The Nationals ended a 95-year World Series drought in Washington, D.C., by employing a different type of road map than that of most MLB champions this century. The blueprint? Consolidate dollars and postseason innings into the best pitchers you can sign.
As free agency gets underway, there are elite arms available, including two main cogs of the World Series rotations: Gerrit Cole, most recently of the Houston Astros, and postseason star Stephen Strasburg, who opted out of his contract with the Nationals. Rival clubs could easily copy Washington’s plan this winter — it would just be expensive.
While most World Series winners this century committed between 10 and 16 percent of total payroll to their top-paid player, the Nationals spent 19.4 percent of their $197 million payroll (the league’s fifth largest) on Strasburg ($38.33 million).2 This is the highest share of dollars spent on one player by a World Series-winning club since the 2003 Miami Marlins gave 22.2 percent of its payroll to Iván Rodríguez, according to FiveThirtyEight analysis of Cot’s Baseball Contracts database.
The Nats’ second highest-paid player, another ace in Max Scherzer, was signed to a then-record free agent deal in 2015. He isn’t far behind Strasburg, earning $37.4 million this year. In total, the $75.7 million the Nats spent on their two aces represents 38.4 percent of the team’s payroll. Add in Game 7-winning pitcher Patrick Corbin ($12.9 million), whom the team turned to last winter after being spurned by Bryce Harper, and the Nationals spent 44.9 percent of their payroll on three pitchers.
The nature of play changes in baseball’s postseason. With more off days and more urgency, teams can spread work around by going to the bullpen or electing to concentrate more innings in fewer arms. The five Nationals pitchers with the heaviest workloads, in terms of innings pitched this season, accounted for 57.5 percent of regular-season innings and 70.3 percent of Washington’s postseason innings — the greatest share among teams in the postseason, and way beyond the MLB average in recent years. That group included rotation stalwarts in Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez.
So will other teams follow Washington’s lead and pay more for top players? Those that are serious about winning may be ready to reconsider spending more. The correlation between payroll and winning this season was the seventh strongest since 1984, according to salary data from Baseball-Reference.com.
Notable pitchers who will hit the market this offseason include Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Zack Wheeler. But the biggest by far is Cole, who seems ready to test the open market. Instead of wearing a Houston Astros cap after the Game 7 loss, Cole spoke to reporters while sporting a hat from the Boras Corporation, which represents him.
Gerrit Cole, an impending free agent, was resistant to talk after Game 7.
“I’m not an employee of the team,” he said to an Astros spokesperson. “I guess as a representative of myself…” Then he spoke.
There could actually be a bidding war for Cole’s services, something that has been lacking in recent offseasons. Cole, 29, developed into an ace in Houston, coming off a season of 326 strikeouts and 7.4 WAR. He figures to have a chance to set the record for a free agent pitching contract, potentially besting the $217 million contract David Price received from the Boston Red Sox after the 2015 season. Scherzer and Zack Greinke, Houston’s Game 7 starter, are the only other pitchers to have exceeded $200 million deals in free agency.3
We are now less than a week away from almost all pitchers and catchers reporting, and the two biggest free agents on the market — Manny Machado and Bryce Harper — have yet to sign. The rumor mill around them continues to swirl, but we’re tired of not knowing for sure where these two will play this year. So we thought we’d take matters into our own hands, instead of simply waiting around for the latest hot-stove updates.
To that end, we called on our friends at Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP), a strategic simulation game that allows players to put on their general manager hats and run their own teams. We asked them to simulate out the careers of Harper and Machado a bunch of times under scenarios where they sign with a bunch of different teams. Think of it as the multiverse of MLB possibilities that still could play out, depending on where these two superstars end up signing.
It’s important to note that this is all guided by the game’s artificial intelligence, so it’s based on a simulation engine primarily intended for fun gameplay.1 Having said all that, in the true spirit of J. Henry Waugh’s Universal Baseball Association, what if …
… Machado signs with the White Sox?
Frequency: 80 percent of simulations2 Average contract: Eight years for $198 million Six-year team wins: 78.7 per season Six-year WAR: 6.0 per season Best playoff result: Loses divisional series in 2021
Machado is one of the brightest stars in the OOTP universe, with an overall rating of 77 out of 80 (using the traditional 20-80 scouting scale). If he were to sign with the White Sox, one of his most frequently rumored suitors in real life, OOTP sees him having a tremendous individual debut in Chicago, putting together an All-Star season worth 6.5 wins above replacement. But the White Sox would have to wait until 2020 to improve as a team, leaping from 63 wins in 2019 to 92 in 2020, with Machado once again having a strong 5.8-WAR season. Chicago would average 92 wins per season in 2020 and ’21, making the playoffs both years, but they would top out with a tough five-game loss in the American League Division Series in 2021, then drop down to 80 wins in 2022 as Machado’s teammates regress.
He would average 5.7 WAR per season over the next two years, but the Sox would miss the playoffs both seasons, with Machado opting out of his contract to join the New York Mets on a five-year, $197.5 million deal before the 2025 season. (Chicago would be fine without him, making the American League Championship Series in 2025 and 2026.) In New York, Machado’s individual numbers would decline to an average of 4.1 WAR per season, but he would help the 2028 Mets reach the World Series — where, in classic Mets fashion, they would lose to the Astros in seven games. After bouncing to the Nationals and Rockies in the early 2030s, Machado would retire in October 2032 with a JAWS score of 63.4, which should easily earn him a place in the Hall of Fame.
… Machado signs with the Padres?
Frequency: 20 percent of simulations Average contract: Eight years for $212 million Six-year team wins: 83.3 per season Six-year WAR: 5.0 per season Best playoff result: Loses league championship series in 2024
If Machado were to sign with San Diego, OOTP’s AI thinks that he would make about $14 million more over an eight-year contract than he would with the White Sox. But how would his Padres do on the field? In this universe, Machado would have an incredible initial campaign in Southern California, putting up 7.5 WAR and winning the National League’s MVP in 2019. His team, though, would only improve from 66 to 76 wins, good for third place in the NL West, and Machado would later struggle to repeat his amazing debut season. The simulations have him averaging just 4.1 WAR per season in 2020-21, with the Padres winning only 71 games a year. But in 2022, Machado would bounce back with 5.2 WAR, and San Diego would win 95 games, making the divisional series. It’s part of a three-year playoff surge for the Padres, peaking with 100 wins in 2024 — but that team is projected to crash out of the playoffs with a disappointing five-game NLCS loss to the Dodgers.
That offseason, Machado would opt out of his initial contract and sign a five-year, $157.5 million deal with the expansion Memphis Scouts — which are a thing in this universe! — where he would spend the next five seasons playing reasonably well (4.2 WAR per year), but losing so many ballgames would surely give him flashbacks to the horrid 2018 Orioles. The best season of Machado’s final years is forecast to be an out-of-nowhere 4.3-WAR season with the 101-win Cincinnati Reds in 2032, but that team would ultimately lose in the divisional series. In September 2035, Machado would retire from pro baseball as a probable Hall of Famer.
… Machado signs somewhere else?
While OOTP’s AI thinks Chicago and San Diego are the destinations most likely for Machado, it also forced him onto the Phillies, Yankees and Twins for the sake of the full multiverse. The first two outcomes are about a wash individually, with Machado nearing 7 WAR in his best simulated season for each team and producing roughly the same total WAR (33.9 in New York, 32.6 in Philly). He would also stay longer in each city: seven years with the Phillies before opting out to join the Giants and the full eight-year contract span with the Yankees. But in terms of team performance, Machado wouldn’t win a World Series in either Philadelphia or New York, coming closest with a seven-game ALCS loss in 2022 as part of his Yankees timeline. It’s kind of a sad set of outcomes for a pair of teams that you’d think would offer Machado the greatest chance of team success. As for the Twins, they would be very successful with Machado, winning 90.2 games per season in his five years in Minnesota, including a World Series berth in 2021. But he would also opt out of that contract as early as possible, moving on to sign a massive deal with the Giants. Such is the way of Minnesota sports.
Let’s move on to Harper, whose future is more difficult to read than Machado’s. OOTP’s AI predicted that he’d sign with any of four teams — the Giants (64 percent), Cardinals (20 percent), Padres (12 percent) and Dodgers (4 percent) — and that’s not even the full spate of his commonly rumored options. But let’s peer into OOTP’s crystal ball anyway. What if …
… Harper signs with the Giants?
Frequency: 64 percent of simulations Average contract: Seven years for $175 million Six-year team wins: 82.1 per season Six-year WAR: 3.3 per season Best playoff result: No playoffs
The Giants are a weird team that won 73 games last season despite trying to contend, and they do have the need for a corner outfielder like Harper if they want to try it again in 2019. According to OOTP, San Francisco would pay about $15 million to $20 million more over a seven-year deal than Harper’s other potential suitors, and they wouldn’t get much postseason success out of it. They are projected to average 85.5 wins per season over the first four years of Harper’s deal, finishing second in the NL West (and out of the playoffs) each year. They would also get classic inconsistent Bryce: 5.7 WAR in Year 1, followed by 2.2 and 2.9 WAR (both seasons riddled with injuries), then 4.4, and then 0.6 in a terrible 2023 season during which Harper would hit .209, with the Giants crashing to 74 wins.
After six up-and-down seasons by the Bay, Harper would sign a four-year, $116.8 million deal with the Brewers. He is projected for a strong season on a playoff-bound Milwaukee team in 2025 but then just 2.1 WAR per year over the next two seasons before opting out early yet again to join … yes, the Yankees. During his inevitable run in pinstripes, Harper would boast an .821 OPS as his Yanks make (and lose) the ALCS in 2028, but he would put up negative WAR over the next two seasons. He would retire at age 38 after being released by New York (and briefly rejoining the Giants). Harper’s final JAWS score of 49.9 would put him right on the edge of the Hall of Fame relative to other right fielders.
… Harper signs with the Cardinals?
Frequency: 20 percent of simulations Average contract: Seven years for $151 million Six-year team wins: 87.2 per season Six-year WAR: 4.9 per season Best playoff result: Loses World Series in 2027 and 2030
This is one of the most successful universes either star free agent had in our OOTP simulations. In this world, the Cardinals would grab Harper for the bargain-bin price of $151 million, and he would stay with them for a total of 12 seasons thanks to another midcareer contract extension. St. Louis would be mostly competitive throughout Harper’s dozen seasons there, averaging 87 wins per year and making the playoffs nine times, including two pennant-winning runs. Harper is projected for 53.4 total WAR in a Cardinals uniform (which would actually rank him just below Ozzie Smith for fifth on the franchise’s all-time leaderboard), winning the 2023 NL MVP with a 1.033 OPS and 7.4 WAR. In Harper’s final season as a Cardinal at age 37, OOTP sees St. Louis losing the 2030 World Series to (Machado’s?) White Sox in a heartbreaking seventh game.
After leaving St. Louis, Harper would sign a three-year, $62 million deal with the Mets, but a fractured knee would cost him 88 games in his first New York season, and he wouldn’t be the same player afterward, averaging just 1.1 WAR/year in 2032-33. Following an ineffective 51-game stint with the Giants in 2034, Harper would retire as a surefire Hall of Famer with a JAWS score of 69.2.
… Harper signs somewhere else?
Harper has been linked to so many teams, it’s tough to keep track sometimes. So we asked OOTP to look at the other teams its own AI saw Harper signing with (the Padres and Dodgers), plus the Phillies, White Sox and Harper’s erstwhile team, the Nationals. Of those, the Dodgers easily offer the greatest amount of team glory — in fact, they would basically become a dynasty with Bryce on board, winning the 2020, 2021, 2023 and 2024 World Series and losing it in 2025 (as Harper would put up 44.3 WAR during seven seasons in L.A.).3 Individually, Harper would finish with 98.3 WAR in that universe, edging out his 93.2 WAR in the Cardinals simulation for the best of the options we looked at. The rest offer varying degrees of lesser success from both a team and personal perspective, with the Phillies, Nats and Padres projected to make the playoffs a few times on Harper’s first contract (he would re-up with the Padres and Nationals for the long-term in those simulations) and Harper accumulating just shy of 80 career WAR in each universe.
So where should each star sign? If these OOTP simulations are any indication, it looks like Harper and the Cardinals would be best off with him playing right field in St. Louis, and Machado should lean toward manning the hot corner for the Padres. But those are but two options in the multiverse of possible outcomes. The only thing that we are 100 percent certain about is that at least one of these teams should sign these guys now. Stars like Machado and Harper shouldn’t still be going into spring training without a deal in place — for their own sake and for the sake of fan bases whose teams can use them to compete this season.
Special thanks to Richard Grisham and Out of the Park Developments for their help with this story.
LAS VEGAS — The Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino was, in some ways, the most appropriate host for baseball’s winter meetings: After all, this offseason was once expected to be punctuated by announcements of record-setting, high-dollar free-agency deals. Bryce Harper, a premier free agent, is a Las Vegas native. But away from the din of the casino floor, a podium set up for press conferences in a vast ballroom was largely quiet last week. After last winter marked the slowest signing period in at least the previous 18 years, this offseason is starting even more slowly, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of free-agent data.
Teams already seemed less interested in giving time on the field to players over the age of 30 — the time frame in which many players first become eligible for free agency. But now, early in the offseason, teams also seem increasingly less willing to spend on any free agent.
Consider that through Monday, 50 days after the World Series concluded, only 5.2 percent of available free-agent players23 had signed major league deals for guaranteed money, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of data from The Baseball Cube. Fifty days after the end of the 2017 World Series, 5.5 percent of available free agents had signed. Two years ago that number was 9.2 percent. In the three offseasons prior to that winter — 2015-16, 2014-15 and 2013-14 — it was 9.2, 7.8 and 10.9 percent respectively.
Through Monday, $442.5 million had been spent on free agents. That’s down from $469.8 million at the same point last year, which was down from $976.5 million in the winter of 2016-17, $1.401 billion in 2015-16, $1.173 billion in 2014-15 and $1.229 billion through the middle of December 2013.
“We’ll closely monitor developments,” an MLB Players Association spokesperson said to FiveThirtyEight last month. “If 30 clubs are competing for a pennant, the free-agent market for players will be robust.”
But fewer teams seem interested in competing.
The Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks, 2018 contenders, are retooling. The American League Central champion Cleveland Indians have shed payroll in a weak division they can likely win without spending on free agents.
And teams seem to have learned, collectively, to wait out free agents. Thirty-five free agents signed guaranteed major league deals last year between Feb. 1 and opening day,24 compared with 18 in 2017, 13 in 2016, 10 in 2015 and 13 in 2014. The longer free agents wait, the fewer dollars they’re typically awarded.
Even the star free agents are having to wait.
Consider that in the not-so-distant past, top players had usually signed by now. Just look at the contracts inked before Christmases past: On Dec. 1, 2015, David Price signed the richest deal ever for a starting pitcher (seven years and $217 million) with the Boston Red Sox, and he was followed three days later by Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $206.5 million deal with Arizona. On Dec. 10 of the previous year, Jon Lester signed a $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. And in 2013, Robinson Cano signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 6, just three days after Jacoby Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with the Yankees.
But the five richest contracts of last offseason were awarded after Jan. 24. And only one contract so far this offseason has topped $100 million
There are other factors behind the slow down, said Chaim Bloom, vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. His club reportedly signed pitcher Charlie Morton on Dec.12.
“I’m hesitant to call something a trend before having [enough] information to really say this is a new normal — it might just be a slight shift in the timetable,” Bloom said to FiveThirtyEight last week. “There is a lot more information available. Teams increasingly like to have more and more information before making decisions. That may push some things later in the calendar. I also think — and this offseason is a good example of it — staff movement and staff [hirings] are taking up a larger chunk of offseason. … The more coaching staffs and front offices grow, the more time that is going to take [in early offseason].”
Have teams learned to wait out the market?
“I don’t know if it’s ideal for clubs, necessarily,” Bloom said of the slower markes. “You want to go into spring training knowing who you have.”
Regardless of whether free-agent superstars Harper and Manny Machado set contract records, they are expected to receive guaranteed dollars well into nine figures. The greater concern for the union is what another slow-to-develop market means for the middle class of free agents — which represents the vast majority of players.
A slow-to-develop market forced unsigned players to create their own spring training camp last year in Bradenton, Florida. David Freese knows this trend well. After the former World Series MVP finished the 2015 season with 2.2 wins above replacement, he sought a lucrative, multiple-year contract. But he had to settle in March for a one-year, $3 million deal with the Pirates.
“It was a tough situation to handle,” Freese said in 2016. “The waiting, it challenges your heart. Sitting around while guys are out playing [in spring training] … seeing games, seeing guys in the field.”
Rather than test free agency this winter after the Dodgers were likely to turn down his $6 million club option, he re-signed with the club on a one-year, $4.5 million deal.
Freese isn’t the only player to take that approach. Josh Donaldson — the 2015 A.L. MVP — agreed to a one-year, $23 million deal with Atlanta on Nov. 26. He was joined by 18 other free agents signing contracts for just one year, making up 67.9 percent of the 28 signings so far through Monday. That’s the greatest share of one-year contracts signed through the first 50 days of the offseason over the past six winters. (The next closest was 52 percent in 2016-17.)
Some of these players may have decided to bet on themselves on shorter-term deals in the hopes of maximizing their future earning potential. Or perhaps they are responding to seeing players with hopes of signing lucrative multi-year deals last offseason, like Mike Moustakas and Neil Walker, languish on the market until spring training had started.
Free agents across the game appear to be in store for another longer wait. Perhaps this is the new normal.