Let's make one thing perfectly clear: Your next five months are going to be spent arguing about the following names. How will they do? How many wins will they contribute? Will they be worth the money? How long until the contract is praised or ridiculed? You'll have opinions. Oh, how you'll have opinions. You'll form them quickly and forcefully, though there's a chance that more information will make you reevaluate before the spring.
And then you'll wait for the baseball.
Just gotta sit back and wait for the baseball.
Oh, good, it's almost freezing again. Better get the cat off the bench again before he gets stuck.
Too late. Maybe there's some baseball on. Nope, it's Bantha State and Southwest East Tech in the Cialis Bowl.
Wonder what those free agents are going to do when there's baseball?
... baseballllllllll come baaaaaaack
Yet somehow, these hot stoves keep us just warm enough. You kindle them with a free-agent power ranking. Get used to these names:
1. Jon Lester
Lester has thrown over 200 innings for six out of the last seven seasons. Max Scherzer has done it only for the last two. Lester's adjusted ERA over the last seven seasons: 124, including a career-best 155 this season. Scherzer's adjusted ERA over the same time: 117. Both injury histories are mostly clean, save for a couple shoulder strains for both.
The only reason to pick Scherzer is if you're really, really big on fielding-independent pitching stats. I'm a believer, but I remember my agnostic roots, too. Lester seems like the kind of pitcher who could survive with an 88-mph fastball; I'm not sure if that's true of Scherzer.
I would rather eat a box of staples rather than have my team spend money for either of them, considering the contract they'll get, but if I'm picking one, it's Lester, even if just barely.
2. Max Scherzer
It seems like this is the first offseason in a while with multiple ace-type pitchers available. Or, if you're a curmudgeon, the delicious canola-based spreads to the butter of a real ace. Scherzer and Jon Lester are Ace 1 and Ace 1a of the offseason, and you can flip them and flop them as you see fit. I almost went with Scherzer in the top spot because of the shiny trophy. It doesn't matter. They're both going to ignore my letters pleading for help with my student loans, even though they're totally rich.
Scherzer turned down a six-year deal worth a reported $144 million, so that's not even the starting point for the negotiations. He's one of the best pitchers with major league experience to come on the market in years, but he's still 30, and there isn't a supercomputer in the world that could simulate what it would take for him to be worth $24 million in 2021, even though that's probably what he's in line for. If not more.
Max Scherzer (Leon Halip).
3. James Shields
Oh, I'll bet whoever gave him the nickname "Big Game James" feels just awful now. Still, 6.12 ERA in the 2014 postseason aside, Shields is gonna be rich. His injury history at Baseball Prospectus has four entries:
- 2007: Lower leg contusion from a batted ball (no starts missed)
- 2007: Lower leg contusion from a batted ball (no starts missed)
- 2006: Right thigh cramp (one start missed)
- 2002: Shoulder surgery
He's never missed a start in the majors, posting a career 111 ERA+, and there's a chance that his age (two years older than Scherzer and Lester) will make him a cheaper, more attractive option to those two.
He's still 32 and a one-time All-Star, though. Zack Greinke is his top comparable player on Baseball-Reference.com, but his second is Shane Reynolds. That's just about the proper spectrum.
4. Hanley Ramirez
With Derek Jeter gone, we have a new why-is-he-still-playing-shortstop champion. If Ramirez still insists on playing short wherever he goes, feel free to slide him one down on this list. Ramirez isn't the average-fueled monster who hit .345 with 20 homers in a half-season in 2013, but he's still an excellent power hitter in a free agent market that isn't flush with them. And, okay, technically he can still play up the middle.
If Shin-Soo Choo, with a similar injury checkerboard and comparable production at a lower rung of the defensive ladder, can get seven years, $130 million, I'm starting to wonder if Hanley's contract will be the spit-take deal of the offseason.
5. Pablo Sandoval
Through May 10, Sandoval was hitting .173/.250/.276. Even more amazing: He was actually worse with runners in scoring position during that stretch. He was the worst player in baseball, according to WAR, for a good three weeks.
Since then: .308/.345/.452 with stellar defense, and that doesn't include his outstanding postseason (.366/.423/.465 in 17 games, with even better defense and a strangely patient approach). His raw numbers are hurt significantly by AT&T Park, and I could see him going berserk in Fenway or Chase Field. One of his most attractive qualities is his age: He's just 28, which means he still has another four or five years before the contract is a near-certain albatross. That's about two or three more years than the typical free agent, and teams pay attention to that stuff.
6. Yasmany Tomas
Either Tomas is Jose Abreu or he's Dayan Viciedo or he's somewhere in between. He's young (24), has a skill that's in demand (dingers!), and makes teams think of the recent string of Cuban smash smash hits. Not only did players like Abreu, Yasiel Puig, and Yoenis Cespedes immediately pan out, but they were relative bargains for their teams (and continue to be). That snippet of recency bias might allow a couple of stubborn GMs to get bolder and bolder as the negotiations progress.
If a team wants all-caps POWER, they're not going to get it from Ramirez or Sandoval. They might find it with Nelson Cruz and Victor Martinez, but they'll have to pay for their twilight years to get it. Tomas is the only player on the market with youth and power on his side, and he should get a monster contract. It will be exciting for the team that signs him, assuming that he's good. Which ... I dunno. Maybe?
7. Victor Martinez
You've read this story before: 33-year-old DH gets hurt, 34-year-old DH comes back with reduced production, 35-year-old DH stumbles, 36-year-old DH limited to pinch-hitting duties, 37-year-old DH is out of the league. Martinez in his prime was a delight, but the story changes for no man.
Until it does. Martinez had his very, very best season, setting career marks in on-base percentage, home runs, and stolen bases (three, vroooom).
8. Kenta Maeda
The 27-year-old right hander might not be posted by the Hiroshima Carp, who finished in second place in the Central League in 2014, but if he is, there will be a bidding war. The notable Japanese pitching flops (Hideki Irabu, Kaz Ishii, Kei Igawa) and minor-to-major red flags when it came to their control. The pitchers who succeeded after jumping to the majors were the ones who didn't walk a lot of batters in the NPB (which isn't a walking league to begin with). Maeda doesn't excite people like Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka did with raw stuff, but neither did Hisashi Iwakuma or Hiroki Kuroda, both of whom were absolute steals.
Command and deception plays really, really, really well in the high-whiff era we're in. If Maeda is available, he'll probably get something close to Shields' contract.
Kenta Maeda (Ezra Shaw).
9. Melky Cabrera
(Edited in in after the fact because I'm a dummy.)
In three out of the last four seasons, Melky was spectacular. In his dud of a year that was mixed in, he had a tumor in his spine. Which, if you're going to have an excuse ...
He's more clomper than defender these days, but he can still play left field. He's a switch-hitter, and even if he's a little too average-dependent to be a sure bet, he's going to get something like the deal he thought he was going to get before he was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. His agent is probably setting up an informational website now.
10. Nelson Cruz
I spent most of my offseason yelling about what a disaster of a signing Cruz was going to be.
He doesn't hit for contact, and he doesn't have a lot of patience. It takes a ton of power to make up for that. Decent power makes him Jose Guillen at the end of his career. He can't have decent power. Teams would be paying for good-to-excellent power.
Ha ha. Well, at least i wasn't totally wrong. Ha. Ahem.
Cruz found his spirit ballpark: Camden Yards was absolutely perfect for him, even better than Arlington was. It helped Cruz set a career mark in home runs and led the American League with 40. He started off like an MVP candidate, deflated a bit back down to expectations, then puffed back up again. He just might get that gigantic deal that teams were unwilling to give him last offseason, and they'll give up a draft pick to do it.
If the Orioles don't re-sign him, his new team will probably be disappointed if they're expecting a 40-homer hitter. But as a win-now alternative to paying Tomas nine figures, he'll do just fine.
11. Russell Martin
It was very, very funny to note that Martin was the biggest free agent deal the Pirates had given out in franchise history. A two-year deal for $15 million for an aging catcher was the biggest deal in history? What a bunch of maroons. Everyone laugh at the Pirates. Everyone point and laugh.
Except Martin led the Pirates to their first two playoff appearances in two decades. His pitch-framing, widely lauded, seems to correlate quite nicely with the Pirates' pitching renaissance, even if his help can't be perfectly quantified. He walked and hit his way to a .402 OBP in his walk year, which was certainly excellent timing. There's no way he'll keep that up going forward, considering his three reddest of red flags (a. it's out of line with his career, b. he's 32 next season, c. he's a catcher), but he's the perfect example of a player who can help a team tremendously even if he barely scrapes a .300 OBP.
12. Aramis Ramirez
Has the rare mutual option that might get exercised and keep him off the market, but his consistency would get him paid on the market, despite his age.
13. David Robertson
(Edited in after the fact because I'm a dummy.)
If you want to pay a name-brand closer, here's your chance. Here's your terrifying chance. Robertson is excellent, don't get me wrong, but relievers are donuts filled with jellied heartbreak. Good luck, new team. (Or old one.)
14. Andrew Miller
(Edited in after the fact because I'm a dummy.)
And yet ... I can't help but want to give this guy $500 million and a private island. He was one of the best players in the Orioles' postseason run, a stunning contrast to the Tigers' bucket of assorted parts and gruel.
15. Ervin Santana
Boy, oh boy, would I feel like a jerk as the new Braves GM if my first move was to extend the qualifying offer to Santana. It's something the Braves have to consider. Still jerkish, though.
16. Adam LaRoche
Has a player option that he's likely to decline and the Nationals are under pressure to move Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond. It seems like he alternates between league-average seasons and above-average seasons. Could see him getting a three-year deal, even if he's 35 next season.
17. Jason Hammel
He righted the ship a little in his last few starts for the A's, but he didn't entirely make up for his post-trade collapse. He still moved from the show-me deal of the previous offseason to a multi-year deal, though.
18. Hiroki Kuroda
He seems betrothed to the Yankees for whatever reason. I'd love to see him pitch in a forgiving ballpark, like AT&T Park or Dodger Stadium (again), just to see what he can do now. It's probably Yankees, Japan, or quiet mornings with coffee and crossword puzzles for him.
19. Chase Headley
There was a shot for him to catch up to Sandoval in terms of years, if not money, but that was a couple years ago. Getting him out of Petco helped a little bit, but it's not as if he set Yankee Stadium ablaze, either. A one-year deal might make more sense than a three-year deal, especially if he picks the right park.
20. Brandon McCarthy
The reverse Hammel. His market value was in the toilet, but once he left Arizona, the Yankees let him throw his cutter again. He also stayed healthy for the first time in his major league career, which takes out some of the guesswork.
Brandon McCarthy (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports).
21. Michael Morse
He needs an American League team. The Giants were enamored of his power enough to sign him, but terrified enough of his defense to start a converted first baseman over him in the postseason. As a one- or two-year power option for a team looking for a DH upgrade, he could be a steal.
22. Jake Peavy
He didn't reinvent himself after coming over to the Giants in a trade. He just got luckier and pitched in a batch of friendlier ballparks. His performance in the postseason should make teams doubt his viability as anything but a fourth starter, but those guys still have value.
23. Asdrubal Cabrera
The patron saint of defensive numbers not matching defensive reputation, Cabrera would be a fantastic pickup for a lot of teams ... as long as still played a great defensive shortstop. That's been in question for years, though, and the defensive stats even hated his short time at second for the Nationals. I dunno. Looked good to me. Which is the Cabrera paradox.
24. Francisco Liriano
Liriano wasn't as good as he was in 2013 and failed to make 30 starts for the fourth straight season. He suffered through a four-inning start before the All-Star break, but after the break he had a 2.20 ERA in 14 starts. The control wasn't quite there (39 walks in 86 innings), but the strikeout stuff was.
25. Colby Rasmus
Dingers! And lousy plate discipline. But dingers! And poor center-field defense. Dingers, though! And general weirdness. He's still just 28, so maybe there's a team that still believes in his latent potential. Career platoon splits: .257/.323/.465 against right-handers, .214/.287/.361 against left-handers.
26. Nick Markakis
For some reason, Markakis has stuck in my head as a player closer to Nick Johnson than Cal Ripken on the Johnson-Ripken Spectrum. Maybe it's the name. Nick. Literally means cut. But Markakis has been something of a lineup stalwart, starting at least 155 games in seven of his last eight seasons. His ceiling is probably no more than "okay" at this point, though.
27. Stephen Drew
The defense was still there! The defense was still there. Just keep muttering that, and you'll be fine. I'm not sure how much the qualifying offer-inflicted months off affected Drew, but I feel pretty comfortable guessing "a ton." He never got on track, and then he flipped over the track, and then the track caught fire. However, teams looking for a shortstop know his risk/reward ledger is on the right side.
28. Kendrys Morales
The defense wasn't there! The defense wasn't there. Just keep muttering that, and you'll be horrified. I'm not sure how much the qualifying offer-inflicted months off affected Morales, but I feel pretty comfortable guessing "a ton." He never got on track, and then he flipped over the track, and then the track caught fire, and then a school bus got caught on the track. Teams looking for a DH should know his risk/reward ledger is on the wrong side by now. There are probably better options. Still, he was so very good in 2013.
29. Pat Neshek/Sergio Romo/Koji Uehara (tie)
One will be a flop. One will be as good as he ever was. One will be pretty good. Pick one. Only Uehara will command less than a three-year deal, I'm guessing. That might be the tiebreaker for which one teams fight over.
Pat Neshek (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports).
30. Edinson Volquez
With Liriano, he was also responsible for the Pirates' second-half surge. He was doing it without missing bats, though. I ... I'm not sure how he was doing it, really. Teams and GMs will be just as flummoxed.
31. Michael Cuddyer
His last two seasons: .331/.385/.543. That's outstanding. Except, here come the caveats: He'll be 36, those numbers came in Coors Field, he can't play defense, and he missed more than 100 games with injury this season. An AL team should feel lucky to win the bidding, but keep their fingers crossed.
32. Chris Young (the tall one)
Feels like we should appreciate this guy more. He's 6'10", throws Barry Zito fastballs from the right side, and he's usually been at least an average pitcher when he's been healthy. His slow finish means a multi-year deal isn't likely -- if it ever was there in the first place -- but that he's on this list at all is a major accomplishment.
33. Norichika Aoki
His defense was a topic of conversation in the World Series, and he's heading into his mid-30s, so it's not going to get better. He can still get on base, though, and he's not a clogger when he's there. If expectations are tempered and the rest of the lineup can support him, he could be a steal.
(He's also the best.)
34. Justin Masterson
There were reports that Masterson came to the Indians and offered to sign a below-market deal, but the deadline scuttlebutt was that he declined a three-year, $45 million deal. The Indians are glad he did. He won't get a tenth of that after this miserable season, but he'll get some interest from a team that thinks they can Dave Duncan him up.