We've already discussed on many occasions how weak the free-agent crop is this offseason because that's the reality. There can be a ripple effect, too, because it could cause some teams -- notably teams in a rebuild or reload phase -- to hold back and save money for next offseason. We could also see an increase in trades, notably among contenders looking to fill holes that can't be filled through free agency.
So that brings us to next season's free-agent class. If teams are holding back their spending, who are they holding it for? Also, the following players could be involved in trades, especially if they play for non-contenders and could be flipped as rentals.
Further, if these players end up playing on a non-contender, there's a possibility we see the names pop up in trade talks in June or July.
So, if nothing else, consider these names as players to watch for the next 12-plus months.
Here is the 2017-18 free-agent class. Every single player listed below comes with an "unless he signs an extension" caveat.
At catcher, there's one big name -- Jonathan Lucroy. He'll be entering his age-32 season, but he's also an excellent two-way catcher. How many backstops with quality defense hit .292/.355/.500 with 24 homers last season? It's pretty downhill after Lucroy, but Welington Castillo is a quality bat. Others: Miguel Montero, Jose Lobaton, Rene Rivera and a pushing-40 Carlos Ruiz.
It's hard to envision a scenario where the Astros don't pick up Jose Altuve's $6 million option, but you can pipe dream on him if you want. Logan Forsythe and Ian Kinsler also have club options likely to be picked up. Otherwise, second base offers Neil Walker, Howie Kendrick and a 37-year-old Brandon Phillips.
An underrated prize at shortstop is Zack Cozart. In the past two seasons combined, injuries have limited him to 722 plate appearances, but he has hit .254/.308/.435 (97 OPS+) with 38 doubles and 25 homers. Team that with an above-average glove and you have a pretty good player here. It's just that he's not great and shouldn't be viewed as more than a complementary piece. Alcides Escobar and Danny Espinosa are other starting options, as is Eduardo Nunez even if he should be viewed more as a third baseman. Cliff Pennington, Alexi Amarista and Darwin Barney are among the middle-infield depth options.
At third base, there are some quality options. Todd Frazier has the thump many teams will be dreaming on. Jhonny Peralta will be 36, but he's good enough to keep going. Mike Moustakas is sure to gain lots of interest and get a big payday. We already mentioned Nunez and he works here. Yunel Escobar and Brett Lawrie are possible starters while Danny Valencia is an excellent platoon option. Jose Reyes will probably get a one- or two-year deal. Ryan Flaherty is a depth guy.
The top options in the outfield are Lorenzo Cain and J.D. Martinez. Both of those guys should get pretty big deals, albeit not bank-breakers. Someone to watch this season is Michael Brantley, who has an $11 million club option. If he plays back to form, the Indians figure to pick it up. If not, who knows? Justin Upton has an opt-out clause, so that's interesting. He could join the party here. Unless he signs an extension, Carlos Gonzalez is a top-flight option, at least when it comes to free agents these days (because, let's face it, all the best talent is young and under team control in the overwhelming majority of cases).
Cain, Martinez, Brantley, Upton and CarGo makes for a great outfield class, but there's more.
For starting pitchers, it's a very good class but not necessarily a great one.
Yu Darvish has to be the No. 1 name, but a big Jake Arrieta season probably vaults him to the top. He definitely has the stuff, it's just a matter of having his command come back. Then again, what if Johnny Cueto opts out of his deal? He can. I would put him above both Darvish and Arrieta, as all are similar enough in age. Masahiro Tanaka can also opt out.
So that's four ace-type options in free agency. I should mention that Madison Bumgarner ($12 million) and Chris Sale ($12.5 million) have club options that will definitely be picked up, but again, we'll let people pipe dream if they want.
You know how I mentioned these guys could be trade bait in the right situation? I give you Tyson Ross of the Padres. He made only one start last season due to injury, but posted a 3.07 ERA (115 ERA+) in the previous three seasons. He can re-establish value at the start of the year and play a rental stud for a contender in 2017 before hitting free agency.
Some others who will definitely draw some interest as mid-rotation or better types: Michael Pineda, Alex Cobb, Marco Estrada, Jeremy Hellickson, John Lackey (though he'll be 39), Danny Duffy, Francisco Liriano, Hector Santiago, Chris Tillman, Lance Lynn and Jason Vargas.
Some others who would draw interest: Clay Buchholz, Tyler Chatwood, Jaime Garcia, Ubaldo Jimenez and CC Sabathia. Matt Cain has a $21 million club option, which, c'mon. So he's on the list of free agents.
Josh Tomlin has a $3 million club option while Ian Kennedy and Wei-Yin Chen have opt-out clauses. Wade Miley ($12 million), Matt Moore ($10 million) and Martin Perez ($6 million) also have club options. It feels like Tomlin, Moore and Perez will be retained while neither Kennedy nor Chen will opt out. So only Miley gets added to the mix, is my hunch.
Still, overall this is a very good starting-pitching class. There are aces, No. 2-type options, mid-rotation guys and plenty of depth options.
In the bullpen, it's a step back from this offseason. Right now, Wade Davis looks like the only top-flight closer option, though Tony Watson could surely be there by this point next year. Glen Perkins ($6.5 million), Huston Street ($10 million) and Craig Kimbrel ($13 million) have club options. I would only list Kimbrel as a top-flight closer option by the time we get to next offseason and he's the only one I expect to not join the free-agent class.
Francisco Rodriguez is an option for teams seeking a closer. Jake McGee works and it's possible to see Addison Reed and/or Pedro Strop getting a shot at the ninth. Some others who could get setup roles: Zach Duke, Tyler Clippard, Al Alburquerque, John Axford, Steve Cishek, Jeanmar Gomez, Luke Gregerson, Jason Grilli (though he'll be 41), Pat Neshek and Bryan Shaw.
Hey, let's add one more.
And here could be the top dog.
Most expect Otani to be posted from NPB's Nippon Ham Fighters next offseason. Right now he's a 22-year-old phenom who excels as both a pitcher and outfielder. He hit .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers and 67 RBI in 382 plate appearances last season. He was also 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings on the mound. Babe Ruth comes to mind.
Otani swings lefty and pitches righty.
Conventional wisdom says most MLB teams would want Otani to focus on pitching and only hit when he's pitching (assuming he signs with an NL team), but what if Otani makes a point during negotiations that he wants to do both? It'll be interesting to watch things unfold and I'm beyond excited to see what it's like to have a pitcher/outfielder playing on an everyday basis. What about the fantasy baseball implications? Fun!
Otani looks like the No. 1 free agent next offseason, but there are lots of good catches. We might see those ramifications this offseason with some of the above names traded or some teams holding back their cash in order to spend more next year.