By Michael Klopman
While we are oh so close to Opening Day, it's never too early to think about next offseason! There will be plenty of intriguing free agents in the class, but if they want to earn themselves fat new contracts, they'll need to have stellar seasons in 2017.
Here are some of the guys -- three pitchers and three position players -- who we think could end up being the most talked-about free agents after this season. (Note: I excluded any player who has a club option in his deal.)
Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers
Darvish is hoping to get through his first full season since having Tommy John surgery two years ago -- and that makes 2017 all the more interesting for him.
The Japanese strikeout machine missed all of April and most of May last year, and looked a bit rusty out of the gate, but he posted a 2.95 ERA in six August starts and had nine strikeouts in three of those. He's had 100 career starts so far throughout four seasons in the big leagues, with per-162 numbers set at 220 innings, a 3.15 FIP and 276 strikeouts. If Darvish can do anything close to that in 2017, he might be the most coveted free-agent pitcher next offseason ... unless the next guy goes off.
Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
In 2016, Arrieta didn't quite look like the Arrieta who won the National League Cy Young Award the season before. But you can't really blame him for not matching his ridiculous 1.77 ERA and 2.35 FIP and 7.3 WAR (fangraphs) and 45 ERA-minus. The 31-year-old was still just fine last year -- 3.10 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 75 ERA-minus. He could easily do that again and will still have teams paying big money for his services if the Cubs don't extend him.
And that will just make Baltimore Orioles fans even angrier.
Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants
Let's say Cueto puts up more than 200 innings for the fourth season in a row, records a few complete games (led the NL last year) and an ERA-minus around 75 (it was 71 last year) -- you know, a typical year for Cueto based on his last three seasons. Does he opt out of the six-year deal he signed with San Francisco?
Zack Greinke did just that after finishing in second in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 2015, opting out of a six-year deal after three years and cashing in with Arizona on a deal worth more than $200 millions. Yoenis Cespedes did something similar this year, opting out of a three-year deal with the Mets after the first year, only to re-sign with the Mets on an even bigger contract.
That could easily happen with Cueto, too.
Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals
Hosmer will either go along for one last ride in Kansas City, or will put up a huge year and make the Royals give him a huge contract. And Hosmer looked like he was in mid-season form at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, going .385 at the plate with a .500 OBP and 1.115 OPS in eight games (small sample size alert). That's a decent sign considering his numbers dipped a bit from 2015 to '16.
The Royals have a few more guys set to become free agents after this season, including Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain. But as of now, Hosmer is probably the one who will command the bigger deal when the offseason rolls around.
Todd Frazier, Chicago White Sox
Do you realize that Frazier posted career highs in home runs (40) and RBIs (98) last year in his first season with the White Sox? OK, so he also had the worst batting average of his career (.225) and the second-worst on-base percentage (.302) and struck out a career-high 163 times (not to mention the fact that several sluggers got paid significantly less than expected this past offseason).
But still: If Frazier can keep up the power while elevating everything else closer to his career averages, he'll be a very intriguing free agent third baseman.
Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies
It's hard to imagine CarGo jacking home runs with that smooth home run swing of his in any other uniform but Colorado's and in any other park but Coors Field. But it could easily happen. He's been a trade candidate for a few years, and talks of a contract extension haven't gained much momentum. Plus, the Rockies have a bunch of solid outfielders if CarGo does in fact go elsewhere.
While Gonzalez is turning 32 in October this year, the left-handed hitter is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he played at least 150 games. His per-162 game numbers over that span include 35 homers and 106 RBIs. It's safe to say that if Gonzalez does something similar to that in 2017, it won't be difficult for him to find a new team.
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Michael Klopman is an associate producer at Sports on Earth.