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Winter meetings and free agents in a post-Cano world: Best of the rest

The winter meetings are upon us, but some key free-agent dominoes may have to fall before a very active hot stove season heats up even more.

Shin-Soo Choo
Shin-Soo Choo
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Over a 30-hour span last week, two-thirds of the teams in the majors either signed a free agent or were involved in a trade. It's difficult to round them all up since they happened in such rapid succession, but by my count eight free agents signed, 25 players were involved in trades, and to add to the mayhem, over 40 players were non-tendered and hit the free agent market on Wednesday.

As teams seemed to race against an imaginary deadline, several free agents found new homes. Jacoby Ellsbury signed with the Yankees, Joe Nathan will close for the Tigers, A.J. Pierzynski will spend next season at Fenway, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia heads to a mostly vacant Marlins Parks.

Those are just some of the signings that happened on Tuesday, and even though the winter meetings start today, a lot of the suspense over where some of the best free agents will land have already been answered. Of the top 20 free agents as ranked by ESPN's Free Agent Tracker, only seven are still available, and of the top 30, just 10 are left. On the surface, that may seem like the winter meetings will be anticlimactic and without meaning, but there are still plenty of deals that could happen this week.

The position players have been the quickest to go this offseason, with interest in the relatively drab list of starting pitching lagging behind. Of the 10 top 30 free agents still available, half of those are starting pitchers, and the delay in interest is understandable. None of the starters are aces, and since there are several No. 2 or No. 3 caliber starters available, teams can take their time in finding the right fit. There's also uncertainty surrounding whether or not Masahiro Tanaka will be posted and if David Price and Jeff Samardzija will be dealt by the Rays and Cubs, respectively. Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ervin Santana will eventually end up on someone's roster, but it just might take a little bit longer than usual for the market to fully develop.

Even if there are no likely MVPs or Cy Youngs in waiting still at large, there are still some very good players waiting to be snapped up while front offices are comingling in Orlando. Just as previous signings have influenced which players have become available on the trade market, any of these dominoes falling may trigger additional moves down the line, freeing up players of better quality than Ike Davis, Logan Morrison, or even Brett Gardner. A guide to the best of what's left among the free agents:

Ubaldo_mediumUbaldo Jimenez (David Richard-USA TODAY Sports)

Ubaldo Jimenez: Jimenez is just one of several players on the market this offseason who had a bounce-back seasons at just the right time. Back in 2011 when Jimenez was traded to the Indians at midseason, Cleveland leveraged the farm to add him to their roster in their final push to the playoffs. He pitched horribly, the Indians fell short, and those struggles continued into 2012 when Jimenez posted a 5.40 ERA and lost 17 games (leading, if that's the right word, the majors), and his 7.13 ERA to start this season seemed to spell doom for 2013. Quite unexpectedly, however, having compiled a 4.87 ERA in 90 starts going back to the aftermath of his 10-1, 0.78 ERA start in 2010, Jimenez began to pitch  like he had a new arm. From May 1 on his ERA was 2.72. He finished with a 3.30 mark in 182 innings pitched and had a career-high 25-percent strikeout rate. In the month of September, Jimenez' ERA was just 1.09.

Despite the rocky first year and a half, the Indians were willing to gamble on his upside and gave Jimenez a qualifying offer; they don't have any clear successors for his spot in the rotation. While he didn't accept that offer, there's a good chance he ends up back in Cleveland, especially since Scott Kazmir has signed with the Athletics. In a thin market for starters, Jimenez is the pick of the litter this offseason and he'll have his suitors, especially after Masahiro Tanaka's destination becomes clearer, but the unpredictability of his performance over the past few seasons might limit his market.

Shin-Soo Choo: Jacoby Ellsbury and Choo are both clients of Scott Boras. It was surprising that Ellsbury agreed to a deal with the Yankees six days before the winter meetings, because Boras tends to let things simmer much longer. For Boras's clients, it's all about finding the perfect market conditions, which usually works, but sometimes fails-just ask Kyle Lohse. With Ellsbury off the market it is Choo's time for negotiations, but it might take a little bit longer to find the right team as organizations regroup after a crazy week of signings.

There are just two top-tier outfielders left: Choo and Nelson Cruz. Fortunately for them both, there are several teams, including the White Sox, Tigers, Astros, and Reds who could be looking for help. Choo is the better of the two; the 31-year-old's .423 on-base percentage this season ranked fourth in the majors. His combination of hitting for average, walks, and hit by pitches  would make virtually any lineup better in the leadoff spot. Choo has a handful of problems-he's not a good percentage basestealer, he's not a great defender (he spent the year in center for the Reds because he was what they had to put there, not because he's a true center fielder), he struggles against lefties, and he's nursed more than his share of injuries, but even though that seems like a fistful of reasons not to sign him to an Ellsbury-like contract, it won't be enough to limit his market.

Ervin Santana: Santana will be banking, quite literally, on the fact that goldfish have longer memories than general managers as he looks for a deal this offseason. In 2012, Santana posted a 5.16 ERA and gave up 39 home runs (the most in the majors), and the Angels trade him and cash to the Kansas City Royals for minor-leaguer Brandon Sisk. After pitching 211 innings and dropping his ERA to 3.24 with the Royals last season, Santana is one of the best starters on the market as long as you don't think about anything that happened outside of this calendar year; he's always veered between good and sub-replacement-level seasons (he, Jimenez, the Cubs' Edwin Jackson could start a fraternal organization called "The Really Good (Except When We're Really Bad) Club." Not many teams have been rumored to be interested in Santana yet, but I wouldn't read anything into that since the market for starters is developing slower than that for position players.

Stephen Drew: Drew signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox last offseason to try to rebuild his value after losing nearly a whole season to an ankle injury. That strategy worked, the shortstop hitting .253/.333/.443; his 3.1 WAR was the highest of his eight-season career. Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said that the Red Sox would love to re-sign Drew, but the market seems to be heating up for the 30-year-old shortstop, so it might prove difficult.

The only other free agent shortstop with comparable near-term credentials was Jhonny Peralta, who signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Cardinals. Drew is also a Boras client and the super-agent will be looking for a deal in that same range for him at the winter meetings. If you believe the rumors, the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox are the most interested, though the Yankees will have to somehow accommodate the aged Derek Jeter and the gloveman Brendan Ryan, the latter of whom they signed to a two-year-plus-option $5 million deal last week.

Nelson_cruz_mediumNelson Cruz (Thearon W. Henderson)

Nelson Cruz: There's a market for Cruz, but he's definitely a harder sell than Choo. Cruz is now 33, his defense has diminished, and he's fresh off of a 50-game Biogenesis suspension. While deals like Peralta's suggests teams don't have much of an issue overlooking those sorts of suspensions, the fact that he's on the wrong side of 30 and has become a huge mess defensively,will probably limit the interest to American League teams that could use some help in the field, but also need a designated hitter.

Cruz has hit .272/.331/.511 and averaged 27 home runs since becoming a regular in 2009. While his bat is sharp, he's been worth on average just 1.2 WAR in the past three seasons due to his poor defense. His offense has also been aided by playing in Arlington; he's hit .296/.359/.573 at home versus .248/.303/.449 on the road. Cruz will be the consolation prize given to one of the teams that misses out on Choo; it seems that the Orioles, Royals, Rangers, and the White Sox could be the most interested in the coming weeks, with the A's and Mariners reportedly also showing interest. Given the way both of those parks suppress offense (particularly Safeco's enmity towards  right-handed power) it's easy to imagine Cruz landing in the wrong ballpark and fading away like a ghost puffed into disconnected atoms by a strong wind.

Juan Uribe: Uribe is another player hitting free agency after a tremendous rebound. A puffy, overweight Uribe struggled so much during the 2011 and 2012 seasons (.199/.262/.289 in a combined 143 games) that there was some speculation that the Dodgers might just release him and eat the $7 million they owed him for 2013; I'm sure they are glad they didn't do that. Uribe played 100 games and posted a 5.1 fWAR, the best of his career, and because of the improvement, the Dodgers have made multiple offers to try and re-sign him for the 2014 season.

Even if you factor in some regression, the 34-year-old third baseman is the best in a hot corner market that looks like Europe after the Black Death, and one of the "youngest" players at a position that is getting weaker and older by the minute. There will probably be a bidding war to gift him with a two-year deal given that he hit .278/.331/.438 with 12 home runs and the average production at third across the majors last season was just .260/.324/.412/ Heck, someone might even sneak him an extra year. The Dodgers are being the most aggressive here, but the pool hasn't really heated him up for him yet. The Marlins, White Sox, Angels, and Phillies could all benefit from better offense at third next season (the Phillies have young Cody Asche, but you know Ruben Amaro and thirtysomething free agents).

Matt Garza: Though his pitching for the Rangers was mediocre, Garza is attractive as a free agent because the midseason trade that sent him away from the Cubs made him ineligible to receive a qualifying offer. As such, teams that need a starter can grab him without losing a draft pick, something not true of Santana or Jimenez. It's difficult to get excited about Garza, who has teetered on the brink of being great but always falls back to the side of meh, but he could be a fine No. 2 or No. 3 since his numbers are average and inoffensive. He's twice reached the 200-inning mark in his career, but in the past two seasons he's been limited to 103.2 and 155.1 innings respectively as he's dealt with elbow and shoulder injuries. All said, there's probably still a three- or four-year deal out there for Garza; he might end up with the Yankees or Orioles, two teams that are most blatantly shopping for starters.

Bartolo Colon: When the Athletics signed Scott Kazmir, it dashed Colon's chances of remaining in Oakland. Colon has performed better with age, and his 16th season in the majors was the second-best of his career as measured by WAR (5.0). Even though he's 40 years old and looks like a human turducken, Colon will be appealing for two reasons: He didn't get a qualifying offer and he might not cost as much as the other starters on the market. While a one-year deal probably makes the most sense here, he's going to test the market for multiple years and see if that sort of deal is out there for him. The Angels and Mariners seem like the most logical fit for Colon, but many rotations could benefit from a starter that keeps his home run and walk percentages much lower than league average.

Kendrys Morales: Since the Mariners signed Robinson Cano and apparently still aspire to other costly acquisitions, they may not have the money left in the budget to re-sign Morales as their designated hitter and backup first baseman for next season. The 30-year-old switch hitter was one of their best hitters last season (41-year-old Raul Ibanez gave him a run for his money); Morales hit .277/.336/.449 with 23 home runs, and lowered his strikeout percentage from 22.2 percent in 2012 to 17.4 percent. If he doesn't stay with the Mariners, Morales will likely stay in the American League. The Rays and Orioles could use a designated hitter, and a switch hitter like Morales who doesn't need to be platooned to stay productive (he has traditionally been weaker from the right side, but that wasn't the case this year) would greatly benefit them. If he does leave the AL, he could end up with the Marlins, who could have a vacancy if they trade 25-year-old Logan Morrison.

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