Free agency isn’t what it used to be, and that’s probably not going to change any time soon.
Teams now move aggressively to lock their top players up early in their careers, which means fewer players reach free agency in their prime—and those who do often arrive with major question marks related to health or productivity. Yet contract records continue being broken as television revenue flows into the sport. Teams must be prepared to spend if they intend on adding even mediocre free agents.
To assess the 2013-14 free agent class, sportsnet.ca asked 40 MLB agents and front office executives for their analysis of the market. The consensus: Robinson Cano headlines the class of available players—a group that features some star left-handed bats and a wider array of catchers than usual. But the go-to adjective for executives describing the class was “weak.” They lamented the lack of available power bats, particularly from the right side of the plate. So the competition for the top players will be steep, with teams paying a premium for each star.
Here’s a look at some of the free-agent position players likely to dominate discussion around the game for the next few months. And remember—as fans of the Toronto Blue Jays will tell you, ‘winning’ the off-season doesn’t guarantee you a thing.
Robinson Cano will sign the largest free agent contract of the off-season and aims to become baseball’s first $300 million player. The Yankees will start looking like a last place team unless they reload this winter, so GM Brian Cashman will stay in touch with Cano’s representatives (Brodie van Wagenen of CAA Sports will lead negotiations on behalf of Jay Z’s Roc Nation). These days, New York is all about financial restraint and the Los Angeles Dodgers are the ones out-spending everyone. The Dodgers say they won’t bid for Cano, but there will be considerable interest from around baseball.
Many rival agents privately doubt that Cano will top the $300-million mark, but there’s no doubt he has a case for a long-term contract worth $25 million per season. Since debuting in 2005, he has averaged 153 games, 23 home runs, an .860 OPS and 5.0 WAR.
Omar Infante will be the next best option. The 31-year-old is expected to sign a multi-year deal after hitting .318 with a .345 OBP. The Detroit Tigers figure to have interest in keeping him, though it’s not clear if they’ll extend him a qualifying offer. The $14.1-million price tag might be an overpay, but a one-year offer limits risk. Martin Prado’s four-year, $40 million contract has been mentioned as a possible comparable.
Mark Ellis also reached the market after hitting .270 with a .323 OBP for the NL West-champion Dodgers. L.A. had a 2014 option for Ellis, but declined it after signing high-priced Cuban Alexander Guerrero. Ellis has a case for a two-year contract and should draw interest from teams that prefer not to make major financial commitments.
Second base suitors: Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles
Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo headline a relatively strong crop of outfielders that also includes Carlos Beltran and Nelson Cruz.
Ellsbury’s agent, Scott Boras, said 11 general managers asked about the centre fielder on the first day of free agency. The ever-colourful Boras suggested last month that Ellsbury will look to surpass Carl Crawford’s $142 million contract this winter. Boras, who also represents Choo, is expected to seek a nine-figure deal for the Cincinnati Reds outfielder. However, some have questioned the value of spending so aggressively on players such as Ellsbury and Choo given their struggles against left-handed pitching.
Curtis Granderson hits free agency after spending most of the year on the disabled list, creating another potential hole in New York’s lineup. Perhaps the Yankees will go after a guy like Beltran to replace Granderson. The St. Louis Cardinals switch-hitter figures to have many suitors, even as he approaches his age-37 season.
Expect the trade market to figure in as well, with the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton sure to attract plenty of interest. The 23-year-old is getting expensive with a projected arbitration salary in the $5-million range, but that’s still far more affordable than spending big in free agency. Hunter Pence’s recent $90-million extension with San Francisco gives you an idea of where the market is headed.
Outfield suitors: New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs
Long-time Atlanta Braves masked man Brian McCann leads a deep crop of free agents. McCann has a strong resume including six consecutive 20-home run seasons, a career .350 OBP and seven all-star game selections. He bats left-handed, is more than capable of managing a pitching staff and, with a healthy season behind him, has put to rest most of the concerns about his shoulder. Make no mistake: the 29-year-old will be well compensated this winter.
The Braves are expected to extend McCann a qualifying offer, but suitors will line up nonetheless. The Texas Rangers reportedly pursued him at the trade deadline and may figure prominently in the bidding. An AL team will be able to use him as a designated hitter to keep his bat in the lineup, but NL teams figure to express interest as well. McCann has enjoyed playing for a contender in Atlanta, and he hasn’t ruled out a return to the Braves.
Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia is keeping his options open as he hits the free agent market for the first time. Viewed as the No. 2 behind McCann, Saltalamacchia is expected to sign a multi-year contract.
The switch-hitter will appeal to teams thanks to his age (28) and offensive numbers (.338 OBP, 14 home runs, 40 doubles). A three-year deal might be enough to land Saltalamacchia, who figures to earn approximately $10 million per year. There’s also the chance that the Red Sox qualify him, though it would be an overpay relative to the annual salary he’d command on a multi-year deal. Saltalamacchia grew up and still lives in Florida, but is believed to be willing to consider all suitors, including the Red Sox.
Carlos Ruiz is another intriguing name. Teams are expected to express significant interest in the 34-year-old, who earned $5 million in 2013. Ruiz hit .269 with a .320 OBP in 91 games, but his career .358 OBP is a number that will intrigue clubs around baseball. A.J. Pierzynski and Kurt Suzuki are also available, meaning teams will have plenty of options.
There’s also an option on the international market. Power hitting Cuban Yenier Bello has been cleared by MLB and will work out for MLB scouts November 5 in Tijuana, Mexico. He can’t sign just yet, however. He first needs permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Catching suitors: Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies
If any player stands to benefit from the lack of available right-handed power it’s Mike Napoli. Most of the top free agent bats are left-handed (Cano, Choo, Ellsbury, McCann), and executives expect the first baseman to be pursued intensely.
After hitting 23 home runs with a .360 OBP, Napoli has an excellent case for a multi-year deal. And he’ll be viewed differently than he was in past years now that he’s exclusively a first baseman. Though teams will again have questions about his hip condition (avascular necrosis), they’re sure to notice that his production ticked up once he stopped catching.
The Red Sox are expected to make the 31-year-old a qualifying offer, meaning he’ll have to choose between $14.1 million for one year and testing the market while attached to draft-pick compensation. After a strong post-season performance, the open market likely seems more tempting than ever.
Also at first base there’s Justin Morneau, who offers power from the left side, and James Loney, who provides defence and some value at the plate. Kendrys Morales is expected to hit free agency after declining a qualifying offer, which may make a return to Seattle the likeliest outcome for the Mariners’ switch-hitter.
The shortstop market includes a pair of veterans capable of contributing at the plate. Stephen Drew played in 124 games for the Red Sox, posting a .333 OBP with 13 home runs. Still just 30 years old, he has set himself up for a multi-year deal. Jhonny Peralta missed 50 games due to a suspension for violating baseball’s substance policy, but he re-joined the Tigers in the post-season and hit well. Some question the 31-year-old’s defence, but he hit .303 with a .358 OBP and 30 doubles in 2013. He could get a multi-year guarantee even after serving a lengthy suspension, just as Melky Cabrera did a year ago.
Derek Jeter is expected to return to New York, whether he exercises his $8-million player option or re-negotiates with his long-time team. Yunel Escobar would be another appealing shortstop, but the Rays will likely exercise his $5 million option. Teams seeking a glove-first shortstop will look at Clint Barmes and Brendan Ryan.
There’s a lack of third base options available, which could spark trade discussions involving players such as Chase Headley of the San Diego Padres. Michael Young, Mark Reynolds and Kevin Youkilis will be available for teams seeking veteran third base help.
Infield suitors: Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, Miami Marlins, New York Mets, Colorado Rockies.
Though extension talks don’t typically pick up until January, it’s already apparent that a number position players have set themselves up for long-term contracts.
Josh Donaldson of the Oakland Athletics, for example, could be viewed as an extension candidate following his breakout season. The converted catcher hit 24 home runs with an .883 OPS and 8.0 WAR to emerge as an MVP candidate at third base. Historically the Athletics have pursued extensions aggressively with pre-arbitration eligible players such as Donaldson, but the sides didn’t appear to have had talks as of the end of the regular season.
Other extension candidates include Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals and Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles. Some players will sign, choosing security over the possibility of expanded future earnings. “Players tend to be risk-averse,” one agent says. “They don’t want to have to play for a contract every single year.”
The Boston Red Sox wouldn’t have won the World Series if GM Ben Cherington hadn’t gone on an off-season spending spree and re-shaped the team on the heels of a 93-loss season. From Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes to Koji Uehara and Shane Victorino, just about every one of Cherington’s additions worked out. Better still, the Red Sox built a winner without signing free agents linked to draft pick compensation.
In the aftermath of Boston’s success, some MLB executives expect other teams to copy the approach the Red Sox used to climb from worst to first. Boston filled holes with gritty veterans still capable of contributing. They spent with relative restraint and preserved their draft picks. Credit the Red Sox for their shrewd moves, but don’t assume they’re easy to replicate.
The next team that tries this strategy won’t necessarily get this kind of production from each of the players they sign. Just as importantly, the free-agent class isn’t deep enough to sustain this approach for many teams—it would mean skyrocketing salaries for mid-tier free agents that would otherwise have been bargains. Boston’s strategy looks good now. But executives caution that it won’t look as smart when someone else tries it and the signings all flop.
Keep an eye on the international market, since there’s more crossover between MLB, Japan and Korea than ever… Teams value draft picks highly, so they will remain wary of players linked to qualifying offers… The free agent pool will expand when players are non-tendered in December.