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A little over two months ago, with the current Hot Stove still more or less at its hottest, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports cast his eyes beyond it, three years into the future. What has been dubbed the SuperClass of 2018 caught Passan’s attention, and clearly, that of several team executives across the league. The resulting article named no fewer than 40 players of note who could reach free agency 32 months from now, and Passan posited that it could be a seismic event for baseball, from a competitive perspective, a financial perspective, a labor perspective, and a global-interest perspective.

As far as that goes, Passan is right. The sheer star power of a class headed by Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Andrew McCutchen, Jason Heyward, Jose Fernandez, and Matt Harvey could outshine all previous free-agent classes, even the bountiful one that is just winding down. Passan talked about the likelihood that the prospective class could affect teams’ strategies over all of the winters between now and then, including this one, and about how it might change the priorities we see each side pursue in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement later this year. He’s (mostly, anyway) right about that, too.

Of course, a lot can change in three years. In fact, hardly anything can not change in three years, especially in baseball. This potential class provides uniquely alluring bait, though, and the (very cool) improvement we made to add a second year of PECOTA projections for each player in this year’s Annual just begs to be leveraged somehow. Thus, I offer you this step forward in time. We won’t look all the way out at the liberation of the SuperClass, but let’s launch ourselves two years into the future and see how the class will be shaping up if, over the intervening seasons, each marquee player mentioned hits his PECOTA projections, as they stand today.

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Bryce Harper

Season

Age

TAv

WARP

2015 (Actual)

22

.386

11.2

2016 (Projected)

23

.313

5.1

2017 (Projected)

24

.322

5.5

PECOTA does not believe in corners turnt, at least not this quickly. The 90th-percentile projection for Harper comes in at .310/.409/.566, good for a .342 TAv and 7.4 WARP, which would still mark a step backward from the heights we saw the NL MVP achieve this year. If we’re here in two years and Harper has performed to these projections, we’ll all still think he’s dreamy and hugely valuable and a fun fact machine, but there will be a creeping anti-narrative, too. His projected 2016-17 WARP don’t even add up to his 2015 WARP, and like other players whose main crime was peaking very early (Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, perhaps, though perhaps not, too), Harper will fall in the estimation of even the sharpest evaluators for the crime of being human, and vulnerable to the human reality that progress and development are rarely linear, and even more rarely unidirectional.

I think most people feel confident that PECOTA just doesn’t see the real Harper. He was the MVP in 2015, and it feels the way it felt when Barry Bonds won his first MVP in 1990—like the league had their fun and some people got to get him out for a few years, and that’s over now. What PECOTA is saying is, it’s not ready to leap to that conclusion just yet. Two years from now, if Harper follows the career arc PECOTA is tracing for him, he’s going to have just one more chance to get back on that superhuman track, or risk entering free agency as merely the most attractive free agent in nearly two decades—instead of the best since Bonds himself.

Josh Donaldson

Season

Age

TAv

WARP

2015 (Actual)

29

.324

7.6

2016 (Projected)

30

.300

5.3

2017 (Projected)

31

.284

3.6

One of the biggest reasons it’s dangerous to drool over a free-agent class more than a year ahead of time is this kind of thing (or at least this kind of projected thing). Donaldson won (though, I will never stop pointing out, came no closer to earning than did Miguel Cabrera in 2012 or 2013) the AL MVP last season, but he did it at 29. He is, by definition, a late bloomer, and while that hasn’t shortened his lifespan as a star (2015 was his third straight campaign with a WARP of at least 6.2), it doesn’t guarantee him unusually gentle aging, either. PECOTA forecasts a fairly steep decline over the next two years, although it still thinks he’ll be a very good player during those years. Donaldson signed a two-year deal this winter, to capitalize on the huge value of being an MVP in the arbitration process. If he hits these projections, he’ll still be in line for a handsome payday via that process in 2018, but there won’t be a special degree of fervor for the Jays to extend him beyond that season, and he’ll probably go into free agency looking for the updated version of Adrian Beltre’s 2010-11 deal with the Rangers. He’s a valuable asset, and PECOTA thinks he’ll continue to be, but he’s unlikely to be that kind of transcendent talent by the time he even closes in on free agency.

Clayton Kershaw

Season

Age

DRA

WARP

2015 (Actual)

27

2.16

7.9

2016 (Projected)

28

2.98

5.1

2017 (Projected)

29

2.86

6.3

It might feel like Kershaw should have an even more aggressive projection. After all, it’s five full years now for which he’s been something very like the best pitcher in baseball, never with a DRA higher than 2.67, never with a WARP lower than 5.8. It’s somewhat stunning to see him projected for less than that figure in 2016, even considering the natural risk (of injury, especially) one must bake into pitcher projections. Roger Clemens is Kershaw’s top PECOTA comp, but this is still as far as the system will take him.

One key thing that sets Kershaw apart from most of the others listed here is that he gets to choose whether he hits free agency after 2018. He’s two years into his seven-year deal with the Dodgers, and after the fifth year (2018), he has to choose between the open market and a two-year, $65 million guarantee. It’s overwhelmingly likely that he’ll be in good shape to choose the former, but injury is certainly less of an issue in his case than in those of the other potential members of the pitching class, because even a torn UCL in the spring of 2018 would leave him with a nice little fallback plan. That is to say, we won’t know much about Kershaw and his free agency until it comes (or doesn’t). In the meantime, his projections mostly remind us how fragile pitching excellence really is. Immediately below Clemens on Kershaw’s comps list is Kevin Appier. CC Sabathia’s 2009 (which would be his last dominant season) is there. Josh Johnson’s 2012 (which came after his last dominant season) is, too. Jose Rijo’s 1993, a fourth consecutive dominant campaign and the last good one Rijo would ever enjoy, is in the top 10. Even though PECOTA is about as smitten with Kershaw as a projection system can be with a hurler, it’s very good for Kershaw that he has the option of passing up free agency.

Dallas Keuchel

Season

Age

DRA

WARP

2015 (Actual)

27

2.78

6.2

2016 (Projected)

28

3.75

2.8

2017 (Projected)

29

3.87

2.5

It’s funny, because if there’s one thing this offseason proved, it’s that it doesn’t take more than one good season to get a pitcher paid in free agency. Jeff Samardzija got $90 million for a breakout 2014, even though 2015 suggested it was less a breakout than an outlier. Ian Kennedy got $72 million for being really good in 2011, even though he’s been below average basically every season since then. Keuchel’s Cy Young Award more or less guarantees him nine figures when he hits free agency, as long as he stays healthy. The only question these projections have to answer (and they answer it pretty tepidly, really, marking him as a just a bit better than average) is whether he’ll have a chance to make $200 million, or be scrambling to find his dance partner the way Kennedy did this winter, the way James Shields did last winter.

Keuchel signed a one-year, $7.25-million deal with the Astros, eschewing any long-term extension for now, giving himself a chance to earn that mega-deal that beckons if a pitcher can string together multiple big seasons. That’s a fine strategy, and even if he doesn’t hit it big and instead pitches more or less to these levels, he’s set to make grandkids-coast-through-life money. Here’s the one thing: his top PECOTA comp is Brandon Webb. That’s why teams more often wait to try a long-term deal with their star pitchers, and why it will be very, very surprising if Keuchel is neither signed to an extension nor hampered by injury by the time he’s due to hit free agency.

Manny Machado

Season

Age

TAv

WARP

2015 (Actual)

22

.292

7.3

2016 (Projected)

23

.279

5.1

2017 (Projected)

24

.275

4.6

Machado could, if these projections hold, end up facing the Heyward Problem. Jason Heyward didn’t get a contract commensurate with the player he really is this winter, for two reasons:

1. His offensive output never met the superstar expectations he brought with him to the big leagues, though it was quite good; and

2. Much of his value lies in his defense and baserunning, which teams discount relative to offensive value for reasons both good (they peak earlier and are less reliable) and bad (value is value and too much time is spent pondering its shape).

Machado will hit free agency after his age-25 season, just as Heyward did. He has a little more going for him, after he hit 35 home runs and stole 20 bases in 2015, but he doesn’t run the bases as well or get on base as often as Heyward. Still, PECOTA sees a stud, and if Machado has the two seasons projected here, he could be in line to sign a rich extension at this time in 2018—sparing him the risk of a poor contract year, and allowing the Orioles to express their faith in his multidimensional value.

Jose Fernandez

Season

Age

DRA

WARP

2015 (Actual)

22

3.49

1.2

2016 (Projected)

23

3.61

3.0

2017 (Projected)

24

3.41

4.5

Fernandez shouldn’t be part of this class; don’t forget the Marlins’ choice to make him part of their Opening Day rotation in 2013, when everyone knew they were a non-contender and just a few weeks in the minors would have made Fernandez Miami’s property through 2019. Add the season Fernandez missed after Tommy John surgery, and you’re up to two years not spent on the mound for Miami before he reaches free agency.

Of course, there’s still a chance that Fernandez won’t be part of this class. The Marlins will, inevitably, trade him, and although Scott Boras is fairly adamant about pushing elite clients all the way to free agency, this is a special circumstance. A Tommy John survivor who will probably be coddled in terms of workload for at least the next year or two, and who is in the process of being traded, is a good candidate to work out a market-level extension that saves his new team little money, but gives them the certainty of control. Failing that, of course, he could go under the knife again, at which point he would definitely be part of this class, but a very different part.

Matt Harvey

Season

Age

DRA

WARP

2015 (Actual)

26

3.45

3.6

2016 (Projected)

27

3.61

3.3

2017 (Projected)

28

3.39

4.4

The difference between Kershaw’s projection and those of Harvey and Fernandez is everything, really. PECOTA is looking for any reason not to believe a pitcher is that one special someone who never gets hurt and always dominates. It’s not in the business of identifying outliers; it tries to bring everyone back to the pack. Any little failure can derail a potential Hall of Fame career, in PECOTA’s eyes, and probably in reality. Harvey and Fernandez each missed significant time, and followed that with seasons in which they were very good, but ordinary. Harvey’s career DRA, prior to 2015, was a shade over 2.50. Fernandez’s was slightly under that number. Each guy was around 3.50 in 2015, though, and in PECOTA’s view, the combination of their injuries and their failure to completely annihilate hitters upon their return makes them solid, but not special. It’s a fine line between hitting free agency as Jordan Zimmermann and hitting it as Max Scherzer, and if Harvey and Fernandez meet their projections over the next two years they’ll be straddling that line heading into the third.

David Price

Season

Age

DRA

WARP

2015 (Actual)

29

2.89

5.6

2016 (Projected)

30

3.43

3.8

2017 (Projected)

31

3.54

3.5

Price has 468 2/3 innings pitched over the last two years, and a cFIP of 69. He’s been thoroughly dominant, and as durable as just about anyone. As PECOTA compares and projects him, though, it sees a guy likely to be moving out of his prime, pronto. His comp list has Adam Wainwright’s post-Tommy John season, Josh Beckett’s 2010, John Lackey’s 2009, Erik Bedard’s 2009, John Smoltz’s 1997. These are all very good pitchers, but also, pitchers who threw a lot of innings in their 20s, and who would be in either sharp decline or injury purgatory within a year or two. In short, while it looks right now like a virtual lock that Price will opt out after 2018, PECOTA thinks the conversation will look rather different going into that season, because in the interim, Price will have shown that his heavy workload throughout his late 20s came at a cost.

Jason Heyward

Season

Age

TAv

WARP

2015 (Actual)

25

.294

5.9

2016 (Projected)

26

.280

2.6

2017 (Projected)

27

.288

3.2

If you like and believe in Jason Heyward, you know whose names you want to see on his PECOTA comps list. It’s guys with elite defensive ability, whose offense bloomed relatively late. It’s Dwight Evans; it’s Bobby Abreu. Abreu is on the list for Heyward, but he’s barely in the top 20. Evans is nowhere to be found. Instead, Heyward’s closest PECOTA comps read:

1. Nick Markakis. (Oof.)

2. Gary Sheffield. (Uh-oh.)

3. Rusty Staub. (Oh no I see where this is—)

4. Elijah Dukes. (Oh come on…)

5. Rusty Greer. (Well, I’m definitely nicknaming Heyward ‘Rusty’ now.)

6. Jeremy Hermida. (COME ON!)

So maybe PECOTA just doesn’t get Heyward. Given a player who has demonstrated a very unusually balanced skill set, it gave up on finding the perfect blend of offense and defense and compared him mostly with guys who did just one thing or the other exceptionally well. On the other hand, Hermida, Dukes, and Markakis were all batters who showed promise in their early 20s, too, and even flashed the ability to punish big-league pitching, but who never grew into the stars the pundits projected. And Heyward, who will move to center field for the Cubs for at least this season, is certainly taking a risk by putting his big body through the increased physical demands of that position. He’s probably better suited to it than FRAA could imagine, especially if its comparison points are Sheffield and the two Rustys, but there’s risk there, and PECOTA is pricing it in. As appealing as Heyward was on this free-agent market, PECOTA suggests that two years from now, we might be shaking our heads at his failure to turn into Dewey Evans and wondering whether he’ll even bother trying to stand out in the crowded free agent class to come.

Andrew McCutchen

Season

Age

TAv

WARP

2015 (Actual)

28

.326

4.8

2016 (Projected)

29

.313

4.0

2017 (Projected)

30

.312

3.7

After four seasons of being worth no fewer than 6.0 WARP, McCutchen’s 2015 already represents a step down the mountain. PECOTA loathes his defense (just one positive FRAA season in his entire career), so the moment his historically stellar offense (for a center fielder, especially) faltered, the system downgraded him from superstar to… well, still a superstar, really. It compares him most closely to Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ryan Braun, Frank Robinson, and Barry Bonds. Despite the dipping WARP totals, then, if McCutchen keeps up at the pace PECOTA foresees, many will probably continue to overrate his defense, and he’ll be considered every bit the stud he is today going into 2018.

From here, though, it seems unlikely that going into 2018 will mean the same thing as going into a contract year for McCutchen. He and the Pirates are both talking openly about the idea of a contract extension right now, and it seems like a situation in which something will get done before the critical moment comes. In that case, what we can say about the prospective deal most clearly is this: the Pirates should wait at least another year, to see how McCutchen progresses. Making a decision to extend this far in advance of the decision point tends to lead to overpaying for a player’s decline seasons, and the projections above illustrate the reason for that.

A.J. Pollock

Season

Age

TAv

WARP

2015 (Actual)

27

.306

5.4

2016 (Projected)

28

.267

2.3

2017 (Projected)

29

.269

2.3

Look, PECOTA has seen a lot of age-27 breakouts. It’s seen a ton of athletic outfielders finally stay healthy, exploit their speed, find their power, and look like stars. It remembers Shane Victorino, and Nate McLouth, and Franklin Gutierrez, and my God, Jacoby Ellsbury, all within the last decade or so. None of those guys sustained their newfound stardom, and PECOTA doesn’t think Pollock will, either. Pollock supporters will tell you he’s the exception, that only health held him back, that he was actually better, on a prorated basis, in 2014. If he is, the two-year deal he signed with Arizona this winter will set him up for a huge payday in free agency after 2018. If he’s what PECOTA thinks he is, instead, he’ll be hoping to have another solid season and sell himself as the next Angel Pagan after that campaign.

***

Don’t worry; I won’t walk you through all 40 of the names from the article. Beyond this set of true superstars, Passan started listing relief pitchers, like Craig Kimbrel (0.4 projected WARP in 2017; PECOTA hasn’t yet met the reliever on whom it will take a chance more than a year out); good pitchers masquerading as great ones, like Garrett Richards (4.42 DRA, 1.5 WARP for 2017, because entropy rules in the long run for non-elite arms); and aging veterans who will only get more aged, like Nelson Cruz (.275 TAv and 1.9 WARP in 2017, per PECOTA) and Adam Jones (.271 TAv, 1.9 WARP). He reached for Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez, for Drew Smyly and JA Happ, and the thread of the narrative began to unravel a little, because every free agent class has guys like those guys. Jimmy Rollins was one of those guys three years ago, and now he’s still a free agent. Yovani Gallardo is, too, and I think that has less (though something, for sure) to do with the qualifying offer than most people think.

If this exercise underlines one thing, it’s this: The best players in baseball are very rarely—very, excruciatingly, painfully rarely—the best players in baseball three years later. Even if they are, they’re overwhelmingly unlikely to be the best players in baseball three years after that, when the lucrative deals these prospective free agents could sign might be only a third or halfway over. That reality is slightly mitigated in cases of extreme youth, like those of Harper, Machado, and Fernandez, but those three players’ careers already bear the marks of the other things that can stop a surefire superstar from actually becoming (or remaining) one: injuries, immaturity, and the extreme difficulty of dominating big-league competition.

I love PECOTA, because it starts interesting conversations just by being boring. It’s boring to talk on and on about how every player, even the very best player, is likely to be pulled back to the pack, and about how a single breakout season doesn’t necessarily indicate another one is coming, or even that that breakout performance can be sustained. Boring it may be, but it’s also true, and whereas things like gazing three years into the future can lead to a lot of unproductive and distracting rosterbation, PECOTA reminds us to live in the moment, to enjoy the season to come, and to plan for the future only when there’s really nothing to do in the present.