With Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder heading the free-agent class, this winter's crop will command significant dollars. However, with many of the free-spending clubs already featuring marquee first basemen, the potential suitors for Pujols and Fielder are thin. The challenge for their agents -- Dan Lozano and Scott Boras, respectively -- will be creating demand when there might be only a couple of teams that are seriously pursuing the All-Star first basemen.
Beyond Pujols and Fielder, there is some depth at shortstop (Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins) and left-handed pitching (Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson). I served as a general manager for 15 years, and committing big dollars to a free agent is always a gamble. You have to try to balance age, injury history, tools, performance and makeup before making an offer.
I decided to put myself back in the GM's chair to evaluate this free-agent class. The following is my estimate of what I would pay the top 50 free agents if I were a GM of a club that had the budget and need for that kind of player. The players are ranked by their estimated average annual value (A.A.V). I use A.A.V. because that is what the MLB Players Association is most concerned with when evaluating contracts. When the A.A.V. is equal, tie goes to the contract with greater overall value. To get a better feel for the market, I also talked to agents, scouts and execs who will be heavily involved with this offseason's bidding.
You'll notice Japanese phenom Yu Darvish is not included, and that's because there remains some uncertainty regarding whether his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, will post him and thereby make him available to major league clubs. However, he will be the best right-handed starting pitcher available if he becomes available.
Analysis: Scott Boras, who represents Fielder, is all about passing milestones, and he is going to make sure Fielder gets north of the eight-year, $180 million deal he negotiated for Mark Teixeira with the Yankees back in 2009. If the Dodgers' ownership transfer is timely, they could shock the baseball world with Fielder joining Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier in the middle of their lineup.
Best fits: Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers
Analysis: Carl Crawford's poor performance on the seven-year, $142 million deal he signed with Boston last winter will hurt Reyes' value since the two have very similar offensive profiles. Another issue for Reyes is his nagging hamstring problems. However, that won't stop him from getting six years, because he's the best shortstop and leadoff hitter on the free-agent market.
Best fits: San Francisco Giants, Milwaukee Brewers
Analysis: A.J. Burnett, John Lackey and Jason Schmidt all were paid in the $16 million range annually, and there is no reason Buehrle won't follow suit. Watch for the Yankees and Nationals to join the White Sox in heavy pursuit.
Best fits: New York Yankees, Washington Nationals
Analysis: The Nationals, Yankees and Royals all should be players for the southpaw, and I could see the Nationals and Royals possibly going as far as six years and $90 million to get it done. The Royals have less than $40 million committed for next year and less than $12 million committed for 2012. And since some of their top pitching prospects stalled a bit this season, they need to fortify their rotation if they want to compete in the American League Central in the next year or two, which is their plan. In the end, I think Wilson will take less to go back to the Rangers or even join the middle of the Yankees' rotation.
Best fits: Washington Nationals, Kansas City Royals
Analysis: The average annual value for productive outfielders is pretty clear with players such as Magglio Ordonez, J.D. Drew and Vladimir Guerrero all having, at one point in their careers, signed within the $14 million to $15 million per year range. Most clubs will prefer to offer two years because of health risk, but Lozano (with whom Beltran recently replaced Boras) should get the third year from at least one club. Medicals could become an issue on closing a deal here.
Best fits: Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants
Analysis: He will lead the closers market, and although he won't get Mariano Rivera's A.A.V., he will kiss it and will be the most sought-after free-agent closer in this market. I still think the Red Sox and Phillies will be the front-runners, with the Rangers being the dark horse if they don't re-sign Wilson and decide to move Neftali Feliz to the rotation.
Best fits: Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies
Analysis: Rollins might be in decline, but that won't stop him from getting a three-year deal with an outside chance of getting a fourth year. Miguel Tejada was paid $12 million annually way back in 2004. And when you consider inflation, Rollins probably will get a bit more than that per year with fewer years on the deal.
Best fits: Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals
Analysis: Ortiz has a limited market since he can't play the field, and it's hard to see him signing anywhere besides Boston. He deserves to be paid in the $14 million to $15 million per season range after the year he had, but with his having limited leverage, I see him getting a bit less than that.
Best fits: Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays
Analysis: Kuroda is going to stay in Los Angeles or head back to Japan. He bought a house in L.A., where his children now are going to school, so I think he will end up signing a one-year deal with the Dodgers. The A.A.V. has to be north of what Ted Lilly and Randy Wolf got last year, as he's coming off a very good season (3.07 ERA).
Best fits: Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels
The closer market is flooded but that won't stop them from getting paid. I see Madson in the $10 million per seaon range based on previous contracts given to the likes of Brad Lidge
, Joe Nathan
and Rafael Soriano
. The Nationals have dangled closer Drew Storen
in the past to try to acquire a center fielder. If they move Storen, they will look to sign a closer.Best fits: Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies
Analysis: Bell would like to re-sign with the Padres, and they plan on offering him salary arbitration. However, with his having an opportunity to get a big, multiyear deal, I strongly doubt he will accept. The Twins and Blue Jays would make sense for him, while the Red Sox, Phillies, Rangers and Angels should at least be in the conversation.
Best fits: Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays
Analysis: The best comparables to project this figure include Magglio Ordonez, Bobby Abreu and Juan Pierre. The fact that Cuddyer can fill in at first base -- and even second and third in a pinch -- bolsters his value a little.
Best fits: Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins
Analysis: Jackson should get a little less per year than Kuroda, but his relative youth means he'll get a multiyear contract. The thing about Jackson is that you get the feeling he still could get better, and at worst he is a solid, mid-rotation starter.
Best fits: Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays
Analysis: Oswalt has hinted at retirement in the past, and I bet he'll sign a one-year deal with a contender to keep his options open. He has enough upside that he could be a real difference-maker for a playoff club.
Best fits: Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox
He'll make less per year than the $10 million he earned in 2011, but he'll get at least a two-year pact. He is a good defender who can crush righties, and is a relatively cheap alternative to Fielder and Pujols.Best fits: Tampa Bay Rays, Milwaukee Brewers
Analysis: K-Rod turned off some GMs back in September when he complained about the Brewers' not using him as their closer. His most likely destination is Florida under new Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen.
Best fits: Baltimore Orioles, Florida Marlins
Analysis: He has averaged 39 saves per season over the past five years with a 2.97 ERA in that time. He's getting up there in age, but someone will make him a good, one-year offer.
Best fits: Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets
Analysis: He struggled in his first year back after Tommy John surgery, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio after the All-Star break was 4.4. Someone will hope to catch lightning in a bottle with this former shutdown closer.
Best fits: Minnesota Twins, Baltimore Orioles
A very thin outfield market should allow Willingham to get a two- or three-year deal. He is a below-average defender in left but can hit with power and is a great clubhouse presence.Best fits: Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians
Analysis: He had a nice comeback season with the Padres (3.64 ERA), and they would like to sign him back. However, he could price himself out of San Diego, and his fly ball tendencies make him a nice fit in a spacious park such as Comerica.
Best fits: Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers
Analysis: Maholm is a sleeper for someone. He's never reached his potential, but put him on the right team and he could become a consistent 12-13 game winner.
Best fits: Pittsburgh Pirates, Kanas City Royals
Analysis: Vazquez has contemplated retirement, but after the strong second half he had with the Marlins, I think he'll re-up for another year. Jake Westbrook got $16.5 million over two years last winter, and Vazquez can expect a comparable yearly salary.
Best fits: Florida Marlins
Analysis: He's an interesting case because he had a good year (3.77 ERA) after a career of disappointment. His range could be anywhere between $5 million and $8 million depending on how much clubs buy into his 2011 performance. He is crafty and left-handed, and should be an upgrade at the back end of several rotations.
Best fits: Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals
Analysis: Crisp is a high-energy player capable of playing all three outfield positions. He led the league with 49 stolen bases this past season, and despite a low OBP, in the right lineup, he could be a valuable No. 2 hitter for a contending team.
Best fits: Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians
The Cardinals declined his option but would love to sign him back, and the feeling is mutual. A two-year deal between $5 million and $6 million per year with incentives makes the most sense.Best fits: St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets
Analysis: Ibanez might go back to the Phillies if he's willing to take a significant pay cut. Otherwise, he might be a useful stop-gap with the White Sox on a one-year, $5 million deal, which would put him in the Juan Rivera contract range.
Best fits: Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox
Analysis: There's another pay cut ahead for Vladimir, and this could be his final season.
Best fits: Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners
Analysis: He's never been a high on-base percentage player, and his defense slipped in 2011. However, he still has value because of his makeup and he still is a threat on the bases. The Twins, White Sox and Dodgers could be landing places at an inexpensive, one-year deal.
Best fits: Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox
The Brewers and Royals need back-of-the-rotation starters, and Pineiro could fit in nicely with either club at the right price.Best fits: Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals
Analysis: Hill did a nice job for the Diamondbacks down the stretch and should be offered a two-year deal to return at approximately $4 million to $4.5 million per season. His defense was an upgrade for the Diamondbacks, and his bat plays better in the National League.
Best fits: Arizona Diamondbacks
Analysis: The legend of Cody Ross was born in October 2010 and died by the end of 2011. However, he's still a valuable fourth outfielder who can play all three outfield positions.
Best fits: Florida Marlins, New Yotk Mets
Analysis: Johnson is a decent, inexpensive solution at second base for the Blue Jays or Dodgers and should be able to command a two-year contract in the $3.5 million to $4 million per season range because of his left-handed power.
Best fits: Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays
Analysis: Capps' value took a dive in 2011, just like his performance. Any team that signs him will want to do an MRI of both his shoulder and elbow before signing him. If he's healthy, he should get at least a one-year offer in the $4 million range, and he will have to use 2012 to build his value back up.
Best fits: Minnesota Twins, Washington Nationals
Analysis: There is not much left in the tank. Possibly one more year, but he'll have to earn it in spring training.
Best fits: Seattle Mariners, Oakland A's
Analysis: DeJesus had an extremely disappointing season in Oakland, and it is doubtful the A's are willing to give him another chance in 2012. He is capable of playing all three outfield positions.
Best fits: San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants
Analysis: Marquis' career always has been about winning in double digits and pitching 180 innings per season. He's a solid back-of-the-rotation starter who swings a solid bat. He usually starts the season off well, then runs out of gas by the All-Star break.
Best fits: Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates
Analysis: Kotchman is one of the best defensive first basemen in baseball and had a career year at the plate. Not enough power or run production to get paid, but he is a useful player. However, the Rays would prefer to get more offensive production from first.
Best fits: Tampa Bay Rays, Milwaukee Brewers
Analysis: He should return to the Pirates for 2012. He still can pick it at first and hit with some power, but staying healthy is another story.
Best fits: Pittsburgh Pirates
Analysis: A crafty lefty who came back from major arm injuries that sidelined him for the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He won 11 games for the Mets this year. But his health will continue to be a risk.
Best fits: New York Mets, Baltimore Orioles
Analysis: Ellis might not have the tools, but he can play the game. An above-average defender who can turn the double play and give quality at-bats. He would be a nice fit for one year for the Tigers.
Best fits: Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers
Analysis: Another year distanced from an injury, Francis is a winner. The left-hander is worth a gamble for someone willing to give a low base salary with incentives.
Best fits: Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals
Analysis: He will provide double-digit wins and 180 innings pitched, and will get overpaid for it. Garcia's value comes during the 162-game schedule; he no longer has the stuff to succeed in the postseason.
Best fits: Florida Marlins, New York Yankees
Analysis: Supply and demand will get Hernandez a job. I think he fits in after Russell Martin and in the Jason Kendall and Rod Barajas contracts of last year.
Best fits: New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays
Analysis: He can still catch it at shortstop with power. However, his on-base percentage will continue to be pathetic.
Best fits: Atlanta Braves, New York Mets
Analysis: Gonzalez did a solid job in the Rangers' bullpen and should want to re-sign with them with a chance for another postseason appearance next year. He'll be used more as a left-handed specialist rather than his previous roles as a setup man and closer.
Best fits: Texas Rangers, Milwaukee Brewers