This was supposed to be the offseason that changed Major League Baseball forever. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were expected to head a free-agent class so rich in talent that teams would spend years shuffling their five-year plans in preparation for all-out bidding wars.
While teams did tweak their spending habits, the rest of the foretold prophecy about this winter has missed the market. Pitchers and catchers are a month away from reporting, yet Harper and Machado remain unsigned. What's more is the pair have about a handful of suitors between them -- a group that doesn't include the Chicago Cubs, who removed themselves from the bidding early on, or the New York Yankees in Harper's case.
Predictably, the Yankees (and other teams) are now said to be looking forward to next winter's free-agent class, which looks solid on paper according to our Mike Axisa's early rankings. You'll have to excuse us from buying the talk -- we've just been exposed to months of talk about Harper's defense, Machado's makeup, and all the other reasons why teams shouldn't pay these 26-year-old MVP candidates their fair shares.
At some point, Occam's razor dictates that teams' unwillingness to spend money is an explanation unto itself rather than a commentary on the players. We've decided to illustrate this by supplying teams with the excuses they'll use next winter to justify foregoing the top of the market.
Do note that this is exercise is meant to show that teams can (and will) find flaws with any player as a means of not having to pay them what they're worth. Free agents are deemed desirable only at a distance, not when it's time to cut the check. (Don't even get us started on the winter after next, when Mike Trout's limited postseason experience will be forged as a weapon against him.) Each player listed below deserves a big-time payday -- one that, unfortunately, is likely to exceed the contract they actually sign.
With that established, let's dive right in using Axisa's preliminary rankings as our guide.
Gerrit Cole is a pitcher. Yes, he's thrown more than 200 innings in three of his last four seasons. He's still a pitcher. Yes, he seems to have tapped into his upside more since joining the Houston Astros. But, again, he's a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt -- often, in fact. That truth means teams are wary about handing over long-term deals. Why bet so much money on a single ligament holding up when you can improve your odds of success by making smaller bets on multiple ligaments? Big-time stuff or not, Cole is going to need another huge (and healthy) year to prevent teams from trotting out that reasoning to good effect.
The case against Nolan Arenado is the same one used to deny Larry Walker induction into Cooperstown: He's benefited greatly from Coors Field. Arenado is a fantastic player -- a top-end defensive third baseman with a career 121 OPS+ and per-year averages of 158 games and 40 home runs since 2015. But he's a fantastic player who is sporting a sizable gap in his career home (.984 OPS) and away (.787) marks. We know that's deceptive; we know most players perform better at home; we know Arenado is very good; and so on. We know, too, that Arenado's splits will absolutely be used against him to lower his final price. Get ready now.
You might think that teams will line up for a 27-year-old shortstop who can hit in the middle of the order. But with due respect to Xander Bogaerts, they aren't exactly doing that for Machado, who is younger and has a higher established level of output. Bogaerts does have championship pedigree working in his favor. Maybe that will make him immune to questions about his long-term viability at the position. Probably not.
Players don't tend to stay healthier as they age. You'll be reminded of that with Anthony Rendon, who'll hit the open market as a 29-year-old. Rendon has a history of durability questions, having averaged 130 games over the last four seasons. There's no telling what this season will bring, but if Rendon misses another month of action he can count on it being leveraged against him -- no matter how well-liked he is as a human being and how reliable he is as a down-ballot MVP candidate.
Madison Bumgarner has the big-game pitcher mystique everyone craves at the front of their rotation and boasts an outsized reputation as a hitter. Add in his regular-season pitching efforts -- he hasn't posted an ERA+ worse than 115 since 2012 -- and there's a ton to like here. Except Bumgarner, like Cole, is a pitcher. Worse yet, Bumgarner is a pitcher who'll be on the wrong side of 30 with non-elite velocity and more than 25 starts in (at best) just one of his past three seasons. That's a formula for receiving offers well below his actual worth.