed $101 million from 2019-23. Ouch. Chicago had to salary dump Drew Smyly just to afford to pick up Cole Hamels' option a few days ago. The Cubbies appear to be strapped for cash this winter.

Given his injuries and down season, trading Darvish seems unlikely, plus he has a no-trade clause through 2021. To move him, the Cubs would have to find a team willing to take on potentially significant cash and a team Darvish is willing to go to. Not easy! But one team does jump to mind: The Texas Rangers, Darvish's old team.

Consider all that goes into this deal. For starters, Darvish was said to have loved his time in Texas, and that's kinda important when a guy has a no-trade clause. Secondly, the Rangers are very short on pitching and it stands to reason Darvish won't require giving up significant pieces. Eat, say, $75 million of the $101 million and give up nothing in particular in return, and bam, you've got a starter.

Thirdly, the Cubs are motivated to free up money. The Hamels/Smyly move told us that. And they could simply plug Tyler Chatwood or (more likely) Mike Montgomery into Darvish's vacated rotation spot. Texas gets an upside play and a pitcher who never really wanted to leave the team, and the Cubbies free up significant spending money.

Trading Darvish for value seems like a pipe dream at this point. The Cubs have two options this winter:

  1. Keep Darvish and hope he rebounds in 2019 and beyond. A very reasonable move, this would be.
  2. Salary dump Darvish and move forward with more payroll flexibility.

The contract and no-trade clause are big obstacles. We know Darvish likes Texas and we know the Ranges need pitching. They appear to have some money to spend too. The Cubs don't, apparently. Bringing Darvish home at, say, $15 million per year, could be a very shrewd pickup for the rebuilding Rangers as they look to get back to being a contender.

The Astros make two more trade heists

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The Astros don't need any more good players, but other teams keep them to them anyway. USATSI

Gosh, how about that Gerrit Cole trade? The four-player package looked questionable for the Pirates at the time of the deal and it only looks more questionable now. Joe Musgrove had some injury problems and was up and down this year, Colin Moran didn't impress, Michael Feliz got hit hard, and prospect Jason Martin was good but not great in 2018. Yuck. All that for a dude who is going to finish in the top five of the Cy Young voting.

The Astros pulled off a heist last offseason -- things can shift in Pittsburgh's direction going forward, for sure, right now though it is clearly advantage Houston -- and the guess here is they will do it again this winter. Twice, in fact. I see two trades coming down the pipeline:

  • Astros get Jon Gray from the Rockies.
  • Astros get J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins.

The 'Stros could lose Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency this winter and they'll need another starter. They also need a catcher with Max Stassi leveling off and both Brian McCann and Martin Maldonado becoming free agents. Realmuto is arguably the best catcher in baseball and Gray seems like an ideal candidate for Houston's pitching lab.

The "heist" aspect here has as much to do with the trade partners than the Astros themselves. The Rockies make some weird moves, man. Remember when they spent over $100 million on relievers? Or gave Ian Desmond a $70 million contract? Or gave Gerardo Parra three years? And played Desmond and Parra over Ryan McMahon and David Dahl? They're due for another weird move. I could see Gray traded for someone like, say, A.J. Reed. You watch.

As for the Marlins, geez. I don't even know where to start with them. They traded reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, likely NL MVP Christian Yelich, and the very productive Marcell Ozuna last offseason, and, according to MLB.com, they have zero top-100 prospects. How? How do you tear apart the best outfield in baseball and wind up with no top-100 prospects a year later? Realmuto's as good as gone. Astros-Marlins trade negotiations might not be a fair fight.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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