Top 111 Free Agents: Nos. 10-1

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This concludes a series of columns looking at this winter’s free agent class. I’m listing each player along with his age, as of next April 1, and his place in the previous edition of these rankings from May.
Nos. 111-91
Nos. 90-71
Nos. 70-51
Nos. 50-36
Nos. 35-21
Nos. 20-11
10. Ben Sheets (31) – Prev. NR – Because he had yet to sign, Sheets was ineligible for the May edition of the rankings. Now he comes in at No. 10, even though he’s missed the entire year. The original hope was that he’d return from surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in August, but it was always something of a long shot. Unless there have been setbacks we just don’t know about, it should be assumed that he’ll be at full strength next spring. Sheets has lost his best stuff and it’s probably never coming back, but he was good enough to post a 3.09 ERA in 198 1/3 innings last year. Since he’s not coming off one of the big three surgeries (Tommy John, labrum or rotator cuff), he should find some multiyear offers on the table. However, he may prefer to take a one-year pact in the hopes of landing something like $75 million for five years next winter.
9. Jose Valverde (32) – Prev. #7 – Valverde added an extra birthday recently, sort of. He had been listed recently as having been born in 1979, but the correct 1978 date was also out there and that’s the one that was used here in the original rankings back in May. Valverde has dealt with injury issues this year, but he’s avoided arm problems and posted a 2.12 ERA in 51 innings. He’s the only available closer worthy of a four-year deal, and he’ll probably receive around $10 million per season.
8. Aroldis Chapman (22) – Prev. NR – Chapman, who defected from Cuba in July, is expected to be granted free agency within the near future and he should prove extremely popular, given that he’s one of the five hardest throwing lefties in the world. Reports have had him clocked as high as 102 mph, and he didn’t seem to have much trouble throwing 98 mph in the World Baseball Classic. As a pitcher, he still has a long way to go, and anyone who signs him expecting him to be a quality starter in 2010 will probably be disappointed. He’d be more likely to help as a reliever initially. Because his ceiling is so high and the team that signs him will have him for at least six years — seven if he opens 2010 in the minors — he’s going to be a very rich man. I’m guessing he’ll get around $50 million.
7. Adrian Beltre (30) – Prev. #6 – Beltre’s Mariners tenure will be labeled a disappointment, but thanks in part to his terrific defense at third, he justified his $13 million salary each of the last three seasons before his injury marred 2009. He didn’t recover as hoped from offseason shoulder surgery, struggled throughout the first half and then underwent another surgery in June. Upon returning in August, he hit .390 in nine games and then went down with a bruised testicle. Now he’s back struggling again this month. Beltre is still pretty young, and he’s been very durable aside from this year. He’ll probably receive a smaller deal this time around and prove to be a pretty good value for whatever team that lands him.
6. Tim Hudson* (33) – Prev. #8 – What was in doubt at the beginning of the year seems settled now: Hudson’s $12 million option will need to be exercised mutually by both the team and the player. Any doubt that the Braves would pick up their end should have been erased by the quick and impressive return Hudson has made from Tommy John surgery. Hudson, though, will be able to do better elsewhere. For 2010 alone, there’s a good argument to made for a fully recharged Hudson over any other available free agent starter, particularly if John Lackey ends up working deep into the postseason.
5. Chone Figgins (32) – Prev. #17 – Figgins picked a great time to have his most valuable season to date. He was a better hitter in 2007, when he finished at .330/.393/.432, but he played in just 115 games then. After following that up with a 685 OPS in a 116-game season in 2008, his stock hit a new low. However, he’s bounced back to bat .301/.399/.401 this year and he hasn’t missed any time at all. Odds are that he’ll be viewed primarily as a third baseman this winter, but the Yankees and Cubs are possibilities to consider him as an option in center field, at least for a year or two. Those additional suitors should help him get a deal worth in excess of $50 million for four years.
4. Manny Ramirez* (37) – Prev. #5 – After another scorching start, Ramirez seemed to be in line to decline his $20 million player option for 2010. However, the steroid suspension, at least as much as his subsequent decline, changed everything. He’s remained one of the NL’s better hitters since returning from the 50-game ban, but his .279/.393/.517 line in 70 games since returning pales in comparison to the nearly 1200 OPS he posted in his first 80 games with the Dodgers. Barring an outstanding postseason, it’s doubtful that Ramirez would do better than $20 million out on the open market.
3. John Lackey (31) – Prev. #4 – Lackey has missed the first six weeks of each of the last two seasons due to elbow problems, but he keeps on bouncing back strong. This will be his fifth straight year with an ERA under 3.80 and perhaps the third in which he’s had at least three times as many strikeouts as walks (he’s at 135/46 right now). Whether he’ll reemerge as a 200-inning guy is the question. It’s a good sign that he’s never had any in-season recurrence of problems once he’s returned from the DL, not to mention a testament to the way the Angels have taken care of him. There’s a good chance Lackey will stay put. The Angels will have plenty of cash available with Figgins, Vladimir Guerrero and Bobby Abreu all potentially coming off the books, and keeping Lackey should be the top priority.
2. Jason Bay (31) – Prev. #3 – The middle two months were nothing to brag about, but Bay has come back with 16 homers and 41 RBI since the beginning of August. He’s now established new career highs in both categories, and his 930 OPS would rank as the second-highest mark in his six full seasons. Bay is 16 months older than Matt Holliday and a weaker defender, so the difference in contracts should be significant. Nevertheless, he’s clearly the No. 2 free agent available and he could potentially receive $75 million-$80 million over five years this winter. The Red Sox tried to sign him during the first half and couldn’t come to terms, so odds are that they will take a long look at Holliday this winter. Bay and the Red Sox seem like a good fit, though, so something should be worked out.
1. Matt Holliday (30) – Prev. #1 – Holliday would have ranked as the No. 1 free agent even had he finished the season with the .286/.378/.454 line he posted with the A’s before being traded back to the NL. Still, that he has come in at .356/.414/.630 with the Cardinals certainly won’t hurt him in contract talks. Holliday did seem to be figuring out AL pitchers towards the end of his stay in Oakland, so he shouldn’t be afraid to go back if the money is right. All things being equal, though, he’d probably prefer to stay in the NL. It’s going to be extremely difficult for the Cardinals to come up with the cash when they still have Albert Pujols to worry about. He’s likely due about $100 million for six years.

Report: Qualifying offer to be in the $18 million range

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According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, teams have been told that the qualifying offer to free agents this offseason will be in the $18 million range, likely $18.1 million. The value is derived by taking the average of the top 125 player salaries.

At $18.1 million, that would be $900,000 more than the previous QO, which was $17.2 million. This will impact soon-to-be free agents like Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Yu Darvish, among others. That also assumes that the aforementioned players aren’t traded, which would make them ineligible to receive qualifying offers. We’ve seen, increasingly, that teams aren’t willing to make a QO to an impending free agent and that trend is likely to continue this offseason.

The QO system was modified by the newest collective bargaining agreement. The compensatory pick for a team losing a player who declined a QO used to be a first-round pick. That was a penalty to both teams and players, which is why it was changed. Via MLB’s website pertaining to the QO:

A team that exceeded the luxury tax in the preceding season will lose its second- and fifth-highest selections after the first round in the following year’s Draft as well $1 million from its international bonus pool. If such a team signs multiple qualifying offer free agents, it will forfeit its third- and sixth-highest remaining picks as well.

A team that receives revenue sharing will lose its third-highest selection after the first round in the following year’s Draft. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its fourth-highest remaining pick.

A team that neither exceeded the luxury tax in the preceding season nor receives revenue sharing will lose its second-highest selection after the first round in the following year’s Draft as well as $500,000 from its international bonus pool. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its third-highest remaining pick.

Additionally, if a player who rejected a QO signs a guaranteed contract worth at least $50 million and came from a team that receives revenue sharing, that previous team will receive a compensatory pick immediately following the first round in the ensuing draft. If the contract is less than $50 million, that team will get a compensatory pick after Competitive Balance Round B. If the player’s team is over the luxury tax threshold, that team will receive a compensation pick following the fourth round. If that team neither exceeded the luxury tax nor receives revenue sharing, the compensation pick will come after Competitive Balance Round B.

Yeah, it’s a bit convoluted, but you do the best you can with a flawed system.

The Astros’ pursuit of Sonny Gray is “heating up”

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Jon Morosi of MLB Networks reports that talks are “heating up” between the Astros and Athletics on a Sonny Gray trade. Gray, obviously, would represent a big upgrade for the Astros’ rotation. He has a 3.66 ERA and has struck out 85 batters while walking 28 in 91 innings.

Morosi adds that Gray is not the only option for the Astros, as they are also talking to the Tigers about a potential acquisition of Justin Verlander and Justin Wilson. That would obviously be a much tougher deal to negotiate given Verlander’s 10/5 rights giving him veto power over any trade, not to mention the massive amount of money he’s still owed on his contract.

Also: I’m pretty sure that it’s in the MLB rules that any trade between the Tigers and the Astros has to involve Brad Ausmus, C.J. Nitkowski and Jose Lima, and that’s not possible given their current occupations and/or their deaths in 2010.