MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Grading the 2017-18 free-agent class

Grading the 2017-18 free-agent class

Take a big name off the free-agent board.

No, we're not talking about Jose Bautista reportedly close to an agreement with the Blue Jays this offseason. We're talking about Danny Duffy signing a five-year, $65 million extension with the Royals that pulls him out of free agency next offseason.

Because it's never too early to think ahead -- and because many of the names listed below could double as trade candidates within the 2017 season -- let's see where next offseason's class is at its strongest and weakest.

Starting pitching

Let's start with the area affected by the Duffy deal. Duffy showed a ton of promise when he got his walks under control in 2016, so losing him obviously hurts the quality of this field. But compared to the iffy proposition that was a 2016-17 starting-pitching class fronted by Rich Hill, the 2017-18 market is still looking like a reasonable place to repair a rotation ... provided you show up with a wad of cash.

Jake Arrieta, the 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner, is the most accomplished name here, though it will be interesting to see how he bounces back from his '16 statistical regression (his ERA+ dropped from 215 to 129) or, for that matter, if the Cubs wind up extending him. Arrieta will be entering his age-32 season when he reaches free-agent eligibility.

Yu Darvish is the other headliner. He'll be entering his age-31 season, and he might have his best seasons ahead of him now that he's two years removed from Tommy John surgery. Darvish pitched just 100 1/3 innings last year.

Darvish's strong outing

The wild cards are Johnny Cueto and Masahiro Tanaka, both of whom have opt-out clauses in their deals. Cueto's free-agent value last offseason was difficult to discern after his rocky tenure with the Royals, but he delivered in Year 1 for the Giants with an 18-5 record, a 2.79 ERA and a 147 ERA+ in 219 2/3 innings. Tanaka has a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, but that hasn't stopped him from logging a 3.26 ERA and a 130 ERA+ for the Yankees over the past two seasons.

Wei-Yin Chen also has an opt-out clause with the Marlins, but his first year in Miami was a rough one. Ian Kennedy can opt out of the three years and $43 million remaining on his Royals contract, but that seems iffy.

Chris Tillman will be an attractive option, entering his age-30 season. Over the past four years, he's been a bit better than league average (105 ERA+) and averaged 190 innings in a tough division. Marco Estrada, having backed up his 2015 breakout with a 124 ERA+ in '16, could be positioning himself for a better deal than the two years and $26 million he got from Toronto a year ago. Clay Buchholz's move to Philadelphia will merit monitoring, as he was good for the Red Sox down the stretch last season. Some of the other names of note will include John Lackey, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Michael Pineda, Francisco Liriano and a presumably healthy Tyson Ross. CC Sabathia's gigantic Yankees contract will have expired, too, for whatever that's worth.

Grade: B+ (we'll push it to an A if Cueto and Tanaka have good enough years to opt out)

Catcher

Jonathan Lucroy vetoed a deal to the Indians primarily because he was concerned about his 2017 playing time behind the dish in his walk year, with Yan Gomes coming back from injury. He wound up in Texas, where he was productive down the stretch (.276/.345/.539) to build off what had been a strong bounceback year in Milwaukee. This is a good game-caller and an above-average pitch-framer with a highly productive bat for his position. Lucroy will be 31 years old. If he's healthy, he'll cash in.

Lucroy's go-ahead two-run homer

The rest of the catching field is nothing to (back)stop you in your tracks. A Welington Castillo here, a Carlos Ruiz there. But the sheer availability of a star talent like Lucroy at such a hard-to-fill position is enough to bump this into "above-average" terrain.

Grade: B

First base/DH

The two names that jump off the page here are Carlos Santana and Eric Hosmer.

Santana has always been an OBP machine, but last year he beefed up his batting average a bit and hit for more power. His slugging percentage (.498) was 65 points higher than his career norm, and he hit a career-best 34 homers. Combine that with the flexibility Santana showed in batting leadoff for the Indians, and he could be in good position to cash in before his age-32 season.

Santana's four-hit game

Hosmer hasn't become the MVP-caliber star he might have been billed to be, but he's still a dynamic defender and run producer with leadership skills. He also notched a career-high homer total (25) in '16.

Lucas Duda will be a notable name. He had a combined 133 OPS+ in 2014-15 before injury struck in '16. Matt Holliday, bidding for a bounceback year in the Bronx on a one-year deal, will be eligible again, as will Mitch Moreland. Yonder Alonso and John Jaso round out this class. Perhaps Carlos Beltran will have one more year in him, and a 38-year-old Jayson Werth could be another guy in this group if teams deem him to be done in the outfield.

Grade: B-

Second base

Unless the Astros make some terrible clerical error and don't pick up Jose Altuve's $6 million option, this won't be a great place to do business.

Neil Walker probably stands as the current class of this class after posting an .823 OPS with the Mets last year, but of course he's currently 31 and coming off back surgery.

Walker's solo homer

Brandon Phillips will be 37, Howie Kendrick will be 34 and Danny Espinosa will be available at 31. Brett Lawrie, whose career has yet to add up to the sum of its parts, will be the youngest available option at 28.

Grade: D

Shortstop

Not much to work with here, either. Zack Cozart has had hot first halves the past two years, but injuries have gotten in the way of him launching a true breakout season. He'll be 31. So will Alcides Escobar, who rates as an average defender with a below-average offensive skill set (the Royals have generally leaned toward him in the leadoff spot despite a .297 career OBP).

The Orioles have a $14 million option on J.J. Hardy for 2018, and the Mets have an $8.5 million option on Asdrubal Cabrera. Unless you're a big believer in the continued viability of a late-30s Jhonny Peralta or Jimmy Rollins, there's not much else to discuss here.

Grade: F

Third base

The two big ones here are Todd Frazier of the White Sox and Mike Moustakas of the Royals. It will be interesting to see if they end 2017 with those respective clubs, because the Sox are obviously in rebuild mode and the Royals could deal more bodies if they fall flat in the first half.

Frazier was a man befitting his time and place in 2016 -- lots of strikeouts (24.5 percent of plate appearances), a low batting average (.225) and, yes, lots of home runs (40). He's a clubhouse asset with a booming bat, but his market could ultimately come down to how much value a particular team places on OBP.

Frazier's 40th homer of the year

Moustakas is a good defender who finally figured out lefties to establish himself as an above-average offensive contributor with good power before a torn ACL intervened in 2016. A lot of eyes will be upon him as he tries to rebound in his age-28 season in '17.

A few other names to note here: Eduardo Nunez, who had a productive year as an everyday guy in Minnesota and San Francisco in '16 after a career of bouncing all over the field, Trevor Plouffe, who is trying to bounce back with the A's, Yunel Escobar, Jose Reyes and the aforementioned Lawrie and Peralta.

Grade: C-

Outfield

J.D. Martinez seems the safest bet to head this group. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged a .299/.357/.540 slash line with 28 homers and 33 doubles. He'll also be entering his age-30 season.

From there, tons of question marks.

J.D. Martinez's two-run homer

Can Lorenzo Cain get back to an MVP level after injuries and a sagging bat made for a rough age-30 season in 2016? Do the Rockies extend Carlos Gonzalez, or do we find out how other teams value his Coors-aided numbers? Are the positive strides we saw from Carlos Gomez in Texas after an awful Astros experience a sign of things to come in '17? Does Michael Brantley's shoulder cooperate enough for the Indians to exercise his $11 million option for '18, or is there any scenario where he enters the market as a potential bounceback candidate?

What will a 37-year-old Curtis Granderson be worth? Is a healthy Colby Rasmus going to pounce on his one-year opportunity with Tampa Bay? Will Melky Cabrera turn it up in a walk year like he's done twice before? Can Jay Bruce, who was so good for the Reds early last season, recover from his brutal second-half slide with the Mets? Will Justin Upton be good enough to opt out of the four years and $88 million he'll have left on his Tigers contract?

This could be a good group, this could be a terrible group. For now, let's split the difference and call it average.

Grade: C

Relief pitching

This is always the most volatile, difficult-to-predict area in baseball, so it's hard to say how the 2017-18 class will be judged. But it certainly doesn't have the top-heavy feel of this most recent free-agent group fronted by Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon.

The best we can say for now is that Wade Davis will draw heavy interest if the elbow issues that sidelined him late in 2016 aren't issues for him with the Cubs in '17.

Davis on joining Cubs

Beyond that, Jake McGee is a lefty with good stuff and closing experience, but health and the move to Coors Field were not on his side in 2016. Francisco Rodriguez will be back on the open market. Jeanmar Gomez could be interesting if his 2017 more closely resembles the good of '16 (37 saves) than the bad (4.85 ERA). Bryan Shaw and Tony Watson have been valuable, durable setup options for the Indians and Pirates, respectively. But by and large, this relief group is short on star power.

Grade: C

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.