Major league scouts are ready for spring training coverage as exhibition games get underway. They will monitor veteran players’ health, evaluate prospects trying to make teams, and wander to the minor league complexes to get their eyes on opposing clubs’ prospects their teams might want in trades. But they will also begin their evaluations of next winter’s free-agent class.
The reason scouts start so early is because several of these free agents will become available in deals come this year's trade deadline. But next year’s class is also much stronger than this past winter’s, although it might not be quite as sexy as the group available after 2018, when young stars like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado might be the headliners.
This next class will be highlighted by three top starters, a few middle-of-the-order bats and some high-end closers. Here’s a first look at the best potential free agents as teams start scouting them for the trade deadline and next season.
20. 3B Eduardo Nunez, San Francisco Giants: Nunez had his breakout year last year, hitting .288/.325/.432 with 24 doubles, 16 homers and 40 stolen bases in a season split between the Twins and Giants. His ability to play multiple positions, including second base and the outfield, increases his value. If he can repeat last season’s performance, the 2016 All-Star will become a sleeper free agent.
19. SS Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals: The free agent market lacks middle infielders, which should bode well for Escobar. His low career OBP (.297) will hurt his value, but his defense is special. He made two World Series appearances with the Royals and his strong postseason play could make up for any shortcomings. Escobar is represented by Paul Kinzer, who's also Edwin Encarnacion's agent. After Encarnacion's offseason adventures this past winter, don't be surprised if Escobar signs early in the free-agent process. With J.J. Hardy being a free agent, the Orioles could be a good fit for Escobar, as could the Nationals if they move Trea Turner to second and Daniel Murphy to first.
18. RF Jay Bruce, New York Mets: Bruce has hit 30 or more home runs in four of the last six seasons, including 33 last year. He has won two Silver Slugger awards and been to three All-Star Games, is a great clubhouse presence, and holds his own in right. His only real problem in his career has been the long slumps that have prevented him from taking his game to the next level.
17. RHP Michael Pineda, New York Yankees: We all love his stuff and potential, and we’re all disappointed in his lack of consistency and actual performance. He’s 28 years old this year, and if he’s ever going to put it together, the timing couldn’t be better for him with free agency on the horizon.