Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols

2012 Top 111 Free Agents: Nos. 20-1

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Honorable mentions
Nos. 111-81
Nos. 80-61
Nos. 60-41
Nos. 40-21

Here are the top 20 members of this winter’s free agent class. Remember, I’m not including either Robinson Cano or Yadier Molina based on the assumption both will have their options picked up. Also, I’m ranking players based more on what kind of contracts I think they’ll receive than how much I personally believe they’re worth.

(All ages as of April 1, 2012)

* denotes players with contract options

20. Aramis Ramirez (33 – Cubs): Ramirez picked up his $14.6 million player option to remain with the Cubs this year. The team won’t exercise his $16 million option for 2012, and it’s pretty much certain that he’ll be looking at a paycut in free agency. Ramirez, one of the game’s most consistent hitters in his first six years with the Cubs, has seen his OPS slip from the .900 range to .746 in 2010 and .727 so far this season. That the next best third basemen on the market are Casey Blake, who might have his option picked up, and Wilson Betemit will really help Ramirez’s market, but he still might have to settle for a one-year deal unless he puts together a stronger second half.

19. J.J. Hardy (29 – Orioles): After two down seasons, the first of which included a trip to the minors and pushed back his free agency timetable by a year, Hardy has been on a tear for the Orioles, hitting .304/.366/.532 through 171 at-bats. He’s a fine defensive shortstop, so as long as he’s posting a .700 OPS, he’s a solid regular. At .900, he’s an All-Star. If he holds on and finishes this year in the .800-.850 range, he could be in line for a four-year, $30 million deal as a free agent. The Orioles would much rather sign him to a two-year extension since prospect Manny Machado should be ready by 2014.

18. Roy Oswalt (34 – Phillies)*: Back problems have robbed Oswalt of his best stuff this year, and he’s currently 4-6 with a 3.79 ERA through 13 starts. The Phillies hold a $16 million option for 2012 that they won’t pick up unless Oswalt looks better in the second half. Oswalt also has the ability to terminate the option if he’d rather pursue a multiyear deal. Oswalt, though, probably won’t seek a particularly long-term pact, and even though he’ll be just 34, he might just decide to walk away from the game if his back doesn’t start feeling better.

17. Carlos Beltran (34 – Mets): He seems a bit older and maybe he even plays a bit older now after his knee woes, but Beltran won’t turn 35 until after next season begins. With the way he’s bounced back offensively — he’s currently hitting .279/.371/.485 — he’s put himself in line for at least a two-year deal if he can finish the season healthy. Of course, that’s a big if for a guy who was limited to 81 games in 2009 and 64 last year. In a weak outfield class, he’s worth $12 million-$15 million per year.

16. Ryan Dempster (34 – Cubs)*: Dempster controls his destiny with a $14 million player option for 2012. Since his horrible April looks like an aberration – he has a 3.38 ERA over his last 10 starts, pulling his season mark down from 9.58 to 5.46 — he might be able to go back out on the open market and get $36 million for three years. His decision figures to come down to whether he wants to remain a Cub or not. There’s been talk of him being traded this summer, but since he has full no-trade protection given his status as a 10-and-five player, he’s in control of his destiny there, too.

15. Nick Swisher (31 – Yankees)*: If any free agent outfielder is going to get a four-year deal this winter, it would be Swisher. He’s young at 31, he’s perfectly capable in the outfield and he’s a safe bet to give a team 20 homers and a nice OBP for a few more years. Swisher, though, does have an old player’s skill set, and it’s possible he won’t age very well as he reaches his mid-30s. Fortunately, the Yankees can just pick up his $10.25 million option for 2012 rather than have to make a $30 million-$40 million decision on him.

14. Mark Buehrle (33 – White Sox): Everyone has always sort of figured that Buehrle, a Missouri native, would finish his career with the Cardinals. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t intend to pitch into his upper-30s, and his next contract might be his last. Still, the Cardinals aren’t likely to have a lot of money to spend for pitching unless they decide to let Adam Wainwright go and, even though he’s slipped some, Buehrle likely would command in excess of $10 million per year on the open market. He’ll probably have to take a bit of a discount if he wants to go to St. Louis.

13. David Ortiz (36 – Red Sox): Except for teammate Adrian Gonzalez, Ortiz has been as productive as anyone in the league the last two months, hitting .335 with 15 homers and 37 RBI in 172 at-bats since the beginning of May. He really wanted a multiyear deal last winter, but it looked like the Red Sox were being smart in just exercising his $12.5 million option. Now he’s going to be able to force them to commit for multiple years if they want to keep him. Designated hitters are always replaceable, but Big Papi just wouldn’t look right in any other uniform. Maybe the two sides will be able to settle at $25 million-$28 million for two years.

12. Heath Bell (34 – Padres): It’ll be interesting to see if Bell’s age is held against him when he reaches free agency. He’s three years older than Jonathan Papelbon and four years Francisco Rodriguez’s senior. Jonathan Broxton is seven years younger than Bell. Bell has the best track record of the group these last three years, but he’s also had Petco Park working in his favor (even if his road numbers are outstanding) and he hasn’t had to deal with the pressure that comes with closing for a large-market team. Given the modest workload he enjoyed in his 20s, I like Bell’s chances of lasting as a quality closer for another three or four years. Since he’ll probably go cheaper, he looks like a better investment than Papelbon.

11. Brandon Phillips (30 – Reds)*: $12 million is a whole lot to pay for a second baseman, but in the Reds’ case, it’d seem smarter to pick up Phillips’ option than to give him the four- or five-year extension he’s going to want to forgo free agency. Phillips will likely use Dan Uggla’s five-year, $62 million deal with the Braves as a benchmark; though the two are very different players, one could argue they’ve been similarly valuable. Uggla was a bad idea at that price, though, and Phillips isn’t worth it, either. He’s an excellent defender, but his career-high OBP is .332 and he’s unlikely to suddenly take a step forward offensively.

10. Edwin Jackson (28 – White Sox): It’s the free agents that are perceived as having upside that often go for more than anyone expects. Jackson is 52-57 with a 4.60 ERA in his career, but he threw a no-hitter for the Diamondbacks last year and he’s struck out 726 batters in 966 innings as a major leaguer. He was one of the AL’s best starters for three months in 2009, and he was very good down the stretch last season after being traded to the White Sox. Some team is going to pay him and hope that he’ll finally put it together for six months. I think $30 million for three years is the bottom end, with $60 million for five years being a real possibility if he ends up with a sub-4.00 ERA this year.

9. Jimmy Rollins (32 – Phillies): Jose Reyes has really stolen the show, and for the moment anyway, no one seems to care that Rollins, too, is a free agent this winter. Rollins’ offense has fallen of pretty dramatically; from 2004-08, he posted OPSs of at least .770 every year, whereas he’s come in at .714 and .694 in the two years since. This year, he’s at .709. Offense is down across the league, but that’s still a tumble. On the other hand, it’s almost all power: Rollins actually has a pretty impressive 64/72 K/BB ratio in 642 at-bats the last two seasons. In his MVP season in 2007, he had an 85/49 K/BB ratio in 716 at-bats. As a plus defensive shortstop, a .330-OBP guy and an excellent basestealer, Rollins still has plenty of value. My guess is that he re-ups with the Phillies for around $50 million for four years.

8. Chris Carpenter (36 – Cardinals): Carpenter gave the Cardinals nothing in 2007 or 2008, but his five-year, $63.5 million extension hasn’t worked out so badly for the team: he’s 35-20 with a 3.07 ERA over the last three seasons. The Cards hold a $15 million option for 2012 that includes a $1 million buyout. With Carpenter sitting at 2-7 with a 4.26 ERA right now, it’s no given that it will be picked up. However, a strong second half would make it a pretty easy call. A healthy Carpenter, even coming off a season in which he posted an ERA in the 4.00-4.30 range, would likely command $30 million for two years.

7. Jonathan Papelbon (31 – Red Sox): Pay no attention to the 4.03 ERA: Papelbon’s stuff is just as good as ever and he’s getting more swings and misses than he has in years. The 39/5 K/BB ratio in 29 innings is a better illustration of how he’s throwing. Of course, it’s still going to be a big risk giving him a four-year deal. $45 million for three years may be the magic number for the Red Sox. If it’s going to be more than that, perhaps they’ll move on and try to sign Ryan Madson or Jonathan Broxton to pair with Daniel Bard. I’m guessing some team will go four.

6. Grady Sizemore (29 – Indians)*: It’s a shame about Grady, who ranked as one of the AL’s very best players while hitting .279/.380/.499 with 85 homers in 1,917 at-bats from age 23 through 25. In the three injury-plagued years since, he’s hit .238/.323/.423 with 25 homers in 730 at-bats. I still view the Indians’ $9 million option for 2012 as a no-brainer if he finishes the season healthy. He hasn’t been worth that kind of money with his performance so far this year (he’s at .235/.308/.470 in 166 at-bats), but there’s reason to hope he’ll yet reemerge as at least a $15 million player down the line.

5. C.J. Wilson (31 – Rangers): The Rangers lost a left-handed ace to the Phillies last winter, but not without a fight. They’ll wage another war this winter to keep Wilson, who figures to draw interest from the Yankees, Nationals and anyone else willing to spend big money on a top-of-the-rotation left-hander. With a 7-3 record and a 3.17 ERA through 16 starts, Wilson is on pace to put up a line nearly identical to his 2010. I think he’s a pretty big injury risk, so I wouldn’t recommend going big to sign him. However, as things stand now, he’s in line for a five-year, $80 million deal similar to what John Lackey got from the Red Sox and A.J. Burnett received from the Yankees.

4. Jose Reyes (28 – Mets): Reyes has been a $15 million player in 3 1/2 of his eight big-league seasons. He was worth at least that much each season from 2006-08, and he’s been worth quite a bit more in the nearly half of 2011 that’s in the books. The other 4 1/2 seasons included his fine rookie half-season, two years in which he was injured and ineffective (2004 and 2009) and two seasons in which he was a clear disappointment, yet still a pretty good regular thanks to his speed and defense (2005 and 2010). The team that signs Reyes this winter is going to be paying $20 million per season with no real expectation that he’ll be worth it in all of them. $140 million for seven years, which is essentially Carl Crawford money, looks like a good guess.

3. CC Sabathia (31 – Yankees)*: Sabathia has been everything the Yankees hoped he’d be in amassing a 49-19 record and a 3.30 ERA the last three years. He said last year that he had no intention of opting out of the final four years of his deal, but it makes all kinds of sense for him to do so, assuming that he finishes the season healthy. The Yankees aren’t going to want to risk losing him, and I can’t imagine they’d balk at adding a couple of more years to his deal. Sabathia would make $92 million for four years if he declines to opt out. I expect that he and the Yankees will work out something that will put him at about $150 million for six years.

2. Prince Fielder (27 – Brewers): Joel Zumaya is actually the youngest pitcher set to become a free agent this winter. Fielder is the youngest hitter after declining to give up any free agency time to sign a long-term deal with the Brewers. He’s turning in a whale of a season with freedom looming. He’s not going to hit 50 homers, like he did in 2007, but his current 1.033 OPS would be a career high. That Fielder is also whale-like in stature makes giving him a long-term deal a scary proposition, particularly for an NL team. But he’ll probably get at least $150 million for six years and he might match Mark Teixeira’s eight-year, $180 million deal with the Yankees.

1. Albert Pujols (32 – Cardinals): Pujols has struggled to find his swing this year, but he was hitting .317 with eight homers in 17 games this month before suffering a fractured left wrist Sunday. He’ll be back in six weeks, but I wonder if his power will return right away or if that might not come back until next year. Regardless, Pujols is going to get the biggest contract of any free agent this winter. That he’s more than four years older than Fielder can’t just be thrown out, but given their builds, there’s a good chance Pujols will still be the better player a half-dozen years down the line. He’s simply a unique talent, with three MVPs and four runner-up finishes through 10 major league seasons. I don’t think it will get him $300 million, but $220 million-$240 million for eight years would be suitable.

Darvish wins 1st start since 2014 as Rangers top Pirates 5-2

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ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Yu Darvish struck out seven in five strong innings in his first start in the majors in almost 22 months, and the Texas Rangers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-2 on Saturday night.

The Japanese right-hander allowed three singles with a walk in his return from last year’s Tommy John surgery, ending Pittsburgh’s five-game winning streak.

Adrian Beltre had a two-run homer in the first inning off Juan Nicasio (3-3) to become the fourth third baseman with at least 1,500 RBIs, finishing with 1,501.

Mitch Moreland snapped a 1-for-27 skid with a solo home run in the fourth.

Four Texas relievers allowed four hits and a run with four strikeouts in four innings.

The “Yuuu” calls from a sellout crowd started early for Darvish, who last pitched in the big leagues on Aug. 9, 2014. He missed the rest of that season with right elbow inflammation, and ended up needing ligament reconstruction surgery after his only spring training appearance last year.

Darvish (1-0) had a 0.90 ERA in five rehab starts this month, culminating with an 87-pitch outing. He threw 81 against the Pirates, hitting 98 mph with his fastball in the first inning and displaying his usual array of breaking pitches, some as slow as 70 mph.

John Jaso had a leadoff single on Darvish’s second pitch before Andrew McCutchen struck out. The Pirates didn’t get another hit until Francisco Cervelli‘s sinking liner in front of rookie right fielder Nomar Mazara in the fifth.

No. 9 hitter Cole Figueroa ended Darvish’s shutout bid by pulling a hanging slider into right-center field for a single that scored Cervelli from second. Darvish then struck out Jaso for the second time to finish his outing.

Beltre’s homer just cleared the wall in center field after Prince Fielder‘s RBI groundout to score leadoff hitter Jurickson Profar, who had two hits filling in for suspended second baseman Rougned Odor. It was the second game of Odor’s seven-game ban.

SHORT HOPS

Joey Gallo, who had just one at-bat in his five-day stint, was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock to make room on the roster for Darvish. … Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson came off the paternity list and pitched a perfect eighth.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Pirates: Manager Clint Hurdle planned to give 2B Josh Harrison the night off after he came out of the series opener early. He’s been battling an illness that kept him out of the lineup Thursday as well.

Rangers: C Robinson Chirinos is expected to start a rehab assignment Tuesday with Double-A Frisco. He’s been out since April 10 with a broken right forearm and could be activated as soon as he is eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list on June 9.

UP NEXT

Pirates: LHP Francisco Liriano (4-3, 4.30) has won his last four starts against the Rangers and is 5-1 with a save and a 2.89 ERA in nine career games against them, most of those with Minnesota. His last appearance against Texas was Sept. 10, 2013.

Rangers: LHP Martin Perez (2-4, 3.13) makes his team-high 11th start and has gone 2-2 with a 2.23 ERA in his past six starts. He threw six shutout innings in a 4-1 win over the Angels in his last start

Utley answers with slam, solo HR as Dodgers rout Mets 9-1

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NEW YORK (AP) After the New York Mets missed, Chase Utley connected twice.

Utley hit a grand slam and a solo homer after Noah Syndergaard threw a 99 mph fastball behind his back, and the Los Angeles Dodgers went deep a season-high five times in routing New York 9-1 on Saturday night.

In a scene that seemed inevitable since October, Syndergaard was immediately ejected following the third-inning pitch – which certainly appeared to be his shot at retaliation against Utley for the late takeout slide that broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in last year’s playoffs.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari tossed Syndergaard, sending Mets manager Terry Collins into a rage, but no trouble ensued between the teams. A longtime New York nemesis, Utley raised one hand slightly in the direction of the Dodgers’ bench to keep teammates calm – and later responded by doing all sorts of damage with his bat.

“I think a loud, energizing environment gets the best out of you. I think it’s fun,” said Utley, who has 19 RBIs this season, nine in the first two games of this series. “It kind of gets the adrenaline going a little bit, makes you kind of dig down deeper.”

Asked if he thought Syndergaard delivered a purpose pitch, Utley said: “Possibly, but I understand it.”

Adrian Gonzalez homered and had four hits for the Dodgers, who spoiled the Mets’ 30th anniversary celebration of their 1986 World Series championship. Howie Kendrick and Corey Seager also connected, all after Syndergaard was gone.

Kenta Maeda (4-3) shook off an early line drive that hit him on the pitching hand and threw five shutout innings. The right-hander yielded two hits, both singles in the first, and stopped his three-game losing streak.

“Pretty impressive. You wouldn’t see too many other pitches staying in the game at that point,” Utley said.

The stoic Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since Tejada was injured. The Mets – and their fans – were incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules this season designed to protect infielders in what some call the Utley Rule.

But the Mets had not tried to retaliate until Saturday night; Utley played all four games without incident May 9-12 when the teams split a series in Los Angeles.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman by a considerable margin.

Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected after screaming at Hamari and pointing in his face during an animated argument. The manager was finally escorted back toward the New York dugout by another umpire.

“The ruling was that he intentionally threw at the batter,” crew chief Tom Hallion told a pool reporter. “We can either warn or eject. And with what happened in that situation, we felt the ejection was warranted.”

Hallion said no warnings were issued before the series.

“We take each game individually,” he said when asked if last year’s playoff series played a role in the ejection. “We have to make a snap decision. We can’t think about, OK, well this guy did this or he did that in Game 6 of whatever. We don’t have enough time to think that way. We make a decision on what happens in the game.”

Collins said he had never before seen a pitcher get ejected without a warning.

“My argument was, nobody got hit,” Collins said. “There was a time when, in this game, where you had a shot and nothing happened, the ball went to the backstop. So that was kind of my argument.”

After waiting near the mound with teammates for some time, Syndergaard walked calmly to the Mets dugout without showing any emotion as the crowd cheered him.

“It was just a pitch that got away from me. That’s all I got,” Syndergaard said. “I can understand why he did what he did. I still think a warning would have been better.”

Collins acknowledged he’s a little concerned Syndergaard might get suspended.

Logan Verrett (3-2) entered for the Mets and, with a vocal contingent in the sellout crowd of 42,227 urging him to hit Utley with a pitch, eventually threw a called third strike past him. But then Utley homered on Verrett’s first pitch of the sixth for a 1-0 lead.

Booed all night, Utley added his sixth career slam off Hansel Robles in the seventh, making it 6-0 with his 38th homer against the Mets.

Pinch-hitter Juan Lagares homered in the eighth for New York, long after the outcome was decided.

In the series opener Friday night, Utley was greeted with loud jeers and derisive chants. He had four RBIs in a 6-5 loss, including a three-run double that tied the score with two outs in the ninth.

“We came together as a group,” Utley said. “We battled, and it was a good win.”

WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

Tejada was released by the Mets during spring training and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who designated him for assignment Saturday.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Dodgers: RF Trayce Thompson exited in the fifth with lower back soreness. He was replaced by Yasiel Puig, who hit an RBI single off Verrett in the sixth.

Mets: INF Wilmer Flores (hamstring) went 1 for 2 with a sacrifice fly in his fifth rehab game for Double-A Binghamton. Before the game, Collins said it was reasonable to think Flores could come off the disabled list Sunday.

UP NEXT

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (7-1, 1.48 ERA) starts the series finale Sunday night against 43-year-old Bartolo Colon (4-3, 3.44). Kershaw, coming off a two-hit shutout against Cincinnati, is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 10 starts vs. the Mets. He is 5-0 with a 0.64 ERA in May – including a three-hit shutout of New York on May 12 at Dodger Stadium. The three-time Cy Young Award winner has struck out 55 and walked two this month.

Mets’ Syndergaard ejected after throwing behind Utley

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NEW YORK — In a scene that has seemed inevitable since October, New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard has been ejected for throwing a 99 mph fastball behind Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since his late takeout slide in last year’s playoffs broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada.

New York was incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules on slides at bases this season. But the Mets had not attempted to retaliate until Saturday night.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman’s back by a considerable margin.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting irate Mets manager Terry Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected.

Indians’ Brantley unsure of return from shoulder injury

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CLEVELAND — Indians outfielder Michael Brantley has no timetable for his return from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him for the second time this season.

Brantley spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since being placed on the 15-day disabled list on May 14. He began the season on the DL following surgery for a torn right labrum in November. Brantley hit .231 with seven RBIs in 11 games before being shut down again.

“I wasn’t bouncing back quick enough to keep playing back-to-back games, which is very important,” he said. “I want to be healthy each and every day and I have to play at a high level. This is the major leagues. You have to be at the best of your ability and the highest health-wise you can be.”

Brantley, who received an anti-inflammatory shot in the shoulder two weeks ago, doesn’t think he returned from the surgery too soon.

“I was ready,” he said. “We talked about it. We had a great process laid out. Everything went smoothly. It was just a bump in the road.”

Brantley has been hitting off a tee but isn’t sure when he will begin taking swings in the batting cage. He is playing catch since he throws left-handed but wants to be cautious about resuming a hitting program.

“Surgery is nothing to play with,” he said. “You have to be smart and understand your body.”

Brantley visited Dr. Craig Morgan, who performed the surgery, in Wilmington, Delaware after he returned to the DL. An MRI showed no changes in the shoulder.

“He said everything checks out good, just make sure to take your time and we’ll see what happens from there,” Brantley said.

Brantley finished third in the AL MVP voting in 2014 when he hit .327 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs. He batted .310 with 15 homers and 84 RBIs last season.