Who Will Be This Year’s Top Free Agents?
I know the 2014 season is just two months old, and the playoff picture is only just beginning to take shape, but it’s never too early to take a look at players on contending teams that will be available this upcoming winter.
With that being said, here’s my list of the top ten players that will be available this winter:
1. Max Scherzer (Detroit Tigers) – 30 years old
The Tigers raised some eyebrows this spring by announcing that Scherzer had rejected an offer that would have placed him among the game’s highest-paid pitchers, and were thus tabling talks until next fall.
Scherzer set career bests across the board in 2013, with 21 wins, a 2.90 ERA, and 240 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings en route to 6.7 Wins Above Replacement (for any stat heads out there). He started the All-Star Game, notched two more wins in the Division Series against Oakland (one in relief), and received 28 of 30 first-place votes in the Cy Young balloting.
The deal he rejected would have paid him as though he would perform at last year’s level for years to come, which is why it’s a surprise the 29-year old and the Tigers reached an impasse. Then again, his agent is Scott Boras so maybe this isn’t all that surprising after all.
The 2013 AL Cy Young award winner now assumes the risk of living up to a career year in order to boost his value even further upon hitting the open market, but given his strong start to the season could be in for a huge payday in the coming year.
2. Hanley Ramirez (Los Angeles Dodgers) – 31 Years Old
Though Hanley was limited by injuries last year – including tearing a thumb ligament and suffering a hamstring strain two months apart – when he was healthy he was the best player in the National League.
He hit .345/.402/.638 and represented a more powerful version of the Hanley of 2007-2010 when he was with the Marlins and in the discussion for being the best player in baseball. As we headed into this season, their appeared to be mutual interest between both Hanley and the Dodgers, but nothing has formed to this point.
If Hanley hits the open market, he is believed to be seeking a contract in excess of $130 million.
Even though the joke around the league is that the Dodgers have seemingly endless funds, the gap between the two sides is obviously large enough that negotiations could take a while, if they get done at all before season’s end.
3. James Shields (Kansas City Royals) – 33 Years Old
Shields has been one of the most productive starting pitchers in the league over the last couple seasons, and has always been a figure of consistency since he broke into the majors.
He has pitched at least 200 innings for each of the last seven seasons, and has logged ERA totals between 2.82 and 3.52 over the last three.
Shields has gotten off to a strong start in his contract year as well, as he is 6-3 with a 2.95 ERA through his first 11 starts.
Shields and his camp rejected rumors this spring that he is seeking to land a deal in the realm of Zack Greinke’s six-year, $147MM pact, but this could be a possibility for the veteran right-hander. He will have draft pick compensation tied to him (unlike Greinke) but he should still receive a guarantee of at least $100MM from his new team, if not more given the rising price of quality starting pitching in the game.
4. Jon Lester (Boston Red Sox) – 31 Years Old
While it looks like Lester has a real chance of signing an extension with the Red Sox before the season is over, there is still a chance he hits the open market. Talks between the two sides are reportedly far apart, and Lester said himself this spring this very well might be his last season with the team.
Lester was a strong force in the team’s postseason run last year, and just like Shields, has been very consistent over the years.
He has only thrown under 200 innings once in the last 6 seasons, and has won at least 15 games in 5 of the last 6 seasons. Lester is also arguably having his best season in his contract year as well, as even though he is 4-6 he has a 3.36 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 10.2 K/9.
If Lester continues on his current pace, his WHIP and K/9 rates would be the lowest he’s posted in his 9 year career.
5. Nelson Cruz (Baltimore Orioles) – 33 Years Old
Though Cruz’s contract talks were hampered by his association with the Biogenesis scandal this past offseason, he is proving thus far in 2014 that his power numbers from the past have nothing to do with his reported PED use.
Through 46 games this season, Cruz is hitting .291 and leads all of baseball with 16 HR’s and is second in all of baseball with 44 RBI’s.
While Cruz’s play in the outfield isn’t his strong suit, his bat will force a team to sacrifice defense in the corner outfield for a run producer in the middle of the order. That is, if some team can’t convince him to sign as a designated hitter this winter.
Cruz will be 34 at the end of this season, but we’ve seen recently with Aramis Ramirez that run producers can still get multi-year deals in their older years. Ramirez signed a 3-year $36MM deal with the Brewers two seasons ago when he was 34 as well, and Cruz could very well sign a deal north of that value and possibly even with a fourth guaranteed year.
6. Sergio Romo (San Francisco Giants) – 32 Years Old
Romo has been one of the best and most consistent closers in baseball since taking over the full-time role for the Giants midway through the 2012 season. Even before that, though, he was one of the top setup men in the league.
Romo already has 16 saves in 50 games for the first place Giants, and though his ERA is spiked up a bit, at 3.27, his track record shows this will end up in the low 2’s or high 1’s by the end of the season.
Romo has only finished a season with his ERA above 2.54 once in his career, and has posted ERA’s under 2.18 in 5 of his 7 big league seasons. Romo also holds hitters to a .195 BAA for his career and has averaged over 10 strikeouts per nine innings for his career.
Though Jim Johnson and David Robertson will also be available this winter, I think Romo has established himself as the clear superior as far as his track record is concerned. After all, Johnson is off to a rough start with Oakland and Robertson doesn’t have the track record Romo does in the 9th inning.
7. Aramis Ramirez (Milwaukee Brewers) – 37 Years Old
Even though Aramis will be 37 this coming winter, he has been one of the best run-producers in the game over the last decade or so. He has hit at least 20 HR’s and driven in at least 70 RBI’s in every full season of play since 2003, and has topped 92 RBI’s 7 times since then.
Through almost 17 big league seasons, Aramis owns a .285/.344/.499 line and had arguably one of his better seasons with Milwaukee in the first year of his current three-year deal, at the age of 34.
That season, Aramis hit .300/.360/.540 with 27 HR’s, 50 doubles, and he drove in 105 RBI’s and scored 92 runs serving as protection for Ryan Braun after the departure of Prince Fielder.
Aramis has been a pretty good defensive third-basemen throughout his career, but given his age might have to settle for a DH role in the American League this coming season. Regardless of where he is playing though, Aramis should easily score a two-year deal this season after the league has seen what fellow run-producer David Ortiz has done in his supposed waning years.
8. Billy Butler (Kansas City Royals) – 28 Years Old
Though Butler is pretty much limited to the American League and a DH role (he has played less than 40 games at 1B over the last three seasons combined) he is still one of the premier true designated hitters in the league.
Butler has never been much of a power hitter, but teams might get rewarded if he can repeat his 2012 home run total of 27 as he enters the prime of his career. He is a career .296 hitter and though he has only topped 90 RBI’s 3 times in his first 8 seasons, he would likely top that figure on an annual basis on a consistently competitive team.
No offense to the Royals, but their offense tends to go in dry spells at times. Butler has always been a clutch hitter as well, as he is a career .320 hitter with runners in scoring position, driving in 204 runs in 462 at-bats with runners in scoring position despite hitting just 24 home runs in that span.
Butler’s game is his bat and his bat only, but given that he’s going to be just 28 years old this winter, he should be able to easily score a 3-or-4-year contract. There’s not much to bet against when it comes to Butler, you know you’re getting a high-average, clutch, gap-to-gap hitter even if his power never fully develops.
9. David Robertson (New York Yankees) – 30 Years Old
Though Robertson is just transitioning into being a full-time closer this year now that Mariano Rivera has retired, his track record as a setup man is rather impressive.
Over the last three seasons, Robertson has thrown a combined 193 2/3 innings to the tune of a 1.91 ERA with 6 saves and 258 strikeouts over that span.
This season, Robertson is 10-for-11 in save opportunities with 21 strikeouts in 14 innings pitched.
Robertson will be 30 years old this winter, and given the recent contracts handed out to relief pitchers he should easily score a three-year contract north of $21MM. Of course, given the Yankees lack of back-end relief options, teams might be forced into a bidding war with the Yankees for Robertson’s services this offseason if his strong performance continues.
10. Melky Cabrera (Toronto Blue Jays) – 30 Years Old
Though Melky was suspended 50 games at the end of the 2012 season, he was given a 2-year $16MM deal by the Blue Jays the following offseason. Melky had a down season in his first year with Toronto, hitting just 3 HR’s and driving in just 30 runs through 88 games before missing time due to a knee injury.
This season, however, the Melky of old (well, 2011-2012) looks like he’s back. The switch-hitting outfielder is hitting .313/.357/.502 with 8 HR’s and 25 RBI’s through his first 50 games.
Melky is pretty much an equal hitter from both sides of the plate, though he tends to have a bit more power from the left side.
He could catch on with a team in need of either a No. 2 or 3 hole hitter and should be able to score at least a 3-year contract somewhere in the $30MM range if he continues to hit the way he has to start this season. Though, Shin-Soo Choo just signed a 7-year $130MM deal with the Rangers and Melky, though for a lot less money, might try to command a long-term deal as well given that he’s a year younger than Choo.2015 MLB Free Agents: Top 10 Players Available This Winter by Matt Stein