Fans have had their eyes on this winter for years, with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado both hitting the open market. Both will be 26 on opening day and are the kind of offensive superstars that can anchor a franchise.
In addition to the two sluggers, Craig Kimbrel, one of the top closers is available. Former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel is a free agent, and lefty Patrick Corbin, coming off his best career season, should command a big deal.
The USA TODAY Sports baseball team lays out its picks for where these top free agents will end up:
Manny Machado, SS/3B
Bob Nightengale – Yankees: Machado badly wants to play in New York, and the Yankees need him. The Yankees aren’t afraid of his October antics knowing they have leaders to mentor him.
Gabe Lacques – Phillies: Sitting on piles of cash and ready to win.
Ted Berg – Yankees: Didi Gregorius’ postseason Tommy John surgery opens up a hole on the left side of the Yankees’ infield and makes Machado seem like a fairly obvious fit in the Bronx. GM Brian Cashman seems primed to make big plays in this free agent class after scrapping to get his payroll below the luxury-tax threshold, and Machado makes more sense than Harper for the Yankees in both the positional and sartorial senses.
Steve Gardner – Phillies: A sniff of what it feels like to be a contender has stimulated the Phillies’ appetite for winning. With relatively little money committed to the future and a gaping hole at shortstop, they can spend big on a franchise player like Machado.
Jesse Yomtov – Mets: This pick may sound a bit crazy, but one of the more more “frugal” organizations in the league has no salaries on the books beyond 2020. Ownership could choose to let the new front office team make a splash.
Bryce Harper, OF
Bob Nightengale – Nationals: He loves it there, and they love him. The Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants could swoop in.
Lacques – Dodgers: They need a new franchise player. He gets a record-setting deal and a mega-market platform close to home.
Berg – Astros: This is a wild, albeit undoubtedly unlikely, thought. Harper, eager for something close to a guaranteed postseason opportunity and the best chance at a ring, surprises everyone by signing with the Astros over the coastal mega-market clubs most expect to pursue him. Though Harper doesn’t patch the new holes in the Astros’ starting rotation, he’d give them a historically good lineup that’d make them an instant favorite for 2019.
Gardner – Cubs: They already have more outfielders under contract than they need, but the Cubs’ early exit from this year’s playoffs make signing Harper necessary, and their substantial financial resources make it possible. Trading Kyle Schwarber to an AL team then becomes the next logical move.
Yomtov – Nationals: Harper and the Nats will realize they just can’t live without each other. He’s branded himself as Mr. DC and as the organization’s first-ever star, Harper just doesn’t have the same intrinsic value elsewhere.
Patrick Corbin, LHP
Nightengale – Yankees: He grew up in Syracuse, and comes from a family that has been Yankees fans for generations. Oh yeah, and the Yankees badly need him.
Lacques – Yankees: Importing arms is the best way to maximize their current window.
Berg – Cubs: At 29 years old and coming off a career year, Corbin will almost undoubtedly represent the hottest starting-pitching commodity on the free-agent market. The Cubs appear more willing than most to spend big on long-term deals for starting pitching (with mixed results), and adding Corbin would strengthen their rotation as they look to win another title or two with the same core of young position players that took it all in 2016.
Gardner – Yankees: The most glaring offseason need in the Bronx is starting pitching – left-handed starting pitching in particular. Corbin fits the bill on all counts, and at age 29, he should still be reasonably effective into the latter stages of the multiyear deal he’ll certainly command.
Yomtov – Yankees: Corbin is the top starting pitcher on the market, but some teams will understandably be skeptical of giving him a long-term deal. The Yankees can afford to take that risk in order to address the team’s biggest shortcoming.
Craig Kimbrel, RHP
Nightengale – Red Sox: He would love to go back home to Atlanta, but the Braves aren’t going to fork over the same money as the Red Sox.
Lacques – Braves: They miss on the biggest targets, are left with lots of cash and spend it to shore up a weakness and assure Kimbrel enters Cooperstown a Brave.
Berg – Braves: The closer’s postseason shakiness might make it easier for the Red Sox to let him walk as they prioritize re-signing October heroes like Nate Eovaldi and Steve Pearce. The guess here is that the Braves bring Kimbrel home to fortify the back end of their bullpen as they look to turn their 2018 NL East title into the start of another dynasty.
Gardner – Cardinals: The Cards have tried a piecemeal approach to the back end of the bullpen the past few seasons and have seen it blow up in their faces. It may be worth overpaying to get someone who can lock down the closer’s job once and for all.
Yomtov – Braves: They won the division with a shaky bullpen, but the NL East should be far more competitive in 2019 and bringing Kimbrel home would be the best way to erase that problem for the forseeable future.
Dallas Keuchel, LHP
Nightengale – Reds: Cincinnati has money to spend, needs a veteran pitcher, and Keuchel is the perfect fit to mentor young group of pitchers.
Lacques – Nationals: Lots of cash off the books, so they’ll retrench around young bats and more arms.
Berg – Angels: The sinkerballing lefty’s strikeout rate and groundball rate both dropped in 2018, meaning the market for his services could wind up softer than normally expected for a pitcher of his age (30) and Cy Young pedigree. The Angels, with a seemingly perpetual need for healthy starters and some urgency to compete before Mike Trout’s contract expires at the end of the 2020 season, seem to make sense.
Gardner – Nationals: Reeling from unexpectedly missing the playoffs and losing Harper in free agency, the Nats will look to retool their roster with an emphasis on starting pitching. The former Cy Young winner will give them a third ace for the rotation and a left-handed complement to Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
Yomtov –Yankees: With (at least) two glaring holes in the rotation, the Yankees should go all in to solidify their staff this winter. One of the best ground-ball pitchers in baseball, there should be no concerns Keuchel calling Yankee Stadium home