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The Hot Stove season, circa 2018-19, isn’t all about Bryce Harper’s and Manny Machado’s free agency. But let’s face it: Most of it is. Those are the names that are going to keep baseball-starved eyes glued to Twitter feeds over the next few weeks.

You can argue that the dual free agency of Harper and Machado is one of the best one-two punches we’ve had in any market since free agency got rolling in the mid-1970s. Part of it is due to their accomplishments and part of it is due to their age, which I write as singular because they were both born in 1992, about 3 1/2 months apart. Their baseball age in 2018 was 25, which means they hit the open market with plenty of prime seasons ahead of them.


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There have been only a handful of instances where stars of this level have hit free agency at the same time. Well, that is if you cheat a little on Harper, whose three-year WAR at is a modest 7.5. Personally, I think he’s better than that, rating somewhere between his epic 10-WAR season of 2015 and 4.7-WAR campaign of 2017. His four-year average, even given his down years of 2016 and 2018, is 4.4, so using that as the basis for this comparison raises his three-year value to 13.1.

Simple, 10-year WAR projections — with Harper at that level — yield this list of the top five one-two free-agent punches over the years:

1. 2000, 107.8 (Alex Rodriguez, Mike Hampton)

2. 1992, 104.7 (Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux)

3. 2004, 79.9 (Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran)

4. 2018, 79.4 (Manny Machado, Bryce Harper)

5. 1986, 79.2 (Tim Raines, Rich Gedman)

Remember, to get on this list, you need to be both good and young, which is why I’m using 10-year projections. Whatever you might think of Machado and Harper, they certainly fit those qualifications.

Where will they end up? Who knows? Rather than making that prediction, I’m going to look at where they best fit. That question is about much more than talent. It’s about payroll commitments and ceilings, assessments of where teams are in the contention cycle, which prospects teams have in the pipeline at which positions, and which stars are already on the roster. Clearly, in a vacuum, Machado and Harper make almost any team better. But that doesn’t mean they make sense for every team.

To assess the fits, I looked at the payroll outlook for each club using Cot’s Contracts, prospect lists, my own rating of a team’s contention status and luxury-tax considerations. For each team, I considered whether it would be better to sign Machado, Harper, both or neither.

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Here’s a snapshot of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards after the three finalists in each category were announced on Monday night.

American League MVP
Finalists: Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez, Mike Trout

The question here: Which of the deep group of strong candidates were going to place out of the top three? had five AL position players worth 7.9 WAR or higher — the first time that has happened in the AL since 1912 (the National League had six such players in 2004 and five in 1964).

Here’s the thing: J.D. Martinez wasn’t one of those five (Matt Chapman and Francisco Lindor were the other two along with the three MVP finalists), but it’s a bit of a surprise that he wasn’t one of the three finalists after hitting .330/.402/.629 with 43 home runs and leading the majors with 130 RBIs. In the end, I think the head-to-head comparison to his teammate hurt him: Betts had a higher OBP and higher slugging percentage. Martinez’s RBI count didn’t trump Betts’ brilliance at the plate (not to mention the field), a further sign that the BBWAA is recognizing a player’s all-around value and not just what he does at the plate.

Ramirez was toe-to-toe with Betts and Trout through mid-August. He was hitting .305/.414/.640 with 36 home runs and 89 RBIs through Aug. 14, but hit just .166 with three home runs his final 40 games.

That makes it Betts versus Trout:

Betts: .346/.438/.640, 32 HR, 80 RBI, 129 R, 30 SB, 10.9 WAR

Trout: .312/.460/.628, 39 HR, 79 RBI, 101 R, 24 SB, 10.2 WAR

Betts’ Baseball-Reference WAR was the highest since Barry Bonds in 2002. Trout wasn’t that far behind, however. Of course, the big difference between the two: Betts had better teammates and made the playoffs.


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American League Cy Young Award
Finalists: Corey Kluber, Blake Snell, Justin Verlander

It’s a minor surprise that Chris Sale wasn’t one of three finalists as he finished second in both Baseball-Reference WAR (to Snell) and FanGraphs WAR (to Verlander). Kluber’s inclusion suggests the voters put some emphasis on innings pitched — Kluber threw 57 more innings than Sale, although he still ended up with more strikeouts (237 to 222) and a lower ERA (2.11 to 2.89).

That could mean Verlander has a chance to beat out Snell, despite Snell’s edge in ERA (1.89 to 2.52) and wins (21 to 16). Verlander threw 33⅓ more innings and struck out 69 more batters. Snell’s 180⅔ innings would be the fewest innings for a non-reliever Cy Young winner in a non-strike season. Still, he’s the heavy favorite with the third-lowest ERA in the AL since the DH was instituted in 1973.

American League Rookie of the Year
Finalists: Miguel Andújar, Shohei Ohtani, Gleyber Torres

The consensus seems to be that it’s going to be Andujar versus Ohtani in a close vote, with Torres finishing third. Andujar certainly had an impressive season at the plate, hitting .297/.328/.527 with 27 home runs and 47 doubles in 606 plate appearances. As good as he was at the plate, Andujar didn’t exactly inspire the same accolades in the field as he was credited with minus-25 Defensive Runs Saved.

Obviously, in looking at the MVP finalists, the voters factored in defensive value. If they do the same thing in this vote, that should push Ohtani to rookie honors. He certainly was the most fascinating rookie of 2018, becoming the first player since Babe Ruth to pitch at least 50 innings and hit 15 home runs. He won’t pitch in 2019, but it will be interesting to see if he builds upon the .285/.361/.564 line he produced as a rookie.

American League Manager of the Year
Finalists: Kevin Cash, Alex Cora, Bob Melvin

This was a tough field as two managers who won 100 games weren’t even finalists: A.J. Hinch and Aaron Boone. Remember as well: Voting is done before the postseason, so Cora won’t get extra credit for guiding the Red Sox to the World Series title, a postseason run in which he nearly batted 1.000 with his moves.

This will be a fascinating vote. Cora won a franchise-record 108 games, but clearly had more talent to work with than the A’s or Rays. After spending the entire postseason covering the Red Sox, you can see how Cora had a huge impact on the team, not only bringing some of the analytics over from the Astros, but possessing top-level communication skills that helped him develop positive relationships with the players.

The A’s made the playoffs with 97 wins, a 22-win improvement over 2017. They were two games under .500 on June 15, so they not only were the biggest surprise among the 10 playoff teams, they had to surge in the second half to get there.

Cash won 90 games in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees and was certainly the most innovative manager of 2018, using the opener strategy to help navigate an injury-riddled rotation through the season. Yes, he had Cy Young candidate Snell to learn on, but the Rays allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL, an incredible achievement for that staff.

All three are going to get first-place votes. I think Cora wins in an extremely tight race.
A stellar September surge helped Christian Yelich become the likely front-runner for NL MVP honors. AP Photo/Morry Gash
National League MVP Award
Finalists: Nolan Arenado, Javier Báez, Christian Yelich

In a weak year for MVP candidates in the NL, Yelich wrapped things up with a monster second half and historic September that pushed the Brewers to the NL Central title. He hit .367 and slugged .770 in the second half and drove in 34 runs in 27 games in September. He may end up as the unanimous winner.

Of course, you could argue that three Cy Young finalists (see below) all deserved consideration here — all three finished well ahead of Yelich in WAR. Even though Clayton Kershaw and Verlander have won MVP awards since 2011, there was never any momentum behind any of the pitchers (in part because the Mets and Nationals weren’t in the playoff race).

National League Cy Young Award
Finalists: Jacob deGrom, Aaron Nola, Max Scherzer

No surprises here, although Kyle Freeland’s season for the Rockies deserves accolades. After finishing with a 1.70 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 217 innings, deGrom is the consensus favorite, despite finishing with just 10 wins. The vote may have been much more interesting if he hadn’t won his final two starts to finish 10-9 instead of 8-9.

Is deGrom a slam dunk? Probably, although Nola did lead him in Baseball-Reference pitching WAR, 10.5 to 9.6. Nola allowed nine more runs while pitching five fewer innings, but B-R is giving him extra value for having a terrible defense behind him. According to their metrics, the Phillies’ defense cost Nola minus-0.64 runs every nine innings. The Mets’ defense actually rates poorly, at minus-0.41 runs per nine innings, nowhere as awful as Philadelphia’s. B-R rates Nola’s season as the third-best by a starting pitcher since 2000 (behind Pedro Martinez in 2000 and Randy Johnson in 2002). FanGraphs, meanwhile, rates Nola as the fourth-best pitcher in the NL just in 2018 at 5.6 WAR (downgraded because of a lower strikeout rate than deGrom or Scherzer).

Hmm. The thing that complicates the evaluation is that Nola allowed a .254 average on balls in play — tied for fourth-lowest among qualified starters. Would he have been even better with a better defense behind him? That’s what Baseball-Reference is saying.

National League Rookie of the Year
Finalists: Ronald Acuña Jr., Walker Buehler, Juan Soto
It was a loaded year for NL rookies in a class that also includes Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty and teammate Harrison Bader (who actually beat Soto in WAR thanks to his outstanding defensive metrics). Anyway, the three finalists have superstar written all over them. Acuña versus Soto could be the new Trout-versus-Harper debate (except that one never materialized in the long run as Trout has left Harper in the dust). Acuña was so brilliant in the second half — .322/.403/.625 — that it wouldn’t be shocking if he follows up winning the Rookie of the Year with an MVP in 2019.

National League Manager of the Year
Finalists: Bud Black, Craig Counsell, Brian Snitker

All three managers have compelling cases. Snitker is the feel-good story, the 62-year-old who had managed for years in the Braves system before taking over for Fredi Gonzalez early in the 2016 season as a temporary hire. The Braves improved from 72 to 90 wins and won the NL East. The Rockies went 50-29 down the stretch to reach the first back-to-back playoff trips in franchise history. Counsell’s Brewers won the most games in the NL after beating the Cubs in the tiebreaker. He also did a great job manipulating the bullpen and shuffling players around the infield. He would get my vote.