Pitch­ers and catch­ers re­port Tues­day.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

As the 30 Ma­jor League Base­ball teams pre­pare to head to Florida and Ari­zona this week for spring train­ing, it brings to a close one of the sleepi­est off­sea­sons in re­cent years — one that saw just one nine-fig­ure free agent sign­ing (Yoe­nis Ce­s­pedes by the Mets), one block­buster trade (Chris Sale go­ing from the White Sox to the Red Sox) and many tra­di­tion­ally big spenders (Yan­kees, Dodgers, Cubs, Mets) largely stand­ing pat or get­ting leaner.

But in a strange twist, even as the 2017 sea­son ap­proaches, the en­tire in­dus­try is trans­fixed on the epochal free agent class that is still two win­ters away — a mas­sive wave of tal­ent that is act­ing as a black hole gov­ern­ing the sport’s trans­ac­tional physics, its sheer grav­i­ta­tional pull af­fect­ing just about ev­ery team’s de­ci­sions some 21 months be­fore­hand. And its pres­ence out in the dis­tance helps ex­plain the rel­a­tive in­ac­tion this win­ter.

As­sum­ing the play­ers don’t re-sign with their cur­rent teams, that 2018-19 free agent “su­per­class” will in­clude Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als out­fielder Bryce Harper, for whom numbers such as $400 mil­lion al­ready have been float­ing around the in­dus­try, and Bal­ti­more Ori­oles third base­man Manny Machado, whom many con­sider to be just as valu­able, if not more so.

It also would in­clude hit­ters Josh Don­ald­son and An­drew McCutchen, start­ing pitch­ers Matt Harvey and Dal­las Keuchel, and re­liev­ers Zach Brit­ton and An­drew Miller. And should they ex­er­cise opt-out clauses, ace left­ies Clay­ton Kershaw and David Price also could hit the mar­ket that win­ter.

It is con­sid­ered the best free agent class since at least 200001, when Alex Ro­driguez, Manny Ramirez, Mike Mussina and Mike Hamp­ton all hit the mar­ket at the same time — and all of whom, to one de­gree or an­other and for bet­ter or worse, al­tered the tra­jec­to­ries of the teams that signed them.

“Ev­ery team has three- and five-year out­looks that in­volve up­com­ing free agent classes,” Chicago Cubs Gen­eral Man­ager Jed Hoyer said. “But it’s been a while since a class like that one has come along.”

The cal­cu­la­tions re­gard­ing that free agent class af­fect not only the teams, such as Wash­ing­ton and Bal­ti­more, that stand to lose their fran­chise cor­ner­stones — and whose cham­pi­onship win­dows may be clos­ing ac­cord­ingly — but all the other teams con­tem­plat­ing bid­ding on one or more of those play­ers and whose pay­roll de­ci­sions for 2017 may be in­flu­enced at least in part by what 2019 could hold.

When the Chicago White Sox traded away their ace, Sale, and their lead­off man, Adam Ea­ton, to Bos­ton and Wash­ing­ton, re­spec­tively, dur­ing the win­ter meet­ings — re­ceiv­ing seven prospects in re­turn and shed­ding more than $30 mil­lion in guar­an­teed fu­ture salaries — they ac­knowl­edged their de­signs on that 2018-19 free agent class.

“Two years from now, there could be a lot of high-im­pact tal­ent po­ten­tially avail­able,” White Sox GM Rick Hahn said. “To plan with spe­cific tar­gets in mind right now is prob­a­bly a lit­tle fool­hardy, but we’ve all no­ticed the po­ten­tial depth of that class, and we’re go­ing to be ready.”

Go­ing to be ready? They’re al­ready ready. The White Sox have just $4.25 mil­lion com­mit­ted to 2019 pay­roll, all of it in the form of buy­outs of team op­tions to a trio of veter­ans.

The White Sox aren’t alone in shed­ding fu­ture pay­roll com­mit­ments — and in clear­ing room for a spend­ing spree af­ter the 2018 sea­son.

The Phillies have just $5.35 mil­lion com­mit­ted to 2019 pay­roll, and the Cubs have just $72 mil­lion. Nei­ther signed a free agent to a mul­ti­year deal this win­ter. The Mets have $53 mil­lion com­mit­ted in 2019 and es­sen­tially sat out this win­ter’s free agent mar­ket af­ter re-sign­ing Ce­s­pedes. The Dodgers, mean­while, af­ter do­ing lit­tle more than re-sign­ing their own free agents this win­ter, have $107.5 mil­lion com­mit­ted to 2019 — but if Kershaw opts out, that num­ber drops to $72.9 mil­lion. (All pay­roll fig­ures are from base­ball-ref­er­ence.com.)

While some of the in­dus­try’s new­found aus­ter­ity can be ex­plained by the new, more oner­ous lux­ury-tax penal­ties in the lat­est col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment — with taxes of up to 95 per­cent for re­peat, ex­ces­sive spenders — it’s no co­in­ci­dence that base­ball’s big-money teams are re­duc­ing fu­ture pay­roll com­mit­ments just in time for the su­per­class of free agents to ar­rive in 21 months.

Look no fur­ther than the New York Yan­kees. Even though they likely will field an­other $200 mil­lion-plus team in 2017, they have shown a re­mark­able com­mit­ment to youth and devel­op­ment in re­cent years and have just $74.2 mil­lion on the books in 2019 pay­roll, by which time they will be out from un­der the con­tracts of Ro­driguez, CC Sa­bathia and Chase Headley, among oth­ers.

While the Yan­kees say their strat­egy is about de­vel­op­ing young play­ers and not about clear­ing space for mas­sive spend­ing on free agents — “We’d rather pro­duce those types of play­ers our­selves than have to go out and bring them in through free agency,” GM Brian Cash­man said — their stated goal of get­ting un­der the $197 mil­lion lux­u­ry­tax thresh­old by 2018 has one sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fit: It would re­set their tax rate from the 50 per­cent they paid in 2016 to as low as 20 per­cent.

And that would hap­pen just in time for the su­per­class of 2018-19 to ar­rive. It’s lit­tle won­der that it is con­sid­ered more or less a given within the in­dus­try that the Yan­kees will sign ei­ther Harper or Machado that win­ter — should one or both be avail­able, of course.

It’s rare, if not un­prece­dented, for a fu­ture free agent class to hold such sway over base­ball’s econ­omy so far in ad­vance, but never be­fore have two play­ers like Harper and Machado ar­rived at free agency at the same time. While that free agent class is deep in tal­ent — and could get even deeper should Kershaw and/or Price opt out of their deals — Harper and Machado are dif­fer­ent an­i­mals.

Both will be just 26 years old at the end of the 2018 sea­son — com­pared to 30 for Kershaw, 33 for Price and 32 for Don­ald­son, to name three oth­ers — re­call­ing Ro­driguez’s first foray in free agency in 2000-01 at age 25, when the Texas Rangers signed him for 10 years and $252 mil­lion. MLB’s to­tal rev­enue was less than $5 bil­lion then but could be $12 bil­lion or more by 2019.

“Those play­ers who are 26-, 27-, 28-year-old free agents are very, very highly cov­eted,” agent Scott Bo­ras, whose clients in­clude Harper, said ear­lier this off­sea­son. “A lot of clubs have now mar­shaled their po­si­tion­ing to that age group.”

There is a base­ball sea­son ap­proach­ing mere months away, and in places such as Bos­ton, Los An­ge­les and the north side of Chicago, there is an ap­pro­pri­ate level of ex­cite­ment for what 2017 could bring, with lit­tle need or in­cli­na­tion to worry about what lies be­yond.

But for the folks who run those teams — and all the other teams — there is al­ways one eye trained on the fu­ture, and sim­ply be­cause of what is com­ing 21 months from now, that has never been more true.

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are among the big names who will be free agents in 2018-19, and Clay­ton Kershaw could join them.

NAM Y. HUH/ASSOCIATED PRESS

DAVID J. PHILLIP/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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