1. Who are the top free agents?
Overall, it’s a pretty strong class and particularly deep in starting pitching. My top 10 would go something like this: David Price, Zack Greinke, Jason Heyward, Johnny Cueto, Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis, Alex Gordon, Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton, Ben Zobrist.
Filling out the top 25: Mike Leake, Scott Kazmir, Dexter Fowler, Jeff Samardzija, John Lackey, Matt Wieters, Marco Estrada, Daniel Murphy, Howie Kendrick, Ian Desmond, Colby Rasmus, Denard Span, Wei-Yin Chen, J.A. Happ, Yovani Gallardo.
That’s 12 starting pitchers out of 25 players, and the list doesn’t include Ian Kennedy, Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Brett Anderson, Mat Latos, postseason hero Chris Young or ageless wonder Bartolo Colon.
2. Who will get the most money?
I’d go with Price because he’s two years younger than Greinke. Heyward’s free agency will be fascinating, however. He turned 26 in August, so even a nine-year deal would take him through just his age-34 season. He hit .293/.359/.439 with the Cardinals with 13 home runs and figures to win his third Gold Glove. We can probably forget that power ever developing as it was once believed, but he still has been an extremely valuable player, averaging a career 5.2 WAR and 6.3 in the past two seasons. That’s thanks in large part to his defense; via Defensive Runs Saved, he has saved 54 runs in the past two seasons, the best of any defender (Andrelton Simmons is second at plus-53).
The intriguing questions: Will teams pay for that defense? And how much longer will he play defense at this level? Defense tends to peak early in a player’s career, but Heyward relies more on reads and instincts than raw speed. It will be shocking to some fans to see Heyward get a $150 million-plus contract, but considering his age and all-around skills, he’s a safe investment and he’ll get that kind of money. The Cardinals don’t like to give out $100 million contracts, but they did do it with Matt Holliday, who has one year remaining on that contract (with a team option). Heyward could replace Holliday as the outfield anchor in St. Louis.
3. Will the Yankees spend money?
General manager Brian Cashman keeps saying no, that the team needs to get younger, but the Yankees always find a way to do something. Even last offseason, they signed Chase Headley for $52 million, extended Brett Gardner for $52 million and signed Andrew Miller for $36 million. Most of the team is back; the biggest hole is second base, depending on whether they give Rob Refsnyder a chance. Andrew Marchand looks at Zobrist and Wallace Matthews looks at Murphy as potential targets.
The rotation finished 10th in the AL in ERA, so it certainly seems possible the Yankees may dip into that area, especially given that Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow could go at any time and CC Sabathia hasn’t been effective since 2012. They do have depth with Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova and Adam Warren.
4. Who are the most likely suitors for Price?
Everyone keeps mentioning the Cubs because of the Joe Maddon connection, but they already have Jon Lester under a $155 million deal and might not want to go even higher on another pitcher, especially with Jake Arrieta a potential free agent in two years. That leaves the Red Sox as maybe the favorite to land him, given their need for an ace. Certainly the Dodgers are a possibility if they don’t re-sign Greinke, and the Giants have money to spend and need to bolster their rotation. Sleepers: The Nationals (they may lose Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg is a free agent after 2016) and Diamondbacks (they have money to spend and need a rotation anchor).
5. Which team could help itself the most in free agency?
I think the Giants are positioned well here. With Tim Lincecum coming off the books and Tim Hudson retiring, they have some new money available. They need starting pitching. Even if they don’t go all-in on a Price or Greinke, there are alternatives like Zimmermann or Cueto or shorter-term options like Lackey (they love bringing in those veterans), Leake or Kazmir.
They also need an outfielder. While Angel Pagan is under contract for one more season, he no longer has the legs to play center field. So they could go after Fowler, Span or Rasmus, with Fowler or Span a nice fit for the leadoff position as well. Rasmus doesn’t seem like a Giants type of player, but he does play center field and they could use some left-handed power to help balance out Buster Posey and Hunter Pence. Another option would be to slide Gregor Blanco over to center and go after Upton or Gordon for left field.
6. What are some of the glaring holes out there?
Here’s a short list of position player holes:
White Sox 2B and 3B: They finished last in the majors in wOBA at both positions. Murphy would make sense at either position.
Mariners OF: New GM Jerry Dipoto wants to get more athletic in the outfield, so you can assume Mark Trumbo now moves to first base and Nelson Cruz DHs on an everyday basis. They need a center fielder, so Span, Fowler or Rasmus works here.
Indians 3B: Lonnie Chisenhall is now a right fielder and the Indians ranked 29th in the majors in wOBA at third base. Murphy or Freese could work here in a thin pool, or maybe Asdrubal Cabrera in a position change.
Angels LF: They had the worst production in the majors. Again, they’d like a left-handed bat, but Upton would fit here, or maybe Heyward if they want to spend big, with Kole Calhoun moving to left.
Rangers LF: Well, yes, Josh Hamilton is still here. Rangers left fielders were 26th in wOBA. Do you want to count on Hamilton being healthy and productive?
Royals LF/RF: Their priority will be to re-sign Gordon, but they didn’t pick up Alex Rios‘ option, so they’ll need a right fielder as well, unless they go with a Paulo Orlando–Jarrod Dyson platoon, and maybe wait to pick up a veteran bat during the season.
Dodgers 2B: Kendrick is a free agent and they do have prospect Jose Peraza, but you could see them going after Zobrist to play second and fill in around the outfield.
Padres SS: They were playing Jedd Gyorko there by the end of the season, which worked out as well as you’d expect. Did they spend the money and hope Desmond rebounds from a poor 2015?
Cubs CF: They’d love to bring back Fowler, who played well and was a good fit in the leadoff spot.
Pirates 1B: This is an interesting one. Pedro Alvarez is on the roster, although there’s a possibility the Pirates non-tender him or trade him to an AL team that needs a DH. Pirates first basemen (mostly Alvarez) were 27th in wOBA and Alvarez was a disaster defensively. So he didn’t hit and can’t field. Davis is the big name here, but he’s out of Pittsburgh’s price range. I like the idea of signing Murphy and playing him at first.
Cardinals 1B: See next note.
7. What’s a potential surprise signing?
Buster Olney mentioned this Thursday. What about Davis to the Cardinals? They were 11th in the NL in home runs, their first basemen were 28th in wOBA, and Holliday’s power days look like a thing of the past. Yes, Matt Adams was hurt, but he wasn’t that good in 2014, when he hit 15 home runs in 527 at-bats. Davis would provide the true masher they need.
8. What team may get decimated by free agency?
The Orioles. Davis, Wieters, Chen and Darren O’Day may all walk.
9. So the Royals are a thing. Will teams try to copy their bullpen depth?
Sure, except it’s not a great year for relievers. The side-arming O’Day is the best one available. Tyler Clippard has had a long run as a quality setup guy, but his K rate decreased this season and his walk rate increased. Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelley, Mark Lowe and Tony Sipp are the best of the rest.
10. Who’s a good sleeper?
How about Happ? The left-hander went to the Pirates at the trade deadline, pitching coach Ray Searage made a few mechanical adjustments to his delivery, and he was lights out. As Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported, Happ “had too much rotational movement in his motion, which dropped his arm slot and made the ball easier to track for opposing hitters. It also negatively impacted his control.” Happ also started throwing more four-seam fastballs and posted a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts with the Pirates. A real improvement or just a two-month hot streak?
That’s what free agency is often about: Do you make the gamble? As they say, it will be fun.