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Pay Ball! Big MLB free agent class already firing up next year’s hot stove

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

What in the name of Steve Cohen’s wallet and Dodger moneybags is going on with the MLB calendar these days?

It’s not even March and the Hot Stove League is getting stoked to brow-singeing levels for next winter already.

Yes, next winter.

We’ve still got almost a month left of this winter.

Apparently, that’s what happens when a sports league undergoes a record spending spree on free agents with cash still raining in MLB locales from San Diego to New York.

That’s why Padres third baseman Manny Machado said he’s already decided to opt out of a $300 million contract halfway through the 10-year deal.

“There’s a lot of money out there,” Machado told reporters in Peoria, Arizona, last week — expanding on revelations made earlier to the San Diego Union-Tribune about the opt-out decision.

Hall of Fame-bound Max Scherzer, the Mets pitcher, also talked this week about the opt-out clause he may exercise after the season — albeit, mostly because he was asked about it by SportsNet New York — and acknowledged the “business situation” that looms after he turns 39 in July.

And before a pitch is thrown in the Cactus League, two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani and his agent are inspiring visions of $400 million price tags — $500 million? —  by suggesting the 2021 MVP and 2022 runner-up might be more likely to play out his final year of club control rather than sign an extension with the Angels.

“I think there’s several layers to this one and Shohei’s earned the right to play through this year and explore free agency, and we’ll see where it shakes out,” Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, told reporters in Tempe, Arizona, after meeting with Angels GM Perry Minasian — adding that in-season negotiations are “tough” enough on a player that it “probably makes more sense to table and wait till the end of the season.”

And you thought as winter that saw Aaron Judge, Jacob deGrom and four shortstops get more than $1.5 billion combined was big.

Wait till next year.

Or don’t wait.

Here’s a quick glance at the movers already shaking that market:

Shohei Ohtani (29 on Opening Day 2024)

Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Two players for the price of one? Not if Ohtani can help it. If he’s proven anything in his career it might be that he’s the one player worth the price of two — and that’s the clearest driver when it comes to extension vs. free agency and then the ensuing bidding war.

Another driver: Every team in MLB can use both of those impact, power players on their roster.

He’s already got sports-talk hosts in Chicago salivating over the suddenly spending-again Cubs going after him.

Good luck with that, Cubs fans.

Just consider the possible reaction of Steve Cohen’s $355 million Mets, especially if Scherzer opts out.

Max Scherzer (39 in 2024)

max scherzer

The three-time Cy Young winner got the same $43.3 million annual value a year ago from the Mets that new (again) teammate Justin Verlander got this year. Verlander has a vesting option for a third year; Scherzer’s deal includes the $43.3 million player option (opt-out).

Assuming he finishes the year healthy and strong (the only way this conversation is relevant), it’s hard to imagine he won’t get what he wants financially to stay in New York, where Cohen has done nothing but run payroll laps around the rest of the industry since he bought the team.

The wild card: Scherzer is from St. Louis area, and the Cardinals — who once drafted him — have come up as a possible destination for years.

Manny Machado (31)

manny machado
Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Another target from the studio heads in Chicago thinking bigger with the Ricketts family’s money than the Rickettses have ever come close to thinking. Machado and Dansby Swanson on the left side of the infield?

For now, the Padres have shown now signs of slowing down on their willingness to sign players to long-term, big-money contracts. And Kevin Acee of the Union-Tribune reported that they’ve already offered an additional five years at more than $100 million to Machado (which he rejected).

That would take him to more than $400 million over 15 years in San Diego.

More likely, he gets another $300 million deal on the open market if he keeps up the production he has shown.

Wild card: The Padres will soon have to pay superstar Juan Soto, and probably well north of anything they’ve already spent on a player, if they want to keep him. He’ll become a free agent after next season otherwise. That figures to be the bigger priority.

Matt Chapman (30)

matt chapman
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

If Machado is the top third baseman available next winter, All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner Chapman is an appealing Plan B for a team in need if the Blue Jays don’t find a will or a way to extend him. Did we mention the Cubs?

Chapman told the Toronto Star there’s a mutual interest in him being a Blue jay and expects extension talks.

But he also added this, perhaps prophetically: “When I signed that two-year deal [after getting traded from Oakland last March] I was anticipating they would have to pay Bo [Bichette] and Vladdy [Guerrero Jr.] and all these young guys.”

Not as big a wild card as Soto in San Diego, but a lot more of them.

Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.