The 2018 MLB free agent class is deep, with 14 of its 15 top players being All-Stars at one point in their careers (the other being 2018 postseason phenom Nathan Eovaldi). The amount of talent in this particular pool has led many to deem this FA class one of the best in history. But when looking deeper into those free agents, an argument could be made that this class may not be as great as everyone says it is. The most legitimate argument here may be that a lot of these players’ best has been seen years ago and have not continued to produce at the rate they did so in the past. To demonstrate this even further, six of them fit a certain category of players whose recognizable best was in the year 2015.
Bryce Harper was MLB’s best in 2015. Not only that, but he became the youngest player in Major League history (at 23 years old) to unanimously win the league’s Most Valuable Player award. The Washington Nationals outfielder can say he has been one of the few constantly consistent players among this offseason’s top free agents, demonstrated by his six All-Star selections in his 7-year career. But Harper’s last three seasons have not matched his level of play back in 2015. To put this into perspective, his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 2015 was 10.0. Harper’s combined WAR in his last three seasons (2016-2018) is 7.5, three quarters of his WAR in 2015. The outfielder’s last three seasons indicate he may not be worth the $300-$400 million deals him and his agent Scott Boras may be looking for. It is that particular season Harper had, however, that has cemented his aura as this particular free agency’s best potential asset (even if we hadn’t seen the best from him for a while now).
While Harper won National League MVP honors in 2015, Josh Donaldson did just as well by winning American League MVP honors that same year. The third baseman statistically demonstrated just how much of an MVP-caliber player he was from 2013-2016, with incredible WARs ranging from 7.5 to 8.5 every year in those four seasons. But Donaldson’s 2015 is a clear step above the others considering he produced career highs that season in at-bats, hits, home runs, runs batted in, batting average, and slugging percentage. By 2017, however, things began to turn for the worse. Though Donaldson was relatively productive in 2017, he was hampered by a strain on his right calf. 2018 then followed with a string of major injuries, shoulder inflammation in April and a severe left calf strain mid-season. A fully productive Josh Donaldson in 2017 and 2018 could have cemented that aura he seemed to officially establish in 2015. We would be asking ourselves which team he’d be carrying on his back, rather than whether or not he can stay healthy.
Sticking with the American League, its Cy Young Award winner in 2015 was the Houston Astros southpaw Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel finished 20-8, with a 2.48 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 232 innings pitched. While Keuchel’s pitching since then has been respectable, none of them come close to the level of play he produced three seasons ago. Keuchel’s collective 6.9 WAR in his last three seasons barely edges the sole 6.7 WAR season he had back in 2015, only by a meager 0.2. It may be because of this that despite his accomplishments (including a Cy Young Award, 2 All-Star nominations, and 4 Gold Gloves), he has been quite overlooked in the early stages of this free agency. Fellow veteran left-handers Clayton Kershaw and C.C. Sabathia have already signed new deals. The most targeted southpaw pitcher in free agency is not even a Cy Young Award winner like Keuchel, but rather a re-occurring talent in Patrick Corbin. Maybe executives think something we fans just don’t.
Nelson Cruz was last a free agent back in 2014. He would go onto sign a 4-year, $57 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. The designated hitter for the M’s paid dividends with that deal, establishing himself as an All-Star and MVP candidate in three of the four years he played with the M’s. The highest Cruz has finished in an MVP ballot is sixth, which he did so in 2015. He went onto finish with a career high 178 hits, 44 of which were home runs (also a career high). Though Cruz has been able to keep All-Star quality numbers since the 2015 season, there has been a clear recognizable drop in form. In those four seasons with the Mariners, the highest WAR he produced was in 2015 with 5.1 (a career high). The DH followed that up with 4.7 and 4.1 WAR campaigns in 2016 and 2017 respectively, before plummeting to 2.9 this past season. Fans and critics alike mainly attribute this kind of drop in form due to age, which could make sense for Cruz as he is 38 years old. That’s not to say he won’t have a season as good as 2015 ever again, but the very visible drop in his performance indicates his best years are likely behind him than not.
Nathan Eovaldi is this free agency’s most confusing wild card. His Herculean effort in the 2018 postseason for the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox has cemented an aura that has made him one of the more appealing free agents this offseason. The right-handed pitcher had also returned from a 1.5 year absence from Tommy John surgery in May and had a lackluster ten collective starts for the Tampa Bay Rays before being traded to Boston. Eovaldi finished the 2018 postseason with a 2-1 record with a 1.61 ERA and 0.80 WHIP under 22.1 innings pitched. On the other hand, the 28-year old has never pitched a season in the Majors with the same production he gave in the postseason. His best statistical season was in 2015, when he finished with a 14-3 record and a 4.20 ERA under 154.1 innings pitched. While those statistics aren’t bad, it’s not nearly enough to say that Eovaldi’s postseason demonstrates his best days are yet to come when he hasn’t shown such in his 8-year career. Only time will tell with what’ll become of Eovaldi, but for now it is safe to say a couple of years have past since we have seen his best when it comes to the regular season.
As mentioned earlier, 14 of this free agency’s top 15 players have been former All-Stars (minus Nathan Eovaldi). This includes AJ Pollock, who cemented his sole All-Star nomination in 2015. That was a magical year for Pollock, who cemented career highs in just about every statistical category imaginable. The Diamondbacks outfielder was not only an All-Star that year, but he was also a Gold Glove winner and MVP candidate (finishing 14th in that year’s ballot). The problem is Pollock’s been having trouble staying healthy since then. He missed most of 2016 with a broken right elbow and followed that up with lengthy stints on the disabled list due to groin and thumb injuries in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Pollock shares a couple of similarities with an earlier entry on this list, Josh Donaldson. Both hit their strides in 2015 and looked to set the world on fire before getting injured. But at least for Donaldson, he got to play a couple of seasons under his belt that were of elite caliber. The same can’t be said for Pollock, whose health problems have stymied the potential many thought he would reach by the time free agency came around for him.