This year's market has some telling signs about what free agency will look like in the future.
The Houston Astros are riding the wave that comes with winning the World Series, and that (understandably) isn't going to stop for a while. Their pitching depth is so strong that losing the reigning Cy Young winner to free agency likely won't make their rotation considerably worse, and they recently found their desired first-base upgrade in Jose Abreu.
They were the best team in baseball last season, and they've gotten even better. However, the current free agency period has been far more chaotic than what MLB fans have gotten used to, and even though Abreu has been the Astros' only major foray into it, it looks like it's going to affect them greatly in the long-term. Why?
Everyone is getting paid. More than they ever have, for longer than they ever have. Justin Verlander's new contract with the Mets matches the all-time record for highest average annual dollar value given to a pitcher. Aaron Judge was rewarded for his MVP season with the biggest contract ever given to a position player. The Padres just gave Xander Bogaerts a big new payday that will last until he is 41 years old. Not to mention - all of this has happened before the new year.
Jose Abreu's contract will pay him $19.5 million per year, per Spotrac. The Astros had never given that much money on a per-season basis to anyone during a free agency period until then, and what moved the needle in their eyes was a first baseman that, while among the game's elite, is 35 years old.
An emerging theme in this year's free agency market has been players leaving the teams they came up with for an unprecedented new deal. As well, the age curve seems to matter a lot less to buyers. Even though the Astros don't need to play a big part in it right now, it sets precedent for the future and what later free agents will want to do with the rest of their careers. Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman will hit free agency after 2024. A first-base upgrade will be imminent again with Abreu's deal expiring the year after. Rafael Montero, as dependable a reliever as there is, will also be a free agent after 2025.
Will they want to be paid like everyone else is starting to be? Houston doesn't have a track record of paying big-time free agents despite all their organizational success, so if the answer is yes, it will probably happen elsewhere. How can they respond to this challenge?
The notion of a collective buy-in between all the players and management of a pro sports organization to emphasize team-friendly deals in the name of sustained long-term success with the same core is becoming less and less common. It may not stay that way, but that's a trend that the Astros are undoubtedly aware of as they consider what to do as some of their franchise cornerstones get closer to hitting the open market.
So, what happens if they leave? Players of Altuve and Bregman's caliber departing in the same year would be enough to send many baseball teams down under, but the Astros have proved they're far from average. Still, as per MLB Pipeline, they don't appear to have a viable replacement for Altuve in their prospect pool. The closest they have for Bregman at this point is Joe Perez, who got his first major-league at-bat this past year and, while making impressive strides at the minor league level, isn't what Bregman is in terms of athleticism and speed.
This might not be as big a question in a couple of years, and the Astros have an outstanding trade history in recent years. In any case, free agents certainly won't be getting paid any less. This is something that Astros fans have to be prepared for. They've already dealt with it considering the cases of Gerrit Cole, George Springer, and Carlos Correa and it ultimately didn't matter because they kept winning, but foresight is always foggier.
This organization has rightfully developed a reputation of one that can produce a winning product from within, no matter what. At the same time, the questioning over whether a prominent Astro will leave in free agency that has become surprisingly familiar is only going to increase. The management deserves the trust of the team's fans, but still, the string of off-seasons a couple of years down the road from now will be the biggest test of the Astros' long-running success - thanks in part to the grassroots changes in the nature of the open market that are going on right now.