When the offseason began, a stacked free-agent class stood in sharp contrast to the one set to become available in the winter of 2016-17. Big names such as Jose Bautista, Carlos Gomez, Edwin Encarnacion and Stephen Strasburg jumped out from the latter group, without a great deal of competition.
Now, a few months later, the dynamic has shifted just a bit. Next offseason's group still looks like a step down, but the gap has tightened. Why? Many of this winter's free agents who seemed ticketed for multiyear contracts wound up either accepting their team's one-year qualifying offer, working out a different one-year deal or receiving a contract clause that will allow them to opt out after 2016.
In other words, several talented players now have the chance to return to the open market a year later. Here is a look at eight who could do significantly better for themselves this time around.
1. Ian Desmond, LF, Rangers
Despite his contract-year struggles, it was shocking to see Desmond wind up with only an $8 million guarantee, much less a situation that forces him to change positions. Given that Desmond has played all of 7 1/3 Major League innings in the outfield (none in left), it's difficult to know what to expect from him, although there's no reason to think he can't handle a less demanding spot, considering his athleticism and work ethic. With the Rangers saying they will keep Desmond in the outfield all year, he faces two bigger issues. First, can he hit enough to stand out at his new position? That would mean returning to something like his 2012-13 form (119 OPS+). Second, would teams still consider him as a shortstop next winter, when he's 31?
2. Mat Latos, SP, White Sox
He endured perhaps an even rougher contract year than Desmond, but Latos has the advantage of being a relatively young free agent. The right-hander turns 29 in December, so a strong 2016 could position him for a lucrative multiyear contract. Before imploding last season, Latos owned a 116 ERA+, 3.33 FIP and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings over 143 starts since 2010. Now he has to stay healthy and prove himself all over again after taking a $3 million offer from Chicago.
3. Yoenis Cespedes, CF/LF, Mets
Should 2016 go poorly for Cespedes, he can elect to stay with the Mets for two more years, at a total of $47.5 million. Not a bad backup plan. But it seems clear he would prefer to opt out for a second crack at the market, and it's quite possible he will be able to beat his existing deal. The question is if Cespedes can carry over the hot hitting he gave New York down the stretch last year. The 30-year-old had posted a relatively modest .251/.298/.446 line (106 OPS+) from 2013-14, so if he returns to that level, a pay raise would be harder to find. And those sweet new rides in Spring Training aren't cheap.
4. Dexter Fowler, CF, Cubs
The ending to his free-agency ordeal was a surprise, not just because he returned to Chicago instead of heading to Baltimore, but also because he settled for a $13 million guarantee. Fowler will make $8 million in 2016, then has a $9 million mutual option for '17, with a $5 million buyout. The switch-hitter turns 30 on March 22 and has been worth between 1.7 and 2.8 wins above replacement for six consecutive seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com. If that consistency continues, Fowler should be able to score a more lucrative contract in a less crowded marketplace next winter, though concerns he will have to move to a corner aren't likely to ease when he's a year older.
5. Brett Anderson, SP, Dodgers
It made sense for Anderson to accept the $15.8 million qualifying offer, due to the number of solid pitchers available and his spotty medical record. Before pitching 180 1/3 innings over 31 starts for the Dodgers last season (with a 101 ERA+), the left-hander had collected totals of 206 1/3 innings and 32 starts over the previous four years combined. But if Anderson gets another shot at free agency coming off back-to-back solid and healthy campaigns, it could be a different dynamic, especially as a 29-year-old facing less competition.
6. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles
Once ticketed for a big payday this offseason, Wieters accepted Baltimore's qualifying offer after Tommy John surgery took away most of his 2014 season and held him out until last June. Considering how difficult it is to find quality catchers, Wieters still could earn that payday if he reestablishes his health and viability behind the plate in '16. That plus roughly league-average offense -- he posted a 109 OPS+ in about 400 plate appearances the last two seasons -- should do the trick.
7. Rich Hill, SP, A's
The left-hander is a fascinating story, having gone back to independent ball before winding up in Boston's rotation last September. In four starts and 29 innings, he posted a 1.55 ERA and 36-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio before signing with Oakland for $6 million. Given that Hill will turn 37 before the 2017 season, there certainly is a limit to his earning power going forward. That said, should he demonstrate that last fall's performance wasn't merely a small-sample fluke, he may find significantly greater interest from big league clubs next winter.
8. Colby Rasmus, LF, Astros
The third and final player to say yes to a qualifying offer, Rasmus seemed to find comfort in Houston last season and flourished, posting a 113 OPS+ with 25 home runs and 2.6 WAR. Rasmus has displayed flashes of big-time talent, but hasn't sustained a high level of performance over the course of his career, so a second consecutive strong year for the Astros might do wonders for his marketability next winter, when he will be 30.
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Andrew Simon is a Sports on Earth contributor and a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.