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.